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The nature of a weapon lies in it's application, i.e. a pistol is nice for "home security", but you can't exactly mount a bloody assault into a enemy camp with a 9mm. In the military sense, the word "assault" is somewhat similar to "offensive", i.e. assault weapons are weapons best used for just that. M-16's are the hallmark of american assault weaponary because of their versatility, although they can't hold a candle to an AK-47 in terms of durability. Any weapon can be used to assault someone, per se. But you need a special kind of weapon to mount a full-scale assault, just like how you need a special kind of soldier to save the president's daughter, Rambo!

Effective assault weaponary lies in it's, as earlier stated, versatility in the face of diverse situations, i.e. an M-16, if used properly, can drop a mark at 1 klick (see: kilometer), as well as shower bodies at close range with hot lead. A pistol? 20 meters, if you're a good shot, although this varys from make and model. A shotgun? 4 meters will give you a loose spread pattern unless you're firing slugs. The two previous weapons don't have widespread military use, (the pistol being the exception with officers) because they aren't very versatile. Sub-machineguns are neat if you're a terrorist, or involved in any close-quarters urban combat. But they just aren't all that practical in a military setting. You need assault weapons!

In addition to those points indicated by kamamer above, several other significant advances were produced by the German WWII weapons designers. These were namely:

The latter point is key to recognizing an assault weapon. According to several websites (the actual work is not online), the United States Department of Defense's Defense Intelligence Agency handbook on Small Arms Identification and Operation Guide explains, "assault rifles" are "short, compact, selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between submachinegun and rifle cartridges."

The first assault rifle, the Maschinerkarabiner (Mkb) 42, had both features and was employed to great effect by elite German Kampfgruppen. The next major advance was the AK-47, Avtomat Kalashnikova invented in 1947. It also boasted a selector switch, allowing single shots or fully automated fire. See also The AK is OK!

To review.

    The assault rifle:
  • is compact, and can be carried easily by battlefield infantry, and used during an assault;
  • fires a cartridge of intermediate power, allowing the recoil to be controlled, and therefore accuracy to be maintained;
  • has selective fire.

The purpose of the assault rifle (such as the M-16) is not to kill. The intent is to wound or maim the target. This is more effective in battle in a number of ways:

First, it removes more men from the battle. Sounds odd, I know. Here is how it works. In a heated battle if a man is shot and killed nothing can be done about it. However if a man is wounded he must be cared for. So do the math: 1 man wounded + 2 men to carry him away from the front line = 3 men out of action. 3 > 1 man killed. Also it is bad for an army to leave a wounded man at the front this brings me to the second purpose of the assault rifle, to demoralize.

If it is not possible to remove a wounded man from the fighting, he will stay there and bleed and scream in pain. Sounds bad right? Now his fellow troops and friends see what the weapon did to this man, he is not dying a quick death. Also their own army does not seem to care enough about him to take him to a MASH or hospital. Who wants to fight for such pricks as these who would let my freind die a horrible slow death. There goes the will to fight of 7 or 8 of the enemy.

The assault rifle is as much a psychological weapon as a physical one.

Assault weapons are the primary (firing) weapons designed to be used in an (infantry) assault. Weird, huh? A few properties follow:

  • Easily portable. No, your favourite HMG, which requires a three man team to carry, cannot be the primary weapon on the assault.
  • Mid-range effectiveness. If it's long-range, it isn't supposed to be the assault people's job to kill it. In particular, pistols, mortars, commando-style knives and ICBMs are all not assault weapons.
  • Semiautomatic capability, and usually also automatic capability. It's bad enough you have to reload, you don't want to have to start peforming arcane rituals with various levers on your gun.
  • Standard ammunition. If you're NATO, it's going to be a 5.56mm (.22 inch) caliber weapon. If you're Warsaw pact, it's a 7.62mm weapon. Of course, these calibers were decided on the basis of some assault weapon, so you could switch the caliber while switching your assault weapons. But you always want a lot of ammunition for your primary weapon.
  • Weight. Nearly every one of your soldiers is going to be lugging one around. This includes weight of magazines.
  • Large magazines. Of course, this contradicts "weight" above.

It's a military designation, not a gun control one. Some people actually believe guns belong in the army. That's why it's called an assault weapon, not a GBH weapon.

An interesting thing about the writeups in this node is that most of them deal with the question of "what is an assault rifle?" rather than the stated question of "what is an assault weapon?". Legally, according to the 1994 "Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement" (complete text with commentary found at http://www.recguns.com/IIG4.html):

A semiautomatic rifle is an "assault weapon" if it can accept a detachable magazine and has two or more of the following:
A folding or telescoping stock
A pistol grip
A bayonet mount
A flash suppressor, or threads to attach one
A grenade launcher.

A semiautomatic shotgun is an "assault weapon" if it has two or more of the following:
A folding or telescoping stock
A pistol grip
A magazine capacity of over 5 rounds
A detachable magazine.

A semiautomatic pistol is an "assault weapon" if it can accept a detachable magazine and has two or more of the following:
A magazine outside of the grip
A threaded barrel to accept a flash suppressor, silencer, etc.
A barrel shroud
A weight of 50 oz or more, unloaded
"A semiautomatic version of an automatic firearm."

As you can see, many of the qualites of an "assault weapon" are purely cosmetic. Also note that, unless it is specifically mentioned by the bill (again at http://www.recguns.com/IIG4.html), a fully automatic weapon is not an assault weapon!

The bill also bans what it calls "large capacity ammunition feeding devices" (LCAFDs). An LCAFD is any magazine that can accept more than 10 rounds of ammunition (except .22 caliber ammo).

It should be noted that assalt weapons are used in only one-fifth of one percent (.2%) of all violent crimes and only about one percent (1%) of gun crimes.

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