Guns On Board

A “real world” look at the issue of carrying firearms on your vessel

This article is about the practicalities of carrying a firearm aboard a vessel. We respect other’s opinions and beliefs, and we fully realize that not all vessel owners and operators have a desire or need to possess a firearm. We don’t want to engage in any type of gun control debate here. If you desire to own a firearm for personal protection and vessel defense, and the law allows you to do so, then this article will provide you with some useful information.

The information in this article applies to both pleasure and commercial craft. This article is by no means a complete discussion of the matter and should not be used as the sole basis for deciding to possess and carry a firearm onboard a vessel.

The opinions stated in this article are based on the culmination of 25+ years of personal hands on experience gathered in actual law enforcement and military combat situations by the members of This article is not based on “arm chair” opinions formed through speculation and influenced by the fiction and fantasy of novels, movies, and television shows.

When dealing with serious items such as firearms, you are best served by getting your information from professionally established experts, not from self titled “experts” or hobbyists…the kind you might run into at a gun show. Seek out a qualified firearms instructor for specific and accurate information.

To carry or not to carry
The question always arises: “should I carry a firearm aboard my boat for personal protection?” This subject has caused many a heated debate among mariners. The issue can actually be very simple if you are a mariner who cruises in only one jurisdiction, such as the coastal waters of your home state. If this is the case, follow these steps:

Step 1: Research the local laws and regulations regarding the possession firearms. Ask a law enforcement officer if you are unsure of a particular law.

Step 2: Obtain formal training and education in the handling and employment of a firearm, to include a thorough understanding of “deadly force” issues. Those that think the mere possession of a firearm provides an increase in security are ignorant. Without proper education and training, the firearm is a liability, not an enhancement to security.

Final Step: Select a suitable firearm that you are comfortable with and can operate without an owners manual!

Sounds simple, but, if you are a mariner who: a) travels to more than one local jurisdiction, and b) frequently cruises near, through, or within the territorial waters of another nation, you have a much bigger dilemma.

Crossing borders
Each state and each nation has it’s own legal restrictions on the purchase, possession, and storage of firearms. Many of these laws are very stringent with severe penalties for infractions. If you plan to cruise in the Caribbean, you may travel through the territorial waters of 5 or 6 (or more) independent nations in the course of a few days or weeks. Prior research on the firearm regulations within your designated cruising area should be a mandatory part of your pre-voyage planning.

It would be impossible to list all the various laws and regulations from various nations here. Your best source is to contact local and state authorities, and the consulates of the nations you intend to include in your itinerary. Ask them for verifiable information on firearms laws for cruising vessels. DO NOT rely solely on the information reported in “cruising guides”. The information can be outdated, wrong, or dangerously misleading.

There are special dispensations for the carriage of firearms aboard certain commercial vessels. Due to security considerations I will not elaborate on this subject in this article. Vessel masters are encouraged to contact local Customs officials to fully explore these options.

Will your “armed protection” result in increased risk?
It all comes down to a matter of risk doesn’t it? Because we all know that some who desire to carry a firearm aboard will do so even where the laws prohibit it. It is their choice and they have weighed the risks…or have they?

Consider this… a vessel with no firearms aboard, cruising in an area that prohibits firearms, is at risk only from the natural and criminal elements in the particular locale. Yet a vessel that has a firearm aboard in an area that prohibits firearms is at risk from natural, criminal, and law enforcement elements. Your effort to protect your vessel with a firearm has just INCREASED the level of risk to the vessel and crew significantly because you are now breaking the law. Prison terms, vessel seizure, and extreme fines are now added to the list of potential “dangers”. You will have to decide which course of action to take and only you will know if it is worth the risk!

Choosing the right firearm
A 12-gauge pump action shotgun with a barrel length of approx. 22″ or less, and constructed of stainless steel or finished with a corrosion resistant coating can be considered the perfect vessel defense firearm. This firearm is easy to maintain, rarely malfunctions and can engage targets at stand-off ranges to 100 yards using rifled slugs. It can safely engage attackers within the confines of a vessel without the danger of round “over penetration” when using shells of #4 Buckshot or smaller.

The visual psychological factor of a full size shotgun and the audible psychological factor of the distinct sound made when “racking” a shell into the chamber offers a powerful deterrent. There are numerous cases where vessel operators were prepared to engage attackers yet the attackers fled when they saw or “heard” the shotgun. This is not always the case but it makes a very good argument. The deterrence factor of a shotgun is not unfounded and many people can attest to the fact that the concept works and saves lives.

Let’s not forget a key point of personal security: Deterrence is always a better result as opposed to a gunfight.

A minor drawback of a shotgun is its size, specifically it’s overall length. The close quarters aboard a vessel may limit maneuverability and employment. This issue can be mitigated with a folding stock. Do not be tempted by a pistol grip in place of a folding or fixed stock. Unless you are well trained with it, you will not be able to accurately aim and control a shotgun with only a pistol grip. In any event, a shotgun with an 18″ barrel and full length stock can be managed on most vessels.

Another good reason for a shotgun is that they are more widely accepted in various locales as compared to pistols and rifles. Shotguns normally do not conjure up sinister images in the eyes of law enforcement officials when they are declared or presented (stay away from military style “combat” shotguns).

Black guns
Those impressive semi-automatic rifles (some call them assault rifles…many are black in color) with high capacity magazines are certainly very capable of defending you and your vessel. The problem with them is that they can cause undue law enforcement scrutiny (even in areas where firearm laws are very relaxed) just because of their looks and reputations.

