Home-grown gun threat as UK gangs convert £100 toy replicas into lethal £3,000 firearms

Criminal gangs are converting replica handguns legally sold in the UK into lethal weapons, posing a worrying threat from native weapons.

The number of people confiscated has increased in the past six months and a number of “conversion factories” have been searched, the National Crime Agency said.

The replicas of real handguns from manufacturers such as Beretta and Glock are legally sold to hobbyists here because they are considered safe, have solid barrels and can only fire blanks.

But now criminals have figured out how to replace the massive barrels of the replicas with hollow ones to turn a 100-pound toy into a deadly weapon for up to 3,000 pounds on the street.

It comes 25 years after the massacre of 16 school children and their teacher at Dunblane Primary School sparked crackdown on handgun possession in Britain.

Check out this heat map of where guns have been reported stolen over the past 10 years:

This heat map shows where guns have been reported stolen over the past 10 years. It used data from a query by Mirror FOI to the Home Office, which revealed that nearly 5,000 firearms have been stolen since 2011 and another 1,500 have been reported lost – see below

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Gun crime in the UK remains low compared to many other countries, but rose 38% between 2014 and 2019 and gangs are turning to cheaper converted guns, the NCA warned.

Previously these were made from replica front vents which are easier to rebuild, and while legal in some parts of Europe, they are banned here.

But in recent months, police have seized more guns that have been converted by the above-approved or side-vented empty firefighters.

Matt Perfect, NCA’s leading provider of firearms threats, told Spiegel: “As of 2020, 175 firearms examined have been confirmed as converted edged firearms.

Examples of replicas of real handguns that were legally sold in the UK because they were considered safe, had solid barrels and could only fire blanks

Examples of replicas of real handguns that were legally sold in the UK because they were considered safe, had solid barrels and could only fire blanks

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“Recent evidence suggests that an increasing number of models are top / side venting and may have been legally sold in the UK prior to the conversion.”

Of the 175 weapons confiscated, 72 appeared to be of a specific brand and of those 54 were top / side venting weapons of the legal type here. Conversion factories were uncovered in Manchester and London, said Mr Perfect.

Real handguns can reach 10,000 pounds in the criminal underworld and are the weapon of choice for high-ranking gangsters. However, the NCA said that young urban street gangs prefer converted guns because of their ready availability.

The agency has stopped more than 500 entries from Europe to the UK smuggled in packages or other shipments since 2018.

Matt Perfect of the National Crime Agency

Matt Perfect of the National Crime Agency

It is believed that this combined with stricter border controls in the case of Brexit led the criminals to figure out how to modify the models freely available in the UK that are harder to convert.

According to the Violent Crime Reduction Act, anyone who purchases such a replica must demonstrate that they need it for legitimate reasons, including a hobby.

More than half of the weapon must be of a unique color, usually blue or orange.

We found a number of websites selling these guns. One said, “None of our blank firing guns can and cannot be made to shoot real ammunition” and that “the attempt to modify this blank gun to take real ammunition is prohibited by law”.

National Crime Agency handout on gun seizure

It is a homegrown threat as criminals turn £ 100,000 worth of toys into £ 3,000 worth of firearms

But NCA’s Matt Perfect said, “Groups have clearly figured out a way to customize the barrel in the top vent. Then they just paint or spray it on a color that it wouldn’t attract attention if presented.

“With relative simplicity, you change the barrel and may have to make some changes to ammunition.

“It won’t perform anywhere near the level of the original 9mm pistol. But your attack distance would generally be up close with this weapon. You don’t have to be an armorer. Once you have received some instructions, it is relatively easy to do. Criminals will find a way. “

Small arms were banned after Thomas Hamilton’s rampage in Dunblane on March 13, 1996 with his four legally held weapons.

The gun Justice McCann used - see below

The gun Justice McCann used – see below

The National Ballistics Intelligence Service, established in 2008, allowed police to link seemingly unrelated crimes when using the same weapon.

This makes it less attractive for criminals to borrow weapons if they are linked to murder.

Paul James, former head of Nabis and director of weapons and law enforcement consultancy Arquebus Solutions, said, “Dunblane has been a massive wake-up call for everyone.

