What is an assault rifle?

… And why are ‘liberal’ attempts to ban them so peculiar?

There is a lot of confusion, among people who are not very familiar with guns, about what an assault rifle is. Even among legislators, there is a lot of confusion about this. For example, some states define any rifle with a pistol grip as being an assault rifle – but many sniper rifles have pistol grips, and are clearly not assault rifles (e.g. the Cheytac Intervention, Dragunov SVU, PSG 1, WA2000, and even many which do not have ‘pistol grips,’ but which effectively allow a pistol grip). Others claim that assault rifles are particularly powerful rifles – which is, as we will see, completely untrue. For example, ‘liberal’ politicians love to argue that ‘assault rifles’ are ‘too powerful’ for citizens (even though the Second Amendment clearly protects military-grade small arms). But, even if you don’t think the second amendment protects military-grade small arms – well, assault rifles are not powerful! In fact, regular rifles are more powerful than assault rifles, and sniper rifles have the same ergonomics as assault rifles, in many cases (and sniper rifles are basically used as hunting rifles).

So, I want to briefly say what an assault rifle is, from a combat perspective. By ‘combat,’ I mean both a military and a self-defence perspective.

To understand what an assault rifle is, we should really talk for a moment about the development of small arms, historically. During Napoleonic times, muzzle-loaders were the norm for military use. Most of these were smooth-bore, but some had rifled bores, which increased the accuracy of their projectiles, but made muzzle-loading much harder. However, a few decades later, breech loaders were introduced, along with the widespread use of ‘cartridges’ (combinations of propellant and bullet which could be loaded in a single step, rather than being loaded separately). This meant that first, rifling no longer made it harder to load a gun, and second, it was possible to load much more quickly. Therefore, the need to worry about the bayonet as a defence against cavalry was alleviated, since now, soldiers could basically mow down cavalry before they could close distance, with their higher rate of fire.

It also meant that infantry combat would be changed forever. However, the basic goal which militaries chose to pursue was to have guns for their front-line infantry which had longer ranges. Thus, rifle cartridges used large bullets with huge propellant charges. As an example, the German K98k, used up through WWII, had sights which were able to reach out to 2000m (roughly 1.25 miles!).

Of course, these rifles were not accurate out to these ranges, if the shooter were trying to hit a human-sized target, but during musket warfare, hitting a single target was not the goal, because soldiers fought in large formations. If trying to hit a large mass of soldiers, as had been common during the musket-era of warfare, then it could make sense to try to hit a mass of targets out at 2000 meters. Having a line of soldiers try to hit another line of soldiers (where ‘line of soldiers’ is understood as the formation used in the Napoleonic times) at 2 km could, potentially, make a lot of sense.

At the same time, another type of weapon was developed. There was a need for a small weapon that could be easily stowed in a tiny holster, for people who were unlikely to need to shoot it, but who needed close-range self-defence. This became the pistol. But in order to use a tiny, hand-held weapon, it was necessary to use a lighter bullet, and less weight, because in a hand-held weapon, it was not possible to brace the weapon effectively while firing a large projectile with a lot of force. So, there was a parallel development: rifle bullets in rifle cartridges, which were heavy bullets with lots of propellant, which had a lot of kick when fired, and pistol bullets in pistol cartridges, which had smaller bullets with a lot less propellant. Now, the pistol bullets could be wider in caliber than rifle bullets, but they were generally lighter, and certainly they had a lot less propellant. So, for example, the Colt 1911 fired a .45 caliber bullet, while the M1 Garand rifle fired a .30 caliber bullet, but the caliber of a bullet is just a measure of the width. The pistol cartridges had only a small amount of powder, because they were designed for use in pistols. And in a pistol, the weapon was very light, and the shooter had no good way to brace the gun, so if the shooter was to have any level of accuracy at all, it was necessary to use a small amount of propellant, to minimize the kick.

Meanwhile, the idea of automatic weapons was developed. Machine guns fired the same cartridges as rifles (or, in some cases later on, they fired even larger cartridges; in WWII, light and medium machine guns fired rifle cartridges, but heavy MGs fired larger cartridges), but were far too powerful to be controlled when firing from the shoulder (the Browning Automatic Rifle, and the Bren gun, were intended to be fired from the shoulder as well as from a braced position, but in practice, this was found to be not useful). The power of the cartridge would make the weapon bounce around in a way that they could not be controlled without setting them down on a bipod, or even stabilizing them on a tripod.

