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Archive for the ‘A Writer’s Guide to Guns’ Category

Those of us who spend much time arguing the question of gun rights on the Internet often run into examples of Markley’s Law in action. What is Markley’s Law, my non-gun-enthusiast readers may be asking?

Markley’s Law: The adage that any Internet discussion regarding firearm owners will eventually mention male genitalia.

Generally, this takes the form of someone who supports gun control claiming that gun owners are compensating for small anatomy. But obsession with penises isn’t the only defect of personality to be found in those who yearn to violate the rights of others. Submitted for your consideration is a new law, based on many observations:

As t (time) increases, the probability that a gun control supporter will make a sexist or homophobic remark about a gun rights advocate during a discussion on guns approaches 1.

This observation is all the more interesting since gun control supporters tend to be on the left of the American political spectrum, and thus such language would be unacceptable by their fellows in any other context.

probability

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The popular image of guns of the Old West has it that everyone went about with a Winchester 1873 lever-action rifle and a Colt Single Action Army as a sidearm. But the reality is more complicated. A whole lot of the activity happened before 1873, and there were many other guns doing work west of the Mississippi.

One of them was the Sharps rifle:

Berdan_Sharps_rifle

The Sharps was designed by a fellow named Christian Sharps–you’re surprised, right? The patent came in 1848, and the rifle in 1851. That’s the same year that the Colt Navy was sold for the first time, by the way, making that a good year.

From the first, it was a large-bore, precision rifle, aimed at hitting targets at long range, whether we’re talking enemy soldiers or large animals. The Sharps was a single-shot, originally in .44 caliber, though .52 became the standard. It was used as a sniper rifle with a Malcolm scope by the sharpshooters under Hiram Berdan’s command,

220px-Hiramberdan

though the rifles were used on both sides, especially in the shorter carbine version favored by cavalry troopers, including my western character, Henry Dowland.

Sharps_1863_Carbine_.50-70_Calibre_antique_original

Unlike most infantry rifles, the Sharps was a breech-loader.

800px-Sharps_1852_Verschluss_offen

The trigger guard acted as a lever that dropped the breech block, opening the rear of the barrel.

Sliding-block-action

A paper or linen cartridge was then inserted. A Maynard tape primer was installed on many of these, working something like a modern cap gun.

Maynard_tape_primer_system

Closing the action cut the rear end of the cartridge to expose the powder inside. These rifles were often converted after the Civil War to .50-70 or .50-90 metallic cartridges–that means .50 caliber and seventy or ninety grains of black powder shoving along a bullet of some 400 or 500 grains at around 1,400 feet per second, an ounce of lead chugging along at a good rate.

800px-50-70-gov

As such, they were the classic buffalo gun. The accuracy potential of the rifle was enhanced with tang sights,

800px-Shiloh_Sharps_50-90

and a set trigger on some models. Squeezing the rear trigger set the front trigger to a lightweight pull, necessitating less effort and thus less disturbance of the aim in firing.

These features show up in various films, notably Quigley Down Under and the 2010 version of True Grit. Billy Dixon, a scout for the U. S. Army, used one in real life to shoot an Indian who was part of the siege at the Adobe Walls outpost in northern Texas. The range was 1,578 yards. Dixon said it was a lucky shot, but the besiegers figured that they didn’t have a chance and gave up.

Until the advent of smokeless powder, the Sharps was one of the most powerful firearms going. And the good news is that companies are making reproductions today.

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My last posting of images of a specific firearm gave the Colt Single Action Army. But while that revolver is the one that comes to mind for a lot of people when they think of the Old West and handguns, there’s an earlier Colt that was the handy pistol to have around from 1851 and many decades after that: the Colt Navy.

799px-Colt_Navy_51_Squarebeck

Unlike the SAA, this one was designed by Samuel Colt himself. Colt’s first pistol, the Paterson, had been overly complicated and fragile, and his first company went out of business. His next models, the Walker and the Dragoon, were massive pieces better suited for saddle guns. He also came out with pocket revolvers starting in 1847, but those were small-caliber backup guns.

