The assault rifle…and what it’s not

I firmly believe that we should know what things actually are. The information provided by most news sources is rarely very helpful in that regard, but there is probably no subject where the media machine is more diabolically unhelpful than firearms.

I’m probably preaching to the choir here, as most of my small readership likely knows guns well, either through owning and using them or through games and history, but you never know.

So I was pleased to come across a brief post on the Castalia House blog featuring the original archetype of the dreaded assault rifle: the German Sturmgewehr 44, developed by Germany during World War II.

[The new assault rifle] was able to fire single shot or automatic.  Front line troops soon learned that the added firepower was well worth the cost in ammunition and also gave infantry platoons tactical flexibility as the [sic] were not wholly dependent on less maneuverable machine guns for firepower. By 1944, its worth proven many times over, Hitler officially authorized the weapon which was renamed to the Sturmgewehr 44 (StG 44).

“Wargame Wednesday: Volks-Grenadier Weapons,” Emphasis has been added.
German Sturmgewehr 44, the world’s first assault rifle. (image via

After witnessing the fantastic effectiveness of the Sturmgewehr 44 in WWII, every military in the world soon started using an assault rifle of some sort as the primary infantry weapon — a state of affairs that persists today.

What an assault rifle is

So now we know what an assault rifle is: Like the original German StG44, it is a rifle that can be fired either one shot at a time (i.e., semiautomatic) or as a fully automatic machine gun.

And it is not high-powered, but actually quite mild as far as rifles go (which makes its ammunition lighter and easier to carry and makes the weapon itself easier to control in full-auto firing).

The fifth and sixth from left are AK-47 and M-16 assault rifle cartridges. At left are three common pistol cartridges. At far right are two standard hunting cartridges.

When it comes to assault rifles, there are two that everyone probably recognizes.

Immediately after WWII, the Soviets came up with the Avtomat Kalashnikov rifle: the iconic AK-47.

An AK-47 assault rifle. (image via

It took the US a while longer to get its assault rifle worked out, but in the late ’60s it finally fielded an icon of its own: the M-16 rifle, designed by the Armalite company.

U.S. M-16 assault rifle variants. (image via

Both of these, in updated variations, are currently used by militaries around the globe.

What an assault weapon is not

Remember, it’s important to know what things ACTUALLY ARE, not merely what they look like or what some dubious authority says.

The things we’re usually told are “assault weapons” look a heck of a lot like assault rifles, but they are not.

They are ordinary semiautomatic* rifles, many millions of which are owned by millions of trustworthy, law-abiding Americans (and citizens of many other countries, too). They are commonly used — roughly in order of frequency, and in inverse order of importance — for target practice, competitive sport, hunting, and self-defense.

Appearance and accessories have nothing to do with the distinction between what is and is not an assault rifle. They look virtually identical at first glance, and may even use the same kind of ammunition, but they perform very differently.

But how can you know what’s what when they look so similar? Here are three ways:

  1. Look for the selector switch. An assault rifle has a three-position selector lever for safe, single, and automatic fire. An ordinary civilian rifle simply has “safe” and “fire” because it’s an ordinary semiautomatic firearm.
  2. Look for context. If it’s not being wielded by an actual soldier, you can safely assume that it’s not an assault rifle. Assault rifles are military equipment. They’re not found on the streets outside war zones and are generally not legal for civilians to own.*
  3. If it’s in the news, remember that journalists know nothing about firearms and what they tell you about guns is almost always flat wrong.* If a news report calls something an assault rifle or an “assault weapon,” you can safely assume it’s nothing of the sort — but it is something they want you to be scared of. (Is it something you should be scared of? Knowing what things actually are, you can make up your own mind about that.)

And now, assuming you made it this far, you know basically what an assault rifle is and is not (if you didn’t already). Certainly it’s more than the world’s media gatekeepers want you to know. (If they wanted us to know this, they would’ve told all of us clearly, very long ago; none of this is new or difficult.)

Finally, why am I writing about this at all?

Because I’m a gun nut: a zealous advocate, practitioner, and student of the civil rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

Also, because I love games and I’m ever so slowly building an Old West themed tabletop roleplaying system that aims to get guns right.

* Semiautomatic means that when the trigger is pulled, one bullet is fired, and the recoil energy is harnessed to load a new cartridge. One shot per trigger pull — the benefit being that you don’t have to manually reload after every shot. This, by the way, is old technology — over 130 years old.

* This is generally true, but not absolutely so. In the USA, machine guns (rarely owned outside the military to begin with) were subjected to an expensive, restrictive taxation and registration scheme in 1934. In 1986, the registry was closed; any automatic firearm manufactured after that date is outright illegal for citizens to own. Assault rifles are rare collectors’ items for the wealthy; investments, not weapons.

* You may think I sound like a nut here, but the more you know about firearms, the more you’ll see how ignorant most journalists truly are on the subject. They don’t know and they don’t want to know, and they’re perfectly happy to leave you ignorant and misinformed, too. Even the rudimentary intro I’ve provided here puts you a step ahead of what you’ll get from the news.

2 thoughts on “The assault rifle…and what it’s not

Add yours

  1. Being from a country where almost nobody has guns, I actually know little about them and it’s one of the reasons I avoid writing stories with them. I didn’t know semi-automatic means self-loading, for example.

    I knew journalists were probably being misleading about this thing though, but I assume that about everything anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a very sensible and healthy assumption, one I came around to far later than I should have. I’m still not sure if journalists are misleading about guns because they *want* to be or because they simply don’t care to get it right. Either way, they don’t deserve the trust most people seem to give them — in *anything,* not just guns.

      Self-loading: that’s a helpful term that I totally forgot to use, and it’s a much better term (although less common) than semiautomatic.

      I’m glad this was useful to at least one person. 🙂

      I’m probably not the only one to have recommended it, and you may already have done it, but if you ever get the chance to go shooting, DO IT. It’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

      And if you ever find yourself in the US, make time to go to a place that’s not a big city and find someone who will take you out shooting. Rural areas and states in the Midwest, Mountain West, or South/Southwest are generally the best because there’s plenty of open land where you’re free to shoot whatever and however you like. Gun owners are everywhere and we love to share the gospel, so it shouldn’t be hard to do. 🙂 If you’re ever in the Northwest, drop me a line.

      Liked by 1 person

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