Firearms Semantics: “Battle Rifle” and “Assault Rifle”

    To most TFB readers, the terms “battle rifle” and “assault rifle” are probably familiar ones. A “battle rifle” is something chambered in 7.62mm, or maybe any full power rifle cartridge, which has a big 20 round box magazine and fires semi-automatically (perhaps also with a fully automatic setting of limited usefulness). An “assault rifle” is, of course, a military rifle firing an “intermediate” cartridge with selectable fire control, to most.”Assault rifle” is a term that has been thoroughly entrenched in military literature ever since the late ’40s, and “battle rifle” may be getting there, too, as specialized 7.62mm selfloading rifles become popular. Even so, some of us firearms researchers aren’t entirely happy with either term. “Battle rifle” in particular is fairly distasteful to some of us as it was used before the 21st century to refer to simply any military infantry rifle, and the inclusion of the adjective “battle” appears to be an attempt to legitimize the older concept of 7.62x51mm selfloading weapons over newer, lighter, smaller-caliber weapons like the M4 or M16 which replaced it, usually by marketeers.

    This subject was one I had been contemplating for a while, when, in the process of writing my article “Before The Sturmgewehr: Assault Rifle Developments Prior to 1942”, I contacted Maxim Popenker, who runs the Modern Firearms website, about this and other subjects. Afterward, Max updated his Assault Rifle page header article, featuring these paragraphs:

    Here we must stop again and re-evaluate the term “Assault rifle”. It was officially used to name several weapons in various countries after the WW2. First of these post-war “Sturmgewehr” rifles were Swiss Stgw.57 (also known as SIG 510, caliber 7.5×55) and Austrian Stg.58 (License-built Belgian FN FAL, caliber 7.62×51), both being selective-fire rifles firing full-power ammunition. Probably the most ironic fact about these “Assault rifles” is that both Austria and Switzerland are neutral countries and their weapons serve primarily in the defensive role. In most English-speaking countries new weapons were (and still are) designated simply as “Rifle” (i.e. “Rifle, 7.62mm L1A1”, or “Rifle, 7.62mm M14”), without mentioning any specific role, be that assault, defense or anything else.
    Now we see that second generation of “assault rifles”, spawned by Stg.44, was in fact split into two groups – one firing “intermediate” ammunition, such as German Stg.44, Soviet AK-47 or Czechoslovak SA Vz.58, and another, firing full-power ammunition, such as American M14 and Ar10, Belgian FN FAL, German G3 or Swiss Stg.57.


    Therefore we must admit that “Assault weapon” is an artificial moniker which offers little of value compared to more generic “automatic rifle” and “automatic carbine” terms. In some cases it is used to specifically separate “intermediate power” automatic rifles from their “full power” cousins (which also has their own class name “battle rifles”, equally pointless), but its actual historical use proves that it’s not the case. Possibly the most correct designation for “reduced” or “intermediate” power automatic rifle from technical standpoint is the original German term “Maschinenkarabiner” or its English equivalents “Machine carbine” or “Automatic carbine”, because “carbine” in general means “short and light rifle”. The Russian term “Avtomat” in its modern sense is appropriately and officially defined in as “automatic carbine” as well. Despite that, the term “Assault rifle” however misleading it is, has certain gravitas, is in widespread use and, let’s accept it, sounds just cool, so, most probably, it still will be widely used to describe automatic carbines and rifles despite all facts pointed out above. Same applies to the “battle rifle” term, which is often used to describe modern “full power” automatic rifles such as M14, AR10, HK G3 or FN SCAR-H. In fact, there’s no significant tactical or ballistic difference between old 7,62x54R AVS-36, AVT-40 or FG-42 automatic rifles of WW2 era and most modern 7.62×51 automatic “battle” rifles.

    This echoed my own thoughts on the subject. A solid definition of the term “assault rifle” was possible, and the best include Tony Williams’ very specific definition, but doing so led to some problems: First, there were rifles that were clearly thought of by their home countries as “assault rifles” that wouldn’t fit most definitions (more on that in a minute), second, the word “assault” doesn’t really tell you anything about how the rifle is used or its characteristics – in fact the diagnostic feature of an assault rifle, its full automatic fire capability, is primarily used to repel ambushes, and third, in certain circumstances a rifle can qualify for one or more definitions of the term when configured in one way, but not qualify for those same definitions when configured another way (e.g., a SCAR-H configured with a highly effective muzzle brake meets Mr. Williams’ definition of the term, but remove the muzzle brake and it’s suddenly not an assault rifle anymore).

    The discussion came to a bit of a head a few days ago, after I had read Max’s new article, and chatted with him about the subject. Max posted to Facebook a picture of an Austrian FAL – which they call a “Sturmgewehr 58” – and asked “It’s a Sturmgewehr (oficially), but is it an Assault rifle?” What follows are some of the responses he received.


    Sturmgewehr yes, but assault rifle?

    From Pierangelo Tendas, a staff writer at

    Maxim, I am not an expert of Russian language, but somebody has a point here.

    Nowadays, the “first generation” of assault rifles are better categorized as “battle rifles”.

