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The Assault Rifle: Fact and Fantasy
The ASSAULT RIFLE: FACT and FANTASY
(A look at the history, the myths and the realities of the
true assault rifle)...by Jim Thompson in GUNS Magazine 1990
If the assault rifle hadn't been produced in Germany or
Russia first, it might have come from France, Hungary, or
the United States, and perhaps twenty-five or so years
earlier. The Frommer long recoil design was originally
concocted for what might have been the world's first "short"
rifle cartridge, but accepted in 8mm Lebel by the French, it
was instead developed into the abominable Chauchat. John T.
Thompson's first efforts at a "trench broom" were built
around cartridges very like the 401 Winchester SLR necked to
.30, but the Blish lock couldn't deal with the cartridge, so
what actually happened turned into the Thompson Submachine
It was too early for the assault rifle to develop...there
was no tactical role prepared for it until the world
urbanized, and an observer could fairly say most military
recruits had never handled a firearm. The assault rifle is
a military concept. What it very decidedly is not is a
weapon, as the hypists of the antigun crowd claim, "designed
only for killing people".
The assault rifle arouse because its predecessors were too
difficult for raw young men to handle well. Its conception,
birth, and maturation accompanied the general purpose
machine gun. Obviously, like any other military weapon,
killing or disabling the enemy was its ultimate purpose, but
the assault rifle in fact is less efficient than its
predecessors at that job, owing to the reduced power of its
ammunition. The assault rifle evolved to expedite training.
An assault rifle---forget the AP Style Book definition, its
dead wrong---is a reduced power rifle caliber, selective-
fire, reasonably compact weapon smaller in size than a full-
caliber rifle, capable of a reasonable degree of accuracy
out to 400 yards. Generally, an assault rifle accepts a
magazine of a least 20 rounds. One can construe certain
full caliber rifles to meet this specification, but
submachine guns can only loosely border on any definition of
the true assault rifle. Beretta's M38A, the Hungarian 39M,
and long-barreled versions of the Finnish Suomi come very
close; at the other end of the spectrum, the U.S. Carbine
M1 and M2 come very close, but in fact fall into their own
very special category. In every case, the "pure" assault
rifles replaced or supplemented much more powerful
rifles...in U.S., M16 replaced M14, in the USSR, AK an SKS
replaced the Nagant and Tokarev in 7.62x54R M91, and so on.
Reanalysis of what is now accepted as excessive zeal for
assault rifles in military establishments is creating \j\
interesting reversals of the rigorous "one unit-one weapon"
trend of the 50's and 60's. A puffed up AK called Medvyed
and various clones of the Russian original use Kalashnikov's
basic system, "steroided" to older full caliber M91
loadings. The famous FAL was first prototyped in 7.92x33
Kurz, but saw service only in 7.62xS1 NATO...and now, via a
"shrunken" version commercially known at the CAL, has
reverted to the original style. Assault rifles promised to
reduce small arms arrays, which had become complex in the
years between the World Wars.
Never realized, but approached in some armies, the ideal was
to replace every small arm below the general purpose machine
gun with a single weapon or system. The Soviets almost
accomplished this, but very quickly backed off. Now the
ubiquitous AK has borne offspring from the Medvyed-Dragunov
to the Hungarian AMD submachine gun and the RPK, all based
on a common system, but as specialized as the potpourri of
small arms which preceded them.
Most other assault rifles have spawned similar families.
The assault rifle began rather simply with a German
Luftwaffe requirement to provide a cross between a service
rifle and the Lewis Gun of World War I fame. Developed by
Rheinmetall but actually built by Kreighoff in two versions,
FG.42 was not a true assault rifle in the purest, modern
sense, but it was a much better weapon than most texts will
admit. Expensive and difficult to produce, perhaps 7-10,000
were built for the German LW Paratroopers. FG.42 used a
full power rifle round, the potent 7.92x57JS German service
load, fully the equal of our own .30/06. While the FG.42
was inspired by and many of its internal mechanical details,
including the gas system, indirectly copied from the Lewis,
its features were acquired direct from the M.1941 Johnson,
another underrated weapon which with some modification,
could easily have been the "first" assault rifle.
