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Origins of the assault rifle

Sharp fruit, stormtroopers and hot barrels

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The first of these new notions was a lighter and more portable machine gun which could be carried forward more easily to support an infantry attack. Such weapons were fed from a drum or box rather than fiddly loose belts of ammo, and they dispensed with water-cooling. They still used full-power rifle cartridges, so they realistically had to be fired from a bipod; and in short bursts only so as to prevent the barrel overheating.

The second innovation was the sub-machine-gun. This was essentially a bigger pistol with a shoulder stock, holding a lot more bullets and able to fire full auto like a machine gun. The use of low-power pistol ammo means that submachineguns’ useful range is well inside a hundred metres, but they are short and handy - ideal for use inside buildings, trenches or bunkers – and they offer devastating closeup firepower. Submachineguns can also be very cheap to make.

These two new weapons – especially the submachinegun, or “machine pistol” in German usage – were used to good effect by the elite German assault units formed at the end of the war, which succeeded in breaking the Allied trench lines in a last-gasp 1918 push. These crack German soldiers were known as Sturmtruppen – storm troopers. (Trust us, this is relevant.)

All this new armoury of stuff, however, still fired one of the two standard kinds of cartridges: high-power rifle ammo or low-power pistol ammo. It was not possible to make a gun which could do everything: if you wanted range, the ability to fire on full auto while standing up or moving was lost.

The answer may seem obvious, but in fact it took a long time to gain acceptance. Nobody could really be bothered with any more new kinds of ammo and weapons until World War Two, though an innovative Russian, Colonel Fedorov, had developed an early intermediate-power full-auto weapon in 1916.

The quest for intermediate power

Most countries went back to war in 1939 still tooled up with a mixture of bolt-action rifles, submachineguns, and supporting machine guns firing full-poke rifle ammo. After handing everyone else a massive kicking in the first couple of years, however, the Germans carried out some analysis of the way things had gone while they were grinding Europe under their jackbooted heels.

The remorselessly efficient Nazis found that it was, in fact, very rare for soldiers to shoot at one another from distances much greater than 400-600 yards. The beautiful old bolt-action rifles with their powerful cartridges and thousand-yard accuracy were massively over-spec’d, and they were still far from ideal in a close-up scrap. The Germans decided to make a serious move towards an intermediate-power cartridge, lying between pistol and rifle. They designed a new weapon to go with it.

This new class of weapon would be powerful enough to make kills out to 500 yards or thereabouts, but light and handy. It held a lot of bullets and it could be fired on full auto by a standing, unsupported man. It could do nearly every job well enough, and it could be cheap to make as well.

There remained the question of what to call the new class of gun, however. The Germans initially called it a “machine carbine,” then changed their mind and filed it among the submachineguns as the Maschinen Pistole 1943, refined in 1944 to become the MP44. It’s generally thought that the designers did this because Hitler was a great believer in the mystique of the storm trooper, so much so that Nazi political thugs operated under that title at one point – which has led to the unsavoury connotations of the term “stormtrooper” in English. (Not to mention its usage in the Star Wars movies, one might suggest. There’s no surer way among Anglos to suggest that a government is menacing and evil than calling its soldiers storm troopers.) The signature weapon of the Nazi storm trooper was the machine-pistol, and a gun with an “MP” title was more likely to gain political approval.

But even Hitler could see that the new gun wasn’t really a machine-pistol. Nonetheless, it needed to evoke the legend of the storm trooper. In the end, the Nazis decided to call it a “Sturm Gewehr,” or “storm rifle” – a rifle for stormtroopers. This was translated into English as “assault rifle,” and so the new type of weapon was misnamed forever. Assault rifles don’t have any particular connection with assault operations, as we’ve seen: they’re general-purpose guns.

Sorry about all that – but at least we know what we’re on about now. ®

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