What Is an Assault Weapon?


Gun control is a very contentious issue in national politics. There are many flashpoints in the broader debate, but one of them is the issue of more regulation or even bans on assault weapons. One big problem fueling this political debate is that not everyone can agree on a standard definition of assault weapons.

What Is an Assault Weapon?

The term “assault weapon” usually means an assault rifle. An assault weapon is a military firearm known for two things. The first is that it can be chambered for propellant charges or reduced-size ammunition. The second is that they might have the ability to switch back and forth between fully automatic and semiautomatic fire.

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These weapons are portable and lightweight. However, they can still deliver high rates of fire with accuracy in a modern combat environment. An accurate shot is between 1,000 and 1,600 feet.

While World War II infantry used high-powered semiautomatic and bolt-action rifles, modern infantry tends to carry assault rifles as their standard weaponry. Most armies around the world equip their soldiers with these weapons.

What Is Considered an Assault Weapon?

An American soldier wearing the uniform worn during the Vietnam conflicts and holding an M16 rifle.

Listing specific examples of assault weapons can lead to debates and even passionate arguments. Several weapons¹ as assault weapons, including:

  • M16 automatic rifle used by the United States military for multiple decades
  • AK-47 automatic rifle popularized in movies and television
  • QBZ-95 made in China and used in several Asian militaries

Assault Weapon vs. Assault Rifle

There isn’t technically a category of firearms² known as assault weapons. The term is commonly used in the public and media to describe assault rifles, a category of shoulder-mounted rifles that are strikingly similar in appearance to military rifles.

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What Does AR Stand For?

One common assault rifle is the AR-15. Many people assume that the two letters stand for “assault rifle,” but this is a popular misconception. AR stands for Armalite Rifle. Armalite was a company that first made this weapon before selling the rights to Colt, who then developed it into the fully automatic M16 for the armed forces. AR-15 rifles are semiautomatic. However, with a large enough magazine, a shooter can fire off rounds extremely quickly and get many off before stopping to reload.

This is not without debate, however. The NSSF³ is a firearm industry trade association that argues that AR-15 rifles are not assault weapons due to their semiautomatic nature. This statement contrasts with those who say they are, based on their high-capacity magazines and use in many mass shootings.

Semiautomatic Rifles vs. Automatic Rifles

Person shooting with assault rifle with riflesight

The difference between semiautomatic rifles and automatic rifles⁴ is the trigger group. The trigger group refers to whether or not the weapon continues to fire when the trigger is depressed. In a semiautomatic rifle, depressing the trigger once results in one round being fired with the next round being loaded but not fired.

Automatic rifles are different. They are commonly called machine guns, even though that is technically another class of weapon. With automatic rifles, depressing the trigger results in firing a round. The next round is loaded and automatically fired as long as the trigger remains pressed. It will keep firing until the gun magazine is empty.

Gun control is a fierce political and societal debate from local municipal levels to national politics. While many argue over what to do about assault weapons, there is even intense disagreement over what assault weapons or rifles are.

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Whatever you feel about AR weapons, guns are an enjoyable sport for many. At The Range 702 shooting range in Las Vegas, you can get the opportunity to use a variety of gun types. If you’re looking to improve your shot or just out for a fun event with friends, our indoor firing range has experiences for every level of gun enthusiast. Sign up for one of our classes today!


¹Assault Rifle. Britannica. Retrieved 18 May 2022.

²Assault weapon vs. assault Rifle: What is the difference? The Atlanta-Journal Constitution. Retrieved 18 May 2022.

³Understanding America’s Rifle. The Firearm Industry Trade Association. Retrieved 18 May 2022. 

⁴Gillin, J. (2 October 2017) The difference between automatic and semi-automatic weapons. PolitiFact. Retrieved 18 May 2022.

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