Posted On January 21, 2013 by Print This Post

What’s in a Name: Assault Rifles, Assault Weapons and the Deliberate Imprecision of Language by Adam Firestone

Weapons expert ADAM FIRESTONE tackles a hot topic this week, explaining the history and correct terminology concerning a specific type of firearm. Our goal is not to douse a fire with gasoline, but to give writers the information necessary to write accurately about weapons. With Adam’s help, your hero, heroine or villain will never enter a conflict inappropriately armed.

The tragic events of recent months have yet again focused national – and legislative – attention on a particular class of firearms. Both lawmakers and the media have taken to using the phrase “assault weapon” to describe any firearm that they want to include in this class. Unfortunately for both the public in general and writers in particular, the phrase “assault weapon” is both technically meaningless and sufficiently vague so as to defy specification.

More importantly for writers (especially those who write romantic suspense), use of the term indicates an egregious lack of familiarity with firearms that will misinform some and alienate knowledgeable readers, neither of which augurs well for the editorial or commercial success of one’s work. The remainder of this article will examine the technical and historical history behind the term “assault rifle” and dispel some of the popular mythology that has arisen around the term “assault weapon.”

Assault Rifles

The rifles with which the European powers went to the First World War in 1914 were impressive pieces of machinery. Their mechanisms and barrels were machined from solid blocks of the finest steels, while their stocks were turned from woods of a grade that inspired envy among the most exclusive cabinet makers. Their exquisitely crafted mechanisms used powerful cartridges that were capable of launching heavy bullets of about 0.3” diameter at velocities between 2,400 and 2,900 feet per second. Their sights were finely calibrated and designed to allow a trained soldier to hit a man-sized target at distances in excess of 2,000 yards.

Gewehr_98-1

The tactical assumptions leading to these technical specifications had changed little since the Napoleonic Wars had been fought a century earlier. Within six months of the commencement of hostilities, it was obvious to the troops in the trenches that their tactics, and to a great extent, their weapons, had been eclipsed by the changed circumstances of modern war. Despite this, tactics remained largely unchanged until the waning days of the war in 1918. Weapons, however, were to remain largely the same throughout both the First and Second World Wars.

Let’s fast forward to 1942 or so. The German invasion of the Soviet Union had reached its high water mark that year. German operations in Russia were marked by skillful holding actions or retreats conducted against a numerically superior and implacable foe that was not averse to a profligate expenditure of lives in the conquest of each objective.

In response to the evolving tactical environment, the German Army Weapons Office (Heereswaffenamt) issued contracts to the Walther and Haenel firms for the development of a selective fire carbine using the new 7.92x33mm cartridge. The Haenel design, the Maschinenkarabiner 1942 (Machine Carbine, Model of 1942 – MKb 42(H)) was selected. For reasons of political intrigue, the new rifle initially entered production as the Maschinenpistole 1943 (Machine Pistol, Model of 1943 – MP43), later being redesignated as the MP44 and eventually as the Sturmgewehr 44 (StG44). Sturmgewehr, by the way, literally translates into English as “assault rifle.” From that point on, all weapons sharing the StG44’s characteristics would be classed as assault rifles.

MP43

Now that the origin of the term “assault rifle” is clear, it is important to look at the technical characteristics that define an assault rifle.

To counter the Red Army’s numerical superiority, German forces needed a way to increase the firepower available to a generic infantry unit. This could most efficiently be done by providing each rifleman with a weapon capable of fully automatic fire – like a machine gun. While thought had been given to arming the infantry with submachine guns, this was abandoned. Submachine guns use pistol cartridges. As a result, they are generally ineffective at ranges exceeding 100 yards. The solution was to provide a rifle capable of both fully automatic fire (i.e., the rifle keeps shooting as long as there is ammunition available and the trigger is depressed) and semi-automatic fire (i.e., the rifle fires once for each press of the trigger). A rifle capable of both fully and semi-automatic fire is called a selective fire rifle. With such a rifle, a German infantry company would more than match the firepower of a Soviet battalion.