By contrast, the Navy–so-called because the Battle of Campeche, a victory of ships from Texas and the Yucatan against the Mexican navy–weighed in at 2.6 pounds and measuring thirteen inches in length. It shot a .36 caliber ball at something like a thousand feet per second and a 140 grain conical bullet at a somewhat slower speed, putting it in the same class as today’s .380 or .38 Special, the latter being the gun that was the sidearm of police officers for a long time.

800px-Colt_Navy_Model_1851

It was a cap and ball revolver with an octagonal barrel. The rear sight was a notch cut into the forward part of the hammer that could be used only when the hammer was cocked. But owners found that the Navy pointed well, feeling like an extension of the arm. Loading it required pulling the hammer to half-cock, then pouring powder down the front of the chambers, ramming a bullet home on top of the powder with the loading lever beneath the barrel, and putting a percussion cap on the cones at the rear of the cylinder. After the Civil War, the arrival of self-contained metallic cartridges made the older system obsolete, and many bought conversion cylinders for their pistols. Clint Eastwood demonstrates this in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,

799px-GBUColtNavyCartridge-6

though since the movie takes place during the Civil War, that’s an anachronism.

Many of the Confederate generals, as well as lots of soldiers of all ranks, including especially the cavalry, carried Navys as their sidearm. Captain Quantrill

Quantrill

and his raiders liked their handiness and multiple shots before reloading. The practice was to carry two on their belts and two in saddle holsters. That latter habit is shown in the “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!” scene in True Grit, Rooster Cogburn having been a member (albeit fictional) of Quantrill’s company. Ned Kelly,

417px-Ned_Kelly_in_1880

the Australian outlaw, and Richard Francis Burton,

Richard_Francis_Burton_by_Rischgitz,_1864

English author and adventurer, both carried them.

But the iconic owner of Colt Navys was James Butler Hickok, better known as Wild Bill:

220px-Wild-Bill-3

He wore them in cavalry style with the butts forward–note the ivory grips here. From what I’ve read, it appears that he didn’t use a cross-draw technique, though, but would twist his hands inward to grip the pistols and then twist back out and pull upward. My own practice of this method leads me to believe that it facilitated cocking the hammers rapidly. Alas, he probably used a Colt Army revolver in his duel with Dave Tutt in Springfield, Missouri, but the Navys are what are identified with him.

Two more points before we leave this. My western hero, Henry Dowland (actually, I suspect his name is John Henry Dowland, but he won’t admit to that) carries two of his own that he’s named Alpha and Omega.

The Willing Spirit Cover

A friend of mine told me that he’d read about someone in the Old West naming his guns that way, and I liked the idea, since Dowland quotes from Scripture like any good devil is able to do. By the way, Viggo Mortensen, if you’re reading this, I’ve always pictured you for the part.

The other thing to note is that the Navy figures into one of the racist efforts at gun control in the Reconstruction era south. Tennessee passed a law in 1879, referred to as the Army and Navy Law, banning the sale of any pistol other than the Colt Army or Navy. The purpose for this was to keep freed blacks from buying handguns, since those two handguns each cost more than poor people earned in a month. In this regard, nothing much changes.

The Colt Navy is a beautiful pistol from an era when elegance counted for a lot, but it was also a working tool. And the good news is that they are being made even today by several companies–but not Colt.

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534px-SAA_5773_oN

This is one of the definitive firearms of the Old West, the Colt Single Action Army revolver, first on the market in 1873. John Wayne carried a version with him in many of his movies:

782px-Born_to_the_West_(1937)_1

and General Patton had his with ivory grips when he wanted to be on display:

lossy-page1-480px-'Lt._Gen._George_S._Patton,_U.S._Third_Army_commander,_pins_the_Silver_Star_on_Private_Ernest_A._Jenkins_of_New_York_Cit_-_NARA_-_535724.tif

(But Patton only ever carried one SAA. His other revolver was a Smith & Wesson .357 Registered Magnum.)

