The History of the Modern Assault Rifle
In the ever changing world of warfare, one thing has always remained the same: the need for a weapon which suits the type of warfare of the times. The newest innovation of weaponry is the modern assault rifle. For the last sixty years, no weapon has proved more devastating or effective as the assault rifle for a common soldier. They have served every army on every continent, and strike fear into those who face it.
For the last half century, the premier weapon for the American military has been the M16. It is an almost perfect combination of light weight, precision, and stopping power in the ever changing craft of warfare. To completely understand the effectiveness of the M16 and other assault rifles, you must go back to their genesis. On the German side of the Western front in World War II, the military leaders realized that the battlefield and the way battles were fought were changing. A survey conducted between 1939 and 1940 showed that most engagements were being fought under 400 meters. The standard issue rifle of the German Army at the time was not suited for this type of engagement. The weapon issued to every soldier in the German Army was the bolt-action Mauser Kar98K, which was a single shot rifle that shot the extremely powerful and heavy 7.92x57mm cartridge. This gun was originally built for service in trenches at ranges of 800-1000 meters, not close range where semi-automatic (semi-auto) or fully-automatic (full-auto) capabilities are required. At the same time, there were only two options if you wanted fully-automatic capabilities: very heavy and cumbersome belt-fed machine guns, and sub-machine guns which used pistol cartridges and therefore lacked range and power.
The solution to this problem was the Sturmgewehr 44. The German Army made contracts with Haenel and Walther, two distinguished German gun manufacturers. The goal was to build a carbine which fired a smaller, more manageable cartridge and had full-auto capabilities. The result from Haenel was the Maschinkarabiner 42(H) or Mkb42(H), and from Walther was the Maschinkarabiner 42(H) or Mkb42(H). Once a small number of these weapons were deployed with troops for testing, the result was clear: they worked beyond expectations. Hitler, however, did not like the rifle and discontinued the manufacturing of them. But Hitler’s generals, after seeing the effectiveness of these new weapons, continued production by disguising the gun with the designation of a sub-machine gun instead of a carbine. Once Hitler found out about the continued manufacturing of the rifles, he embraced them and renamed them the Sturmgewehr 44 which literally translates as “Storm Assault Rifle.” This started a scramble for every major military power to get their hands on the new gun design. Countries such as America, England, and Russia all began making their own designs and the battlefield has never been the same since.
One key aspect of assault rifles is the type of ammo which they use. High-powered cartridges such as the 30-06 used in the M1 Garand were impossible to control in full-auto, while pistol cartridges like the 45. ACP used in the Thompson Sub-Machine Gun lacked stopping power and were nearly unusable at distances over fifty yards. What gun designers did to solve this dilemma was to combine the best of both worlds. They kept the basic design of a high-powered cartridge but decreased the amount of gun powder like in a pistol cartridge. This creates a small light-weight cartridge which still has the power to be effective at 200+ yards. One example is the 5.56 NATO/ 223 Remington cartridge.
30-06 (left), 45. ACP (middle), 223 (right)
America’s first attempt at the newly found design was the M14.While the M14 does not appear to be an assault rifle to the untrained eye, it must be remembered that the idea of assault rifles has been stereotyped as a big gun with nothing but a pistol grip and...