Origins of the assault rifle
Sharp fruit, stormtroopers and hot barrels
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.
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. ®