What is an Assault Weapon?

What is an Assault Weapon?

A new year, another heated debate about gun control. It seems that the discussion really never ends on the topic – that’s all well and good, since safety and freedom are both key elements to any good society. What isn’t good is the amount of disinformation and wild claims being thrown around, so in the coming posts we’re going to discuss top ideas, points, claims, and attitudes seen in various social media platforms over the past couple of weeks. This article will focus on the nebulous Assault Weapon that many gun control advocates target so in further articles we can move on in an informed manner. I’ll primarily be basing this article content on a post I wrote in January 2016.

Assault Weapons

The term assault weapons is thrown around quite a bit in gun control debates, so let’s step back and figure out what an assault weapon is. Going to gun specialists, manufacturers, and stores, there’s a definitive answer, but first let’s look at when the term came to prominence.

How “Assault Weapon” is meant to mislead

Let’s go back to the year 1988. Back then the United States had a similar debate on the table as covered in this article by the Washington Post. I’ve referenced an excerpt they used, which I’ll include below. Bolding added by The Washington Post.

Excerpt 1:

…the issue of handgun restriction consistently remains a non-issue with the vast majority of legislators, the press, and public. . . . Assault weapons — just like armor-piercing bullets, machine guns, and plastic firearms — are a new topic. The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons — anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun — can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons.

“Assault weapon” is by no means a technical term, nor a classification used for firearms anywhere in the world. It’s a fictional term used to group everything the lobbyists (that’s right, there’s plenty of anti-gun lobbyists, too) don’t like into the same category, and is used to confuse Americans into what restrictions are actually being put into place, AND confusing different action types, thereby misleading the public.

So, what is an “Assault Weapon”?

What does “Assault Weapon” mean? Absolutely nothing! Taken literally, you can assume that it’s simply a weapon used for assault, which is by nature at least half of what a weapon is for. With such lack of clarity, it’s alarming that it’s used by every sensationalist news piece and by every anti-gun politician. In each use of the term by politicians, the actual meanings change, and if you were to ask someone what an “Assault Weapon” is, they would probably only be able to give a half-guessed term. There is, however, a general running trend in legislation that points out specific items as being characteristics of an assault weapon – they are as follows:

Semi-automatic firearm capable of accepting a detachable magazine This is, essentially, every modern firearm today with the exception of specialized hunting rifles and revolvers. You need to go back to around 1950 before modern combat rifles used clips vs. magazines – that rule alone is concerning to a majority of gun owners.
Folding or telescoping (collapsible) stock, which reduces the overall length of the firearm Again, this is a very common feature in rifles, but prominently in models that are typically associated with military rifles – AR15s, AK-47s, and hundreds or thousands more variations.

  • The idea of a telescoping sight isn’t for concealment purposes – it’s to allow the firearm to better fit the user. Not all of us have the same length arms to hold the rifle, and so a system to easily adjust it is required, as otherwise it would take extensive gunsmithing to properly use.
    In my own personal case, I am left-eye dominant. A majority of people are right-eye dominant, and so, rifles are built for right-eye dominant users. This means to properly use a scope, I have to put my face further across the stock of the rifle – if I didn’t have the ability to extend and adjust the stock length, this would be near impossible.
  • A folding stock is much more for storage purposes than any practical use. You’ll see folding stocks on systems similar to the AK-family. Try firing an AK-47 without a stock. You won’t hit a thing unless you’ve got a few bodybuilding trophies at home.

Regardless, the length of the firearm is not being modified with either stock system – the firearm, legally, is the part of the entire package that is involved in firing a round. This is actually an important clarification, as gun enthusiasts everywhere need to know – it’s one of the first things taught in any basic class. See “Existing Laws” below.

