For nearly seventy-five years, the military forces of the world have been saddled with “assault rifles”, weapons that use an “intermediate cartridge” – smaller than a “full-power” rifle cartridge, but considerably more powerful than a handgun cartridge.
There is a never-ending controversy in the “gun vs. anti-gun” debate over the term “assault rifle”. While the “pro” side is technically precise in its language, the “anti” side verges on the neurotic in insisting on ignoring anything but the screaming propaganda fed to them.
The “assault rifle”, as such, comes from three distinct and separate strains of “institutional DNA”. The impact of the fusion of those strains on military affairs is our subject, here.
Prior to World War 2, a “rifle” was, well…a rifle. After the introduction of smokeless powder by France in 1884, the world’s militaries settled on rifles with calibers between 6- and 8mm, with bullet weights in the vicinity of 140 to 160 grains. This seemed to be the proverbial “sweet spot”, giving long ranges (as far as c.2200 yards/2000 meters), with acceptable terminal performance at the limit that troops could shoot.
And then – 1914 happened.
The First World War brought on (as could be expected) more military innovation in four years than in the previous four decades, radically altering the perception of warfare in all the participating states (whether those states could act to maximize those perceptions is another matter, entirely).
The victors of WW1 were content to make a few improvements to their military structures here and there, but the collective sigh of relief at the war’s “conclusion” (because fighting continued for nearly five full years, at least, past 1918) imparted a dangerous wave of “Victory Disease” in those states, whose armed forces, while doing research and making a few alterations to their doctrines, either largely failed to learn the right lessons from the war, or failed to convince their political leadership to fund improvements promptly. This would come back to haunt them twenty years later. What most nations could agree upon, though, was the need for a semi-automatic rifle to replace the universally deployed bolt-action rifles, in models unique to every major nation.
Two of the major combatants in WW1, however, took the exact opposite approach.
While “Imperial Russia” was destroyed and replaced by the Soviet Union, “Russia”, as such, had suffered such a crushing defeat in the war, that the new Communist government immediately launched a long-range plan to create the most advanced armed forces in the world…and largely succeeded, at least on paper. This impressive force would be gutted by Stalin’s Great Purge, and would thus nearly collapse in the early days of its new war with Germany, in 1941…but that is another story.
In contrast, Germany – the leader of the losing faction of World War 1, the “Central Powers” – had the Treaty of Versailles inflicted on it, losing large swathes of territory, being forced into paying crushing war reparations (including the physical seizure of actual industrial plant equipment and machinery) to the victors, and being forced to officially reduce its military forces to a pale shadow of their former size.
While the minutiae of the Treaty are not the subject of this article, it did conclusively show that Germany had been defeated. This caused the remnant of the German military to immediately begin a careful assessment of what it had gotten right – and more importantly, wrong – during the war. This actually began before the war ended, in early 1918, when a certain Hauptmann (Captain) Piderit, part of the Gewehrprüfungskommission (“Small Arms Examination Committee”) of the German General Staff pointed out that infantry rarely fired at enemies further than 870y/800m distant, and that a physically smaller, intermediate cartridge would save on materials and allow for a smaller and lighter Maschinenpistole (submachine gun), while allowing the troops to carry more ammunition (the contradictory irony of his conclusions apparently escaped Hauptmann Piderit).
While these points did have some validity, specifically in regards to the American M1895 Lee-Navy rifle (YouTube link), it contained two fundamental flaws: first, that the General Staff was perfectly satisfied with its MP18 SMG, and second, that Hauptmann Piderit apparently concentrated his study on actions on the Western Front, which is the stereotypical vision of WW1, where most of the war was fought in the hell of the trenches, and largely ignored the much more mobile warfare of the Eastern Front, as well as the mountain warfare on the Italian front. Hauptmann Piderit’s assessment stands as a sterling example of the dangers of relying strictly on sterilized statistics.
In any case, Germany – like most nations in the postwar period – recognized the need to adopt a semi-automatic rifle. Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on one’s view – the Reichswehr (the post-Versailles German army) seemed to have taken Piderit’s study to heart, laying out requirements for a new rifle for the military that would ultimately lead to the StG 44 rifle, developed, manufactured and deployed during 1944, at the height of World War 2. This weapon, formally termed the “Sturmgewehr 44” – or, literally, “Assault Rifle 44” – is the origin of the term “assault rifle” itself.
