Personal arms played a vital role in the forming of our country. The very idea that a singular human being by the very nature of its existence was justified in using force to preserve that life, and that only tyrannical forms of government would interfere with that process is central to our culture and laws. Firearms carried by individuals, who organized themselves into fighting units not sanctioned by any governmental authority formed the vast majority of warriors who fought in the 8 year long War for Independence. Rifles were central tools to many of the elite warriors known then as “Riflemen”, just as important as the Katana was to the Samurai in feudal Japan. Rifles of the day reflected modern technology which had advanced quite a bit from the era of swords. In recent decades however there has been much controversy in American society over certain firearms referred to as “assault rifles”. There are those that argue for and against restrictions or outlawing ownership of such weapons. While the illegality of any such laws or regulations in these United States is obvious to anyone with a moderate degree of legal or scholarly honesty, what is not clear is what an assault rifle actually is, or what it does. Here are the answers.
The use of the term assault rifle is ubiquitous today in the nationwide debate over restricting or banning certain types of firearms. In some states and municipalities, ownership or possession of firearms that fall under this category are heavily restricted or outright outlawed. To be sure, the exact definition of an assault rifle varies between different governments, agencies, and even individuals. The two distinct features that are common amongst all the various definitions of assault rifles are:
1. Detachable ammunition feeding devices (magazines or clips), and
2. Semi-automatic and/or select fire operation.*
It is interesting to note that these two features have the greatest impact on what makes any firearm suitable for self-defense, namely firepower.
*Different operating types:
Manual operation- A manual action rifle requires the operator to physically operate the action after every shot in order to load a new round into the chamber. Bolt action, lever action, pump action and break action are all examples of manual action rifles.
Semi-automatic operation- A firearm fires one shot each time the trigger is pulled and fully released. A new round is mechanically loaded into the chamber usually by recoil or expended gases.
Fully-automatic operation- When the trigger is depressed the firearm continuously fires rounds and loads the chamber in quick succession as long as the trigger is held down.
Select fire- A firearm that is capable of BOTH semi-automatic operation and fully automatic operation is considered select or selective fire. The desired mode is chosen by the operator through the use of a safety selector or other type of “switch”.
The Importance of Firepower
For American warriors who have lived through the crucible of a small arms fight, we understand that the most important factor in surviving, if not winning a gun fight is firepower. This is due to the training we receive during our service, at our law enforcement academies, and confirmed in hard won experience. To illustrate the importance of firepower, we break down each shot fired into one of three general categories based on the impact of the bullet.
• Shots which are aimed at the enemy, and hit the mark causing a casualty.
• Shots fired at the enemy that miss, cause no casualties, and have no effect on enemy behavior.
• Shots fired that intentionally do not impact upon the enemy (does not cause a casualty), but pin him in his position, or keep him unable to return effective or accurate fire (affecting enemy behavior).
What will surprise the un-blooded amongst us is the fact that the most important of these three is the last. This is what is referred to in military circles as suppressive fire. The idea is this. If you cannot hit the enemy and cause him to become a casualty, continuous fire is placed on his position. This is to restrict the enemy’s ability to effectively fire upon you, and keep him from moving to another position. While the enemy is “pinned down” and afraid to move, one of your buddies is moving to a position where a shot can be placed on the enemy that will cause him to become a casualty. Repeat as necessary. While oversimplified here, mastering this basic tactic wins the vast majority of small arms engagements all over the world. Firepower is so important in fact that in a typical American infantry squad of 13 Soldiers or Marines, 3 of them will be carrying belt-fed machine guns that can fire at a rate of 600 rounds per minute, and fire up to 200 rounds before requiring a reload (assuming the M249 SAW). These three machine guns can put out a large volume of continuous fire that suppresses the enemy and allows the other 10 warriors within the squad use the protective umbrella of suppressive fire to move to positions where they can wound or kill the hostiles.
