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Bullet Hoses

Semiautomatic Assault Weapons—What Are They? What's So Bad About Them?

The Gun Industry's Lies

The gun industry—aided by its apologists in the gun lobby, the NRA, and the gun press—has tried to divert attention from the inevitable consequences of its cynical marketing of these killing machines, and thwart regulation. This has been done by inventing what can only be fairly described as a series of lies and deceptions about assault weapons and their effects. Some of the more prominent among them are discussed below.

Is "automatic fire" an essential feature of a "real" assault weapon? The answer is, "absolutely not." But that hasn't kept the gun industry from using this line of argument to pretend that civilian assault weapons simply don't exist. The red herring of the automatic fire "issue" was raised by the gun lobby only after civilian assault weapons were widely criticized. This criticism came after mass murderers and drug traffickers began to "hose down" America's streets and schoolyards with civilian assault weapons.

Military assault weapons, like the M-16 shown above, have a "selective fire" switch to change the mode of fire from semiautomatic to automatic (machine gun).

This argument is entirely semantic. By limiting the "definition" of assault weapon to military machine guns, the gun industry and its friends hope to define away the problem. But, fully automatic fire has little to do with the killing power of assault weapons. As the leading pro-assault weapons expert Duncan Long wrote in his 1986 publication, Assault Pistols, Rifles and Submachine Guns:

The next problem arises if you make a semiauto-only model of one of these selective-fire rifles. According to the purists, an assault rifle has to be selective fire. Yet, if you think about it, it's a little hard to accept the idea that firearms with extended magazines, pistol grip stock, etc. cease to be assault rifles by changing a bit of metal.20

Long's point is well taken because, in fact, military and civilian experts agree that semiautomatic fire is actually more—not less—likely to hit the target than is automatic fire, and is thus more deadly.21 In fact, expert Long wrote about the semiautomatic UZI in another book, "One plus of the semiauto version is that it has a greater potential accuracy...."22 In any case, a person of moderate skill can fire a semiautomatic assault weapon at an extremely fast rate of fire.23

And even if automatic fire were more deadly, many semiautomatic assault weapons not only can be converted to automatic fire with home tools and modest skill, but readily available books and videos walk the would-be converter through the process.

Easily obtained videos and books like these show how to convert semiautomatic assault rifles to fully automatic machine guns (even though semiautomatic fire is more accurate).

Do assault weapons really encourage "spray firing"? Gun industry apologists also disparage the use of such terms as "spray firing" and "shooting from the hip" to describe the deadly capabilities of assault weapons. But, as was explained earlier, "spray and pray" was exactly the point of developing assault weapons. And the following illustrations show graphically how specific assault weapons features allow a "point-and-shoot" grip and help control recoil so the shooter can "hose down" a wide area with a lethal "spray" of bullets.

"Pray and Spray" Hip-Firing

Deliberate, aimed fire from the shoulder may be more accurate than the kind of "pray and spray" hip-firing illustrated on the prior page. But the mass murderers, criminal gangs, drug traffickers, and other violent criminals who are drawn to assault weapons are not after marksmanship medals. They want to kill or maim as many people as possible in as short a time as possible—the exact job for which the semiautomatic assault weapon was designed.

But what about harmless bayonet mounts? Unfortunately, the 1994 federal assault weapons ban attempted to define assault weapons on the basis of parts usually associated with military weapons, such as grenade launchers, bayonet mounts, and threaded barrels for adding silencers and flash suppressors (to reduce flash from the weapon's muzzle at night). The problem is that these features have virtually nothing to do with the functional design of the assault weapon. As a result, gun manufacturers have simply eliminated these "bells and whistles" from their civilian assault weapon designs, while keeping the lethal design factors—high-capacity magazines and pistol grips—that make assault weapons so deadly. These cosmetic changes meet the letter of the federal law, but accomplish little else.

Don't gun experts say there is no such thing as a civilian "assault gun?" The NRA, the gun industry, the gun press, and other pro-gun "experts" today claim that there is no such thing as a civilian "assault weapon." But before the guns came under fire, these same experts enthusiastically described exactly these civilian versions as "assault rifles," "assault pistols," and "military assault" weapons.