Far more modern in concept and still an effacious weapon
today if an ammunition supply can be secured, the MP.43/44
weapons were the first assault rifles intended for general
issue. There are three versions of the basic rifles, all
essentially the same save for sight accommodations and
fittings and often simultaneously marked MP.43, MP.44, and
STG.44. The last abbreviation---supposedly straight from
Hitler himself---means literally SturmGewehr or assault
rifle. Too heavy at 11.3 pounds, unloaded, the weapon still
proved immensely popular where introduced. Armies were
beginning to understand that soldiers felt outgunned---and
noise and tactical factors meant that was most of them---
would not fire their weapons. So a selective-fire weapon
with some accuracy out to 400 meters or so could contribute
to column fire, even if bullet weight and energy per shot
was far below the old M98 Mauser turnbolt. And these
weapons were cheap to build, easy to train with. MP.44 saw \j\
very heavy use in Russia, and figured in the Ardennes
"Bulge" offensive of 1944.
MP.44 had been preceded by prototypes from Walther and
Haenel as early as 1944. The Haenel gun was eventually
developed. But these prototypes saw actual service. By
1942, specimens of the Polte-developed Kurz (short) round
were being studied by a convalescing soldier named
Kalashnikov. Kalashnikov had worked on another "almost"
assault rifle, the Fedyerov, a selective-fire gun in 6.5x50
Japanese, and his ideas meshed neatly with the German round.
Like the Germans, he opted to retain the same bore size as
the older, full-sized service rifle, 7.62mm.
He called the new cartridge the M43, after the year of its
adoption. Today we call it 7.62x39mm., or 7.62 Kalashnikov,
and American ammunition for target shooting and hunting
replicates the little 123-grain pellet he originally
executed. The round is just a shade less potent that
Winchester's ancient .30/30, but much smaller and, like its
German forebear, rimless and sharply bottlenecked.
The first rifle developed for the cartridge was the SKS,
produced in great numbers in the Soviet Union, even more
prolifically in China to this very day. SKS or the Chinese
Type 56-1 is analogous to the American M1 Carbine, and is
not a true assault rifle. By 1947, th AK was complete in
principal, though four years' testing was necessary to allow
major introduction to the Red Army.
What we today call the "original" AK47 is probably at least
the third major version, and the modified AKM is at least
the tenth major production variant. Despite much doubletalk
in the firearms media about the original forged receiver
being superior, the newer versions are in fact stronger and
lighter, and their stamped receivers. Latest standard
rifles weigh a little over nine pounds.
The United States came late and bleeding to this particular
arms race. Gene Stoner's AR15 was purchased by the Air
Force in small lots as early as 1962-3, only after Colt
bought exclusive U.S. rights to manufacture the little .22.
Using sophisticated alloys, the weapon was expensive and far
more delicate than the original military briefings
indicated. But during the entire period of research into M1
derivatives, all outside designs, especially Stoner's, had
been rejected and no research of any serious dimension was
done on intermediate cartridges.
Many who like the M16 dislike the cartridge, and find only
nominal improvement in the recent H-BAR M16A2 fixes. It
would have been more convenient to use the well-developed
Soviet 7.62x39 round, whose bore diameter was, conveniently,
useably identical with our own .30/06 and 7.62x51 rounds.
But this was given no consideration whatever.
Still, the 5.56x.223 round is handy in fully automatic fire,
and especially so in the little CAR-15/XM177 guns and
Smith's M16K submachine gun. However, as any ballistics
student can attest, most of the "tumbling" effect and the
"bone shattering" from the high velocity .22 pellet used to
hype the rifle in its early years is either exaggerated or
merely a natural byproduct of any pointed bullet of nominal
stability in any cartridge, under similar conditions of
tissue penetration and velocity. Show a .223 round to
someone who hasn't followed firearms or has been in
suspended animation for a while and he'll correctly identify
it as a "first class woodchuck round". Provided the range
isn't too long. Even with the latest "improvements", I have
not yet gotten a presentable group at 400 yards.
On the international arms market---read that, between
nations actually equipping troops---M16 sells for 2 to 4
times the price of an AK. The AK is generally somewhat more
highly regarded and has lost all its politics along the way.
