Guns for Beginners: What Is An “Assault Weapon”?


Reader Corey Roberts writes:

With the usual fervor, the call to ban ‘assault weapons’ has once again begun anew. Images of AR-15s, the media’s favorite rifle to demonize, flash across countless headlines, and Mom’s Demand an end to “weapons of war on our streets”. Countless well-meaning celebrities tweet and make pleas to ban these evil rifles designed to do “just one thing, kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible.” There’s just one problem. Assault rifles are already banned, and ‘assault weapons’ don’t exist.

The ‘assault weapon’ is a mythical creature. Media headlines conflate the term ‘assault rifle,’ a legitimate technical term, and ‘assault weapon,’ an invented propaganda word that has no meaning other than what legislators choose and which indicates no real category of firearm. So-called ‘assault weapons’ are a fantasy beast. Much like the fabled unicorn.

The term ‘assault rifle’ is defined by the US Army in its 1970, Army intelligence document, Small Arms Identification and Operation Guide – Eurasian Communist Countries:

Assault rifles are short, compact, selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between submachinegun and rifle cartridges.

The key take-away from this definition is that assault rifles are rifles that have select-fire capability. This means they can be switched from semi-automatic fire to one or more modes of fully-automatic fire, whether that’s continuous full-auto or a modulated form such as three round burst. Therefore, all semi-automatic only rifles are simply…rifles. Not ‘assault rifles.’

Assault rifles, along with any type of firearm capable of fully-automatic fire, have been heavily regulated since the National Firearms Act of 1934 and de facto banned since the passage of the Gun Owners Protection Act of 1986.

To truly understand the depths of the anti-gun propaganda victory that was the coining of the word ‘assault weapon,’ you need to go back to the origins of fully-automatic, and semi-automatic firearms, as well as the creation of true assault rifles. Hiram Maxim’s first fully-automatic machine gun was built in 1883. Not long after, semi-automatic firearms appeared in the 1890’s with the invention of the Borchardt C93 handgun in 1893. Box-type magazines and pistol grips were soon to follow and have existed nearly as long, the Thompson submachine gun of 1918 being a notable example of a firearm with these characteristics.

The true assault rifle first appeared during the Second World War. The Germans wanted a gun that would be as portable as a standard rifle but which put down extra firepower when it was required. To achieve this goal they invented the StG-44, or Sturmgewehr, model 1944. (Sturm, literally ‘storm’ means to assault or attack, Gewehr means rifle).

The defining characteristic of the new breed of firearm was a rifle that fired an intermediate cartridge and the ability to select-fire between semi- automatic and fully automatic fire. The assault rifle was born. Soon, after Mikhail Kalashnikov created the world famous AK-47 based in large part on the StG-44. The AK-47 and its derivatives would soon become the most ubiquitous representative of this class of rifle throughout the world.

The first appearance of the artificial propaganda construct ‘assault weapon’ on the other hand, doesn’t
crop up until the 1980’s. As such, there is a gap of nearly a century between the invention of common features such as pistol grips and box magazines (which are often included in the legal definitions put forth in assorted state and federal ‘assault weapon’ bans) and the coining of the term. And approximately four decades between the invention of true assault rifles, and the word ‘assault weapon’s first usage.

Anti-gun organizations, eager to find new loopholes around the Second Amendment needed a term that would allow them to move their prohibitionist agenda forward. The term ‘assault weapon’ fit the bill well and was designed from the start to be highly confusing, frightening to an uneducated public, easily conflated, and one that mimics preexisting terminology for plausibility.

In a 1988 Violence Policy Center piece entitled Assault Weapons and Accessories in America, VPC Executive Director Josh Sugarmann wrote:

Assault weapons—just like armor-piercing bullets, machine guns, and plastic firearms—are a new topic. The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons.

The term has been extremely successful in its intended goal. ‘Assault weapon’ is now an ingrained part of the public lexicon despite the guns’ non-existence. News media regularly uses the terms ‘assault rifle’ and ‘assault weapon’ interchangeably. Uneducated, otherwise well-meaning people don’t know that the latter doesn’t exist.

