Part 3: ASSAULT RIFLES & BATTLE RIFLES
(The endangered species)
So you have heard about how “Assault Weapons” are now soon to be controlled, banned, licensed, regulated or otherwise made more difficult to acquire or own – whichever the new Obamunist Congress is able to achieve. Should you get one?
First, understand that as much as the gun-haters would like to merely ban guns or certain kinds of guns, the law stands in their way. Not for long, if they can help it,…as they certainly seek to modify the law to allow them to ban guns. But they haven’t even been able to banish machineguns from civilian ownership – only regulated them oppressively – because the 2nd Amendment still has some recognized power. So bear in mind that the federal scheme of machinegun control is the current zenith example of the kind of federal gun control that can be currently gotten away with. That means if you buy an AK-47 today, and tomorrow Congress ads it as a specially recognized firearm under the same rules they use to regulate machineguns,…then as described in Part 1 of this series, the supply has been capped, prices for existing supplies begin to climb, and you have 2 things: 1.) a useful weapon of great utility, and 2.) an investment that has out-performed the stock market even in the best of times and especially in bad times.
But monetary value aside, should you get one? Which should you buy? Let us look to understand from a performance point of view what assault rifles do (and don’t do) as compared to other guns. In this way, I hope you may come to understand what utility in some undesirable future event or era an “assault weapon” might have for the unique individual that is you, and your circumstances.
Entire libraries have been written about what I hope to sum here in a few pages. The study of arms can be quite complicated and involve a lot of reading. While this article might seem long, I endeavor here be brief and leave out a lot of extra stuff that might cloud the issue for those new to military guns.
Wars are of course the laboratories in which the science and art of battle is refined and advanced. In WW1, the first widespread use of machineguns (the heavy, entrenched and firmly mounted kind) exhibited the effect of voluminous “suppressive fire”; the practice of not necessarily taking careful aim with intent to kill, but simply massing such a withering fusillade of incoming bullets upon the opponent that they seek protection and are not focused on countering with return fire. Even better,…perhaps they flee. Certainly some are wounded. But on the occasions when such an affect was had upon the enemy, the rather immobile nature of these new high-volume guns made it difficult to capitalize on the gain. By the time a heavy crew-served belt-fed machinegun was dismounted, loaded for transport by cart, mule or men, a new defensive hole dug in which to emplace it and the crew, mounted, reloaded and made ready,…well by that time the opposing force had collected their composure, perhaps even returned to their previously abandoned positions. Perhaps even before you and your machinegun crew were safely in your new advanced position. That could not only be disastrous, but was at the very least a frustrating tactical problem.
As in most wars, those who best learn the lessons taught by it are usually those who suffered defeat. And thusly Germany re-evaluated everything about land warfare. Toward the end of WW1, more mobile and portable belt-fed machineguns had begun to be fielded, with great effect on the battle. In the 30’s, German arms engineers fielded a generational evolution of the lighter and faster belt-fed weapon, called the MG-34 (maschinen gewer or machinegun of 1934), and later, its wartime refinement, the MG-42. (As testament to German engineering, nearly unmodified variants of the MG-42 are still currently issued in most European armies today, over 60 years later.)
Germany (as had the rest of the world, actually) had also become infatuated with the sub-machinegun. Although less powerful and with less ammunition capacity than the heavier belt-fed weapons, these were able to be fired and fielded by a single soldier. At the short ranges involved in overrunning or “assaulting” an enemy position, they were very handy and a force multiplier, not only in their actual depositing of rounds toward the enemy, but the panic and destructive effect on morale of the enemy. These two new refinements of the soldiers’ weapons defined major reorganization of the order of battle for how Germany was to fight later wars.
America too, had re-evaluated its weaponry after the war, and decided some new advanced infantry firearms were needed. In the role of a portable suppressive fire weapon, the U.S. Army adopted at the end of WW1 (though not in time to see action in the field) the Browning Automatic Rifle (or BAR).
It was decided that the greatest limitation to reducing the suppressive fire weapon to a portable size was the feed by means of a continuous belt. The BAR merely used box magazines (feed devices in which rounds were inserted and held under spring pressure) of 20 rounds each, which could be rapidly changed out when empty This reduced the weight to where it could be fielded by a single soldier. So while they were more mobile, the trade-off was that they could not pour out the same volume of fire. When it final did see action against the Germans in WW2, the Germans appreciated how it could be effectively more rapidly mobile than even their beloved belt-feds, which still required at least one gunner’s assistant to haul all the ammo. Yet, more was to come. At the same time the Germans were adopting the MG-34, the U.S. Army was adopting the first widely issued self-loading repeating rifle, the M-1 Garand, which historians regard as a landmark development in the history of warfare.