Another problem is the potential for round “over penetration” and excessive ammunition range. A errant round discharged in the confines of a vessel can penetrate many fiberglass, wood, and even aluminum bulkheads and decks. This can cause machinery damage and in the worst case injury to your crew.

Sure, they can reach out and touch someone at 200, 300 or 400 yards, but can you ever justify shooting at someone at that range? Doubtful! Folks we are talking about personal and vessel defense, not ship to ship combat. If you have a semi-automatic rifle and are proficient in its use, fine. But consider a shotgun for the obvious reasons.

Besides, it is easier to practice and train with a shotgun where you only need a few hundred yards of open water or space as opposed to a high powered rifle where you need miles of clear space or armored backdrops. You were going to train and practice weren’t you?

Just for reference, the best rifle calibers for vessel defense: 7.62mm (.30 cal) 5.56mm (.223 cal). A mini-14 in 5.56mm is a good choice as these rifles can be obtained with wooden stocks and look more like a sporting or hunting firearm as opposed to a military weapon.

Easy to conceal and easy to employ in close quarters; main drawbacks are their limited stopping power and (in some cases) their difficulty to master. Handguns are subject to more regulations and control in almost every location abroad.

Semi-automatics and revolvers are equally capable defensive tools in the hands of a skilled used. It is your choice. Minimum acceptable caliber is .38 cal or 9mm.

Train and practice often, repeat, train and practice often.

Choose stainless steel or polymer construction when possible. Clean and lubricate often, repeat, clean and lubricate often.

Deadly Force Legally Defined
The following definitions and statutory extracts are taken from the Florida Statutes. They may vary slightly in different locales but remain a good representation of worldwide definitions.

Deadly force defined:

(1) The term “deadly force” means force that is likely to cause death or great bodily harm and includes, but is not limited to:

(a) The firing of a firearm in the direction of the person to be arrested, even though no intent exists to kill or inflict great bodily harm; and

(b) The firing of a firearm at a vehicle in which the person to be arrested is riding.

Use of force in defense of a person: A person is justified in the use of force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against such other’s imminent use of unlawful force. However, the person is justified in the use of deadly force only if he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.

Use of force in defense of others: A person is justified in the use of force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to prevent or terminate such other’s trespass on, or other tortious or criminal interference with, either real property other than a dwelling or personal property, lawfully in his or her possession or in the possession of another who is a member of his or her immediate family or household or of a person whose property he or she has a legal duty to protect. However, the person is justified in the use of deadly force only if he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.

Forcible felony: “Forcible felony” means treason; murder; manslaughter; sexual battery; carjacking; home-invasion robbery; robbery; burglary; arson; kidnapping; aggravated assault; aggravated battery; aggravated stalking; aircraft piracy; unlawful throwing, placing, or discharging of a destructive device or bomb; and any other felony which involves the use or threat of physical force or violence against any individual.

Survival Mindset.
You have armed yourself with a few tools and some knowledge to provide for an increase in the security of your vessel and the persons aboard it. The final question that remains is whether or not you can “pull the trigger” when the time comes.

We sincerely hope that no person ever has to experience this dilemma, BUT, if you do, the deciding factor in your survival will be your ability to act or react without hesitation. The person who draws a gun, but cannot use it, is the person who should have never had possession of a gun in the first place. Because by drawing or presenting the firearm, you have just stepped into the arena as a combatant and there usually is no turning back.

An ideal scenario will have the attackers immediately turn tail and run, but that should not be why you presented the firearm. The firearm should only be presented when you are committed to using it as a tool of deadly force. It is not a “scare tactic” and any deterrence is a passive but welcomed side effect.

Remember this: You cannot stop the flight of a bullet once it has been fired from the gun. It is a point of no return when the hammer falls. The impact of the bullet in its target will be its termination of flight. Be sure of why you are shooting, and be sure of your target!

A good rule of thumb is “if you have to think about pulling the trigger…you probably should not be pulling the trigger”.

A survival mindset will help you win an armed confrontation, and it may be the deciding factor in your survival. Think about it! Your mind is your best weapon, don’t forget it!

Safety is paramount and it is the single most important issue surrounding the handling of firearms. We are addressing safety last in this case, so it will remain fresh in your mind when you finish this article.

Each and every firearm that you keep aboard must be secured from unauthorized access,especially if you have children present.

No person should ever handle or shoot a firearm without first receiving some form of formal instruction. Formal instruction does not consist of a few hours of shooting with friends or weekend range warriors, and those $45.00 concealed weapons classes are only designed to get you a CCW license, nothing else. You cannot buy quality firearms instruction for $45.00, but you can get enough info to apply for a CCW license.

Defensive firearms instruction involves safety, marksmanship, and tactical training. It mustcome from a certified or licensed professional instructor. Your “buddy” who spent 10 years in the military may be an excellent shooter, but he may not have any idea or information on current deadly force issues and legalities. So save yourself some grief and seek out professional instruction.

Gun safety rules must be understood and applied in all situations involving firearms.The three fundamental rules of gun safety must always be applied simultaneously when handling or using a gun:

1. Always keep the gun unloaded until ready to use.

2. Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.

3. Always keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.

The following gun safety rules should also be observed when using or storing a gun:

– Know your target and what is beyond.

– Be sure the gun is safe to operate.

– Know how to use the gun safely.

– Use only the correct ammunition for your gun.

– Wear hearing and eye protection as appropriate.

– Never use alcohol or drugs before or while shooting.

– Store guns so they are not accessible to unauthorized persons.

For more information on gun safety, visit the National Rifle Association site. We do not endorse all the views of the NRA, but we are in complete agreement with their views on gun safety.

We welcome your comments and input regarding this article. Please contact us via our contact page.