An assault rifle is a selective fire (selective between semi-automatic, automatic and/or burst fire) rifle that uses an intermediate cartridge and a detachable magazine. Assault rifles are the standard service rifles in most modern armies. Note the difference between the assault rifle and the battle rifle. Assault rifles use smaller cartridges and are used at closer ranges than battle rifles. The larger sized rifle cartridges used in battle rifles make fully automatic fire more difficult. Fully automatic fire refers to an ability for a rifle to fire continuously while the trigger is pressed; "burst-capable" fire refers to an ability of a rifle to fire a small yet fixed multiple number of rounds with but one press of the trigger; in contrast, semi-automatic refers to an ability to fire one round per press of a trigger. The presence of selective fire modes on assault rifles permits more efficient use of rounds to be fired for specific needs, versus having a single mode of operation, such as fully automatic, thereby conserving ammunition while maximizing on-target accuracy and effectiveness.
The assault rifle became the standard military rifle during the Vietnam War. The Soviet Union was the first nation in the post-war era to adopt an assault rifle, the AK-47, and other nations followed later. Combat experience during the World Wars had shown that most infantry combat took place at 200–300 meters (220–330 yards) distance and that the winner of any given firefight would most likely be the one with the highest rate of fire. The rifle cartridges of the day were therefore unnecessarily powerful, producing recoil and report in exchange for marginal benefit. The lower power of the intermediate cartridge meant that each soldier could fire more bullets faster and/or with less recoil and its lighter weight allowed more ammunition to be carried.
- 1 Definition
- 2 History
- 2.1 The changing face of infantry combat
- 2.2 1900s–1930s: Pre-Sturmgewehr light automatic rifles
- 2.3 1930s: Automatic intermediate weapons
- 2.4 1940s–early 1950s: Maschinenkarabiner, Sturmgewehr & AK-47
- 2.5 Late 1950s–1960s: Lighter rifles and smaller bullets
- 2.6 1970s–1990s: Development of features and form factors
- 2.7 21st century developments
- 3 The future
- 4 Legal ownership by civilians
- 5 See also
- 6 Notes
- 7 Further reading
- 8 External links
The term assault rifle is a translation of the German word Sturmgewehr (literally "storm rifle", "storm" as in "military attack"). The name was coined by Adolf Hitler as a new name for the Maschinenpistole 43,[nb 1] subsequently known as the Sturmgewehr 44, the firearm generally considered the first assault rifle that served to popularize the concept and form the basis for today's modern assault rifles.
The translation assault rifle gradually became the common term for similar firearms sharing the same technical definition as the StG 44. In a strict definition, a firearm must have at least the following characteristics to be considered an assault rifle:
- It must be an individual weapon with provision to fire from the shoulder (i.e. a buttstock);
- It must be capable of selective fire;
- It must have an intermediate-power cartridge: more power than a pistol but less than a standard rifle or battle rifle;
- Its ammunition must be supplied from a detachable magazine rather than a feed-belt.
- And it should at least have a firing range of 300 metres (980 feet)
Rifles that meet most of these criteria, but not all, are technically not assault rifles despite frequently being considered as such. For example, semi-automatic-only rifles like the AR-15 (on which the M16 rifle is based) that share parts or design characteristics with assault rifles are not assault rifles, as they are not capable of switching to automatic fire and thus are not selective-fire capable. Belt-fed weapons or rifles with fixed magazines are likewise not assault rifles because they do not have detachable box magazines.
The term "assault rifle" is often more loosely used for commercial or political reasons to include other types of arms, particularly arms that fall under a strict definition of the battle rifle, or semi-automatic variant of military rifles such as AR-15s.
The U.S. Army defines assault rifles as "short, compact, selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between submachinegun and rifle cartridges."
Assault rifles vs. Assault weapons
In the United States "assault weapons" are usually defined in legislation as semi-automatic firearms that have certain features generally associated with military firearms, including assault rifles. Some definitions in "assault weapon" legislation under consideration (in 2013) are much broader to the point of including the majority of firearms, e.g. to include all semi-automatic firearms or all firearms with detachable magazines. The 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which expired on September 13, 2004, codified the definition of an assault weapon. It defined the rifle type of assault weapon as a semiautomatic firearm with the ability to accept a detachable magazine and two or more of the following:
- a folding or telescoping stock
- a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon
- a bayonet mount
- a flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor
- a grenade launcher
The assault weapons ban did not further restrict weapons capable of fully automatic fire, such as assault rifles and machine guns, which have been continuously and heavily regulated since the National Firearms Act of 1934 was passed. Subsequent laws such as the Gun Control Act of 1968 and the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 also affected the importation and civilian ownership of fully automatic firearms, the latter fully prohibiting sales of newly manufactured machine guns to non-law enforcement or SOT (special occupational taxpayer) dealers.