Using a cartridge very similar to the later Soviet M43 cartridge, the StG 44 proved a nasty surprise to Allied troops…when it worked. Postwar assessments were not kind to the design, which was made as the German economy and resource base were collapsing under Allied assaults, and which assessments thus overcompensated in dismissing the German “wunderwaffe”.
This flawed development process would continue to lie quietly, fascinating and exciting the minds of leaders and middle managers more enticed with monetary and resource savings than tactical utility.
The Soviet Union’s Red Army, in contrast, was very practical in its approach to the problem of updating its infantry weapons.
Beginning World War Two with the perfectly awful Mosin-Nagant rifle, the Soviets quickly discovered that high-firepower weapons (mainly submachine guns) were the decisive winners in close assaults and urban warfare. Independently (probably), they hit on the idea of an intermediate cartridge for general issue. The first weapon to use this new M43 cartridge was adopted as the SKS (Samozaryadny Karabin sistemy Simonova) rifle, designed by Sergei Simonov. However, the Soviets freely acknowledged that the SKS was a carbine-class weapon…and, shortly after the SKS’s adoption, former tank commander and budding weapons designer Mikhail Kalashnikov perfected the first model of the AK-47, which would go on to become one of, if not the, premier, infantry weapon of the last seventy-five years.
The AK-47 was adopted en masse as soon as it was made easier to manufacture. It seemed to be the very best “middle ground”: the M43 cartridge was suitably powerful; the rifle was accurate to 300-400m; it was lightweight and handy; it could fire in either semi– or full-automatic; it used a detachable 30-round magazine versus the SKS’s fixed, 10-round magazine; and was comparatively compact, even without a folding stock. Additionally, it was both rugged and easy to learn, making it the weapon of choice throughout a “developing world” with terrible levels of education, almost from the time of its creation.
In complete contrast, the United States of America backed into the assault rifle more or less by accident, aided by incompetence, parochialism, destructive pettiness that bordered on the criminal and a failed war.
The United States entered World War Two with what was arguably the best rifle of the conflict, the famed M1 Garand. Although an Army board had recommended the adoption of a lighter cartridge in 1928, the realities of shrunken postwar budgets precluded any real attempt at a fundamental change in caliber. However, development continued, as the Army searched for a combat-capable semi-automatic rifle. Adopted in 1936, the semi-automatic M1 was big and beefy, weighing 9.5lbs/4.31kg, and being almost 44in/1100mm in length. It fired the full-power .30-06 Springfield cartridge, fully capable of shooting out past 2,000 yards with ease.
As good as the M1 was, however, the US military realized that it needed to stay ahead of the development curve, and began experimenting with a detachable-magazine variant of the rifle as early as 1944, to counter the limitations of the M1’s 8-round “en bloc” clip…
…But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
The US Army saw the need, as early as 1938, for a ‘light rifle’ to issue to its support troops (clerks, drivers, radio operators, etc), who needed something more powerful than a handgun, but lighter than an M1 Rifle or a Thompson SMG. The result was the somewhat confusingly named M1 .30 Carbine.
The M1 Carbine was about 40% lighter than the rifle (a little over 5lbs/2kg), and its “.30 Carbine” round, although significantly lighter in projectile weight and range, was much easier to handle for its light recoil. The much shorter range of the Carbine (300y/270m) was not seen as a problem, as it was seen as what we would now refer to as a “personal defense weapon”. The M1 Carbine would go on to evolve through several variants, including fully automatic versions, and would continue to serve around the world well into the 1980’s.
None of the Carbine’s development, however, would really have a meaningful impact on postwar rifle development.
While the long list of shenanigans – rising, bluntly, to the levels of criminal incompetence, corruption or both – surrounding that trial series are better left to another discussion, the end result was the adoption of a weapon that was intended to do “everything”: the M14 was supposed to replace the M1 Rifle, the M1918A2 B.A.R., the M3A1 ‘Grease Gun’ SMG and the M1 Carbine…In the end, the M14 only replaced the M1 Rifle, and then for a paltry five years, from 1959 to 1964, although it continued to serve in Vietnam until 1967, and in other limited roles until 1970.
