Assault Rifle 101: What Is And Isn’t An Assault Weapon?

Assault Rifle 101: What Is And Isn’t An Assault Weapon?

You are in good company.

Tens of thousands of people ask Google and the other search engines a variation of that question every month.

Gun Violence In The News

Gun Violence In The News

Reporters, politicians, and celebrities compete with each other for the most outrageous sound bite, talk of assault weapons is bandied about everywhere.

King Solomon was quoted as saying “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking”, and judging by the confusion and misinformation circling around the assault weapons debate things haven’t improved much since his day.

So our goal with this article is to inject some clear, concise, and truthful answers into the debate.

And whether you come away from this post determined to ban them or inspired to buy them, our hope is that at least you will have a clear understanding of both what assault rifles are, and also what they are not.

Are Assault Rifles Even A Thing?

Are Assault Rifles Even A Thing?

In researching the definition of assault weapons, it is reasonable to question whether or not there is an actual classification of “assault” for rifles and other firearms.

Obviously, the idea of assault weapons exists, because as noted above it is continuously being debated in our society. But is there an “official” definition of an assault weapon?

It turns out the answer to that question is yes, assault weapons are actually “a thing”.

To be precise, assault rifles are short, compact select-fire (i.e. switches between semi-automatic or full-automatic) weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between sub-machinegun and rifle cartridges.

And furthermore, that “official” definition traces its roots back to World War II.

Blame The Germans

Blame The Germans

Given that both the pro- and anti- assault weapon factions have called each other Nazis during this debate, it seems fitting that it was Hitler himself that gave the world the assault rifle.

In 1944 Hitler christened his new infantry rifle as Sturmgewehr – “Sturm” is literally storm (as in assault) in German, and “gewehr” is gun.

“Sturmtruppen” are storm troopers, aka assault troops. So the Nazis, carrying their StG 44’s on the Eastern Front were the first ones to handle assault rifles.

But that gives rise to the question: “What made the Stg 44 different from other weapons of the day?”

The assault troops were already in operation, and there were plenty of assaults launched by both sides in World War II (or World War I for that matter).

What was it about this gun that earned it the designation of an assault rifle?

Selective Service

Different troops on the battlefields of WWII carried different weapons for different purposes.

The M1 Carbine was a semi-automatic (one round fired for each pull of the trigger) rifle carried by many US troops.

When higher volume cover fire was needed, soldiers using the fully automatic (continuous fire as long as the trigger is held down) Thompson sub-machine gun could lay down a hail of bullets.

What the StG 44 offered was a functional combination of the two – an accurate semi-auto rifle that could switch to full-auto at the flick of a switch.

The combination of functions allowed a single soldier more versatility in an assault as the situation demanded it. Hence, the StG 44 was an assault rifle.

What Isn’t An Assault Rifle

Since the defining feature of an assault rifle is the ability to switch between semi-automatic and full-auto operation, it is also worth noting what isn’t part of that definition – characteristics like name, appearance, or magazine capacity.

That is important because much of the discussion in our society today revolves around whether or not to ban assault rifles.

The truth is, if we stick to the actual definition of assault weapons, they have already been banned in America.


In 1934 the National Firearms Act regulated a variety of different weapons, including machine guns that could fire multiple rounds with a single pull of the trigger. 

Prohibition and the Great Depression created a crime-rich environment. 

Despite any evidence that their legislation would have any real impact on crime, politicians were swept away with the gun violence surrounding organized crime and the bootlegging of alcohol.

Initial drafts of the National Firearms Act placed nearly all firearms entirely out of reach for most Americans, regardless of their firing function. 

During the hearings that followed many members of Congress, as well as Attorney General Homer Cummings, admitted an outright ban would be unconstitutional. 

Instead, Attorney General Cummings urged the U.S. Congress to establish a would-be ban through an extreme tax on firearms, and effectively circumvent the U.S. Constitution.


US assault rifle ban

While legislators frantically proposed naive bans, opponents of the law made their argument that The NFA of 1934 would have no impact on crime rates. 

Sound reason pointed to a combination of tough prosecution and better financial times bringing a downward trend to violent crime.

The legislation was hotly contested. 

Eventually, the U.S. Congress struck a deal to heavily tax fully-automatic rifles and other firearms with particular features at a rate of $200 and require their registration. 

Not so bad right? Today $200 might not sound that terrible, but in 1934 $200 was the equivalent of nearly $4000 today.

Yeah, that hurts.

And it was meant to hurt. 

But did it hurt criminals?

Are Assault Rifles Used In Crimes

Despite the average American’s inability to buy fully automatic weapons after 1934, the famous gangsters the law was meant to target were known to steal their firearms.

Regardless, the end of The Great Depression provided an honest means of living to those that might have pursued a life of violent crime.

The next fifty years saw the continued manufacture and sale of automatic rifles to the public as long as buyers paid the exorbitant $200 tax.

