ATF Ruling On Sporting Purposes Exemption To Armor Piercing Ammunition

BY Herschel Smith
1 year, 10 months ago

Courtesy of Say Uncle, the NRA has caught indication of what could be a very important ATF ruling, if not for what it does, certainly for the precedent it sets.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is taking public comments on its website until December 31, with regard to how it should determine what types of projectiles meet the “sporting purposes” exception to the federal “armor piercing ammunition” law. At this time, the question centers primarily around rifle-caliber projectiles made of metals harder than lead, such as the Barnes Bullets solid brass hunting bullets.

Under the law, adopted in 1986, “armor piercing ammunition” is defined as “a projectile or projectile core which may be used in a handgun and which is constructed entirely (excluding the presence of traces of other substances) from one or a combination of tungsten alloys, steel, iron, brass, bronze, beryllium copper, or depleted uranium.” A second definition, added in the 1990s, includes “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.”

Because handguns have been made in certain rifle calibers, many bullets that were designed originally for rifles also “may be used in a handgun.” If such projectiles are made of the metals listed in the law, they are restricted as “armor piercing ammunition” unless they meet one of the law’s exemptions. Being considered at this time is the exemption for “a projectile which the Attorney General finds is primarily intended to be used for sporting purposes.”

Last week, BATFE met separately with gun control activist groups, firearm industry groups, and groups representing hunters and other gun owners. The latter meeting included the NRA; Safari Club International; representatives of state wildlife agencies; and firearm and ammunition importers.

BATFE has expressed two opinions about the law and exemption that warrant particular scrutiny.

First, BATFE suggested that it believes that the “armor piercing ammunition” law was intended to affect all ammunition capable of penetrating soft body armor worn by law enforcement officers. NRA reminded BATFE that the law was intended to protect law enforcement officers against the potential threat posed a very narrowly-defined category of projectiles: those, such as KTW and Arcane, which by virtue of their hard metal construction were designed and intended to be used by law enforcement officers to shoot through hard objects, such as automobile glass and doors, when fired at the velocities typical of handgun-caliber ammunition fired from handguns. Neither before nor since the law’s enactment, has an officer been killed due to such a bullet penetrating soft body armor.

NRA further pointed out that the legislative history of the law clearly shows that members of Congress, including the sponsor of the law in the House, Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.), a decorated former NYPD police officer, expressly did not want the law to restrict rifle-caliber bullets that happen to also be useable in handguns chambered to use rifle cartridges.

Second, BATFE says it considers projectiles to not be exempt under the “sporting purposes” test if they “pose a threat to public safety and law enforcement.” BATFE also expressed concern that since the law was adopted, various new rifle-caliber handguns have been invented. On that point, NRA made clear that the sporting purposes exemption is straightforward: it applies to all projectiles that are “primarily intended for sporting purposes”–nothing more, and nothing less. Under the law, a projectile would be exempt if it is primarily intended for sporting purposes, even if it is secondarily intended for self-defense or some other legitimate purpose. Furthermore, the law does not condition its restrictive language or its “sporting purposes” exemption on the design of a particular handgun; the law is concerned only with specific projectiles that can be used in handguns. NRA cautioned the BATFE against interpreting the law in a manner more restrictive than Congress intended.

I think that the NRA comments are, in the main, on target.  It’s easy to conflate purposes for laws that were crafted so long ago.

Also see the comments at Say Uncle.  I agree that this will end up in an effort to control long gun ammunition, and have recommended before the complete abolition of the ATF as an unwarranted, unconstitutional and wasteful intrusion on the rights of citizens of the U.S.

Take careful note, too, what they say concerns them: “BATFE also expressed concern that since the law was adopted, various new rifle-caliber handguns have been invented.”

I wonder how many Department of Justice employees are equally concerned when SWAT teams raids the homes of unsuspecting and incorrect targets, such as Mr. Eurie Stamps, or Ms. Zaelit, or Mr. Tuppeny, or Ms. Lloyd, or Thomas and Rosalie Avina, or Mr. Kenneth Wright?  Statists will be statists.  Can a leopard change its spots?

Finally, this issue of the sporting purposes test is laughable.  The ATF didn’t listen when I pointed this out before, and they aren’t likely to start now.  It isn’t that the test is difficult, or convoluted, or hard to apply, but necessary nonetheless because it’s the law.  The issue is that it is self referentially incoherent.  It cannot be logically applied because it presupposes the consequent.

