What Is An “Assault Rifle” and Why it Matters.

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com


As shown in these conflicting headlines, journalists have failed to use accurate language when describing guns in reporting and editorial adding confusion to the gun debate.

Two rifles, very different capabilities. Lots of confusion.

One of many reasons the continuing national gun debate is so difficult to moderate.

There is widespread misunderstanding of what an “assault rifle” actually is. This misunderstanding makes effective debate over proposed reexamination of gun laws nearly impossible. It is one reason the debate feels so circular and divisive.


This is an assault rifle.

An assault rifle is an automatic rifle: You pull the trigger one time and bullets are fired repeatedly at a high rate of fire.

A sporting rifle is a semi-automatic rifle: You pull the trigger one time and one bullet is fired. To fire any additional bullets you must pull the trigger again.


This is a sporting rifle.

That seems straightforward. It is defined in only three sentences. What makes these distinctions difficult for people is that the two classes of weapons look nearly identical.

I served in the U.S. Army and the Michigan National Guard as a member of an Airborne Long Range Reconnaissance Team, Co. “F”, 425th INF, LRSU (AIRBORNE). I was a Scout/Observer in a five-man reconnaissance team. We were a combat unit, trained to employ a wide range of weapons from handguns to missile systems and even airstrikes with lethal effect. We had to know weapons, how they worked and what they were for. I also come from a family that grew up with guns. To me, guns are no different than power tools. They are both dangerous if misused, useful when the user is proficient and competent. And finally, I am a victim of gun violence. That gives me the perspective of a person who has been threatened by a firearm.

In most states in the U.S. a person cannot buy an assault rifle. But gun laws vary widely from state to state.

Somewhat interestingly, in California it is illegal to buy a .50 caliber long-range rifle, often incorrectly called a “sniper rifle”. This is despite the fact that one has never been used in a sensational crime there. Part of the reason they may be illegal in California is their large size, long range and intimidating physical appearance.

It is also illegal to have a rifle with a bayonet mount in California, even though a bayonet has never been used in a mass shooting anywhere in the U.S.

By contrast, in nearby Arizona, gun laws are likely the most liberal in the United States, with most firearms easily available without any or much documentation.

Journalists and lawmakers have played fast and lose with the vernacular and nomenclature that defines firearms technology. That is one reason some gun owners are wary of new legislation. Legal gun owners are rightfully concerned they’ll be somehow “over regulated”. With inaccurate characterizations of firearms common among politicians and journalists, it seems like this is a valid concern. With spurious legislation of bizarre and irrelevant weapons specifications in states like California the concern over erroneous but well-intentioned regulation seems even more valid.

Why does the understanding of what makes one gun an “assault rifle” and another gun a “sporting rifle” matter? It is one of many distinctions that draw the fine line between reasonable regulation in the interest of public safety and overregulation that some people suggest is a threat to civil liberty.


  1. while I’m glad you bring up the topic, I think you’re making distinctions that are both incorrect and off-point.
    First, semi-automatic weapons are legally considered assault weapons. Your distinction about “sporting rifle” is one endorsed by the NRA, but not one that really works with reality. The bullets are of a caliber too low for most game. Hunters would need to spray bullets to stop a decent-sized animal.
    Second, there’s the ‘distinction without a difference’ problem. People might have the names wrong, but their objection seems spot-on. If a weapon is bad at hunting, and not good at home defense (hard to swing a rifle in a tight environment like a home), the there’s little “need” for them.
    Third, the assault weapons ban expired in 2004, and hasn’t been renewed.
    Fourth you bring up the tool analogy. I agree with a tool analogy, that is, that without certain tools it’s hard to do certain things. Like it takes me an hour to walk three miles, but I can ride that distance easily in three minutes, and I can drive it in less than a minute. Just because I get to the same place, doesn’t mean that shoes or a bicycle is equally dangerous as a car.
    Further, with tools, there are things that you can do easily with certain tools that are hard or impossible with others. Like a nail gun vs. a hammer. The ease at which some tools accomplish things is very different than what you can do with others. And that ease could well be the difference between life and death.

    • Lots of incorrect things in your comment.
      First . . and assault rifle is something like an M-16, AK-47 or one of a variety of weapons produced by FN of Belgium. These weapons are all capable of full automatic fire. Rifles like the AR-15 are specifically the civilian version of these weapons.

      AR style rifles are perfectly fine hunting rifles. The 5.56×45 or .223 Remington is one of the most common rounds in the world and is a great caliber for smaller game up to and including coyotes, wild hogs, and a large variety of other small to medium sized game. The AR platform provides a great, modular, adaptive rifle platform to make a very accurate and capable rifle.

      Your definition of having “little need” for something and therefore should be illegal . . . is pretty bad. Your criteria is either hunting or self-defense. Rifles like the AR are used by the millions across the country for competition and recreation. This is like saying a Porsche is not god for transporting a family or getting bags of mulch home from Home Depot so therefore people shouldn’t be able t have them because they drive too fast.

  2. Fast Eddie said:

    JP, couple of facts.
    ARs are great for hunting. It’s the speed of the round, not the size. You must not hunt.
    ARs are great for home defense, as they are much more accurate than a pistol.
    ARs don’t spray, machine guns do, and real professionals that know how to use them, never spray
    JP, go learn to shoot, then come back once you can talk intelligently about the topic


  3. JZ said:

    The assault weapons ban was a joke. It banned a small number of firearms by name, but mostly banned features of rifles already on the market. These consisted of things like a flash suppressor, or a bayonet lug, or an adjustable stock, which do not affect the ability of a firearm to fire whatsoever. Hence, it has not been renewed, because it was misguided to begin with.

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