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A battle rifle is a select fire or semi-automatic military service rifle that fires a full-power rifle cartridge, such as 7.62x51mm NATO. While the designation of battle rifle is usually given to post-World War II select fire infantry rifles such as the H&K G3, the FN FAL, or the M14, this term can also apply to older military semi-automatic rifles such as the M1 Garand.
The term 'battle rifle' as a distinct class of firearms was coined largely out of a need to differentiate the true intermediate-caliber assault rifles (such as the M16 or SA80) from their immediate service predecessors (such as the M14 rifle or FAL). These older rifle designs were still chambered in full-power calibers, but otherwise shared many novel assault rifle-type features with their replacements, such as select fire capability and removable box magazines. Despite the demise of their role as a general infantry rifle, the type has endured due to the continuing manufacture of battle rifles for various specialty roles (such as the squad designated marksman) in which their superior range and power can be best utilized.
The battle rifle's general design theory was a product of the post-World War II technological evolution of the infantry rifle from a bolt action with an internal magazine (such as the Lee-Enfield, Mauser 98k or Mosin-Nagant) towards a select-fire rifle with a removable box magazine. World War II had demonstrated that the average volume of fire an infantry squad was able to produce was usually (all other things being equal) the determinant factor in a firefight; the Germans had armed their infantry squads with highly accurate bolt-action Mauser rifles and tasked them primarily with protecting their single extremely fast-firing machine gun. This meant that once their machine gun was put out of commission, they were at a serious disadvantage in volume of fire against American squads armed with the semi-automatic M1 Garand. The bolt-action rifle also proved a major detriment in urban warfare and surprise engagements at close range; an American with an M1 Garand could empty his 8-round clip in the time it took a trained German to fire twice, an advantage that often proved decisive.
In essence, the battle rifle was an attempt to expand upon the firing speed, ammo capacity and reloading time of the 1st-generation semi-automatic infantry rifles while retaining the infantry squad's ability to deliver effective 1000-yard volley fire on demand, a standard which had existed since World War I and was considered a core skill for the US infantry squad. Additionally, despite the success of the German StG-44 and their advantages in recoil and ammo weight mitigation, intermediate cartridges were still in their infancy and were not yet in a position to replace full-power rounds.
The battle rifle's power and long-range accuracy are intended to engage targets at long distances, but this comes with a trade-off of length and weight that make it relatively cumbersome in close-quarter combat. Also, the recoil of a full-size cartridge makes most battle rifles very difficult to control when using full-automatic fire and generally restricts them to semi-auto only, a disadvantage that gives them less overall volume of fire than the true assault rifles.
In contrast, assault rifles fire smaller intermediate-size cartridges such as the 5.56x45mm NATO round used in the M16, Chinese 5.8x42mm used in the QBZ-95 or the Russian moderate-velocity 7.62x39mm and 5.45x39mm cartridges of the AK-47 and AK-74 series of rifles. However, some overlapping of rifle design and cartridge application occurs; for example a few relatively compact selective-fire rifles in 7.62x51mm NATO caliber have been produced.
The first rifle which could be considered a battle rifle was the Cei-Rigotti rifle which was developed ca. 1900, although it never entered service. During World War II both Allied and Axis researchers observed that the majority of small-arms combat occurred at distances of about 300 metres or less, with few engagements occurring beyond that range. At these short ranges the battle rifle's advantages are mostly wasted. For this reason, modern armies have favored more compact, lighter, and more maneuverable rifles and carbines. This dimensional disadvantage provoked the development of the world's first true assault rifle that would become the German StG 44.
Recently, however, there has been a general backlash against carbines and light rifles in many armies around the world due to their having less range, penetration and power than battle rifles. Recent conflicts in desert environments have underscored the need for greater range while developments in body armor have created a need for more powerful munitions.. A consequence of this was the creation of the Squad Designated Marksman program in the U.S. Army and the Squad Advanced Marksman in the U.S. Marine Corps. The role of the designated marksman is to fill the "marksmanship gap" between the rifleman (<300 metres) and the sniper (>600 metres). Instead of relying on the use of smaller, lighter weapons with a higher rate of fire to hit a target, these programs place greater emphasis on marksmanship training, allowing the DM to take advantage of the greater range and power of heavier weapons. This has marked the return of battle rifles such as the U.S. Marine Corps Designated Marksman Rifle and the M14, which had been phased out previously due to their limited effectiveness in the hands of beginner marksmen compared to lighter rifles and carbines like the M16, CAR-15, and M4.
The term battle rifle is likely a neologism. It is not defined or frequently used in military field manuals and government documents (being unofficially used in the field in reference to a Designated Marksman's rifle). There are some government requisition documents that do make mention of a specific rifle as a battle rifle, but those documents may just be using the manufacturer's marketing name (similar to how Springfield Armory's M14 clone is trademarked as the M1A).
- Assault rifle
- Marksman rifle
- Sniper rifle
- List of battle rifles
- List of multiple barrel firearms
- List of firearms
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