This is all based on the premise that a small unit engagement goes exactly as planned. The battlefield however is not the faculty lounge or even the tactical operations center. Things rarely go as planned. In my own experience fighting in close urban combat in Iraq, my machine guns did not always end up in the same building or alley as I did. As a result, an individual Rifleman armed with M-16 or M-4 rifles had to provide suppressive fire for other Riflemen similarly armed. Suddenly, semi-automatic operation and thirty round magazines seemed pitifully inadequate. It is even scarier if you are trying to break contact (getting the hell out of there) because you momentarily turn your back to the hostiles while running to gain distance, hoping that your buddies are putting out enough effective suppression so you don’t get shot in the back. It sucks not having a machine gun near. It sucks bad. And it continues to suck until you and your buddies have enough notches under your belt to confidently suppress hostiles during an engagement using only your rifles. Still… having a machine gun or three is nice.
So we have established the modern necessity of superior firepower in a small arms engagement. While all Americans are born with the inherent ability to shoot the wings off a gnat at three miles (please note the sarcasm), it is not accuracy that wins the day. It is firepower. Accuracy helps and can give you a significant edge, but firepower is the determining factor, and when combined with good movement downright deadly. So how did we get here? How did weaponry develop to facilitate the current situation? Let’s start with our first defining feature of an assault rifle, detachable feeding devices such as magazines.
Detachable Feeding Devices
In the spirit of staying on point, we will not cover the entire history of firearms development. In fact to focus on the development of the assault rifle, we will start relatively recent in firearms development. As the 20th century began, the dominant individual infantry weapon worldwide was the bolt action rifle. These arms in many cases were powerful and very accurate especially when using the newly developed pointed bullet. In fact they may have been “overly accurate” due to the fact that they fired large caliber aerodynamic rounds further than the distance an average human being could engage individual enemy targets using iron sights. In most cases, the firearm was loaded by pulling the bolt to the rear, and loading rounds individually into the open action, or using charger or stripper clips to push five rounds at a time into an internal feeding device or internal magazine. A spring inside the rifle would replace an expended cartridge with a new round when the action was manually operated. These rifles that could be loaded with multiple rounds replaced rifles that could only be loaded with one round. Infantry that had say five rounds loaded, as opposed to one, enjoyed a firepower advantage as they only had to operate the bolt between shots. The Lee-Enfield in service with British forces since 1895 actually had an external ten round magazine which gave infantrymen even greater capacity between reloads, further increasing firepower.
The one glaring weakness of the rifle however was in close combat. Rifles of the day were augmented by a bayonet for use in close combat as muskets had been since the heyday of muzzle loaders. Machineguns were too heavy and cumbersome to maneuver with, and as such assaults were conducted by infantry armed with rifles and bayonets and the occasional hand deployed explosive such as a grenade. Casualties were horrendous for an attacker. Even if they made it past the enemy machineguns, storming an enemy trench was dubious with a bolt action rifle and bayonet. To help clear the trenches, several firearm types were tried. Pistols, shotguns, even the outdated lever action rifle in one account was tried in an attempt to increase firepower in close quarters.
This is how the sub machine gun development started during WW1. The sub machine gun was a shoulder fired automatic weapon that used pistol caliber rounds and was fed by magazines. Pistol cartridges caused far less recoil than the powerful rifle rounds found in heavy crew served machine guns. They could be carried in the assault to the enemy position and spray down the defenders in order to give the attacking riflemen a chance to gain a foothold. Not only was there the suppressive effect of automatic fire to consider, but it was much easier to hit an individual enemy in close combat by sending a burst of rounds in his direction. Chances were that some of those rounds would miss, but one or more would hit. This is a much better option than bolt action rifles where firing a single shot that misses, leaves you the option to operate the bolt and try again, or run at your enemy, bayonet fixed like a lobster back charging up Breed’s Hill. WW1 ended before a suitable submachine gun was adopted by any nation.
***Magazines have a spring inside them to force loaded rounds into a chamber. Clips are simple metal brackets that hold rounds together by friction. However a spring in the rifle is what allows loaded clips to feed a rifle action. This is the main distinction between magazines and clips.***
The second but most important feature for an effective fighting rifle to have is semi-automatic operation. This means that each time the trigger is pulled; a single shot would be fired. The rifleman could fire multiple rounds without needing to take his eyes, or sights, off of the target or finger from the trigger. This not only allowed for a higher rate of fire than the bolt action rifle, but efficient follow up shots and quicker target acquisition when multiple enemies appeared.
