Practical and Legal Implications of the Carriage of Firearms

Published 16 years ago, updated 4 years ago


There are many valid arguments for and against the carriage of firearms on yachts. This short article will attempt to balance some of those arguments and provide a measured analysis of the practical issues to consider when putting firearms onboard.

What must be recognised from the outset, however, is that piracy has increased not only in recent years, but alarmingly over the course of 2005. Incidents are still few when one considers the large expanse of the oceans; nevertheless, it is an issue that must be considered as part of any sailor’s passage planning phase. Indeed, it is self-evident that the yachting community is taking a pragmatic approach to this problem as revealed by the number of yachts seeking the protection of convoys.

A practical guide to carrying firearms

Why carry them?

Self-help in an emergency

It can be argued that carrying firearms is a pragmatic solution to the increasing organic threat and the inability of outside agencies to provide swift assistance. One example of this is CTF 150.

CTF150 is a multinational task force currently under French 3* Command and they operate in a corridor from 12 to 60 miles down the Arabian peninsular coast and around Somalia conducting anti-terrorist patrols to intercept and interdict drug, people, weapons and oil smuggling plus any other activities that could support terrorist activities. Their ROE and tasking do not give them the authority to conduct missions against maritime crime inside Somali territorial waters though they are fully appraised of their responsibilities with respect to piracy in international waters. That said their patch is huge and their resources are clearly limited notwithstanding the multinational makeup of the CTF and the relative seniority of the Commander (the UK, NL and GE predecessors as CTF150 have all been Commodores).

Note that if you study the IMO reports on piracy attacks, many more attacks are thwarted than are successful through a combination of manoeuvring, use of hoses and the obvious defence of speed.

In a yacht, most of the above measures are not available. From the IMO reports, we can deduce that making life very difficult for pirates often results in them abandoning their attempts.

Remember: Getting on a moving yacht when someone is shooting at you is difficult!

Is it lawful to carry firearms?

This depends on several factors.

· Flag State your yacht is registered with.

· Area you are likely to operate in.

· Type of firearm.

Flag State

The nationality of ships is governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Under International Law each State may determine for itself the conditions on which it will grant its nationality.

Article 91 Nationality of ships

1. Every State shall fix the conditions for the grant of its nationality to ships, for the registration of ships in its territory, and for the right to fly its flag. Ships have the nationality of the State whose flag they are entitled to fly. There must exist a genuine link between the State and the ship.

2. Every State shall issue to ships to which it has granted the right to fly its flag documents to that effect.

The carriage of firearms on ships depends on the law of the country in which your yacht is registered. For example, if your yacht is UK Flagged, then English law applies. A UK Flagged yacht is entitled to carry a shotgun as part of the ship’s equipment. It is permitted to carry other firearms but these must be purchased outside the UK and the yacht must not return to UK waters. If it does then the firearms may be seized by customs.

This similar pattern applies dependent on where your yacht is registered, where you buy the firearms and where you intend to travel to and from.

So the first step is to see what law applies to your yacht, what firearm you want to purchase and then where you are likely to travel to and from.

International Law

High Seas and Territorial waters – Carriage of Firearms

What is the position if your yacht embarks firearms in accordance with the law of your Flag State but then embarks on a global cruise on the high seas and into different countries territorial waters?


The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea governs the rules relating to activities both on the high seas and in territorial waters.

There are various issues to examine:

Yacht on the high seas carrying firearms

The basic principle under Customary International Law is that only the Flag State is entitled to exercise jurisdiction over a ship/yacht on the high seas. Therefore there is no legal prohibition on having firearms onboard on the high seas.

Article 92 Status of ships

1. Ships shall sail under the flag of one State only and, save in exceptional cases expressly provided for in international treaties or in this Convention, shall be subject to its exclusive jurisdiction on the high seas. A ship may not change its flag during a voyage or while in a port of call, save in the case of a real transfer of ownership or change of registry.

A yacht carrying firearms in the territorial waters of another state

The position is more complex. Whilst the yacht itself is considered to be the Flag State territory, the yacht by entering the territory of another state is subject to that states jurisdiction and laws.

Accordingly, it is important to investigate the law and customs procedures in respect of all ports visited to ensure that the requisite permissions are obtained.

From experience of the above, most countries do not prohibit the entry of ships carrying firearms into their jurisdiction providing they declare them on arrival and they are suitably secured onboard and sealed during the time in port.

For example at Port Said the following is required:

A list of firearms, with their type and details, must be handed to the authorities on arrival.

Indeed in the UK, the customs authorities normally adopt pragmatic arrangements in respect of prohibited firearms and require the ship to secure them by customs seal during the visit or arrange for them to be removed for safe storage until departure.

The best stance to take is to have shotguns onboard. These are not prohibited in the majority of countries providing you declare them to customs and they are secured in a suitable gun cabinet.

There are obviously some difficult administrative issues to contend with initially, but by and large, having shotguns onboard a yacht does not present insurmountable problems.

Type of firearm

Every country has different laws on what firearms are prohibited. The USA has a relatively relaxed rule regarding the purchase and possession of a range of firearms. The UK, for example, has very strict rules, however, and all handguns, semi-automatic and automatic firearms including certain types of shotguns are prohibited.

Therefore the type of firearm you want limits where you can purchase it from and where you can travel to and from.

Fictitious examples

UK Flagged yacht

Mr Jones wants to embark semi-automatic shotguns on his yacht.

· Cannot purchase them in the UK

· Must purchase them overseas

· Cannot enter UK territorial waters or firearms may be seized

· Must ensure that countries he visits do not prohibit these weapons.

Bermudan Flagged Yacht

· Mr Bloggs wants to embark M4 semi-automatic carbines.

· Must purchase them from a country permitting the sale of these firearms.

· When entering territorial waters of other countries must declare them in advance and often customs will require them to be removed and kept in bonded secure storage until departure.

Marine Insurance and Liability

It is very important that the yacht’s insurers are kept fully appraised if firearms are carried.

There are potential liability issues to consider if someone caused damage or injury and were negligent in doing so. There is insufficient space to examine this matter here, suffice to say that marine insurer must be informed.


The decision to carry firearms is a personal one that must be taken after considering the following factors:

· Where your yacht is registered and where it is moored.

· Countries you are planning to travel to and from.

· Type of firearm you intend to carry.

In practical terms and with proper planning, the carriage of firearms on a yacht should be trouble free. It provides a yacht with another option in the event of an attack where all else fails. Again, it is matter for each individual to decide upon.

Phillip Cable LLM

Director, Maritime Asset Security and Training (MAST) Ltd

PO Box 44, 20-22 Bedford Row, London WC1R 4EN, U.K.

Tel: +44 (0) 1245 364 062, Fax:+44 (0) 1245 364 062

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