Firearms are heavily regulated in the UK, especially handguns and automatic weapons, after several horrific shootings in the late 20th century. Long-guns, such as shotguns and rifles are also tightly controled, one or more licenses being required. One exception that there seems to be for this regulation is for British-flagged vessels. There are also a document which publicly available on armed guards for ships, but it is not clear to me if this includes otherwise illegal weapons.

In order to better explain question, here's a scenario - ACME shipping has a cargo ship that frequently travels round the Horn of Africa, a known high-risk area for piracy. ACME decide that in order to safeguard their ships, crew and cargo, they must have a contingent of armed guards on board each ship. What firearms would these guards be allowed, under British law, to carry? (Only Rifles and Shotguns, or could these guards also be authorised by the Secretary of State to carry Assault rifles and handguns as well?)

1 Answer 1


Authorisation under section 51, Firearms Act 1968 is required but only if the criteria in the Home Office Guide on Firearms Licensing Law at Chapter 28: Authorisation of armed guards on UK registered ships is met:

The policy to allow the use of armed guards applies only in exceptional circumstances:

to ships transiting the area at risk of attack by pirates within the High Risk Area (HRA) which is bounded: in the Red Sea: northern limit: Latitude 15°N; in the Gulf of Oman: Northern limit: Latitude 22°N; Eastern limit: Longitude 065°E; Southern limit: Latitude 5°S;

when ‘Best Management Practices’ to deter piracy is being followed fully but, on its own, is not deemed by the shipping company and the ship’s master as sufficient to protect against acts of piracy; AND

the use of armed guards is assessed to reduce the risk to the lives and wellbeing of those on board the ship.

  • The policy applies to internationally trading passenger ships and cargo ships of 500 gross tonnage and above. The policy only applies in relation to the protection of UK registered ships.

  • The assurance process for the authorisation of private maritime security companies is to ensure that as far as possible public safety is not endangered by the use of armed guards.

  • Private Maritime Security Companies (PMSCs) wishing to employ armed guards on board UK registered ships in these exceptional circumstances must be authorised to possess a range of firearms (which may include section 1 and section 2 weapons), including those requiring an authority from the Secretary of State for the Home Department under section 5 of the 1968 Act, and be able to deploy them as necessary. All PMSCs wishing to employ armed guards on UK registered ships must receive clearance via the Home Office section 5 authorisation process.

  • It is an offence for a person to have in his possession, purchase, acquire, manufacture, sell or transfer, or possess, purchase or acquire for sale or transfer, a weapon prohibited under section 5 of the 1968 Act without the authority of the Secretary of State. It is also an offence not to comply with any condition of the authority.


28.14 The PMSC must provide details of the number and type of section 5 prohibited firearms they wish to possess on board the UK registered ship, and why this number and type of weapon is necessary. All PMSCs must be authorised to possess section 5 firearms.

The High Risk Area covered by this policy is shown by the red/orange hatching on this map, sourced from UK War Risks (no affiliation):

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1Section 5(3) of the 1968 Act states:

In this section “authority” means an authority given in writing by—

  • (a) the Secretary of State (in or as regards England and Wales), or

  • (b) the Scottish Ministers (in or as regards Scotland).

In this instance, the authorisation would presumably be given by the Home Secretary


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