For example, in 1982, Guns & Ammo published a book titled Assault Rifles, advertising "complete data on the best semi-automatics."24 In 1984, Guns & Ammo advertised a similar publication, now titled Assault Firearms (see ad below), "full of the hottest hardware available today....covers the field with...assault rifles from the armies of the world....a new slant on .22s with 'Plinkers in Battle Dress.' And, if you are interested in survival tactics and personal defense, we'll give you a look at the newest civilianized versions of the semi-auto submachine gun."25

In 1988, Guns & Ammo handgun expert Jan Libourel defined an "assault pistol" simply as, "A high-capacity semi-automatic firearm styled like a submachine gun but having a pistol-length barrel and lacking a buttstock."26 This definition handily fit guns like the UZI and Intratec TEC-9 that were regularly advertised on the pages of Guns & Ammo during the 1980s as "assault pistols." A 1989 ad in Guns & Ammo for the Intratec TEC-9 (a precursor to the one used in the 1999 Columbine high school shootings) flatly declared that "the TEC-9 series clearly stands out among high capacity 9mm assault-type pistols."27

Guns & Ammo, the leading gun magazine, regularly called civilian semiautomatic assault weapons "assault firearms," "assault rifles," and "assault pistols" until a series of tragic shootings caused the industry to deny there was such a thing as a civilian assault weapon.

Gun magazines also specifically praised the spray-fire features of civilian assault weapons. For example, a 1989 Guns & Ammo review of the "Partisan Avenger .45 Assault Pistol" (below) noted that when the gun "is fired rapidly from the hip, its swivelling front grip makes for easy and comfortable control of the recoil" and that the "forward pistol grip extension of this powerful assault pistol not only helps point it instinctively at the target but goes a long way to controlling the effects of recoil...."28 Guns & Ammo found hip-shooting "surprisingly easy" with the HK 94 9mm Carbine.29 A 1990 review in the NRA's American Rifleman of the Sites Spectre HC Pistol stated: "A gun like the Spectre is primarily intended for hip-firing...."30 The same magazine's 1993 review of the Steyr Mannlicher SPP Pistol reported: "Where the SPP really shines is in firing from the hip."31 A cottage industry of accessory suppliers also sprang up, all of which targeted ads soliciting owners of civilian "assault weapons."32

The gun industry itself deliberately used the military character of semiautomatic "assault weapons" and the lethality-enhancing utility of their distinctive characteristics as selling points. The German company Heckler & Koch, for example, published ads calling their civilian guns "assault rifles" and stressing their military lineage. "The HK 91 Semi-Automatic Assault Rifle from Heckler & Koch...was derived directly from the G3," a German army weapon, said one full page ad (below).33 Another described the HK 94 Carbine as "a direct offspring of HK's renowned family of MP5 submachine guns."34 An Intratec ad said the company's TEC-9 "clearly stands out among high capacity assault-type pistols."35 Magnum Research advertised that the Galil rifle system to which it had import rights "outperformed every other assault rifle."36

Early gun magazine reviews of assault guns also specifically noted their limited sporting value. For example, the NRA's American Rifleman reviewed the Calico M-100 rifle in 1987 and concluded, "The M-100 is certainly not a competition gun, hardly a hunting gun, and is difficult to visualize as a personal defense gun.37 Similarly, a 1983 Guns & Ammo review of the Heckler & Koch HK 94 rifle reported that "you certainly aren't going to enter any serious, formal matches with it...."38

At the same time, the gun industry has actively promoted the intimidating looks of assault weapons to increase their sales. A 1989 Guns & Ammo review of the A.A. Arms AP9 praised the appeal of the gun's "wicked looks" to teenagers, noting "it is one mean-looking dude, considered cool and Ramboish by the teenage crowd....Take a look at one. And let your teen-age son tag along. Ask him what he thinks."39 (Emphasis in original). Guns & Ammo expert Garry James noted in his review of Colt's 9mm AR-15 rifle that "the intimidation factor of a black, martial-looking carbine pointing in one's direction cannot be underestimated."40 Howard French, of the same magazine, said of the HK 94 9mm Para Carbine that "you would not get much static from an intruder eyeballing its rather lethal appearance."41 C.A. Inc. advertisements for the Mark 45 and Mark 9 "Tommy-Gun" style carbines explicitly made the point that a "show of force can be stopping power worth having"42

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The Violence Policy Center is a national non-profit educational foundation that conducts research on violence in America and works to develop violence-reduction policies and proposals. The Center examines the role of firearms in America, conducts research on firearms violence, and explores new ways to decrease firearm-related death and injury.