All You Need To Know About “Assault” Rifles

ANGELINAThere are many articles on the internet where people can learn the origins of the term “assault rifle”, so I won’t go into that here. Nor will I get into the topic of gun control effectiveness. Larry Correia has done such a good job here that anything I add would be redundant.

“You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means” –Inigo Montoya “The Princess Bride”.

So what am I going on about, you may ask? There are only two correct ways to define what is or is not an assault rifle.

The military defines an assault rifle as a lightweight, intermediate caliber select fire rifle. Quite the mouthful isn’t it. Broken down into everyday terms, it means you can carry it for a long time because it is light weight. Intermediate caliber refers to a cartridge between the full power rifle and the pistol, and you get more ammunition for the same weight compared to full power rifles.

In the US, the military’s full power rifle cartridge is the 7.62x51mm NATO(.308 Winchester is essentially the same, for the deer hunters out there) and the current pistol caliber in general issue is the 9x19mm NATO (9mm Parabellum, 9mm Luger are other designations, depending on where you are). There is quite a bit of intermediate room in between those two rounds, and the US fills it with the 5.56x45mm NATO (basically a bit higher pressured .223 Remington, for the varmint shooters out there). Now we get to the heart of the assault rifle definition in military terms, select fire. In laymen’s  lingo, there is a lever or switch on the rifle that allows me to select between more than simply “fire” and “safe”. That extra position is “burst” and/or “full”, some rifles have both settings, some one or the other. On “burst” setting a single pull of the trigger will fire multiple rounds, then reset. Three round bursts are the most used, but there are others. On the “full” setting, the rifle will keep firing when the trigger is pressed until the trigger is released, or the rifle runs out of ammunition.  Select fire weapons have been banned outside the National Firearms Act registry since 1934, and that registry closed in 1986, with the Hughes Amendment. So there has been no new select fire weapons produced that an ordinary person can buy since 1986. They are already, in effect, banned. If you own one of these firearms, you know the pain and cost that goes with it.  The federal government rigorously regulates and tracks these firearms, and they are very expensive.

The second correct definition of an assault rifle is based on cosmetic features set by politicians. These rifles are all semi-automatic, or self-loading in old school firearm terms. Every time you press the trigger, one round is fired, and one round only. The action cycles, replacing the now expended case with a fresh round from the magazine. While this can be accomplished very rapidly, it is still one shot per trigger press.

What makes one rifle an assault weapon, and a rifle that works exactly the same way and looks very much the same not an assault weapon? The politicians that set the cosmetic features of a rifle they deem to be an assault weapon. So this second definition is slippery and can be very broad, but boils down to some group of politicians decided that the rifles with X features are “scary”, and thus “assault weapons”.    This also means that it varies by state. California has a very wide definition of what an assault rifle is with a list of specific firearms for good measure. Free markets being what they are, there have been many creative ways found to manufacture rifles that work exactly like, or very close to, the CA definition, without crossing those legal lines.

But what does this mean to the current hue and cry spewing forth from the likes of Piers Morgan and Senator Diane Feinstein? It means that through ignorance or malice, they are lying. The CT school massacre was an act of pure evil, and a Bushmaster rifle may have been used. It was NOT however, an “assault rifle” either in true (military) terms, nor in the made up terms of the CT assault weapons ban. (Sec. 53-202a. Assault weapons: Definition) The rifle was semi automatic, but lacked some cosmetic features deemed “scary” or “evil” by some know nothing politicians and wasn’t included in the specifically named list of weapons.

So when the term “assault rifle” is just tossed about willy nilly, these facts are important to bear in mind. It is very hard to have an honest discussion about assault weapons or further restrictions of them when one side won’t even clearly define what they are! It has become a scare term, meant to stir up emotion rather than reason. It is a lie because it is being done so deliberately. Now that people are catching onto the “assault weapon” stupidity, the scare mongers are coming up with new terms like “killing machine” and “weapon of war”. Trust me, the Bushmaster rifle is NOT a weapon you’d ever want to go to war with!