However, the selective fire solution created two additional technical problems. First, the use of fully automatic fire created a demand for far larger amounts of ammunition, increasing the total number of rounds each rifleman would need to carry into battle. Next, fully automatic fire demanded a very heavy firearm in order to allow the rifleman to maintain control during the serial recoil forces generated during rapid firing. (Failure to maintain control resulted in the muzzle rapidly climbing skyward, rendering the rifle useless.)

These problems were solved by an astute assessment of the tactical realities. The target in most infantry combat was not a man standing 2,000 yards away, but rather a camouflaged figure hugging the Earth. In fact, most soldiers could not identify a target at a distance of greater than 400 yards, much less engage it effectively. Given this, German designers reasoned that there was no use in specifiying the use of a cartridge lethal at 2,000 yards. A less powerful cartridge suitable for 400 – 500 yards would be more than adequate.

By reducing the amount of power required, the designers also reduced the need for the amount of propellant required and, to an extent, the weight of the bullet required. By reducing the amount of propellant required, case length could be shorter, saving both metal and weight. As a result, overall cartridge weight was significantly reduced, allowing each rifleman to carry much more ammunition for a given weight. Additionally, by reducing power and bullet weight, recoil forces were substantially attenuated, resulting in rifles of conventional weight that were controllable during full automatic fire. These revolutionary new cartridges were dubbed “intermediate cartridges” as they were more powerful than pistol cartridges but much less so than conventional infantry rifle cartridges.

CartridgeComparison

In addition to the firepower question, the designers created a weapon whose concept of employment (CONEMP) permitted it to be a general issue arm suitable for both front line infantry as well as support troops. It was short enough to be maneuvered inside the confines of a tactical vehicle, and,equipped with a pistol grip, the rifle could be fired from the hip – an advantage in urban and close quarters combat.

With these features, the technical characteristics of the assault rifle were defined. Specifically, for a firearm to be accurately classified as an assault rifle, it must:
a. Be capable of selective fire;
b. Be chambered for an intermediate cartridge; and
c. Be capable of being fired from the hip or the shoulder.
Miss any one of the three, and, within the greater firearms taxonomy, the firearm is simply not an assault rifle.

Regulated Before Birth

The first piece of national legislation in the United States to apply sweeping regulations to commerce in firearms was the National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA). The NFA applied strict registration and approval requirements to privately owned firearms capable of fully automatic fire, those with barrels below legislatively prescribed minimum lengths (18” for shotguns, 16” for rifles) and sound suppressors. As of today, there are approximately a quarter of a million fully automatic firearms that are legally possessed by American citizens who are not part of the firearms industry. (There are a great many more that are circulated between licensed dealers, manufacturers and importers.) Interestingly, since 1934, legally owned automatic firearms have been used in only two murders (one committed by a police officer!) and in approximately ten crimes in total.

Please note the year of the NFA’s enactment, 1934. As noted above, the first assault rifle didn’t exist until 1942 or 1944 (depending on whether you believe nomenclature trumps features). This means that assault rifles have been subject to extraordinary regulation in the United States since before they were invented.

Assault Weapons

So, what, you may be asking, is an assault weapon? We’ve heard a lot about such things over the past couple of months, but there doesn’t seem to be a universally agreed upon definition. There’s good reason for that: There isn’t one. “Assault weapon” is a nonsense term coined for maximum political impact…and for making good copy on network news. So, since assault weapon is a nonsense term, legislators came up with a list of arbitrary features which made your normal, run of the mill firearm into an assault weapon.

Cosmetics

The big issue is that none of the specified features made the gun functionally any different or somehow more lethal, more accurate or in any way better from any other firearm. (Most of the criteria were so absurd that they became a huge joke to gun owners, except of course, for that part where many law abiding citizens accidentally became instant felons because one of their guns had a cosmetic feature which was now illegal.)

Some examples of the arbitrary feature list:

• Semi-automatic function: Firearms using semi-automatic operating systems are the most common and readily available one in the world. (Well, gee, THAT doesn’t narrow it down much.)

• Flash hider: Flash hiders don’t do much. They screw onto the end of the muzzle and divert the burning propellant gases off to the side instead of straight up so it isn’t as annoying when you shoot. They don’t actually hide the flash from anybody else.

