It’s Time To Retire “Assault Rifle”

    Pictured: A "No Assault Rifle Zone". Machine carbines, avtomats, and automatic rifles are still welcome. Thanks to Othais for the sweet graphic.

    If you’ve spent any time at all in military history circles, you will have probably witnessed or been a participant in an argument about what, exactly, an “assault rifle” is, or whether a particular weapon qualifies as one. I, personally, have enjoyed this totally unproductive and thoroughly wasteful argument in one form or another more times than I could possibly keep track of. Although, maybe that says more about my memory than anything else…

    Where was I? Oh yes, why do people argue about this so much? Well, yes, naturally it’s because people – myself included – love arguing for its’ own sake, but we don’t see the same arguments about, say, bolt-action rifles, or compact handguns. What makes “assault rifle” special enough that it sparks argument after argument over whether the FAL, M2 Carbine, or whatever rifle qualify to be put under that umbrella? Maybe we can blame the term’s country of origin? After all, it wouldn’t be the first time a German concept would be somewhat controversial.

    Although many definitions of the term coexist with one another, with the rise of the Internet – and more specifically the universality of Wikipedia as a reference – it seems the majority of people today use this definition of “assault rifle”:

    An assault rifle is a selective-fire rifle that uses an intermediate cartridge and a detachable magazine.

    That’s great and all, but there’s a major problem with this definition: What in Great Heck is an “intermediate cartridge”?

    An intermediate cartridge is a firearm cartridge that is less powerful than typical full-power battle rifle cartridges such as the United Kingdom .303 British, Russian 7.62×54mmR, German 7.92×57mm Mauser or United States .30-06 Springfield, but still have significantly longer effective range than pistol cartridges.

    So… Which one is it less powerful than, exactly? .303 British is generally speaking less powerful than .30-06 Springfield, so is anything less powerful than .30-06 an “intermediate cartridge”, or does it have to also be less powerful than .303 British? How much less powerful does it have to be? .303 British produces roughly 3300 Joules of energy, so would a cartridge that produced 3200 Joules be an “intermediate cartridge”? That would include an awful lot of “full power” rifle cartridges, like 7mm Mauser, or 6.5 Swedish.

    Oh yes, I won’t deny I am the reigning Emperor of Needless Quibbling, but think about how confusing it can get to have the definition of an assault rifle rest on the definition of the ammunition it’s firing. Take your select-fire G3 to the range and shoot German DM111 147gr FMJs (traveling at about 2,750 ft/s, for about 3400 J) through it and it’s not an assault rifle. Load it with rare 113gr 7.62x51mm CETME ammunition (traveling at about 2,600 ft/s, for about 2300 J), and suddenly it’s an assault rifle. DM111, not an assault rifle, 7.62 CETME, assault rifle. Now it isn’t, now it is; back and forth. Heaven forbid you alternate DM111 and CETME ammunition in the magazine; do that, and you have a weapon that defies categorization at 600 rounds per minute.

    Clearly, we have a problem.

    What do we do about it? We could argue over what definition to use, or try to define “intermediate cartridge” better by adding made-up performance bounds at the expense of making the definition accessible and immediately meaningful to introductory audiences – and potentially making some rifles qualify or not depending on what the temperature is outside. We could redefine the term, dropping the reference to intermediate power ammunition entirely, but I suspect this will only make arguments worse.

    It’s clear what needs to be done. “Assault rifle” simply has to go.

    Ah, well, that shouldn’t be too ridiculous of a suggestion, should it? After all, Adolf Hitler invented it, and he’s not been popular for years now. You don’t really want to be using a term that a dork like Hitler invented, do you? Of course not!

    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]