AR-15 rifle

What Classifies a Firearm as an Assault Rifle?

AR-15 rifle

What is an assault rifle? That depends on who’s answering the question.

Gun owners call the term meaningless. “Assault” is a verb, not an adjective. And any weapon is useful in defense as well as attack.

However, most militaries categorize weapons capable of select fire (where the shooter chooses fully automatic or semi-automatic) as assault weapons.

Fully automatic means you can press and hold the trigger and the gun will continue to fire until you release the trigger. Semi-automatic means the gun fires once for each press of the trigger. Both can fire much faster than a bolt, pump, lever, or break-action gun, which requires manually loading the cartridge into the chamber for every shot.

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The First Ban On Assault Rifles

Tom Foley, Patricia Schroeder standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera
President Bill Clinton signing the bill into law.

The Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) of 1994 expanded the definition: “any semi-automatic rifle with a detachable magazine and at least two of the following five items: a folding or telescopic stock; a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon; a bayonet mount; a flash suppressor or threaded barrel (a barrel that can accommodate a flash suppressor); or a grenade launcher.”

Are you confused? I am. The AWB definition raises questions and invites gun owners and manufacturers to find loopholes. How does a bayonet lug (without a bayonet) make an “assault weapon?” Define “conspicuously.” 

Don’t all these features make a gun more effective as a defensive tool? You can remove the bayonet lug, the flash suppressor, and the pistol grip, but the weapon will still be a semi-automatic rifle using the same ammo and magazine and capable of the same rate of fire at the same distances. You make a few easy changes, and you no longer have an “assault weapon.”

Gun control activists calls for banning guns called “assault weapons,” which includes semi-automatics and focuses on aesthetics. The complaint is about the features that make combat rifles easier to use: pistol grips, elevated sights, and barrel shrouds that dissipate heat. These items make guns more user-friendly but do not alter functionality: they cannot make a gun shoot faster, further, or more often. Guns lacking those features are just as deadly in mass shootings — and useful as defensive rifles — as guns with those features.

Development of Assault Rifles and the Term’s Origin

In World War II, changing methods of warfare required new weapons.

Soldiers were no longer charging across open fields. Now, they fought in close skirmishes. Modern rifles were too big and bulky for such fighting and didn’t fire long enough or fast enough.

Soldiers needed fully automatic weapons that were not machine guns or submachine guns. What is an assault rifle vs machine gun and submachine gun? Machine guns are large, heavy guns firing large caliber rifle ammo that requires a large, heavy gun to absorb the recoil. Submachine guns are small, light automatic rifles firing weaker pistol ammo with less range and penetration. Troops needed an intermediate cartridge and an easily portable gun.

Who Coined the Term “Assault Rifle”?

While it won’t help the firearm’s reputation, Adolf Hitler actually coined the term “assault rifle.” The Germans first developed the machinenpistole, a small, light, select-fire rifle that was not very accurate or powerful at long ranges but was deadly in close fighting. Hitler preferred a name more suited to propaganda, so he called the new gun a sturmgewehr or “storm weapon” or “assault” weapon. 

German MP44 (Sturmgewehr 44), Germany. Caliber 8x33mm Kurz- From the collections of Armémuseum (Swedish Army Museum), Stockholm.

Other nations soon developed similar weapons: The Soviets made the AK47, The British made the EM-2, and the Americans made the M-14 and eventually the M-16 (also known as the AR-15) and have recently adopted the M-4 (essentially an M-16 with a shorter barrel and three-shot bursts instead of full auto). Most militaries now use assault rifles that are variations of the AK47 or the AR-15.

Owning Assault Rifles

Why buy an assault rifle? Are they legal? Is an assault rifle ban looming? The answers to these questions begin with the definition of “assault rifle.” Fully automatic rifles are — unjustly and illegally — prohibited or heavily restricted. Semi-automatic rifles are legal in most of the USA, including Las Vegas, but the gun control activists are making moves to take these weapons away from gun owners. There are good reasons to own semi-automatic rifles. They are effective home-defense weapons and they are fun for recreational or competition shooting.

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