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Assault rifle

Assault rifle is a specific military term for various types of fully-automatic and select-fire (multi-shot burst) intermediate-power long guns.

Note: this term should not be confused with the loosely-defined term assault weapon, which refers to any of a number of classes of pistols, rifles, and shotguns.

Table of contents
1 Mission
2 Effects on Doctrine and Organization
3 History
4 Recent history
5 External link


The typical identified mission of an assault rifle is to provide fire support at ranges up to 200 yards by ordinary troops. That is, it is designed for massed anti-personnel fire at short ranges with simple maintenance.

Doctrines about the desirability of this rifle vary. Studies by the U.S. Army indicated that most conflicts between soldiers occurred at ranges of 100 yards or less. Russian doctrines asserted that the typical troop was unable to aim beyond 400 m, and therefore that should be the ultimate aimed range of a rifle for massed fire.

As a massed military weapon, assault rifles share common features: light weight, hand grips positioned for good instinctive pointing (for unaimed "intuitive" fire), bayonet lugs (to provide lethality without ammunition), selectable fire rates, high reliability, large magazines, and simplified operation. Many lightweight semiautomatic civilian rifles, being meant only for personal defence use, provide similar features but omit selective-fire and bayonet lugs.

Assault rifles cause injuries more often than death. Doctrines vary concerning this effect. The U.S. military states that this is an intentional plan to overload enemy logistics with wounded, and the high command is gratified both to be merciful and enable average troops to pull the trigger with less guilt. Some Russian accounts state that the lower lethality is an accidental side-effect of the cartridge's smaller powder charge, which they tried to overcome by making the bullet more lethal at lower energies. (See AK-47 for details).

Military assault rifles include a setting for full-automatic fire. The speed varies.

The fastest select-fire setting of the U.S. M16A2 rifle engages a three-part automatic sear that fires "optimal" three-round bursts for each pull of the trigger. The U.S. Army uses this feature to enhance the reliability of a shot under combat conditions. The U.S. still does not issue fully automatic weapons to ordinary riflemen in order to reduce the amount (and thus the weight) of ammunition carried by soldiers and support vehicles. In the 1990s, however, the new fully automatic M4 Carbine was fielded in large quantities for radio operators, officers, and troops other than front line riflemen.

Some later models of the Russian AK-47 (Kalashnikov) automatic weapons can reduce the rate of fire below five rounds per second. Although this may aid logistics, lowered logistic loads is said to be a doctrine of secondary importance. The lower rate of fire is to help middle-quality shooters, while it is said to limit better shooters. Many Russian troops apparently dislike this accessory, because it reduces the rate of fire during assaults, and is less reliable than a simple automatic sear.

Effects on Doctrine and Organization

To reduce logistic problems, and still provide high rates of fire, some current military doctrines employ a squad automatic weapon used by one or a few specially-trained soldiers in a squad.

When assault rifles were adopted, ordinary troops became less able to perform sniping. Russians never gave up aimed fire, as the U.S. did, because an enemy always finds it difficult to replace experienced officers and non-coms. Russian and derived doctrines retain squad-level snipers, while the U.S. and its derived doctrines maintain a sniper team at the battalion level.

In the late 1970s, after experience in Vietnam, Russians adopted weapons with lighter weights. The helicopter had become an important, perhaps the primary means of resupply to embattled troops. At this point, the USSR adopted an even lower-weight cartridge and rifle, using a 5.45 mm bullet.


The concept of an assault rifle was born during the 1930s in several armies needing an infantry weapon with an intermediate-power ammunition, heavier than submachine guns (too weak and with a too short trajectory) and lighter than that for long rifles (uncomfortable to shoot, and difficult to control on full-automatic).

Statistical studies of real battles performed by the U.S. Army indicated that combat beyond 200 yds is rare. Russians saw no reason to make a rifle that shoots beyond a rifleman's ability to aim.

