Assault Rifle or Ugly Rifle?

There is so much misuse of terminology by todays media that it is getting to be an epidemic which feeds on itself. Previously I commented on the over use, and miss use, of the term “drone”. Another media misuse of terms that bugs me is their assignment of the term “assault rifle” to any “ugly” rifle.

American society is becoming increasing violent. This violence is caused my many flaws in modern society and I have mentioned some of them in previous posts. However, whenever a madman commits an act of violence against other people, and a firearm is involved, the media ignore all other factors and blame the firearm for the violence. Further, they always express their contempt for the firearm by calling all firearms “assault” weapons. If you ask any reporter who uses the term “assault rifle” what that term means I bet they could not tell you. It is just a term that sounds ominous and reporters like words that sound ominous regardless if they are accurate or applicable to the situation. Other people hear them and assume the term is being used correctly and the misuse grows throughout society.

What is an Assault rifle? It is a term used by various military organizations to describe the rifle that they deem suitable to equip a soldier whose job is to engage a hostile, armed, enemy soldier or soldiers. As the face of war has changed over the years, and technology has advanced, the US and other militaries have changed and evolved their specification of what an assault rifle is. But regardless it is a military term, defined by the military, not by the press.

At the time of the American War of Independence (1775 – 1783) the military force to be reckoned with was the British army and their most commonly used assault rifle was the Brown Bess. Given the technology of the time, it was the best weapon for the job. It was a muzzle loading, single shot, smooth bore, .75 caliber musket. It had flint lock ignition and was 58.5 inches long and weighed 10.5 pounds. The rate of fire was dependent on how skilled the soldier was at manually reloading powder, wad, and bullet; typically 3 to 4 rounds every 1 minute.

Fast forward to World War II (1939 =- 1945) and the us military was using the M1 Garand .30 caliber assault rifle. By this time period military’s requirement for an assault rifle included the requirement for semi-automatic firing capabilities using a relatively high powered cartridge. At that time soldiers were trained in battlefield type warfare and were expected to use deliberate aimed fire. However, the assault rifle specification required a semi-automatic firing mechanism. This means that the shooter need only pull the trigger to fire a cartridge. The rifle’s mechanism would fire the cartridge currently loaded in the chamber then eject the empty cartridge case and load a fresh cartridge from the magazine, thus firing the rifle each time the trigger was pulled with no other actions required by the soldier.

The M14 was phased into the US military between 1961 – 1965 to replace the M1 Garand. It still fired the high powered .30 caliber cartridge of the Garand but now the specification for an assault rifle had an added requirement, it must have “selective fire” capabilities. This means that the soldier must have the capability to select either semi-automatic or full-automatic operation. With full-automatic operation, once the trigger is pulled, the rifle will automatically continue to fire cartridges, one after the other, until the trigger is released. Warfare tactics were changing. There was less emphasis on deliberate aimed fire and more emphasis placed on sending more bullets downrange, sarcastically referred to as the “spray and pray” philosophy of rifle fire. There was one big problem with the selective fire options. The high powered cartridge of the M14 generated so much recoil that it was virtually uncontrollable in full-automatic mode, so that mode was almost never used.

Hiram Maxim is credited with producing the first full-automatic machine gun in 1885; it is not a new concept. An important note however, The National Firearms Act of 1934 prohibited the possession of full-automatic firearms by private citizens and that law still stands. The law was in response to the widespread use of automatic weapons such as the Thompson machine gun (Tommy gun) by the gangsters of the 1920 and 1930s. So, although the military adopted selective fire assault rifles in the 1960s, civilians were prohibited from owning them. So, even though they have been illegal in civilian ownership since 1934, every time there is a mass shooting some bright reporter call for a ban on them. They are already banned!

In 1964, the M16 entered U.S. military service and the following year was deployed for jungle warfare operations during the Vietnam War. In 1969, the M16A1 replaced the M14 rifle to become the U.S. military’s standard service rifle.

The introduction of the M16 ushered a radical change in firearms design and construction. As often happens with government sponsored research, some aspects of the M16’s innovations were adopted by the manufactures of sporting and recreational products for the civilian market. These innovations included; molding gun stocks from high strength polymers instead of carving them from wood. and the simplification of the gas system which provides the semi-automatic capability.
M4 Carbine

The jungles of Vietnam highlighted the shortcomings of wooden rifle stocks. High humidity and temperature can warp wood which can affect the accuracy of a wooden stocked rifle. The M16 addressed this issue by using stocks molded of high strength polymers. This provided two benefits, no warping from temperature or humidity and mass production enhancements by molding instead of carving wood. The other radical change was a departure from the relatively high powered .30 caliber cartridge of previous assault rifles. The M14 demonstrated that full auto fire with the .30 caliber round was simply not practical. However, selective fire capability was still a requirement for an assault rifle. So the M16 was chambered for a newer, smaller, lower powered cartridge of .223 caliber (5.56 mm). The new cartridge met several military requirements; the rifle that fired it could be smaller and lighter than previous assault rifles; even the lighter rifle was controllable in full auto fire; the cartridge itself was smaller and lighter which allowed each soldier to carry many more rounds with them. All these changes were a result of the changing face of modern day combat. No longer did armies meet each other across a battlefield. Modern war is gorilla war and urban war (close up and personal). In a modern war, the soldier needed volume of fire more than they needed long range knock down power. The foot soldier needed a close range weapon and long range precision shooting was done by specially trained snipers (with a completely different set of requirements).

