What Is an Assault Weapon?

By Will Dabbs, MD
Posted in #Guns
Save Remove from saved articles
Like Unlike
Facebook Share Twitter Share Pinterest Share

What Is an Assault Weapon?

April 3rd, 2019

6 minute read

“What is an assault weapon?” appears to be a question that even lawmakers can’t answer. There are a lot of misconceptions about the nature of assault rifles, assault weapons and even the federal assault weapon ban that expired more than 20 years ago. Dr. Will Dabbs gives us the straight truth and how the terms are used to go after normal semiautomatic firearms.

Like texting, tweeting, woke and hangry, the term “assault weapon” is a relatively recent contrivance. Unlike other contemporary cultural slang, however, folks can go to jail over the exact definition of this ethereal expression. As a result, it is important to appreciate how the concept came to be and then try to grasp just exactly what it means.

All three of these firearms would be called by some “assault weapons.” But, are they?

There is an apocryphal tale claiming that Adolf Hitler first started this party. During World War II the Nazis debuted a radically new type of Infantry rifle called the MP43. Hitler himself purportedly titled the revolutionary weapon the “Sturmgewehr” or “Storm Gun.” Allied intelligence officials supposedly mistranslated “Storm Gun” as “Assault Rifle,” and here we are.

[Be sure to read about the original assault rifle, the German StG44, here.]

Assault rifle is an accepted military term today. This is a relatively lightweight man-portable weapon that is capable of fully automatic fire. Fully automatic means the gun will sequentially shoot more than one bullet with a single squeeze of the trigger. Hold down the trigger and it will shoot until you release the trigger or the gun runs empty. The layman would be forgiven for calling this a machinegun. All modern military forces employ assault rifles.

This fully automatic HK416, like the one believed to be used to kill Osama bin Laden, is actually an “assault rifle” in the military sense.

Misapplied Terms Designed to Ban Firearms

By contrast, in today’s parlance an “assault weapon” is a more obtuse, contrived beastie. An assault weapon today is basically inaccurately described as a semi-automatic firearm that looks like an assault rifle. “Semi-automatic” means the gun fires one shot with each pull of the trigger. Hold down that trigger, and all you are going to get is a single shot. In the gun world, the distinction between fully automatic and semi-automatic is huge.

To the purist, an assault weapon is not even a real thing. While an assault rifle is a fully automatic military tool, an assault weapon is just a gun that people say might look scary. It is therefore all but undefinable. However, that didn’t stop the U.S. Congress from trying.

One of these guns would be called an “assault weapon” under misguided legal interpretations. Which one? The one at the top due to its bayonet lug.

Congress tried to ban whatever they perceived to be assault weapons in the mid-1990s. Gun defenders insisted upon a legal definition that could stand up in court. Opponents countered that assault weapons were indeed hard to define, but you kind of knew one when you saw it. The messy end result was the federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994.

This convoluted piece of legislation sought to prohibit the manufacture of certain firearms based upon their appearance. Cosmetic features like pistol grips, bayonet lugs, flash hiders and collapsible stocks all folded into a confusing matrix of sinister features. Certain combinations would arbitrarily pitch a conventional firearm into the dreaded “Assault Weapon” category.

These two semi-automatic .22 rifles function identically. However, the gun on the bottom obviously looks way scarier.

The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban also outlawed the manufacture of ammunition feeding devices (“magazines”) holding more than ten rounds and prohibited numerous specific firearms by name. This muddled bit of jurisprudence automatically expired 10 years after it was enacted. Reputable sources agreed that the ban had no effect on crime rates. There has nonetheless been a concerted effort to reinstate it permanently ever since.

Several states, most notably California, still use a similarly labyrinthine framework to try to capture what exactly an outlawed assault weapon should be (click here to learn about “California-compliant” firearms). It would honestly be kind of funny except that people can go to prison for innocently running afoul of it. I’d walk you through the technical details, but it would invariably put you to sleep.

These two autoloading 12-gauge shotguns are essentially identical mechanically. Which one do you think would be called an “assault weapon”?

