Talking Assault Rifles.
A primer from the Small Arms Survey, in Geneva.
In recent weeks, since the crimes in Newtown, Ct., I’ve been inundated by requests for technical, historical and legal background on what people call, with a range of different definitions and motivations, “assault rifles.”
Motivations are motivations; each has his or her own. I won’t try to disentangle them here. Definitions? Well, there are reasons for the many definitions of “assault rifle,” and, no matter your passions or your opinions, there are reasons that in many cases both sides of a given argument about the best definition can be more or less right.
Why? Historically, “assault rifles” do have a definition, just as they have a particular origin. But definitions can shift with the passing of decades, and in this case the term in question has been complicated by changes in what militaries have wanted from their shoulder-fired arms and by the different legal definitions assigned to “assault rifle” by different legislatures and jurisdictions.
Some people tell me that assault rifles are only assault rifles if their selector lever allows for automatic fire. That’s certainly a historically accurate definition (cf, the photo above, of the world’s first mass-produced assault rifle, a military product of Germany’s late Nazi period). But such a definition, particularly when advanced in the United States, neglects that the Pentagon largely phased automatic fire out of its various descendants of the AR-15 line when it began issuing assault rifles en masse (think: the M16A2) that did not have a fully automatic feature, replacing “auto” with “burst” (which fires three rounds only) instead. Add in that the predominant strains of training in recent decades for most American military riflemen has emphasized keeping the assault rifle selector levers set on “semi” and relying on single, well-aimed shots (although often in rapid succession), and arguments about what can rightly be called an “assault rifle,” and what features of “assault rifles” make them most effective (as in, lethal) and this often bitter conversation only becomes messier.
My beat and most of my work is abroad, where assault rifles typically have a different role and often have different uses than those of the various constituencies (which are different from the various criminals) in the United States. One matter is clear to me. It involves the long view, going back to the drawing boards. It is this: Assault rifles, whether we are discussing the original mass-produced items (the MP-43, or the design patterns that followed it, including the Automatic Kalashnikov and AR-15 lines and their many offspring) were conjured to form solely for the task of allowing men to more efficiently kill other men, with firearms that would be smaller, lighter in weight, more tactically versatile and require a lighter per-man effective ammunition load than the infantry rifles that preceded them. That much is beyond reasonable dispute. From there, conversations diverge.
As the domestic gun argument in the United States is not my specialty or the area of my research, I am in no position to offer fuller opinions here. But I do share the Small Arms Survey’s primer, pointing to it as a useful background note for those engaged in this conversation.
Again, the link.
Now, back to work, and more from Syria.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPH
Top, a German sturmgewehr. One of the originals. Captured from a Syrian armory this summer in Aleppo, Syria, by rebels seeking the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad. Bottom, closer view of stampings on the magazine in this rifle, and from another sample in the same room. Photographed by the author in Tal Rifaat. August, 2012. More on these particular assault rifles (I use the term in this case with confidence) later, though in the context of the international arms trade, not of American gun-control policies and law.
A well-reasoned glimpse into the ideas of the time, if cautious and held with disclaimers. Perhaps one of the more calm voices I’ve heard/read since December 21st.