In Defense of the Assault Rifle

     There has been a flurry of interest over the past several years in assault rifles. It started with the expiration of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994. Once assault rifles could be legally purchased  manufacturers had the impetus to explore assault rifle actions (rendered semi-auto only, of course) for civilian applications. This led to some very interesting developments that have profoundly changed modern rifle design. Sadly, not all interest in assault rifles has been benign. The anti gun faction has seized on several mass murders as manifestations of the diabolical traits inherent in all assault rifles. The crux of their argument is that there is no reason a civilian should be allowed to own a military-style firearm. But the reality of military/civilian firearms use is not so clear. There has been a long standing civilian interest in adopting military rifles and using them for sporting purposes. After an hiatus of a few decades civilians have once again turned to military rifles for inspiration.
     Historically there has been tremendous interchangeability between military and sporting firearms. Sporting firearms can be considered any firearm used for non-military or law enforcement purposes, including but not limited to hunting, competitive shooting, informal target shooting and general utility roles. This has happened globally but is especially true of North America. At the time of  colonial occupation there was little difference between sporting and military firearms. Sporting arms were generally built by gunsmiths and as such design elements varied from smith to smith. Military firearms were frequently built by government arsenals and were of uniform design. But due to the simple nature of muzzleloading firearms, be they rifles or muskets, there was little leeway for variation and a sporting arm was essentially identical to a military arm. The only significant difference was that civilians were more likely than soldiers to be armed with rifles. The prevailing military logic dictated muskets.
     Civilians in colonial and especially post Revolution America had access to captured British small arms and potentially surplus arms from the Continental Army. These military arms would have been readily understood by civilians due to the basic form common to all small arms of the time and would have been available at affordable prices. This arrangement of military small arms being made available to civilians continued and surged in the years following the Civil War when a glut of surplus firearms were being cleaned out of military inventory to make room for new cartridge rifles (although the US Army figured out that they could reduce costs by converting many muzzleloading rifles into cartridge rifles- ultimately leading to the famous 1873 Trapdoor Springfield rifle).
     Surplus small arms continued to become available on the civilian market with demand peaking whenever the US military adopted new arms and sold off the old, outdated models. Some of these periods of heightened interest include the changeover from Kragg-Jorgensen rifle to 1903 Springfield and from 1903 Springfield to M1 Garand. During the late 1800s and early 1900s imported surplus rifles became widely available as well and the domestic supply was augmented with foreign rifles, notably German Mausers and British Lee Enfields. The peak of availability of surplus firearms came after WWII when a multitude of American, German, British, Italian, Russian and Japanese arms flooded the market. There was never a better time for a civilian shooter to acquire a good quality, inexpensive rifle that could be used in it’s stock form or sportorized. Many a hunter got their hands on a top notch Mauser 98 for dirt cheap during this time.
     But this was also a time of divergence for civilian and military rifles. During WWII the standard issue infantry rifle of the United States was the M1 Garand, a revolutionary firearm that made use of a semi-automatic action and eight round magazine. This was at a time when every other military in the world used a bolt action rifle. American sportsman had long known the advantage of semi-autos; nothing offers a follow-up shot as quickly as a semi-auto and many hunters who frequented dense forests and brushy cover came to favor them. At first thought the M1 might seem like an excellent choice for this kind of hunting. It’s proven reliability, fast shooting and 30-06 chambering would seem ideal. In reality, however, the M1 never fell in favor with hunters. It’s 24 inch barrel was longer than most hunters wanted and the gas port positioned only inches back from the muzzle made it difficult to shorten. The magazine design dictated that a magazine, once loaded into the gun, could not be taken out without cycling the action until all cartridges had been expelled and the magazine ejected. And perhaps the most crippling feature was the top ejection design which made mounting a scope difficult and impractical. This was the beginning of a profound split between the parallel development of sporting and military arms.
     In the 1950s when the M14 rifle was adopted by the US military civilians showed little interest. There does not appear to have been any significant move by hunters or anyone else to buy surplus M14s to sportorize. And when the M14 was retired during Vietnam in favor of the M16 interest in American surplus rifles came to an abrupt end. No one wanted a gun made largely of plastic and had a reputation for jamming. The M16 was also chambered in a cartridge that was drastically underpowered for most hunting applications. Perhaps most significantly the M16 did not look like a hunting or target shooting gun.

