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  • Writer's pictureT. Logan Metesh

Unfortunate Fate of a Vickers Machine Gun

Updated: Oct 10, 2020

"Vickers WWI gun bought for £1k 'now worth nothing'"

That's the title of this article on BBC News from June 9, 2019. Of course, anyone who knows even the slightest bit about historic firearms read that headline and let out a collective, "What!?! How could that be!?!"

Adopted in 1912, the water-cooled Vickers machine gun earned the nickname of the "Devil's Paintbrush" because of the efficiency with which it dispatched the enemy on the fields of battle.

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British soldiers wearing gas masks firing a Vickers during the battle of the Somme, July 1916

The gun was heavy, weighing 30 pounds unloaded of both a 250-round ammo belt and the water needed in the cooling jacket. The water alone added an extra 10 pounds. The tripod weighed another 40 pounds or so.

Over its lifetime, the gun has had numerous variants and has seen service in a wide variety of conflicts with an equally wide variety of soldiers. It was a standard British weapon until 1968, serving them faithfully for 56 years.

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Canadian soldiers training with the Vickers, 1942

Having just commemorated the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One in November 2018, history buffs the world over have been knee-deep in all-things WWI-related since June 2014. That has led to a rise in interest in WWI firearms and has driven the prices for collectible pieces - and the Vickers machine gun is certainly collectible! - to new heights ... so how could it be worth nothing?

Well, the answer lies with Robert Tilney, who is a firearms expert for the British version of the Antiques Roadshow program on TV. More specifically, the answer lies with one word: British.

Photo courtesy BBC News

The gun was purchased some 20 years ago when the Ministry of Defence started selling them off as surplus. John Needham, the 73-year-old gun's owner, snagged one thinking (correctly) that they would go up in value.

Unfortunately, what should have been a slam dunk return on his £1,000 investment, firearms expert Tilney told him it was worthless because it was "not up to the current deactivation standard." Moreover, "you can't even give it to somebody." That's because the Police and Crime Act of 2017 forbids the sale, swap, gifting or inheritance of any firearms deactivated before April 2016 within the European Union.

Photo courtesy BBC News

To what level the gun has been deactivated is unclear, but the result is clear: because this relic of WWI hasn't been properly deactivated (that's an oxymoron if there ever was one), the gun's place in history ends - to be blunt here - when John Needham's place in history ends. For reference, the life expectancy of a British male is just shy of 81 years, so they may both only be around for another 8 years or so.

The fate of that gun would be different here in the United States. If it were properly registered, the gun could remain fully functional and could sell for tens of thousands of dollars. If not properly registered, it could be turned over to a government-run museum or deactivated and remain in private ownership.

Unfortunately, that's not an option for our neighbors across the pond. After John is gone, the gun will have to be completely destroyed because of the PCA of 2017, and history will have one less artifact.

The only hope is for the law to change between now and whenever John passes away, and hope does spring eternal, right?

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