This article is about automatic firearms used by many military and law enforcement organizations. For semi-automatic firearms restricted by some United States laws, see assault weapon
Currently the most used assault rifle in the world along with its variant, the AKM
, the AK-47
was first adopted in 1949 by the Soviet Army
. It fires the 7.62×39mm
was first introduced into service in 1964 with the United States Armed Forces. It fires the 5.56×45mm NATO
cartridge, and is the most produced assault rifle in its caliber.
Origin of term
The term assault rifle
is generally attributed to Adolf Hitler
, who, for propaganda
purposes, used the German word Sturmgewehr
(which translates to "assault rifle") as the new name for the MP 43, subsequently known as the Sturmgewehr 44
However, other sources dispute that Hitler had much to do with coining the new name besides signing the production order
Furthermore, Hitler was initially opposed to the idea of a new infantry rifle, as Germany lacked the industrial capacity to replace the 12,000,000 Karabiner 98k
rifles already in service, only changing his mind once he saw it first-hand.
The StG 44 is generally considered the first selective fire
military rifle to popularize the assault rifle concept.
Today, the term assault rifle
is used to define firearms sharing the same basic characteristics as the StG 44.
The U.S. Army
defines assault rifles
as "short, compact, selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between submachine gun and rifle cartridges."
In this strict definition, a firearm must have at least the following characteristics to be considered an assault rifle:
Rifles that meet most of these criteria, but not all, are technically not assault rifles. For example:
- Select-fire M2 Carbines are not assault rifles; their effective range is only 180 metres (200 yd).
- Select-fire rifles such as the FN FAL, M14, and H&K G3 main battle rifles are not assault rifles; they fire full-powered rifle cartridges.
- Semi-automatic-only rifles like the Colt AR-15 are not assault rifles; they do not have select-fire capabilities.
- Semi-automatic-only rifles with fixed magazines like the SKS are not assault rifles; they do not have detachable box magazines and are not capable of automatic fire.
The more political term assault weapon
is often conflated with assault rifle
and does not require all of the characteristics above – especially the selective fire capability which is functionally illegal in the USA for civilian use.
The Germans were the first to pioneer the assault rifle concept during World War II, based upon research that showed that most firefights happen within 400 metres (1,300 ft) and that contemporary rifles were over-powered for most small arms combat.
They would soon develop a select-fire intermediate powered rifle combining the firepower of a submachine gun with the range and accuracy of a rifle.
The Sturmgewehr 44 features an inexpensive, easy-to-make, stamped steel design and a 30-round detachable box magazine.
"This weapon was the prototype of all successful automatic rifles. Characteristically (and unlike previous rifles) it had a straight stock with the barrel under the gas cylinder to reduce the turning moment of recoil of the rifle in the shoulder and thus help reduce the tendency of shots to climb in automatic fire. The barrel and overall length were shorter than a traditional rifle and it had a pistol grip
to hold the weapon more securely in automatic fire. “The principle of this weapon—the reduction of muzzle impulse to get usable automatic fire within the actual ranges of combat—was probably the most important advance in small arms since the invention of smokeless powder
Like the Germans, the Soviets were influenced by experience showing that most combat engagements occur within 400 metres (1,300 ft) and that their soldiers were consistently outgunned by heavily armed German troops, especially those armed with Sturmgewehr 44
On July 15, 1943, a Sturmgewehr was demonstrated before the People's Commissariat of Arms of the USSR
The Soviets were so impressed with the Sturmgewehr, that they immediately set about developing an intermediate caliber automatic rifle of their own, to replace the badly outdated Mosin–Nagant
bolt-action rifles and PPSh-41
submachine guns that armed most of the Red Army.
The Soviets soon developed the 7.62×39mm M43
cartridge, which was first used in the semi-automatic SKS carbine
and the RPD light machine gun
. Hugo Schmeisser
, the designer of the Sturmgewehr, was captured after World War II, and helped develop the AK-47 assault rifle,
which would quickly replace the SKS and Mosin in Soviet service.