Enter the M1 Garand into the American Army in WW2. It was the first semi-automatic rifle adopted as a service rifle by any nation in the world. It used a top loading detachable clip that held 8 rounds. Unlike stripper clips which required pressing the rounds off of the clip and into the rifle, the entire en bloc clip was pressed into the rifle along with the ammunition. When the last round was fired, the Garand would also eject the empty clip, making for a fast reload by inserting a new clip. Compare that to the German service rifle, the K98. The K98 was a five shot bolt action and a great rifle in its own right. But the 5 rounds of bolt action were at a serious disadvantage to the 8 rounds of semi-automatic firepower of the Garand. American G.I.’s would face bolt actions through most of the war and posses a firepower advantage that became obvious on both the Allied and Axis sides.
Detachable magazines were in use with semi-automatic pistols, where the overall capacity was demonstrably superior to revolvers. Not to mention speed and ease of reloading. The natural advancement of rifles when it came to reloading would be to replace fully loaded detachable magazine for empty ones as was the practice with pistols. While magazines also had to be loaded one round at a time into the magazine itself, several magazines could be carried into battle already loaded. This idea was manifested in the en bloc clip of the M1 Garand. This eliminated the hand loading, or stripper clip loading during a fight, with simply ejecting the empty magazine and replacing it with a full one. Here we would see another significant jump in the overall firepower of the individual rifleman when coupled with semi-automatic operation.
Semi-automatic operation was not anything new in WW2 although it was new to rifles. Military semi-automatic pistols such as the American 1911 had been used prior even to WW1. Rifles at that time filled a certain “niche” and it was not believed that semi-automatic rifles would be needed for shooting at enemies wandering through no-man’s land at several hundred yards which bolt actions did admirably through WW1. Firepower was to be provided by machine guns, and rifles were meant for precision shots at intermediate or long ranges. Handguns being short range weapons, showed an obvious need to be semi-automatic (or double action in the case of revolvers) to fill that close range niche. The semi-automatic performance and detachable en bloc clips of the M1 Garand on the battlefield would change warfare forever. In true Teutonic fashion, the German military reacted by expanding on that development with an even more revolutionary idea.
The First Assault Rifle
One look at the typical American infantry company during WW2 displayed a motley crew of small arms of various calibers and capacities. Each one had certain tasks in mind. Below are some primary firearms that infantrymen carried and their intended purpose on the battlefield. This diversity of individual arms among infantrymen would remain in place through the Korean conflict.
• M1 Garand service rifle – A .30-06 caliber semi-automatic rifle it was the main firearm issued to frontline American troops that phased out the Springfield 1913 bolt action rifle in the early years of American involvement in WW2 and it proved to be a superior fighting rifle. Its main limitation was the inability to mount a scope directly above the action. As such the Springfield gained new lease as a sniper rifle.
• M1 Carbine – intended as a replacement for the 1911 pistol as a self defense weapon for support troops, it never really phased out the handgun. In fact the 1911 would stay in service until the 1980’s. The M1 Carbine’s .30 caliber pistol style cartridge was considered underpowered and short ranged by many whom had it issued to them, but its semi-automatic action, low recoil and 15 or 30 round magazines could not be discounted from a volume of fire standpoint.
• Thompson submachine gun – When the need for firepower in close combat was identified during WW1, this was the answer the American military adopted in 1938. Already in use by various police departments and the postal service during the prohibition era since its creation in 1921, it was proven to be terribly inaccurate at intermediate ranges but it was devastatingly effective in its close range job with fully automatic operation. It shared the same .45 caliber pistol cartridge that fed the 1911 service pistol, and used 20 or 30 round magazines (some non-military versions could use a 50 round drum magazine). It stayed in service in several variations through the Vietnam War.
The German infantryman had variations in individual weapons as well. This was due to the obvious need for a battle rifle for most engagements, but also the close combat firepower of a submachine gun identified in the trenches of WW1.
• MP40 – The German submachine gun fired 9mm pistol rounds fully automatic and was fed with 32 round magazines. By all accounts it was an effective arm in its close combat role, usually carried by squad leaders leading their rifle squads in the assault. The Americans would imitate it with the grease gun looking for a cheaper alternative to the Thompson.
