Gun Running? UK Couple Tried to Bring Rocket Launchers Home From Ukraine

Who hasn’t fibbed a little while coming home from a foreign vacation when asked, “Anything to declare?” Perhaps you bought a few more expensive gifts than you’d like to admit, or perhaps it included some spirits for friends and colleagues. In most cases, getting caught with such items is likely to result in a fine — unless, of course, you attempt something really stupid like Claire Danes in “Brokedown Palace.”

Narcotics smuggling is something many governments rightfully take very seriously, but even bringing home certain historical objects like a sword or antique firearm can be a very serious problem. This is true of firearms that are no longer operative. Military surplus is increasingly becoming a gray area for collectors.

Sometimes people don’t realize it is going to be a problem until they find out the hard way.

Such was a case earlier this summer when a British couple was detained in Calais after declaring a pair of U.S.-made rocket launchers into the UK. Though they didn’t try to smuggle the items into the country, it still caused quite a ruckus!

Anything to Declare? Just a Pair of Rocket Launchers!

The pair had reportedly recovered the two M141 Bunker Defeat Munition (BDM) rocket launchers while doing aid work in Ukraine. The twist in this case was that they weren’t actually trying to hide the fact that they had the items. The couple was asked if they had anything to declare while they were queuing up for the ferry, explained an investigating source.

M141 Rocket Launcher
Who wouldn’t want to bring home something cool like an M141 Rocket Launcher from an overseas trip — it beats a t-shirt or shot glass! (Public Domain)

“The reply from the young couple was a simple yes – they wanted to declare two rocket launchers and other military equipment that they had been given in Ukraine while on a humanitarian mission,” the UK’s Evening Standard newspaper reported.

In addition to the rocket launcher, the couple said they also had 14 bullet casings in the van, as well as the remains of a bulletproof jacket that had been seriously damaged in combat. The so-called “Bunker Busters” were found wrapped in cellophane in the back of their van.

Quite the Declaration and Reaction!

The port immediately declared an emergency and the people were evacuated from the area while a bomb disposal team was scrambled to the port. Official reports noted that the rocket launchers were “decommissioned,” and both were destroyed out of precaution.

However, to those in the know, this could be described as a case of much ado about nothing.

The M141 is a disposable single-shot, shoulder-fired rocket launcher. In other words, once used, it is little more than a plastic tube. The couple had kept the launchers as they represented “symbols of victory” that had been given to them when they were working in Ukraine.

“I’m not a collector,” said one of the defendants, according to the British news outlet. “They were gifts in thanks — symbols of the victory of the Ukrainians, which earned us a lot of trouble at the border.”

His partner in the incident added, “We contacted the English authorities who told us that it was possible to come back with such equipment.”

War Aid

Quantities of M141s were provided to the Ukrainian military by the United States as part of the military aid packages to Kyiv. Along with the FGM-148, and the British-made NLAW, the M141 has been one of the man-portable platforms used to great effect to destroy Russian armored vehicles.

The BDM weapons were first employed in combat when they were used to target the fortified caves during the Tora Bora operations against Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in the fall of 2001 following the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

Ukrainian Soldier with M141 "Bunker Buster"
Ukrainian instructors being trained with M141 Bunker Defeat Munition launchers donated by the USA prior to the 2022 Russian invasion in Ukraine. (Creative Commons)

The M141 is armed with an 83mm rocket that has an effective range from 15 to 1,000 meters. It has seen use in the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. While it is a fire-and-forget platform, it operates on the principle that the recoil created by launching the rocket is counteracted by a “backblast” of gases fired from the rear of the weapon. That makes the M141 inherently dangerous to anyone standing nearby, especially in confined urban areas.

However, in this case, the weapons were for all intents and purposes “empty” as the single rocket had been fired.

It is understandable that precautions were taken, which serves as a warning that trying to carry such items across international borders isn’t advisable. It would seem the due diligence was actually conducted by the couple, but that didn’t seem to matter in the end.

Not an Isolated Incident

This is not the first time that such deactivated military surplus has garnered such media attention.

In late 2012, multiple media outlets, including The Los Angeles Times, reported that two AT4 “rocket launchers” were among the “weapons” turned in as part of a gun buy-back program. The Swedish-made AT4 served as the basis for the M141 — meaning that after being fired, it is essentially little more than an empty plastic tube.