These legally owned automatic rifles were not used in any recorded violent crimes over that fifty-year span.

Despite this squeaky-clean record, in 1986 Congress banned the sale of newly manufactured automatic rifles to civilians but exempted law enforcement.

Two years later a law enforcement officer used a fully automatic machine gun in the murder of a police informant.

Are There Assault Rifles Today

Are There Assault Rifles Today

Since the 1986 ban on sales of automatic firearms to civilians, the price of a pre-1986 assault rifle has soared into the stratosphere. 

At a minimum, legal automatic rifles sell for many tens of thousands of dollars and often well over one hundred thousand dollars.

Of the three hundred million firearms in the U.S. today, civilian ownership of pre-1986 assault rifles contributes only four hundredths of one percent to that statistic.

Assault Rifles In The News

Assault Rifles In The News
Not the actual study.

A few violent criminals have ignored the NFA of 1934 and illegally modified weapons to be capable of automatic fire. With an intent to commit murder it would stand to reason that the NFA of 1934 wouldn’t slow them down. 

And some contend that no law would.

Media outlets are regularly caught echoing the naive arguments of the politicians that drafted the NFA of 1934. Confusing and incorrect use of terms like magazine, clip, and cartridge should and does bring their expertise into question. 

The repetitive use of debunked language for example, that the “AR” in AR-15 stands for “assault rifle,” only serve to expose a deeper ignorance of firearms.

Since 1934, legally owned assault rifles have been involved in three crimes.


You may be shocked to know that violent crime in the United States has taken a tremendous nosedive over the last quarter century. 

Very selective reporting has made it seem as though mass shootings are on the rise, but according to the FBI crime data, that is not the case. With that said, the murder of innocent lives is truly appalling regardless of the weapon chosen.

Following a heartbreaking school shooting in 2012, President Obama issued an executive order for the Center for Disease Control study gun violence in America. The report that was produced by the CDC was not warmly received by gun control advocates. 

The CDC found that despite firearms contributing the death of approximately thirty thousand people a year, the use of firearms in justified self defense numbered between five hundred-thousand to three million times a year.

According to the CDC, firearms save between sixteen to one hundred times more lives than they take.

The media was silent.

The NFA Loses It’s Teeth

The NFA Loses It’s Teeth

The value of the U.S. dollar has changed significantly since The National Firearms Act of 1934. Inflation has brought the $200 tax within the range of affordability for many Americans. 

Conversely, the paperwork required by the NFA has become a tremendous expense with little tax revenue to offset the spending. 

Law-abiding firearms enthusiasts are now able to celebrate most of their freedoms contained within the Second Amendment if they pay the $200 tax. 

Aside from true assault rifles, new NFA items and firearms that are subject to taxation are once again within reach and gaining popularity.


The following is from the website:

  • a shotgun having a barrel or barrels of less than 18 inches in length;
  • a weapon made from a shotgun if such weapon as modified has an overall length of less than 26 inches or a barrel or barrels of less than 18 inches in length;
  • a rifle having a barrel or barrels of less than 16 inches in length;
  • a weapon made from a rifle if such weapon as modified has an overall length of less than 26 inches or a barrel or barrels of less than 16 inches in length;
  • any other weapon, as defined in subsection (e);
  • a machinegun;
  • any silencer (as defined in section 921 of title 18, United States Code); and
  • a destructive device.


With the supposed crime-suppressing effect of the National Firearms Act becoming weaker and weaker with the rising dollar, one would assume that we would again be seeing a rise in violent crime. But that has not been the case.

On the contrary, cities with the tightest gun laws also have the highest rates of violent crime. Like legally owned assault rifles, the availability of other legally owned NFA items (i.e. suppressors and short-barreled shotguns) has not correlated with a wave of violent crime.

So if the NFA of 1934 does not impact violent criminals, who does it impact?

The ATF Congressional Budget Submission For 2019

The paperwork involved in the NFA process can be extensive, depending on what you are trying to accomplish. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives processes all NFA applications, background checks, and firearm registration. 

The ATF also pursues criminal prosecution for those in violation of the NFA.

It’s worth pointing out again that the ATF has prosecuted no incidences of violent crime involving lawfully owned machine guns in a number of decades. In fact, the expense related to the enforcement of the NFA is directly connected to the number of NFA applications that the AFT receives.

The Bottom Line On Assault Rifles

Any weapon meeting the definition of an assault rifle has been banned in the U.S. for over 80 years, and can only be legally obtained by the general public at great expense and going through a very stringent regulatory process.

Most of the banter by the press and on social media today is regarding weapons that “look scary” and hold “lots of bullets“.

Statistics and history show us that banning weapons or severely restricting the ability of law-abiding citizens from obtaining them will do nothing to reduce gun crime, but rather increase it. And criminals do not obey gun laws (which is why they are called “criminals”).

And to answer one final question – the weapon at the top of this post is an AirSoft Rifle – which is a toy – not an assault rifle.


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