When a gun has no serial number

WWII_M1_CarbineA couple of years ago, an FFL showed us a remarkable thing that had come in as part of a many-gun estate buy and had put him into a quandary. We were not able to address what to do legally — given the capricious rulings that come out of BATFE, even lawyers couldn’t, and we’re sure not lawyers — but suggested that he talk to BATFE about how to get the arm into his bound book.

The weapon in question appeared to be a GI M1 Carbine, but it was innocent of any manufacture or importer markings, and had no serial number. Now, there are guns that shipped with no serial numbers, back long ago, and there are other reasons you might encounter a gun now with no serial number. Reasons that we know of include:

  • Antique weapons were often made without serial numbers.
  • Prototype and toolroom weapons may not have been serialed prior to the Gun Control Act of 1968. It was not always required.
  • Obliterated SN on a Taurus revolver.

    Obliterated SN on a Taurus revolver.

    Serial numbers may have been removed or defaced. This is often an indicator of a stolen gun or crime gun.

  • At one time, weapons built from parts by small shops could have been assembled without a serial number. (Even when the legal requirement was in place, it was not enforced assiduously, unlike the situation today).
  • Weapons produced for clandestine purposes often bear no markings, or false markings. (We’ve even encountered boxes of Chinese M22 AKs and Iranian G3s in which all guns had the same exact number, and we’ve encountered many weapons with no numbers).
  • Privately built weapons for personal use are not required to be marked. Most likely that unmarked carbine was one of these. They can’t be built for resale, but they can be legally resold — however, it’s a grey area, and ATF’s unwillingness to publish its past letter rulings and legal opinions makes any grey area a minefield. Therefore, most folks that advise you on how to legally build a gun for education and recreation advise you either that you never may sell it or that you may only sell it after a decent interval of enjoying it yourself, and only after marking it with a maker name and city and a serial number.
Glock showing a serial number that was restored despite having been ground off.

Glock showing a serial number that was restored despite having been ground off.

Criminals who deface serial numbers are generally wasting their time. Evidence techs can restore missing numbers; liquid or gel reagents are used, sometimes with an electrolytic boost. While these technicians are trying to bring back markings some skell ground off, the same techniques and supplies can be used to increase the legibility of firearm markings (or any other engraved or stamped markings, such as serial numbers on auto parts) that have been degraded, not by deliberate hostile action, but by the ravages of corrosion and even routine hand and holster wear.

There are ways to deface a serial number that will defeat number restoration, but they’re fairly extreme and not really something we want to put on the internet.

The mystery M1 that the FFL had was most likely one of the last cases mentioned, “privately built weapons for personal use.” His options included surrendering it to the BATFE, trying to raise and restore a number himself, and even stamping in a new number — which would be a violation of several Federal laws.

We don’t know what he finally did with the nameless carbine.

4 thoughts on “When a gun has no serial number

  1. TRX

    “No Serial Number” is perfectly valid. I have two factory-made rifles that never had serial numbers. But they’re over a hundred years old, from when such things were common.

    An M1 or copy of an M1 would almost certainly have a serial number… however, as the various manufacturers have come and gone, their inventory gets scrapped or sold to places like Sarco or Numrich, where the bits might be parted out for decades. Receivers in semifinished, “non-gun” condition can be bought and finished by an individual, with no Federal requirement for stamping a serial number. Or in the case of a pre-1968 receiver, it could have been legitimately purchased as “scrap” or “excess inventory” without ever having been serialized by the original manufacturer.

  2. Ident Marking Services

    Thanks for the blog on this topic. As one of the larger custom firearm engraving companies we deal with this issue on a pretty regular basis. You used the term ‘minefield’ to describe the the issue of FFL’s working with personally built, non-licensee firearms (example- 80% AR-15 platform lowers that are legally finished to 100% and sent to an FFL for engraving or coating)- this is an understatement.

    This work is not only allowed by ATF (ATF has ruled firearm finishing and engraving are not part of the manufacturing process in a 2011 ruling) but encouraged by the powers that be (ATF ‘recommends’ that you have any personally built firearms engraved with your personal information and a serial number.)

    Sadly, ATF will not only give FFLs guidance on this topic but simply refuse to even address the issue with companies such as ours. This is frustration at its finest because we are trying to provide a service that benefits the ATF as much as the customer- a firearm with information engraved into the frame or receiver will always be more help to an ATF agent trying to identify a weapon. We would welcome the ATF to sit down with industry licensees in order to address these type of issues.

    Thanks again for bringing up this topic,

    Ident Marking Services

    1. Hognose Post author

      Guys and gals, listen up to what Ident says. They are one of the two big engravers out there serving the home-builder market. (And I personally have lowers I have been planning to send out for marking. For mutual protection I plan to do it while the lower is still legally a non-firearm, which protects us both).

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