The mystique suits the gun. It was a single-action revolver, weighing 2.3 pounds, more or less, depending on the barrel length, and came originally in a 7.5 inch barrel. The artillery model was better at 5.5 inches:

800px-Colt_SAA_US_Artillery_RAC

since it cleared leather quicker. But this absurd model:

800px-Buntline

didn’t exist until long after the days of the Old West were long gone.

They had six chambers in the cylinder, loaded by putting the hammer on half-cock, opening the loading gate on the right-hand side:Clairgate

inserting one round, skipping a chamber, then inserting four more rounds, and finishing by closing the loading gate and pulling back the hammer to full cock, then dropping it onto the empty chamber at the top. This was because the SAA had the firing pin on the hammer with no means of keeping it off the live cartridge. Legend has it that pistoleroes stuffed funeral money into the empty chamber.

The Army used it with the .45 Colt round:

436px-Colt_.45_LC_Cartridges

a 250 grain bullet atop 40 grains of black powder for a typical velocity of 900 feet per second, plus or minus again depending on barrel length. Another popular caliber was the .44-40 Winchester that could be used in the Winchester 1873 lever-action rifle. This simplified logistics in the wilderness if a person only had to carry one type of ammunition for two guns. Later came .32-20, .22 Long Rifle, and eventually just about every handgun caliber.

They were carried in holsters from the Civil War:

Slmjm

and in military flap holsters:

holster-cs-r_1

but those slowed down the draw, and people carrying these brutes learned to bend the flap backward and cut a hole in it to form an open-top model:

Singleloophols

that is the image that most often comes to mind.

And lest you think that this is a gun of the Old West only, have a look at Ruger’s Super Blackhawk:

Sbhjavmont

Oh, and Colt is making the Single Action Army as well. So are many other manufacturers. When something works this well, it’s bound to last.

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My friend and fellow writer, Gil Miller, reminded me of something that got left out of Part 10 of A Writer’s Guide to Guns, namely, Glocks. I was going to make this posting an addendum, but upon reflection, it occurs to me that a whole article is warranted, given the popularity of the ACT (Austrian Combat Tupperware).

Glock, founded by Gaston Glock, originally sold knives and shovels (called entrenching tools) to the Austrian military, a fighting force noted for, well, um, defending the neutrality of Austria. Said organization’s most famous member was Captain von Trapp, who commanded a submarine and went on to wear an eyepatch and deliver lines of Shakespeare in Klingon.

General_Chang

That was before the nation of Austria went on a diet and became landlocked.

This is getting off track.

At any rate, the Austrians were using this:

Walter_HP_Speerwerke_1428

The Walther P38, a double-action/single-action handgun developed shortly before the Second World War. The Walther also provided the basis for the Beretta 92, a dismal piece that replaced the excellent M1911 in much of the U.S. military. The Austrians wanted a new pistol that would be drop-safe (for purposes of surrendering without getting hurt?), that would be easy to maintain, and that would hold a bunch of 9mm cartridges.

Glock hadn’t made a firearm before 1982, but he was an engineer with sixteen designs to his name, so why not take a shot at the contract? This is what he came up with:

Glock_17_9mmPara_002

It uses the tilting-barrel, locked-breech action that John Moses Browning used in his last pistol design, the Browning High Power. The frame is made of polymer (read plastic), while the slide is steel, treated in a process called Tenifer. The original magazine capacity was seventeen rounds, but that had no relation to the fact that the pistol is called the Glock 17. There are Glock numbers up to 42 now (The Answer!), and those numbers have no obvious pattern with regard to how many rounds are on board or what caliber they are.

What was new? Not much, actually. This:

HK_VP70Z_1890

the Heckler & Koch VP70, was the first polymer handgun, released in 1970. But that didn’t win the attention of many, possibly due to its odd looks and clunky trigger.

Glocks use a striker mechanism instead of a hammer, but that’s also not original, at least in firearms generally. In fact, it goes back to the Dreyse needle gun designed in the early part of the nineteenth century. Bolt-action rifles use the same mechanism, a spring-loaded pin that strikes the primer when released.

