Semi-Automatic vs. Fully Automatic

Our next topic in the series on Gun Myths & Misconceptions is the difference between Traditional, Semi-Automatic, and Full-Automatic guns. Every time the conversation around gun control and assault weapons bans pop up the descriptions of fire modes get very muddy. Recently, my dad was telling me that he corrected a family member who was railing against the ridiculousness of assault rifles. There was no use for them for hunting, he argued, because you’d ruin the game with all the bullets. He was confusing a fully automatic rifle with a semi automatic one. He, like many people did not understand the facts. I hope to change that a little.

When we talk about a gun’s fire mode or action type, what we’re really referring to is what must be done to cycle the next round of ammunition into the firearm. The standard or traditional mode of fire for a gun requires physical manipulation to load a round of ammunition. It could be in the form of bolt action rifles or lever action cowboy guns or revolvers. In all of these guns, the operator must insert the next cartridge into the chamber for firing. After the trigger is pulled and the round fired, they must insert the next round. In a revolver, this could be a function of cocking the hammer by hand or by pulling the trigger from its first stage to cock the hammer. In a bolt action rifle the operator must unlock and retract the bolt, insert a new cartridge (or allow one to be fed in through a magazine), reinsert the bolt, and lock it. There are many different methods across many styles of guns but the common denominator is that the gun operator must do something physically to load a round before pulling the trigger to shoot it.

Full-Automatic firearms are, as the term may suggest, capable of loading rounds automatically. Through its mechanical make-up, a full-automatic firearm will fire, eject a spent casing, load a fresh round, and fire again as long as the trigger is squeezed and the supply of ammunition present. It is, in common terms, a machine gun (although machine gun has a more precise definition, it’s less important here). Some Full-Automatic firearms fire in a full-auto “burst” that allows 3 or more rounds to fire in set bursts for each pull of the trigger. This is done to control recoil and conserve on ammunition in fire fights. The main premise remains the same though. The gun performs all actions of the firing cycle on its own, as long as it has a supply of ammunition, for as long as the trigger is pulled. These types of firearms are VERY heavily regulated. Any full-auto firearm produced after May 19, 1986 is completely illegal for a civilian to own. The military, police, and properly licensed gun manufacturers are the only people who may own them legally. Full-auto firearms made previous to that date may be own if the owner is properly licensed in their state (not all states require a specific FA license some do). The process for acquiring one is long and costly. A great deal of paperwork is submitted to the BATFE along with a $200 tax for each firearm purchased. After the paperwork is processed and returned, the okay is sent to the seller who may then release the firearm to the new owner. It can take 6 months or more. The cost of a FA firearm that is at least 26 years old is at least a few thousand dollars.

Finally, what is arguably the most popular and misunderstood type of fire; the semi-automatic. With an SA, every time you pull the trigger the firearm will fire a round, eject a round, and load a fresh round. That’s it. If you want to fire another round, you must pull the trigger again. Modern Sporting rifles like the AR15 fire this way. One pull, one shot. They are capable of as high a rate of fire as an individual can produce by pulling a trigger, typically, this does not come close to the rate of fire associated with a FA. Frankly, most people just can’t pull the trigger quickly enough to make this happen.

So, what about the argument that a SA can be converted to a FA very quickly? Its not typically true. If a gun is already a FA, it can be converted to SA. However, modern firearms that have been built as SA typically have some feature built into them that would prohibit FA conversion. It could be done but not by dropping in new parts or “filing” something down. Additionally, the parts to make a FA firearm are heavily regulated. Possessing one without the proper licensing or the legally possessed firearm to install them into, could land you in jail.

For more information about the difference between an “Assault Weapon” and the Modern Sporting Rifle, go here