The ATF must decide what is the “sporting purposes” category by populating the list with examples, and then make the claim that such-and-such an example is deemed to be or not to be a “sporting purpose” because it is or isn’t on the list.  It reasons in a circle.

Not that the ATF will care.  And not that they will care what we have to say about ammunition either.

UPDATE: Thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the attention!

UPDATE #2: See also David Codrea, Mike Vanderboegh and Kurt Hofmann.



  • Haiku Guy

    I thought “Armor Piercing” rounds were designed to penetrate armor, not body armor. Back when this nonsense started, they were talking about esoteric stuff, like teflon-coated 50 caliber rounds designed to penetrate Amored Personnel Carriers and that sort of thing. By retroactively saying that it was all about body armor, the list of effected ammunition becomes endless.

  • SDN

    So the ATF is going to rule that non-lead bullets aren’t legal, while the EPA rules that lead bullets aren’t legal either.

    Well, the President did say gun control was going to be under the radar; may be the first campaign promise he’s kept.

  • countertop

    I was under the impression that this was sought by the NRA. Or folks in the ammo industry (Barnes Bullets, specifically). They are seeking clarification on it. Strangely, none of the usually docket items appear on either ATFs web page or on regulations.gov such as any of the petitions they recieved seeking this rulemaking, the studies they’ve relied upon, their actual proposed rulemaking, etc.

  • Paul

    I suspect the ATF is trying to find a way to ban copper or bronze from ammo. Do that and if the ‘greens’ get to ban lead then, well what do you make a bullet out of.

    Keep in mind the composition of the bullet means nothing for being able to penetrate armor IF YOU HAVE THE VELOCITY to effect the same penetration. Say for rifles a .300 WM with sabot and .22 70 gr projectile at 5000 fps. That will go through any practical vest made. And for handguns a saboted .357 round using a .30 or .22 cal bullet will do the same thing at close range on any soft vest made (and even some hard ones.)

    What is more how many times of true AP rounds been used against cops? And what is more since drugs and guns are smuggle in and out of the U.S. what makes them think AP ammo won’t be done the same way?

    This stinks of gun control, simple as that.

  • Ron Nord

    This agency is one of the first that should be abolished. After “Fast and Furious” and their complicity in murder, the ATF should be gone, disbanded. This agency has become a politicized thing that has already killed American Citizens and will grow more hazardous to our freedoms as long as it’s operating. Disband and disburse the men and women of this organization before they become Gestapo like and have to be taken care of in other ways much harder. They apparently think that laws are made for the “little guy” and not them, they’ve murdered and have been just lately complicit in murder, what does it take to put this agency down.

  • Darren

    The teflon on the KTW was simply to protect the bore of the handgun, it had no effect on increasing penetration of hard targets. What made the KTW penetrate was that it was a very hard bullet and a very light bullet for the caliber and carried enough KE to defeat soft body armor. Any armor can be defeated with enough KE, even tank armor.

    Agree that this is just an effort (that will probably fail) to eliminate some of the metals currently being used in hunting ammo, metals that are safer for the environment than the traditional lead and cheaper than exotics like tungsten. Getting all up-in-arms (so to speak) about copper bullets penetrating vests is pretty silly considering that pretty much every rifle bullet from the smokeless powder and spitzer era will punch right through soft armor. It’s not a function of bullet composition, it’s just physics.

  • Mike Morgan

    This debate is the second reason that has kept me from owning firearms. #1 is I know that not owning one prevents me from using it in a way that makes me sad later. #2 is that the government WILL at some point in the near future try to make a grab for all of the legally-owned, registered weapons.

    It’s just better for me not to combine #1 and #2… ;-)

  • Sam L.

    Dayam! Where can I get me some of that DEE-pleted U-Ranium for my handloads.

  • http://pc3c.org/ Gregory Markle

    Actually the language in the Heller decision basically gutted the idea of “sporting purposes” since it established that the 2nd Amendment was NOT about sporting uses of firearms. “Sporting purposes” has been defacto un-Constitutional ever since and we should pretty much thank ATF for initiating what could develop into a lawsuit that might lead to the removal of “sporting purposes” altogether.