The AK-47 was finalized, adopted and entered widespread service in the Soviet army in the early 1950s.
Its firepower, ease of use, low production costs, and reliability were perfectly suited for the Red Army's new mobile warfare
In the 1960s, the Soviets introduced the RPK light machine gun
, itself an AK-47 type weapon with a bipod
, a stronger receiver, and a longer, heavier barrel that would eventually replace the RPD light machine gun.
The AK-47 has been continually worked upon, and improved. The AKM
, and AK-12
were all designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov
, and have all been service rifles
in the Soviet Union, and the later Russian federation
The AK-47 was widely supplied or sold to nations allied with the USSR, and the blueprints were shared with several friendly nations (the People's Republic of China
standing out among these with the Type 56
As a result, more AK-type weapons have been produced than all other assault rifles combined.
As of 2004, "of the estimated 500 million firearms worldwide, approximately 100 million belong to the Kalashnikov family, three-quarters of which are AK-47s."
The U.S. Army was influenced by combat experience with semi-automatic weapons such as the M1 Garand
and M1 Carbine
, which enjoyed a significant advantage over enemies armed primarily with bolt-action rifles.
Although U.S. Army studies of World War II combat accounts had very similar results to that of the Germans and Soviets, the U.S. Army failed to recognize the importance of the assault rifle concept,
and instead maintained its traditional views and preference for high-powered semi-automatic rifles.
At the time, the U.S. Army believed that the Sturmgewehr 44 was "intended in a general way to serve the same purpose as the U.S. carbine" and was in many ways inferior to the M1 carbine
and was of "little importance".
The Heckler & Koch G3 is a 7.62×51mm NATO
, selective fire
, automatic rifle produced by the German armament manufacturer Heckler & Koch GmbH
(H&K) in collaboration with the Spanish state-owned design and development agency CETME
(Centro de Estudios Técnicos de Materiales Especiales
The rifle proved successful in the export market, being adopted by the armed forces of over 60 countries.
After WWII, German technicians involved in developing the Sturmgewehr 45
, continued their research in France at CEAM. The StG 45 mechanism was modified by Ludwig Vorgrimler and Theodor Löffler at the Mulhouse facility between 1946 and 1949. Vorgrimler later went to work at CETME in Spain and developed the line of CETME automatic rifles based on his improved Stg45 design. Germany eventually purchased the license for the CETME design and manufactured the Heckler & Koch G3 as well as an entire line of weapons built on the same system, one of the most famous being the MP5 SMG
. The G3 also served as the basis for the Heckler & Koch G36
assault rifle, which would become the Bundeswehr
's service rifle, and a popular export.
The first confrontations between the AK-47 and the M14 ("assault rifle" vs "battle rifle") came in the early part of the Vietnam War
. Battlefield reports indicated that the M14 was uncontrollable in full-auto and that soldiers could not carry enough ammunition to maintain fire superiority over the AK-47.
And, while the M2 Carbine offered a high rate of fire, it was under-powered and ultimately outclassed by the AK-47.
A replacement was needed: A medium between the traditional preference for high-powered rifles such as the M14, and the lightweight firepower of the M2 Carbine.
As a result, the Army was forced to reconsider a 1957 request by General Willard G. Wyman, commander of the U.S. Continental Army Command (CONARC) to develop a .223 caliber (5.56 mm) select-fire rifle weighing 2.7 kg (6 lb) when loaded with a 20-round magazine.
The 5.56 mm round had to penetrate a standard U.S. helmet
at 460 metres (500 yd) and retain a velocity in excess of the speed of sound, while matching or exceeding the wounding ability of the .30 Carbine cartridge.
This request ultimately resulted in the development of a scaled-down version of the ArmaLite AR-10
, called the ArmaLite AR-15
However, despite overwhelming evidence that the AR-15 could bring more firepower to bear than the M14, the Army opposed the adoption of the new rifle.
In January 1963, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara
concluded that the AR-15 was the superior weapon system and ordered a halt to M14 production.