MauserSystem98Verschluss-04

In other words, Glock pulled together a number of good ideas into one gun. Another requirement of the Austrian military was a pistol that would stand up to lots of use and abuse, and despite reports of catastrophic failures, the gun does have a reputation for surviving torture, and Glocks have earned the love of Hickok45. Here in America, we can get Glocks in 9mm Luger, .357 Sig, .40 S&W, 10mm, .45 GAP, and .45 ACP. There is a Glock 18, a full-auto version of the Model 17, but good luck owning one of those, and there are three models in .380 ACP, but thanks to the Gun Control Act of 1968, two of the three lowest-power models aren’t allowed for sale to ordinary citizens. The “reasons” for that are arcane.

The preceding is what a Glock is. But what is it not? Let me quote Officer John McClane:

That punk pulled a Glock 7 on me. You know what that is? It’s a porcelain gun made in Germany. Doesn’t show up on your airport X-ray machines, here, and it costs more than you make in a month.

What did he get right? The part about some guy being a punk. The rest of it is flat wrong.

1. Glock 7

There is no Glock 7. Well, the best I can figure is that Glock’s seventh patent was for a piezoelectric device for circuit boards. Quite the punk to pull out one of those.

2. Porcelain gun

Um, no. There are guns being printed out of plastic these days, but those only work for a few rounds before blowing up. A porcelain gun would be better known as a grenade.

3. Made in Germany

Glocks are made in Austria and in the United States, with a few made in Uruguay and Taiwan.

4. X-ray machines

Glocks do show up on airport X-ray machines and are detected by metal detectors. The polymer is opaque to X-rays, and the steel slide and barrel will make the TSA molester’s wand beep.

5. Cost

I don’t know what Chief Lorenzo’s salary was, but Glocks go for between $500 and $600 typically, depending on options and where you buy them.

The common error that McClane failed to include was the notion of a Glock safety:

GLOCK_29_10mm

See the lever dingus on the trigger? That’s the only external safety on the pistol. There are also a firing pin safety and a drop safety inside, but no one flicks those off except by squeezing the trigger. If anyone refers to a safety that must be turned off before the gun can be fired, said writer had better call it the Cominolli safety lever or a Siderlock button, aftermarket modifications that are available. But those are not common, and most Glock users either understand how to keep their fingers out of the trigger guard when holstering the weapon, or they add an extra orifice in their feet. The police in the City of New York (NYPD) require a twelve-pound trigger to be installed as another form of safety, instead of the standard 5.5 lbs. trigger, but we see how they do on marksmenship. The standard trigger has two stages, but it’s a lot shorter than a double-action pull. The pistols are wide and feel like something you’d pick up here:

Tupperware_party

but they are light-weight, and the subcompact models do snuggle into an inside-the-waistband holster without too much difficulty.

What’s the point here? Glocks, just like all other firearms, are designs with a set of characteristics that a writer must understand before including them in stories. Reporters in particular would benefit from such knowledge, but they are distinctly resistant to learning about guns.

You can buy more of my writing here.

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Every once in a while, it’s a good idea to look at how things are done wrong. With that in mind, today I present to you Hollywood guns, in which we find out that Tinseltown is peeing on our shoes and calling it a submarine movie.

1. Racking the action

800px-US_Navy_110406-N-ZS026-156_Logistics_Specialist_2nd_Class_Jermaine_Jackson_reloads_a_9mm_pistol_while_behind_cover_during_a_small_arms_practical_we

In this picture, we see the slide on a semiautomatic pistol pulled back to allow a round to be loaded into the chamber. That’s as should be. That’s what has to be done. But once that’s done, the gun is ready to go. But Hollywood can’t avoid having characters perform that action repeatedly. Every time they want to threaten someone, they whip out pistols and point about the room until the intended victim mouths off, at which time every gun from a snub-nosed revolver to a howitzer produces a clack-clack sound.

What that means is that unless a shell is ejected, the gun didn’t have a round chambered beforehand, and the victim could have waltzed over and taken the weapon. Yes, the Israelis teach their commandos to carry without a round loaded, but I suspect that’s because they had to take whatever kind of gun they could get their hands on in early days, so rules about safeties on some guns but not others would have been confusing. But most people carry their guns ready to go.