In more casual usage, the term "assault weapon" is sometimes conflated with the term assault rifle. The use of the term "assault weapon" is also highly controversial, as critics assert that the term is a media invention, or a term that is intended to cause confusion among the public by intentionally misleading the public to believe that assault weapons (as defined in legislation) are full automatic firearms when they are not.
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The changing face of infantry combat
From ancient times, light infantry had fought in dispersed formations, while heavy infantry had fought in tightly packed formations. This continued as the sling and spear were replaced by musket and bayonet. Brightly coloured uniforms (e.g., German: Blue, Russian: Green; British: Red, French: White) became standard to promote unit cohesion in the midst of clouds of black powder smoke. Muskets were inaccurate at distances greater than 50 to 100 meters (54 to 109 yards) and were slow to reload, which led to formation-style war as multiple ranks maximised firepower and guaranteed that at least part of the unit would be ready to fire at all times. Tight formations also aided officers in controlling their men during combat and repelling infantry or cavalry charges.
The adoption of rifled muskets for military use in the mid-19th century increased the range and power of guns and made battle from dense formations an extremely bloody affair, as witnessed by the high level of casualties in the American Civil War. Skirmisher tactics were given greater emphasis as gunpowder weapons increased in reliability, accuracy, and rate of fire. Cavalry adapted by dismounting, and using skirmisher tactics with breechloading rifles (which could be reloaded from a prone position, reducing vulnerability to enemy fire).
After the American Civil War, further developments such as the adoption of magazine-fed rifles, rapid-fire machine guns and high explosive shells for the artillery, which now included quick-firing guns, spelled the end of the dense infantry formation during World War I. What this meant in practice was that infantry units no longer engaged each other at long range in open fields; the high power of the relatively unwieldy bolt-action rifles of the day (which had been tripled by the adoption of smokeless powder, along with a corresponding increase in recoil and report) was no longer suited to the close-range engagement of modern warfare. Military leaders and arms manufacturers thus began grasping for a new type of weapon for this new era.
1900s–1930s: Pre-Sturmgewehr light automatic rifles
These automatic firearms generally used pre-existing rifle cartridges, with kinetic energies between 1960–5,000 J (1,450–3,700-foot-pounds), velocities of 660–900 m/s (1,445–2,950 ft/s) and bullets of 9 to 13 g (139–200 grains).
Amerigo Cei-Rigotti developed a rifle between 1890 and 1900 with the characteristics of an assault rifle including selective fire rates and a 6.5×52mm Mannlicher-Carcano medium-power cartridge. Issued in 1905, the rifle was tested but did not see service. The first in-service precursor of the assault rifle was the Russian Fedorov Avtomat issued for the first time in 1915 and, because of war logistics, rechambered for the Japanese 6.5x50mm Arisaka rifle cartridge. Like the 6.5x52mm Mannlicher-Carcano round used in the Cei-Rigotti, this was a relatively low-powered rifle cartridge already in production. The 1,960 J bullet energy of the Arisaka round from the short barrel of the Avtomat was in fact less than the 2,010 J bullet energy of the AK-47. The Fedorov Avtomat, though a service rifle, was only used in small numbers. It was however highly favored by Russian and Soviet troops and remained in service until World War II. Both these rifles had selective fire capability and weighed under 5½ kg (12 lbs.) loaded.
