What’s an Assault Weapon?

One of the things you’ve no doubt been hearing about lately is Assault Weapons or Assault Rifles. These are catch all terms that are used to describe a broad range of firearms. I wanted to take a moment to explain them objectively and as thoroughly as I think any non-shooter will be willing to read through.

The first thing you should know is that Assault Weapons are military devices capable of “Select Fire”. That is to say, they are capable of firing in a fully automatic mode. In fully automatic fire a firearm will continue to fire rounds as long as the trigger is depressed until it runs out of ammunition or malfunctions. Some select fire weapons are capable of firing in a “Burst” mode that fires (typically) three rounds for every trigger press. Automatic weapons are VERY heavily regulated. Civilians can own them, provided they were manufactured prior to May 19th 1986 (the date Reagan signed the Firearms Owners Protection Act), are properly licensed, submit A LOT of paperwork to the BATFE per firearm, pay a $200 tax per firearm, and wait the requisite 4-6 months for paperwork processing. Also, they must have the thousands of dollars it costs to purchase such a firearm. Few people do this aside from real collectors. It’s a huge, costly process and the pool of firearms to choose from is relatively small. New automatic firearms, those made after 1986, are illegal for civilians without very specific federal BATFE regulated licensing (usually manufacturers) to own.

What the media and folks around every water cooler are talking about when they say “Assault Rifle” is actually the modern sporting rifle. “Assault Rifle” is a media term meant to make a gun sound scary. The modern sporting rifle is a semi-automatic. That means every time you pull the trigger it fires one round and is then ready to fire another (provided there is another available).  Typically, they utilize plastic or composite stocks and fore ends and have a pistol grip as opposed to a wooden stock with an integrated grip.

The most common varieties in the US are the AR15 and AK Variants. The AR15 is based on the military’s M16 or M4 platform. The AK Variants are based on the AK-47. There are hundreds of manufacturers making these guns and hundreds more making parts for them. Because the platform is standardized, it’s very easy to make an AR15 or AK Variant customized for your physical requirements. Adjustable stocks fit different arm lengths and varied barrel lengths offer better matches to particular styles of shooting. They also come in different caliber combinations although the most common is .233 or 5.56 NATO for the AR15 and 7.62/39mm for the AK Variants.

In 1994, the Assault Weapons Ban made specific guns illegal and made many modern sporting rifles illegal by making it unlawful to transfer a semi-automatic rifle with a detachable magazine that has 2 or more of the following 5 “evil” features.

  • A folding or telescoping stock
  • A pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon
  • Bayonet Lug
  • Threaded Barrel or Flash Suppressor
  • Grenade Launcher

This ban sunset in 2004 but a few states like NY, NJ, CA, MA, and CT enacted similar bans on a state level that are still in place.

With the exception of the grenade launcher, not one of those features is lethal, nor do they contribute to the lethality of the firearm. That’s important to note. None of them makes the bullets bigger or more powerful. None of them make them travel farther or faster. None of them make the gun fire faster.

Folding stocks typically make the guns easier to case for transport. Telescoping stocks make adjustments for different body styles easier. A pistol grip is comfortable and offers greater control. A bayonet lug is an ugly glob of steel that would allow you to attach a bayonet but bayonets themselves are not banned. A threaded barrel makes it easy to swap a muzzle brake for a flash suppressor. Both of those devices have more to do with range courtesy than anything else. Flash suppressors reduce the bright flash at the muzzle when firing.

So, why do non lethal accessories make an ordinary semi-automatic rifle an “Assault Weapon”?

I don’t know.

This gun is not AWB compliant. It has a pistol grip, adjustable stock, and flash suppressor.This gun is AWB compliant.They are the same gun. These are both Ruger 10/22 rifles. These are small caliber rifles typically owned as a first rifle. The one above has been dressed up with commonly available accessories while the one below is stock from the factory. They fire the same exact cartridge from the same exact action and can both use the same magazines. One would have been illegal to sell in 2003 and one would not have been.