At the time, the AR-15 was the only rifle available that could fulfill the requirement of a universal infantry weapon for issue to all services.
After modifications (most notably, the charging handle was re-located from under the carrying handle like it was on AR-10 to the rear of the receiver),
the newly redesigned rifle was subsequently adopted as the M16 Rifle.
"(The M16) was much lighter compared to the M14 it replaced, ultimately allowing soldiers to carry more ammunition. The air-cooled, gas-operated, magazine-fed assault rifle was made of steel, aluminum alloy and composite plastics, truly cutting-edge for the time. Designed with full and semi-automatic capabilities, the weapon initially did not respond well to wet and dirty conditions, sometimes even jamming in combat. After a few minor modifications, the weapon gained in popularity among troops on the battlefield."
Despite its early failures, the M16 proved to be a revolutionary design and stands as the longest continuously serving rifle in American military history.
It has been adopted by many U.S. allies and the 5.56×45mm NATO
cartridge has become not only the NATO standard but "the standard assault-rifle cartridge in much of the world."
It also led to the development of small-caliber high-velocity service rifles by every major army in the world, including the USSR and People's Republic of China.
Today, many small arms experts consider the M16 the standard by which all other assault rifles are judged.
During the 1960s other countries would follow the Americans' lead and begin to develop 5.56×45mm assault rifles, most notably Germany with the Heckler & Koch HK33
. The HK33 was essentially a smaller 5.56mm version of the 7.62×51mm Heckler & Koch G3
rifle. As one of the first 5.56mm assault rifles on the market, it would go on to become one of the most widely distributed assault rifles. The HK33 featured a modular design with a wide range of accessories (telescoping butt-stocks, optics, bi-pods, etc.) that could be easily removed and arranged in a variety of configurations.
The adoption of the M16, the H&K33, and the 5.56×45mm cartridge inspired an international trend towards relatively small-sized, lightweight, high-velocity military service cartridges that allow a soldier to carry more ammunition for the same weight compared to the larger and heavier 7.62×51mm NATO
cartridge. The 5.56mm cartridge is also much easier to shoot.
In 1961 marksmanship testing, the U.S. Army found that 43% of ArmaLite AR-15
shooters achieved Expert, while only 22% of M-14 rifle shooters did so. Also, a lower recoil
impulse, allows for more controllable automatic weapons fire.
In March 1970, the U.S. recommended that all NATO
forces adopt the 5.56×45mm
This shift represented a change in the philosophy of the military's long-held position about caliber size. By the middle of the 1970s, other armies were looking at assault rifle-type weapons. A NATO standardization effort soon started and tests of various rounds were carried out starting in 1977.
The U.S. offered the 5.56×45mm M193 round, but there were concerns about its penetration in the face of the wider introduction of body armor
In the end the Belgian 5.56×45mm SS109 round was chosen (STANAG
4172) in October 1980.
The SS109 round was based on the U.S. cartridge but included a new stronger, heavier, 62-grain bullet design, with better long-range performance and improved penetration (specifically, to consistently penetrate the side of a steel helmet at 600 metres or 2,000 feet).
Also during the 1970s, Finland, Israel, South Africa and Sweden introduced AK type assault rifles in 5.56×45mm.
During the 1990s, Russia developed the AK-101
in 5.56×45mm NATO for the world export market.
In addition, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Yugoslavia (i.e., Serbia) have also rechambered their locally produced assault rifles to 5.56mm NATO.
assault rifle was a Soviet answer to the U.S. M16.
The Soviet military realized that the M16 had better range and accuracy over the AKM
, and that its lighter cartridge allowed soldiers to carry more ammunition. Therefore, in 1967, the USSR issued an official requirement to replace the AKM and the 7.62×39mm cartridge.
They soon began to develop the AK-74 and the 5.45×39mm
AK-74 production began in 1974,
and it was unveiled in 1977, when it was carried by Soviet parachute troops
during the annual Red Square parade
It would soon replace the AKM and become the standard Soviet infantry rifle.
