The battle lines are being drawn. The shooting in Newtown, Conn., has brought the debate on gun control, and specifically on the control of assault weapons, to the front burner. I will not argue for or against a ban on assault rifles; this is a policy decision with far-reaching ramifications. What I will offer is a historical perspective on assault weapons, and a more modest argument that, whatever you believe about gun control in general, assault weapons do merit being placed in a separate category.
Since the first musket was issued to an infantryman, soldiers have wanted three things from a military weapon: A cartridge delivering a powerful blow, accuracy and the ability to fire and reload quickly. That soldier’s officers also added another criterion: The weapon should be easy to teach raw recruits to use.
Civil War musket (Photo from Creative Commons)
By the time of the Civil War, we had largely achieved the first two goals. Civil War muskets were powerful weapons, delivering at short range a musketball that was deadly and, in the right hands, quite accurate. However, muzzle loaders were notoriously slow to reload and fire, and they required extensive training for new recruits. I have attended Civil War re-enactments in which a re-enactor portrayed my own great-great-great-grandfather as a Union company commander, leading his troops in the muzzle loading drill, outlined in the Army’s manual of arms. These muskets used black powder, which is corrosive to the musket and dangerous to transport and handle.
In the late 19th Century, the first modern rifles and pistols, using metal cartridges, were developed, and those original cartridges were filled with black powder. By the turn of the 20th Century, a fearsome new weapon had been developed: the high-powered rifle cartridge, powered by smokeless powder.
Between 1898 and 1910 or so, every nation in the world introduced a bolt action rifle for military use, and these are the first military rifles that we would recognize today as modern weapons. They typically fired a .30 calibre cartridge, and typically held five or more rounds, which could be chambered by the operation of the bolt. The two iconic versions of this weapon are the American 1903 model Springfield rifle, for which the 30-06 cartridge was developed, and the British Lee Enfield. Each of these rifles was used extensively in the first World War, in which the Germans were armed with their own variation, the 1898 model Mauser.
A British infantryman was taught to fire 30 to 40 rounds in a minute, a drill known as the Mad Minute. The .30 calibre cartridge is a powerful cartridge, and requires a substantial weapon to fire it. Bolt action weapons were heavy, long barreled and difficult to hold for long periods of time. The recoil is substantial, and to the raw recruit, painful.
During World War II, every nation but the United States began the war using the same bolt action rifles they had used in the first war. The U.S. military introduced the newly designed M1 or Garand rifle, a .30 calibre rifle capable of firing semiautomatically, that is, firing a shot each time the trigger is pulled, without engaging a bolt. It’s eight-shot capacity looks small by modern standards, but for the time was considered revolutionary.
The upgraded version of the M1 was the M14, which increased the M1s capacity to 20 rounds or more, and made it fully automatic, that is, capable of firing like a machine gun, though early users quickly discovered that the weapon did not function well when firing in fully automatic mode; the cartridge was too heavy and the rifle too light to absorb the recoil. Green troops did not like the weapon because of its heavy recoil, and its tendency to buck upward with each shot.
The answer was the AR-15 assault rifle, and its fully automatic military cousin, the M-16, the iconic rifle of the Vietnam War. What was so different about the M16?
The biggest single difference between the M16 and earlier military rifles was its adoption of a much smaller and lighter cartridge, the .223 calibre round. The calibre of a rifle bullet is measured in inches, so that a .223 cartridge is, in diameter, effectively the same size as a .22 rifle cartridge, though with a much larger charge of gunpowder behind it. This led to its initial derision as “just a big .22 rifle.”
A battle raged in the upper echelons of the military between the two cartridge sizes. Proponents of the .30 calibre cartridge argued that a big powerful cartridge was more effective in battle, and that the lighter .223 calibre was not powerful enough, while proponents of the lighter round argued that it was quite powerful enough, and far easier to use than the .30 calibre round. Ultimately those favoring the smaller cartridge won out, and the M16 went into major production during the Vietnam War, where, after early jamming problems were corrected, it was recognized as a deadly weapon, far easier to handle than the larger and more awkward M14.
And it was a different style of weapon entirely. The Springfield, M1 and M14, were rifles. Each was shaped exactly like a civilian deer rifle, and Springfields remain in use as deer rifles today. The AR-15 has a pistol grip, rather than a rifle’s receiver, which both helps distribute its weight more to the right hand, and which makes aiming and firing easier. It has a very light recoil, and raw troops can easily be taught to fire it effectively. The first generation of users in Vietnam called it a spacegun, or the Buck Rogers rifle.
The AR-15 and its variants are fundamentally different from any other rifle on the market: It is light, effective, fast and easy to use to the point that it is in a different category of rifle than those coming before. The AR-15, far more than any other weapon, is easy for an inexperienced shooter to learn to use, because of its light recoil and pistol grip, and the fact that its light recoil makes firing multiple rounds without breaking sight far easier than firing a .30 calibre rifle. It is easy for an inexperienced marksman to fire many rounds from an AR-15 without fatigue from the recoil; even the experienced shoulder gets sore after just a few shots from a .30 calibre rifle.
Very few heavy calibre rifles have been used in shooting situations such as the one in Newtown, and it is unlikely that they ever will be. Most school shooters are young and inexperienced marksmen. Most inexperienced shooters are not capable of accurately firing large-calibre weapons outside a rifle range, and the noise, recall and muzzle flash of a .30 calibre cartridge are often as frightening to the shooter as to the target.
However, the AR-15 and its variants were specifically designed to be used by an inexperienced shooter, and to be more pleasant to fire than the older battle rifles they replaced. And the design succeeded very well. Now the question is what to do with that success.
Whatever Congress does concerning assault rifles will be criticized, and one of the primary criticisms will be that assault weapons are being unfairly treated differently than normal sporting weapons. I hope I’ve shown that, while that may be true theoretically, it is not true in the real world, which is the place these shooting occur. Whether Congress regulates, bans or merely criticizes these weapons, we need to understand that they are fundamentally different than any weapons that have come before.
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Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a lifelong interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Prof. Miller’s role as legal editor on ABC TV’s Good Morning, America. He writes, posts, and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.