Film armourer loses appeal over readily convertible MP40

14 April 2016 – A film and TV armourer has lost his appeal against being found guilty of possessing a blank-firing replica MP40 converted to fire live ammunition.

Paul Derek Heddell, 52, of Bradcar Road, Attleborough, Norfolk, a director of PDH Enterprises Ltd, was found guilty in May last year of possessing a prohibited firearm: an MP40 sub-machine gun replica made by the Model Gun Company of Japan and converted into a top venting blank firer.

In October a judge at Norwich Crown court handed down the mandatory five year sentence.

Heddell appealed against the firearms conviction and his case was heard today at the Royal Courts of Justice.

Dismissing the appeal, Lord Justice Treacy said: “It was always accepted on behalf of the appellant that the issue as to whether this was a firearm or an imitation firearm was a matter of fact and degree which had to be resolved by the jury on the evidence put before it.”

The original trial

Heddell was originally arrested at home after police obtained a search warrant for his house. The MP40 was one of several other replica firearms seized, none of which were said to have been illegal. He told police he bought the MP40 at a militaria fair for £800 as a blank firer. Under interrogation, he said he had not inspected the MP40 closely because stamps on it clearly indicated it was a blank firer.

At Heddell’s trial, the prosecution’s firearms expert, a Mr Horne, described the modifications carried out to the MP40. Lord Justice Treacy summarised them:

Originally the barrel had been blocked off and had been solid. The replica had had its
original components substituted with properly machined components by somebody with knowledge and skill. An imitation bolt had been replaced with a genuine bolt; a genuine firing pin had been fitted; a steel chamber had been installed; a hole had been drilled through the chamber and what remained of the barrel to enable the replica to fire live ammunition. The replica had been test fired using gel which had simulated human flesh and it had penetrated the gel by, in some instances, over 14 inches. A temporary steel bolt had been screwed into a threaded hole in the steel chamber. That had disabled the weapon but it could be removed easily. The effect of this was that the steel chamber had been turned into a short barrel. It was conceded that vent holes had made the replica less efficient, but that had not altered the nature of the weapon. The conversion had been permanent, had changed the nature of the replica and it had been capable of discharging live ammunition.

Heddell denied any knowledge of the modifications to the MP40 and said, in his police interview, that he did not commission them either. He did not give evidence at his trial.

His defence team said in court that the MP40 was a replica and so Heddell should have been able to plead the defence at section 1(5) of the Firearms Act 1982 – namely, that he did not know and had no reason to suspect that the MP40 was a readily convertible imitation firearm. The defence’s firearms expert, a Mr Dyson, said in his opinion the MP40 was clearly an imitation firearm, while acknowledging that the only work needed to convert it into a live firearm would be to remove the bolt, or screw, in the chamber.

In contrast, the prosecution said that the MP40 was clearly a firearm and so the “I didn’t know it was a convertible replica” defence should be withheld from Heddell. Their position was that the screw in the chamber was not something where its removal would count as doing work to convert the MP40 from a replica into a live firearm. This would mean that the trial’s main question should be whether Heddell had had possession of a prohibited weapon, and not whether it was a readily convertible imitation firearm.

The prosecution refused to allow a charge under the Firearms Act 1982 of possessing a readily convertible imitation firearm to be added to the indictment, meaning that Heddell did not have a chance to plead the “I didn’t know it was a convertible replica” defence during the trial – or to have evidence shown to the jury that he did not know the MP40 was convertible. The Crown justified this by saying that section 5 offences are strict liability, and so the ease of conversion was irrelevant.

The trial judge, while summing up the case to the jury, told them that if they thought the MP40 was an imitation, they were to find Heddell not guilty. If, on the other hand, they agreed with the Crown’s prosecutors that it was a firearm, they were to find him guilty. The judge added that the MP40 “did not require adaptation but merely the removal of a temporary disablement.”

During their retirement to consider their verdict, the jury asked for copies of the 1968 and 1982 Acts. The judge refused, but explained section 57 of the Firearms Act 1968 (definition of a firearm – a lethal barrelled weapon from which a shot, bullet or other missile can be discharged) – and, after prompting from Heddell’s lawyers, he also reminded them of section 1(5) of the 1982 Act; the “I didn’t know it was a convertible replica” defence. At the same time, the judge also reminded the jury of the prosecution and defence’s differing views on the status of the MP40.

The jury found Heddell guilty.

The appeal

The appeal was on four grounds: that the judge incorrectly ruled that the 1982 Act didn’t apply; that the judge did not let the jury determine whether the MP40 was a firearm or an imitation; that the judge’s directions to the jury were unbalanced; and that the judge may have confused the jury after answering a question of theirs.

Heddell’s legal team said that the issue of whether the MP40 was a firearm or a replica was a question of fact, which should have been left for the jury to decide. In their view, the jury had been robbed of the chance to decide that for themselves because of the Crown’s assertion that the MP40 was a live firearm. Lord Justice Treacy said, in his appeal judgment, that the Crown’s position was that “the readily removable bolt merely disabled an item which was a firearm.”

“Although it is clear that in discussion with counsel in the absence of the jury the judge favoured the Crown’s argument,” wrote Lord Justice Treacy, “he did not withdraw the issue from the jury or rule that the 1982 Act did not apply to this case. The terms in which he summed the matter up clearly highlighted the distinction between the two cases advanced.”

“The jury could only convict if it was sure of the case advanced by the Crown, and took the view that the need for the removal of the steel bolt did not in realistic terms mean that the item could not be discharged or that it remained an imitation firearm,” added Lord Justice Treacy as he dismissed Heddell’s appeal.

A PDF copy of the judgment is available via the Crimeline website.

Inert explosive that wasn’t

The delay in sentencing Heddell for possession of the MP40 was apparently due to another prosecution against him, after a supposedly inert thunderflash he sold at the War and Peace Revival Show in 2013 went off in a woman’s hand, after the woman tried to dismantle it, causing her to lose the tip of a finger. Heddell later admitted storing 73kgs of explosive without a licence and being in breach of his duty of care to customers. He was sentenced to 6 months in prison and ordered to pay £5,000 in court costs.

The Wymondham and Attleborough Mercury newspaper reported, at the end of Heddell’s original trial, that Heddell had previous criminal convictions, including one for possessing a prohibited firearm, from the years 1988, 1991 and 2005.

UK Shooting News also found a forum post from 2011, advertising a pyrotechnics course being run by Heddell. Forum users said he was a “top bloke [who] really knows what he is talking about” and a “very well known and respected man within our fraternity”.

PDH Enterprises’ website is still live and advertising a variety of inert ordnance, though it is not clear whether the company is still functioning under new management or not.

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4 thoughts on “Film armourer loses appeal over readily convertible MP40

  1. Giles

    This was absolutely the right result. If we want to keep our hobby then anyone who deviates needs to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

    I also trust they tracked down the person who sold him the Firearm and sent them down.

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  2. commonlycalledcosmin

    As they say play stupid games, win stupid prizes. While I don’t think that the gun should be considered a firearm in my opinion the law says otherwise and his previous convictions on prohibited firearm possession probably also played a part when the jury had decided to return a guilty verdict. It seems the guy had made it his life mission to break the law when it came to so called “deactivated firearms”.

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  3. James Laudery

    You can hacksaw off the barrel of any blank firer in front of the blockage and technically it would be the same thing. It will fail to firer automatically and won’t be of any practical use as there will be no pressure build up. Not exactly a danger to society.

    At the end of the day this is all useless semantics. You can make a perfectly reliable shotgun with two pieces of pipe, an end cap and a nail for £5 worth of fittings from B&Q.

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