In the years since the M16 was introduced the US assault rifle has evolved into today’s M4 carbine. It is a shorter and lighter variant of the M16 assault rifle used during the Vietnam War. The M4 is a 5.56 caliber, air-cooled, direct impingement gas-operated, magazine-fed carbine. It has a 14.5 in barrel and a telescoping stock.
Weight – 6.5 lb (2.9 kg) empty; 7.49 lb (3.40 kg) with 30 rounds
Caliber – 5.56 mm (.223 in)
Barrel length – 14.5 in (370 mm)
Over all length – 33 in (840 mm) (stock extended); 29.75 in (756 mm) (stock retracted)
Rate of fire (cyclic) – 700 – 900 rounds per minute

So the current correct definition of an assault rifle, in the US, is a lightweight, small caliber, selective fire rifle. Because if the selective fire requirement, assault rifles have been highly restricted from civilian ownership since The National Firearms Act of 1934 was enacted.

Now to the civilian sporting rifle marketplace. Americans love and respect their military. Because of this, several commercial sporting goods from cloths to firearms copy the style of their military counterparts. This has happened with sporting rifles. Te AR15 sporting rifle is a manifestation of this trend. It borrows from many of the technological innovations developed for the M16. They even look a lot like an M16 or an M4. But they are not! They do not have selective fire capabilities and their barrel length is limited by law to 16 inches minimum (note the M4 has a 14.5 inch barrel). Again, the term “assault rifle” is a military term, they own the definition, not the news media, and an AR15 does not meet the definition, even if it has cosmetic similarities.

Because the press decided to redefine the term “assault rifle” based on external appearance only, the politicians felt left out so they decided they would play the game and redefine the term again. In 1994, US President Bill Clinton signed into law the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, placing restrictions on the number of military features a gun could have and banning large capacity magazines for consumer use. The law banned certain semi-automatic firearms with two or more specific design features, and also prohibited the manufacture of ammunition magazines that held over ten rounds. The ban only applied to weapons manufactured after the date of the ban’s enactment, and it expired on September 13, 2004, in accordance with its sunset provision. The Act also exempted any firearm that is manually operated by bolt, pump, lever, or slide action.

Under the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 the definition of “semi-automatic assault weapon” included specific semi-automatic firearm models by name, and other semi-automatic firearms that possessed two or more from a set certain features:

Semi-automatic rifles able to accept detachable magazines and two or more of the following:

  • Folding or telescoping stock
  • Pistol grip
  • Bayonet mount
  • Flash suppressor, or threaded barrel designed to accommodate one
  • Grenade launcher

Both sides in the gun debate are misusing academic reports on the impact of the 1994 assault weapons ban, cherry-picking portions out of context to suit their arguments. However the sunset clause in the law was not extended in 2004 so we have to assume that no politician could identify any benefits to public safety during its 10 year run. After all how does banning telescoping stocks or pistol grips on rifles make us safer. Banning grenade launchers, really, grenades are not legally available for sale outside the military, so a grenade launcher can not be used by a civilian so banning it is a do-nothing ban just to make politicians happy.

Back to the “ugly gun” syndrome. Previous to the technological innovations introduced by the development of the M16, sporting rifles typically had wooden stocks and highly polished metal. The wood was often chosen for appearance of the grain etc. and rivaled the quality of wood used in the finest furniture. The wood was often checkered and sometimes embellished with hand executed carvings. The metal was highly polished and sometimes covered with elaborate engraving. Many gun owners viewed them as a work of art as much as a hunting or shooting tool. With the introduction of the AR15 into the sporting world, all this changed. Instead of fine quality, hand carved wood, the rifle’s stock was “ugly” black plastic. All the metal was finished in a dull, non reflective finish. Even the sacred tradition that any quality gun must have all its metal parts made of steel was out the window. The AR15 used high strength aluminum in some metal parts to reduce weight. To a rifle purist, the AR15 was just plain ugly. To a gun manufacturer it was designed to take advantage of modern manufacturing techniques with fewer production steps requiring hand fitting by skilled gunsmiths. To the press this was great because they no longer need to even try to do any research on the weapon used when reporting a shooting; if it was ugly and black, it was an “assault rifle”.

So now there are 3 possible definitions of “assault rifle”
(1) The military definition (key feature being the selective fire capability). This is the correct definition. They have been restricted from civilian use since 1934.
(2) The Clinton administration’s definition. This definition was created by politicians, for politicians, but even they did not believe in it so it was eventually abandoned.
(3) The news media definition. Ugly and black. Obviously leaves something to be desired in the details.

If I may nit pick a bit more, some reporters try to inject a bit of variety by also calling an AR15 a “high powered rifle”. Not sure what they mean by this since, as I mentioned previously, one of the design criteria of the M16 (which spawned the AR15) was that it be significantly lower powered than previous versions of assault rifle to accommodate the needs of todays urban warfare. So, when they say high powered, what are they comparing it to? A BB gun perhaps?

When you see a news story that makes obvious mistakes in basic terminology, how can you believe any thing they report? If they are lazy about researching terminology, they are probably lazy about researching the rest of the facts of the story.

In conclusion, all things ugly are not necessarily evil, not even ugly guns.