ABOVE: Infantry rifle should perform adequately on any possible terrain, but some current battlefields overstretch the capabilities of weapons that were built for total war in Europe
The term “Assault rifle”, despite its widespread use, is controversial, mostly because there’s no single agreed definition for it. Usually, this term refers to a fully-automatic weapon that fires “intermediate power” ammunition, but is it always so?
This term first became well-known during and shortly after WW2 as a political/propaganda measure on the part of Adolph Hitler, although both the basic concept and the term itself have a noticeably longer history.
The earliest use of a similar term, known to this author, is dated back to the 1918-1920 timeframe, when noted US small arms designer Isaac Lewis designed a series of experimental automatic rifles which he called “Assault phase rifles” (see The Small Arms Review – Vol. 6 No. 9 – June, 2003, pages 61-65). These rifles fired standard US Army issue rifle ammunition of the period, the .30 M1906 (.30-06), and were in direct competition with John Browning’s M1918 BAR automatic rifle. Both Lewis and Browning automatic rifles were designed to same concept of “Walking fire”, originated by the French in around 1915, and first implemented in the ill-fated CSRG M1915 “Chauchat” machine rifle. This concept called for a man-portable automatic weapon with its primary use being to provide suppressive supporting fire for infantry during assaults on entrenched enemy positions. In fact, this concept called for the “Assault” rifle, but its early implementations, such as CSRG M1915 and BAR M1918 mentioned before, or the Russian Fedorov M1916, had some inherent flaws, most important of which being rifle ammunition which was simply too heavy and powerful for the specified task.
The most logical solution to this problem was to reduce the power of rifle ammunition to the level necessary for most (but not all) typical combat scenarios. Traditional rifle cartridges of the era had a “lethal range” well in excess of two kilometers; however, under combat conditions no one can reasonably expect an average soldier to be able to hit a man-sized target at ranges longer than 300-500 meters. Furthermore, decreasing the power of rifle ammunition has several benefits. These include: savings on raw materials, powder, logistic costs per round; increased combat load (in number of rounds carried) per soldier; decreased weight, size and cost of rifles; decreased recoil, which is conductive to increased accuracy; and a few others.
This concept was supported by practical experience gained during the Great War with the French-issued US-made Winchester M1907 self-loading rifles. These handy carbines were initially bought from the USA by the French army to arm aircraft observers, but machine guns soon replaced rifles in this role. On the other hand, compact and handy carbines that fired a good “stopper” cartridge (.351 WSL) were excellent weapons for close combat on the battlefield. Fitted with extended magazines, bayonet mounts, and, in some cases, converted to fire in full-auto, these little rifles became progenitors of the modern “assault rifle” concept, which is, in basic terms, an automatic carbine firing reduced-power ammunition, also known as intermediate power ammunition (or simply “intermediate cartridges”).
As early as 1918, several countries began to work along the lines of this “reduced power” concept, including France and the USA. The French attempt was the Ribeyrolles M1918 automatic carbine which fired specially designed 8x35SR ammo, based on the .351WSL cartridge but modified to accept standard 8mm Lebel pointed military bullets. The American attempt, known as the Winchester-Burton machine rifle, also used a cartridge based on the .351WSL. This purpose-designed round was called .345WMR (Winchester Machine Rifle).
During the 1920s and 1930s several other countries (e.g. Switzerland, Italy, Denmark and Germany) attempted to develop their own versions of intermediate power cartridges and automatic weapons to fire them, but none was ever adopted.
Overall, it appears that most militaries of the interwar period considered the “full power” semi-automatic rifle as a next logical step in the evolution of the infantry rifle. Some nations tried to create automatic rifles, but the majority were set on the self-loading only types. One notable attempt to reduce the power of the standard infantry rifle was made by the Americans during the late 1920s – early 1930s, when they tried to replace the old and powerful .30-06 (7.62×63) cartridge with a .276 (7×51) cartridge, developed specifically for the envisioned new semi-automatic military rifles. This attempt was cancelled, though, mostly on financial and logistic grounds.
Despite all these reasons not to adopt reduced power automatic rifles, military experts and industry engineers kept working on the new concept. Among these were the Germans, who took the intermediate cartridge route in 1935. By 1940 the German Army Department of Armaments had settled on the 7.92×33 intermediate round, developed by the Polte company. From the performance point of view, the nominal caliber of 7.9mm was inferior to the originally proposed 7mm caliber, but 7.9mm was chosen for its manufacturing benefits.
