A work in progress - comments welcome  

 

SEIZURE & IMPRESSMENT

FIREARMS CONTROL IN AUSTRALIA DURING WORLD WAR TWO

How a Government disarmed its civilian population during a time of war


 

BACKGROUND


During the Second World War, the Australian Government used its emergency powers to seize firearms from people who were known as "aliens" persons resident in Australia who were not of British descent or Commonwealth citizenship.

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 - initially Germany and Austria but later Italy and Japan and six others - were of special interest on security grounds and were the first to be targeted when it came to restriction of their liberties or, in the case under review, seizure of their firearms, ammunition and explosives. 

Australia was also home to naturalized British subjects who might have been of any nationality at birth. Those whose ancestry lay in countries with which the King was at war 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 Australia's aliens. Seizures from aliens were not limited to firearms but included such things as cameras, radios, maps, bikes, carrier pigeons and cipher equipment. The process stemmed from a belief that some aliens might be plotting subversion or sabotage. During the perilous months when England faced possible invasion, the Australian Government believed that pro-Fascist, pro-Nazi or pro-Communist groups could draw inspiration from events in Europe and attack authority from within. The decision was thus taken in secret to dispossess them of the means of assisting or conducting insurrection.

For the so-called "loyal" population, the Government introduced nationwide registration of long arms. This was the first time in Australia'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 type of firearm. Before the war, all States had required the registration of handguns and the licensing of their owners, and this remained the case, both during and after the war.

Having disarmed aliens and recorded the particulars of all other firearm owners in Australia, the Government turned its attention to calling in 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 mid-1941 when the official Rifle Clubs were ordered to turn in their ex-service .303 rifles and sights. Impressment was extended to other civilian shooters later in 1941 and stepped up in January 1942 following Japan's entry into the war. Thousands of handguns and rifles were impressed in the drive to obtain as many serviceable Home Defence weapons as possible. This was to ensure that the limited supply of No. 1 Mk III Lee-Enfield rifles being produced at Lithgow could go to the front line troops or key defence units in Australia. As with seizures from aliens, impressment was not limited to firearms but extended to other forms of private property including land, buildings, industrial equipment and raw or processed materials. 

While seizures from aliens were carried out without compensation, impressed firearms and ammunition were paid for at officially prescribed rates, meaning that the Army then became the legal owner of these things.

Impressment was a knee-jerk reaction which petered out in mid-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. It was not until 1946 that the wartime emergency powers were rescinded, after which firearms seized from aliens began to be returned to their owners. Firearms impressed by the Army, however, were not returned because compensation at the prescribed rates had been paid. 

An Army Disposals Commission began work in 1944, unwinding the huge wartime increases in production in a process which would take years to complete. Included among the disposals were unwanted reserve firearms, including impressed arms taken during 1941 and 1942. 

The State police continued to hold many seized or surrendered firearms for years after the war. There was a reluctance in some States to return firearms to former enemy aliens and so the work was not a high priority for the police. Some owners could not be traced at their former addresses or had died while others did not want their old guns returned. As a result, returns continued to trickle out through the late 1940s and the 1950s. It was not until 1962 that the Commonwealth Police finally issued instructions to the State police to sell off any remaining firearms, dispose of them for parts or cut them up for scrap.


THE FIREARMS


Most Australian 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 firearms they already owned (so long as they were not subject to impressment). Firearms were of no use without ammunition but all types of ammunition were scarce - particularly 22LR and 12ga. Since ammunition was obtainable only with a police permit, honesty was the best policy for most shooters. Permits for firearms and ammunition were sought and obtained in large numbers. 

Of the vast range of rifles, shotguns and handguns impressed by the Army - some 70,000 in round terms - most of them (about 50,000) were older .303 service rifles such as Martini-Enfields, Lee-Metfords and long or short Lee-Enfields. In addition, roughly 10,000 lever action or bolt action repeating rifles such as Winchesters, Marlins, Savages, Remingtons and Mossbergs were recalled, along with a few single shot rifles taken in a burst of early enthusiasm. That said, the Army was interested only in firearms for which there were good supplies of ammunition. The desired calibres were 22LR, 32-20 and 44-40 for revolvers and rifles; 38 and 45 in revolvers; and 32, 38 and 45 in semi-automatic pistols. About 10,000 handguns - both revolvers and semi-autos - were impressed along with roughly 500 12ga shotguns (mostly double barrel but some single barrel guns which were probably pump action or semi-automatic). 

Impressed former service rifles are unlikely to have received additional identification marks from the Army's inspectors, given that they already bore plenty of military markings, but sporting firearms were given Defence Department markings or Military District codes to indicate official use. Where such firearms came onto the market subsequently, either through Army disposals or by having been released to the servicemen who held them at war's end, the markings can help identify the service or region in which the guns were used.

RESEARCH


A book about the seizure and impressment of firearms in Australia during the Second World War is largely complete. It shows 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.

To help fill out the text, the author would welcome the recollections of persons who lived through that period. Personal memories would add colour to the official account while surviving photographs could show reserve personnel with impressed sporting firearms.

The author would also welcome information about individual firearms. Magazine shotguns which survived the war are unlikely to have survived the buyback of 1996 but impressed sporting rifles and handguns survive in good numbers and photographs of these could illustrate the range of markings.


CONTACT


If you can assist in any way, please send an email in the first instance to Richard Calver on tfmuch@bigpond.com. Based in Canberra, Richard is a member of firearm collecting societies. His aim is 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. 

 

 




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