Until that time, the great majority of infantry rifles held only 5 rounds internally and required manual manipulation of the mechanism to ready another round to fire. To do this, the shooter often lost sight of his target as he fumbled to eject the spent case and load a new one, and while this could take but only a second, every second counts when the enemy is coming over the barricades at you with fixed bayonets. The new M-1 rifle, however, held 8 rounds (an increase of 60%) and could put those rounds downrange as fast as you could pull the trigger. And typical of American military doctrine of the day, it was an accurate rifle too. When the Germans began to face this rifle in battle, they came away very impressed. Perhaps they needed something like this?
Another U.S. rifle (a smaller one) impressed the Germans too. This one was called the M-1 Carbine. Not to be confused, it was a totally separate design from the Garand. It used an odd little cartridge that was not quite the short-range type found in pistols and sub-machineguns, nor was it the powerful long-reaching sizzlers fired in most rifles. Instead it was neither, and can be called the first ever “intermediate cartridge”.
It held 15 rounds in a detachable box magazine, although later in the war a 30 round magazine (or “mag”) was devised. Decidedly lighter and easier to lug around while pursuing the enemy (or running for your life), the U.S. actually manufactured and fielded slightly more of the M-1 Carbine than they did their “main service rifle”, the M-1 Garand. While initial versions only fired one round for every pull of the trigger, they did however have slightly more effective range than the sub-machineguns (SMGs) that were commonly encountered in German hands. Once the select-fire version of the Carbine (called the M-2) began reaching soldiers, along with the new 30 round magazines, the German soldier with his SMG was usually at a disadvantage .
And so it was that the Germans developed a hybrid between the type of weapon seen in the M-1/M-2 Carbine, the traditional rifle, the machinegun and the sub-machinegun. It was the first ever true “assault rifle”, and was known as both the Stg-44 (sturmgewer or storm rifle of 1944) or the MP-44 (maschinen pistol of 1944). Lack of materials and need for speedy and cheap manufacture dictated that it be made primarily of sheet metal pressings wherever possible that were welded or riveted together, giving it a rather crude and utilitarian look. It used 30 round detachable mags, was select-fire, featured a pistol grip like those usually found on SMGs, was lighter than something like the BAR, yet held more rounds and could still provide effective fire out to common distances at which modern mobile combat more usually occurred. And it fired a new type of “intermediate cartridge”. This cartridge was effective out to 300 meters, (previously, rifles were effective out to 600 meters and beyond, while sub-machineguns were effective only out to about 100 meters), but weighed less and kicked less than full power rifle ammo. A soldier could carry more ammo with him, and was not as fatigued from firing or carrying his rifle. In a pinch, it could fill the role of nearly all these different types of weapons from which it drew inspiration,…although it could do none of them particularly well. Jack of all trades, master of none.
After WW2, everyone, including America and the allies, were eager to finally get their hands on German engineering data and the engineers themselves in order to study and learn what they could about how they were able to design such “wonder weapons”. As well, tactics used in the war were evaluated in the aftermath and were the grist for the idea mills of military academies and war colleges. A consensus began to emerge that had the Germans come up with and fielded the Stg-44 earlier in the war, they would have been more effective in battle, and allied casualties would have been terribly worse. Beginning in the 50’s, armies around the world began programs to develop their own new rifles based on lessons learned from the Stg-44.
But in peacetime, armies proceed more bureaucratically, and there was great bias against abandoning the longer effective range capability of the more traditional full power rifle cartridges. So most new rifles of the post-war age were not true assault rifles, but another hybrid currently known as “battle rifles”. A good example of this is the U.S. M-14, adopted in 1957, which was essentially the same reliable and proven (and dearly loved by many GIs) M-1 Garand from WW2, but modified to now take detachable mags of 20 rounds and a flash suppressor added to the muzzle.
Although it had a new shorter cartridge, it was a near duplicate in power and performance of that previously used in the Garand. Under new laws proposed by gun-haters, the M-14 is simply lumped in with all other “assault rifles” because it has a high ammo capacity and the muzzle-flash is reduced somewhat by the flash-suppressor. Yet the previous design, the M-1 Garand, is not classified as one of these deadly and lethal weapons that threaten society. This is why many people who can’t own a semi-auto version of the M-14 in their state because it is an “assault weapon” under their laws, acquire an M-1 Garand instead.
However, the Russians were at that time taking a different approach, and copying the principles exhibited in the Stg-44 rather faithfully. A young tank commander wounded during the war named Michail Kalashnikov, while he was laid up in hospital in 1943 recovering, began sketching mechanical ideas for gun designs to pass the time. He came up with the base idea for a weapon, which when later refined by observations of battle similar to what the Germans had experienced, developed independently of the Stg-44 a weapon which shared most of its same salient features, even chambered for a very similar cartridge. This became the world famous Avtomat Kalashnivoka of 1947,…AK-47. Also considered one of the key landmark developments in weaponry, the AK-47 would soon meet the M-14 in battle in Vietnam.