The term’s usage in legal applications is even more dangerous. Because of the fact ‘assault weapons’ aren’t an actual type of firearm, they can be defined by law makers entirely by legislative fiat. Any type of firearm can hypothetically become an ‘assault weapon’ if defined as such through legislation. Thus the term can be used to subtly expand the categories of banned firearms by including more and more common features into the legal definition.

The firearms community needs to speak out and set the record straight. There is no such thing as an ‘assault weapon’. They are a fairy tail that’s no more real than the fabled unicorn. Every time we encounter the word we must correct this rampant disinformation.

So-called ‘assault weapons’ are, in fact, simply common semi-automatic rifles; normal, everyday firearms used by countless Americans for lawful and constitutionally protected purposes.


  1. avatar jwm says:

    Barry just signed a release for a whole bunch of “assault weapons” from prison.

    1. avatar Jeremy S. says:

      That’s much closer to reality, as “assault” is an action, not an object. Those criminals who were released early can choose to assault, whereas an inanimate object only does what you tell it to. I could turn this into an assault laptop if I wanted to 😛

      1. avatar MeRp says:

        This particular argument, that assault is a verb and therefore cannot be part of the name of a class of object, is wholly nonsensical. The term “assault weapon” is a non-well defined word, as opposed to “assault rifle,” however, this has nothing to do with the word assault. Framing is a verb as well, but a framing hammer IS a valid technical term for a particular type of hammer. It simply means that it is a tool intended for a particular purpose. And assault rifle is a tool designed and intended for making (military) assaults; a framing hammer is a tool designed for framing up wood-frame buildings. In both cases they are tools, and in both cases they can, and are, used for many, many jobs that are not their original designed purpose.
        Even looking at it from this perspective, “assault weapons” is a ridiculous term; none of the guns (tools) the term describes (at least under any definition I have seen) are actually designed for assaults. Generally they are designed for target shooting, hunting, self/home defense and/or sport shooting. How far do you think legislation would get, trying to ban “Defense Weapons” or “Sporting Weapons?”

        1. avatar Bob Wall says:

          What’s the old saw? When all you have is a hammer, than everything is a nail.

          That’s they way the left frames their gun arguments. Left scared, all guns bad.

  2. avatar Nanashi says:

    This is why we need to force our elected officials to introduce NFA repeal.

    Either the media is forced to admit machine guns are already banned, or we get machine guns unbanned.

    1. avatar Jon in CO says:

      The last part is spot on. (The rest was too, just commenting on the last half in particular) People need to understand how much of a process is required to do this stuff, and understand exactly what it is that we can and cannot buy over the counter.

      1. avatar SteveInCO says:

        I remember arguing with someone in New Zealand online. No amount of pointing to the ATF website, online copies of Form 4, 4473, or my personal testimony was enough to convince this vacant skull that you cannot buy machine guns (or any gun for that matter) at a US gun shop without being background checked (for non-full-auto) or background checked and more (for full auto).

  3. avatar Leo says:

    “. Soon, after Mikhail Kalashnikov created the world famous AK-47 based in large part on the StG-44” really that old falsehood chesnut?

    1. avatar Corey Roberts says:

      I might very well be mistaken. Can you provide a source for your correction on the relationship between the StG-44 and Ak-47?

      1. avatar anonymoose says:

        He was *inspired* by the StG44, unlike Degtyarev (RPD) and Simonov (SKS), but the AK’s operation is based around various American guns such as the Garand, M1 Carbine, and Johnson rifle/LMG. The Soviets had been working on an intermediate 7.62 round since about the same time the Germans started fielding the MP43, and released the RPD before the war’s end to counter the MG34/42, and the SKS because the M44s and SVTs kicked too much for rapid-firing by conscripts. There is also the question of whether Mikhail was the one to actually design the AK to begin with, or if it was done by a consortium and they just chose an unknown farmboy tanker-conscript to “scribble the design while in the hospital” and created a cult of personality around him. It’s highly doubtful he would have had any contact with the weapons whose features he so clearly copied. We never gave the Russians any small arms afaik besides some Thompsons to accompany their lend-lease Shermans.

        1. avatar neiowa says:

          And perhaps NOTHING that was said by the Russian commies is/was truth that you can rely up on.