  • PapaD

    Whatever the BATFE rules–it should not. It should never have been in the business of making or interpreting LAW in the first place. It should only be involved in enforcing laws enacted by Congress and Interpreted by the Courts. And to have at the helm of this agency, a flaming anti-gun politician, is just in-just-ice. But why cry Argentina? It is much worse than Argentina.

  • TSgt B

    I would counsel all to remember that the great majority of the infamous Safe Streets and Crime Control Act of 1968 (aka – the “Gun Control Act”) was a direct copy of Nazi Germany’s firearms laws enacted before and DURING Hitler’s reign Hence, the “sporting use” provision(s).m Look it up.

  • Lina Inverse

    Echoing countertop, there’s absolutely no question that under current and basically correct ATF interpretations of the law, some Barnes Banded Solids are illegal. The original idea was for big bore hunting rifles used for so called “thick skinned dangerous game”, like the Cape/African Buffalo, considered to be the most dangerous animal in the continent. Hunting laws generally forbid using anything less than .375 (as in .375 H&H, with some exceptions for 9.3 mm), and I gather no one sane goes after buffalo with anything less than .416 and more is preferred. (Some counties even have minimum energy requirements, like Nambia’s 5400 Joules.)

    But Barnes makes these all the way down to .223 caliber, for which there are a lot of handguns. The ostensible reason for these bullets is minimum hide damage for harvesting fur bearing animals and the like. Whatever the fuss above, I wouldn’t be surprised by any ruling by the ATF on .223, and a reasonable cutoff for higher calibers that can’t reasonably be shot with one hand but still allows for thick skinned game bullets. That is, I doubt anyone can shoot a 9.3 mm 250 gr or .375 260 gr bullet out of a handgun with breaking said hand, wrist, arm, etc.

    Wider attempts to ban normal rifle ammo are going to fail for the same reasons they did way back when, when we were politically much less powerful.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Lina, maybe or maybe not. But nothing you said goes either directly or indirectly to the stated reason that the ATF is interested in this issue – LEOs.

  • Lina Inverse

    Indeed, but I thought that was covered adequately by other commentators. But to go further, quoting the NRA:

    First, BATFE suggested that it believes that the “armor piercing ammunition” law was intended to affect all ammunition capable of penetrating soft body armor worn by law enforcement officers.

    The BATFE is correct; for example, Teddy Kennedy went on and on about the deadly .30-30, which I guess before the era of the “modern sporting rifle” (AKA evil “black” rifles like the AR-15) was the most common to kill police while defeating soft body armor. The NRA of course pointed out the ban on “COP KILLER BULLETS!!!” was significantly limited in the actual legislation and the history of how the gun-grabbers got it all started.

    But getting back to my point, it’s my understanding that under current BATF interpretations of the law, all Barnes Banded Solids from .223 to .30 at minimum should be banned, just like our 7.62mm NATO M61 Armor Piercing round is banned, but not the .30-06 M2, because the latter just has a thin steel rod inside a conventional lead jacketed bullet, or the green tip current issue SS109/M855 which has a steel pellet in it, which due to ATK’s Lake City contract with the military we can buy ammo from lots which failed inspection (generally due to sealing) but that are otherwise safe and good….

  • Lina Inverse

    Errr, I realize I didn’t answer your implicit question. I believe the BATF when they say:

    The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has received requests to exempt certain projectiles from regulation as “armor piercing ammunition” under [the applicable law]….”

    Whether it was false flag gun-grabbers, Barnes Bullets or just someone wanting to use the latter’s smaller caliber Banded Solids but not wanting to become a felon. The BATF is not saying their interested in this issue because of LEOs, just that their thoughts on rule-making are focused on them. Which is defensible, given the law as written and the legislative history.

    That is, they could say, .223 Barnes Banded Solids are used for “sporting purposes” and are OK, especially since almost all .223 rounds will penetrate a Level III-A vest. I’d be surprised, but then again they may be extra motivated not to upset us right now, Fast and Furious and the other programs like it are a ticking time bomb for them.

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  • Trey

    any FMJ .30 milspec round will ignore most soft body armor thus the AP ban is just the Batf showing that it CAN ban something because it just wants too. To use the Latin Malum prohibitum.


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