When most people think of an assault rifle, they think of a rifle that is select fire in the sense of being capable of both semi and full auto fire. This is correct but with the added principle of being based on an intermediate cartridge that is both lightweight and still capable of accurate engagements at the practical distances of 500 yards and under. When initially designed, assault rifles used 7.62×51 NATO, which was merely a step down from the 30-06 and .303 cartridges. The Americans did not want to break away from their cherished high powered ammo that had won them wars in the past. But as time wore on, it became evident that the intermediate cartridge offered substantial benefits for the average soldier with few drawbacks. Without getting into the specifics of ballistics and terminal effects, let us just agree that the assault rifle shifted to being defined as a select fire platform that fires an intermediate cartridge.
As a select fire rifle, the assault rifle in principle, was designed to replace the slew of small arms that were developed to answer the needs of troops in trench warfare. If we give our weapons an honest historical analysis, we will find that most weapons used in WW2 were actually designed around the time of WW1 where stalemate in the trenches was a standard occurrence and fire and maneuver was in its infancy of being realized as a primary necessity for success on the battlefield. WW2 really was the turning point where the weapons of trench warfare were put to the test to fight a new type of war where tempo and a units ability to remain mobile with a reliable supply chain makes the difference between victory or further stalemate. This was highly evident in the battle of the Bulge where troops found that having several different small arms of different calibers limited the ability for troops to benefit from a resupply that may not have the caliber that your weapon system requires.
By the time of the Korean war, there was no further development or lessons learned by the challenges that faced our allies during the second world war. But we all thought that we had won the big war and that we got complacent with the idea of sitting back in the world and having a passive role in global security. This resulted in the draw down of forces to unprecedented low numbers and halted funding to the military to stay ahead of the technology curve. Long story short, we were caught off guard and got our butts kicked with a narrow victory in Korea. This was what led the way for us to pull it together and realize that we can not afford to sit idly by while the rest of the world had plans of continued conquest. This sparked the development and further research into learning lessons of past wars in order to keep us prepared for the unexpected eventuality of being dragged into long term conflicts, as we would soon find ourselves in again in South Eastern Asia.
Vietnam was inherently the next necessary step to challenge and test our weapons technology and tactics in a way that eventually had a rippling effect throughout the world. Our M14, chambered in 7.62×51 NATO was put to the test by the enemy who was armed with rifles like the SKS and AKM rifles, chambered in 7.62×39. Long story short, the M14 proved to outclassed in many ways, which resulted in the need to match the AKM platforms with our own intermediate cartridge. I introduce you to the 5.56×45.
This little round was not very well liked by some of the old breed war dogs that fought through previous wars and conflicts. But regardless of the inflicted hatred and criticism, the 5.56×45 earned a firm reputation for leveling the playing field in assault rifle technology and capabilities. It has become the primary caliber of our NATO allies, and has proven to be an effective round with slight limitations terminally which have been answered by upgrading the overall deign of the round to perform to its max potential with the M855A1.
Though we have moved on from much of the problems that plagued war fighting forces during WW1&2, we learned some very valuable lessons about the infinite value of having full auto capability to help multiply the capability of small units to maintain increased firepower. With the 5.56 cartridge, an individual soldier has the ability to provide temporary, yet effective suppressing fire while advancing and maneuvering when machine guns are not able to offer immediate support. During the Vietnam war however, the top brass officials deemed that the average soldier was wasting too much ammo, too fast by rocking and rolling on full auto, using a spray tactic, which fruited few instances of desirable results. This led to many of our current rifles to be limited to a burst setting and for the military to adopt an emphasis on accuracy over the ability to deliver overwhelming fire on a target. This role was transferred mainly to the light machine gun and the rifleman has been shaped back into an individual marksman, rather than a pseudo machine gunner.
Many weapon systems still have full auto capabilities however, though the training in their proper uses seem to have been replaced with the same priority as the US military where individual marksmanship is the primary goal in order to obtain fire superiority. This does not mean that full auto is useless in today’s tactics. On the contrary, I think we are seeing an important shift in the military recognizing the value of having a rifle capable of spitting out accurate fire in bursts at the discretion of the gunner. This is evident in the Marine Corps latest adoption of the M27 IAR. This rifle replaces the SAW and it has been found that this type of weapon system has greater effect in being able to keep up with the demands of a very mobile and aggressive fighting force like the Marine Corps.
It is no secret that people all over would like to have a full auto version of the rifles they own. They are seen as fun and entertaining, for good reason, with a good amount of praise in possible usefulness. But if you look at the methods in which many of these advocates would use the full auto setting, it completely defeats the purpose of having it. Holding down the trigger until the weapon is empty is hardly effective against a trained enemy. What people fail to realize is that this kind of thinking is why the training in the militaries around the world has switched away from giving the individual rifleman the slack to use the full auto setting at their discretion. The emotional response in a firefight is typically a knee-jerk reaction to lay down hate in the general direction of the threat in hopes of tearing them up as fast and as aggressively as possible. Though in reality, this is not how it plays out. 99% of the time, all you get is a hot rifle and a crap-ton of misses. I do not think that full auto settings are evil and that it is terrible to have it, but I think people need to understand how to use it and why it is on the assault rifle to begin with before claiming how useful it is in a tactical engagement where only hits count.
I think the assault rifle is a great concept that, with adequate training and discipline, can give everyone the ability to provide effective concentrations of rapid fire when they need it most. Other than that, I think that a burst setting is not so much of a limitation, but more of a quality control measure. I don’t think it will be leaving our military rifles any time soon, but I would like to see training shift to teaching people to utilize it in place of full auto fire. Burst fire over full auto does not take away the assault rifle label, but it does put it in a more strict category of being a controlled weapon where the user is forced to put down a smart burst in order to prevent a waste of ammo and accuracy. What are your thoughts?
David served in the USMC for a few years. Deployed twice and got wounded. Retired and moved to Alaska. Has a passion for reviewing and testing guns and gear of all kinds. Enjoys working to dispel myths and show that you can train and practice in a realistic, safe, and practical way.