In 1979, the AK-74 saw combat for the first time in Afghanistan
where the lethality of the 5.45mm rounds led to the Mujahadeen
dubbing them "poison bullets."
The adoption of the 5.56mm NATO and the Russian 5.45×39mm cartridges cemented the worldwide trend toward small caliber, high-velocity cartridges.
Compact assault rifles
A USAF security policeman aims his Colt Commando
during a live-fire demonstration, part of Operation Desert Shield. Note: large flash hider
Following the adoption of the M16 rifle
, carbine variants were also adopted for close quarters operations. The CAR-15
family of weapons served through the Vietnam War
. However, these Compact assault rifles had design issues, as "the barrel length was halved" to 10 inches which "upset the ballistics", reducing its range and accuracy and leading "to considerable muzzle flash and blast, so that a large flash suppressor had to be fitted".
"Nevertheless, as a short-range weapon it is quite adequate and thus, [despite] its caliber, [the Colt Commando
] is classed as a submachine gun."
Other compact assault rifles, such as the HK53
and the Daewoo K1
, have been made and they have also been called submachine guns.
In 1977, Austria introduced the 5.56×45mm Steyr AUG
bullpup rifle, often cited as the first successful bullpup rifle
, finding service with the armed forces of over twenty countries. It was highly advanced for the 1970s, combining in the same weapon the bullpup configuration, a polymer housing, dual vertical grips, an optical sight as standard, and a modular design. Highly reliable, light, and accurate, the Steyr AUG showed clearly the potential of the bullpup layout. In 1978, France introduced the 5.56×45mm FAMAS
bullpup rifle. In 1985, the British introduced the 5.56×45mm L85
bullpup rifle. In the late 1990s, Israel introduced the 5.56mm NATO Tavor TAR-21
. In 1997, China adopted the QBZ-95
in the new 5.8×42mm
cartridge, which they claim is superior to both the 5.56×45mm and the 5.45×39mm. By the turn of the century, the bullpup assault rifle design had achieved worldwide acceptance.
The Heckler & Koch G36 is a 5.56×45mm
assault rifle, designed in the early 1990s by Heckler & Koch
in Germany as a replacement for the heavier 7.62mm G3 battle rifle
It was accepted into service with the Bundeswehr
in 1997, replacing the G3.
The G36 is gas-operated
and feeds from a 30-round detachable box magazine
or 100-round C-Mag drum magazine
The G36 was made with the extensive use of lightweight, corrosion-resistant synthetic materials in its design; the receiver housing, stock, trigger group (including the fire control selector and firing mechanism parts), magazine well, handguard and carrying handle are all made of a carbon fiber
. The receiver has an integrated steel
barrel trunnion (with locking recesses) and a nylon 66 steel reinforced receiver.
The standard Bundeswehr
versions of the G36 are equipped with a unique ZF 3×4° dual optical sight that combines a 3× magnified telescopic sight and an unmagnified reflex sight
mounted on top of the telescopic sight.
Widely distributed, it has been adopted by over 40 countries and prompted other nations to develop similar composite designs, such as the FX-05 Xiuhcoatl
Distinction from assault weapons
The term "assault rifle"
is sometimes used interchangeably with the term "assault weapon
", a legislative term used to classify firearms in the United States. According to the Associated Press
Stylebook, "although the terms are often used interchangeably, some make the distinction that assault rifle
is a military weapon with a selector switch for firing in either fully automatic or semi-automatic mode from a detachable, 10- to 30-round magazine."
