Assault Rifle Definition Challenges – AR-15s and Why You Can’t Ban Them

An assault rifle is a selective-fire rifle that uses an intermediate cartridge and a detachable magazine. Assault rifles were first used during World War II. Though Western nations were slow to accept the assault rifle concept after World War II, by the end of the 20th century they had become the standard weapon in most of the world's armies, replacing battle rifles and sub-machine guns. Examples include the StG 44, AK-47 and the M4-A1 rifle. -Wikipedia

That is the definition of an assault rifle, according to Wikipedia, in 2016. Here is what it says today: I've highlighted the changes in blue—

An assault rifle is a selective fire rifle that uses an intermediate cartridge and a detachable magazine. Assault rifles were first put into mass production and accepted into widespread service during World War II. The first assault rifle to see major usage was the German StG 44, a development of the earlier Mkb 42. While immediately after World War II, NATO countries were equipped with battle rifles, the development of the M16 rifle during the Vietnam War prompted the adoption of assault rifles by the rest of NATO. By the end of the 20th century, assault rifles had become the standard weapon in most of the world's armies, replacing full-powered rifles and sub-machine guns in most roles. Some of the most successful assault rifles include the AK-47, M16, IMI Galil and Heckler & Koch G36. -Wikipedia

Flip on any news channel and you'll be hard-pressed not to hear the term “assault rifle.” Some people want to ban them (again) and others say there is no such thing.

I say, it's hard to even have a conversation on a topic, when no one can even define what it is they are talking about. I want to clear up how people commonly use the term “assault rifle,” and explain why that banning them is not only wrong, but ineffective and impossible.

The AR-15 Is NOT An Assault Rifle

The recent mass killings have kindled a ground swell of gun reform directed at assault rifles. Much of the rhetoric is being thrown at the AR-15 specifically. This is because the gun control advocates describe the AR-15 as “the weapon of choice” for mass killers. But is that accurate?

We did some research back in 2021 and looked at the guns mass killers used in their crimes. Of 14 mass shootings where the killer used a long gun (rifle or shotgun), the killer chose the AR-15, 10 times.

But out of 30 mass killings we looked at, killers used handgun 16 times, and AR-15s specifically, only 10 times. You can see all the data on the guns used by mass killers, and the (in)effectiveness of background checks here.

Now I'm not saying killers don't kill people with AR-15s. That would be a lie. My point is if we hope to have a worth-while conversation about banning “assault rifles,” we need to use actual data and agreed upon definitions.

But the firearms used in the two most recent shootings, the ones at the center of the re-ignited assault weapon ban debate, are not even assault rifles by the commonly understood definition!

That’s right. There are several major differences between the AR-15 and an assault rifle.

You may have heard someone say, “It’s right there in the name! AR stands for assault rifle!”

But it does not. The AR actually stands for Armalite rifle and 15 is the model number. Armalite being the company that created the AR-15.

News media and politicians are the best at spreading disinformation about guns. Either out of ignorance or on purpose, the motive is irrelevant.

So let's dispel the rumors and rhetoric, and look at the facts of AR-15s and assault rifles, so that we can see where the differences lie.

What Is the Difference Between the “AR-15 Platform” and Military Assault Rifles


The AR-15 is the civilian equivalent of the U.S. Army’s standard issue M4-A1 and both use the same 5.56mm rounds of ammunition, and look very similar to one another. That can sound a little dangerous to the average person on the street. Some people get nervous, then they hear the words “military weapon” and they see a gun that looks like the firearm used by the U.S. Army.

But what they don't realize is that while the AR-15 might look like the M4-A1, but they are not the same. If they were, people would just sell M4-A1’s.

No, there are several differences between the AR and the M4.

The major one, and the one that gets all the press, is precisely what disqualifies the AR-15 from being a military grade assault rifle.

The AR does not have the automatic firing capabilities of the three rifles mentioned in the assault rifle definition at the top of the page.