      2. avatar Kroglikepie says:

        The AK-47 is in fact heavily based off of the StG-44. The M43 cartridge is also heavily based off the 7.92x33mm.

  4. avatar former water walker says:

    OK…preaching to the choir. Oh yeah the extremely rare(and valuable) German paratrooper Gewher preceded the 1944 model but was large and not manufactured in great numbers. But a good explanation for a total noob…

    1. avatar Corey Roberts says:

      Yes, my article was designed primarily as an explanation on the issue for people totally unfamiliar with firearms.

    2. avatar SteveInCO says:

      Unfortunately, FWW, I’ve seen many POTG use the terms “Assault Rifle” and “Assault Weapon” interchangeably (and insist that an AR-15 isn’t an assault weapon when what it isn’t is an assault rifle), or get the distinction exactly backwards, so no, this is NOT just for noobs; apparently a lot of us need refreshers.

      1. avatar SteveInCO says:

        Just to be clear, the people who were saying the AR-15 isn’t an assault weapon were clearly thinking “assault weapon” meant full auto, since pointing out AR-15s aren’t full auto, was their main argument.

        1. avatar former water walker says:

          Are you trying to make a point Steve? I never used the word “assault”. No sturm in my stew…

        2. avatar SteveInCO says:

          Not against you, FWW.

          You claimed this was preaching to the choir, and I decided to point out that many of us (not including you) are still unclear on this issue. If there’s something wrong with what you said, it was in implying that we POTG don’t need this when in fact many of us do.

      2. avatar anonymoose says:

        Assault rifle=any rifle that can be used in an assault, to include bolt-actions and rifled muskets
        Assault weapon=any weapon that can be used in an assault, to include 2″-bladed pocketknives, eyeglasses, pencils, and hands and feet
        Hunting rifle=any rifle used for hunting, to include anything from Glock 17s with shoulder stocks to M2 Brownings
        Sniper rifle=any rifle used by a sniper (a person shooting from concealment)
        Service rifle=any rifle used by a government entity
        Battle rifle=any repeating (manual, semi-automatic, burst-fire, or fully-automatic) rifle with a bore diameter of 6.5mm or more

        When you frame it like this, you can easily demonstrate to the uninformed normie how the Leftist elites really are on a crusade to ban f—ing everything for the plebs, so that we will be utterly helpless and unable to defend ourselves against anything, and not just going after black plastic peashooters. We need to turn the tables on them and unban everything restricted by the NFA, GCA, and AWBs, etc, and help out our brothers and sisters in other countries that have screwed them over with these types of restrictive laws.

      3. avatar TTACer says:

        I believe “Sturm” in German means “assault” as in “assault the position”. Is “sturm” the word for “assault and battery” or “aggravated sturm”? I think this is part of the problem with the language.

        1. avatar MintMar says:

          German “sturm” is the “assault”, attack, in the military sense. It’s very similar in English when you “storm the castle”.

          Edit: Now it occured to me, you can also use “sturm” as assault when e.g. a SWAT team storms a building.

          But I haven’t seen this used with a crime enacted on persons. But then, I’m not a native speaker.

  5. avatar Jon in CO says:

    I’d be ok with a repeal on the Hughes Amendment as a good start. As highly regulated (see: pain in the ass) as they are, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to register new ones. After all, isn’t that what the anti’s want? Background checks and registration. Suppressors need to be taken off of the NFA completely, or taxes paid at the point of sale and taken home that day. Issue dealers with a book of stamps, hand them out with the paperwork.

    This whole jumping through hoops bullshit just to be legal is ridiculous. Make it costly and a burden for people to follow the law, then get mad at us who do when someone who doesn’t follow the law does something stupid. One day, I’m hoping we can get passed this stupid shit, and find some intelligent way to make everyone happy. Once that is accomplished, we can push for things to be as they were prior to 1934.

    1. avatar anonymoose says:

      The problem with the Hughes Amendment is that it created a new type of fudd- one who has the money to buy $60,000 full-auto AKs and now does not want their investment to become devalued by the opening of the registry. Notice how people who put a lot of money into NFA stuff go completely silent when we mere mortals bring up the topic of repealing the NFA or Hughes. It’s kind of like whenever the NRA quickly shuts up or even openly supports an import ban.

