Know Your Guns

What is an assault rifle?

This is a valid question that has proven more controversial than most. Due to a series of gun-centric tragedies in the United States, the issue of what defines an “assault weapon” and assault rifles specifically has proven an extremely hot button issue.

We’re not going to get far into the weeds on that debate today. Instead, we’re going to discuss how most people would define an assault rifle and what exactly that might mean for you.

The Basics: What Is an Assault Rifle?

Assault rifles, at their core, are intermediate-range rifles that can be set to fire either automatic or semi-automatic. They’re magazine-fed, tend to be fairly accurate, and have become the bread and butter of essentially every military in the world.

A list of every single assault rifle would be of little use and quickly outdated, but some of the most common weapons that fit the definition include:

  • M16A1s, M16A2s, M4s, and M16A4s
  • AK-47s and AK-74s
  • Steyr AUG
  • and many more

Notably the AR-15, a weapon used in multiple mass shootings in the United States, generally doesn’t fit the definition of an assault rifle. The models civilians can acquire (and which have been used in these shootings) are almost universally without an automatic setting. Additionally, AR stands for “ArmaLite Rifle,” not “Assault Rifle” as is the fairly common misconception.

In fairness, however, the M16 is an AR-15 design given a different designation when it was adopted by the United States military. This weapon is undeniably an assault rifle because of its select-fire capabilities, which the civilian AR-15 model does not have.

Some History

For the purposes of simplicity, we will start the history of the assault rifle with Vladimir Grigorevich Fyodorov. However, note basically any invention doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Even Fyodorov’s design was the product of decades of evolution and design work by people all over the world.

That said, the history of the assault rifle as we now know it arguably starts with the invention of the Avtomat Fyodorova. Invented in the 1900s by Vladimir Grigorevich Fyodorov, this weapon was chambered in Japanese 6.5x50mmSR cartridge, had a 25 round magazine, and was select-fire capable.

In part because of the massive upheaval that was the Russian Revolution of 1917, little over 3000 ended up getting made (for an initial order that totaled 9000). The weapon was ahead of its time but that pioneer status came with drawbacks. It was overly complex and disassembly was difficult.

To truncate the often long process that is weapon evolution, WWII saw the MP44. Also going by several other names, this Nazi weapon was even more recognizably an assault rifle than the Fyodorova rifle. With somewhere between 425,000 to 440,000 produced relatively late in the war and did not end up making a major impact in the war effort.

Then started the era of weapons most recognizable today. Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov’s AK-47 was adopted by the Soviets in 1947. In 1957, NATO adopted the M14 then later the FAL and G3. Around the same time, the Korean War saw the development of the M16 line.

In modern times, there has been some push towards bullpup designs, such as with the Belgian Steyr AUG, the Chinese QBZ-95, and Israeli IWI Tavor SAR. Compact, even the United States seems to be playing with this trend with the M4. The idea is that these compact designs make the weapons much more useful when needed in close quarters.


Understanding the availability of assault rifles, at least in the United States, requires that you understand both federal and state assault weapon bans and regulations.

Exactly what laws apply to you will vary by state. Notably, “assault weapon” tends to have a broader definition than “assault rifle.”

While exact definitions vary, the federal assault weapons ban broadly defines these weapons as weapons “that appear useful in military and criminal applications but unnecessary in shooting sports or self-defense[.]”

However, because of their select-fire capabilities, things get even more complicated. Weapons that can fire in automatic are heavily regulated in the United States.

For example, M16s qualify as machine guns under US law. This makes it possible to get one but fairly difficult. Unless you’ve already legally acquired one, it is going to be a bit of a journey to get most assault rifles.

One of the biggest obstacles is the price. In 1986, the United States essentially banned the manufacture and sale of anything that qualifies as a machine gun to civilians. This basically turned the weapons already in the market into a scarce resource, so they now go for thousands of dollars.

Additionally, you’re going to need to get a background check, be fingerprinted and photographed, and pay at least $200 every time you want to transfer a relevant weapon to a new party. A purchase of one of these guns can take up to a year to be approved once the buyer and seller agree to make the deal.

Notably military and law enforcement agencies don’t face most of these obstacles. So long as the weapons are used for military and/or law enforcement purposes (and by legal agents of those organizations), they are much easier to get. The vast majority of assault rifles are in military, not civilian, hands.

The goal of the various laws and regulations, whether one agrees with them or not, is to help stop civilian gun violence. Exemptions are generally put in place so they don’t also inadvertently defang groups tasked by the government to defend the country from threats.

Civilian Equivalents

In terms of civilian equivalents, the AR-15 is a prime example of a rifle that comes pretty close to an assault rifle without crossing the line as most people would define it. An American staple, it is a weapon that is something of a masterclass in weapon design.

M16s are just redesignated AR-15s designed for military use. If you’re looking for an assault rifle but can’t afford the steep cost of entry, a civilian AR-15 is about as close as you can get to the real deal! The biggest difference is the weapon isn’t going to be able to fire automatically.

Spikes Tactical offers dozens of AR components at highly competitive prices. That’s not to mention they strive only to produce high-quality components. As a company full of shooters themselves, they pledge to only produce parts they’d trust themselves.

The AR-15 is a solid weapon, one of the single best rifles on the market. It’s also far easier to acquire and maintain.

If you intend to get an AR-15 or similar rifle, just be sure to research your local laws (and any federal laws that may apply). These are still firearms and you want to make sure everything is on the up and up when you acquire them.

Even if your weapon is legal, you also need to make sure not to run afoul of related laws. Remember that many states also have laws in place about magazine capacity. Additionally, some factors such as being a felon or affected by certain mental illnesses may also prevent you from legally acquiring a firearm.

Controversies About Definitions and the Law

It’s important to remember that all of the above is just a product of a large enough group of people coming together and deciding on these definitions. There isn’t really some authoritative body that gets to control how words are defined, even if we tend to capitulate to dictionary and encyclopedia companies.

This also has to be viewed as completely separate from legal definitions (and is why weapon laws tend to be very specific). If the law defines an assault rifle as “XYZ” then all weapons that meet that definition fall under the law, whether we’d typically call it an assault rifle or not. Meanwhile, if a weapon doesn’t fall under that definition, then that particular law likely doesn’t apply.

This matters because there are some murmurings that terms like “assault weapon” are completely fabricated terms. But it doesn’t matter so long as the term is defined under the law, because weapons can then still be legally categorized as either “assault weapons” or not.

Remember that you don’t have to like weapons laws, and can even argue against them in a legal manner, but you still need to follow them! The penalties for firearm-related crimes can be quite steep.

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So what is an assault rifle? As you’ve learned, it is basically a rifle with select-fire capabilities, able to switch between semi-automatic and automatic firing. It is a term different than “assault weapon” (although basically, any assault rifle will legally fall under that term’s umbrella as well).

If you found this article helpful, we’ve got plenty more like it on our blog! We’ve got content on a wide variety of topics about proper pistol maintenance.

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