It appears at least as often in the hands of rightwing
insurrectionists and troops as it does among the left. Sam
Cummings of Interarms said recently on CBS' Nightwatch that
the Kalashnikov had become "the world's predominant military
As this is written, virtually every firearms manufacturer on
the planet who can legally do so is building or planning an
assault rifle for an intermediate cartridge. The guns all
look wicked and forbidding, for their technology is mostly
borrowed from light machine guns, and their approach is no
nonsense. Yes, despite their current popularity as a focal
point for antigun hate literature, they are not particularly
handy, even for the dopers and loons among whom they have
become some kind of status symbol. Shotguns are easier to
handle, buy, and murder with, for suitable civilian
miscreants. And the across-the-counter guns sold in this
country---if indeed there is such a thing by the time this
piece sees ink---are not even real assault rifles. They are
not selective-fire. And guns so modified after May of 1986
cannot be registered and are, therefore, already contraband.
In most large cities, few actual crimes have seen assault
rifles used. Here in the Phoenix area, a much publicized
cop killing was executed with an illegally modified KG-9
submachine gun/machine pistol. Yet, on the boob tube, the
local Ted Baxters have all dutifully droned on about
"assault rifle murders" and used that killing as their sole
example. And there is not other local example...To them,
it's got a big magazine, it's an assault gun. Not one local
media source has noted that the weapon used was already
illegal, nor has anyone in the local media noted the \j\
enforcement dichotomy implicit in that weapon's use, namely
that the gun's user was neither caught up front nor
prosecuted afterwards for the firearms violation.
What, then, prompts the conclusion of easy virtue that
making "assault rifles" specifically unlawful would, could,
or can make any meaningful difference? Druggies and other
lunatics find assault rifles handy primarily for "showing
off". Even Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates' tortured,
much prolonged broadcast admonition---clueing us all that he
seeks higher office---is mostly fiction. He's lost very few
officers, if any, to assault rifles, and if he'd read a form
4473, checked his own hot sheets, and reviewed some of the
alleged incidents, he's realize criminal use of otherwise
legal "assault rifles" is extremely rare.
The fiction of "special kinds of wounds" resulting from
"assault rifles" flies in the face of what every hunter has
seen. Real trauma from a .308 softpoint or .45 ACP
Silvertip greatly exceeds anything encountered with the
hardball spitzers usually loaded in .223 and 7.62x39 ammo.
Close range shotgun wounds are downright grotesque.
I know right now of the whereabouts of over 2000 semi-
automatic assault rifle clones and about 100 legal,
registered fully automatic real assault rifles. The most
serious crime of which any of their custodians has been
accused probably ranks up there with smoking on an elevator
or red zone parking. Yet, whenever the owner of such a
firearm is depicted in the general media, I see a slobber-
mouthed moron who resembles no one I know personally.
I am not especially fond of assault rifles. I own several,
but I own them because I want to study their operating
systems and durability. They are fascinating plinkers in
their semiautomatic pseudo-assault rifle form, and shooting
fully automatic has given me considerable insight into
military tactics and their application.
If I had to dispose of someone or something, it probably
wouldn't be with any long gun. With my life in danger,
though, a shotgun would ride my palms. If for some
incredibly impossible, tangled, Armageddon-type reason I had
to take up arms, you'd find an M1 Garand or M14 swinging at
the end of my arm, a 10mm. Springfield Omega at my belt, and
a .32 PPK, preferably suppressed, in my boot. None of this,
except the suppressor, is legally restricted as this article
goes to print.
If such a disgusting scenario of necessity ever does happen,
and I pray it won't, it'll probably happen because society,
as a whole, forgot that random suppressive measures usually
only affect the lawful. Assault rifles aren't causing
insanity and they aren't causing the drug problem. If \j\
prohibiting drugs has merely made the business of the
unprincipled more profitable, how can a different
application of the same principle make us less violent? As
a society, we need to respect ourselves and each other
deeply. Just developing that attitude would cause a
downturn in crime. Picking out a nonvocal minority like
shooters and then dumping all over them is an inappropriate
use of suppressive powers.