Nor is it a killing machine. The .223 Remington was designed to deal with small thin skinned animals. Most states won’t even let you hunt a dear with a .223 Remington rifle as it doesn’t guarantee a clean and humane kill. There are a wide variety of bullets available in the 5.56/.223 Remington that are quite effective when dealing with people though,  which is why it is the most widely used rifle caliber in the AR-15 platform issued to the police departments in America. But there are many rifle calibers out there, far too many to list, that are much, much more effective at killing people and other things than .223 Remington.

The reason that police departments and ordinary people flock to the AR-15 platform (AR stands for Armalite the first manufacturer, NOT “assault rifle” like many idiots claim) is convenience and ease of use not killing power. Many owners are prior military, and like a rifle that feels like their old issue rifle, despite lacking the ability for select fire. Police and citizens like it because it doesn’t weigh much, there is minimal recoil with the 5.56/.223 caliber, and with an adjustable stock (often listed in “scary feature” bills) it can fit all the members of the family or every officer in the police department with ease. The standard magazine capacity (get to that in a minute) is 30 rounds, which allows you to carry a lot of ammunition in just 2 or 3 magazines, and that ability is what makes the AR-15 platform so attractive to police. Police departments can give their officers 60 to 90 rounds in only a couple of magazines which are more than enough to deal with the calls they go to.

The aftermarket for AR-15 platform parts and accessory list is HUGE and contributes to its popularity, which leads to the cycle of more options. So it is easy to get it just the way you like it (minus the “scary” parts in certain states) and you can find an AR-15 platform rifle that fits your budget. Ammunition used to be easy to find, with a very wide variety of special application rounds available depending on what you want to do with your rifle.

One would suppose that the same features that make these rifles so popular with police and citizens would also make them popular with criminals. But that is incorrect. Rifles are expensive and not easy to carry around the neighborhood or hide from the cops.  Since (unlike Mexico) a pitched gun battle with police is the LAST thing a criminal wants, semi automatic rifles are not used often in criminal behavior. And when they are used they tend to be used poorly, or in a soft target mass shooting event by a deranged person. All types of rifles killed 323 people in 2011 according to the FBI. Don’t fall for the “assault rifle”/ “killing machine”/”weapon of war” hype!

Another scare term thrown about with wild abandon is “high capacity” when referring to magazines. Off topic tangent, a magazine feeds rounds into the chamber of a firearm, a clip merely holds rounds together, and magazines can be removable or fixed to the rifle. Get it correct if you’re going to rant about it! Back to the topic at hand, what is and is not a high capacity magazine.  There are magazines designed to hold a larger number of rounds than a standard magazine. These are high capacity magazines. But a magazine designed for and shipped with a firearm is “standard capacity”, no matter how many rounds of ammunition it holds. A Glock 17, for instance, was designed for a 17 round magazine, thus a 17 round magazine is standard capacity, not high capacity. A high capacity magazine for a Glock 17 pistol holds 33 rounds, almost double the standard capacity.

The same thing applies to rifles. The AR-15 was designed by Eugene Stoner and built by Armalite to accept 20 or 30 round magazines, so those magazines are standard capacity for the AR-15 platform. A 90 round drum for an AR-15 is a high capacity magazine. A 10 round magazine for a Glock 17 is a reduced capacity magazine. A 5 round AR-15 platform magazine used for hunting is a reduced capacity magazine.

I’m not sure where this idea that anything over 10 rounds is a high capacity magazine came from in the ill conceived 1994 Crime Bill that also banned “assault weapons” for ten years. My best guess is that 10 was as high as some Congressional staffer could count without removing his or her shoes. Now it seems to be embedded in the gun control culture far and wide.

As for the question of “who needs more than 10 rounds?” ask a police officer or a Federal law enforcement officer. Realize that any situation they deal with on the street, you may face and you won’t have body armor, a radio, or back up if you do. Police response times to crime in progress calls start at “too late” and get worse from there, and criminals like to run in packs, so you may find yourself outnumbered too. Keep in mind that the response time for police to Sandy Hook Elementary was 20 minutes. Obviously a lot of bad things can happen to you in 20 minutes!