Modern Sporting Rifles like the Remington R-15 have become very popular in recent years and have redefined hunting rifles
(photo courtesy of http://www.remington.com/en/products/firearms/centerfire/model-r-15/model-r-15-magpul-fixed.aspx)

     When I started to seriously get involved in hunting and guns in the early 90s I noticed some references made to assault rifles, mostly adds in the classified section of gun magazines. There were some articles written as well, mostly pertaining to modified rifles due to the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994. There did not seem to be much interest in these modified firearms among hunters. Most of the guns were geared toward recreation, home defense or competitive shooting. And I don’t recall a lot of ink being dedicated to assault rifles overall. I suspect that manufacturers were not devoting time and resources to developing new guns because the public did not seem to be interested. There seemed to be a widespread misunderstanding among the general public that assault rifles had been banned outright, which curbed most gun owner’s interest.
     But when the Federal Assault Weapons Ban expired in 2004 gun companies immediately responded by designing new AR-15 rifles. I think the public suddenly became interested in or at least aware of the new prospects available and started giving assault rifles consideration. Manufacturers were quick to capitalize on the AR-15’s trait that would appeal to all shooters: it’s accuracy. For several decades the bolt action ruled supreme in the accuracy department but the AR offers serious competition. What’s more is the AR’s ability to offer quick follow up shots. This is a huge advantage for varmint and predator hunters but almost every hunter likes the option of easy access to a second or third shot; the lack of successive shots that are both fast and accurate is what kept the semi-auto hunting rifle from gaining a stronger hold on the hunting public.
     It did take some time for the AR-15 to catch on. Competition shooters were not ready to part with there beloved Remington 700s and hunters still didn’t like the looks of the protruding pistol grip, just as they didn’t back in the ’60s and ’70s. Once reports started to trickle in to gun shops and sportsmen’s clubs regarding accuracy things started to change. At first the most common chambering was the
original .223 which was not as big a handicap to the gun’s becoming mainstream as it might seem. Varmint and predator hunting had become quite popular and .223 is ideal for both. Additionally the availability of cheap surplus ammo meant a lot of practice for little money. It didn’t take long for AR manufacturers to introduce other chamberings including .308, .243 and 7mm-08 as well as some lighter cartridges like the .204 Ruger. Cartridges in the .308 family allowed ARs to be used as big game rifles, a venue that they have excelled at.  The pistol grip that proved to be such a cosmetic stumbling block proved to be a welcome practical feature. No gun is more comfortable to carry at the ready than one with a pistol grip. These features led to a surge in the number of guns carried in the woods and toted to the range. ARs became so popular that they warranted the creation of a new firearms category: The modern sporting rifle.
     Much attention has been placed on the high magazine capacity of the assault rifle/modern sporting rifle category. Magazines are typically available in 5, 10, 20 and 30 round capacities. For competitive shooting the number of rounds in a magazine is irrelevant for events that focus on accuracy and may even be required for competitions that emphasize speed as a well as marksmanship. In either case magazine capacity is moot if the shooting is done at a range in a formal competition. As for hunting, many states have laws that limit magazine capacity for semi-auto center fire rifles with detachable magazines, usually at five rounds plus one in the chamber. This negates Vice President Joe Biden’s argument that ARs shouldn’t be used for hunting on the grounds that “If you can’t get the bear or the deer in four or five shots, you’ve got a problem.” And of course the fact remains that a law abiding citizen is a law abiding citizen even when his or her rifle has a 30 round magazine.
     Although military and civilian firearms parted ways several decades ago they have converged in recent years. Once again sportsmen and competitive shooters have realized the potential of military rifles and have adapted them to meet their needs. When understood in this context there is nothing unusual or inappropriate about the law abiding public’s interest in assault rifles and modern sporting rifles. Gun owners have accepted them and unless the anti-gun faction has it’s way we will see many more hunters and competition shooters equipped with modern sporting rifles.

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