In the U.S., selective-fire rifles are legally defined as machine guns
, and civilian ownership of those has been tightly regulated since 1934 under the National Firearms Act
and since 1986 under the Firearm Owners Protection Act
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- ^ GX. The Guard Experience. The Pride of the Guard. by Major Darrin Haas. Volume 10. Issue 3. 2013. Page 67. "Nicknamed a 'Mattel toy' because of its small caliber and lightweight design, the M16 became the standard service rifle for U.S. forces in Vietnam in 1967. The weapon was much lighter compared to the M14 it replaced, ultimately allowing Soldiers to carry more ammunition. The air-cooled, gas-operated, magazine-fed assault rifle was made of steel, aluminum alloy and composite plastics, truly cutting-edge for the time. Designed with full and semi-automatic capabilities, the weapon initially did not respond well to wet and dirty conditions, sometimes even jamming in combat. After a few minor modifications, the weapon gained popularity among troops on the battlefield. Still in service today, the M16 is being phased out by the M4 carbine.
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- ^ ""Colt literature notes that the fourth generation of the M16 "still represents the world standard by which all other weapons of this class are judged. Its combat-proven performance is verified by the fact that over eight million M16 weapon systems have been produced and placed in military service throughout the world." Soldier Armed. M16A4 Rifle. By Scott R. Gourley. Army Magazine. July 2008 page 75" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2015-09-23. Retrieved 2016-07-08.
- ^ a b Assault Rifles and Their Ammunition: History and Prospects by Anthony G. WilliamsArchived 2014-06-02 at the Wayback Machine
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- ^ Military Small Arms of the 20th Century. 7th Edition. by Ian V. Hogg & John S. Weeks. Krause Publications 2000. pages 235, 258, 274, 278
- ^ LEGION Ltd. – the producer of high quality firearms with period artistic treatment (threading, engraving, incrustation) and improved finishing. izhmash.ru
- ^http://www.militaryfactory.com/smallarms/detail.asp?smallarms_id=256 Archived 2014-07-01 at the Wayback Machine |The Kalashnikov AK-101 is an export assault rifle in operational service withat least nine nations worldwide
- ^ Military Small Arms of the 20th Century. 7th Edition. by Ian V. Hogg & John S. Weeks. Krause Publications 2000. pages 233, 257, 266, 296
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- ^ Gun Digest Shooter's Guide to AKs. by Marco Vorobiev. F+W Media, Inc. Jun 15, 2016. page 107
- ^https://web.archive.org/web/20110629045720/http://www.izhmash.ru/eng/arc/021205.shtml "AK-74 – Kalashnikov assault rifle, caliber 5.45 mm. In 1967, pursuant to the Resolution of the CPSU Central Committee and the USSR Council of Ministers, a competition was organized to design an assault rifle fit to use the new 5.45×39mm cartridge. The AK-74 was designed by А. D. Kryakushin's group under the designer supervision of M. T. Kalashnikov. Based on the competition results, this assault rifle was included in the inventory in 1974 as part of the 5.45×39mm small arms complex. The cartridge used in the AK-74 weighs 1.5 times less as compared with the 7.62-mm cartridge. The soldier can carry 1.5 times more cartridges without increasing the weight of the portable reserve ammunition. In addition, the bullet speed of the 5.45-mm caliber is higher."
- ^ Military Small Arms of the 20th Century. 7th Edition. by Ian V. Hogg & John S. Weeks. Krause Publications 2000. page 271
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- ^https://web.archive.org/web/20110629045720/http://www.izhmash.ru/eng/arc/021205.shtml "AK-74 – Kalashnikov assault rifle, caliber 5.45 mm. In 1967, pursuant to the Resolution of the CPSU Central Committee and the USSR Council of Ministers, a competition was organized to design an assault rifle fit to use the new 5.45-mm cartridge. The AK-74 was designed by А. D. Kryakushin's group under the designer supervision of M. T. Kalashnikov. Based on the competition results, this assault rifle was included in the inventory in 1974 as part of the 5.45-mm small arms complex. The cartridge used in the AK-74 weighs 1.5 times less as compared with the 7.62-mm cartridge. The soldier can carry 1.5 times more cartridges without increasing the weight of the portable reserve ammunition. In addition, the bullet speed of the 5.45-mm caliber is higher."
- ^ a b Military Small Arms Of The 20th Century, 7th Edition, 2000 by Ian V. Hogg & John S. Weeks, p.271
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