      1. avatar SteveInCO says:

        I think their motivation/mentality is different enough from the old Fudd we’d want a new name for these guys.

        The old Fudd couldn’t imagine why anyone would want anything other than a traditional hunting gun (the wealthier Fudd loves him some $20K shotgun). It’s not elitism per se, he’s perfectly happy if some poor dude has a hunting gun too. The old Fudd simply sees no reason for anyone–including him–to own a “black rifle” or carry a handgun daily; thus he doesn’t care if they get banned.

        This new Fudd-ish creature you’ve identified is either a flat out elitist or just doesn’t want to lose money. So I’m thinking we could name him for one of those Hollywood “Machine gun for me but not for thee” hypocrites. Except that I care so little about those zeroes I don’t know any names.

  6. avatar SteveInCO says:

    Glad you are trying to clarify the distinction between “Assault Rifle” and “Assault Weapon.” The terms cannot and should not be used interchangeably, and every time we do so, THEY win.

    I’ve seen people yell and scream (so to speak) online that an AR-15 is not an Assault Weapon. Well, it is if DiFi, et. al. say it is since AW is a deliberately vague and broad term. What it is not is an assault rifle.

    Having cleared that up, full auto (and burst fire) non-military/police firearms are not “de facto banned,” what’s banned is making new ones. Old ones are essentially grandfathered. You can get still get one, but it is VERY expensive.

  7. avatar mbbj says:

    MK-153 SMAW Shoulder Fired Multi-purposes Assault Weapon
    Pay no attention to the fired vs. launched discrepancy. Some boot must have written that article.

  8. avatar c4v3man says:

    While I understand the frustration over the use of the word “assault weapon”, quite frankly I don’t care. The 2nd amendment covers Assault Rifles, and would naturally cover Assault Weapons if they did actually exist. Banning either (or applying “reasonable limits” on them) is grossly unconstitutional. I’d rather use the amount of machine guns used in crime (virtually none, and only 2 known murders involving registered NFA machine guns), and the fact that drug runners can and do bring in actual assault rifles with virtually no restrictions across our open borders as debate points.

    Arguing over assault weapons and assault rifles simply implies that it’s ok to restrict one vs the other.

  9. avatar mbbj says:

    Damn it. First post and I f$&@?ed it up.

  10. avatar Aerindel says:

    This is a dumb argument. My guns ARE assault weapons. That’s they why I have them, in case I need to assault someone. Thats why we have 2a. Lets stop pretending they are something else besides weapons, that is the whole point of 2a, military power in the hands of the people.

    1. avatar Davis Thompson says:

      Exactly right. These are the guns the Founders would have wanted us to have. The idea of the militia was not a citizen’s army in service of the central government, but a citizen’s army that could oppose the central government if it raised an army and got into a tyrannical mood.

  11. avatar Mark N. says:

    I am sorry, Corey, but you are simply dead bang wrong. There IS such a thing as an “assault weapon,”: and your article even admits it: “Because of the fact ‘assault weapons’ aren’t an actual type of firearm, they can be defined by law makers entirely by legislative fiat. Any type of firearm can hypothetically become an ‘assault weapon’ if defined as such through legislation.” An “assault weapon” is whatever the Legislature says it is by the definitions adopted in the legislation passed. California has banned “assault weapons,” (as specifically described) since 1989. If your rifle fits the description, well then, it is an AW. And yes, because they make the law, the legislature can change it, expanding the definition until it achieves the desired result. And that result is abundantly clear: ban all Evil Black Rifles (and AKs while we are at it). It DOES NOT MATTER that these “scary looking rifles” that look like “weapons of war” really are not all that scary because they are used so infrequently in committing crimes, they FRIGHTEN THE MASSES and must be eliminated.

  12. avatar tdiinva (Now in Wisconsin) says:

    I have been pointing out to the 700 rpm club that the AR-15 sold in the local gun store has a rate of fire only slightly higher than an M-1 Garand and about the same as an M-1 carbine.

