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A top-venting blank firing gun
By Adrian Goldberg & Paul Grant
File on 4

Converted handguns – originally designed to fire blanks – are currently responsible for more shooting incidents in the UK than “real” handguns.

Police figures reveal there were 64 discharges from converted models in 2023, compared with 42 from real equivalent weapons.

Converted handguns were responsible for four deaths and 17 serious injuries.

A government ballistics expert says the issue is “a top-line threat priority”.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) – which provided the provisional figures in response to a Freedom of Information request from BBC’s File On 4 – says there were also seven incidents in 2023 in which a converted sub-machine gun was fired.

Blank firing guns are produced for a number of reasons – such as for use in theatre or film, as starting pistols, or at firearms’ demonstration events.

Instead of firing bullets, they use cartridges filled with gunpowder, which make a gun-like noise and a spark.

“The issue is that they look like the real thing,” says Gregg Taylor, who is forensic technical lead at the National Ballistics Intelligence Service (Nabis), which analyses firearms discharges for all 45 UK police forces.

“Sometimes they even include genuine parts from genuine weapons,” he adds. “Therefore you’ve got 90% of what you already need to then go on – and do the extra 10% to convert.”

Blank firing guns are categorised by the way they discharge or “vent” gunpowder fumes – at the front of the weapon, or, at the top or side.

“Forward-venting” guns closely resemble authentic firearms, and have been banned in the UK for several years because they are regarded as too easy to convert. They are widely available in some EU countries, and sometimes smuggled into the UK.

“Top-venting” or “side-venting” blank guns are legal to buy in the UK for anyone over the age of 18, as they have solid barrels and are considered more difficult to convert.

However, in recent years, there has been a rise in the number of weapons converted from top- or side-venting blank guns.

“There is a downward trend with original weapons and an upward trend of converted weapons,” says Taylor. “And for the first time in a while now, we’ve seen converted weapons overtake the use of original weapons.”

Ballistics expert Gregg Taylor says the issue of converted weapons is a “top-line threat priority”

File on 4 bought a top-venting blank firearm – which is based on a real handgun – for £99.99 from an online retailer, which only requested proof of age.

Reformed criminal Sicarius McGrath, who once ran an illegal gun factory in Liverpool, assessed the weapon for the programme, and said that he was surprised – and concerned – at how easy it would be to adapt.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that I could convert that within half an hour,” he said.

McGrath explained that once he got to know the weapon, he would be able to reduce the conversion time to just 15 or 20 minutes, using readily available tools.

Lethal Weapons: The Blank-Firing Guns Converted to Kill

Guns that fire blanks are being converted into deadly weapons by criminals. The National Ballistics Intelligence Service says their use currently exceeds the use of real guns.

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Forty-five blank firing guns identical to the ones we bought were seized by West Midlands Police in 2021, from an organised crime gang which was converting them into live guns.

Simon West, executive director of the Gun Trade Association, maintains that there are legitimate uses for blank firing guns, such as bird scaring.

He says this is because the Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs does not allow farmers to shoot birds unless they have tried other methods of scaring them away from crops.

“That has meant quite a lot of people have had to get hold of blank firers,” he says.

Blank-firing guns are used in theatre and film – and as starting pistols

However, Prof Peter Squires, a criminologist who works with the National Crime Agency, says he is “profoundly sceptical” of the claim. “The idea that someone has to go out and pull a trigger repeatedly to scare birds is quite farcical,” he says.

Prof Squires believes that a stop should be put to the the production, manufacture and distribution of guns that “have no legitimate purpose and are potentially convertible into lethal weapons”.

The Home Office says it is working to “mitigate the threat of criminally convertible blank-firing firearms entering the UK”.

It also says that it is keeping firearms controls under constant review to address evolving threats.

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