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“Automatic rifle” is a term generally used to describe a self-loading rifle capable of firing either semi- or fully automatically from a magazine or belt of ammunition.

In many cases, it describes a rifle capable of self-loading and firing a single round for each pull of the trigger (i.e. firing semi-automatically). However, it is also used to describe non-intermediate firearms capable of fully automatic fire (a type of automatic firearm). Depending on the expert and point in history, automatic carbines and assault rifles are sometimes considered to be a type of automatic rifle, and at other times separated on their own categories.

As an example of the confusion, or at least differences that arise in term usage, there are books which feature a section for automatic rifles listing several semi-automatic self-loading rifles, but not a single fully automatic weapon. On the other hand, soldiers of the United States Army carrying the M249 SAW are designated automatic riflemen, and the weapon itself an automatic rifle – even though it is a fully automatic firearm, normally classified as a squad automatic weapon (SAW) or light machine gun.

One possible way to distinguish between an “assault rifle” and an “automatic rifle” is by looking at the safety. If the first fire mode of the weapon is fully automatic, then it is an assault rifle. If the first fire mode is semi-automatic, then it can be considered an automatic rifle. This is however only a rough guide, since many weapons have a burst fire mode today.

Assault Rifle

The Changing Face of Infantry Combat
From ancient times, light infantry had fought in dispersed formations, while heavy infantry had fought in tightly packed formations. This continued as the sling and spear were replaced by musket and bayonet. Bright colored uniforms (German: Blue, Russian: Green; British: Red, French: White) became a standard for unit cohesion in the midst of clouds of black powder smoke. Muskets were inaccurate at distances greater than 50 to 100 meters, and multiple ranks and a reserve were necessary so that some part of the unit would be ready to fire at all times. Tight formations also aided officers in controlling their men during combat.

The adaptation of rifled muskets for military use in the mid-19th century increased range and firepower and made battle from dense formations an increasingly bloody affair as witnessed by the high level of casualties in the American Civil War. Skirmisher tactics were given greater emphasis as gunpowder weapons increased in reliability, accuracy, and rate of fire. Cavalry adapted by dismounting, and using skirmisher tactics with breechloading rifles (which could be reloaded from a prone position, reducing vulnerability to enemy fire).

After the American Civil War magazine-fed rifles, rapid fire machine guns and high explosive shells for the artillery, spelled the end of the dense infantry formation. This meant that infantry units could no longer engage in either long or short range open field battle and that different tactics to prevent the needless wastage of men. Military leaders and arms manufacturers thus began grasping for a new type of weapon for this new era.

1900s-1930s: Pre-Sturmgewehr Light Automatic Rifles
These automatic firearms tended to use used pre-existing rifle cartridges, kinetic energy ranged between 3,000-5,000 J (2,200-3,700 foot-pounds), velocities of 750-900 m/s (2,460-2,950 ft/s) and bullets of 9 to 13 g (139-200 grains).

The first assault rifle was the Italian-made Cei-Rigotti, which was developed in the 1890s and finished around 1900. While tested in Italy and the United Kingdom, it never entered military service, however. The first service assault rifle was the Russian Fedorov Avtomat issued for the first time in 1915, chambered for the Japanese Arisaka 6.5 x 50 mm rifle cartridge, which was only used in small numbers.

During World War I the French Chauchat was introduced, an automatic rifle that was produced in large numbers (250,000). Like the later assault rifle it was capable of both single and automatic fire, and was loaded with a magazine and also featured a pistol grip. Compared to other light machine guns of the time the Chauchat was fairly light at the weight of 9 kg but it was still too cumbersome for closer quarters and had recoil that was too heavy to control when firing fully automatic due to the powerful 30-06 cartridge.