A work in progress
- comments welcome
SEIZURE & IMPRESSMENT
FIREARMS CONTROL IN AUSTRALIA DURING WORLD WAR TWO
How the Australian Government disarmed the civilian population during a time of war
During the Second World War, the Australian Government used its emergency powers to seize personal firearms from what were at the time known as aliens – persons resident in Australia who were not of British descent or British Commonwealth citizenship.
Aliens under the White Australia Policy were classified according to their country of origin rather than their race. A Canadian or New Zealand citizen living in Australia would not be classed as an alien, because of Commonwealth ties, but an American citizen would be classed as an alien and would potentially be subject to laws which were intended to deal mainly with other nationalities.
Aliens were categorized broadly into three classes - friendly, neutral or enemy. A US or Chinese citizen would be classed as a friendly alien while a Swiss national would be a neutral alien. The resident nationals of ten specified enemy countries - mainly German, Austrian, Italian and Japanese citizens - were of special interest to the authorities and were the first to be targeted when it came to restriction of their liberties or, in the case under review, seizure of firearms, ammunition or explosives in their possession. Australia was also home to naturalized British subjects who might have been of any nationality at birth, including countries with which Australia was then at war. These were known as naturalized British subjects of enemy origin and were treated in most respects as enemy aliens.
Beginning in 1940, thousands of firearms were seized from aliens during World War Two. Many more were surrendered by members of what was termed the loyal population, mostly British descended citizens of Australian birth or Commonwealth origin. Seizures of alien property were not limited to firearms but included such things as cameras, radios, maps and cipher equipment. The seizure process stemmed from a belief in Government that elements of the alien population might be plotting subversion or sabotage. During the perilous months when England faced possible invasion, the Australian Goverment believed that pro-Fascist, pro-Nazi or pro-Communist groups could draw inspiration from events in Europe and attack Australian authority from within.
With such fears in mind, the Government introduced nationwide registration of long arms in 1940. This was the first time in the country's history that such a scheme had been implemented. Before the war, most States had not required the registration of long arms, although some had required the licensing of their owners, depending on the particular type of firearm. All States required the registration of handguns and the licensing of their owners.
Having disarmed the aliens and having recorded the particulars of all other firearm owners in Australia, the Government then saw its way clear to seizing civilian owned firearms for use by the Army's reserve units, including the Volunteer Defence Corps (Australia's Home Guard). This process, known as impressment, began in 1941 with the official Rifle Clubs being ordered to turn in their ex-service .303 rifles and sights for Army use. The impressment of firearms was extended to other sporting shooters late in 1941 and stepped up in 1942 following Japan's entry into the war. Thousands of handguns and rifles were taken in as part of the Army's drive to obtain as many serviceable Home Defence weapons as possible. This freed up supplies of the Australian produced No. 1 Mk III Lee-Enfield rifle for front line troops. As with the seizures from aliens, impressment was not limited to firearms but extended to other forms of private property deemed of use to the Commonwealth including land, buildings, industrial equipment and raw or processed materials.
The impressment of firearms petered out later in 1942 as the threat of Japanese invasion receded. For the remainder of the war, officials debated the merits of returning seized firearms to aliens or relaxing the requirements of impressment for the reserves. It was not until 1946 that the emergency powers were rescinded. At that time, most firearms confiscated from aliens were returned to their owners by the police. Firearms impressed by the Army, however, were not returned to their former owners because compensation at prescribed rates had already been paid (or should have been paid - the records are not entirely clear on this point).
At any rate, when the Army Disposals Commission began its work in 1944, the long process of unwinding the huge wartime increases in production and consumption was only just beginning, and would continue for another 20 years. Included among the disposals were unwanted reserve guns such as the civilian firearms impressed during 1941 and 1942.
Police forces around Australia continued to hold some of the seized or surrendered firearms for years after the war because some of the owners could not be traced at their former addresses, and some did not want their old guns back. It was not until 1962 that the Commonwealth Police finally issued instructions to the State police to sell off the remaining guns, dispose of them for parts or cut them up for scrap.
Most civilians were able to continue their shooting activities relatively uninterrupted during the war, simply by going through the bureaucratic process of obtaining licences and permits to retain and use the guns they already owned (so long as they were not subject to impressment). The guns, of course, were of no use without ammunition and all types of ammunition were scarce - particularly 22LR and 12g. Ammunition was obtainable only with a police permit so honesty was the best policy for most shooters, and permits for guns and ammunition were sought and obtained in large numbers.
Nevertheless, many types of rifle, shotgun and handgun were seized or impressed, the total number apparently being in the tens of thousands. They included older .303 service rifles such as Martini-Enfields, Lee-Metfords and Lee-Enfields, plenty of lever action or bolt action repeating rifles such as Winchesters, Marlins, Savages, Remingtons and Mossbergs, and single shot rifles of various kinds. Semi-automatic pistols and revolvers were of interest to the Army, as were shotguns, particularly magazine guns. The preferred calibres in the sporting arms were 22LR, 32-20 and 44-40 for both revolvers and rifles, 38 and 45 in revolvers, and 32, 38 and 45 in semi-automatic pistols. Shotguns were preferred in 12g but other gauges were also taken.
former service rifles are unlikely to have been given additional identification
marks by the Army's inspectors, given that they already bore plenty of military
markings, but all of the sporting firearms were marked with Defence Department
or Military District codes and rack or muster numbers to indicate official use. Where such
firearms came onto the market subsequently, either through Army disposals or by having
been released to the serving members who held them at war's end, these numbers
can help identify the type of service in which the guns were used.
A book about the seizure and impressment of firearms during the Second World War is in preparation. It aims to cast light on this period in the history of Australian armaments by showing how the Government came to the decisions it made, how its functionaries in the police and Army implemented those decisions, and what effect all of this had on Australians in general .
The author would welcome the recollections of any persons who lived through that period because these will add colour to an otherwise dry read of the official records. Also welcome are copies of any surviving photographs which show reserve military personnel with impressed sporting firearms, or other documents which shed light on the subject.
Finally, the author would welcome information about any impressed civilian firearms which have survived. As these will bear wartime impressment markings, good quality photographs could be used to illustrate the range of markings.
If you can assist in any way, please send an email in the first instance to Richard on firstname.lastname@example.org. Based in Canberra, Richard is a member of firearm collecting societies and aims to produce a book which does justice to this largely forgotten chapter in the history of Australian arms.
This page was set up on 3 April 2017. It is hoped that a book can go to print in 2019.