The AR-15 is semi-automatic, because that is what a U.S. citizen can buy legally, without the proper paperwork. According to an article Rational Basis Analysis of “Assault Weapon” Prohibition by David B. Kopel, written for the Journal of Contemporary Law:

In other words, assault rifles are battlefield rifles which can fire automatically. Many civilians have purchased semi-automatic-only rifles that look like military assault rifles. These civilian rifles are, unlike actual assault rifles, incapable of automatic fire.

That is the major factor when looking at the difference between these two rifles. An assault rifle being a fully automated fire capable firearm vs. weapons like the AR-15, that while, by appearances, look like they could fire fully automatic, can not.

However, if you’re like me and want to do some fun reading about the schematics and really get into the nitty gritty of comparing the two firearms, has a wonderful analysis showing the differences right here.

Then Can We Just Ban All Semi-Automatic Rifles Like the AR?

Understanding the difference between fully automatic guns and semi-automatic guns, you can more fully appreciate the challenge in trying to pass legislation to ban the AR-15 or similar rifles.

Okay, let's ask this question… “Can we ban all semi-automatic rifles, like the AR-15?”

You can't do that either… unless you suggest we should ban nearly every popular hunting rifle and shotgun.

Furthermore, most handguns sold today, and a large majority of shotguns and other rifles also have semi-automatic firing systems. This makes it impossible to go down that road. Here is a clear illustration of the point:


assault rifles and semiauto rifles

Now that is fine, and hopefully you have some material to look and see for yourself what makes up an assault rifle, at least on a historical standpoint.

However, understanding definitions and how a firearm works will not put the debate to rest.

With the subject of defining assault rifles, much debate rages, and has done so since 1994 when the federal ban on assault rifles was first brought to congress.

What is the 1994 Assault Rifle Ban

Photo courtesy of The New York Times

Photo courtesy of The New York Times

In 1994, Congress passed a law at the federal level called the Assault Rifle Ban of 1994.

The law outlawed a variety of guns, including rifles and “high-capacity” magazines. It had a 10 year provision and if there was not enough support to renew it, it would expire in 2004. When the government looked at the effect of the law, there was no evidence to show that it had any effect at all on stopping crime, so it ended.

Here is how the law defined its prohibitions:

The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act was a part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Its rules for defining what an “assault weapon” was were as follows.

Semi-automatic rifles able to accept detachable magazines and two or more of the following:

  • Folding or telescoping stock
  • Pistol grip
  • Bayonet mount
  • Flash suppressor, or threaded barrel designed to accommodate one
  • Grenade launcher mount

Semi-automatic pistols with detachable magazines and two or more of the following:

  • Magazine that attaches outside the pistol grip
  • Threaded barrel to attach barrel extender, flash suppressor, handgrip, or suppressor
  • Barrel shroud safety feature that prevents burns to the operator
  • Unloaded weight of 50 oz (1.4 kg) or more
  • A semi-automatic version of a fully automatic firearm.

Semi-automatic shotguns with two or more of the following:

  • Folding or telescoping stock
  • Pistol grip
  • Detachable magazine

Now that language appears to be straightforward, however, the definition is based primarily on attachments or modifications to the rifle.

If there was a manufacturer at the time whose weapons did not adhere to these restrictions, what would you do? Close up shop? No. Of course not. You would adhere to the new laws and alter productions, and that is just what happens with newer models of the AR-15.

Look at the chart that I posted earlier from and see these modifications on an M4-A1, but not on an AR.

So the manufacturers listened to the demands of congress, followed the law, and made AR-15s that did not violate the new law.

Guess what happened? All shootings stopped. No, of course they didn't, because those cosmetic modifications didn't affect the function of the gun or stop people from carrying out evil deeds. So shootings continued and instead of acknowledging this, and looking at ways to improve people's lives, they deflected and found a scapegoat.

They stuck the blame on the firearm companies.

Over time, the public realized that it made little sense, and didn't help public safety, to ban a gun just because you could adjust the butt stock. It became clear that “assault weapon” bans were completely arbitrary and ineffective. So the plan shifted, and they needed a new term, “military style.” At one point President Obama even called into question all “military styled” weapons, without giving a definition of what he meant.

