That time the U.S. government sold nearly a quarter million illegal rifles to citizens

Gun Rights

The U.S. government has been known to make mistakes. Perhaps one of the most overlooked mistakes in modern history is the sale of 240,000 illegal rifles by the government to U.S. citizens. Moreover, it took five years to correct the mistake.

marine with M1 Carbine illegal rifles
A Marine with an M1 Carbine during the first flag raising atop Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima (U.S. Marine Corps)

The National Firearms Act of 1934 sought to reduce gun violence by banning weapons used by criminals at the time, including handguns. In order to prevent criminals from circumventing the handgun ban by cutting down the stock and barrel of a rifle or shotgun to make it more concealable, the NFA defined rifles and shotguns as having an 18-inch barrel. Anything shorter was considered a short-barreled rifle or shotgun and subject to a $200 tax (over $4,400 in 2023) and registration. However, before the law was passed, the outright ban on handguns was removed. Despite it being moot, the short-barreled rifle and shotgun loophole closure was left in the NFA.

soldier with m1 carbine illegal rifles
A soldier with an M1 Carbine rests in a captured Chinese position in Korea (U.S. Army)

Fast-forward to 1963 and the U.S. government is getting rid of its venerable M1 Carbines. The handy weapons served well through WWII and Korea, but became obsolete in the face of the lightweight M16. Like the M1 Garand before it, the M1 Carbine was sold as surplus to members of the National Rifle Association. Approximately 240,000 M1 Carbines were sold at a cost of $20 shipped, allowing the government to get some money back on the rifles and purchasers the opportunity to own a quality firearm. There was just one problem: the M1 Carbines were all illegal.

The M1 Carbine was commonly issued to paratroopers as the M1A1 with a folding stock (HBO)

The M1 Carbine has a barrel length of 17.75 inches. As such, it was classified as a short-barreled rifle and fell under the NFA. Without a $200 tax stamp and registration, the 240,000 purchasers of M1 Carbines unknowingly became felons despite purchasing directly from the government. After the sale of the (short-barreled) rifles, someone in the government must have realized the mistake because a solution was enacted after the fact.

m1 carbine
The M1 Carbine was one of the weapons used by Audie Murphy to fend off a German attack, earning him the Medal of Honor (Universal Pictures)

The Gun Control Act of 1968 primarily regulated the interstate trade of firearms. However, a clause was included that amended the NFA. In 1936, Congress previously amended the NFA to allow .22 caliber rifles to have a minimum barrel length of 16 inches. The 1968 GCA clause extended this definition to all rifles, reducing the minimum barrel length of all rifles to 16 inches and retroactively making the M1 Carbines sold as surplus legal. Interestingly, the minimum barrel length of shotguns remained unchanged at 18 inches.


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