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Reversing a decades-long stance on the legal classification of specific AR-15 components, the ATF determined that certain upper receivers are now legally considered firearms. In a letter sent to Safety Harbor Firearms, the ATF informed the company that their, ".50 BMG Upper Assembly" was unsuitable for importation as (in their opinion) it incorporates a "receiver" and is thus legally a firearm.

Similar letters were sent to Spider Firearms, and McCutchen Firearms as well.

The letter further explains that the ATF made this decision not because of the caliber of the upper, but because of its operating method. The agency explained in the letter that in their opinion, the Safety Harbor Firearms bolt-action .50BMG upper met the ATF's definition of a firearm frame or receiver as outlined in the Gun Control Act of 1968.

Here is the ATF's legal definition of a firearm being cited below, from the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA) 18 U.S.C. [section] 921(a)(3).

(A) any weapon (including a starter gun) which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive; (B) the frame or receiver of any such weapon; (C) any firearm muffler or firearm silencer; or (D) any destructive device. Such term does not include an antique firearm.

The ATF further clarified their position adding that they, "had determined that the receiver of a bolt-action rifle is the part of the firearm to which the barrel attaches that provides housing for the bolt and, in most cases, the trigger." Adding that according to Title 27 CFR [section] 478.11 's definition of a firearm frame or receiver, "That part of a firearm which provides housing for the hammer, bolt or breechblock, and firing mechanism, and which is usually threaded at its forward portion to receive the barrel."

Finally, the ATF gave its reasoning that it had,

"... determined that the receiver of a bolt-action rifle is the part of the firearm to which the barrel attaches that provides housing for the bolt and, in most cases, the trigger. In most bolt-action firearms, the stock is also generally attached to the receiver. The Receiver must be marked in accordance with the GCA and Federal regulations."

The logic doesn't hold water, but it appears that the ATF is stating that because most bolt-action rifles consider the barreled action to be the serialised component, than a bolt-action upper must abide by the same rule of thumb. Except, in the examples the ATF is referring to, those barreled actions are capable of firing a round. They are mechanically complete with a barrel and bolt, regardless if a stock has been attached or not.

Upper assemblies that utilize an AR-15 lower are not mechanically complete. There is no easy or safe way to strike the firing pin and detonate a chambered round on an upper without the presence of a lower assembly.

If this sounds eminently confusing, don't worry, it should. The logic behind this recent decision is baffling at best. How can a component that requires a firearm to function, be considered a firearm itself?

Not only that, but the last paragraph even includes that these bolt-action upper receivers now require separate serial numbers. So now to have a functioning bolt-action rifle utilizing an AR-receiver, a shooter must transfer two seperate firearms and combine them?

Apparently the ATF doesn't see an issue with this, as they later state the following in the same letter:

"Further, ATF has previously determine that non-standard AR-type upper assemblies, when attached to an AR-type receiver, does not preclude the upper assembly from being classified as a firearm "receiver. " ATF has determined that when two receivers are assembled together into a firearm, this redesigned firearm contains two firearm receivers."

Firearm News reached out to the ATF's public relations department early this afternoon for a comment on both what prompted this classification change, and which, "non-standard AR-type upper assemblies" it was referring to in the letter. Thus far, the ATF has not responded with an official statement.

While this issue is undoubtedly frustrating for consumers who already own an AR-15, and simply want to buy a bolt-action upper receiver, it's even worse for gun owners as a whole and for the companies that manufacture them.

Firearms are taxed differently than their unserialized components, and the legal transfer of these items is handled very differently. Ever since the Gun Control Act of 1968 Federally mandated that firearms transferred between states must be done through Federal Firearm Licensees (FFL), guns cannot be transferred directly to anyone with an FFL.

Unserialized firearm components, on the other hand, are treated like any other non-restricted goods --provided they aren't prohibited in that state of the recipient.

Though the truly unsettling prospect brought forth by this new interpretation of the law, deals with NFA-restricted items--specifically short barreled rifles (SBR).

If an entrepreneur decides to build and sell a roller-delayed upper receiver that feeds from a horizontal magazine and they offer it in a pistol-length configuration, is it an illegal SBR? What constitutes, "non-standard"?

Furthermore, if a company decides to build an AR-15-style lower receiver with a plugged magazine well, is that not a firearm? Can that be used with these uppers that are not considered firearms? Presumably not, since they would be dimensionally identical in the way they interface with these uppers.

Lastly, does this reclassification mean that owners of these bolt-action .50BMG upper assemblies need to register their uppers? While the ATF has no shortage of short-sighted, questionable decisions, this one is fairly far-reaching in its oversights.

Two things are certain though: Firearm News will continue to monitor the situation to see how the ATF clarifies their position, and supporters of the Second Amendment opposed to the ATF's decision should call, email and write their congressmen and state senators to tell them they don't support the ATF's new position.

Caption: A scan of the letter received by Safety Harbor Firearms was posted online a few weeks ago. Source:

Caption: The second page of the ATF's letter to Safety Harbor Firearms does not offer much clarification on the new decision. Source:

Caption: Bolt-action upper assemblies like this McCutchen MF-50M haven't traditionally been considered a firearm in the legal sense in the eyes of the ATF. Source:
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Author:Grant, Jim
Publication:Firearms News
Date:Dec 1, 2018
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