Consider that the Columbine High School shooting happened during the 10 year assault weapons ban. The perpetrators used rifles that met the legal standard within the law. Despite being limited to 10 round magazines and certain makes of rifles being illegal; these students carried out their evil plot.

So What Are We To Do?

Every time someone brings up a new amendment to the definition of an assault rifle, the debate essentially starts from scratch. Beyond the dictionary definition or even that which I posted at the beginning of this article, assault weapon is nothing more than a set of words.

It has become painfully obvious that, even with a ban on specific firearms or specific modifications, these tragedies continue to occur. Maybe that’s because banning a single class of weapon isn’t an adequate solution to the problem of “gun violence” in this country.

And considering the very AR-15 that is, at many times, the center of this assault weapons debate, isn’t even the type of firearm congress is attempting to ban by their own definition of “assault rifle.”

So what do we do? Some want to keep the focus on the gun, gun manufacturers and gun owners who've done nothing wrong. They want universal background checks, more red flag laws, mental health screenings, restrictions on ammunition and the number of guns someone can purchase. Some even have called for the actual repeal of the Second Amendment. Recently, 3 Democratic members of congress proposed amending Title 18 to give the Federal Government complete power to regulate the individual's right to purchase any firearm, not just “weapons of war” whatever that means.

None of this worked in the past, and won't work.

If we really wanted to understand the problem, we would try to understand what causes a person to murder groups of humans. We would try and do what we could to see why these killers, mostly men are so evil, angry and violent. They don't become violent just because they have a gun. They are violent with or without a gun. People drive cars into crowds and kill old ladies and grandmothers during a Christmas parade if they don't have a gun.

The question shouldn't be over which gun laws killers will follow. The real question should look at the reasons people seem to commit more and more acts of evil towards one another. Maybe it's because we don't want to acknowledge that men can do horrific things to others, and it's quite difficult to predict who, when, or understand why.

That very well may be a debate to come, but it apparently isn’t the one people are having today.

We would encourage you to be a voice of reason. Share this article with others when you hear them talk about “military style weapons” that have no place in the hands of citizens.

*We updated this post which originally published back in August 20016*

About Jacob Paulsen

Jacob S. Paulsen is the President of provides in-person and online firearm training for American gun owners. The Company is currently teaching in-person classes in 25+ states with a team of more than 55 instructors. Jacob is a NRA certified instructor & Range Safety Officer, USCCA certified instructor and training counselor, Utah BCI instructor, Affiliate instructor for Next Level Training, Graduate and certified instructor for The Law of Self Defense, and a Glock and Sig Sauer Certified Armorer. He resides in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado with his wife and children.


  1. RONALD REED on August 26, 2016 at 3:05 pm


    • Skip Plummer on August 26, 2016 at 8:53 pm

      The people who need to read this… won’t. They are much too busy making noise about dreamed up problems that don’t exist.

      • Allen Benge on August 27, 2016 at 3:51 am

        Right, Skip. Loony liberal logic holds sway among the ignorant and apathetic. They don’t know and don’t care. Their attitude is: My mind is made up, don’t try to confuse me with facts. Keep the faith

        • Jack Bynum on August 27, 2016 at 10:58 am

          Allen, I take exception with your use of the word “ignorant” which implies that the subject of your accusation has the ability to learn.
          Liberals are not “ignorant”.
          They are STUPID.

      • Jackie on October 3, 2017 at 6:59 pm

        Hello, liberal here. Skip, I’m reading this precisely because I believe it’s impossible to have a debate without understanding 1) the subject of the debate (can’t legislate about guns if you don’t know a semi-automatic from an automatic or that a “silencer”/suppressor doesn’t make a gunshot silent) and 2) the thinking of those on the other side.