A note on some of the language I use in this article. I use the term “AR-15 Platform” when discussing these rifles because of the wide range of calibers and configurations in which they are available. There are also dozens of manufacturers who build AR-15 platform rifles, and I’m trying to be as specific as possible. Another thing that makes the AR-15 platform so popular is its versatility. One lower receiver and fire control group can be attached to a number of upper receivers in a wide range of calibers, from .22 long rifle to .50 BMG without tools just by pulling a couple of pins. What can you use an AR-15 platform rifle for? Anything you want.  The AR-15 is only built by Armalite Inc as a brand name, but has become the general use term for the platform regardless of manufacturer.

Foot note: I know that there are assault rifles out there that use a selective pressure trigger instead of a selector switch, such the Styer AUG and other rifles have selector switches and a separate safety switch like the Polish Tantal. But I tried to keep it down to basic terms. I also didn’t get into pistol caliber submachine guns or rifle caliber carbines, as breaking that down really doesn’t add anything to the discussion other than complexity. The US military uses a wide variety of ammunition and weapons but I kept it to the most basic and widest used for the article.

About the author: Reaper63

The author is a prior Marine, former Law Enforcement Officer, and currently on active duty with the AZ Air National Guard.

View all articles by Reaper63

  • laddog

    good article, very factual and now if we could just get the Liberal Media to read it.

    • Ronin

      Oh, they know it. It’s not on message

    • Tom Bosworth

      I think we are fighting a nomenclature battle which we have already lost. The public has an idea that “assault rifle” means “bad gun.” We waste our time saying that what they think are bad guns are not assault rifles. It does not matter that we are right: we have already lost that battle, and spending energy re-fighting it is a waste of finite energy. The public does not care about technical distinctions, and for that matter, neither should we: all guns are protected by the Constitution (and so are magazines, switchblades, brass knuckles, Mace (TM), pepper spray, and full-auto weapons).

      How about accepting the technical term loss, and move on to the next battle: military style rifles as the term is COMMONLY understood are good things to have for home defense, riot protection, and tyrant resistance. Also, to the extent they do resemble military weapons, they are the most protected by the Constitution of all rifles/carbines/weapons of mass death. The part of the 2nd Amendment which says “A well regulated militia…” makes it clear that the Constitutional protection is precisely about military style weapons.

      How about this: The people who wanted to ban alcohol accepted that the Constitution as it stood did not empower the Feds to do so, but they accepted that limitation and did the right thing: they amended the Constitution. Terrible policy, but they played the game by the rules. The gun banners should be held to the same standard: neither the feds nor the states have the authority to ban any kind of gun useful for militia purposes. If they want to do so, they need to amend the Constitution. (Fat chance)

      The current crop of politicians don’t respect the Constitution enough to hold it in contempt. They just ignore it and if anyone complains, claim it does to let the feds and states do anything at all. So far as they are concerned, “good policy” always trumps the Constitution.

      Let’s keep telling the antis that they may or may not have good policy ideas (of course they don’t) but that they must first show that the Constitution grants the government the power to enact such policy into law. They can’t do that because it doesn’t. Let’s put an end to the policy arguments: the real argument is the Constitution. Amend the Constitution or shut up.

    • gracepmc

      Piers Morgan and David Gregory come to mind.

  • rockisland29

    sounds like it functions exactly like the Remington model of 1908.

  • Kevin Baker

    “Most states won’t even let you hunt a dear with a .223 Remington rifle as it doesn’t guarantee a clean and humane kill.”

    Might want to fix that. Just saying.

  • MoReport

    The military would rather give an enemy soldier a disabling wound than kill him;
    It takes less scarce valuable resources to bury one than to heal one.

    • Donald Sensing

      What a crock. As a career Army combat officer, I assure you that the purpose shooting the enemy is to kill him.

      • mark abrams

        The usual purpose of shooting an enemy combatant is to kill , however that may not have been the primary purpose of those who selected the ammunition calibre.

