Assault weapons did not “just happen.” They were developed to meet specific combat needs. All assault weapons—military and civilian alike—incorporate specific features that were designed to provide a specific military combat function. That military function is laying down a high volume of fire over a wide killing zone, also known as “hosing down” an area. Civilian assault weapons keep the specific design features that make this deadly spray-firing easy. These features also distinguish assault weapons from traditional sporting firearms.
Assault Weapon Design Follows Specific Combat Function
Illustration and caption from Chuck Taylor, The Fighting Rifle: A Complete Study of the Rifle in Combat (Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 1984): 166.
The distinctive “look” of assault weapons is not merely “cosmetic,” as the gun lobby often argues—the assault weapon’s appearance is the result of the design of the gun following its function. A brief summary of how assault weapons came into being makes clear the reason for, and the nature of, their distinctive design features.
The problem of trench warfare. The roots of military assault weapons lie in the trench fighting of the First World War. The standard infantry weapon of that conflict was the long-range battle rifle. “Infantrymen in most armies were equipped with high-powered rifles: long, unwieldy, but accurate to ranges of 1,000 m (3,280 ft) or more. But a long weapon was a definite handicap in the close-quarter fighting of the trenches, and long-range capability was wasted when combat usually took place at ranges of tens of metres or less.”1
Troops in a World War I trench, fixing bayonets on battle rifles.
Springfield Model 1903, the U.S. Army’s main battle rifle in World War I.
Submachine guns—the intermediate step. When armies bogged down in the World War I trenches, weapons designers looked for ways to break the bloody stalemate. Among them was the submachine gun, designed to be a “compact, fast-firing, short-range weapon” for use in the trenches and by highly mobile storm troops in new tactical formations.2 According to theIllustrated Book of Guns, “A submachine gun (SMG) is a close-range, automatic weapon, firing pistol cartridges (e.g., 9mm Parabellum), and is compact, easy to carry, and light enough to be fired from either the shoulder or the hip.”3
Among some famous American submachine guns are the more finely machined Thompson, or “Tommy Gun,” shown above in the hands of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and its successor, the mass-produced M3 “Grease Gun,” shown below. Both are chambered in .45ACP, a pistol cartridge.
The final step—the first assault rifle. The last step in the evolution of the military assault rifle came during the Second World War. It grew out of the German military’s pre-war interest in “obtaining a relatively high-power intermediate or mid-range cartridge and corresponding weapon for infantry application.”4 (Emphasis added). On the one hand, the submachine gun was useful in close-range fighting, but the pistol cartridge it fired (typically 9mm) lacked power and range. On the other, German military thinkers realized that the battle rifle was too much gun for modern combat scenarios: “Since most infantry action took place at ranges under 400 meters, the long-range potential of the standard cartridge and service rifle were actually wasted.”5There were also logistical problems in supplying armies in the field with different kinds of rounds of ammunition: the larger rifle cartridges for the battle rifle and the smaller pistol cartridges for the submachine guns.6
German MP-40 9mm submachine gun
Mauser Karabiner 89k battle rifle
Both guns shown in the field with French Nazi soldiers
The solution to these logistical and firepower problems practically suggested itself:
Logically, it was inescapable that sooner or later someone would consider a compromise between the long range, powerful, rifle and the rapid fire, but short range, submachine gun. During their Operation Barbarossa (Russian) campaign and elsewhere, the Germans were continually reminded of the ever-increasing need for a rapid fire arm that was small enough to be convenient to hand carry, but at the same time possessed sufficient range and power to be adequate out to about 200 meters.7
The result of German research and development was that very compromise. It came in the form of the STG (Sturmgewehr) (“storm gun”) 44, the “father of all assault rifles….After the war it was examined and dissected by almost every major gunmaking nation and led, in one way and another, to the present-day 5.56mm assault rifles.”8