Weapons Law Encyclopedia

Assault rifle

Until World War II, the militaries had been mesmerised by the ballistic possibilities of high velocity, which could lead to long range, flat trajectory, and, with a heavy bullet, devastating wounds to victims struck.C. J. Chivers, The Gun, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2010, pp. 161–5. Consequently, bullets used were 77 to 85mm long. That made automatic fire rifles impossible to design, as they were too big and heavy to be easily transported. Smaller ammunition was disregarded as less lethal, even though in the real world targets were rarely so far as to require such rifle power.C. J. Marchant Smith and P. R. Haslan, Small Arms & Cannons, Battlefield Weapons Systems and Technology, Vol. 5, Brassey’s, Oxford, 1981, p. 5.

The first to experiment with an intermediate size of ammunition were the Germans.Ibid., p. 161. In 1934, the Wehrmacht issued a contract for M35 ammunition, a cartridge just 55mm long. The new cartridge came with a rifle that could fire automatically. This new feature eluded almost everybody, and the army rejected the design. By 1938, a new prototype cartridge was designed, the 7.92mm Kurz, based on the German army’s standard 8mm Mauser ammunition but with cartridges further reduced to 49mm. In 1942, German prototypes of a rifle firing the new ammunition were issued. Initially named ‘Maschinenkarabiner 42’, they were approved for mass production. But Hitler was opposed to this new intermediate weapon, so the improved version of the arm was renamed ‘Maschinenpistole 43’ to avoid scrutiny. The Wehrmacht was clearly satisfied, and as Hitler was won over, the automatic rifle was yet again renamed ‘Sturmgewehr’, or ‘assault rifle’.

Germany’s defeat in 1945 meant that the weapon was short-lived in battle. Soviet Russia, however, had noticed the innovation. After World War II, the Soviets developed a lighter type of ammunition, the M1943, a .30 calibre round with an overall length of 56mm. From there, Stalin ordered a national competition to design the rifle that would suit the new ammunition. The winning prototype, presented by Mikhail Kalashnikov in 1947, was destined to make history. Shorter than the infantry rifle but longer than the sub-machine gun, it fired a medium-powered cartridge not powerful enough for long-range sniper fire, but which could be fired automatically like a machine gun, or single fire, like a rifle. The weapon had little recoil, was very reliable, and easy to operate. It could be handled, literally, by a child. Its purpose was to kill with little need for training or complications.

The first AK-47 went into production in 1949. Initially the world, focused on a successful Russian atomic bomb test in August 1949, failed to notice.Ibid., pp. 1– 4. Within 25 years it would be the most abundant firearm the world had known. Its rise to iconic status is probably due as much if not more to the fact that it was a government-commissioned weapon that immediately went into mass production than to the cleverness of its design.Ibid., pp. 202–3. Production was not subject to market rules: weapons were a Soviet state priority, and their production was generally more efficient and plentiful than that of consumer goods. Millions of weapons were produced. An improved version of the AK-47 was developed under the name AKM. Soviet foreign policy accelerated standardization as allies or potential allies received the weapons in exchange for their allegiance, beginning with Warsaw Pact countries, and including through licensed production. Subsidized production facilities were set up in Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania.Ibid., p. 215. Assault rifle production overcapacity was set in motion.

Officially the AK-47 was made ‘for national defence’ and as a ‘liberation’ tool. In reality, it was used to crush uprisings: Berlin (1953), Budapest (1956), then along the Iron Curtain, in Prague, Alma-Ata, Baku, Riga, Moscow, and so on.Ibid., p. 220. There would soon be too many Kalashnikovs for their wide-ranging uses to be determined. They began as a means to equip standing armies, but gradually passed to guerrillas, criminals, bandits, child soldiers, and a host of other users. For the first time, even the common man could own an automatic arm. A precedent arguably existed with the diversion of the sub-machine gun. Perhaps a few hundred ‘Tommy’ guns reached the hands of criminals in the US in the 1920s and 1930s.Ibid., p. 236. Proliferation of the Kalashnikov rifle would be of a whole different scale.

This proliferation profoundly changed the situation for conventional forces. Whereas previously small expeditionary forces could overpower entire populations, the locals could now fight like never before, as the US found out in Vietnam in the 1960s.Ibid., p. 265. The US army, which had just approved the heavy and unwieldy M-14 rifle as its new standard rifle in 1957, eventually responded with their new M-16 assault rifle, which finally adopted a smaller and lighter cartridge. This cartridge, adapted by ArmaLite from the .222 Remington round but with a larger load of propellant, was faster and more powerful than anything in its class. But the M-16 in its early version – called at the time by its civilian name of AR-15 – was ill-conceived and far from battle-ready. High rates of jamming would take a dire toll on US troops in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967. Still, for the first two years, both Colt (the company producing the gun) and the army senior leadership refused to acknowledge the problems, still believing in the inherent superiority of American weapons over the Soviet-made Kalashnikov, and blaming instead poor maintenance by the soldiers for the weapon’s failure rate.