Although the M14 would mature over time, and eventually become an exceptionally good firearm (and was used as a sniper rifle, the M21), the program was initially so plagued with severe development, production and cost-overrun issues that it finally drew the official attention of then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who overrode the protests of the parochial Army officers who had backed it, and ordered the program to be canceled in 1968…
…To be replaced with the M16…Back to the Fifties…
The original trials, which resulted in the M14, had three participants: the prototype M14, designated the “T44”; a version of the Belgian-designed FN FAL, designated as the “T48”; and the AR-10, from the ArmaLite division of the Fairchild aircraft company, which was a late addition to the trials, and did not receive a “T” designator.
The AR10 was an incredibly light and compact design for the powerful 7.62x51mm cartridge (which was essentially a scaled-down .30-06), weighing just 6.85lbs/3.11kg empty. Designed by the legendary Eugene Stoner, the AR10 was a huge leap forward in rifle design. Although the disappointingly gory details of the trials are best explained in “The Black Rifle”, by Edward C. Ezell, in the end, the trials guaranteed that the M14 prototype would be the winner.
Disappointed by the trial results, Stoner tried to shop the AR10 to foreign markets, and managed to get a few sales, with the rifles built by the Dutch company “Artillerie Inrichtingen”. Although the rifles received glowing reports from users fielding the rifles in combat, the AR10 never saw the kind of sales that it should have gotten.
Fairchild then decided to try and rework the rifle for the American market, and L. James Sullivan – working with Stoner’s notes, as Stoner had left Fairchild by that time – reduced the AR10 in size and caliber, resulting in the AR15.
The AR15 would eventually morph into the M16 and it’s many derivatives, despite controversies (including no cleaning kits being ordered for the weapons and the substitution of unsuitable gunpowder that significantly increased fouling, among other issues) generated by shocking levels of (possibly malicious) incompetence by the Ordnance Corps, and would go on to serve through the end of the Vietnam War.
After the end of US involvement in Vietnam, in what President Jimmy Carter would call “a national malaise”, there was little incentive in Congress to fund yet another round of service rifle trials, despite there being a completely different, battle-proven weapon system designed by Eugene Stoner, that both the US Army and Marine Corps were seriously interested in. Instead, both services decided that the M16-series was good enough, and focused on acquiring the new “Big Ticket” vehicles and aircraft it wanted for its burgeoning “Active Defense Doctrine” (which would later be replaced by the “AirLand Battle Doctrine” that was the basis of US and Coalition strategy and operation in the 1990-1991 Gulf War) in the desperate attempt to erase the memory of the loss in Vietnam.
Now, some 60-odd years after it was first presented to the US military, the AR15/M16 series of rifles are still the primary infantry rifles for all of the country’s armed services, only now being replaced…
…With a significantly larger caliber weapon.
So…what are we to make of all of this wandering down three different avenues, to get to the intersection of today?
As pointed out in Increasing Small Arms Lethality in Afghanistan: Taking Back the Infantry Half-Kilometer, by then-Major Thomas P. Ehrhart, US Army (pdf link), around 50% of infantry engagements in Afghanistan occurred at ranges beyond 500 meters…and the 5.56x45mm ammunition of the M16 and M4 rifles of the US infantry were completely inadequate to meet those challenges. Major Ehrhart’s data, stating the obvious, is one of the drivers that resulted in the Army’s adoption of the XM5 in 6.8x51mm caliber – a caliber of usable size and power, comparable to the 7.62x51mm, but looking “shiny, new and improved”, because they can’t be see to be reverting to “old stuff” by a civilian leadership wholly unqualified to assess the military’s needs.
As the world is moving into more urban-focused combat (YouTube link), rifles firing lightweight projectiles are at an increasing disadvantage. India recognized this, when they opted for a stopgap purchase of almost 140,000 SIG Sauer 716 rifles in 7.62x51mm for its army, when they finally accepted that their native-designed INSAS rifle program had failed.
Modern infantry combat happens at a variety of ranges, and always has. Whether it is point-blank, on the other side of a door, or takes place at distances where telescopic sights are necessary for accuracy, the infantry battle area is wide – and the infantry needs a weapon that can reach all of those points within a rational distance.
The assault rifle concept was based on a flawed statistical study, a bloodthirsty and unimaginative style of combat operations, and sheer, petty – and possibly criminal – incompetence…and troops of many nations have been paying the price of those flawed policies for nearly eight decades.
It is no admission of incompetence to recognize that an idea has failed, and needs to be corrected.
If India can do it, the rest of the world can, as well.