Federal Law on Ammunition Regulation

Posted on May 21, 2012

Federal law governing ammunition is limited to prohibiting sales to and purchases by certain categories of persons, and prohibiting the manufacture, importation and sale of armor-piercing ammunition.

The federal Gun Control Act of 1968 imposed a series of regulations on ammunition manufacturers, dealers and purchasers. The Act required all ammunition manufacturers and dealers to be licensed and maintain ammunition sales logs, prohibited licensees from selling any ammunition to persons under age 18 and handgun ammunition to persons under age 21, and prohibited interstate sales to unlicensed purchasers (proscribing mail-order transactions).1

However, in 1986, Congress passed the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act, which repealed most of these provisions, including the licensing of ammunition dealers, ammunition sales recordkeeping, and the ban on interstate transfers of ammunition to unlicensed purchasers.2 None has been reenacted by Congress.

In the mid-1990s, Congress, led by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and then-Representative Charles Schumer, debated several proposals to regulate ammunition. The most far reaching of these bills would have reinstated the ban on mail-order sales of ammunition, brought ammunition under the Brady Act (requiring background checks at the time of transfer), limited the number of rounds a person could own, required ammunition dealer licensing with high licensing fees, placed strict sales restrictions on specific types of handgun ammunition disproportionately used in crime, and imposed high taxes on all ammunition. To date, none of these proposals has been adopted.3

Recordkeeping continues to be required for transfers of armor-piercing ammunition, however. See below under Armor-Piercing Ammunition for more information.

Prohibited Purchasers

Federal prohibited purchaser categories for firearms also apply to ammunition. Additional information on restrictions on firearm sales and purchases is contained in Federal Law on Prohibited Purchasers Generally. Ammunition may not be sold or otherwise transferred to any person who:

  • Is underage;
  • Has been convicted of, or is under indictment for, a crime punishable by imprisonment for more than one year;
  • Is a fugitive from justice;
  • Is an unlawful user of or addicted to a controlled substance;
  • Has been adjudicated as a mental defective or committed to a mental institution;
  • Is an illegal alien;
  • Has been dishonorably discharged from the military;
  • Has renounced his or her U.S. citizenship;
  • Is subject to a court order restraining him or her from harassing, stalking or threatening an intimate partner, his or her child or a child of a partner; or
  • Has been convicted of a misdemeanor offense of domestic violence.4

Federal law does not require ammunition sellers to conduct background checks to determine if a prospective purchaser falls into a prohibited category, however.

Minimum Age to Purchase or Possess Ammunition

Federal minimum age laws governing firearms also apply to ammunition used for those firearms. Federally licensed firearms dealers (FFLs) are prohibited from selling or transferring a shotgun or rifle, or ammunition for a shotgun or rifle, to any person the dealer knows or has reasonable cause to believe is under the age of 18.5 Federal law provides no age limitations with respect to the sale of a long gun or long gun ammunition by an unlicensed person.

FFLs are prohibited from selling or transferring handguns or handgun ammunition to any person the dealer knows or has reasonable cause to believe is under the age of 21.6 Unlicensed persons may not sell, deliver or otherwise transfer a handgun or handgun ammunition to any person the transferor knows or has reasonable cause to believe is under the age of 18.7

Federal law prohibits, with certain exceptions, the possession of a handgun or handgun ammunition by any person under the age of 18.8 Federal law provides no minimum age for the possession of long guns or long gun ammunition.

Federal law does not require ammunition sellers to conduct background checks or otherwise verify that a prospective purchaser is of legal age to purchase or possess ammunition.

