Assault Rifles, Assault Weapons and why your AR/AK pattern rifle isn’t one
Probably the most powerful fear based tool I’ve seen used in the media (and thus out of the mouths of friends and associates who don’t know any better) is the insistence that there are millions of people in America with these incredibly powerful, fully automatic and ready-for-war military-grade assault weapons here in America. The uninformed (or perhaps those with agendas) have crammed the word “assault rifle” and “assault weapon” so far into popular culture, when combined with violent movies and video games of the actual military hardware these folks believe are in the hands of every day people, that every day people are up in arms about the epidemic of weapons of war on our streets. I’m here to tell you that this simply isn’t true, and there’s some important distinctions to make.
The AK-47 and AR-15 are probably the two most iconic rifle patterns in the world. In both semi-automatic and automatic form, they look similar on the surface. Typically, weapons that are capable of fully automatic action (or even 3 round burst) have a fire selector with 3 options: SAFE, FIRE and AUTO. These weapons are very difficult to get as a civilian. They are expensive, they require special licensing (tax stamp) and they open up the owners to the extended scrutiny of the ATF. I can say with accuracy that of 1000 “assault rifle” pattern guns sold today, maybe 1 is capable of automatic action.
Below, I have 3 photos that demonstrate my point. The first is a typical “black gun”, an AR pattern rifle. This is a consumer class rifle. Admittedly, it’s pretty scary looking to someone who doesn’t understand the difference between a consumer level semi-auto hunting/defense rifle like the one shown here and an automatic weapon of war, which we’ll show after.
On the civilian versions of these guns, the fire selector toggle comes in “FIRE” and SAFE”, meaning they either will fire one round at a time, as the trigger is pulled, or they won’t fire at all (SAFE). Here is a closeup of that selector in a consumer available AR-15.
The military version, the M-16, has a selector with 3 positions, SAFE, FIRE and AUTO. This makes the weapon an “assault rifle” and also a “machine gun” by the loosest of definitions. This image should clear up any confusion.
While this rifle does fit the villainous design so often associated with an assault rifle, it really isn’t any different in firepower than an average hunting rifle. In a common configuration, they both fire a .223 Remington round, they both have a barrel of at least 16 inches and they both are semi-automatic, only shooting as quickly as the handler of the weapon can pull the trigger. To put this in perspective, here we have another image, this time of two rifles that fire the same cartridge at the same rate. What makes the one on the bottom an assault rifle?
But all assault rifles are automatic!
With some exceptions, I’m going to agree with this statement. Assault rifles, assault weapons and their ilk are generally capable of automatic fire. That said, we have to draw a line at how this verbage is misused.
The more important distinction is “semi-automatic”, meaning the weapon will fire one round as quickly as you can pull the trigger. A large portion of the handguns and rifles sold the consumers today are semi-automatic. Here’s an example graphic to prove the point.
It’s because I’m black, isn’t it?
It’s a tongue and cheek comparison to make, but it’s one I’ve heard used seriously in the past. What makes the typical scary black rifle so scary? Is it because it’s black? Hunting rifles come in black too, but most people think of hunting rifles as a wood stocked/wood furnished rifle used just for hunting, and that’s solely what it is made for. To the untrained critic, as hunting rifles are rarely used in mass shootings, they are somehow less deadly or less likely to be used in a crime. The AR pattern rifle above has a few things that add to it’s fear inducing skin. The front grip (also known as a quad rail) is often outfitted with lights, bi-pods, grips, etc. These things can also be put on many hunting rifles, but the AR platform makes it simply as everyhttng has been standardized using the picatinny rail system.
Of course, tell this to someone that has been affected personally by gun violence. To them, a big black scary rifle is just that.. terror inducing. The fear is understandable, considering how often we hear horror stories of school shootings and unhinged gun owners going on rampages. Note that *any* weapon, be a firearm of any kind, a knife, a baseball bat.. anything could be used with deadly affect with the wielder decided to do so. Having an automatic weapon (or even a large capacity semi automatic weapon) may make this destructive streak easier to perpetrate but it does not make any of the consumer level weapons an “assault rifle”.
To demonstrate the point even further, I’m going to give you an example of a “furniture replacement”. This refers to removing the wood stock and other furnishings and replacing it with a composite furniture set, usually because they are aging, or you want a more modern looking rifle. While many are drop-ins that look similar, simply made of different material, others transform the look of the rifle entirely, such as the move from a standard hunting rifle to an archangel pattern rifle. Keep in mind that nothing internally about this rifle has change. It is still semi-automatic. It still uses the same caliber cartridge. It is still just as deadly, and only as deadly as it was in it’s previous format. However, now that it’s black and the configuration of furniture has changed, it is considered by the untrained masses as an “assault weapon”.
Of course it’s an “assault rifle”, that’s what the AR stands for.
This is one I have to correct almost weekly within my group of friends that don’t shoot (yes, I have those!) AR does not stand for assault rifle or automatic rifle or anything similar. AR stands for Armalite Rifle, a manufacturer of the AR pattern rifles that has made them since the 1950s. Armalite, along with Colt and several other manufacturers, was producing both AR-15s (civilian models) and M-16s (military versions of the rifle) back in the 50s and 60s. While these and other manufacturers produce tens of thousands of these rifles (and others with similar capability) for the U.S. Military, they also product millions upon millions of consumer versions in semi-automatic versions that are suitable for hunting, target practice and defense.