During World War I the French Chauchat was introduced, a light machine gun and a precursor to the modern assault rifle. It was produced in large numbers (250,000). Like the later assault rifle it was capable of both single and automatic fire, and was loaded with a magazine and also featured a pistol grip. Compared to other light machine guns of the time the Chauchat was fairly light at the weight of 9 kg (19 lbs.) but it was still too cumbersome for closer quarters and had recoil that was too heavy to control when firing fully automatic due to the use of full-powered rifle rounds like, in the original French chambering, the 8 mm Lebel (8x50mmR), or in variants produced later for US forces, the .30-06 Springfield, and for other international customers, 7.92 mm and 7.65 mm calibres. Despite some serious flaws it was so important to infantry combat that desperate German troops who had no comparable weapon of their own started using captured Chauchats. While it was chambered for the full-size calibre and therefore did not use an intermediate cartridge, it was an intermediate weapon between submachine guns and heavier machine guns such as the Lewis Gun. A similar full-power automatic rifle design, the Mondragón rifle, was patented in 1887 and used by the Mexican army from 1901.
The Ribeyrolle 1918 may be the first weapon fitting the definition of an assault rifle (including select fire and portability) to use a purpose-designed intermediate round. The cartridge was based on the .351 Winchester Self-Loading case necked down to accept an 8 mm Lebel bullet. It was first introduced to the Army Technical Service on July 6, 1918. Its official designation was Carabine Mitrailleuse (English: machine carbine; German: Maschinenkarabiner). It was finally rejected in 1921 because it was not accurate enough at distances beyond 400 meters.
The American M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) copied the Chauchat concept in a more reliable design but was not introduced or used in any significant numbers before the end of the First World War. Later developments added heavier barrels and bipods that made it more like today's light machine gun or squad automatic weapon, though it did help establish the doctrine of use for light selective fire rifles. These versions of the BAR were produced in large numbers, widely adopted, and served well into the 1960s with the U.S. military and other nations.
During World War I, submachine guns also entered service, such as the Villar Perosa, the Beretta Model 1918 and the MP18. These weapons shared many elements with assault rifles, but they fired pistol cartridges such as the 9x19 mm Parabellum. The developers of the Thompson submachine gun (also developed during the 1910s) originally intended to use rifle-powered rounds. However, a mechanical system that could handle their power was not available and the .45 ACP cartridge was chosen instead. These firearms are considered part of the submachine gun class, but were an important step in the development of assault rifles.
1930s: Automatic intermediate weapons
In Germany, between 1934 and 1938, the Heereswaffenamt sponsored the development of the Vollmer M35. It was chambered in an 7.92 mm intermediate cartridge, which was co-developed with Gustav Genschow and Co. (GECO). (The GECO M 35 cartridge bore more dimensional similarity to the Soviet 7.62x39mm M43 cartridge than with the German 7.92×33mm Kurz used in the Sturmgewehr.) Before funding ceased, some 25 prototypes had been built in three design iterations.
Somewhat similar weapons were the Danish Weibel M/1932 and Greek EPK light machine guns chambered in experimental rounds similar to what would become the 7.92x33mm Kurz within the following decade. Another attempt to combine an intermediate cartridge with an automatic rifle by the Italian arms company Beretta resulted in the MAB 38 (Moschetto Automatico Beretta 1938). The MAB 38 used a Fiocchi 9M38 cartridge, a higher-powered version of the 9x19mm Parabellum pistol cartridge, which could provide longer effective range up to 200 m (218 yards).
In 1942, the United States introduced the M1 carbine, which was an intermediate power weapon chambered for the .30 Carbine cartridge. While select-fire capability was initially planned for the M1 carbine, this was dropped from the initial version. Later in the war, selective fire variants were made (M2 and M3). The weapon had greater range and accuracy than submachine guns, but was not as powerful as full-size automatic rifles such as the M1918 BAR. The longer barrel provided the carbine with a higher muzzle velocity than pistols and submachine guns chambered for the same .30-calibre round. Coincidentally this was a 7.62x33mm round similar in size to the 7.92x33mm Kurz, used in the earliest German assault rifles. This shows that there was a niche for the intermediate cartridge that would later influence design and the nature of infantry combat
Originally the carbine was envisioned as an inexpensive lightweight weapon for issue to rear-echelon and support troops (truckers, tankers, cooks, etc.) in place of the more expensive M1911 pistol or M1 Garand rifle. The M1 series was soon found suitable for close quarter battle engagements, a concept that would be re-applied later. The M1 carbine series would remain in service with the U.S. military primary forces until supplemented and finally replaced by the M16 rifle in the 1960s; it continued to be used in limited roles, particularly by the U.S. Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and many Training Commands in the various branches of the U.S. armed forces well into the 1980s.