The 7.92×33 round, also known as the 7.92 Kurz (short), generated about 50% less recoil and weighed about 40% less than a standard German 7.92×57 rifle round with sS bullet. Once this promising new round was selected, contracts were issued to the Haenel and Walther companies to develop a new class of automatic weapons – so called “machine carbines”, or Machinenkarbiner in German (MKb in short). By 1942, two versions of the German MKb.42 machine carbines were tested at the Western front, and the concept was found to have its merits. By 1943, the next version of the Machinenkarabiner was renamed to Maschinenpistole (submachine gun) to circumvent Hitler’s aversion to new weapons, and entered production in 1943 as the MP-43. Once reports of the MP-43 success at the front reached German Headquarters in 1944, Hitler finally approved mass production of the new weapon and its associated ammunition, personally christening it “Das Sturmgewehr 44” (Stg.44 in short), which means “Storm” or “Assault” rifle. It was pure propaganda, as at the time Hitler’s’ Germany was all about defense instead of the earlier “Sturm und Drang” attitude. Overall, about 425,000 Sturmgewehr rifles were made before the war ended, and it made a sufficient impression on allied forces to warrant very close examination.
At the same time (1939-40) the American army issued a request for the development of a “lightweight rifle”, a handy .30 caliber automatic carbine, with the intention of using it as a more effective replacement for the military pistol. The resulting M1 carbine, adopted in 1941, was a semi-automatic only weapon. Despite its original concept of “Personal Defense Weapon” being exactly opposite to that of “Assault rifle”, the M1 carbine quickly became popular among fighting troops for its handiness, maneuverability and rapidity of fire. By 1944, it became apparent that a full-automatic version of the M1 would make sense for front-line troops, and the selective-fire M2 carbine was put into production toward the end of the war.
It must be noted that the evaluation of wartime lessons brought different practical results. The Soviet Union, whose army learned the value of massed automatic fire, took the intermediate cartridge concept to heart and after a series of trials, in 1949 adopted the world’s most successful “reduced power automatic carbine”, the Kalashnikov Avtomat or AK in short. In official Russian terminology, “Avtomat” means “automatic”, and historically this term was used to describe all sorts of hand-held automatic weapons, from the full-power Fedorov rifle of 1916, to a series of WW2 era submachine guns. The term “assault rifle” or its Russian equivalent never really caught on there.
Some western countries also attempted to develop an intermediate cartridge. Most notable of these was so called “BBC committee” (Britain – Belgium – Canada), which promoted a .280 caliber (7x43mm) cartridge of British design. However, this concept met with little interest in USA, where decision-makers still dreamed about long-range accuracy. As a result, the US Army adopted a slightly shorter and lighter .30 caliber cartridge, which, nonetheless, possessed the same key ballistic properties as the old .30-06 M2 round. Known as the 7.62x51mm NATO, this round was then forced upon all other NATO members.
Here we must stop again and re-evaluate the term “Assault rifle”. It was officially used to name several weapons in various countries after the WW2. First of these post-war “Sturmgewehr” rifles were the Swiss Stgw.57 (also known as SIG 510, caliber 7.5×55) and the Austrian Stg.58 (License-built Belgian FN FAL, caliber 7.62×51), both being selective-fire weapons firing full-power rifle ammunition. Probably the most ironic fact about these “Assault rifles” is that both Austria and Switzerland are neutral countries and their weapons serve primarily in the defensive role. In most English-speaking countries new weapons were (and still are) designated simply as “Rifle” (i.e. “Rifle, 7.62mm L1A1”, or “Rifle, 7.62mm M14”), without mentioning any specific role.
Now we see that second generation of “assault rifles”, spawned by Stg.44, was in fact split into two groups – one firing “intermediate” ammunition, such as German Stg.44, Soviet AK-47 or Czechoslovak SA Vz.58, and another, firing full-power ammunition, such as American M14 and Ar10, Belgian FN FAL, German G3 or Swiss Stg.57. These might be better termed “Battle Rifles.”
