The Birth of Assault Rifles

I might have mentioned before that I get annoyed at the misuse of the term “assault rifle” and its relatives, like “assault weapon.” No, people, those terms weren’t invented by the anti-gun lobby. They just weren’t. Stop saying this. But before the anti-gun lobby get too smug, no, you can’t buy an assault rifle in Walmart either. So you can stop saying that.

“Assault weapon” is a real term with a clear meaning. It describes a class of firearm with specific features. Any gun that has all of those features is an assault rifle; any that doesn’t have them all, isn’t. It’s not hard.

What are those features? There are three, and none of them were covered by the ridiculous federal assault weapon ban. One is that it’s a shoulder fired long gun with a rifled barrel. The next is that it’s capable of selective fire – it can fire single shots or automatic bursts. That’s why you can’t buy one in Walmart; legally it’s a machinegun. There are probably a couple of dozen legally owned assault rifles in the USA; they sell for five-figure prices and I can’t find any record of one ever being used in a crime. And the third feature is that it’s chambered for an intermediate caliber – either a high velocity small-bore round like .223, or a low-velocity full-bore like 7.62×39 Soviet or 7.92×33 Kurz. So shut up about “high-powered assault rifles”, too, lefties, because by definition assault weapons are not high powered.

Assault rifles grew out of German experiences in the Second World War. Unlike the British and US armies, who saw rifles as the main infantry firepower, the Germans built their infantry tactics around machineguns. The British issued the Bren LMG to support the riflemen, but German riflemen were basically ammo carriers and close protection for the section GPMG. Later in the war they decided that more automatic weapons were needed, and work frantically started on a new rifle.

sturmgewehr-44Actually work started on two new rifles, because Nazi Germany was full of competing empires. The Luftwaffe, which controlled the German paratroops, was first out of the blocks. They wanted a weapon that was no longer or heavier than the Mauser Kar98k rifle, but could serve as a semiauto rifle or light machinegun. Rheinmetall designer Louis Stange came up with the Fallschirmjägergewehr (Parachutist weapon) 42, and in the process basically invented the modern battle rifle. The FG42 was a semi-bullpup, firing the full-power 7.92mm Mauser round from a 20-round magazine. In semiauto it fired from a closed bolt and turned out to be an excellent rifle. Open the built-in bipod and switch to full automatic and it became a reasonably capable LMG firing from an open bolt. Some shooters who’re familiar with the FG42 say they’d happily choose it over modern tactical rifles.

The Army, however, went after a different design that turned out to be a lot more influential. They’d realized that most combat took place at under 330 yards, which meant the huge power of the 7.92mm round was overkill for the average infantryman. A new intermediate cartridge was quickly produced, the 7.92x33mm Kurz (short) round. To fire it two rifles were developed, one by Haenel and one by Walther. They were pretty similar – both were gas-operated selective fire rifles that took a 30-round magazine. They were also a lot smaller than the standard Kar98k, although they weren’t any lighter. A few thousand of both were made for trials, then the more reliable Haenel design was selected for mass production.

At this point Hitler, who’d fought in the trenches in WWI and believed a full-power rifle was essential, found out about the project. He went into one of his famous carpet-chewing rages at this treachery, but when the generals insisted on showing him what the rifle could actually do he changed his mind and gave it a new name. Up to then it had been called the MP43, to disguise it as an SMG and hide its real nature from the demented Führer. Now it became the Sturmgewehr 44, the Assault Rifle.

The StG44 hasn’t aged quite as well as the FG42; compared to modern assault rifles, it’s heavy and the ergonomics aren’t great. On the other hand, it’s sturdy and reliable, and by all accounts has low recoil and is surprisingly accurate. The Yugoslav Army airborne forces used it up to the 1980s, refusing to replace it with the AK series. Several thousand of them surfaced in Syria recently too, and again some people seem to prefer them to more modern weapons. It might be old and crude, but the first assault weapon still seems to have what it takes on the battlefield.

You can’t buy one in Walmart though.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason grew up in the west of Scotland. After attending university he spent 14 years in the British Army and served in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq. Afterwards, he went to Afghanistan as a contractor, where he worked in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Camp Leatherneck. He now writes on a variety of topics including current affairs and military matters.
Fergus Mason

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