Early in America’s military involvement with Vietnam, Marines and Army soldiers armed with M-14s came into combat with opponents armed with the AK-47. Originally designed for engaging and anticipated to be used against Russian soldiers on the European plains and steppes of the Slavic countries, where its fine accuracy and long range would have been an asset, the M-14 operated reliably in the jungles of Vietnam, but was not ideal. Its length made it sometimes difficult to weave through vegetation and it was needlessly powerful for the close ranges combat usually occurred in that environment. By comparison, the AK-47 was much shorter and easier to wield, its cartridge did not cause it to kick so badly when fired, yet was adequately powerful for nearly all distances it was employed. It had a 30 round reservoir in the magazine, while the M-14 had 20, and the ammo itself weighed less, so a soldier could take more into battle for the same weight as his opponent. And most uniquely at that time,…the AK-47 was purposely made to lesser tolerances of fit than most other weapons of the day. In the particular way this was done, the effect was that while the AK-47 was not capable of the same accuracy as the M-14 or other rifles, grit, dirt and other debris from the jungle or other environs was not as likely to cause the mechanism to jam as in nearly all other designs. As a result, the AK-47 required little maintenance, and could withstand more abuse. This was very important to the peasant army of the VietCong, many of whom were illiterate farmers and country folk without a great deal of logistical support. It was also cheap to make compared to the craftsmanship and machining processes that went into making an M-14. For the cost of a single M-14, the Russians and Chinese could supply four AK-47s to the VietCong.
Even before the early lessons learned in Vietnam began to drive the points home, U.S. military arms engineers began to understand some of the M-14’s limitations. They began to appreciate that a new weapon could be designed to fire an intermediate cartridge that was still effective out to distances at which combat usually did not exceed, yet reduced the soldier’s load and increased the logistical supply train’s ability to supply in greater numbers. The new rifle could be made of newer modern materials and be significantly lighter. It could be select-fire, and effective as a close-range suppressive-fire weapon. But U.S. military doctrine, as it always had, emphasized and stressed marksmanship, so accuracy must not be sacrificed. The resulting weapon, initially introduced by the Air Force in 1962, was the M-16. Making extensive use of alloys instead of steel and plastics instead of wood, it has been both loved and hated and remains controversial. This weapon has gone through many PIPs (product-improvement-programs) to fix deficiencies that later became apparent, but still serves with us today in the U.S. Current versions are called the M-16A2 (full-size) and the M-4 Carbine (shorter version). In the commercial civilian market domestically, it is called the AR-15 (full-size) or CAR-15 (compact model). Some companies market their CAR-15 copy as the M-4 to associate it with the current military version of the same name, which many have nick-named “M-forgeries”.
The Art Of The Assault Rifle
Other developments have occurred with military rifles in the 80’s, 90’s and today. Bullpups (incredibly short rifles with the mechanisms set far to the rear) have become more common and reduced the size of rifles even more. They currently serve with Britain, France, Australia, China and other armies. They are using more plastic and less steel as science progresses and materials improve. Western countries have tended to place emphasis on ergonomics and a rifle that will handle easily, while former communist countries have kept reliability as their pinnacle goal, and often sacrificed ergonomics to achieve it. Also, ammunition development has progressed. All this has come together to make the market from which to select an “assault rifle” for your tastes a very rich one indeed.
As an individual American, if you ever are forced to employ your rifle in actual defense of yourself, community or loved ones,…unlike a soldier, you will likely not have back-up. Perhaps you may at most have friends or family engaged in a common effort with you. Such as many New Orlineans who banded together against looters and thugs after Hurricane Katrina, perhaps. Or such as the Korean shopkeepers who used their guns to repel similar predators during the L.A. riots of 1992. But there will not be any helicopter responding to your radio call to pull you out of the jungle. (And even if they did, as residents of New Orleans found out the hard way, armed people were NOT taken aboard!) If you live along the southwestern U.S. border region, you know encounters with people involved with the drug supply importation efforts into the U.S. are becoming more frequent. Some of these encounters involve multiple gunmen, with some of them carrying “assault weapons” themselves. Just as on the frontier of the Old West, the sixgun was the great equalizer,…in today’s world, it is the assault rifle.
The common choices
There are 3 main choices for the consumer in assault rifles on the American market. They are chambered (primarily) in 3 calibers pictured here.
(From left to right; 7.62x39, 5.45x39 and 5.56NATO – aka .223)
They are, in order of their successful adoption by civilian shooters:
The single most successful assault rifle in the world, as measured by production numbers, is clearly the AK-47. Over 50 million (some say 60 million) have been produced. This is due to 3 main reasons: 1.) they cost less to produce (and buy) than almost any other weapon of its type, 2.) is so simple, children can use them (and do), and 3.) with even a modicum of preventative maintenance they always go bang in the most severe of conditions. That just cannot always be said about other designs. Before the election panic that sent prices up, you could walk into a gun store and buy a civilian version of the AK-47 for $400-450, plus tax. Compare that to the civilian version of the M-14, which was selling for about $1200 or more. However, in the current panic, if you find an AK variant for $650, you are doing quite well. Ammunition magazines used to be $10 just a few month ago, but now are $25, if you can find them. While some will (rightly) criticize the AK47 for not being capable of fine accuracy, or being less than optimum to manipulate deftly, you just can’t go wrong in owning a Kalashnikov. Even those who prefer the better and more expensive assault rifles and battle rifles usually own at least one AK-47, if for no other reason than as a back-up or secondary rifle. Perhaps as one to supply to a relative or compatriot in times of crisis. Even if you don’t believe an AK-47 would be the optimum choice for you, consider it anyway, due to their cheap expense in comparison to other choices. The Vietnam-era AK-47 fires the original 7.62x39 caliber, while the later variant, the AK-74, fires the smaller and faster 5.45x39.