        Not all liberals even have the same positions on gun control, in the same way that not all conservatives are identical. I know that some of the policies put forward by the left may be misguided and may not actually solve the problem. Others might. What matters is that the discussion is being had at all. Maybe if both sides worked together to figure out how we can reduce the frequency of these events (whether it be better background checks, stricter rules on who can own which guns, or a non-gun-related policy looking at increased security / mental health) we could actually make some progress.

        Allen & Jack: we’re all Americans regardless of what our political leanings are. If you dismiss every argument and person from the left as “loony,” “stupid,” or “ignorant,” you cast complex issues as black and white as if there is only one right answer and your side always has it. That’s objectively false. Until people on both sides stop insulting each other long enough to realize that both sides have good and bad points, make logical mistakes, ignore inconvenient facts, or fall victim to confirmation bias, we’re going to continue running in place as a nation while everyone moves past us.

        Maybe try to understand where we’re coming from every once in a while.

        • NTB, a female gun owner on October 28, 2019 at 9:48 pm

          Thanks Jackie, for your interest in investigating both sides of the issue, and for promoting diplomatic interaction. You are the type of person that many of us on the gun rights side want to participate in these exchanges.
          I have decided to discuss gun issues with my own circle of family and friends, mostly one-on-one, because such interaction is generally more thoughtful, factual and respectful between people who already know something about each other.
          When either side just talks to people who share their views, and when they dismiss and demean the opposition, no one makes any progress.

          • Lisa Lister on December 28, 2021 at 6:10 am

            THANK YOU.! I am one who considers myself liberal bit but and who had always thought the same thing about the ar15 (that the “a-r” stood for assault rifle and that it was therefore just that) but because I follow an empirical method of gaining information and believe in following the facts-wherever they may lead- I wondered if my understanding could use some fine tuning. Those who do not read information that they fear will dispel their preconceived notions often experience cognitive dissonance. I do not. That’s why I came here- and I learned a bit. “Armalite.” …huh. and they do not have automatic capability. Okay. I’ll remember that and will continue to seek truth wherever it lies (pardon the pun!) I commend you on your eloquence and truly appreciate your attitude and higher level of understanding. . The world needs more of that! Thank you and peace be with you😁

        • Drew on April 3, 2021 at 8:45 pm

          Besides being a Lawful Gun Owner, I wonder when/if the debate ever gets to “Root Cause Analysis”

          If you cut your thumb slicing a Tomato is is ALWAYS the Knife?
          What if it’s lack of training or lack of concentration on the task as hand or the wrong tool for the job?

          Where is the study that PROVES it’s the Gun that causes the inappropriate actions?

          What happens if these folks are “Acting Out” because of the lack of Job Opportunity? Or Lack of Freedom? Or the Lack of a functioning family for support? What if these jobs head overseas because of some EPA mandate or labor ruling?

          If you are a business leader, you don’t have the luxury of blaming someone else for your failings. You get it done on time and on budget, which includes all the Safety Rqmts and HR issues. Oh but they do try to drag their competition down to their level, but that doesn’t work either.

          Lastly there is NEVER going to be any “Common Sense” legislation that will be EFFECTIVE, when there is NO UNIFORMITY across the country. How many recently passed a background check, most probably would NOT have if all the LE’s & Courts were Diligently following the same standard.

          Sorry, but government agencies have to clean up their own house with the laws on the books and look at the policies that are driving folks to the brink of turmoil.

  2. FRED BOVIA on August 26, 2016 at 3:13 pm


  3. Red Wolf on August 26, 2016 at 3:18 pm

    One might think that perhaps , all students should be permitted to carry a weapon so they can protect them selves and fellow students who choose not to be armed . Our country is being turned into something far worse than a combat zone of one side being sent into combat with no weapons .The democraps, if given the chance will become our rulers instead of public servants . America Wake Up !! LOOK OUT !!

    • Drew on April 3, 2021 at 8:53 pm

      And to that end, there is a page in the NRA Training which discusses the “Rights and RESPONSIBILITIES of Gun Ownership” that needs to be an important element of whatever training is required for these young adults to “Carry.”|

      Not to say all, but when YOU CHOOSE to carry, your behavior and awareness MUST be at a different level than just strolling across campus with your nose buried in your cell phone or at some Frat/Sorority Party.