The 1930s was also the beginning of the important German Maschinenkarabiner program of arms development that resulted in the prototype Maschinenkarabiner M35 that was however not adopted for service.
1940s–early 1950s: Maschinenkarabiner, Sturmgewehr & AK-47
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Some of these automatic firearms used pre-existing rounds; others used new intermediate cartridges. Kinetic energy ranged between 1,400–2,100 J (1,033–1,550-foot-pounds), muzzle velocities of 600–800m/s (1,970–2,625 ft/s) and bullets of 7–9g (108–139 grains).
Germany, under the Versailles Treaty, was limited to a professional army of long service soldiers numbering only 100,000 men and forbade tanks or military aircraft. This encouraged an approach that emphasised high quality, and reduced emphasis on low cost. Infantry tactics became based on teams of General-purpose machine guns (GPMG) supporting and supported by a section of infantry. GPMG had high rates of fire to permit small numbers of men to fire at long range to defend a wide front. Enemy soldiers, briefly exposed, would be engaged with a high rate burst of fire to cause casualties before they could take cover. Close range assaults would be conducted by units with submachine guns, for greater mobility, and higher rates of fire. This tactical approach was a refinement of the "Hutier" tactics used by Germany in the last year of WWI.
Germany, like other countries, had observed and studied the emerging demand of infantry rifles evolving since World War I, and their factories made a variety of non-standard cartridges, therefore having less incentive to retain their existing calibres. The 7.92x30 mm (Kurz) cartridge was an example of these experiments; in 1941, it was improved to 7.92x33mm Kurz Infanterie Kurz Patrone ("Infantry Short Cartridge"). In 1942, it was again improved as Maschinenkarabiner Patrone S, and in 1943, Pistolen Patrone 43mE; then, finally, Infanterie Kurz Patrone 43. The similarity in size between the 7.92x33mm German cartridge and the 7.62x33mm developed for the M1 Carbine is a curious coincidence, but was ultimately nothing more than independent yet similar solutions to the same problem. The 7.92x33mm round used the same cartridge case head as the standard 7.92x57mm Mauser and the bullet was made from the same diameter rod.
In 1942, Walther presented the Maschinenkarabiner ("automatic carbine," abbr. MKb), named MKb42(W). In the same year, Haenel presented the MKb42(H), designed by Hugo Schmeisser as a result of this program. Rheinmetall-Borsig (some said Krieghoff) presented its FG 42 (Fallschirmjäger Gewehr 42, sponsored by Hermann Göring) though this was in a different role, and using a heavy 7.92x57mm Mauser cartridge, which was not an intermediate round. Wartime tests in Russia indicated the MKb42(H) performed better than the other two. Schmeisser developed it first as the MP43, then MP43/1, and finally as the MP44/Sturmgewehr 44 (abbreviated StG44, or sometimes StG 44). It immediately entered large scale production. More than 5,000 units had been produced by February 1944, 55,000 by the following November and by May 1945 roughly 425,000 units had been produced.
Following the end of the war, Mikhail Kalashnikov developed in 1947 the AK-47, inspired by the concept and layout of the German StG44, but is quite different mechanically. It fired the 7.62x39mm cartridge, which had been developed as model 43 for use in their SKS carbines that were developed by Simonov in 1945 and subsequently adopted as the SKS-45 . The round was similar to the StG44's in that the bullet was an intermediate round of the same calibre as the larger full-size Russian rifle ammunition.
Though it further supports claims that Kalashnikov closely followed his German counterpart, Russian historians point out that Hugo Schmeisser arrived to Izhevsk in late 1947, while Kalashnikov had relocated development of his rifle to the same premises only as late as 1948 (the development itself began in 1943). Still, Schmeisser greatly helped Soviet gunsmiths to master the cold stamping technology, which was extensively used in the AK design (this especially relates to the later stamped receiver variant).
Mauser had developed several prototype Sturmgewehr 45 assault rifles, first with the Gerät 06 (Device 6) using a roller-delayed blowback mechanism originally adapted from the roller-locked recoil operation of the MG42 machine gun but with a fixed barrel and gas system. It was realised that with careful attention to the mechanical ratios, the gas system could be omitted. The resultant weapon, the Gerät 06(H) was supposedly slated for adoption by the Wehrmacht as the StG45.