WWI showed that there was a need for automatic weapons that could be fired from the shoulder or hip. The immediate solution was the submachine gun (which has, in modern times, been replaced by the ‘Personal Defence Weapon,’ PDW). This was an automatic gun, generally with a short barrel, which would fire pistol cartridges. However, in order to have any kind of ability to deal aimed fire, even at short distances, these guns needed a brace against the shoulder – even if their barrel was the same as a regular pistol. Thus, sub-machineguns, and ‘machine pistols,’ were developed, which fired pistol rounds, from guns that had shoulder braces. This was fine as far as it went, when dealing with short-range combat, but it meant that the projectiles were fairly weak. They were only really useful out to 50-100 meters, and they had limited ‘stopping power.’ For this reason, most soldiers continued to be equipped with rifles without automatic capabilities (either bolt-action or semi-automatic). But rifles had a problem: each time you fired them, they would bounce around so much that it was very hard to take a second shot without taking the time to acquire your aim again. This meant giving them an automatic feature was not very useful, because even if firing in automatic, your shots would be so inaccurate, they would be nearly useless. So, going into WWII, militaries gave one soldier in each eight-to-ten person squad a light machine gun, and everyone else a rifle, which was either bolt-action or semi-automatic.

Now, one thing which people who studied battles noticed, especially when studying WWII (in WWI, there was long range trench-to-trench fighting, and then trench warfare in the trench, which was very close range), and the effects of combined arms warfare on infantry warfare, was that once you got rid of the Napoleonic formations, as well as doing away with the static trench warfare of WWI, was that trying to shoot at people at very long ranges was nearly useless. In fact, most shots were taken at under 300 meters, whether the shots were taken by rifles or machine guns. So the ability to shoot up to 2 km was rather useless, in practice – once soldiers stop standing in formations, and begin using cover and fighting prone, these long-range shots are just not useful. On the other hand, they also noticed that the weakness of submachine guns could be a real downside when fighting in open terrain – they were just not accurate or powerful enough, unless you were fighting in close quarters, being effective only out to 50 or at most 100 m. On the other hand, if you were fighting in close quarters, the automatic ability of submachine guns was a big advantage over the bolt action or semi-automatic rifles. So there was a problem. Rifles were better than SMGs at mid-range, SMGs were better a close-range, while long-range never really happened, in practice (except for rare occasions, which required sniper-level marksmanship). Clearly what was needed was a weapon which had the advantages of an SMG at close range, the advantages of a rifle at mid-range, and which could disregard long-range, since it was basically not a thing.

The solution was developed by the Germans, with a weapon that had several designations, but ended up with the designation Sturmgewehr Vierundvierzig, or Stg 44. What the Germans did was to take their rifle bullet and combine it with a cartridge that had less propellant. Now, the immediate conclusion might be that this makes no sense: why make a weaker projectile? But if you have considered what we have said so far, the conclusion is easy: the idea was to make a gun which could do three things:

  1. Be effective out to 300 meters, where most battles were held, or maybe 600 meters, which submachinguns were not.
  2. Be accurate when using automatic fire, like an SMG, at close range.
  3. Be accurate when firing several shots in semi-automatic, without needing to regain your aim, even out to mid-range.

So, a cartridge which was part-way between a rifle cartridge (which was so powerful it could be effective out to 2 km, but which at mid- and close-range, would throw the gun so much, it was impossible to take a second shot without taken a moment to get your aim back) and a pistol cartridge (which could be used in a SMG, but which was not powerful enough to be accurate out to midrange, and which lacked stopping power), was ideal for satisfying these conditions. As such, the Stg 44 had the following advantages:

  1. At close range, it was more effective than an SMG, because it had more kinetic energy, and more stopping power. And although it had more kick, it retained enough accuracy to deliver accurate follow-up shots, with its smaller cartridge.
  2. At mid range, it was nearly as effective as a light machine gun, but better because it could be fired from the shoulder with about as much accuracy as a regular rifle, both with rapid semi-automatic shots, and even with automatic bursts.

On the other hand, the Stg 44 had this disadvantage:

  1. At long range, the Stg 44 was not terribly effective…

but nobody fought at such ranges in practice anyway!

Now, the Germans found that the Stg 44 was incredibly effective in practice, and after the war, both the Western nations and the Communist nations decided this idea made a lot of sense. And that is the birth of the modern assault rifle.

So: what is an assault rifle? It is a gun that is able to fire at short to medium ranges with effectiveness, which can provide repeated shots with rapidity at short to medium ranges, but which cannot handle long ranges. As such, it is not as powerful as a real rifle. It is basically between a pistol and a rifle – and at close ranges, it is less destructive than a pistol cartridge firing gun, or a shotgun (or a very simple IED). Yet politicians vilify them!


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