What Is An Assault Rifle? A Guide For Non-Shooters

The current national discussion on gun control is taking place between a large number of people, many of whom have differing levels of expertise with the use or identification of weapons.  Many of those desiring greater restrictions on firearms are unfamiliar with them, which is entirely reasonable; firearms aficionados and collectors would be the most likely to educate themselves on the subject, whereas those who fear or mistrust them would be likely to avoid any contact with the weapons in question.

Unfortunately for the dialogue, this lack of expertise detracts from the credibility of those wanting change.  Additionally, decades of intricate and confusing gun laws have muddied up the conversational waters even more.  Since profitable discussion requires mutual respect, and since the subject is simple enough to learn, read on.

The picture at the top of the page is of an M-16 variant.  This is a military-issue automatic weapon that has been used by the U.S. Military for decades.  This particular model is a carbine, which means it’s shorter than some others.  This makes it lighter and easier to use at close range.  It is not designed for hunting or target practice, but rather for shooting people in wartime.  It is fully automatic, meaning that one can fire an entire ammo load by holding down the trigger.  As a result, it is classified as an “Assault Rifle” or “Military Rifle”.  It is not a “Machine Gun”; those are much larger, and are generally designed for vehicles or infantry teams.  This weapon is fed from a magazine, usually holding 20-30 rounds.  In the U.S., these are generally illegal and always have been.

AR15 M Sullivan

The above is a picture of a civilian AR-15, also a carbine model.  This looks very similar to the military-issue M-16 and operates in much the same way; it was designed to.  Similarities include the collapsible stock, the pistol grip, and the distinctive front sight.  One major difference, however, is that it cannot be fired automatically; instead, it requires a separate pull of the trigger for each round fired.  This means it is classified as a “Semi-Automatic Rifle”.  It is not an “Assault Rifle”; the AR designation stands for Armalite, the brand name of the original design, which itself was used as the model for the M-16.  Ammunition is fed from a detachable magazine in a variety of sizes; the one shown holds 30 rounds.

Legal definitions can confuse things here; former and current laws define the above rifle as an “Assault Weapon” (note the very similar term) if it has a bayonet lug — a little nub under the front of the barrel, to which a knife might be affixed in case you want a short and clumsy spear instead of a potentially useful gun.  Likewise, the short barrel and flash suppressor make this weapon one that might fall under restrictions for civilian use.  It’s worthy of mention that absolutely none of those modifications would make this weapon the slightest bit more deadly; it’s just that they’re mostly useful for military purposes rather than civilian.

ruger mini 14

This is a Ruger Mini 14, a model commonly called a “ranch gun”.  It looks very different from the AR-15, but most of those differences are cosmetic.  It fires the same cartridge and operates in precisely the same fashion; it’s also a “Semi-Automatic Rifle”, and one trigger pull fires one round.  This model is designed to hold 5 cartridges, though there are other designs.  It can also be purchased in a style that looks almost exactly like the AR-15, complete with flash suppressor, bayonet lug, pistol grip, and collapsible stock.

The Mini 14 is based on the design of the M-14, predecessor of the M-16.  That was originally a military weapon, but the Mini 14 was redesigned to be a highly portable “varmint gun”, useful for hunting small game or infestations of nuisance animals such as rats, coyotes, or (if you live in Australia) cane toads.

winchester 1873 gun that won the west courtesy adamsguns dot com

The above will be familiar to fans of old cowboy movies.  The 1873 Winchester is known as the “Gun That Won The West”.  It is highly accurate, lightweight, reliable, and extremely well-suited as a hunting rifle.  It is classed as a “Lever-Action Repeating Rifle” or, more simply, a “Lever Action”; this refers to the handle below the stock, which must be levered forward between shots.  Like the AR-15, it is designed for rapid fire, but the magazine is not detachable.  This means that, once emptied, it must be manually reloaded.  This particular weapon can hold up to ten rounds; unlike any of the others, it kicks like a mule.

