You’ll see the phrase “assault rifle” bandied about freely on television. But where did this phrase come from and when people use that term, what do they mean? What is an assault rifle?

Media Use of The Term

“We shouldn’t live in a country where assault rifles are given away as free prizes in boxes of sugar cereal,” a news commentator might say, hoping to stir up some politically advantageous sentiment.

To this end, an “assault rifle” is any weapon that an anti-gun proponent finds frightening or offensive.

The AR-15 chambered for 22 LR that you use to defend your home against squirrels and empty cans? Assault rifle.

The old Winchester Model 12 that your grandfather left you? Assault rifle.

The slingshot you made out of a chunk of hickory, some surgical tubing, and the leather label from an old pair of jeans? If a pundit wearing a $2,500 pantsuit doesn’t like it, then baby, you’d better believe it’s an assault rifle.

“Assault Rifle” Definition

AR-15 at a shooting range

But what is an “assault rifle,” really? Many attribute the coining of the phrase to a certain mustached German dictator who doesn’t beg mentioning by name. By some accounts he first referred to the Maschinenpistole 43 as a Sturmgewehr, which means “storm rifle” or “assault rifle.” While earlier rifles had included a selective-fire function, such as the M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle, the Sturmgewehr 44 was the first to play a prominent role in any major conflict. As such, we consider it the inaugural modern assault rifle.

The U.S. Army published an intelligence document in November, 1970 titled “FSTC-CW-07-03-70.” (Catchy name, we know.) On page 67 of this page-turner you will find this red, white and blue definition:

Assault rifles are short, compact, selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between submachinegun [sic] and rifle cartridges. Assault rifles have mild recoil characteristics and, because of this, are capable of delivering effective full-automatic fire at ranges up to 300 meters.


a bolt action versus an AR-15, the firearm commonly called an assault rifle

A rifle must therefore meet four criteria for you to accurately call it an “assault rifle.”

Assault Rifle Criteria

  1. Selective fire: Some control integral to the firearm must toggle it between semi-automatic fire, full-automatic fire, and burst mode where a predetermined number of rounds are fired with every trigger pull. (This criterion is important, because it means virtually zero percent of civilian-owned rifles are technically “assault rifles.” You can’t walk into Billy Bob’s Gun Shop and buy a full auto without jumping through so many hoops that it would put a circus lion to shame.)
  2. Intermediate-power cartridge: The rifle must be chambered for a round more substantial than a typical pistol round, but shorter than a full-power battle rifle round like 30-06 or 308 Win.
  3. Detachable box magazine: Simple enough — the rifle’s ammo must be fed via magazine. Manually loading each round into a rifle while it’s firing several hundred rounds per minute would take the hands of a magician. (We imagine that famous scene from I Love Lucy where Lucy and Ethel are frantically trying to keep pace with the conveyor belt at a chocolate factory.)
  4. 300 meter effective range: Better known as “328.084 yards” here in America. If a rifle would be useless against targets farther away than 328.083 yards, it would not be an assault rifle.

A Weapon’s Purpose Is Defined by the One Who Fires It

Looking down the barrel of a rifle at a range

An “assault” is a physical attack. An “attack” is an aggressive and violent action. “Aggression” is unprovoked hostile or violent behavior. Here is what we’re getting at with all this dictionary talk: If you, like the responsible person that you are, intend only to use your weapon for target practice, hunting, or self-defense, then by definition you are not being aggressive.

Without aggression, there’s no attack; If there is no attack, there’s no assault; Without assault, it’s just a rifle.

This may sound like mealy-mouthed lawyer talk, and maybe it is. Regardless, without someone to give it a purpose, a rifle is simply an inert lump of metal. To call it an “assault rifle” when its owner has no intention of committing an assault is like calling a truck a “people running over machine” when its owner intends only to use it for hauling firewood. So take the “assault rifle” designation with a grain of salt. You’re the one who defines what your weapon is really for.

Disclaimer: We are not lawyers, because we once spoke with a priest who assured us that we have a soul. Nothing in this article is constitutes legal advice. If you attempt to use this article as legal advice, a judge will roll up a bunch of legal documents and swat you on the nose like you’re a puppy that just piddled on the carpet.