• K98 service rifle – a venerable rifle in service with German units since 1935, it was accurate and powerful. It was easily convertible to a sniper role with a telescopic scope. It was an internally fed bolt action with a capacity of 5 rounds. German riflemen would quickly learn the firepower advantage that their American counterparts had over them in the semi-automatic M1 Garand.
The Germans were looking to expand the capabilities of the individual infantryman and streamline their logistics. On the western front, the superiority of the M1 Garand over the K98 was obvious. They made an attempt at a semi-automatic battle rifle, the Gewehr 43. It fired the 7.92x57mm round that the K98 fired and had bottom loading 10 round magazines. It was terribly unreliable in combat and only 12,000 were ever made ensuring the bolt action K98 would reign on. However the Battle of Stalingrad on the eastern front taught the Germans a glaring lesson that could no longer be ignored. While the famous Soviet snipers may have helped stall the German advance, it was squads of PPsH 41 wielding communists that drove them back. By outfitting whole units with the Russian sub machinegun, they out gunned German infantry armed primarily with K98 rifles. The bombed out urban ruin that Stalingrad had become negated any range advantage the rifle had over the sub machine gun. The automatic PPsH 41 fed by 50 round drums dominated the bolt action K98’s in the close combat environment of Stalingrad.
The Nazi’s wanted a new infantry weapon which could fill any role that a rifleman could be called on to perform be it combat at close or longer ranges. They wanted to combine the range and power of the rifle with the close combat domination of the submachine gun. This would require a rifle that could fire fully automatic in close combat, but fire semi-automatically like the American M1 for accuracy at longer ranges. The problem was the current 7.92x57mm round used by the K98 was far too powerful to be able to reasonably control recoil in close combat. Conversely the 9mm pistol round of the MP 40 could never hope to effectively reach the longer distances required. Before Germany could complete their new all purpose semi-automatic/automatic service rifle, they needed to develop a new type of rifle round.
Studies drove the designers of the new rifle to conclude that infantry combat typically occurred at ranges of 300-400m and closer. They could now justify doing away with the powerful and high recoil 7.92x57mm round of the K98 that had an effective range of roughly 800m. In fact, the K98 had sight adjustments for distances up to 2000m (1 ¼ miles)! They could develop a smaller rifle cartridge that would retain enough power to engage enemy troops at ranges of 300m, but have manageable recoil during fully automatic fire short range engagements. The answer was the world’s first intermediate rifle cartridge designed for war, the 7.92x33mm. The new rifle would be called the sturmgewehr, literally meaning assault rifle in German.
***Despite the constant claims of warrior rights groups such as the NRA (guns don’t have rights) and individual gun owners that are too ignorant to educate themselves, the so called “anti-gun” lobby did not invent the term assault rifle. They may use the term in an effort to frighten equally ignorant non-gun owners amongst the American population, but it was the German military in the mid 1940’s that invented the assault rifle and named it so. It is a very fitting name, as the reason it stands out from other fighting rifles of the time was that it was designed to be exceedingly effective when assaulting an enemy position due to its unique ability to be fired fully automatic from the shoulder, while still retaining intermediate range capability in semi-automatic operation.***
The StG 44 assault rifle entered WW2 far too late (fortunately) and in limited quantities to make much of an impact on the war itself. It was mostly issued to specialty and elite SS units, and according to most accounts was an effective arm. Some contemporary accounts call into question the killing power of the 7.92x33mm round and it may have been the case. However, the cat was out of the bag so to say, and the sturmgehwer and its design would have unforeseen repercussions that impact modern rifle designs today. In fact, it is the granddaddy of all modern assault rifles.