The ban, the gun grabbers and the on-going need to define
As is the case with these things, the notion of using fear to intimidate and confuse by the gun grabbers, i.e. anyone who wants no one to own guns, is a smart tactic. After all, fear doesn’t need rationality or common sense to validate it’s existence. Fear can stand on it’s own, and often does. It’s because of this that we have movement toward bans of various degrees, some as specific and practical as “no high capacity magazines” where a maximum number of rounds in each magazine is defined and you are in violation if you exceed that count to the outlandishly overreaching of “all black guns are banned”. While so many gun collectors and enthusiasts will disagree with me when I say that some regulation is a good thing (i.e. no explosives, no fully automatic without tax stamps, waiting periods, etc.), the bulk of the fear based pontificating I’ve heard about gun control is both misinformed and nearly impossible to impose. At the end of the day, the NRA has lobbyists just as effective as the anti-gun crowd, and we’ll always be somewhere in the middle.
Since “assault rifles” are a manufactured marketing term used by the anti-gun crowd to describe a weapon based almost entirely on form and not function, let’s look at some of the key factors that the gun grabbers have used to classify every day semi-automatic rifles as “assault rifles”.
Collapsing/Folding/Adjustable Stocks – While most hunting rifles have fixed stocks, many military-style rifles have some form of adjustable stock. This could mean that the stock folds out of the way, allowing for closer carry to the body and most pistol-like handling of the weapon. The stock could be adjustable, telescoping from one size to another to accommodate different arm lengths, shooting positions and shooter’s comfort in using the weapon. None of these features affect the weapon’s ability to fire more rounds with the single pull ofa trigger or a larger round or more capacity to fire without reloading, but it is one of the key figures used in defining an assault rifle.
Pistol Grips – Some of these rifles may have a pistol grip either in place or a stock (fixed or adjustable) or in addition to. Many of those looking to restrict access to these weapons cite the pistol grip being the first step toward concealing the high powered rifle and increasing it’s potential to cause mass harm in busy places like malls and at events. While this point does have some merit, any semi-automatic rifle could have it’s stock cut down to a smaller size or reformed to allow this portability. A pistol grip does not an assault weapon make, in that it does not increase the potential for fire to automatic and it does not increase the capacity of the firearm to fire more or faster.
Flash Hiders – A flash hider is a piece of metal at the end of a barrel, used to diffuse the ejecting fireball that accompanies a bullet as it leaves the barrel. Some have argued that a flash hider would aid an assault by hiding the source of the gun fire from those being fired upon. Even with a flash hider, there is still flash to be seen. The dissipation of the flash may be smaller or it may appear in a different pattern, but no flash hiders completely remove the flash from being seen. Here is a great video showing a series of flash hiders and muzzle brakes being fired, demonstrating that the flash may be altered, but it never disappears.
Magazine Capacity – So called “hi-cap magazines” are magazine that hold more than 10 (or 7 in some parts of the country) rounds at one time. Typically, AR and AK pattern rifle magazines come in 10, 20 and 30 round capacity, with drums holding 75 to 100 rounds. It does make logical sense that, in a siege situation where putting many rounds into a crowd would be ideal for the perpetrator, having a large capacity does have it’s advantages. That said, a guy with 3 thirty round magazines and a guy with 9 ten round magazines will do the same damage. The difference is in the few seconds it would take to load another magazine. While magazine capacity does increase the ability of the shooter to put more bullets on target in less time, this does not increase the power of the cartridge or allow for shooting more than one round at a time. The Columbine High School incident taught us this. Shooter Eric Harris was limited to 10 round magazines in his Hi-Point 995 rifle. He simple used more of them. Thirteen magazines were used during his assault on Columbine High School, for a total of 96 rounds fired. A magazine capacity limitation did nothing to stop this situation from occuring.
Detachable Magazines – This one is already law in parts of the country, and there has been circumstantial and anecdotal evidence of the benefits in these scenarios. Much like the magazine capacity argument, have a non-detachable magazine would force the user to load the weapon from the top of the lower, putting the rounds in one at a time. There would be no second magazine at the ready. While I can agree that in an assault situation where a bad guy with a gun was going to use that gun to kill a crowd of people, running out of ammunition at 10 rounds and having to reload by hand would slow that person down. It wouldn’t stop them from bringing more guns and it wouldn’t stop them from reloading, but it would, admittedly, slow them down over simply reloading another loaded magazine.
While all of this regulation works to curb ownership and restrict our rights to bear arms, what it doesn’t seem to do is to stop crime. In Gun Free Zones, gun crimes seem to happen often and without restriction. In cities and states with tough gun laws, the crime rates continue to be high. One can only surmise, based on this, that banning scary rifles for the sake of not allowing scary rifles into the hands of those that want them and can handle them does more to upset a group of responsible citizens then it does to stop crime. I’m hoping all of this helps put some knowledge on the subject for my readers and those who hold a phobia over a rifle just because it’s black and not because it’s likely to lead to more crime. The next time you’re accused of being an assault weapon owner, feel free to link them to this page. I’ll be glad to set them straight.