Licensing of Ammunition Manufacturers or Importers

Federal law requires any person engaged in importing or manufacturing ammunition to obtain a license from the Attorney General.9

Armor-Piercing Ammunition

Federal law prohibits the manufacture, importation, sale or delivery of armor-piercing ammunition, with very limited exceptions.10 In particular, specific exceptions exist for armor-piercing ammunition that is manufactured for certain federal and state government divisions, exportation, or testing.11 The Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) may also exempt certain armor-piercing ammunition primarily intended for sporting or industrial purposes.12

Licensed dealers are prohibited from “willfully” transferring armor-piercing ammunition. An exception exists for ammunition that was received and maintained by the dealer as business inventory prior to August 28, 1986, which may be transferred to federal, state or local law enforcement.13 Federally licensed dealers, to the extent they can transfer armor-piercing ammunition, must keep a record of any transfer.14

Armor-piercing ammunition, sometimes referred to as metal-piercing ammunition, is ammunition that is designed primarily to penetrate metal or armor, including body armor commonly worn by police officers. Under federal law, armor-piercing ammunition is defined as any projectile or projectile core that may be used in a handgun and that is constructed entirely from one or a combination of tungsten alloys, steel, iron, brass, bronze, beryllium copper, or depleted uranium.15 In addition, armor-piercing ammunition is defined as a full jacketed projectile “larger than .22 caliber designed and intended for use in a handgun and whose jacket has a weight of more than 25 percent of the total weight of the projectile.” Id. The Attorney General is required to furnish information to each licensed dealer defining which projectiles are considered armor-piercing ammunition as defined in 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(17)(B).16

The federal definition of armor-piercing ammunition, which is based on its content and weight, rather than on the ammunition’s actual performance against body armor, has been criticized because it fails to halt the manufacture and sale of all types of ammunition that can penetrate body armor.17

The existing ban on armor-piercing ammunition can be made more effective by adopting performance standards that require ammunition to be tested for its ability to penetrate bullet-resistant vests and body armor, as opposed to the existing standard based on the bullet’s content.18

Click here to view additional information about ammunition regulation, including background information and state and local laws on the topic.

  1. Gun Control Act of 1968, Pub. L. No. 90-618, 82 Stat. 1213. []
  2. Firearms Owners’ Protection Act, Pub. L. No. 99-308, 100 Stat. 449 (1986). []
  3. For more information about these ammunition proposals, see Brendan J. Healey, Plugging the Bullet Holes in U.S. Gun Law: An Ammunition-Based Proposal for Tightening Gun Control, 32 J. Marshall L. Rev. 1 (Fall 1998); Scott D. Dailard, The Role of Ammunition in a Balanced Program of Gun Control: A Critique of the Moynihan Bullet Bills, 20 J. Legis. 19 (1994). []
  4. 18 U.S.C. § 922(b)(1), (d), (x)(1). []
  5. 18 U.S.C. § 922(b)(1), (c)(1). []
  6. Id. []
  7. 18 U.S.C. § 922(x)(1), (5). []
  8. 18 U.S.C. § 922(x)(2), (5). []
  9. 18 U.S.C. § 923(a). []
  10. 18 U.S.C. §§ 921(a)(17), 922(a)(7), (8); 27 C.F.R. § 478.37. []
  11. 18 U.S.C. §§ 921(a)(17)(C), 922(a)(7), 922(a)(8); 27 C.F.R. § 478.37. []
  12. 27 C.F.R. § 478.148. []
  13. 27 C.F.R. § 478.99(e). []
  14. 18 U.S.C. § 922(b)(5). []
  15. 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(17); 27 C.F.R. § 478.11. []
  16. 18 U.S.C. § 923(k). []
  17. Violence Policy Center, Sitting Ducks: The Threat to the Chemical and Refinery Industry From 50 Caliber Sniper Rifles 20 (Aug. 2002). See also Violence Policy Center, Vest Buster: The .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum – The Gun Industry’s Latest Challenge to Law Enforcement Body Armor 25 (June 2004). []
  18. Violence Policy Center, Sitting Ducks, supra, at 20; International Association of Chiefs of Police, Taking a Stand: Reducing Gun Violence in Our Communities 27 (Sept. 2007). []