Assault rifles and semi-automatic firearms

Military small arms vary according to their function and requirements, but they all share the qualities of ruggedness and simplicity of operation Modern automatic weapons are relatively light (less than 10kg) and have high rates of fire(between 120 and 1200 rounds/minute). There are four primary military small arms types:

  • Automatic and assault rifles
  • Submachine guns and personal defence weapons (PDW): small, compact, automatic guns intended for rear-echelon troops
  • pistols
  • light machine guns

Automatic and assault rifles

Since the 1950s, automatic and later assault rifles have been the main battlefield rifles used by all military forces. They have been manufactured in the millions, and around half the world’s nations manufacture one or more variants. They weigh around 3.5 kg and are fed by magazines with capacities ranging from twenty to fifty rounds. Many automatic and assault rifles are or can be fitted with a device that allows them to fire grenades as well.

Automatic rifles

Automatic rifles are full-length rifles which use a mechanism that self-loads a new round after the previous round is fired. Automatic rifles served as the principle rifle in Western armies until the widespread introduction of the assault rifle in the 1970s. Automatic rifles are often as long as single-shot rifles. Sometimes they have been designed to fire on full automatic (one trigger squeeze fires off all the bullets) but more often they are restricted to semi-automatic. Examples are the HK33 (Heckler & Koch, Germany) and the KBP A-91 (Russia).

Assault rifles

Assault rifles1 are the newest iteration of firearms. They are designed to fire on full automatic from a magazine that typically holds thirty rounds. To achieve fully-automatic fire, assault rifles use a smaller cartridge than automatic rifles, which lowers their range to about 300 metres. Because assault rifles are small and relatively compact, and hugely effective, they are the modern weapon of choice for armies and insurgent groups. The first effective assault rifle was designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov. The weapon that was named after him ("Avtomat Kalashnikova", model 1947 = AK47), was made in Russia and exported to over 100 countries and is probably the single most commonly used small arm in use. There are hundreds of models of the AK47 made in over fifty nations. Other popular assault rifles include the Colt-designed M4, which is a shorter variant of the M16, and the German-made G36.

Newer assault rifles have been upgraded with electronic sights, optical scopes, and rails which allow a variety of attachments including lights, laser designators and cameras.

Submachine guns and personal defence weapons

Submachine guns are small automatic weapons that had originally been designed for fighting at close quarters and in trenches. Being small, they are easily concealed and have become weapons of choice for clandestine fighters, terrorists, and for self-protection. They generally fire from box magazines containing 25-30 rounds. Many countries manufacture them, including Germany. Submachine guns are gradually being replaced as military weapons by compact assault rifles, but the older weapons are still dangerous, and many are recycled or sold. The short heavy bullet used in submachine guns restricts their range to about 100 metres at most. Examples of modern submachine guns are the HK MP7 (Heckler & Koch, Germany), the Uzi (IMI, Israel) and the Steyr TMP (Austria).

The compact personal defence weapons are a new kind of submachine guns used for self-defence of behind-the-line troops and army units, such as mechanized infantry. They are made by only a few countries, Germany and Belgium included. Producers are, for instance, the German Heckler & Koch and the Belgian FN Herstal. They need special ammunition, and this is why the are nearly exclusively by national armies.

Submachine guns are in high demand with criminals as, due to their high spread of bullets, accurate targeting is not necessary, as they can be used for short ranges. They are also very compact. In most countries, civilians are not allowed to own submachine guns.

Automatic pistols

Pistols are firearms that can be fired with one hand, usually intended for very short ranges. They come in a variety of calibres between 5.6mm and 12.7 (.22 to .5 calibre). While revolvers—used only rarely by military forces but still common amongst civilians—hold four to eight cartridges in a cylinder, modern automatic pistols have, depending on the brand, magazines that hold seven to 13 cartridges.

Automatic pistols load a new round from a magazine, most often hidden in the grip, into the firing chamber after each round is fired. With semi-automatic pistols, every time the trigger is squeezed, one round is fired and a new cartridge is placed in the barrel. A new trigger squeeze is needed to fire the fresh round. Only a very small number of such weapons fire completely automatically: Once the trigger is squeezed, rounds are all fired until the magazine is empty. In most countries, it is illegal for civilians to own fully automatic pistols.

Calibres of modern self-loading pistols range from 9mm and .45 calibre. They are used as a secondary weapon or as an officer's side arm. Major manufacturing countries are the United States, Germany, Austria, Spain and Brazil, though many other countries manufacture indigenous or licensed variants.

Light machine guns

Light machine guns fire from a 30- or 50-round magazine, a belt, or both, depending on the make. They generally use standard assault rifle ammunition (the most common is 5.56mm) and are equipped with a bipod to provide stability to the shooter and improve accuracy. Examples are the MG4 (Heckler & Koch, Germany), the L86LSW (Great Britain) and the RKP (Russia). They fire at a rate of between 600 and 1200 rounds/minute. High rates of fire, however, mean that they are prone to barrel meltdown or parts failure if used carelessly.

In most modern armies, there are one or two LMGs for each squad of six to eight riflemen. Their longer range means that they have an important battlefield role for infantry tactics.

Their longer range and high rate of fire means that they are extremely hazardous even for civilians in a battle zone, who can be hit accidentally from a great distance. Rounds from light machine guns can also easily pierce walls or other civilian structures.

1The term assault rifle in normal usage goes back to a weapon type used in World War II that was developed in Germany from the machine carbine. Here, it is used for mostly fully automatic military rifles with repeating mechanism that were developed in the early 1950s and later.

Sources and further information:

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