Assault Rifles Today
If the Sturmgehwer is the granddaddy of today’s assault rifles, the AK-47 is his first born son. Generally speaking different versions of the Soviet story goes that a Russian tanker by the name Mikhail Kalashnikov invented the first assault rifle in history to achieve the status as a nation’s service rifle while fiddling around in a machinist shop. It is widely acknowledged that Kalashnikov’s design borrowed quite liberally from the design of the Sturmgehwer. Not to disparage the Russian tinkerer, he created the most widely used firearm in world history. The AK proved to be robust, simple to operate, and very cheap to manufacture. Having faced and used the AK myself, it certainly fills the role that an increasingly war weary Germany intended for the sturmgehwer. The 7.62x39mm round is a powerful intermediate cartridge with adequate “minute of man” accuracy at several hundred meters while having a considerable but manageable recoil when fired fully automatic. The so called accuracy issues with the AK-47 stem more from a rather primitive leaf sighting system than any other feature. That was probably the point however, the gun intended to be used by masses of minimally trained, but highly indoctrinated communist peasants who would have little time and less inclination to train in marksmanship. Indeed, history shows that firepower trumps accuracy in most cases, despite what your Drill Instructor told you.
Not long after the Korean War where U.S. troops encountered red Chinese armed with AK-47’s, These United States of America introduced the M-14 service rifle to replace the venerable M1 Garand. It was essentially a Garand in a new caliber but had several significant advancements. While it uses a Garand style action, it was fed by a bottom loading 20 round magazine as opposed to the top loading 8 round en bloc clip. It incorporated a flash hider, the first standard muzzle device found on American service rifles. It fired the new NATO 7.62x51mm service round, and was select fire as it had semi-automatic and fully automatic modes. Indeed the defining feature of any assault rifle since their inception has been the ability to select between the two different firing modes.
It was America’s first assault rifle, and it failed in that role. As it turned out, the developers had missed an important key feature that helped define the very first assault rifle. The NATO 7.62x51mm round was and still is a very powerful cartridge. Recent improvements in powder design allowed the new NATO 7.62x51mm comparable ballistics to the .30-06 round of the M1 Garand even though it was overall a “smaller” cartridge. At first this was considered beneficial. All the power of the WW2 .30-06 but in a smaller package. As it turned out, the recoil of an M-14 on fully automatic was nearly impossible to control. It was so bad in fact, that U.S. armorers in the early years of the Vietnam War were ordered to disable the automatic fire mode. The M-14 was no longer an assault rifle and never would be. It was and remains today an excellent rifle in general however. It is still in service with some U.S. units as a designated marksman rifle and in limited other functions such as destroying unexploded ordinance at distance.
During Vietnam, the M-14 would be replaced by the M-16, the longest running service rifle in American military history and the nation’s first successful assault rifle. The adoption of the M-16 has had a controversial and hotly debated history. It was at first adopted by the Air Force for base security forces. It was made largely of polymer and aluminum, as opposed to the wood and steel of the M-14. This in part made for a much lighter rifle, one that was more readily handled by the relatively diminutive South Vietnamese and ethnic tribesmen the Americans were ostensibly there to “advise”. It fired a smaller and less powerful round, the 5.56x45mm. Weighing in at 55 grains, the original 5.56 bullet was significantly smaller than the 148 grain NATO 7.62. It had fully automatic and semi-automatic firing modes as a true assault rifle would. In rushed adoption by the Army and heavily resisted adoption by the Marine Corps leadership it’s 20 round magazines proved fairly unreliable and would not be perfected until decades later. Cleaning kits were initially not issued, and the claim was that the new derisively nicknamed “space rifle” was self cleaning. Powder types used in the 7.62 was used in the 5.56 that caused an excessive amount of fouling in the smaller action and barrel. Combined with the harsh climate of Vietnam, one could see how the M-16 could gain a reputation for unreliability particularly when compared to the occasional AK laying around. The early benefits however were an extremely lightweight rifle, lightweight ammunition allowing individual infantrymen to carry a higher number of rounds through the rugged terrain, and very controllable automatic fire due to the low recoil.
I have a close personal friend and have met several individuals through him that served LRRP’s running missions in Cambodia or Laos. They unanimously agree that the XM-177 or CAR-15 was an outstanding assault rifle for jungle warfare. Designed at the request of SOG, this smaller version of the M-16 had a shortened gas/barrel system and telescoping stock but otherwise functionally identical. It carries on today in different variations as the M-4. The XM-177 was designed to use 30 round magazines which seem to have been in short supply at the time and heavily sought after. Most were fed by the M-16’s 20 round magazines which were compatible. Starting in 1970 the 30 round magazines would eventually phase out all 20 round magazines for both M-16’s and XM-177’s in an effort to match the capacity of the AK 47.