The German technicians involved in developing the Sturmgewehr 45 continued their research in France at CEAM. The StG45 mechanism was modified by Ludwig Vorgrimler and Theodor Löffler at the Mulhouse facility between 1946 and 1949. Three versions were made, chambered in .30 Carbine, 7.92x33mm Kurz as well as the 7.65x35mm cartridge developed by Cartoucherie de Valence and adopted in 1948. A 7.5x38mm cartridge using a partial aluminium bullet was abandoned in 1947. Engaged in the Indochina war and being the second NATO contributor, France cancelled the adoption of these new weapons. Vorgrimler moved to Spain and began production of CETME Modelo A,B and C precursors of Heckler & Koch's G3 battle rifle and MP5 submachine gun
Late 1950s–1960s: Lighter rifles and smaller bullets
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Many of these automatic firearms used intermediate cartridges with much lighter bullets and smaller calibres, but fired at very high velocity; kinetic energy ranged between 1300–1800J (960–1,330-foot-pounds), velocities of 900–1050m/s (2,950–3,450 ft/s), and bullets of 3–4g (46–62 grains).
Following the end of World War II, the U.S. Army conducted a number of studies of what happened in the war and how it was actually fought. Several things were learned which applied directly to personal weapon design. Perhaps most important, research found that most combat casualties caused by small-arms fire took place at short range. So the long range and accuracy of the standard rifle was, in a real sense, wasted. Second, the research found that aiming was not a major factor in causing casualties. Instead, the number one predictor of casualties was the total number of bullets fired. Third, psychological studies found that many riflemen (as much as 2/3) never fired their weapons at the enemy. By contrast, those soldiers equipped with rapid-fire weapons (submachine guns and the early assault rifles) were far more likely to actually use their weapons in battle. This combination of factors led to the conclusion that a fairly short-range weapon capable of rapid fire would be the most effective general-purpose weapon for infantry.
While these studies were being digested, the United States insisted on introducing their own 7.62x51mm full-power cartridge as the standard for NATO armies. It could kill at distances of more than 500 metres (550 yards) (though this was increasingly seen as irrelevant). At the time, the British were developing their own 7x43mm (.280 British) intermediate cartridge for their modern EM-2 bullpup assault rifle. Due to political pressure from the Conservative Party, which agreed with the American standardisation campaign, the whole project was shelved at the eve of introduction. In Belgium, the famous arms producer FN Herstal started experimenting with the German 7.92x33mm Kurzpatrone. They built a prototype of a rifle using this cartridge, but the impending NATO standardisation forced them to rebuild it to use American ammo, giving birth to the FN FAL, Switzerland introduced the SIG 510 that still fired Swiss service full-length rifle rounds but also produced the SIG 510-4 that fired the 7.62x51mm NATO round. Bolivia and Chile adopted the SIG 510-4 as their service rifle, Bolivian/Chilean exports were licence produced by the Italian firm Beretta.
In conjunction with the 7.62x51mm Cartridge, The United States had developed the M14 rifle, which was largely based on the WWII M1 Garand, the most significant change being the addition of a 20-round detachable box magazine and selective fire capability. While initial tests looked promising, and professional rifleman were able to put on favorable demonstrations, the select-fire capabilities quickly proved unrealistic once the rifle was in the hands of a more average soldier; The 7.62mm NATO cartridge is a full-power rifle cartridge and produces too much recoil to control a lightweight rifle in full automatic fire. About the same time the M14 was entering service, Eugene Stoner of ArmaLite was developing a totally new rifle named the AR-10, which was still designed to fire the 7.62mm NATO cartridge. As testing of the Stoner rifle progressed, army ordnance finally decided to look more seriously at the intermediate cartridge concept, and the 5.56x45mm NATO was born. Stoner scaled down his design and renamed the smaller weapon the AR-15, which would ultimately be adopted by the US armed forces as the M16 rifle. The M16A1 version soon followed to rectify issues found during use in the Vietnam War. The M16A2 was a further refinement and upgrade introduced in 1986 meant to use the Belgian-updated 5.56x45mm NATO cartridge with a heavier 62-grain (4.0 g) steel-core "penetrator" bullet known as the SS109 or M855. The latest incarnation of the M16 rifle is the M4A1 selective fire carbine.
