Towards a Correct Understanding of Assault Rifles

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 11 months ago

The Phoenix New Times reports on “assault rifles” found by hikers in the desert of Arizona, and the three weapons – two SKS’s and an AK-47 – according to the news report, “could have come from almost anywhere, considering the hundreds of gun stores in Arizona that sell such weapons.”  The report is followed by another which again calls the guns “assault rifles.” reports that a man was charged with discharging an AK-47, later citing a witness who saw “what appeared to be a clip connected to an automatic weapon in a back passenger floorboard.”  Without knowing any better, one would be tempted to think that rogue New Yorkers were running around with machine guns given this news report about a recent shooting in the Springfield Gardens area of Queens.  It shows a picture of an AK-47 take from Wikipedia, with the following caption: “The AK-47 is a deadly assault rifle that can fire 10 rounds per second.”

Most main stream media reports concering “assault rifles” and “assault weapons” become badly confused, with terms conflated with other, and with competing (and oftentimes incorrect) terms.  Thus does the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 become important in our discussion.  Among other things, this act banned the sale of machine guns manufactured after the date of enactment to civilians, inflating the cost of fully automatic weapons then in circulation to $10,000 or more (far beyond their actual worth).  For most people, it is cost prohibitive to own a fully automatic weapon, and purchase of one requires registration and approval with the ATF and local law enforcement (oftentimes not granted).

Why is this important?  The answer hinges on the technical, formal, official definition for “assault rifle.”  The correct definition comes from the U.S. Military.

Assault rifles are short, compact, selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between submachinegun and rifle cartridges … Assault rifles have mild recoil characteristics and, because of this, are capable of delivering effective full-automatic fire at ranges up to 300 meters.

When understanding the phrase “assault rifle,” one needs to imagine U.S. Marine Corps squad rushes; the fire team member using the Squad Automatic Weapon fires area suppressing fire while the other three fire team members run forward.  After a certain distance has been covered, the three Marines carrying the M4s or M16s go prone and lay down suppressing fire with their rifles (capable of selective fire) while the SAW gunner runs forward, goes prone, and then the rush continues in like manner until the enemy position has been assaulted and overrun.

So assault rifles have at least three characteristics: (1) capable of selective fire (which includes fully automatic fire), (2) fire an intermediate cartridge,  and (3) mild recoil.  My Rock Rivers Arms rifle has two of the three characteristics, and so it is not an assault rifle.  The confused phrase “assault weapon” pertains to weapons that were banned and later allowed because of the sunset provision on September 13, 2004, and have to do with weapons that look scary because they have collapsible (or telescoping) stocks, forend grips, high capacity magazines, and so forth.  The expiration of the assault weapons ban doesn’t have any affect on the continued ban on fully automatic weapons in the Firearm Owners Protection Act.

The phrases “assault rifle” and “assault weapon” (now a defunct and outdated definition) are used interchangeably in the main stream media, and sloppiness is to blame, even if firearms owners refer to their weapons as ARs (AR is shorthand for ARmalite).  One humorous example refers to .50 caliber assault rifles, a contradiction in terms and an impossibility.

But not all media is as ignorant or reluctant to be precise as the dozens of examples I find daily.  For one such report headlined with the phrase assault rifle, I contacted the author, Jessica Schrader, with the following note.


I am a gun rights and second amendment blogger.  I strongly suspect that the use of an “assault rifle” is incorrect (to fully meet the definition of “assault rifle” it must be capable of select(ive) fire, which includes fully automatic fire).  The phrase “assault weapon” is purely a political definition, and went out when the federal “assault weapons” ban … because of the sunset provision on September 13, 2004.  It pertains mostly to weapons that look “scary,” not to fully automatic weapons.
I strongly suspect that the shooting was done with a semi-automatic rifle of some kind, of which there are 50 million plus in the U.S.  Can you confirm that a semi-automatic rifle was used, or was it in actual fact a machine gun capable of fully automatic fire?  The wording in the headline may have been a function of sloppy police department communications, so I am not attempting to place blame on anyone, just get to the facts.

To which she responded:

Thanks for your note. That is a good point- actually, in the follow up we published yesterday, police used the term semi-automatic. We will update the other one. Thanks again!

So even though the police are sometimes to blame for sloppy word usage, they occasionally get it right too.  We may not ever win the battle, but words mean something, and it’s important to be precise.  Jessica Schrader knows this and serves as an example for how the rest of the main stream media should cover the facts.

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  1. On July 20, 2012 at 11:46 am, Lina Inverse said:

    A couple of quibbles:

    Whatever the official definition or history, before and even after Stockton, we, as in the shooting community, used the term “assault rifle” to describe the semi-automatic versions of true assault rifles we tended to buy (even if not for the Hughes amendment in the FOPA, buying full autos is still a dangerous bureaucratic hassle, and using them full-auto is expensive).

    Also, not everyone accepted the standard definition of assault rifle. In ’57 the Swiss adopted a battle rifle, or at 12.6 pounds dry, perhaps more accurately a machine rifle, firing their traditional full power battle rifle cartridge. It was named the Fusil d’ Assaut 57 in French (fusil is of course rifle) and Sturmgewehr 57 in German. That’s literally “storm rifle”, using exactly the same word used for the Nazi StG 44, considered to be the first modern assault rifle.

    Which brings up the point, if even we. or a nation of riflemen/Switzerland doesn’t have an army, it is an army, aren’t rigorous in our use of the term, how can we expect the press to be. Which of course doesn’t excuse their sometimes deliberate conflation of full with semi-auto, or their insistence these are “high power” rifles, e.g. using the footage of a watermelon shot with a JHP police pistol round after the FMJ rounds out of an “AK-47” failed to do anything dramatic.

    Although, with the re-norming of guns in society, there’s a bit of hope, but the media gets so much wrong even when they’re trying not to, it’s not much of a hope.

  2. On July 20, 2012 at 12:17 pm, Dave Hardy said:

    The very core of the “assault rifle” concept was to drop power by about half — from around 2,000 ft/lb to about 1,000 — which made it possible to fire it full auto and keep control of the gun.

  3. On July 20, 2012 at 1:44 pm, Lina Inverse said:

    I thought the core was handiness and controllable under full auto, which the Germans approached with a reduced power cartridge and a straight line layout (the top of the stock is even or a bit above the line of the barrel).

    Maybe the Swiss were shooting for the latter (pardon the pun) when they kept their battle rifle cartridge, came very close to adopting the straight line layout, and bulked the gun up to 12.6 pounds? The barrel shroud has been criticized as bad for avoiding corrosion in the field; in all sorts of ways the Stgw 57 and the previous straight pull bolt-action rifles signaled they didn’t have an expeditionary army.

  4. On July 20, 2012 at 1:48 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    Well, we have the full 7.62 mm with the M-14, but of course as we know that was replaced by the 5.56.

    I have shot fully automatic weapons as I suspect many of readers have. I would far rather shoot the 5.56 in order to maintain control.

    And Dave, exactly right! Although I suspect you meant to say 2000 ft-lb rather than 2000 ft/lb,

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You are currently reading "Towards a Correct Understanding of Assault Rifles", entry #8772 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) AR-15s,Firearms,Guns and was published July 20th, 2012 by Herschel Smith.

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