Pistol grip, whether rifle, shotgun, or pistol This one is just ridiculous. In no way does a pistol grip make any weapon more deadly – it’s a matter of comfort. In addition, saying that “a pistol grip can’t be on a pistol” is ridiculous, and the only way to abide by a ban with this classification is to either forfeit your firearms or illegally modify them. See “Existing Laws” below.
Bayonet lug, which allows the mounting of a bayonet I want to know who actually feels threatened by a bayonet anymore. It’s impractical for modern use – if you need a knife, use a knife (it’s a whole lot shorter). If you need a spear, use a spear (it’s 5 to 10 pounds lighter). This would actually encapsulate rifles from before 1950 (which were previously exempt from guideline #1), meaning that old piece of history your great grandfather passed on is an assault weapon, too.
Threaded barrel, which can accept devices such as a flash suppressor, suppressor, compensator or muzzle brake This is a very different topic, and there are already restrictions on this. See “Existing Laws” below.
Grenade launcher Reading this actually got a laugh out of me. That’s like saying your grocery list is “milk, eggs, bread, and heroin” – an entirely different category. See “Existing Laws” below.
Barrel shroud, which prevents burning of shooter’s arm or hand as a safety device … So, a safety feature? A barrel shroud on a firearm is, as stated, a safety device to avoid burning yourself.

How does this make something more dangerous? It doesn’t! This is probably an addition to dump in any remaining firearms that the above rules didn’t catch, since even single-shot rifles may have a barrel shroud.

Now, let’s try to clarify some top terms used in real firearm classifications. These are the same terms used by manufacturers, militaries and police, by informed gun owners, and everyone in between.

Single-Shot, Semi-Automatic, and Automatic Firearms

There are a few types of firearms when it comes to rate-of-fire and trigger action. Allow me to explain:

single shot firearm, typically seen in hunting rifles or boy’s rifles (older, .22lr rifles intended as a first firearm for decades), does as it implies – fires a single round before it has to be reloaded. You then have to manually open the action of the firearm, insert the round into the barrel, and close it before it can be fired again.

semi-automatic firearm, the most commonly manufactured and confused variant today, will fire a single round each time you pull the trigger. It is fed by either a clip (a system to hold the bullets in place to allow the rifle itself to load the next round, typically using a built-in spring system) or a magazine (what people typically think of as a clip – the spring is inside the detachable box and the box feeds the round into the firearm). I strongly need to reiterate this – a semi-automatic firearm can ONLY fire a single shot per pull of the trigger. There are no exceptions to the rule on this one.

An automatic firearm will fire multiple rounds per pull of the trigger. This can come in burst-fire (i.e. 3 rounds per trigger pull, standard on military rifles) or full-auto (the firearm will continue to fire until it jams, overheats, or in 99.99% of the time the magazine or belt runs out of ammunition). Most automatic weapons are NOT owned by civilians – they are owned by the military.

What does this mean? It means that rifles such as the AR-15 platform (the most commonly targeted firearm by gun control lobbyists) are almost always semi-automatic when owned by a civilian. See “Existing Laws” below for more on this.

Common Firearm / Gun Classifications and Configurations

There are a lot of variations and interpretations. These are, in broad strokes, the key and most common or relevant classifications and shouldn’t be taken as an extensive, complete list. Instead, it’s used to illustrate that there is no term “Assault Weapon”.

Handgun This is, simply, a pistol. It includes semi-automatic handguns (see above), revolvers, single-action pistols, and anything that is… Well, a handgun.
Long Gun This is a classification that goes along with most things that aren’t a handgun – carbines, rifles, and shotguns. They require two hands to operate and are typically fired from the hip (if you want to miss a lot) or the shoulder.The bore of the barrel (the internal diameter) cannot exceed 1/2 of an inch (.50 caliber), with the exception of shotguns and flare guns.
Semi-Automatic Rifle This is a long gun with a semi-automatic action. Civilian AR-15s and AK-47s are almost always semi-automatic rifles, and not assault rifles, as described below.It’s worth noting that a variety of what we call “Assault Rifles” (see below) are not, in truth, assault rifles, but are semi-automatic rifles. The military and police primarily use semi-automatic functions for the individual unit/soldier.

Again, the bore of the barrel cannot exceed 1/2 of an inch (.50 caliber).