    The denomination of “battle rifle” should be given to any military service weapon that’s either semi-automatic or select-fire in nature (although most of them are actually pretty much not controllable in full-automatic!), firing a non-intermediate cartridge and being considerably longer and heavier than modern smaller-caliber assault rifles, also however offering a longer range.

    Under this point of view, the FN FAL and all its variants (including the StG58 in this case) would be “battle rifles” because they fire the 7,62x51mm cartridge, which is not intermediate. Same goes for the M14, the Beretta BM59, the Heckler & Koch G3, the SIG StGw.57 and SG-542, and the Howa Type 64.

    I suspect many readers will agree with Pierangelo. In a comment in this thread, I pointed out that no US document that I could find actually uses the term “battle rifle” in this way until after 2001, after which point they appear to be borrowing it as a term of art from the civilian sector. Following my comment, Remiguiz Wilk of the excellent Broń i Amunicja Facebook page came down firmly on the side of any derivatives of the FAL being “battle rifles”. He followed this up by posting an interesting breakdown of Polish rifle classification:

    For me it is simple, but it comes directly from Polish military norm from 2004 and current Polish Armed Forces military firearms classification system. It is based on tactical and technical characteristic combined with a cartridge type.

    There are four basic cartridge types – pistol, intermediate, rifle and heavy rifle, distinguished by combination of T&T characteristics and muzzle energy.

    So every weapon fed by pistol cartridge is “pistolet”, by intermediate is “karabinek”, rifle is “karabin” and heavy rifle is “wielkokalibrowy karabin”.

    So, the rifle cartridge (7,62 mm x 51 in this case) selective fire rifle which is individual armament of the soldier is “karabin automatyczny” which is “battle rifle”.

    The intermediate cartridge (for instance 5,56 mm x 45, 5,45 mm x 39, 7,62 mm x 39, 5,8 mm x 42) individual weapon is “karabinek automatyczny” i.e. “assault rifle”.

    Every country has a different classification system and when you take a look at the weapon only from tactical and technical point of view, the tactical role of the battle rifle and assault rifle was basically the same back in time, but it has changed recently, when intermediate cartridge won (not in every country like Turkey, but still).

    Now the basic individual firearm of the soldier is assault rifle (selective fire, fed from relatively high capacity magazine etc.) while the low level support rifle fed by rifle cartridge with an option for full auto fire (but it is not necessary) is battle rifle.

    Daniel Watters of the 5.56mm Timeline sought to find an origin for the use of the term “battle rifle” used in this context:

    In his 1984 book “The Fighting Rifle,” Chuck Taylor defined the separate classifications of assault rifle, battle rifle, and automatic rifle. I suspect that he had used these definitions in his earlier articles in one or more of the following magazines: Soldier of Fortune, SWAT, and Harris Publications’ “Special Weapons” annuals.

    Just found my copy of the “SWAT Showdown ’83” copyrighted 1982. Taylor was the editor of SWAT Magazine at the time, and wrote the following:

    “A ‘battle rifle’ is a full-powered, full-sized rifle, fires from a locked breech, may or may not utilize a detachable box magazine, and may or may not be capable of fully automatic fire.

    The premiere issue of Harris Publications’ “Special Weapons” was published in 1981. Taylor lays out his definition of an assault rifle as a selective-fire carbine, chambered for an intermediate cartridge, that uses a high capacity magazine. He then states that it is improper to use the nomenclature assault rifle to refer to full-size service rifles chambered for full-powered cartridges as these are battle rifles.

    I’ll need to dig out my old issues of SOF to see if there is an earlier incidence of Taylor using his definition of a battle rifle. I suspect that Jeff Cooper may have done the same in one of the many magazines to which he contributed.

    (It remains a piece of speculation on my part that “battle rifle” was invented by M14 manufacturers to help sell their rifles in an era when 5.56mm rifles were the hot new thing, but I do not have the evidence to back this up.)

    And Max further clarified his position:

    Daniel, the way I see it there are at least two different types of classification that may apply to these terms – tactical and technical.

    In a tactical sense, automatic rifle is an automatic squad support weapon, manned by a single soldier. Historically, in US Army this role was fulfilled by various types of guns – M1918 BAR (THE automatic rifle), M14 (“battle” rifle), M16A1 (“assault” rifle), M249 (LMG) and M27 IAR (“assault” rifle).

    The “assault” rifle in a tactical sense is an individual weapon of an infantryman. “Battle” rifle in a tactical sense? Really in a technical sense, all those weapons except M249 are “automatic rifles” by definition. Assault and battle rifle terms are further attempt to create sub-classification by physical properties of weapons (its cartridge and “power”). Technically, assault rifle is an equivalent of automatic carbine (light and compact), and battle rifle is an equivalent of “standard” automatic rifle.

    Therefore I see the “battle rifle” term absolutely excessive and unnecessary, and “assault rifle” (in its technical sense) somewhat misleading.

    What do our readers think? Is “battle rifle” the terminological equivalent of an appendix? Is it a useful new piece of nomenclature for describing specialized full caliber rifles? Let us know in the comments!

    Nathaniel F

    Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. He can be reached via email at [email protected]