Similarities and Differences

I’ve selected these four weapons because all four are quite similar.  Each is a rifle, meaning in this context that it was designed for use at long range — the length of a football field, for example.  Each is capable of being fired rapidly; the M-16 (top) is fully automatic, which means that it’s been banned in the United States ever since it was designed.  The AR-15 and the Mini 14 are cosmetically quite different but functionally identical, requiring one trigger pull per round fired.  They have detachable box magazines and can be reloaded quickly once emptied.  The Winchester is a little slower to fire; the lever must be worked between shots.  Additionally, the Winchester, once emptied, takes a while to reload.

As mentioned above, the AR-15 and Mini 14 operate very similarly.  All of the above weapons fire rapidly, were designed for use at medium to long range, are lightweight and portable, and are based on designs originally submitted to the military.  None were designed to be useful at close range.  Every one of them is a deadly weapon and should be handled with respect.

Weapons Law In The United States

The M-16 is an automatic weapon, a class of firearm that has been banned in the United States for over eighty years.  Please note that if you start talking about banning machine guns or automatic weapons, people will think you’re startlingly ignorant for someone who’s talking with authority about guns and gun control.

The other three weapons, for the most part, are legal to own.  In order to buy one from a gun dealer, a person may be required to undergo a background check.  This is instant, painless, and designed to verify that the customer is not an escaped mental patient.  It should be noted that the recent Orlando shooter passed his background check, as well as multiple psychological examinations.

The Winchester pictured is different; it’s classified as an antique rather than a firearm, and can be sold without restriction by a dealer.  Almost anything made since 1898, however, is restricted just like an AR-15.

It is legal for any individual to casually sell a firearm to another person without performing a background check.  This is in part because the average person has no right (nor ability) to run background checks; from an individual, it’s an unwarranted invasion of privacy.  It’s also designed as a convenience for collectors, hunters, and sport shooters.  Any person who sells more than a couple of guns a year is required by law to apply for a license, register as a dealer, and track all sales.

The previous “Assault Weapons Ban”, which expired in 2004, primarily banned the sale of weapons with such accessories as bayonet lugs, shortened barrels, flash suppressors, modified grips and handles, and other largely cosmetic modifications.  Lists of models and types were routinely circumvented by manufacturers, who made only minor changes in order to remain in compliance.  In the gun community, it is widely considered to have been an arbitrary and foolish law, designed more as a nuisance to gun owners than to provide meaningful gun control.  However, included limits on rifle magazine capacity were seen as potentially effective.

More details on current laws are available here.


Several recent mass shootings in public places have occurred, many in the name of terror organizations such as ISIL.  The most recent at the time of this writing was at a nightclub in Orlando; the shooter was apparently armed with an AR-15 knockoff armed with a Sig MCX (a carbine built on a submachine gun frame) and a Glock 17 pistol.  Earlier, a couple shot up a holiday party in San Bernardino; they too used similar weapons.

Below is a picture of the SiG MCX, which as I understand it is effectively a submachine gun restricted to single fire and modified so it technically qualifies as a rifle under ATF regulations.  This and similar weapons are, in my opinion, a way to cheat existing gun laws, and are legal only because poorly-written legislation lags the inventiveness of those who would evade it.

Some other articles that I’ve written on the subject of gun control can be found at these links:
Gun Control: What’s The Problem?
…But Back To Gun Control
On Banning Assault Rifles

Image credit notes:

The featured image is of an M-4 from the collection at the Springfield Rifle Museum, in the public domain, courtesy Wikipedia.

The second is of an AR-15, and was taken by M. Sullivan, who granted an unlimited license for its use, and is courtesy Wikipedia.

The third is of a Ruger Mini-14, used by permission of Ruger and copied from their website.

The fourth is of a Winchester Model 1873 Short Rifle, Caliber .38-40, 20 inch octagonal barrel, manufactured in 1890.  Again, it comes from Wikipedia, and the credit information is given below.

Source: http://www.adamsguns.com/

“You are welcome to copy images from my site – Please give credit if you use it online. If you publish an image from my site – You must give credit.” – Adams

The fifth image, the SiG MCX, is from the SiG Sauer press package and was designated as appropriate for release.

Speaking for myself, I’d like to assure the reader that I’ve taken the customary steps to ensure that it is permissible to include these images with my article.  This means you can distribute my article as a whole and only need to worry about me suing you for plagiarism, but it doesn’t mean you can copy the images without all the rest of the words.  To be safe, just link the article if you want to use it.

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