The ATF is part of the US Department of the Treasury. Once the US Constitution was put into place in 1789, the government had the power to tax, and started with imported alcohol and tobacco products. They needed a department to enforce the collection of taxes from people who didn't want to pay. To do this task, Congress created the Office of Internal Revenue on July 1, 1862, which was part of the Department of the Treasury. Until 1886 their duty was the enforcment of tax collection, when the Oleomargarine Act allowed it to have a laboratory to study and investigate evidence.

In 1919 with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment, officers within the office had the new job of investigating criminal violations of the Internal Revenue law, including the illegal manufacture of liquor. Once prohibition was abolished by the Twenty-first Amendment in 1933, the duties for enforcing the ban on alcohol needed to be changed. On March 10, 1934 the ATU (Alcohol Tax Unit) was created within the Bureau of Internal Revenue of the Department of the Treasury to regulate alcohol and enforce taxes.

When the National Firearms Act was passed in 1934, then followed by the Federal Firearms Act in 1938, the enforcment fell to the ATU. The duty came to the ATU because it collected taxes related to firearms, and the regulation of them. With the Bureau of Internal Revenue's reorganization in 1952, it was re-named the IRS (Internal Revenue Service), and the ATU re-designated the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Division). The ATF's laboratory was given responsibility for explosives in 1968 with the Gun Control Act. The Treasury Department Order No. 120-1 on July 1, 1972 transferred the duties related to alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and explosives directly to the ATF from the IRS, creating the department we know today.

Since then, the ATF has been used to reduce violent crimes and collect revenue. Also enforcing regulations related to alcohol, tobacco, firearms, explosives, and arson.