Yet, this serves as a warning that even law enforcement may not understand whether a weapon — especially something as exotic as a rocket launcher — is dangerous or not! Moreover, it was also an example of sensationalist reporting that only served to highlight how little many mainstream reporters know about firearms. A major media outlet essentially failed to do its due diligence and research whether the AT4 posed any dangers.

This AT4 is now just a plastic tube — but it still looks damn cool. (Private Collection)

The paper only noted, “The rocket launchers didn’t have the technical parts it needed to actually discharge a projectile. Neither had rockets with them.”

What was missing from the stories was the fact the AT4 is a single-shot/disposable weapon. Another report about the AT4 and the LAPD’s buyback added, “Police are going to look into whether the U.S. military reported them stolen.”

The Good Old Days

This type of reporting also serves as a reminder that there was a time when returning soldiers from overseas conflicts returned home with all sorts of captured war booty. After the First World War, there were no laws in place as to what soldiers could own and only a few limits on what could be brought back.

Most soldiers coming back from “Over There” probably didn’t have the means to take home an MG08 machine gun, but it likely wouldn’t have served any purpose either. Yet, hundreds and perhaps thousands of such machine guns as well as artillery pieces were brought into the United States by VFW and similar organizations for display. In most cases, little to no effort was even made to deactivate those weapons.

MG08 machine gun
This MG08/15 light machine gun was likely a WWI bring-back. It has been rendered inoperative. (Private Collection)

The passage of the National Firearms Act of 1934 limited what GIs could bring home after the “Big One” — World War II — but there are countless tales of how grandpa didn’t think twice about sneaking home a German MP40 machine pistol or a Japanese Type 11 light machine gun. How some of the firearms actually made it back into the country is simply a mystery, yet it was another time.

There is also the fact that the U.S. government had allowed the returning troops to bring home these “war trophies” or send them back — provided they were rendered inoperative. This is actually where the term “DEWAT” first entered the modern firearms lexicon.

The U.S. government allowed for the civilian ownership of a DEWAT — “Deactivated War Trophy” — via a program that operated from 1945 to 1968. Such non-functional firearms had to be registered but weren’t considered the same as actual NFA items.

As the ATF explained, “Deactivated War Trophy (DEWAT) firearms are still firearms under the NFA, but have been rendered unserviceable (i.e., incapable of discharging a shot by means of an explosive and incapable of being readily restored to a firing condition). The deactivation may have been accomplished by various means such as (but not limited to) welding of the chamber, cutting the barrel/chamber/breech, plugging the barrel, welding the bolt to the chamber, or some combination of these actions which rendered the firearm incapable of firing a shot.”

It added, that regardless of being unserviceable, “the DEWAT firearm must be registered and approved for transfer as any other NFA firearm. The process to transfer a DEWAT is set forth in §479.90. Because the DEWAT is unserviceable, it is transferred tax-exempt as a curio or ornament on an ATF Form 5.”

Whereas even today a fee is needed to transfer a machine gun or other NFA items, DEWATs are essentially tax-exempt.

There have been countless stories of really cool — and potentially valuable — firearms that were brought home after World War II that were never registered. Unfortunately, there is no way to register them as live machine guns, and they can’t even be registered as DEWATs today. Instead, the receivers must be cut or otherwise destroyed — transforming them into so-called “dummy guns” where they can never be made functional again.

The Moral of the Story

The takeaway is that we shouldn’t assume anyone at the border or other ports of entry including international airports has an understanding that firearms (including rocket launchers) can be deactivated or otherwise made inoperable. Nor should we expect law enforcement to know all of the laws of deactivated firearms either.

And of course, we should never expect the mainstream media to understand any of it.

In other words, having an M141 hanging on the wall can be cool — just don’t try to bring one home from Ukraine, Iraq, or even Canada! It isn’t worth the trouble.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers firearms related topics and military history. As a reporter, his work has appeared in dozens of magazines, newspapers, and websites. Among those are The National Interest, Forbes, and many others. He has collected military small arms and military helmets most of his life, and just recently navigated his first NFA transfer to buy his first machine gun. He is co-author of the book A Gallery of Military Headdress, which was published in February 2019. It is his third book on the topic of military hats and helmets.

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