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What’s the Difference Between Sub-Machine and Light-Machine Guns?

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Many of us tend to refer to any mean-looking rifle with a big, detachable box magazine as a machine gun, but this isn’t entirely accurate. In fact, the term “machine gun” is essentially defined as a gun that fires bullets in rapid succession for as long as the trigger is pressed. This means that one depression of the trigger will fire all bullets within the gun if the trigger isn’t released at any point. Machine guns come in all shapes, sizes, and applications, with two main classes of machine guns being “sub-machine guns” and “light-machine guns.” But there are unique characteristics of each type of weapon to differentiate the two.

Looking for a place to shoot machine guns in Las Vegas? Book a time with us at The Range 702!


Interestingly, the term “sub-machine gun” was first coined by the maker of the legendary Thompson sub-machine gun, also referred to as the Tommy Gun. This weapon was originally adopted by the U.S. Army during WWI and was later pressed into domestic service – sometimes at the hands of organized crime affiliates. What defines the Thompson, and all other similar weapons, as sub-machine guns are these unique traits:

  1. Generally chambered in a pistol caliber, like 9mm, .40 S&W, or, in the case of the Tommy Gun, the .45 ACP.
  2. Most sub-machine guns use a blowback operated action versus a recoil-style system. This means they use a portion of the spent gases generated from the cartridge’s ignition to work the action.
  3. Most have a short barrel to facilitate more effective close-quarters combat and better maneuverability in combat situations. Tommy Guns were popular during WWII with paratroopers because of their compact size.
  4. Sub-machine guns are generally used as defensive weapons and aren’t designed for long-range accuracy.
  5. You’ll typically find a removable magazine, lightweight construction, and either semi-automatic or fully-automatic fire modes.

Popular sub-machine guns you may find at an indoor shooting range include the H&K MP5, UMP .40, and Uzi.


The term “light-machine gun” generally refers to an offensive weapon issued to front-line troops. A modern example is the M4, which is regarded as the standard military weapon among most friendly nations. Soviet-bloc countries used, and still do use, the AK-47 or a modern variant of the AK platform. These light-machine guns share similar characteristics, including:

light machine gun close up

  1. A medium-range caliber, like 5.56mm, 7.62x39mm, 6.8SPC, and more. These chamberings are more potent than a standard handgun cartridge, but not quite so overwhelming like you may encounter with a full battlefield machine gun.
  2. Most light-machine guns operate using a gas operation and fire from a closed bolt for superior reliability.
  3. A medium-length barrel (anywhere from 12-20 inches) helps balance out the portability factor, while still affording an effective range out to up to 600 yards.

Popular light-machine guns you can experience at an indoor shooting range include the M4, AK-47, FN-P90, G36C, and more.

Regardless of your affinity or preference between the two types of weapons, one thing is certain – the exhilaration of firing either a modern sub-machine gun or a powerful light-machine gun is an experience like no other. Visit The Range 702 in Las Vegas to sample an assortment of sub- and light- machine guns, and create memories that will last far beyond when the last round is fired.

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