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Origins of the assault rifle

Sharp fruit, stormtroopers and hot barrels

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What is an AK47? In short, it’s an assault rifle: and this is just the first of many misleading death-tech terms we’ll encounter. (Gun bureaucrats of all nations seem to delight in confusing the outsider.) For those not up on the history of shooters, here's an introduction.

Assault rifles first began to be seriously considered during and after World War One. Back then in the early 20th century, most up-to-date soldiers carried bolt-action rifles such as the British Lee-Enfield, German Mauser etc. These old-school shooters fired high-powered ammo, using a strong powder charge in the cartridge to throw a bullet very fast. Being speedy, these slugs could fly a long way and still kill someone, and the rifles were designed to exploit this. They were precision instruments, able to hit man-sized targets at 800 or even a thousand yards – if the user had the necessary eyesight and skill, which very few did.

Bolt-action weapons like this were powerful and accurate, and highly trained users could achieve a fairly rapid rate of fire with them as well. But they were expensive to make, and far from ideal for close-up scuffling in trenches or bunkers. They were too long and heavy to be handled easily in a tight spot, and working the bolt manually between shots was slow work in an arms-length fight.

The main alternative for individual soldiers back then was pistols, either revolvers or semi-automatics, which would fire a shot each time the trigger was pulled without needing any help from the user. Pistol ammo used less powder and threw much slower slugs, which meant that handguns could be fired without a shoulder stock.

There was a kind of weapon which would shoot faster still; the machine gun. Machine guns fired high-powered rifle cartridges fully automatically. That is, the gun would keep shooting very fast as long as the trigger was held back, until it ran out of ammo or broke down. The massive recoil this generated meant that these weapons could only realistically be fired from a tripod or fixed mounting. The other big snag was that the weapon’s barrel would rapidly become so hot that its service life could be measured in minutes. This was usually dealt with by fitting a circulating water-cooling jacket around the barrel, which would draw off the excessive heat – but made the gun even heavier and more unwieldy. The first gun of this kind much used by the British was known as the Maxim Gun, after its American developer.

Up close and impersonal

Europeans and Americans had found this selection of weapons more than adequate against primitively-equipped adversaries in colonial campaigns at the end of the 19th century. Enemy tribesmen weren’t, quite, down to the level of being equipped only with sharp pieces of fruit – as Blackadder would have it – but they often had nothing better than spears or knives.

As Hilaire Belloc put it, explaining why the British usually won their wars back then:

Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim Gun
And they have not

The only serious weakness of the advanced armies was close-in fighting, where machine guns were much too cumbersome for use. The rapid-firing pistols were often carried only by officers, and usually held only six cartridges. Officially, if the natives ever got in amongst you, you were supposed to settle them with cold steel. Officers and cavalrymen would draw their swords, and foot soldiers would fix bayonets. It was generally felt by Victorian commentators that British pluck would still vanquish superior numbers, even without any serious technological advantage.

In fact, there were often gruesome results when muscular primitives who had trained and fought all their lives with cutting and stabbing weapons came to grips with physically unimpressive British slum-dwellers and public schoolboys no better armed than they. The more thoughtful European officers – for instance the young Winston Churchill - often replaced their six-shot revolvers with larger-capacity semi-automatics, and some US Cavalry units in the Indian Wars got rid of their swords altogether in favour of extra revolvers.

But nobody really started thinking seriously about new weapons until the civilised armies left the developing world alone for a bit and took on each other in World War I. The Great War saw several new ideas take to the field, including a forerunner of the AK47.

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