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A semi-automatic rifle is a self-loading rifle that fires a single round each time the trigger is pulled. In contrast, a fully automatic rifle continuously fires rounds as long as the trigger is pressed and there is ammunition left.
Semi-automatic weapons use gas, blowforward, blowback, or recoil energy to eject the spent cartridge after the round has traveled down the barrel, chambers a new cartridge from its magazine, and resets the action; enabling another round to be fired once the trigger is depressed again.
The self-loading design was a successor to earlier rifles that required manual-cycling of the weapon after each shot, such as the bolt-action rifle or repeating rifles, which required the operator to manual cycle the action before each shot. The ability to automatically load the next round allowed for an increase in the rounds per minute the operator could fire.
These rifles are also known as self-loading rifles ('SLR') or auto-loading rifles and are often mistaken for automatic rifles or machine guns. Self-loading rifles were one of the most revolutionary designs in the history of warfare. To name one example, semi-automatic weapons gave the United States an important edge in World War II, as the M1 Garand was a semi-automatic rifle issued to most soldiers, whereas the Axis powers had only bolt action weapons and limited quantities of semi-automatic rifles. Semi-automatic rifles are versatile designs. They can be efficiently fed by en-bloc clip and internal magazine, detachable magazine or a combination of stripper clip and internal magazine.
Early history (1885–1945)
The first successful design for a semi-automatic rifle is attributed to German-born gunsmith Ferdinand Ritter von Mannlicher, who unveiled the design in 1885. The Model 85 was followed by the equally innovative Mannlicher Models 91, 93 and 95 semi-automatic rifles. Although Mannlicher earned his reputation with his bolt-action rifle designs, he also produced a few semi-automatic pistols, including the Steyr Mannlicher M1894, which employed an unusual blow-forward action and held five rounds of 6.5 mm ammunition that were fed into the M1894 by a stripper clip.
A few years later, American gunsmith John Moses Browning developed the first successful semi-automatic shotgun, the Browning Auto-5, which was first manufactured in 1902 by Fabrique Nationale de Herstal and sold in America under the Browning name. The Auto-5 relied on long recoil operation; this design remained the dominant form in semi-automatic shotguns for approximately 50 years. Production of the Auto-5 was finally ended in 1999.
In 1903 and 1905, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company introduced the first semi-automatic rimfire and centerfire rifles designed especially for the civilian market. The Winchester Model 1903 and Winchester Model 1905 operated on the principle of blowback in order to function semi-automatically. Designed entirely by T.C. Johnson, the Model 1903 achieved commercial success and continued to be manufactured until 1932 when the Winchester Model 63 replaced it.
By the early 20th century, several manufacturers had introduced semi-automatic .22 rifles, including Winchester, Remington, Fabrique Nationale and Savage Arms, all using the direct blow-back system of operation. Winchester introduced a medium caliber semi-automatic rifle, the Model 1907 as an upgrade to the Model 1905, utilizing a blowback system of operation, in calibers such as .351 Winchester. Both the Models of 1905 and 1907 saw limited military and police use.
Notable early semi-automatic rifles
In 1906, Remington Arms introduced the "Remington Auto-loading Repeating Rifle." Remington advertised this rifle, renamed the "Model 8" in 1911, as a sporting rifle. This is a locked-breech, long recoil action designed by John Browning. The rifle was offered in .25, .30, .32, and .35 caliber models, and gained popularity among civilians as well as some law enforcement officials who appreciated the combination of a semi-automatic action and relatively powerful rifle cartridges. The Model 81 superseded the Model 8 in 1936 and was offered in .300 Savage as well as the original Remington calibers.
The first semi-automatic rifle adopted and widely issued by a major military power (France) was the Fusil Automatique Modele 1917. This is a locked breech, gas-operated action which is very similar in its mechanical principles to the future M1 Garand in the United States. The M1917 was fielded during the latter stages of WWI but it did not receive a favorable reception. However its shortened and improved version, the Model 1918, gave complete satisfaction during the Moroccan Rif War from 1920 to 1926. The Lebel bolt-action rifle remained the standard French infantry rifle until replaced in 1936 by the (also bolt action) MAS-36 despite the various semi-automatic rifles designed between 1918 and 1935.
Other nations experimented with self-loading rifles between the two World Wars, including the United Kingdom, which had intended to replace the bolt-action Lee–Enfield with a self-loader, possibly chambered for sub-caliber ammunition, but discarded that plan as the imminence of the Second World War and the emphasis shifted from replacing every rifle with a new design to speeding-up re-armament with existing weapons. The Soviet Union and Germany would both issue successful self-loading and selective-fire rifles on a large scale during the course of the war, but not in sufficient numbers to replace their standard bolt-action rifles.
Notable gas-operated rifles
In 1937, the American M1 Garand was the first semi-automatic rifle to replace its nation's bolt-action rifle as the standard-issue infantry weapon. The gas-operated M1 Garand was developed by Canadian-born John Garand for the U.S. government at the Springfield Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts. After years of research and testing, the first production model of the M1 Garand was unveiled in 1937. During World War II, the M1 Garand gave American infantrymen an advantage over their opponents, most of whom were issued slower firing bolt-action rifles.
The Soviet AVS-36, SVT-38 and SVT-40, as well as the German Gewehr 43, were semi-automatic gas-operated rifles issued during World War II in relatively small numbers. In practice, they did not replace the bolt-action rifle as a standard infantry weapon of their respective nations.
Another gas-operated semi-automatic rifle developed toward the end of World War II was the SKS. Designed by Sergei Gavrilovich Simonov in 1945, it came equipped with a bayonet and could be loaded with ten rounds, using a stripper clip. However, the SKS was quickly replaced by the AK-47. It was the first widely issued rifle to use the 7.62×39mm cartridge.
There are semi-automatic pistols, rifles, and shotguns designed and made as semi-automatic only, usually by means of a disconnector. Selective-fire firearms are capable of both full automatic and semi-automatic modes.
Semi-automatic refers to a firearm which uses the force of recoil or gas to eject the empty case and load a fresh cartridge into the firing chamber for the next shot and which allows repeat shots solely through the action of pulling the trigger. A double-action revolver also requires only a trigger pull for each round that is fired but is not self-loading since the manual action of pulling the trigger is what advances the cylinder, not the energy of the preceding shot.
- Assault rifle (not to be confused with "Assault weapon")
- Assault weapon - certain semi-automatic rifles are classified as assault weapons in some jurisdictions
- Modern sporting rifle
- Personal defense weapon
- Semi-automatic firearm
- List of semi-automatic rifles
- Jewison, Glenn; Steiner, Jörg C. (2010). "Ferdinand Ritter von Mannlicher". austro-hungarian-army.co.uk. Glenn Jewison.
- Smith, Walter H.B. (1947). Mannlicher Rifles and Pistols: Famous Sporting and Military Weapons. Military Service Publishing.
- "Firsts: Springfield 375". 2011. Archived from the original on March 14, 2012.
- Hogg, Ian (2002). Jane's Guns Recognition Guide. Jane's Information Group. ISBN 0-00-712760-X.