• Barrel shroud: Barrel shrouds are basically useless, cosmetic pieces of metal that go over the barrel so you don’t accidentally touch it and burn your hand.

• Collapsible stocks: Collapsible stocks make it so you can adjust your rifle to different size shooters. (With one, a tall guy and his short wife can shoot the same gun.)

So-called evil features, common function

So-called evil features, common function

Hopefully, you’re starting to see why “assault weapon” is a pointless term. They aren’t functionally any different, more powerful or lethal than any normal gun. In fact the cartridges they normally fire (intermediate cartridges) are far less powerful than your average deer hunting rifle (which uses something akin in power to the original, full power infantry cartridges).

The crux of the matter is that what have been bandied about and branded as assault weapons aren’t special.

Popularity

But they are popular. Wildly so. They are sold in the hundreds of thousands – if not millions. They are the single most popular type of firearm in the United States. Want to guess why? No? Ok. I’ll tell you.

Semi-automatic magazine fed rifles chambered for intermediate cartridges are excellent for many uses. I’m not talking about plinking or hunting or target shooting. (That being said, they are generally more pleasant to shoot and their ammunition is often significantly less expensive than that for full power hunting or target loads.)

I’m talking about serious social situations: They are excellent for shooting bad people who are trying to hurt you, in order to make them stop trying to hurt you. These types of guns are superb for defending your home. They are better than handguns. They are better than shotguns. Now some of you may think that’s extreme – but I’m willing to bet that’s because everything you know about gunfights comes from TV or the movies. If you want a detailed, real world tactical analysis as to why this is, please ask me offline, or in the comments.

One of the most common arguments made against assault weapons in that “they are designed to kill the maximum number of people possible as quickly as possible.” That must be why every police department in the United States fields them. The police don’t do a whole lot of slaughtering of the innocent. They use these rifles for the same reasons we do: They are handy, versatile and can stop an attacker quickly.

Note that I said “stop” and not “kill.” I don’t want to kill anyone.

But, Heaven forbid, I should have to shoot someone, I want them to stop whatever they were doing that caused me to shoot them in the first place as quickly as possible.

Can they be misused? Sure. They have been. But so have cars (33,000 deaths in an average year), alcohol (11,000 drunk driving deaths), knives (2,000 deaths) and hands, feet and fists (869 deaths). An average year for the so-called assault weapons? 18 deaths. They are far – as in orders – plural – of magnitude more likely to be used to protect and preserve life. Or not to be used at all.

Back to the Writing

Sorry for the soapbox folks; I suppose I am just easily frustrated by all the lies and misinformation out there. Let’s sum up from the vantage point of “how can I use this as a writer?”

1. Assault rifle is a technical term of art. It refers to a selective fire shoulder arm, chambered for an intermediate cartridge that can be fired from the shoulder or the hip.

2. Assault weapon is a nonsense term coined by politicians and the media, not by industry or the military. (If you beat me about the head and shoulders rapidly with your purse, I will absolutely call it an “assault weapon!”)

3. The classification of firearms as assault weapons is done purely on the basis of cosmetics, and not functional characteristics.

4. Semi-automatic magazine-fed rifles using intermediate cartridges are the most popular type of firearm in the United States.

Your Heroine

Your Heroine

5. Semi-automatic magazine-fed rifles using intermediate cartridges are the most effective means of defending your home from attackers bent on causing you grievous physical harm. They are easier to use, easier to train and easier to be effective with than pistols or shotguns. If you have a character who is unfamiliar with guns and needs to protect herself, an AR-15 or a semi-automatic AK variant is of far more utility than a pistol.

***

What kinds of weapons have you used in your books? Are there weapons-related topics for writers you’d like Adam to address in future posts?

On Wednesday, author and RU founder ADRIENNE GIORDANO shares her “Diary of a Brainstorming Weekend.”

***

Bio: Adam Firestone brings more than 25 years of experience with weapon systems including small arms, artillery, armor, area denial systems and precision guided munitions to Romance University. Additionally, Adam is an accomplished small arms instructor, editor, literary consultant and co-author of a recently published work on the production of rifles in the United States for Allied forces during the First World War.