Learning from the ammunition developed by the Americans for the M-16, in the 1970s the Soviets also developed a smaller and faster type of ammunition, and then the assault rifle that went with it: the AK-74.Ibid., p. 353. By then, more production facilities existed in Albania, Cuba, China, Czechoslovakia, and Egypt. Kalashnikov rifles (some AK-47, many AKM, and soon the new AK-74) increasingly appeared in the hands of non-state actors: Palestinian fedayeen, Ugandan Karamojong, Afghan mujahideen, Salvadorian FMLN, and many others. The states knew about this proliferation, but did nothing, much more concerned about perceived more lethal military machinery such as war planes, missiles, and radar systems.Ibid., p. 341. After 1989, as the Soviet Union collapsed, vast quantities of Soviet arms and ammunition further flooded the market.Ibid., p. 366. And in the last decade surplus stocks have grown further due to a change to smaller calibre assault rifles (from 7.62mm to 5.56mm) in several major armed forces in the world,Report of the Group of Experts on the problem of ammunition and explosives, UN doc. A/54/155, 29 June 1999, §60. even though the transition is now called into question by the apparently disappointing performance of the smaller calibre rifle in Iraq and Afghanistan.J. Bevan and S. Pézard, ‘Basic characteristics of ammunition: from handguns to MANPADS’, in S. Pézard and H. Anders (eds.), Targeting Ammunition: A Primer, Small Arms Survey, Geneva, 2006, pp. 39–40.

Last updated on: 08 February 2014

Total production of assault rifles between 1945 and 1990
 Production 1945–90  1997 Panel of Experts Report  Small Arms Survey estimate
AK family 35 million–50 million 35 million–100 million
M-16 family 8 million 8 million–12 million
H&K G3 family 7 million  
FN-FAL family 5 million–7 million  

Table sourcesReport of the Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms, UN doc. A/52/298, 27 August 1997, §35; Small Arms Survey, 'Military Assault Rifles', Research Note No. 25, January 2013, http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/H-Research_Notes/SAS-Research-Note-25.pdf; see also Small Arms Survey, Small Arms Survey 2006: Unfinished Business, Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 55.

Warsaw Pact family

 Country  Main types
USSR AK-47, AKM, AK-74, AKSU-74, AKS, AK-100
China Type 56
DPR Korea Type 58, Type 68
East Germany MPiK
Hungary AMD
Poland PMKM
Egypt Misr
Iraq Tabuk


NATO family

 Country  Company  Main types
US Colt Manufacturing M-16 series (also M-14, M-4)
Belgium FN Herstal FN-FAL series (also FN SCAR)
Germany Heckler and Koch G3 series
Switzerland SIG Arms SIG 540 series
Austria Steyr-Mannlicher AUG
France Giat Industries Famas


Other variants

 Country  Company  Main types
Israel IMI Galil
Finland   Valmet

Last updated on: 08 February 2014

This section details the intended effects of assault rifles. Their humanitarian impact is addressed in the entry dealing with small arms ammunition (health impact of penetrating trauma), as well as in the general entry on small arms (aggregate humanitarian impact).

The assault rifle is a selective-fire weapon designed for ranges not exceeding 400 metres. It is designed to be sturdy and durable, easy to use and maintain, and light enough to be the infantry’s standard weapon. While its accuracy is limited, the weakness is offset by the possibility of burst or automatic fire. Effectively, the density of fire largely defeats the need for marksmanship skills.

It does not have legitimate civilian uses. Millions of automatic rifles are nevertheless in the hands of civilians, including an estimated 3 million in the United States alone.Small Arms Survey, Small Arms Survey 2006: Unfinished Business, Cambridge University Press, p. 56. See Intended effects of small arms for a general discussion of civilian uses of firearms.

See weapons entries on small arms ammunition for the health impact of penetrating trauma, and on small arms for the aggregate humanitarian impact.

Last updated on: 08 February 2014

Applicable international, regional & national law

2001 Firearms Protocol

The UN Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition (2001 Firearms Protocol) was the first global, legally binding instrument on small arms control. It contains important provisions on manufacturing, marking and tracing, record-keeping, and international transfers of firearms. It supplements the 2001 UN Convention on Transnational Organised Crime (UNTOC), also known as the Palermo Convention.

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2013 Arms Trade Treaty

The 2013 Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is the first global, legally binding instrument regulating international transfers of most conventional weapons, as well as some ammunition / munitions, and parts and components.

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