      When you choose to carry, you MUST also choose to change/monitor your bahavior.

  4. Rich Ladd on August 26, 2016 at 3:58 pm

    Not to bring discredit to an otherwise well thought out and written explanation of what an assault rifle is, and I know this will bring confusion back into the mix for many reading this, it is NOT illegal to own an assault rifle capable of fully automatic operation. It is illegal in many states, but in many other states, (including my state of Wisconsin), if you can legally purchase a firearm, and you file the proper paperwork and pay the fees required, you can legally possess a fully automatic weapon. Hopefully this commentary doesn’t create cacophony of argumentative responses, but it is the truth and needs to be considered.

    • Jacob Paulsen on August 26, 2016 at 4:01 pm

      Rich, thanks for adding that. We didn’t think a full dive into the NFA would help in the objective of this article. Fully auto weapons are illegal unless registered and taxed per the NFA; but as you said that isn’t a difficult or complicated process depending on your locality.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!!

    • George on March 14, 2018 at 12:37 pm

      The fact that a Class 111 license issued by ATF is the only way to legally own an assault weapon is why most folks will not go thru the paperwork, scrutiny, cost and/or the cost of the weapon which is triple what a fully loaded AR 15.

  5. Last Gunfighter on August 26, 2016 at 4:56 pm

    I would like to have seen the rest of the story. Full auto or select fire weapons can be legally owned by anyone who can survive a government background check and history probe and can afford the cost of the item. Even low signature devices, silencers, are legal to own if you want to pay to have them. The problem I have with both of these items is the invasion of my home possibility that comes with both. License for either of these includes allowing ATF to inspect the safe storage at will. My trigger finger is plenty limber.

  6. Jacob Paulsen on August 26, 2016 at 5:02 pm

    For those who have commented and want to know more about NFA controlled (Class 3 / Title II) we have this Gun Trust program / book:

  7. g boyd on August 26, 2016 at 6:29 pm

    I personally would like to see what is in the “small arms treaty” that Obama initiated and is still on the books to be ratified by the Senate. This treaty will be “active” at any time after it is ratified and there is NO turning back, the next president Can Not take it off the books.

  8. Rick Kummer on August 26, 2016 at 6:29 pm

    Playing devil’s advocate here. Consider posting argument to address these issues; aside from crime & self defense, the REAL reason we own guns is to protect us from the govt. itself. Sounds “terroristic”. You can shoot a semi as fast as you can pull the trigger. Pretty fast, so why even stipulate the difference? Why ammo restrictions? You can load 10 & you are legal but load 11 & Oh my God, you’re a criminal! We needsuccints arguing points to address these issues!

  9. Last Gunfighter on August 26, 2016 at 8:06 pm

    This is a good source for information on what the states allow.

  10. Last Gunfighter on August 26, 2016 at 8:13 pm

    Jacob, If your going to the state fair, lookup Oak Mountain Concessions. Soft serve ice cream and frozen bananas dipped in chocolate mmmm good. Tell Neil his brother Stan said hi.

    • Jacob Paulsen on August 26, 2016 at 8:31 pm

      Will do!

  11. Rabbi on August 27, 2016 at 9:01 am

    “Every handgun sold today and a large majority of shotguns and other rifles are also semi-automatic.”

    Really? Sort of ruins an otherwise well-written article.

    • Jacob Paulsen on August 27, 2016 at 9:06 am

      Rabbi, let me clarify my intent. While we generally refer to revolvers as being a different type of handgun than semi automatics; based purely on the the definition of semi-automatic (referring to the firing of 1 round per trigger press) all double action revolvers are semi-automatic handguns. In the context of this article, if a law were to ban firearms that fire 1 round per trigger press, double action revolvers would be included.

  12. Rabbi on August 27, 2016 at 9:26 am

    “Many” or “most” works. “Every” doesn’t. Simple as that.

    “Correction” works. “Clarify” doesn’t.