As we noted above, the East (USSR and its satellite states) by early fifties began to arm their infantry with intermediate-cartridge weapons. Full-power rifle cartridges were kept mostly for platoon-level medium machine guns, as well as for sniper rifles. West (NATO and many other countries) went the “full-power” road with adoption of the 7.62×51 NATO round, developed in USA. Despite all stubborn efforts of US Army to prove that its choice of a new round was the right one, practice of the time proved that it was not the case. Full-automatic fire from newly designed 7.62mm NATO rifles was ineffective to say the least, and many countries either adopted new rifles as semi-automatic from the start (like the UK did with their L1A1 SLR), or later converted most selective fire rifles to semi-auto only (as the US Army did with their own M14 rifles). And in semi-automatic fire, the long range potential of the 7.62mm NATO round was basically lost due to limitations of the iron sights and Mk.1 eyeballs of typical infantrymen. In parallel, a lot of research was done to find ways to improve the effectiveness of infantry fire. Not surprisingly, this research pointed out what was already known by 1918 – the capabilities of an average soldier in a typical combat situation limit effective rifle fire to 300-400 meters maximum. This “old” finding, along with the new concept of the “salvo” firing (to achieve a hit-spreading “shotgun effect”, which could compensate for slight aiming errors) resulted in a decision to decrease the caliber of infantry weapon from a typical 7-8mm down to about 5-6mm or less. This decrease offers several advantages compared to “standard caliber reduced power” ammunition, including faster bullets with flatter short- to medium-range trajectories, decreased weight of ammunition and guns, and reduced recoil. Several ambitious but largely unsuccessful programs centered on sub-caliber flechette rounds, multi-bullet rounds, micro-caliber bullets (4mm and below) and caseless ammunition were conducted in the USA, Germany and elsewhere, but practical results were achieved only with conventional ammunition of .22” caliber (5.56mm), developed in USA during the late fifties in conjunction with the Armalite AR-15 / Colt M16 rifle design. This brought to life what could be called a “third generation of assault rifles”, however artificial this distinction is in reality. Technically, these “third generation” weapons were selective-fired automatic rifles or carbines, firing reduced power, reduced caliber ammunition. Inspired by developments in the USA, by the late seventies – early eighties this concept caught on both in the West (with adoption of an improved version of the American 5.56mm cartridge as a next NATO standard rifle ammunition in 1979) and in the East (with Soviet Army adopting its own version of the small-bore reduced power cartridge in the form of the 5.45×39 round in 1974).
Today, forty or so years later, most armies of the world still use this “third generation” rifle ammunition (reduced power, reduced caliber) for standard infantry rifles and squad support weapons. Basically, rifles designed in 2014 are not much different from rifles designed in 1964 or so, except for some more modern materials and finishes. And that’s because they all fire the same ammunition.
Another modern trend is an attempt to bridge the gap between full-power, standard caliber and reduced-power, reduced caliber ammunition with introduction of some “more powerful than intermediate” rounds such as 6.5 Grendel or 6.8 Remington SPC. These rounds are surprisingly close in some ballistic properties to century-plus old warhorses such as 6.5x50SR Arisaka, except that modern rounds have shorter and lighter cases (thanks to improvements in propellant chemistry) and bullets with better shape. Therefore, in terms of overall performance any modern 6.5mm – 6.8mm “assault rifle” is not that far from the 1916-vintage Fedorov Avtomat, which fired 6.5mm Arisaka ammunition. The same can be said about several modern 7.62×51 NATO select-fire rifles, such as the Belgian FN SCAR-H or Turkish MPT-76, which are not so far away, at least in terms of ballistic effectiveness, to the old “machine rifles” of the WW2 era, such as M1918 BAR or Tokarev AVT-40. The most notable differences between modern and century-old guns would be materials, manufacturing techniques and overall reliability, especially in harsh and adverse environment conditions.
The key factor that allows moderns soldiers to be noticeably more effective in terms of hit probability is, in fact, not the rifle or ammunition but sighting equipment. Modern telescopic day- and night sights greatly enhance shooter performance at medium and long distances, and red-dot sights bring short-range performance under dynamic conditions to a whole new level, compared to old-style iron sights. However, in most cases those sights are not unique to any given weapon, and, in theory, anyone with access to a near-century-old weapon such as a BAR or Fedorov 1916 could outfit it with modern sights with some minor gunsmithing.
Therefore we must admit that “Assault rifle” is an artificial moniker which offers little of value compared to more generic “automatic rifle” and “automatic carbine” terms. In some cases it is used to specifically separate “intermediate power” automatic rifles from their “full power” cousins (which also have their own class name of “Battle rifles”, equally pointless), but its actual historical use proves that it’s not the case. Possibly the most correct designation for a “reduced” or “intermediate” power automatic rifle from technical standpoint is the original German term “Maschinenkarabiner” or its English equivalents “Machine carbine” or “Automatic carbine”, because “carbine” in general means “short and light rifle”. The Russian term “Avtomat” in its modern sense is appropriately and officially defined in as “automatic carbine” as well. Despite that, the term “Assault rifle” however misleading it is, has certain gravitas, is in widespread use and, let’s accept it, sounds just cool, so, most probably, it still will be widely used to describe automatic carbines and rifles despite all facts pointed out above. The same applies to the “Battle rifle” term, which is often used to describe modern “full power” automatic rifles such as the M14, AR10, HK G3 or FN SCAR-H. In fact, there’s no significant tactical or ballistic difference between the old 7.62x54R AVS-36 or AVT-40 automatic rifles of the pre-WW2 era and most modern 7.62×51 automatic “Battle” rifles.