Assault Weapon Definition – Defining the Undefinable

The reality is that a true “assault weapon” is a type of fully automatic firearm used by the military. Private citizens in most states can technically own certain fully automatic guns. However, they are about as rare as honest politicians in Washington and nearly as expensive.

Unlike depictions in movies, fully automatic weapons in private hands are vanishingly rare. By contrast, semi-automatic firearms of all stripes are quite literally everywhere. Rifles of any sort are used in a relatively small percentage of the gun crime in America. “Assault weapons,” whatever they actually are, would make up a yet smaller subset.

Both of these pistols fire identical 9mm ammunition from detachable magazines.

The more useful term than assault weapon would be “Modern Sporting Rifle” (MSR). MSR’s might look a bit like assault rifles on the outside. However, they are by definition semi-automatic. MSRs are used legally for competition, recreation, and home defense from coast to coast. Despite the relentless bigotry shown against them, MSRs remain the most popular genre of rifles in America.

Trying to effectively regulate firearms based solely upon their appearance is a fool’s errand.

The Devil is in the Details…

Guys like me find the term assault weapon onerous because it is so soul-crushingly arbitrary. Two semi-automatic firearms might have exactly the same function and capability. However, if one looks scary and the other doesn’t they can be regulated completely differently.

A semi-automatic firearm like this AR-style rifle may look “scary,” but differs little from most other guns.

During the decade following the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, benign-looking guns remained unregulated, while production of the scary-looking sort was a felony even if they both did exactly the same thing. The arbitrary dicta defining an “assault weapon” had no practical effect on a gun’s effectiveness, utility or contribution to rates of violent crime. With literally tens of millions of firearms already in circulation that meet the government’s arbitrary cosmetic criteria as assault weapons, attempting to regulate such stuff legislatively becomes tedious, ineffective, frustrating, and, frankly, silly.


The following are frequent questions we receive on assault rifles and assault weapons. 

What is an assault rifle?

The definition of an assault rifle is a firearm chambered for an intermediate-caliber cartridge with a selector switch that determines full automatic or semi-automatic fire. Modern military units commonly use assault rifles. Law enforcement agencies occasionally use them in high risk positions such as SWAT units.

Intermediate-caliber cartridges are typically rifle rounds that are less powerful than traditional hunting rounds making them lighter to carry while reducing both the range and wounding capabilities.

What is an assault weapon?

An assault weapon is a political term without appreciable meaning in the firearms industry. The term can mean any number of things but is often used to describe semi-automatic handguns and rifles with cosmetic similarities to assault rifles. It is not a technical classification of a firearm.

Various U.S. states have enacted assault weapon laws that prohibit or regulate firearms that have certain features or accessories, including a detachable magazine, pistol grip, adjustable stock or threaded barrel. 

What states ban assault weapons?

The following states have assault weapon bans:

  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Deleware
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Washington

Additionally, the District of Columbia has an assault weapons ban.

These states do not have uniform legislation meaning something that is legal in one state may not be legal in the next. Additionally, there are multiple lawsuits pending in these states seeking to overturn the laws.

Last update: October 4, 2023

Join the Discussion

Go to forum

Continue Reading
Did you enjoy this article?

Springfield Armory® recommends you seek qualified and competent training from a certified instructor prior to handling any firearm and be sure to read your owner’s manual. These articles and videos are considered to be suggestions and not recommendations from Springfield Armory. The views and opinions expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Springfield Armory.

Product prices mentioned in articles and videos are current as of the date of publication.

Will Dabbs, MD

Will Dabbs, MD

Will was raised in the Mississippi Delta and has a degree in Mechanical Engineering. After eight years flying Army helicopters, he left the military as a Major to attend medical school. Will operates an Urgent Care clinic in his small Southern town and works as the plant physician for the local Winchester ammunition plant. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three adult children, and has written for the gun press for a quarter century.

© 2024 Springfield Armory. All rights reserved.

Springfield Armory

No account? Create One

Create Account

Have an account?