    • Jacob Paulsen on August 27, 2016 at 9:34 am

      Rabbi, fair points and thank you for helping us make our content better. I’ve edited the sentence in the article to “Most handguns sold today and a large majority of shotguns and other rifles also have semi-automatic firing systems” which I think addresses both issues.

      • Rodger Young on August 2, 2019 at 8:03 pm

        How do you get DA revolvers are semiautomatic? Automatic refers to feeding and firing, semi (half) automatic is feeding. Revolvers are fed (cartridge loaded into chamber) manually. By your “one round per trigger press” definition every non automatic firearm is semiautomatic. Are you seriously proposing calling black powder muzzle loaders semiautomatic?

        • Jacob Paulsen on August 3, 2019 at 11:31 am

          Rodger, I understand that revolvers are not semi-automatic by any accurate definition. However, gun control proposals that have been written don’t use the definition as you and I understand it. They generally just want to regulate and/or ban firearms that are capable of firing once per trigger press. By that definition, any double-action revolver would also be included even if it doesn’t meet the actual definition of semi-automatic. This article is not meant to be a debate over what does and doesn’t meet what definition. It is meant to specifically address the challenges in defining things when passing laws. Past laws that have attempted to ban “assault rifles” have come in a number of different formats attempting to change the definitions from what the gun industry would normally use. “Assault Rifle” is a perfect definition of the twisting of a term. I am only suggesting that “semi-automatic” could be the next term we all see twisted.

  13. William Rowe on August 27, 2016 at 3:37 pm

    We haven’t begun to even approach support for the original intent of the 2nd Amendment:
    When it was written if you were a soldier you had a musket. If you were a legally armed citizen, you had — that’s right — a musket. Therefore you seemingly had the ability to enforce an organized militia to defeat any army that would have supported tyranny invoked by any government body. Now, look at what we have today: An incredible stockpile of fully automatic weaponry, hand grenades, rocket launchers, automatic fire grenade launchers, M1-A2 Army tanks, Armored personell carriers, A10 Thunderbolt attack craft with devastating 30MM gattling guns, etc. And the list goes on and on. My point is this: The laws
    now in place have left our abilities to thwart treason and tyranny so far behind that our citizenry — even if it could work up enought gumption to attempt it — wouldn’t stand the chance of a snowball in hell of even surviving such a clash. What I mean is: Our federal govenment has already castrated the citizenry’s ability to defend itself against tyranny. All we have left is the VOTE. Don’t vote for Killary Clinton if you don’t want to experience this citizen bloodbath of monstrous proportions !!!!!!!!!!

    • Derek Zumbro on August 27, 2016 at 4:33 pm

      If you’ve ever been to a civil war (and I’ve been to several), you will know that all of that “arsenal” gets looted, divided, split and dispersed between the various factions before the sounds of the first shot fired reaches the horizon (Libya is a good example, as is Lebanon). Even during our own Civil War (or best termed, the “War Between the States”), one of the first actions taken was to confiscate and take control of the federal arsenals throughout the South (no Civil War battle was lost by the South due to lack of armaments, only a portion of which came through the blockade). The armed forces usually (especially in the U.S.A.) consist of elements with close ties to the various disaffected groups, and if called out of their barracks/bases, they quickly disappear after refusing to fire upon their kinsmen. Knowing this, a large percentage of the armed forces are kept “out” of the conflict by the central government until the dust settles (if it ever settles at all). All that aside, I certainly agree with your stance on defeating the Hildebeast.

  14. Chuck on August 28, 2016 at 7:19 am

    THANK YOU for the time and effort you put into this. It is as clear as we need, although I might have added one extra photo of an AR laying next to a Mini 14 or something similar since it seems to be the black composite stock that flips everyone’s switch. Show them both and ask them to outlaw one. I love people’s answers.

    Of course, in this day and age, and especially the digital age, we are fighting a battle of information. People take sides, whether it’s left or right, black or white, any issue at all, and then seek out answers they already have. They only read information that supports their current position.