Adam has been providing general and technical editing services to authors and publishing houses specializing in firearms books since the early 2000s. Additionally, Adam provides literary consulting services to fiction authors including action scene choreography, technical vetting and technical editing. In this line of experience, Adam has had the fortune to work with well known authors including Shannon McKenna and Elizabeth Jennings.

Check out Adam’s blog here: http://adamfirestoneconsultant.blogspot.com/

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Discussion

23 Responses to “What’s in a Name: Assault Rifles, Assault Weapons and the Deliberate Imprecision of Language by Adam Firestone”

  1. Morning Adam!

    Wow, that’s a ton of information! I’m going to have to read it again…=) I’d love to make sense of what they are talking about on CNN!

    Question for you – You list the deaths by car and alcohol, etc. But the news has been reporting a LOT recently that since the school shootings there have been 9000 more deaths by gun. Is this a misleading figure that they are using?

    Thanks for the great information Adam….it’s amazing how much info there is in that brain of yours! =)

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | January 21, 2013, 9:22 am
    • Thank you for the compliment Carrie!

      In sum, the number of gun deaths is misleading, and tying a number like 9,000 to school shootings is blatantly false. For it to make sense you’d have to look at the number of shootings by type. For example, how many were police shootings? How many cases of legitimate self-defense?

      Anyway, I’m glad you found the information of use.

      All the best,

      Adam

      Posted by Adam Firestone | January 22, 2013, 5:27 am
      • Just a quick additiona to the answer. Lately the number of annual gun deaths include suicides and the washington post acknowledged that 2/3 of all annual deaths atrributed to guns are in fact sucides. i.e i don’t think the size of the hagazine will have much impact.

        Posted by Tom | March 9, 2013, 4:47 pm
      • Excellent article!!! Can you point us in the direction of the source for your annual deaths by type?

        Posted by Tom M | October 14, 2013, 10:32 am
    • I don’t know where you heard the figure “9000 more deaths by gun”. Obama used the figure 900 in a speech recently, which is probably fairly accurate. On Dec. 21 Huffington Post reported 100 gun-related homicides and accidental deaths in the US during the week after Sandy Hook (based on a manual count of documented cases not including, eg., police shootings). A fairly reputable study reported by factcheck.org indicates that there were, on average, more than 200 such deaths per week in 2010.

      Posted by Tim Woods | January 23, 2013, 7:23 am
  2. Hi Adam! When I first started writing fiction, I was concerned about my lack of knowledge in some areas, such as weaponry. I don’t worry about that any more, because I’ve got your blogs and RU posts to refer to (as well as the copious notes I took at your OVRWA workshop last year).

    Now I don’t worry about embarrassing myself when/if potential readers catch a weapons-related mistake. Instead, I worry about YOU catching a mistake – you’ve set the standard very high!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 21, 2013, 10:25 am
  3. Thanks for providing this wonderfully clear post about firearms, specifically “assault weapons.” My husband not long retired as a federal agent, and was a firearms instructor, and maintained an FFL until this year. The way they (Congress and the news) butcher the language re: firearms for their own use, drama, and sensationalism keeps him constantly furious. Thanks for being daring to post this for clarification. MUCH appreciated.

    C. Hope Clark
    http://www.chopeclark.com
    http://www.fundsforwriters.com

    Posted by C. Hope Clark | January 21, 2013, 1:08 pm
  4. Hi Adam,

    Fascinating! Besides learning something new with every one of your posts, I especially appreciate the historical tidbits. Thanks for your enlightening explanation on “assault weapons”.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | January 21, 2013, 3:19 pm
  5. Now I’m blushing again!

    Posted by Adam Firestone | January 22, 2013, 5:34 am
  6. Hi – you alluded to the tactical advantages of an assault rifle in close-combat situations (ie attack in a home). I’m curious – if I have a character whose house is being infilitrated by some bad guys, how would an assault rifle prove better than shotgun? Thanks for a great article!