Known rather widely as “America’s Assault Rifle”, the AR-15 (civilian version of the M-16) has been nearly or equally as popular a seller in America as the AK-47. Partly this is due to the fact that it has been available here since the early 70’s, while the AK only became available in the early 80’s, and not affordable until about 1985. Originally designed by Armalite division of the aircraft manufacturing firm Fairchild, the AR-15 (which originally stood for Armalite Rifle #15) is constructed in a very modular fashion, in no small part due to the experience of its designers and fabricators in the aircraft industry. Thusly, unlike most other rifles, the base M-16/AR-15 series of rifles can have various styles and versions of parts pulled and replaced rather easily without the need of a depot-level specially trained armorer or gunsmith. If you have a full-length AR-15, but wish to have a shorter one, simply pull 2 pins that secure the upper section to the lower section (these are called receivers), replace with one of a shorter dimension, and suddenly you have a different version of the rifle. Likewise, with just a few specialty tools, the rear stock can be changed to a multi-position collapsible model, the barrel can be dismounted from the upper receiver and different ones installed. All manner of grips, scopes, handguards and other options have been designed over the years,…to the point where very few AR-15s in civilian hands look exactly the same, even though they are essentially all the same base gun.
Additionally, although the intermediate 5.56 NATO cartridge (also known as the .223 commercially) is not a very abusive round to shoot and has mild and controllable “kick”, more than any other assault rifle design, the AR-15 tames what little recoil there is. Ladies and men of small stature prefer the design for this reason. Even kids can manage it without much fuss. Partly this is due to the recoil buffer assembly in the rear stock, but is also due to the how the barrel is inline with the shoulder rather than above it like in many other rifles.
But the lower receiver, which bears the mandated serial number and is considered by federal law the actual firearm in and of itself, is the real attraction for owners since the early 90’s. That is because it is cheaper to acquire only the lower receiver up front. Federal excise tax on firearms is 15%. Instead of paying 15% of a $800 or $1000 purchase on top of everything else, buying an AR-15 receiver for (in 1993 dollars) only $70 was also a great reduction in tax paid out. Later, buyers would order the remaining parts necessary to assemble a working rifle, which are themselves unregulated. If you buy just the lower receiver, you also still have the “gun” as far as law is concerned. Many people in the throws of the uncertain years for gun-owners that were the 90’s invested first in several lower receivers, reducing the necessary initial investment and allowing them to have more “guns” in hand should they be “grandfathered” as the last of their kind allowed to be sold. Later they were completed into functioning guns.
In fact, as the 1994 Assault Weapon Ban was structured, if a version of a weapon no longer approved for new manufacture and sale was to merely have the offending characteristics of an “assault weapon” eliminated to but a single one, such a weapon was then legal to sell. Inventive and creative people devised versions of the AR-15 series that did just that. But the lower receiver of these new models that were legal to sell were absolutely unchanged. Thus it was still possible (though illegal) to buy a “sporter” AR-15 receiver, assemble the evil “pre-ban” parts kit on it and have your new assault rifle, despite the intent of the law to eliminate the supply. For those who feared that this was perhaps the only truly useful war weapons would ever again be available to them at prices they could afford, this was a godsend. Today, people who have been paying attention to this issue know the gun-haters were very upset and frustrated that this loophole existed and that they were unable to fix it. (Some states, like Commiefornia, were more thorough and were able to ban all such variants.) Such people also know that if/when the next assault weapon ban comes, our enemies will not make the same mistake. Accordingly, people are buying AR-15 lower receivers like mad, and they have gone up in price and are difficult to find. Even so, they are still much cheaper than investing in a complete and functioning AK-47. Prior to the election, lower receivers went for about $115-140 depending on the make and other factors. They soon skyrocketed to $250, and that price is likely no longer to be had, with some of the higher end ones commanding over $300 even before the inauguration. But many kits to complete an AR-15 rifle (if you have the lower receiver) remain at normal prices. Costs can vary widely depending on the accessories and accoutrements that you might choose as part of your package, but $650 is about the going rate for a standard kit in the standard caliber from a reputable supplier. So you can still complete a rifle for under $1000,…for now. Another neat feature of AR-15 lower receivers is that other manufacturers have devised entirely new designs of different weapons that use the AR-15 receiver as their base. Consequently, one can order these other weapon sub-assemblies direct to their door without regulation because without the lower receiver, such assemblies are not considered actual guns. One such series of weapons we’ll cover in another article is .50 caliber rifles.