    If you are a Liberal, you have the ability to read nothing but liberal literature, which has become more and more specialized and now only presents one side of an issue. A liberal can read nothing but Liberal views and base every bit of information on the tired cliches thrown out by those rags. If they never read a view from the opposite side of an issue how can they have the knowledge and information to make a completely educated decision?

    It has become much too easy for each of us to live inside a bubble created by the wealth of specialized and targeted info on theInternet and on the shelf. It is our duty to seek out or at least entertain opposing views now. We must listen to each other as rational, logical arguments are presented.

    Instead, we live in a time governed by “That’s what I think and I don’t care what you believe”. That’s the most dangerous weapon on the face of the earth.

  15. CaptainKip on August 29, 2016 at 7:35 am

    Chuck… you are so right. It used to be that if you and I had differing opinions we could agree to disagree.

    Now if you have a differing opinion than mine, not only are you wrong; you’re dangerous; you’re a moron; I hate you; and you need to be removed from the equation.

    Somehow that needs to change before we can ever make progress to putting the pieces back together.

  16. Jeff on August 26, 2019 at 3:45 pm

    I’m confused. The article is all about how an AR15 is not an assault weapon and yet you quote the US Code, that shows they are assault weapons.

    Also, the link to chart isn’t functioning so I can’t see what it shows. You wrote, “You can take a look at the chart that I posted earlier from and see that these can be modified on an M4-A1, but not on an AR.” What are you referring to? What can be modofied on an M4 that can’t be on an AR-15?

    • Jacob Paulsen on August 26, 2019 at 3:56 pm

      The US Code was law. Not anymore. Regardless its a matter of semantics I guess as the gun industry doesn’t consider a semi-automatic rifle to be an assault rifle. Note the definitions shared above from Wikipedia and the quote from Dave Kopel. Both are at odds with the overly complex and limited definition that was part of the now-expired US law.

      Fixed the link that was broken. The reference is to attachments. The AR-15 is a modular weapon system and certainly, the M4 is also modular in many respects. However, the M4 is select fire rifle and is thus controled as a class 3 item under the NFA. The AR-15 however may or may not meet the definition of the now-expired federal ban depending on what attachments you add to it.

  17. Bob on October 28, 2019 at 9:11 am

    Just to clarify the point about “select fire” an “assault rifle “ has a selector switch that permits not only full automatic fire, but also semiautomatic fire or a 3 round burst. The AR-15 does not have the selector switch, and therefore can only fire 1 round per trigger pull.

  18. William on March 14, 2020 at 10:55 pm

    Is the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle an “assault” weapon?
    Ref: article by Jacob Paulsen dated August 23, 2016

    Well, I thought I understood what disqualified the AR-15 as an assault weapon, but now I’m confused like Jeff (see Reply dated August 26, 2019 at 3:45pm). According to the article, “An assault rifle is a selective-fire rifle….” As another writer said in his reply, selective-fire means the rifle is capable of automatic fire. This was the pre-1994 law, and is the current law today since the assault weapons ban law no longer applies because of its sunset provision.

    However, further down in the article, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 included certain semi-automatic rifles in its definition of assault weapon. Specifically, semi-automatic rifles able to accept detachable magazines and two or more of the following:
    * Folding or telescoping stock
    * Pistol grip
    * Bayonet mount
    * Flash suppressor, or threaded barrel designed to accommodate one
    * Grenade launcher mount
    were considered to be assault weapons.

    So, if the owner added a bayonet mount to the AR-15 (assuming it could be done), it would now qualify as an assault weapon under the 1994 law (since it now had a detachable magazine, pistol grip, and bayonet mount). Alternatively, the owner could simply add a threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor (regardless of whether a flash suppressor was added or not), and, again, the AR-15 would qualify as an assault rifle under the 1994 law.

    However, since the 1994 law expired, the AR-15 is not [currently] an assault weapon nor could it ever be without the 1994 law being re-enacted. The fact that it is not capable of automatic fire is irrelevant under the 1994 law.