    Posted by Erin | January 22, 2013, 9:27 am
    • In the end, it really comes down to the fact that shotgun proficiency takes vastly more training and that the shotgun will generally contain fewer rounds.

      Shotguns recoil. Hard. You don’t *overcome* recoil and its attendant effects on accuracy and the speed of follow-up shots, you learn to deal with it. And you do that with practice, practice practice. If your heroine is Walking Death with Remington 870 – then by all means, give her a shotgun. However most people – and that includes me – aren’t.

      Carbines chambered for intermediate cartridges are simply easier to use, carry more rounds and are easier to employ accurately under stress.

      Note that the lethality of shotguns is somewhat attenuated when they are used in a house. At the range that shotguns are used defensively, there really isn’t that much spread to the shot pattern. At across room distance, the pattern is usually about the size of a soft ball, and if you’ve got a big house, a basketball. That means that your heroine still has to AIM.

      When you shoot something with most rifles, you aren’t just poking a hole, but you are actually causing trauma in the tissue surrounding the hole, and most defensive bullets are designed to fragment or tumble and make even bigger, nastier holes in people.

      Another concern is over penetration. Since you’re trying to stop somebody, any round powerful enough to poke a deep enough hole to reliably damage a person, is powerful enough to penetrate a building materials.

      But this is one benefit of using a rifle for home defense. Loaded with PROPER ammunition, the more powerful rifle bullet will often penetrate less than a pistol bullet – and many shotgun loads. A proper defensive rifle bullet is going really fast, and is designed to fragment, which causes more damage to people, but also tends to cause the bullet to break in drywall and 2x4s faster than a slow moving, solidly-constructed pistol bullet. Either one will still penetrate, but with the correct ammo, the rifle bullet can give you the best of both worlds.

      Make sense?

      Posted by Adam Firestone | January 22, 2013, 9:55 am
  7. Interesting information, Adam. I would be interested to know — does anybody have examples of a novel where the author’s egregious use of the term “assault weapon” affected its editorial or commercial success?

    It is not quite accurate to say that the term “assault weapon” is meaningless however. The US Marine Corps used the Rifleman’s Assault Weapon (a grenade launcher based in the M16 rifle, developed in 1977) in the 1990s. And “assault weapon” has been a legal term for at least 18 years, defined by various federal and state statutes and regulations. The exact meaning of the term varies, according the the specific legislation — but that is normal with legal terms, which are usually defined by the legislation in which they are used. That’s just the way legal terms work, it doesn’t make them meaningless.

    Posted by Tim Woods | January 23, 2013, 8:11 am
  8. Excellent! This article should be required reading for anyone who wants to comment, in any way, on guns and gun control issues.
    Thank you, Adam.

    Posted by Mark R Patterson | March 15, 2013, 7:11 pm
  9. I think those who gave the name assault rifle looked at the rate at which those category of weapons were use in committing crimes.

    Posted by MICHAEL | August 20, 2013, 6:53 am
    • That’s categorically incorrect, Michael.

      The name “assault rifle,” as promulgated by the Heereswaffenamt in the early 1940s had nothing to do with crime. It had to do with appeasing Hitler, who had a fascination with submachine guns (the original designation for the firearms that would eventually be called “sturmgewehr” or “assault rifle” was “maschinenpistole,” or “machine pistol” – the German term for submachine gun).

      Hitler was opposed to the development of new rifles, and the naming was designed to mollify him.

      Next, if you’re talking about “assault weapons,” they are used in a very small fraction of crimes.

      Thanks,

      Adam

      Posted by Adam Firestone | August 20, 2013, 7:01 am
  10. Thank you so much for this post, Adam! If there is one thing that irritates me to no end, it is when journalists, who have no knowledge of firearms whatsoever, use all of the wrong terminology when writing stories about gun violence or a shooting.

    This post is very helpful in clarifying many of the distinctions about these various firearms. I am going to share it with every one of my friends working at newspapers.

    Posted by Online Writing Course | October 13, 2013, 8:52 pm
  11. This was such a good read. Thank you for writing this article!

    Posted by David Guyz | October 15, 2013, 4:49 pm

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