Automatic Rifle A long gun with automatic functionality. Almost always military. See “AOW” below.
Assault Rifle This is likely the root of the term “Assault Weapon”, though again, any firearm can be called an “Assault Weapon” because it’s simply made up.An Assault Rifle is a rifle with automatic (including 3 round burst) capabilities, chambered in a round more powerful than a pistol cartridge but less than that of a full power cartridge.
Battle Rifle This is a ‘larger’ version of an Assault Rifle. Simply, it fires a larger bullet meant for greater range or effect.As there are hundreds of bullet types, pressures, and manufacturer differences, there’s no clear cutoff as to what an intermediary vs. a full cartridge is – however, the 7.62x38mm round used in the AK-series of firearms is large enough to classify as a Battle Rifle.
Any Other Weapon (AOW) This is a special classification for certain types of weapon, specifically:

  • Machine Guns – Any firearm that can shoot in an automatic mode.
  • Short-Barreled Shotguns – Shotguns with a barrel length less than 18″ in length or with an overall length less than 26″.
  • Short-Barreled Rifles – Any firearm with a barrel less than 16″ or with an overall length less than 26″. Unmodified pistols do not fall under this regulation (though addition of certain features will convert to a SBR).
  • Destructive Devices – Explosives or firearms with a bore greater than 1/2″ (.50 caliber). Exemptions include shotguns and flare guns.
  • Suppressors – A ‘silencer’ or device intended to reduce the noise of the firearm below a certain extent.
  • Antique Firearms – An antique that cannot be used to fire. Usually rendered non-functioning on purpose and with permanence.

It should be noted that it is 100% legal for a citizen to own a firearm in the AOW category so long as one meets the criteria and properly registers. Failure to meet the criteria wile in possession is a felony with a charge of up to 10 years in prison.

See the “Title II Weapons” footnote for more information.

Relevant Links:
BAFTA | NFA | Title II Weapons
Firearms on Wikipedia

Existing Laws

As mentioned above, there are already a variety of existing laws in place. While I won’t go into each of them because there are a lot, check out the NFA and Title II Weapons links. Of course, the AOW policies mentioned above apply.

Gun laws vary from state-to-state. The “gun-show loophole” frequently mentioned was that, commonly, at gun shows an individual would sell a large number of firearms to other individuals, exploiting the state’s law that a person-to-person firearm transfer does not require a background check. However, most reputable gun shows enforce this regardless of state law – you need a special license to sell firearms, and if you’re a business, then selling firearms will always result in a background check. It’s a simple, easy way for sellers to reduce legal liability, so most businesses will do so.

An Example Scenario

Let’s do a quick examination of two very different rifles I have on hand – the World War II-era M44 Mosin-Nagant compared to the well-known AR-15. I’d have liked to compare my $200 Ruger 10/22, though it’s currently in a custom body that doesn’t quite demonstrate the point as well.

The M44 Mosin-Nagant was introduced in (you guessed it) 1944, remaining in production until 1948. This alone seems to warrant it as a historical artifact instead of an assault weapon, but let’s dig a little deeper. First and foremost, you can see the bayonet near the front – definitely an assault weapon. Secondly, while this model doesn’t have a detachable magazine (as it uses 5 round stripper clips), they are very commonly modified to hold 10 round box magazines… All it really takes is removal of the bottom plate. So, again, Assault Weapon.

The AR-15 (which stands for ArmaLite Rifle-15) below is more akin to what one would consider a military weapon. Designed in 1959 with various improvements throughout the years, AR-15 pattern rifles can look like the one shown in almost any color and configuration you could want. However, some important things to note – while it can fire more rapidly, it fires a much smaller bullet (a 5.56 NATO round vs. the 7.62 x 54mmR round used by the M44). The first will hurt, while the second will hurt more and keep on going.

Both weapons can be modified to use the exact same attachments for under $300. With custom stocks for the M44, it can become semi-automatic, box-fed, with a pistol grip and yes, even with the feared protection of a barrel shroud. The M44, in the configuration above and with an added scope, actually has better range capabilities than the AR-15 (at the cost of pain in the shooter’s shoulder from the recoil).

As a final quick comparison, let’s take a look at one more gun (which sadly I don’t own), the Ruger Mini-14.

The Ruger Mini-14 Ranch Rifle

Clearly, this was designed to be a hunting rifle, right? Certainly it can’t be considered an assault weapon, in the same category as the AR-1oh wait, it would still absolutely be illegal.

The Ruger Mini-14 accepts detachable box magazines, similar to the AR-15… In fact, they use the same magazines, because they fire the exact same bullet. They also have the same rate of fire, and can be fitted with the same accessories to effectively become the exact. same. gun.

The Wrap Up

Now that we’ve (hopefully) accurately described how confusing gun control debates can get when fictitious terms are used, we’ve got a good baseline for further discussion. What’s up next? The National Rifle Association and You: Are They Evil? (spoiler: no, they’re really not.)

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