Let’s say the proverbial balloon goes up tonight. It doesn’t matter why; maybe it’s a riot, maybe it’s Red Dawn, or maybe Janet Napolitano’s finally getting around to using that 1.6 billion rounds of ammunition she ordered. You can grab one legal rifle from your collection and hit the road, right now. What’s in your hand? The media thinks it’s an AR-15 or possibly a “sniper rifle”, but we know different, don’t we?
The battle rifle — by which we mean a semi-automatic rifle chambered for a full-power military-spec cartridge, typically with a full-length barrel and stock — is the queen of firearms. At eight hundred yards, it can impart the kind of kinetic energy to the target a .357 Magnum does from arm’s length. Most so-called bulletproof vests are anything but bulletproof to the man with an FAL or Springfield M1A. The doors and glass of a standard automobile will not shield your opponent from a .308 Winchester round at most practical distances.
With sufficient training, most people can reliably make offhand shots at center-of-mass targets up to 300 yards with an open-sighted battle rifle. It’s possible to engage targets from a braced or rested position at up to twice that distance. At the same time, the battle rifle’s weight and characteristics make it far more usable in close-quarters engagements than a scoped bolt-action would be, particularly for stronger or more sizeable individuals. No, you wouldn’t want to protect your apartment with an HK G3, but for a trail-mix of hostile situations across urban, suburban, and rural situations, the battle rifle is a time-tested and satisfying choice.
There’s also something elegant about a proper full-sized rifle. Rahm Emanuel may not be able to tell the difference between an AR-15 and an FAL, or between a Mini-14 and an M1A, but shooters know which is which. The 5.56-caliber rifle is the equivalent of a 600cc “crotch rocket”: you know it’s outstanding for most purposes and a lot of the people have them, but there will always be compromises. The 7.62 NATO rifle is a liter bike: you don’t have to make any excuses and you aren’t just marking time until you buy what you really want. To put it in the dehumanizing argot of the modern marketer, it’s a “destination gun.”
Somewhat ironically, it’s also become a civilian gun in the past thirty years. Modern soldiers are rarely familiar with a full-power rifle, and with good reason. The “battle rifle” was the product of a fundamental and deliberate misunderstanding about how small arms are actually used in combat.
It’s a notion no less romantic than the cavalry charge, combining the assertions of H.W. McBride with the rose-tinted recollections of men decades past their time on the front line. Many lives were lost on all sides of the military engagements of the twentieth century because the REMFs couldn’t give up their love affair with the seductive but ultimately illusory idea of individual marksmanship.
The battle rifle has its origins in the full-power bolt guns of the Victorian era. The military theorists of the time intended to fight the previous wars with new equipment. They seriously believed that it would be possible to take a group of conscripts who often showed up at the train stations for draft intake barefoot, having never owned a pair of shoes in their lives, and quickly train them to deliver coordinated, aimed fire at distances of three to five hundred yards. Only the Swedes bucked the trend, choosing a 6.5mm cartridge with a mild powder charge for their Mauser bolt-actions. The rest of the Western world promptly loaded up their infantry with high-power, new-generation centerfire calibers like the 8mm Mauser, .30-06 Springfield, and the Russian fifty-four-millimeter rimmed cartridge.
The lessons of World War I failed to discourage the marksmanship enthusiasts one bit, despite ample evidence that most troops either failed to fire their rifles at all in combat or simply aimed somewhere in the general direction of the enemy. As a consequence, when everybody lined back up for the second world war, the weapons were mostly the same. The United States fielded a pair of unique rifles: the auto-loading M1 Garand, which continued to use the Springfield round, and the forward-thinking M1 Carbine, which was much lighter and easier to carry and could be fired aimlessly with no less effect but with considerably more wartime economy.
Faced with scarcity of materials, and with a military culture that encouraged principled disobedience and questioning of command, the Wehrmacht quickly realized that a lower-power rifle might split the difference between the useless bolt-action hunting guns and the short-range, open-bolt “grease guns”. The idea had to be snuck past the Austrian corporal who was currently in charge of things, but once the “Machine Pistol 43” was properly revised into the “Storm Rifle 44”, the modern assault rifle had well and truly arrived.
The assault rifle made a mockery of the outmoded Victorian rifles and the American semi-automatics. It delivered high volumes of a lighter, cheaper round towards the enemy. When precise shots in the 100-yard range were possible, it could be used as such; for the rest of the time, it was cheaper and faster to make, required less brass and lead to operate, and added less weight to the backs of soldiers who were already staggering under their combat loads.
When the hot war ended and the Cold War began, the Russians immediately put a product-improved version of the Stg44 into production as the AK-47 before revamping it again for sheet-stamped assembly as the world-famous AKM. The AKM’s cartridge, at 7.62x39mm, was a near-duplicate of the one used by the German rifle. As a fighting weapon for untrained soldiers, the AKM takes some beating and it’s in no danger of walking off the world stage any time soon.
The lessons of the German assault rifle were just as clear to the nations who made up the newly-formed NATO. Several countries went to work on mid-power assault rifles, and for a few moments in the late forties it seemed that the Western world might have an AK-47 of its own. But as we will see, the Americans had other ideas.