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.

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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.


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