    • Michael Kennedy

      Actually a disabling wound occupies three people, medics and transport, instead of a kill, which affects only the victim. That is why the rhetoric about these weapons is so ignorant.

      • Charlie Dempsey

        Nice in theory, but a friend who was at Fallujah shot one guy five separate times. He kept coming. My friend was rather busy at that moment, and anemic ammunition is not something that he should have had to worry about!

        • Brendon Carr

          But I was told there is no justification for the high-magazine clip.

    • tdiinva

      Even if that were true, and it’s not, we haven’t fought anybody who cares about their wounded since May 8, 1945:

  • socratease

    “These rifles are all semi-automatic…” Not in California. There are bolt-action and single-shot rifles in .50BMG regulated under the “assault weapon” law. There are also numerous pistols. The exact definition has varied quite a bit over the years and, at one point, included match target pistols. (They were only excluded when the law threatened to shut down pistol shooting competition at the LA Olympics.)

    This is part of the problem: Once the law is on the books, politicians will tinker with it to add whichever type of weapon attracts their ire. One day your AR-15 pattern rifle or SKS Sporter is legal, the next you’re looking at time in jail if you don’t turn it in or sell it out of state. There’s a procedure in California’s law to add guns to the list which includes public comment periods, hearings, appeals, grace periods, etc. It has never been used and has been bypassed by the legislature and the AG’s office every time, sometimes retroactively, sometimes in direct violation of court rulings. Even law enforcement has been unable to figure out what is banned and what is not, and some Sheriffs have sued the state as a result.

  • tdiinva

    Good article but I would even dispute that an M-16/M-4 are true assault rifles. I would call them small bore rifles. The Air Force selected the AR to replace the M-2 carbine and the M-2 submachine gun used by the Security Police. When the M-14 proved unsuitable for “spray and pray” tactics he Army picked it because it was available. The Army recognized that semiautomatic fire and good tactics beats full automatic fire almost all the time and we seldom use full auto anymore. In many ways the M-1 Garand is superior to the M-16 platform we use today.

    • Brendon Carr

      The Garand has range and stopping power for sure, but it also announces when the shooter is out of ammunition. A modern Garand would need to address this.

      • Len Johnson

        I read that some marines carried an extra clip, and would toss it up after firing a round or two. The enemy would immediately charge. Uh-oh.

      • tdiinva

        Another bit of mythology. The little ping from a Garand ejecting a clip would lost in the cacaphony of battle.

        • Brendon Carr

          I’ve shot one, but not in battle, so I’ll have to take your word for it.

  • Jan Andersen

    As for the “who needs” argument, the better counter is simply that a constitutional right is not subject to a “who needs” standard. Period, end of story

  • Dr. Kranky

    re so called high capacity magazines: “My best guess is that 10 was as high as some Congressional staffer could count without removing his or her shoes.”

  • S H

    I’ll add one more reason people like .223 platforms. They’re accurate! I’m a target shooter and not a hunter. So; its no good to go target shooting with an inaccurate weapon…

  • Ezra Gonzalez

    If I use my rifle for defensive purposes then I own a “Defense Rifle”, and who would want to ban Defense Rifles?

  • Grace Robins

    Tried explaining to my hyper-liberal sister that an AR-15 is neither an assault weapon nor a “weapon of war” (no self-respecting military or insurgency has sent its forces into battle with a purely semi-automatic rifle in sixty years) and it was like talking to the cat. Her thinking on the subject is literally cosmetic. One looks like the other and that is good enough for her.

    Some auto maker needs to come out with a 50 hp car dressed up to look like a Ferrari. Huge untapped market for suckers, there is.

  • Wally…

    “The AR-15 is only built by Armalite Inc as a brand name, but has become the general use term for the platform regardless of manufacturer”. Just checked, Armalite no longer sells a “AR-15″ model rifle. They do however sell a “M15″ rifle. Wonder if they gave up the copyrite to AR-15?

    • Hoosh

      Colt owns it.