2. Suppressors

800px-Suppressors

These are often called silencers, but that’s wrong. They only reduce the volume by a few tens of decibels–enough to save the shooter from hearing damage, but not enough to make the firearm whisper. And if the ammunition is supersonic, the bullet going down range will create a sonic boom.

But in film, every gun can be made to sound like a cat sneezing with a quarter-inch tube on the end of the barrel. That includes revolvers, even though most such guns have a gap between the cylinder and the barrel, allowing the cylinder to turn. Gases escape from that gap–a significant source of noise that can’t be suppressed. Suppressors also change the point of impact and the velocity of the bullet, which means that the sights have to be set for suppressed firing.

The truth is that some guns can be made very quiet, but the size of the suppressor needed makes carrying the thing inconvenient. And if it’s a self-loading firearm, the operation of the machine itself makes a lot of noise.

3. Sound

800px-Chinese_New_Year_Seattle_2007_-_25

When not suppressed, guns are loud. We’re talking a rock concert with the speakers turned up to eleven. And for some reason, Hollywood thinks that setting off firearms inside concrete buildings isn’t bad for one’s hearing.

Huh?

4. Magazine size

451px-9mm_pistol_magazine

Gun control freaks go on and on about how many rounds should be allowed in a magazine. It’s fifteen here, ten there, and seven in New York. That’s until they decide to demand only one at a time. I suspect that’s because they see movies in which bad guys have firearms with infinite capacities. Sometimes, the good guys do as well. And they keep shooting on full-auto for minutes at a time without having to reload.

But that’s plain wrong. Typical pistol magazines run from seven rounds in older M1911s to fifteen or seventeen in many Berettas and Glocks. Revolvers have five or six. Even the banana magazine of the AK-47 holds only thirty. And the rate of fire on those guns, even the semiautomatic only versions, is several hundred rounds a minute. A magazine can be emptied in seconds, if emptying your gun is the only goal. Now there are things like this:

604px-Double_drum_magazine_filled.svg

But those have a habit of jamming. And they’re hard to carry, especially if you have to conceal them.

5. Aim

Fmfrp_12_80_p183

Guns have to be aimed. Yes, if you plan to spray and pray, you can hold your grease gun at your hip and let go, but to score one-shot hits on a desired target, you have to use the sights. Or practice every day with lots of rounds and get really close. Just blasting away is a fine method for wasting ammunition and hitting bystanders, a technique practiced by the NYPD. This is especially true if you hold your handgun sideways, gangsta style.

6. Knockdown power

38_Special_mushrooming_side_view

Newton informed us that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That means that if your bullet knocks down the guy you’re shooting at, you get knocked down when you fire the gun. Now it is true that some people get hit while they’re running and off-balance and thus fall over when shot, and others drop to the ground out of surprise, but the bullet itself cannot shove someone over.

Along the same lines, the more powerful the round, the more punishing it is to shoot, especially in lightweight guns. And unless the shooter has exceptional luck, one shot from a pipsqueak handgun isn’t going to stop an assailant.

7. Sturm und Drang

800px-NTS_-_BEEF_-_WATUSI

When a bullet hits something, what happens to the target? It explodes, naturally. Well, actually, no, it doesn’t. Unless it’s made of nitroglycerin. Even if it’s drenched in gasoline, it’s not likely to flare up. So no, you can’t make a car go up in a ball of fire by shooting its tank.

8. Carry

800px-DesertEagle_50AE

Remember Agent Smith in The Matrix? Or Ivan Chekov in Boondock Saints? They were big guys. But even so, those Desert Eagles they carried are huge guns. We’re talking about a foot long and more than four pounds in weight. You ain’t hiding one of those in your sock. It’s not even going to be concealed under a tailored suit coat. You’re going to need a big cape or a tent-sized shirt to hide one of those. We’ll talk about how to carry a gun in a sensible manner in the future, but understand that if it looks huge when you draw it, it’s going to feel huge when you’re carrying it.