One of the unique rifles that has escaped a lot of the assault rifle legislation of the 90’s and might still do so yet is the Ruger Mini-14. Essentially a scaled-down version of the military M-14, Ruger has always sold it in a more traditional “sporter” form, without the offending characteristics that make up the list of items federal law has so far said define what an assault rifle is. It has the capability of accepting high-capacity magazines, but is sold with a 5-round hunting or sporter mag, has a regular wooden stock of conventional design, no pistol grip, no flash-suppressor or facility for mounting a bayonet. Yet, beginning in the late 70’s when it was introduced and before the AK-47 was available in this country, various suppliers developed accessories to convert the Mini-14 into an assault rifle configuration. The Mini-14 was the most affordable such rifle at the time, selling for about 3/5 of what an AR-15 cost. It fired the same .223 (aka 5.56NATO) ammo as the AR-15. When the 94 AWB came, the Mini-14 was not on the list, nor did it make the list in California or the other states that passed even further reaching versions. Depending on how the next legislation is crafted, it might similarly survive untouched. An interesting option with the Mini-14 is that some were and are made in stainless steel, which is unusual and has not been done with any other combat rifle of that type. Used rifles are still around for as little as $400, while new models in stainless steel go for about $650 at retail. A variant that fires the Russian 7.62x39 caliber is also made, known as the Mini-30, but is not as popular.
I consider this rifle to be an exotic choice for the American shooter for a number of reasons, so I thought of excluding it from this text, yet it is unique in that it represents one of the few examples of the “bullpup” style of assault rifle that is even available. There are 2 different types of this design for sale in the U.S. and they are not all genuine Steyr products. A recently developed copy produced in this country to satisfy the demand for the no longer imported Steyr is called the STG-556, produced by Microtech Small Arms Research (MSAR). Aside from being so short, the AUG and its copies also sport an optical sight instead of the common “iron sights” most other rifles use as standard. Bullpups are known for having poor triggers, and trigger pull can affect accuracy. Still, its compactness solves issues such as entering and exiting vehicles and clearing homes, buildings and other confined spaces, and makes up for other features that may not be as well executed as in other guns. Being of NATO country origin, it fires the same 5.56 NATO round as the M-16/AR-15 series and the Mini-14. Expect to pay at least $2000 for one of the U.S. produced copies and over $3000 for a genuine Steyr imported from Austria. Due to it not being as common, yet highly prized by those who own them, prices on these may go incredibly high. Yet, due to that scarcity, over the coming decades, spare parts and accessories and magazines for it may become harder to find than for other rifles, ultimately adding to the cost.
There have been many other assault rifles over the years, both imported and domestically produced. The Belgian FNC, the Korean Daewoo K-1, the original Bushmaster and the Bushmaster M-17 bullpup, the HAC-7, the HK-93, the Leader Dynamics AR-5, the SIG AMT, the FN P-90, the Beretta AR-70, the FN 2000, the SIG 556, the SIG Stg82 to name a few. All of them are good weapons, and all might be excellent investments from a monetary point of view. But from a utilitarian end-user point of view, due to the fact that they never dominated in the American market, they are potential liabilities as weapons to rely on in an uncertain future because magazines, spare parts and even simple service and user manuals could become difficult to obtain. For a few of them like the HAC-7 and Leader Dynamics AR-5, that is already the case.
Battle Rifles – (the assault rifle’s big brother)
All the rifles in this category fire the more powerful 7.62NATO round, also known as the .308 in commercial form. It is the big one in the picture below.
There are 4 primary candidates for consideration in the battle rifle category. We shall go in order of those most widely used throughout the world.
Just as the AK-47 is the most successful assault rifle in history, the most successful big assault rifle or “battle rifle” has been the Belgian FAL (fusile automatique legionnaire or automatic soldier rifle) from Fabrique Nationale. Though more AK-47s were produced and was provided to revolutionaries everywhere, the FAL was adopted by more nations around the world than any other modern weapon, and due to its extensive use by NATO member nations has earned the nick-name “the free world’s right arm”. Adopters at one time or another included Belgium, Britain, Israel, Germany, Canada, Cuba, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, India, South Africa, Peru and many others. Surplus parts and magazines are plentiful as a result. While perhaps the heaviest of the 4 battle rifles covered here, it is one of the most resilient, and individual examples lasted several decades of hard service. In recent years, as the design has been dropped by many armies who chose newer lighter intermediate cartridge assault weapons as their main infantry arm (which they had not done previously because the FAL was so rugged and lasted so long), surplus FAL parts have been cheaply available on the international market. Some gun builders a few years ago began assembling complete rifles from a mixture of new and used parts, which sold for very reasonable prices. One of these could be bought new just last year for about $500. Currently, although they have not climbed as high as other rifles, they can still be found for under $1000. Sometimes even under $900. Like anything else, the better variants cost more than that. Among the different variants are the ones made from rifles of the former British Commonwealth (Canada, Australia, England and India). Slightly different, these are known by their British designation as the L1A1. As a curious note, magazines for the FAL will fit and function in the L1A1, but mags for the L1A1 will not fit or function in the FAL.