The smaller-calibre military cartridges such as the 5.56x45mm and 5.45x39mm were sometimes considered less lethal than the previous generation of assault rifle rounds, such as the 7.62x39mm, which were large-calibre bullets with reduced propellant or cases. However, the lighter, small-calibre bullets achieved higher velocities, more favourable ballistic properties, and reduced carrying weight.
One aspect of the smaller calibre ammunition that is sometimes hotly debated is its fragmentation behaviour. Stopping capability is the effectiveness of the round in completely stopping the target when it hits—either killing or fully incapacitating. Within a certain range of ballistic conditions, the lighter 5.56 mm and 5.45 mm will, upon striking tissue, first tumble and then fragment. Beyond 100 yards (91 m), or when fired from shorter barrels, such bullets can often fail to fragment upon impact because of insufficient velocity. Thus, the result in a target is a rather small .223-calibre bullet hole, instead of a much larger wound channel. Effectiveness depends on what tissues of the enemy body the round destroys. Larger destroyed areas increases the probability that sufficient damage will be done to end enemy resistance. Ultimately, any pointed (spitzer) round will tumble in soft tissue. If the jacket has a cannelure, such as the U.S. 5.56x45mm M193 round, and the bullet is in the proper ballistic state and high enough velocity, the bullet will fragment, inflicting significant blood loss and internal damage, as well as a wound channel profile that is more complex to address medically. If the bullet acts as a solid, and doesn't fragment, full effectiveness occurs only if striking the brain or spinal cord, causing immediate loss of control. There is a distinct, though lesser effectiveness if the heart, large blood vessels, or liver (which last tends to tear) is hit causing fairly quick loss of blood pressure, and consequent unconsciousness.
Part of the dispute over small-calibre rounds arises here. Blood loss leads to indirect incapacitation, but often takes longer than direct destruction of tissue. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara presented wounding ability as a reason for adoption of the M16 over the M14 as a question of battlefield efficiency - that it is better to wound an adversary than kill him, as wounded must be tended to by their comrades, taking them out of the fight and demoralising them in the process. Many claim that this theory was wed to the findings of Project SALVO, but nowhere in the SALVO findings was reduced lethality of rifle rounds ever stressed or presented as an argument for adoption of a lighter/smaller calibre round. SALVO concluded that the main factor in inflicting casualties in infantry combat was solely rounds fired - aiming had negligible impact.
The theory that enemy soldiers would stop to aid a wounded comrade was questionable. The heavier 7.62 mm bullets in use were claimed to hit harder with more mass, would not deflect or destabilise as readily, and more reliably killed what they hit. (Some of the substantiated issues were later addressed in 1982 with the changes made in the M16A2, which used a heavier 62-grain (4.0 g) bullet with different ballistic characteristics from its M16A1 predecessor.)
1970s–1990s: Development of features and form factors
In the 1980s and 1990s, high velocity, smaller-calibre ammunition was becoming the standard of assault rifle ammunition. Following the trend set by the United States (which went from 7.62x51mm to 5.56x45mm), the Soviet Union developed its own smaller-calibre cartridge: the 5.45x39mm. In 1974, the 5.45x39 AK-74 became the successor to the AK-47/AKM series. Though AK-74s began utilising synthetic materials as opposed to wood, the weapon largely maintained the design of the AK-47. China in the 1980s introduced the 5.8x42mm DBP87 round, to compete with the assault rifle rounds of NATO and Russia.
One notable development in ammunition in the 1970–1980s was the German Heckler & Koch G11 rifle, which used 4.73 mm caseless ammunition. Because of German reunification and heat-dissipation issues with the caseless ammunition, the rifle never entered full production.
New developments were rifle designs that utilised modularity, new form factors, sights, electronics, and new materials. A number of bullpup rifles entered service in the late 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Although bullpup design had existed since the 1930s, the United Kingdom's EM-2 was one of the few bullpup assault rifles prior to this time. Examples of the trend include the FAMAS, Steyr AUG, and SA80. All three are bullpup rifles that make heavy use of composites and plastics, the FAMAS and AUG both have ambidextrous controls, and the AUG, and SA80 both added a low-power telescopic sight to the standard service version. The QBZ-95, SAR-21, and the Tavor TAR-21 follow a similar trend as well, with a bullpup configuration and heavy use of composites.