9. Anachronisms

The_searchers_Ford_Trailer_screenshot_(8-crop)

John Wayne is the quintessential western character. But in just about every western he starred in, he carried an 1873 Colt Single Action Army revolver and a 1892 Winchester rifle. But The Searchers, for example, starts in 1868. That’s a neat trick. But it’s not unique to westerns. In Titanic, David Warner’s character packs an M1911, though at that time, such pistols were just getting going as a military firearm. It would have been more accurate to give him a Colt Pocket Hammerless, but that’s a small gun and doesn’t look as impressive.

What’s the point here? Surprise, surprise, surprise, Hollywood engages in trickery when it comes to guns. And that’s part of why I’m writing this series. You, dear writers, need to know what the truth is about firearms. What’s possible, what’s reasonable in how they’re used, and what’s just blowing smoke.

For stories involving gunplay and a whole lot more, visit here.

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In my series on guns and gun information for writers, I’ve mostly stayed away from political matters, since the emphasis here is on what a writer needs to know to get gun facts correct in stories. But today, I’m wading into the thick and smelly. The subject is assault rifles.

First, let’s dispose of another term that shows up in the media and elsewhere, the assault weapon. This is plainly silly. Any weapon can be used to attack. Any weapon can be used to defend. In fact, most weapons are good at both functions. That’s especially true about most firearms. Some have advantages in one or the other area, and we’ll get to those in a moment, but calling something an assault weapon is generally redundant. Certainly, this term has been exploited by advocates of gun control. Note in particular what Josh Sugarmann, currently the head of the Violence Policy Center, had to say in 1988 in a position paper:

Assault weapons—just like armor-piercing bullets, machine guns, and plastic firearms—are a new topic. The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons. In addition, few people can envision a practical use for these weapons.

But my job in these articles is to inform writers so as to remove confusion.

Moving on then. Have a look at the classic military rifle at the start of the twentieth century:

800px-Gevär_m-1896_-_Modellexemplar_tillverkat_1896_-_6,5x55mm_-_Armemuseum

That’s a Swedish Mauser that shoots a 6.5mm round. The rifle is fifty inches long. The Russian Mosin-Nagant was forty-eight inches. And that was typical for the standard primary arm of the day. Yes, the Americans and the British were using rifles of around forty-four inches, but that’s still lengthy.

There are advantages to this. As I mentioned before, a longer barrel gives the powder time to burn, thereby increasing the velocity. A greater distance between the front and rear sights creates a longer sight radius. This doesn’t affect the inherent accuracy of the gun, but it does make lining up a shot easier for the shooter–at least that’s the idea. And military doctrine of the day expected soldiers to hit targets at considerable distance. Remember that generals always come prepared for the last war. The belief was that the common soldier should be able to fire aimed and effective shots at targets way over yonder. Consider, for example, the mad minute, a requirement of British soldiers to land more than twenty shots in a twelve-inch circle at three-hundred yards in less than sixty seconds. The story goes that during the Christmas peace in World War I, German officers remarked to their British counterparts that they were surprised about the Brits having so many machine guns, when actually the men were just firing the bolt-action SMLE.

But World War I bogged down into trenches, and the leaders needed a way to break out. Winston Churchill loved the idea of the tank, while Americans used the trench broom, a short-barreled shotgun, and the Germans toyed with this:

300px-Bergmann_MP18.1

the Bergmann MP-18. It fired the 9mm Parabellum cartridge and thus was a submachine gun. We developed our own in the form of the Thompson, known as the Tommy Gun. We’ll talk about this type of gun later.

The Russians tried this beast, the Fedorov avtomat from 1915:

800px-Fedorov_avtomat

It fired a full-power rifle cartridge, but its design was complicated.

A battle rifle cartridge is as powerful as it is for the purpose of penetrating armor and hitting targets at long ranges. But firing a lot of those rounds in a hurry isn’t conducive to accuracy without a gun mount, and military thinkers were coming on the idea that when a lot of people are running at you quickly, you need to shovel the lead out. The distance involved won’t be that much–under three hundred yards.