    1. avatar former water walker says:

      Have you ever watched Jerry Miculek shoot a non-automatic AR? Yeah I know it’s tuned but he nearly matched auto fire rate…

      1. avatar Mike Betts says:

        Indeed, Miculek can shoot a revolver or semi-automatic pistol/rifle as quickly as many full-automatic firearms can fire. You can also count the number of people with that degree of skill on the fingers of one hand.

  13. avatar Davis Thompson says:

    In terms of street crime, magazine fed semi auto rifles are rarely used to comitt murder.

    While they have been used in many high profile public mass shootings, a simple calculation of the average number of people killed in these incidents by a semi auto rifle in incidents where one was used is little to no higher than the average for other firearms. (Orlando is still treated as an unknown because we don’t know how many were killed by the rifle, how many with his pistol and how many bled out due to police misjudgment. But even with all 49 victims attributed to the SIG rifle, the average per incident for semi auto rifles is 8 or so victims VS around 7 for other weapons. 12% to 14% higher. Hardly the killing machines they are portrayed as.)

    There simply is no empirical evidence that he presence of these firearms in civilian hands constitutes a greater threat to public safety than any other firearm.

  14. avatar JohnS says:

    ” It DOES NOT MATTER that these “scary looking rifles” that look like “weapons of war” really are not all that scary because they are used so infrequently in committing crimes, they FRIGHTEN THE MASSES and must be eliminated.”

    Or, this old chestnut: “My mind is made up – don’t confuse me with facts.”

    I can personally attest to having offered information to the members of the California Legislature, and having it ignored. They don’t care. Their goal is to disarm the public, and inaccuracy or inconsistency or plain inanity are not defects in their efforts toward that goal.

  15. avatar Brad says:

    In the second to last paragraph it should be “fairy tale”, not “fairy tail.”

    I hate grammar nazis as much as the next guy, but simple grammatical/spelling errors give people an excuse to dismiss an argument all together.

    1. avatar Corey Roberts says:

      Agh, you caught me.

  16. avatar DrClaw says:

    It’s good to see a few people here who understand the heart of the issue. We have every right to own assault rifles, “assault weapons,” belt-fed machine guns, and (as Founding Father Tench Coxe put it) “every other terrible implement of the soldier.”

    We can allow exceptions in modern weapons that are inherently indiscriminate, such as nukes, nerve gas, and bioweapons. But full-auto weapons are a no-brainer, as is armor-piercing ammo and anything else that would be useful in waging guerrilla warfare against domestic tyranny. (Granted, full-auto fire from a lightweight rifle is useless to anyone who knows how to properly use rapid semi-auto fire, but that’s a separate issue.)

    Call it a “defense rifle” if it sounds better, but it really doesn’t matter whether we win some propaganda battle with the anti-gun turds. That’s because we can’t have our rights TAKEN from us; we can only GIVE THEM UP by obeying unjust laws and failing to defend our rights to the death with force, should that be required.

    The purpose of the Second Amendment was to ensure that civilians could successfully fight a domestic standing army. Today, that domestic standing army consists of “our” thuggish police, who play a role similar to that of the kapos in Nazi prison camps, and “our” military. These “professionals” take orders from our would-be overlords, NOT from us. All cops and >95% of soldiers WILL follow whatever tyrannical orders they are given by the ruling oligarchy, just as they always have in the past (Ludlow Massacre, Bonus Army, Kent State, Hurricane Katrina, etc.).

    This is why our Founders didn’t want a standing army in the first place, but a citizen militia. The government has no business having unchecked military power over us.

    Let’s never forget that it isn’t Al Qaeda, ISIS, or any other foreign boogeyman du jour who is locking up our countrymen for victimless crimes, trying to disarm us, conducting warrantless mass surveillance, taxing us to make huge corporations rich, and otherwise trampling our Bill of Rights. The first step in protecting our freedom is realizing who its enemies are.

    1. avatar LarryinTX says:

      “All cops and >95% of soldiers WILL follow whatever tyrannical orders they are given by the ruling oligarchy”

      You are free to believe what you want, even without any rational reason, but *I* do not believe that. And I do believe that any panty-wetting politician or grandma who bets their life on it will lose-their lives.

  17. avatar jimmy james says:

    People “not of the gun” don’t and never will understand the difference between full auto, select fire and semi auto weapons. Then there are the hoplophobes…

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