Back to the Debate
So, what is an assault rifle? As intended the assault rifle was designed to fill a particular role on the battlefield. That role was the ability to be an effective fighting arm at intermediate and close ranges which was a new concept for rifles in WW2. This was accomplished by giving a rifle the ability to be fired semi-automatically and accurate out to several hundred meters or fully automatic mode to dominate close quarters battle. This is known today as “select or selective-fire” operation. Any firearm not designed to fire rifle cartridges, or possess select-fire operation is by definition NOT an assault rifle.
This begs the question then. Why are rifles which are designed to be semi-automatic only, and for the civilian market, called assault rifles by today’s legislators? Why do pistol grips, collapsible stocks, or flash hiders suddenly qualify a semi-automatic rifle as an assault weapon? The short answer is they don’t. If you really read most assault weapon legislation carefully you’ll notice an interesting trend. In many cases, even here in New York you are allowed to legally own a rifle with all the “crazy assault weapon features” you like.
Yep, go ahead. Attach a folding stock, muzzle break, pistol grip, forward grip, and a bayonet lug. You can have some or all of those on your rifle as long as you change one of the two features listed at the top of this post. You guessed it, either semi-automatic function, or detachable magazines. You see these two features which are critical to a fighting gun and are the real target. The flash hider’s, pistol grips, and bayonet lugs do very little to make your firearm effective in a real gunfight (comparatively). If your magazine is fixed (welded or pinned) you have a hobby rifle that cannot be seriously considered a defensive firearm and the people who draw up this type of legislation know it. You’ll be pretty good for those first ten rounds. For the rest of the fight you are back down to WW1 technology reloading your rife by inserting one cartridge at a time. The only reason they don’t outright ban semi-automatic function is they want to avoid the avarice of the hunting crowd (for now). Incremental confiscation at its best.
The comparatively innocuous features such as pistol grips and flash hiders can be found on many actual assault rifles and the term “assault” is used to confuse and condemn. Heck, assault is a bad sounding word. In a lot of places it’s a felonious act. The point is to create popular animus through a negative connotation against defensive firearms in the hands of the People. (Personally I think Manslaughter Rifle sounds a lot more evil. But then again my research does not indicate that the Nazi’s ever invented a Manslaughter Rifle.) New firearms restrictions outlaw firearms previously owned and legally used by good law abiding individuals and criminalizes them.
Like former community organizer Sotero once said, “Words mean things.” Indeed they do. I just wonder why a certain rifle in the hands of a citizen is called an “assault rifle” while the exact same model in the trunk of a police cruiser is a “patrol rifle.” To be honest, we know exactly why. It is a means to control and put a spin on the conversation. That is why it is important to educate yourself on the subjects that matter to you. When debating “assault rifles” make sure the people you engage use the correct name or terminology. Do not let others define you, or in this case your tools. Correct them at every turn. It’s very likely that they believe they are talking about assault rifles, but have no idea what one is. It’s doubtful you own one either. If you happen to legally own an assault rifle, congratulations. As a human being living in your natural condition of freedom you should own one if you want one. But it’s more likely that your rifle is semi-automatic only, and regardless of what ignorant people on both sides of the argument seem to insist, it’s not an assault rifle. If you shoot it in competition, a “modern sporting rifle” is far more appropriate. If you use your AR to harvest coyote like we do here in NY it is a “hunting rifle”. If its purpose is to preserve life, “defensive carbine” fits. If you are like me and use it for all of the above, go with “ballistic Leatherman.” I agree that any law-abiding individual of full mental capacity does not need to justify firearm ownership to anyone, least of all an elected government representative. They know better, your “gun license” is called 2A. But when engaged in discussion, use the proper “Words” and control the conversation. The purpose of a semi-automatic rifle is certainly NOT to assault anybody. Don’t let anyone insinuate that it is.
A functional rifle is the best “do all” firearm in life threatening situations where survival calls for the use of a gun. If it’s semi-auto with detachable magazines, you are ready when you can employ it instinctively like an appendage. Amateurs argue hardware, professionals debate software. This means get good training and practice continuously. It is far more important than caliber or model choices.