The German Heckler & Koch G36, adopted in the late 1990s by Germany and Spain, had integral telescopic and red dot sights and a composite exterior. The G36C, a compact variant, featured a different barrel assembly, a shorter foregrip, and a Picatinny rail in place of the standard sight assembly to accommodate a detachable sight.
Through the 1990s, modular accessories for use on rifles, of a variety of types, started to become widespread with the rapidly increasing practice of mounting Picatinny pattern rails on firearms. This was primarily driven by the growing visibility and number of tactical police, counter-terrorist units, SWAT teams, special forces, and other groups that desired the capability to specifically tailor their weapons. Tactical lights, visible lasers, weapon suppressors, infra-red lights, drum magazines, ergonomic accessories (such as vertical foregrips), folding or collapsible stocks, and a plethora of other options appeared. As these options became available to civilians, customisation of weapons other than assault rifles, such as the SKS rifle became common.
Intertwined with the growth of the modular accessories was the concept of rifles being modular themselves. While some assault rifles can be modified through the use of attachments (such as the M4 carbine with SOPMOD), other assault rifles like the H&K G36, can have their entire function modified. The G36 can be converted from a standard rifle to a compact carbine for closer engagements or a squad automatic weapon for support, simply by swapping parts. Interchangeable or quick-detachable barrel assemblies of different lengths are emerging for some weapons, with retrofit kits to provide similar capabilities on older types. The AR-15 in particular has an entire industry that has grown to make variations of every component of the rifle. A variety of upper receivers of many types of operation (bolt, direct gas impingement, gas piston, blowback) are manufactured that allow the weapon to fire different ammunition from the standard assault rifle round (from small target rounds such as .22 LR to pistol rounds such as .380 ACP) without permanently changing the rifle.
21st century developments
21st century assault rifles tend to be refinements of innovations made in previous decades. For example, Israel's IMI Tavor TAR-21 is a 21st-century assault rifle that continues earlier trends of design: it has a compact bullpup layout, uses the 5.56x45mm NATO cartridge, can be set up for left- or right- handed shooters, exists in several modular variants, is made of lightweight composite materials, and comes standard with a reflex sight. However the 21st century has come up with new innovations such as improved and new types of ammunition, (such as Plastic tipped bullets), advanced aiming systems and multi-caliber ability. The United States funded development of a replacement for the M16 rifle, eventually leading to the XM8 rifle, an experimental 21st-century design. Based on the Heckler & Koch G36, it had similar features, but added electronics such as a laser sight, round counter, and integral infra-red and visible lights. The XM8 was a modular design: the rifle could fulfill different roles by changing the parts. Weapons manufacturer Heckler and Koch has also created a redesigned M4 assault rifle. The new weapons, the HK416 (firing 5.56x45 NATO) and the HK417 (firing 7.62x51 NATO), have updated features, but are not completely different weapons platforms. They feature a piston (not direct impingement,) action, Picatinny rails, a drop free magazine release, a bolt that is sealed from the action (reducing dirt, heat and chance of failure) and other additions.
Another trend of the 21st century is the combination of sophisticated electronics with modern rifle designs. The U.S. spent millions on the Objective Individual Combat Weapon program, to create a more advanced combat rifle. The XM29 OICW rifle design was finalized in the early first decade of the 21st century- it featured an integrated laser range-finder, thermal vision and night vision capabilities, and an integral smart grenade launcher. The project was canceled in 2004, but the US's experimental XM29 rifle led to other countries developing similar systems. France's PAPOP program is currently under-way to create a computerized infantry weapon system. South Korea's prototype XK11 Korean New Rifle has a ballistics computer, a laser range-finder, and a digital scope that provides the operator with combat data and is capable of night operation through thermal imaging. The lightweight small arms technology program sets to revolutionize small arms for the 21st century by lightening the weight of individual weapons.
Small arms technology including the assault rifle can be described as a mature technology. However, changes in battlefield realities can be expected to lead to technological changes. As weapons evolve, the delicate balance for assault rifle systems between power, weight, recoil and terminal effects will likely shift once again in an attempt to defeat body armour, to match the range of full-power cartridges, and to penetrate through wind shields and thin-skinned vehicles while still producing good terminal effects. Possible future directions are armour piercing or saboted sub-caliber tungsten darts, more powerful cartridges, application of new composite materials such as carbon fiber or carbon nanotubes, and use of exotic metals such as titanium and scandium. As personal body armour technology improves, for example from the development of Magnetorheological fluid-based smart materials, assault rifle designs will be forced to adapt in order to remain effective. Changes in assault rifle technology may come from maturation of other fields - as camera technology becomes more advanced, cameras may be integrated into rifles. Much research and development has already been put into integration of rifles with advanced electronics.