In 1934, our parents and grandparents were told the National
Firearms Act would cripple organized crime and stop violent
back robberies. It was, at best, a miscalculation. In
1938, same place, same speakers, and then it became a lie
with the Federal Firearms Act. In 1968, we were told GCA
'68 would reduce violence in society, reduce crime, and
somehow make us safer. That, too, was a lie. It is true
that there are probably more illegal automatic weapons on
the streets of major American cities than ever before. So
we're told that a fourth or fifth or sixth set of lies and
legislation will reverse that. As usual, if it happens,
those of us who always obey the law will grudgingly comply.
And those who never do never will.
Assault rifles are probably the least "evil" of all
firearms, at least in their semiautomatic configuration, for
they attract attention all out of proportion to their real
firepower. The lady who said on Geraldo these guns could
deliver "100 rounds in 20 seconds" was not only lying, she
was being irrelevant. Even the reduced power intermediate
rounds won't allow accuracy at high semiautomatic rates,
which more realistically hover around .5-1.3 rounds per
second. As usual, the visual bark---which is what's being
used fake to cynically manipulate this crisis by a power-
hungry, wealthy elite---is far worse that the assault gun's
ASSAULT GUNS '89 A GLOSSY GLOSSARY IN ORDER OF FICTIONAL
IMPORTANCE FOR THOSE DISCHARGING VERBAL
BULLETS IN THE BATTLE OF EASY VIRTUE.
ASSAULT GUN---literally, a German or Russian tracked,
armored vehicle capable of destroying an enemy tank. In
advertising agency or antigun jargon, a vague term used to
refer to more or less any firearm with a large magazine (20
or more rounds), usually semiautomatic, but usually
construed in the media to mean easily converted to fully
automatic fire. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and
Firearms, however, has been empowered to and certifies that
none of the "assault weapons" currently on the U.S. market
can easily be converted to fully automatic configuration.
This term can, has, and frequently is used to describe
relatively innocuous .22 "plinker" rifles such as Ruger's
ASSAULT RIFLE, real---a carbine-type weapon, generally
smaller and always less powerful than the full-caliber
rifles which preceded this generation in military service,
weighing roughly between six and twelve pounds, and
utilizing magazines between fifteen and sixty or so rounds'
capacity. Real assault rifles are always selective fire---
that is, capable of fully automatic or semiautomatic fire at
the shooter's option. These guns are accurate to rough
service levels to 500 yards or less in the hands of an
experienced rifleman, but are not as accurate as traditional
AUTOMATIC FIRE---a mode of fire repetition in which more
than one round may be fired with a single pull of the
ASSAULT RIFLE, civilian---a rifle physically similar to an
assault rifle, but modified internally extensively, such
that a sear/disconnector mechanism and appropriate lockwork
on the bolt and/or related parts prevents fully automatic
fire without very significant modification---welding,
remachining, insertion of new or altered illegal parts,
etc., etc. REAL assault rifles must be registered, are
taxable under the 1934 National Firearms Act, and are very
heavily regulated, as are all automatic and selective fire
weapons. Civilian assault rifles modified to fully
automatic status are unlawful unless registered prior to May
16, 1986, and are contraband subject to prosecution and
SEMIAUTOMATIC FIRE---a mode of fire repetition in which one
shot may be fired with each trigger release, but in which
the physical operation of reloading is performed by the
firearm's mechanism using residual gases, barrel recoil, or
blowback of the cartridge casing in physical contact and
synchronization with the bolt. Semiautomatic sporting
firearms have been available to the public worldwide since
the 1890's, have been used in matches since the 1930's, used
by hunters in the U.S. since 1908. Their use by civilians
in both short and long guns preceded military use
everywhere by many years. Semiautomatics, in fact, are not
a military idea applied to civilian firearms, but are a
civilian idea applied to military firearms.
CLIP---A rail or rail-like device used to contain cartridges
before loading into the magazine of a firearm.
MAGAZINE---a box-like container, fitted to a firearm during
shooting, which contains the gun's ammunition supply.
Magazines are often tubular, commonly rectangular on assault
rifles and their semiautomatic clones. Magazines can
usually be quickly detached.
BULLET---a projectile, usually at least partially lead, but
in assault rifles almost always jacketed with copper sheet,
which has the effect of improving feed reliability, reducing
bullet expansion, and reducing bore fouling.
CARTRIDGE---One round, complete with all components, namely:
bullet, powder, primer and casing
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