Known by many different designations, this rifle was known to American shooters since the 70’s as the HK-91, but to most nations as the G-3. The Spanish design from which these all originated is known as the CETME. Some of the engineers at CETME in the 50’s were German engineers who had fled when Germany fell to the allies. Some of these had been involved in the Stg-44 program. Upon arriving in Spain as refugees, the main marketable knowledge they had was from their experience in manufacturing the Stg-44. In the mid 50’s they set about to manufacture a better version of the basic Stg-44 outline, and the CETME was the result. Germany, who had initially adopted the FAL (which they called the G-1), later found the CETME promising, tweaked the design further and came up with the G-3, which is essentially the rifle available to us today as civilians marketed under various monikers such as the HK-91, PTR-91, SAR-3 and even just plain old G-3. Made like the Stg-44 from extensive use of metal pressings and welds where possible, the G-3 is one of the lightest battle rifles. That, and due to its unique method of mechanical operation (while reliable) is also one of the hardest kicking in its class. Only the AK-47 has a greater reputation for always working under adverse conditions. For this reason, and its reduced cost to produce compared to others in its class, this was the 2nd most widely adopted rifle in the free world during the Cold War. Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Portugal, Iran, Pakistan, Mexico and others have issued it.
Unfortunately, not all American gunsmiths possess the same knowledge to fabricate these successfully as they do designs like the FAL, and there have been some poorly assembled versions of these hit the market in the last 5 years. Anything made by Heckler & Koch (HK) can be counted on, and can also be counted on to command a premium price. The Springfield Armory SAR-3s and the PTR-91s are also well made and you can have confidence in them. But run away from anything made by FAC. Some Century International guns are just fine, while others are not. You may be able to find an example made by Century or FAC currently for as little as $500, but I’d spend more and look for a PTR-91 for about $1100. You’ll be glad you did.
The U.S. M14, which was only the official U.S. main service rifle from 1957 to 1963, in that short time developed a fanatical following akin to a cult, which is itself merely an extension of the cult following the M-1 Garand fostered and which resulted in the M-14. There are people who will swear on a stack of bibles that dumping the M-14 for the M-16 was the worst mistake the Army ever made and a crime. No one besides the U.S. (with the limited exception of the Philipines) ever adopted it. It has found new life in the U.S. military since the 1st Iraq invasion 18 years ago due to the superiority battle rifles like it have over shorter range assault rifles in wide open areas like the desert. The few old remaining stockpiles of the gun that were not given away to U.S. allies in the cold war during the 70’s like the Philipines have been pulled out of mothballs and refurbished for use as Designated Marksman rifles in the big sand box. Every platoon has at least one. Special forces units (most notably the Navy SEALs) have made sure they have a good supply of them since the nature of many of their missions is working deep inside Indian country where back-up may be very far away. When they want to hit something so goes down and stays down, SEALs bring along the M-14.
First introduced for civilian sale by Springfield Armory (not to be confused with the actual U.S. military’s Springfield Armory where Garands were manufactured) in the mid 70’s as the M-1A, this rifle is one of the most accurate of the designs covered here. It has been a favorite of shooting match competitors since it has been available. Springfield is the top recognized brand. Other manufacturers have made good copies, as have others made not so good copies. They have included Federal Ordnance, Smith Enterprises, LRB Arms, Enterprise Arms and even the Chinese firm Norinco. (Interestingly, the Chinese originally tooled up to produce it in order to supply them to communist rebel forces in the Philipines.) The ones made by Federal Ordnance are the most suspect, yet most of them are just fine. Enterprise Arms simply made and sold the receivers, which were later assembled into working rifles by the customer or their gunsmith, so quality may vary. The Chinese copies, while not exhibiting the same craftsmanship, have nonetheless proven to be acceptable guns, and are often the cheapest in price one can find. The M-14 cult shuns them, but they work fine. Smith Enterprises and LRB each spend extra time and attention to detail with their rifles, so they command a premium price. Before the Chinese Norinco rifles were cut off from importation in 1994, they were available for only $500, while Springfield Armory models were $850. Today, though they are harder to find, a Norinco M-14 sells for about $850-950, while a Springfield model runs about $1350 and up. The various sniper and competition models run as much as $3500. Part of the reason M-14 prices are so high is that ever since America began to reintroduce the M-14 for service in 1991, the only supply for spare parts has been the commercial civilian manufacturers such as Springfield Armory and Smith Enterprises. The demand for these parts since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq has caused shortages of those same parts in commercial production for domestic civilian sales. Chinese rifles imported from 1989 to 1994, and domestically produced rifles made from 1994 to 2004 were originally sold either without the flash suppressor or with a dummy one that did not serve that function. Most have been replaced with real ones, but you might find a deal on one that has not yet been “restored”.