    As an aside, I am pro 2nd Amendment and think I should be able to own an AR-15. However, after some thought I concluded that I didn’t need yet another weapon that would require cleaning.

    • Jacob Paulsen on March 19, 2020 at 7:14 pm

      William, not sure if I understood your question. It sounds like you proved my point however. The term isn’t really definable and that is ultimately what I am trying to communicate in this article. The differing definitions by different groups make it impossible to come to any conclusion.

  19. Lester POTEET on October 3, 2020 at 1:53 pm


  20. Wiliam Teague on May 29, 2022 at 3:46 pm

    Who are you kidding ? We need to get Military and anything similar out of the hands of citizens. Don’t sell anything that resembles a military weapon to the public. There is not
    any reasonable justification for a citizen to have a military or anything similar to one.
    Just because all mass killings haven’t been with Military or similar weapons isn’t an excuse for Citizens to have access to them. How many people and children would still be alive if fast firing military type weapons were not available. We also need background research on anyone that wants to buy or get a gun in anyway. Come on let us start using common reasonable sense. Any gun is made for one thing only and that is to kill with. Other things are secondary, sport, hunting whatever. We have a real problem with the wrong people getting any gun.
    I am and have been for a very long time a life member of the NRA.
    William Teague

  21. Joe McKinley on July 5, 2022 at 7:25 pm

    The AR-15: What You Should Know.

    How is the AR-15 different from most hunting and sports rifles as well as a hand gun? There has been a lot of confusion and misinformation about this, so let’s first start with some facts about guns, bullets and what they can really do to you.

    First: The most important thing to consider in assessing the damage caused by any projectile (like a bullet) is velocity. Low velocity bullets only damage the tissue they directly penetrate. For a low velocity (hand gun) shot to kill a person, it usually has to pierce a major artery or the heart. Most people who are alive when they arrive in ER with such a wound would go home in under two weeks even if they needed surgery.

    A high velocity bullet (usually from a high power rifle such as the AR-15) damages tissue in three ways: direct penetration, shock wave damage to distant tissue and a brief, several centimeter wide, cavitary lesion that opens around the path of the bullet. This causes wide spread damage to organs and other tissue several centimeters in all directions from the path of the bullet. If a person is hit with a high velocity bullet anywhere in the head, neck or torso, he usually dies. If he lives, he’s almost guaranteed months of recovery in the ICU, usually on a ventilator, and then years of rehabilitation after (if he’s lucky

    The AR-15 has a muzzle velocity of 975 meters/second- almost three times the speed of sound. That means that each bullet fired from an AR-15 has an extremely high kill potential.

    One of the main differences between the AR-15 and other high power guns is recoil (kick). Because it fires a small caliber (.223) bullet, the AR-15 delivers a very small (4-5 kick with each shot.
    Guns like the AR-15 also generate a lot less heat per bullet fired (again because of the small caliber). These two factors (weak kick and less heat per bullet) greatly increase the number of bullets that can be safely and easily fired in under a minute. All of these factors together make the AR-15 a gun that was brilliantly designed to do exactly what it was intended to do: Kill large numbers of people in a small amount of time. A teenager with very little training can easily fire 20-30 extremely lethal shots in under a minute with an AR-15 equipped with a high capacity magazine.

    It’s no surprise that with every “significant” crazed mass shooting in this country we find that the AR-15 was the weapon of choice. So the question is, do we really need such a weapon in the market? Wouldn’t it be wise to control the availability of such a weapon?

    I think we can all have our guns while recognizing there are legitimate reasons not to have access to military grade technology that when in the wrong hands does more harm than good.

    • Randall Knotts on March 29, 2023 at 6:57 am

      Joe excellent well thought out note. I believe it’s the bullet and not the gun that does the damage.
      After viewing a some ballistic tests results from AR15 vs 9 mm, its scary what the AR15 type bullet can do to a persons body, especially the body of a 9 year old child.
      If only we could get some common sense into the owning of guns. Other countries don’t have this runaway problem why do we, I have children and grand children, I love them more than I love my guns.

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