“We have some of the strictest firearms laws in the world, so there aren’t many criminals on the street – which is why they resort to converted firearms with an empty shot.”

Colleague Glenn Lawrence added, “It is next to impossible to prevent these weapons from being converted, but manufacturers should make it as difficult as possible.

“The empty shot guns have become the weapon of choice, a one-shot weapon.”

27 years for shooting with a blank firer

Justice McCann had a converted replica gun - he shot a stranger in the chest

Justice McCann had a converted replica gun – he shot a stranger in the chest

A drug dealer shot a stranger in the chest at close range with a gun that had been converted from an empty shot pistol that was legally sold here for £ 100.

Justice McCann is serving 27.5 years on the unprovoked attack in Luton, Beds, in 2019 after admitting attempted murder, owning firearms and intending to supply cannabis.

His weapon was a converted replica of a Beretta pistol that sold for just £ 100 on UK websites.

The shooting takes place on Monday during the 24 hours in police custody on Channel 4. This shows a raid by the Bedfordshire Police on an illegal conversion factory where the same model gun was confiscated.

Weapons of choice

Almost 5,000 firearms have been stolen and another 1,500 reported lost since 2011. This resulted in a request from Mirror FOI to the Home Office.

Here Matt Perfect, the head of the National Crime Agency for Firearms, explains how criminals use the different types of firearms.

Original purpose

Operation Venetic, led by the NCA after the EncroChat telephone network hack, resulted in the seizure of 115 “originally lethal weapons”, including AK-47s from Warrington and Manchester and an Uzi and Scorpion submachine in London.

Matt says, “If you are on the top end of serious organized crime and you have something to protect at all costs, you will do so with OLP weapons.

“Probably one or two, maybe a maximum of three people have access to this weapon.”

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He said a new pistol like a Glock could “likely cost 7,000 to 9,000 pounds” while the Scorpion submachine gun would cost more than 10,000 pounds on the black market.

Paul James, former head of the National Ballistics Intelligence Service and director of firearms and law enforcement advisory services at Arquebus Solutions, added, “The highest-level criminal groups use firearms to pioneer other crimes such as drug trafficking and human trafficking.”

Converted weapons

A Turkey-made Retay 84FS bleed gun that is legally sold here can be converted into fire projectiles

A Turkey-made Retay 84FS bleed gun that is legally sold here can be converted into fire projectiles

Empty replicas of OLPs can be converted into live rounds.

Matt said, “Essentially they’re replacing the smaller barrel – 4mm come out, put in 9mm barrel and with a little bit of welding you essentially have a 9mm pistol here and there … in less than two minutes.

“Our assessment is that these are firearms that generally penetrate lower-level criminal groups.

“So gangland culture, downtown areas deprived of firearms.”

The NCA has targeted imports of the weapons, but has warned that they are “very cheap” to manufacture.

Glenn Lawrence, Technical Director at Arquebus Solutions added, “Empty firearms have become the weapon of choice lately.”

He said that some blanks from Turkey were made from softer metal, which made the conversion easier.


There are nearly 1.4 million shotguns and more than 600,000 other firearms, mostly rifles, that are legally held in the UK.

Of the 590,000 people with gun or shotgun certification, 94% are male and 2,770 are under 17 years of age.

Matt says, “A shotgun is more likely to be used against a vehicle, building, or building because your accuracy with a sawed-off shotgun – unless you are really close and personal or very confident with a firearm – is very high heavy.

“You’ve got the kick and … the shifting of the projectile.

“They are generally seen as a sign of the threat of violence.”

Printed weapons

Confiscated plastic handguns made using 3D printing technology

Confiscated plastic handguns made using 3D printing technology

The NCA seized fewer than 10 3D-printed weapons in the past year but remains concerned about the threat.

Matt says, “We are aware that 3-D pistols have evolved. We understand that the printing and machines that make the design possible were developed.

“And we know that there are manuals around.”

He said the NCA is reviewing the threat and will work with the Home Office “to understand how and what we need to do to suppress this threat”.

Glenn Lawrence says, “You can survive two or three shots sometimes and then they explode in your hands … very dangerous things.”

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