The AR-10 was actually Armalite’s predecessor to the AR-15, which evolved directly from it. The AR-10 was so “space-age” and futuristic in look, materials, fabrication techniques and design that it actually caused the design to be viewed with prejudice and bias when it was competing against the M-14 and FAL to be the new service rifle to replace the M-1 Garand in 1957. Many other military establishments viewed it the same way, and was only ever adopted in (limited numbers) by Portugal and Angola. The world just wasn’t ready for the AR-10. But after the several decades success of its little brother, the M-16/AR-15 series, various specialty users of battle rifles began to wish the AR-10 hadn’t gone away. Some enterprising American gun makers began to make their own new versions, and the rifle has found new life. In fact, while both the Army and the Navy SEALs have been clinging to their old M-14s, and will still do so for some time, they have both begun to augment and/or replace them with an excellent AR-10 type rifle made by Knight’s Armament Corp. called the SR-25, which for the next several decades is scheduled to fill the Sniper and Designated Marksman roles. Many SWAT teams around the U.S. are using AR-10s in these same “Precision Rifle” roles.
Why the sudden new-found love for the “old” AR-10? For many of the same reasons shooters have been attracted to the AR-15. The alloys and plastics make it light weight. It’s special recoil buffering system and low center-to-bore axis reduce felt recoil over other guns of the same caliber. With the new style of “free-floating tube” handguards, AR-10s produce some of the most amazing accuracy ever seen from an autoloading design, comparable to some of those expensive match-grade M-14 rifles, but for less cost and with less tinkering around with the thing. That last feature has really sold the Army and Navy on the SR-25s they are now fielding, but there is another;…due to the inherent similarity of the M-16 and the SR-25, the need for specialized training between the two types of weapon are considerably less. They even use some of the same parts! It takes less time to train a soldier or police officer already familiar with the AR-15/M-16 series on an AR-10 type rifle than to do so with something entirely different and new. The same is true for civilian shooters. And those who can afford both an assault rifle and a battle rifle are increasingly choosing to have the related pairing of an AR-15 and an AR-10. (And I’m one of them.)
Since they were all developed independently from another, the various current rifles patterned after the original AR-10 are rarely compatible with each other. Though outwardly they look similar, parts do not interchange between the brands, with the usual exception of the trigger components, which are usually all also compatible with the AR-15 series. Knights Armament designed their SR-25 to use the original magazines used in the Portugese and Angolan rifles. DPMS decided the original mag design was best as well, so they use them too. But that’s where the interchangability ends. The SR-25 is the best of them all, but it costs the most too, at about $2500. And good luck even finding one, because their production is currently going toward meeting their contractual obligations with the military. The Bushmaster AR-10s just recently went out of production about 5 months before the election. They were also very good and used cheap and affordable FAL mags, but their prices were higher than that of the DPMS and Armalite designs and they were not selling competitively. They were selling for about $1500 before production ceased, and might be merely the same price now or just a little more. Shortly after Knight’s Armament began producing SR-25s back in 1993, Eagle Arms (a manufacturer of AR-15s) bought the rights to the old Armalite name and started producing their own AR-10 years before Bushmaster and DPMS started doing so. They built them for considerably less than the Knight’s Armament SR-25, so Armalite AR-10s have dominated until recently, and sell for anywhere from $1300 and above depending on the variant. They use modified M-14 mags, and because of the short supply of M-14 mags (because of the war effort), Armalite AR-10 mags are expensive and hard to come by. But when DPMS began offering their AR-10 in 2001, it was the most inexpensive version yet. While mags for the DPMS and SR-25 version have been expensive in the past, they have come down, and are now cheaper than the ones used in the Armalite models. DPMS AR-10s before the election were available from only $975, and currently are running about $1150 or more, depending on the model.
Honorable mention: The Beretta BM-59
When he U.S. adopted the M-14, Italy thought it was a spiffy rifle and wanted it too. After all, they too were then using surplus M-1 Garands supplied to them by the U.S. after the war. The respected gun makers at Beretta were even supplied with surplus war-time manufacturing tooling from Winchester so as to build more and repair the ones already in supply. But with the country still in recovery from the war and the exchange rate between the dollar and the lira not very favorable, the cost of purchasing M-14s from the U.S. was simply too great to allow it. But the engineers at Beretta found they could use their expertise recently gained in manufacturing their own M-1 Garands to come up with a program of modifying their existing rifles into a configuration similar to that of the M-14. Doing so would cost considerably less than buying M-14s from the U.S., and that is exactly what they did. Called the Beretta Modelo de 1959 (BM-59), it was a great success and the design served into the late 70’s. When these rifles and their parts were surplused out on the international market, they were bought up by the company Springfield Armory that sold domestic versions of the M-14 and M-1 Garand. They didn’t sell as well as the M-14, but not due to lack of quality or sound design. Surplus parts for these rifles are still available, and even today some shooters take an old worn out M-1 Garand and convert them over to a BM-59 for less than the cost of a Springfield Armory M-1A. However, the fly in the ointment is the very expensive magazines. Uncommon and hard to find, they tend to sell for $75 to $85 each, compared to only $40 or so for the M-14 type. You might succeed in finding a BM-59 for less than an M-14 type rifle, but by the time you purchase a good supply of mags, you may actually have spent more.