The need for this became apparent especially in World War II on the Eastern Front between Germany and the Soviet Union. The Germans had the Mauser K98, a shortened version of the Gewehr 98, their long battle rifle from the First World War, firing a full-power round, and the MP-40:

800px-MP_40_AYF_2

a submachine gun or machine pistol that shot the standard 9mm used in German handguns. But battle rifles are good for a thousand yards, and handguns do their best work at talking distances. What about in between?

Introducing the MP-44:

800px-MP44_-_Tyskland_-_8x33mm_Kurz_-_Armémuseum

It fired a bullet of 7.92mm from a case that was 33mm in length. The Mausers used 7.92 x 57 rounds. The notion there is that it’s easier to retool if you’re not changing the barrel diameter. But the reduced power of the cartridge allows for easier control of fully automatic fire necessary to stop mass attacks inside of three hundred yards. Hitler got a look at the gun and declared it a Sturmgewehr–an assault rifle. He loved adding “assault” to everything, but even though the thought about this weapon was defensive, being able to send a wall of bullets down range is useful in storming (the other translation of sturm) through an enemy’s line, particularly in urban combat.

Are you thinking that the MP-44 looks familiar? How about this weapon:

AK-47_type_II_Part_DM-ST-89-01131

If you think that the AK-47 looks a lot like the German rifle, you’re not alone. In fact, lots of people other than Mikhail Kalashnikov have said the same thing. The Russian gun shoots a 7.62 x 39 round, their battle rifle round being 7.62 x 54, has a detachable magazine with the distinctive curve required by the shape of the cartridge, and is made for the same purpose as the MP-44. The Russians declared, Oh my Marx, no, we didn’t copy the German gun. Uh huh. It’s length, by the way, is around 35 inches with the stock extended.

Americans, loving plastic and high-tech widgets, went for this ray gun:

800px-M16A2_-_AM.016070

the M-16, designed by Eugene Stoner, a man who had been working in the aircraft industry. It’s made of plastic and aluminum and so forth, all with the purpose of reducing its weight. It shoots a 5.56 x 45 cartridge. In English units, that’s a .22, a tiny round. General Curtis LeMay tried an early model out and figured it made a good primary weapon for air base security police, and some of our special forces units operating in Vietnam in the run up to our full involvement there liked it, so Robert McNamara and his bean counters–I mean whiz kids–decided to inflict the M-16 on everyone. (Do you get the idea that I don’t like it? We’ll discuss it’s mechanism in the future.)

Today, the lines between submachine gun and assault rifle are getting blurred:

800px-FN-P90_2

This dingus, one of the stars of Stargate SG-1, shoots a pistol round that acts a lot like a light-weight rifle round that can’t decide what it wants to be.

But what is an assault rifle? Remember that the goal of such a weapon is to facilitate rapid movement in close-quarters battle or to stop an enemy attempting such. That being the case, it has to have the following characteristics:

1. Intermediate cartridge

I’ve explained that here and there in this article, but the round is intermediate between the power of a handgun round and a battle rifle cartridge. It’s not a .45 ACP, and it’s not a .30-’06, but it wants to be able to do what both of those can do.

2. Detachable magazine

Changing out magazines is easier than pulling out stripper clips of rounds and shoving them into the fixed mag.

3. Selective fire

The weapon must be capable of semiautomatic fire–one trigger squeeze, one shot–and full-auto–keeps shooting till the trigger is released or the gun runs dry. Many of them also have a three-round burst setting. But without full-auto capability, it’s not an assault rifle.

And that’s the key point. In America, unless you have a Class III firearms license and all the paperwork and tax stamps, you can’t legally own a full-auto gun. The AR-15, the semiautomatic only version of the M-16, is no different from any other semiautomatic rifle in its basic functioning, except that it looks funny. People who say otherwise are simply trying to cloud the issue. If your character is a chief of police who has to kowtow to the mayor, that person may refer to a gun as an assault rifle. If your character has an anti-gun agenda, the same is true. But you need to know the correct definitions so as to be aware of when you’re creating characterization.

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