  • pabarge

    Note up front: probably tl;dr but here goes …
    OK, I guess I need to offer first the SD (Standard Disclaimer): I’m a gun-owning, freedom-loving conservative who thinks that law-abiding Americans ought to be able to own any weapon they want. Period.
    Given that:
    1. lots of “us” seem to be obsessed with arguing that an AR 15 is not an assault weapon. As if the argument about the minute details about what makes an assault weapon an assault weapon is going to win the argument with the gun banners. Hint: it’s not. So shut up about this. An AR 15 is definitely an assault weapon. That’s why the SWAT boys own them. Every picture of the SWAT boys shows them w2. ith their AR 15’s in their chest cradles. An AR 15 is an assault weapon. I own a Bushmaster AR 15 for several reasons, but the main reason is that if someone is going to assault me, I want an assault weapon at hand to defend myself. I WANT an assault weapon. And by virtue of the 2nd Amendment I have a right to own an assault weapon. I don’t want it for hunting. I want it to defend myself when someone else assaults me.
    2. An AR 15 is not an M16. Have you read this one. Please. You think this argument is going to win in the court or public discourse? Hold an AR 15 in one hand and an M16 on semi-auto in the other hand and list for me the 10 structural differences. Go ahead. I’m waiting.
    3. Finally, to review: an AR 15 _IS_ an assault weapon. With a 30 or 40 round magazine, it is an exceptionally deadly assault weapon, especially if it’s shooting .223. On semi-automatic. It’s an assault weapon and you have every right to own one and to use one to defend yourself when you are being assaulted.
    End of freakin’ story.

  • markinalpine

    Here’s a slide show style demonstration on assault weapons someone put together:
    Use your keyboard right or left arrows to advance or go back.

  • MO Atty

    Nice article, good website. I address this to some commentors who say we have “already lost” the “nomenclature battle.” Had we fought that battle back at the time of the first “assault weapon” ban, we might not have “already lost” it today. One of the left’s most constant and successful programs is to try to take over the English language. We need to stop letting them do that. A day or two ago a network reported that “shots were fired” at 5 different gun shows. The obviously desired impression was that multiple gun nuts were blasting away at each other at these damned gun shows. In reality, each incident involved an accidental discharge of a single round, typically from a dropped weapon. Should we let them call that “shots fired”?

    If you accidentally cut your finger while peeling potatoes, should we let them call that a “stabbing”? Then you could end up in a data base as having been involved in a stabbing, and you could never run for Congress. No, we can not let them decide the language we must all use for the debates of the day. We should, however, begin fighting it as soon as they pull out a completely wrong term, rather than ten years later.

  • carole mason

    Common knowledge among many gun owners. There is an emormous amount of ignorance and many have fallen prey to ignorance and fear. We wil lnever change the left.

    Lara Logan who was assaulted in Tahir Square I am sure has changed her ideas. But, that said I believe in arming women in third world countries and maybe we can change the world. Put African women on the same playing field as the men, and watch their world change. We are just as much to blame as anyone else for not empowering those women, and it would be cheaper too since we fund so many sides out there..

  • lewpubco

    Thanks for this piece. During my time in the Marine Corps, my t/o weapon ran the gamut across time from the M1 to the M14 and finally the M16. I am very familiar with all these weapons and yet have had a painful time trying to explain this “assault weapon” nonsense to many people. Now I will simply give them the link to this well written article. Thanks again.

  • richard40

    It sounds like the only real distinguishing feature with “military style” weapons is the capability to select full auto or burst, which has already been banned for years. So “assault weapons” are just a made up leftist word, and all it really means is some weapon they happen to think is scary looking.

  • nmgene

    Are you sure??? Just kidding Very good article. God Bless America

  • white lightning

    I guess my Zastava M76 would be A-OK then, except for the bayonette. It has only a 10 round capacity magazine. (standard capacity for that gun) Of course, its also Serbia’s old national sniper rifle, shoots an 8mm Mauser (7.92×57), and has a maximum range of 1 kilometer, with 800 meters (approx 1/2 a mile) falling into the optimum range.

    … or maybe not.

    Of course, a standard semiauto AK, which they want to ban has less then half the range and its rounds can be stopped reliably by body armor rated to resist rifle ammunition.

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