Therefore a lighter, less-powerful cartridge could be effective. This permitted a lighter rifle. It also helped troops carry more ammunition, making them more autonomous. The lighter ammunition would use far less cargo capacity on trains, trucks, ships and helicopters. This reduces the cost of resupply. In addition, the smaller size and easy handling of an assault rifle would reduce the burden on tank crews, support troops, and units with missions other than front line combat.

Other new requirements included smaller dimensions, ease of construction, a removable magazine, and the possibility of selective automatic fire.


The first concrete attempt to provide soldiers with such a weapon was by the italian arms company Beretta, with its MAB 38 (Moschetto Automatico Beretta 1938). This was developed at the same time as the US M1/M2 carbine was produced (the M2 version had selective fire).

The MAB 38 used a Fiocchi 9M38 cartridge, a higher-powered 9 mm Parabellum, which could provide a longer range. The useful range was about 200 m, althugh it was declared at 500 m.

The U.S. M1 carbine suffered because its cartridge was only marginally more powerful than pistol cartridges at the time. It was sufficiently better than the 1911A1 service pistol but not powerful enough to warrant replacing the millions of M1 Garand rifles already in service.

With its more powerful ammunition, the MAB 38 was more of a multipurpose weapon. As was also the Russian PPSh.

The Germans had studied the problem since WWI, and their factories made a variety of non-standard cartridges, so they had less incentive to remain with their existing calibers. At first they were still using the 8x57JS and 8 Mauser.

Polte's 7,9x30 cartridge was the best of that production, and in 1941 it was improved to 7,9x33 Infanterie Kurz Patrone. In 1942 it was improved again as Maschinekarbiner Patrone S and in 1943 Pistolen Patrone 43mE, then finally Infanterie Kurz Patrone 43. All these names follow the troubled creation of the Stg 44.

In 1942 Walther presented the Maschinenkarabiner (automatic carabine, abbr. MK), named MKb42(W). In the same year, Haenel presented the MKb42(H), designed by Hugo Schmeisser. Rheinmetall-Borsig (some said Krieghoff) presented its FG-42(Fallschirmjaeger Gewehr 42), perhaps more modern than the two MKb42s, but using a heavy 8x57 mm cartridge. The FG-42 was sponsored by Hermann Göring.

The war-time tests in Russia indicated the MKb42(H) was the best of the three. Schmeisser developed it first as the MP43, then MP43/1 and finally as the STG 44 Sturmgewehr. It immediately entered large scale production. More than 5,000 pieces had been produced by February 1944, 55,000 by the following November.

Significant models


Sturmgewehr 44

The first assault rifle was a German rifle, the StG 44 "Sturmgewehr" [1] ("assault rifle"). The term is now commonly used to indicate small-cartridge fully-automatic rifles issued to soldiers for battlefield use.

For much of the pre-WWII period the German army had relied on the machine gun as the primary infantry weapon, with rifles as a support weapon only. However in close combat both weapons proved largely ineffective, the machine guns being too heavy and powerful to move in "snapshot" situations while walking, and the rifles having far too slow a rate of fire to put up any effective supression on quickly dodging targets. Combat teams increasingly started using the sub-machine gun in place of rifles, and by 1943 "close combat" troops were common in the German army.

While they served well in this role, the sub-machine gun's lack of power was a concern. Such weapons were useful only in the short range role, leaving the infantry with a weapon with a reasonable rate of fire but useless in anything but the short range, or alternately a weapon with good range but useless in close combat. The answer was a weapon half-way between the sub-machine gun and rifle, one that was fully automatic but used a less powerful round to control recoil.

Using a new "cut down" version of their standard 7.92mm round known as the Kurz (for short), a new rifle was designed for this role. When it was introduced in late in WWII as the Sturmgewehr 44 (StG44), it quickly created an intense demand that was not met before the war ended. Today this concept is known as the assault rifle.


Enfield EM-2
In the immediate post-war era the British Army, like many other forces, started research into their own versions of the StG44. The army had planned to replace their .303" rimmed cartridge before
WWI but were forced to keep it due to time and money constraints for another 30 years. With these constraints removed they developed a new .280" (7mm) intermediate-power round, and set about developing a new rifle to fire it. At the same time Fabrique Nationale expressed considerable interest in the round, and started development of their own rifles based on it. The Canadian army also expressed interest in the new round, both to maintain commonality with the British, as well as to modernize their forces.

The Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield started working on two generally similar designs known as the Experimental Model 1 and 2. Both were bullpup style weapons with the magazine and chamber placed behind the trigger and grips, leading to a shorter overall design (by about 20%), used 20 round magazines with "stripper" reloads, included simple conical optical sights for fast shooting, and had carrying handles built into the top. They could fire semi-automatic or fully automatic bursts, and the .280 round was accurate to about 800 yards. The two differed primarily in details, but the EM-2 was eventually selected as the better design (though some say mostly due to it looking less space age), and entered limited service in 1951 as Rifle, Automatic, Caliber .280, Number 9 Mark 1.

It was at this point that the US put forth its own designs for NATO standardization, using the .308" (7.62mm) round in their M-14 rifle. Matters came to a head in 1951 in a shoot-off, with the US claiming the British round was underpowered, and the British claiming the US round was too powerful to be used in a full-auto mode. A series of lengthy debates followed, which were finally settled in an unlikely fashion when Canada stated they would use the British .280 round, but only if the US did as well. It was clear this would never happen. Winston Churchill felt a NATO standard was more important than any qualities of the gun itself. The EM-2 could not be easily adapted to the .308 round, so instead the British were forced to adopt a licensed version of the FN-FAL from Fabrique Nationale, itself an adaptation of their own .280 rifle design re-chambered for the .308.


It soon became clear to the US that the British had been correct all along, and the M-14 proved incapable of being fired in fully-automatic mode due to recoil. This meant the US had spent a lot of money changing from one semi-auto system, the Garand, to another, the M-14. Other forces found themselves with the same problem, leaving NATO with semi-auto weapons facing the true assault rifles, notably the famed AK-47, being built by the Soviets and deployed world-wide.

Into the story comes Eugene Stoner and the CONARC project to develop a new light-weight weapon for US use. His design combined the StG44's carrying handle, ejector port cover and hinged design, added a gas-operated firing mechanism from a Swedish rifle, and used an inline stock for better control in automatic (as opposed to most designs where the stock is bent down from the barrel to raise the sights up to eye level -- in the M-16 and EM-2 the sights were mounted on the carrying handle instead). The result was the AR-15 firing a .223" (5.56mm) round, which handily beat the other designs tested by CONARC. After special forces used it in Viet Nam and worked out some early deficiencies, the new M-16 rifle became the standard US weapon.


Needless to say, others in NATO were less than happy with this turn of events. Once again the British Army started looking at new designs, this time with even lighter rounds. Their research suggested that a slimmer bullet of the same general weight as the M-16's 5.56mm (.223") would result in the same ability to be fired in fully automatic, while having much better penetration and ballistics. The result was the .190" (4.85mm) round fitted in "necked down" but otherwise standard 5.56mm cartridges from the M-16.

The Royal Small Arms Factory once again developed a rifle to fire the new round. The new L64/65 was outwardly similar to the EM-2, but adopted a firing mechanism very similar to Armalite's latest AR-18 design. The first examples were available in 1972.

In 1976 it was decided to try NATO standarization once again, and the various newer rounds were tested head-to-head starting in 1977. The British round proved to do what the designers had imagined, completely outperforming the standard US 5.56. However Fabrique Nationale also introduced a new 5.56mm round at the competition, the SS-109, which had performance equal to the British. In the end it was selected largely due to similarity with existing US weapons; a theoretical advantage only, but a politically useful one.

Recent history

Near the end of WWII, development of the assault rifle continued as the individual histories of the AK-47 and M-16.

In the US, the term has recently been applied (for political reasons) to smaller semi-automatic guns. Arms manufacturers had for decades advertised the supposed resemblance of their civilian products to military weapons.

Some well known assault rifles are:

See also: Assault rifle bans, Gas-actuated, Firearm action

External link