Pistol Caliber Carbines (the red-headed step-children)
Although they are classified under U.S. law as “rifles”, this odd class of “assault weapons” are bastardized modifications of sub-machineguns. The utility of the SMG on the battlefield is very limited and almost non-existent. Such guns are primarily today used by police and counter-terrorist forces. Usually, because sub-sonic ammo can be used in conjunction with a silencer/suppressor to make for a very quiet weapon, if but a short-range one limited in its effectiveness. But American recreation shooters have always found them to be fun, and initially, they were cheap, too. As originally designed for use in combat, they all had very short barrels, but a shoulder stock as well. Under American law, such a weapon, if it was semi-auto only, would still fall under heavy federal regulation as a Short-Barreled Rifle (SBR), so models for sale to the general public were fitted with 16-inch barrels (the minimum length allowable under U.S. law). In this longer configuration, they lose their principle asset, which is ease of portability and handling. In the opinion of the author, they are nearly worthless as an actual tool for defensive use. But we would be failing our duty to the reader if we did not cover them, so here they are, in order of their popularity with American civilian shooters;….
First introduced as a 9mm sub-machinegun variant of the M-16 in the mid-80’s, it was intended to compete for gov’t contracts against the reigning SMG champion in police and military sales, the HK MP-5. Its main benefits were cost savings over its competition and standardization of training for forces that also used the M-16 series of rifles. Colt offered their civilian legal “carbine” version to Americans beginning in 1985. For many of the same reasons covered in this article about the M-16/AR-15 series of rifles, the CAR-9 has had a smaller but dedicated following. Current examples, made by about 4 different companies, cost about the same as the 5.56mm caliber rifles from which they descend. And just as with the rifle caliber models, the 9mm CAR-9 can be constructed upon a universal lower receiver. Depending on the kit you buy to build your CAR-9, you may need to drill some additional holes in the lower receiver before you begin assembling the CAR-9. This is due to a slight variance between kit sellers as to how they modify the lower receiver to accept the smaller ammunition magazines.
This gun is the iconic profile of “The Roaring 20’s”, and it has a great deal of romance associated with it. Known in slang by news journalists past as “The Chicago Typewriter”, or by GI’s as the “Chopper”, the Thompson is pretty popular even today. Throwing big .45 caliber slugs, it is one of the more deadly in this class. But as an all steel “1st generation” design from just after WW1 (by Col. Thompson), it is a heavy pig. While that weight makes lugging it around for more than a short distance a pain in the butt, it also takes what little kick there is out of the low-power ammo. Examples of the WW2 variant, the M-1, can be found for just under $1000, while the 1927 (pictured here next to its shorter twin, the 1928 model) runs a couple hundred dollars more. If you want to have the big round drum magazine so often associated with this gun, you’ll have to get the 1927 model, as the WW2 redesigned M-1 did not and cannot use them.
Another gun recognized even by many non-shooters, the Israeli-designed Uzi is ugly but functional. It has been produced throughout the world, and imported copies of it you may find in the U.S. include both genuine Israeli models and Chinese knock-offs. Domestically produced examples, using imported South African parts and U.S. made receivers were sold until just this year by Vector. Group Industries, was another former producer in the U.S. The Chinese Uzis are the most affordable, but they function perfectly well. They have a cruder fit and finish, but the entire gun is a rather utilitarian profile, so that is nit-picking. Receivers made by Group Industries that were never completed into full guns have been selling for the last 8 years to do-it-yourself hobbyist amateur gunsmiths to be assembled into working guns. Fortunately, due to the excellent engineering of the design, it has been hard to screw these up, so almost any Uzi you ever find will be good to go. But look over the Group Industries models carefully to see if they exhibit any poor welds or fitting. (If you wish to just buy an unfinished receiver to build into a working gun, they are currently running about $200,…up from $60 just 6 months ago.) Current prices for the Chinese copies start at around $750, while early import Israeli A-models sell for $1100 or more. Parts kits to assemble on an uncompleted Group Industries receiver sell for about $500.
During the 10 years of the 1994 Assault Weapon Ban, various makers tried ingenious ways to skirt the specific language of the ban. One which did so most successfully was Kel-Tec. While collapsible or folding stocks were forbidden, a folding gun was not. The SU2000 has a barrel which is hinged on the receiver. When activated for stowage, the barrel flips up and over the top of the rear portion of the carbine. It makes for a very portable and discretely hidden weapon. As a result, it was a wildly successful seller, and still is. It uses readily available 9mm Glock pistol magazines. Since this design escaped the previous ban, some feel it will also escape the next one. But others believe that this unique loophole in the previous legislation will be plugged next time around. Currently, this is one of the most affordable 9mm carbines, selling for about $500 new, and about $400 used.
In Part 4 of this series, we shall cover handguns, and how to consider which one(s) might be best for you.