The future of the assault rifle may not be entirely in the design of the firearm itself, but rather in the ammunition it fires. Reducing weight and cost being one of the original reasons for the development of the intermediate powered round and subsequently the assault rifle, that goal has been taken to a whole new level with the development of caseless ammunition which does away with the weight and cost of shell casings. Limitations of current technology prevent this idea from being successful but the concept is still being researched. Recent progress with the Lightweight Small Arms Technologies program has made the concept of caseless ammunition a step closer to reality.
Legal ownership by civilians
Possession of functional assault rifles by civilians is illegal in most nations, but there are a few notable exceptions, including the following:
Limited civilian ownership of assault rifles is allowed under prohibited-class licenses, but the number of owners is diminishing due to attrition as no new licenses are currently being issued; currently legally owned assault rifles have been grandfathered in and they must be turned in for destruction upon the death of the owner or lapse of the license. There is a provision in the law that allows for a parent to will a prohibited weapon to their son or daughter. The inheritor is allowed to keep the weapon in usable condition. Many semi-automatic only variants of assault rifles are available in both the non-restricted and restricted categories, while others are classified as prohibited, depending on the particular firearm.
The Ministry of the Interior, under the provisions of Act 119/2002, regulates civilian ownership of assault rifles, which are classified in the Czech Republic as Category A (Restricted Firearms and Accessories). In addition to a valid gun license, the prospective civilian owner must obtain a Category A Exemption from a local police agency and demonstrate the reason for owning an assault rifle, e.g. a legitimate firearms collection. The largest rifled bore available to civilians is .50-calibre. Semi-automatic versions of assault rifles are classified as Category B and civilians may purchase them, if they possess respective gun license and purchase certificate. See also Gun politics in the Czech Republic.
The Firearms Act of 1998 (amended in 2001) outlawed possession of assault rifles by the general public, although licensed collectors in good standing may be able to obtain permits for older assault rifles from the Gaming and Weapons Administration. Police must verify that the collector is able to store the gun securely to discourage theft. Civilians may purchase semi-automatic versions of assault rifles.
Assault rifles are considered Class 2 weapons of the Wet Wapens en Munitie (WWM) along with silencers and short-barreled rifles/shotguns as well as any high-capacity magazine. Civilian possession is illegal unless personal authorisation is obtained from the Minister of Justice.
Civilian gun licenses in Pakistan vary considerably in terms of region and class of firearm. Local police agencies can issue permits for assault rifles that are only legal in the state in which they are issued, although a licence issued by the Prime Minister will allow the rifle in question to be transported anywhere in the country. There are complaints that the licensing process has become too politicised.
Assault rifles may only be owned by licensed collectors and hunters, but cannot be fired in full-automatic mode. Civilians may purchase semi-automatic versions of such firearms.
Canton police agencies may issue special permits for civilians to own assault rifles (typically as licensed collectors), but such weapons may not be fired in full-automatic mode. Civilians may also purchase semi-automatic versions of such firearms.
Civilian ownership of assault rifles or any other full-automatic firearm is tightly regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives under the National Firearms Act of 1934 as amended by Title II of the Gun Control Act of 1968. In addition, the Firearms Owners' Protection Act of 1986 halted the manufacture of assault rifles for the civilian market and currently limits legal civilian ownership to units produced and properly registered with the BATFE before May 1986. Some states have enacted laws against civilian possession of automatic weapons that override NFA clearance; Kansas, on the other hand, repealed its own state law against civilian ownership of assault rifles in July 2008. Civilians may purchase semi-automatic versions of such firearms without requiring NFA clearance, although some states (including California and New Jersey) enforce their own restrictions and/or prohibitions on such weapons.
- Battle rifle
- Marksman rifle
- Sniper rifle
- Personal defense weapon
- Firearm action
- List of assault rifles
- List of firearms
- List of multiple barrel firearms
- List of service rifles of national armies
- Comparison of the AK-47 and M16
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