Thursday, November 18, 2010

What is the difference between a rifle, SLR, submachine gun, carbine etc.?

A very common question among newbies to firearms history is "What is the difference between a rifle, a sub machine gun, a machine gun, a carbine, SLR, assault rifle etc." This post attempts to point out the differences and name famous weapons of each type.

Rifle: The name "rifle" originally comes from the fact that the barrel of such weapons is "rifled". This means that the barrel has grooves in it to impart spin to the bullet as it comes out of the barrel. This spin helps to stabilize the bullet as it travels through the air and gives it a predictable drift (e.g.) a particular rifle may fire bullets that travel 1-2 cm. to the right every 100 meters on a windless day. This feature allows the user to reasonably predict where a bullet will hit and gives the rifle its accuracy. Earlier firearms, such as muskets, had smooth barrels. Smooth bore weapons were much easier to manufacture than rifles, but lacked in accuracy, as the bullets didn't have stability in the air and deviated in a random direction from the intended target. Therefore, the standard strategy for European armies of that period was to line up men in parallel lines and tell them to all simultaneously open fire at the enemy, because almost no one could reliably hit the enemy that he was actually aiming for. This massed fire strategy worked because some enemy would be hit, even if they weren't the ones that were originally targeted. These days, most modern firearms, even small ones, such as revolvers and pistols, have rifled barrels. Therefore, in modern times, the word "rifle" by itself, implies a firearm that has a rifled barrel, is designed to be fired from the shoulder, is manually fed (i.e. after each shot fired, the user has to manually operate a lever to feed a new cartridge into the weapon) and carries a small number of cartridges internally (say 1 to 5 cartridges). Examples of modern rifles from the early 20th century would be the famous American .30-06 M1903 rifle, the British 0.303 Lee-Enfield, the Mauser M98 etc.

Assault Rifle: In the early part of the 20th century, it was realized by some military forces that most conscripted troops, who were hastily trained in wartime conditions, had less than a 50% chance of hitting a target beyond 300 meters. It was also realized that most infantry encounters occurred at less than 500 meters and rate of firepower was also an important factor in these encounters. It was therefore reasoned that there was no need to give such soldiers a weapon and ammunition capable of hitting targets at 2000+ meter ranges, since most soldiers could not hope to hit a target that far away in the first place. Instead, it was reasoned that it was better to give troops lesser powered (and therefore, smaller and lighter) ammunition to suit the actual ranges that most infantry engagements occurred at and a correspondingly lighter weapon suited to fire this ammunition. With lighter ammunition and weapon, the soldier could carry more ammunition and therefore use a weapon with a higher rate of fire. While the concept was around before World War II, it was the German StG 44 (Sturmgewehr 44) that really popularized the concept. The word Sturmgewehr was coined by Adolf Hitler and literally translates to "Storm Rifle" (the word "storm" being used in the context of "storming a castle" or "assaulting a castle") and the term "assault rifle" is actually a translation of "Sturmgewehr". Even though there were earlier weapons that could be classified as assault rifles, many historians consider the StG 44 as the first to form the concept of modern assault rifles. In these times, an assault rifle is a weapon with the following characteristics:
  • Has a rifled barrel (as in the case of the rifle described in the previous section).
  • Has provision to be fired from the shoulder, just like a rifle.
  • Uses an intermediate powered cartridge. This means that the cartridges are smaller than those used by a regular rifle, but larger than the cartridges used by a pistol. This is one of the key differences between an assault rifle and a regular rifle.
  • Is capable of selective fire modes. This means it allows the user to select between firing different numbers of shots each time the trigger is pulled. In semi automatic mode, the weapon will shoot one bullet each time the trigger is pulled. The weapon automatically chambers the next cartridge to fire, but the user needs to let go of the trigger and pull it again to shoot it. In burst mode, the weapon will fire a preset number of cartridges (say 2 or 3) with each trigger pull. In fully automatic mode, the weapon will continue to keep firing as long as the trigger is pulled and there is ammunition. The ability to switch between various modes of fire is a key feature that distinguishes an assault rifle from other types.
  • Has a detachable magazine. Most modern assault rifle magazines carry 20 to 30 cartridges or so.
Examples of assault rifles include the AK-47 family, the M16 family etc.

SLR: This is an acronym for "Self Loading Rifle". The term "SLR" is usually used in commonwealth countries. This has some common features with the assault rifle described above. Like the assault rifle, this is also a weapon that has a rifled barrel and is designed to be fired from the shoulder. It also uses an intermediate powered cartridge and has a detachable magazine like the assault rifle concept. The one key difference between assault rifles and SLRs is that SLRs have only one firing mode, the "semi-automatic mode". This means that each time the user pulls the trigger, the weapon will fire only one cartridge. It will automatically eject the fired cartridge, load the next cartridge and prepare the weapon to fire, but the user has to let go of the trigger and then pull it again to fire the next cartridge. This is unlike an assault rifle, which has multiple firing modes and allows the user to switch between them. Examples of SLRs would be weapons like the American AR-15 and the Indian Ishapore 1A1 SLR. The AR-15 is a semi-automatic version of the M16 rifle and the 1A1 is a semi-automatic version of the Belgian FN FAL assault rifle.

Carbine: This is a term used for weapons that are versions of rifles or assault rifles, but with a shorter barrel and lighter weight. Carbines are bigger than pistols, but smaller versions of rifles. In the days of the Wild West, mounted riders preferred a shorter and lighter firearm because these were easier to operate than full sized firearms, when riding. In more modern times, people inside moving vehicles or in close quarter jungle combat, preferred shorter weapons for the same reason. Since carbines have shorter barrels, they lack in accuracy compared to full sized rifles or assault rifles. While they use the same cartridge as their full sized cousins, the shorter barrel also means reduced velocity bullets. Many assault rifles also come in a carbine version. For example, the American M4 (a carbine version of the M16 assault rifle), the Israeli Galil SAR (a carbine version of the Galil assault rifle), Steyr AUG carbine ( based on Steyr AUG assault rifle. The carbine form uses a 16 inch barrel, whereas the assault rifle uses a 20 inch barrel) etc.

Submachine Gun: This is a weapon that shares some similarities with assault rifles, but one key difference is that submachine guns are designed to fire pistol cartridges instead of intermediate cartridges. As a result of this, submachine guns are generally lighter and smaller than assault rifles and are about the same dimensions or smaller than carbines. Since they use pistol ammunition, they also have less recoil and therefore can be fired from either the shoulder, the hip, or even holding it like a pistol. The first weapon to use the term "submachine gun" was the famous Tommy Gun that we studied about earlier. This is a fully automatic weapon that fires .45 ACP cartridges, the same cartridge used by the Colt M1911 pistol. Another famous submachine gun from the World War II era is the British Sten gun, which is also a fully automatic weapon. Modern submachine guns such as the Heckler and Koch MP-5 are capable of selecting multiple firing modes. Submachine guns are more preferred for close-range combat in urban environments because, with lower powered pistol cartridges, there is less risk of bullets penetrating through walls and hitting innocents on the other side

Machine Gun: This generally denotes a weapon that is capable of rapid, fully automatic fire and carries a large supply of ammunition. Fully automatic fire means that the weapon will keep firing as long as the trigger is pulled and there is a supply of ammunition available to it. Most machine guns fire either full sized or intermediate sized ammunition, similar to rifles and assault rifles. Machine guns generally carry a large supply of ammunition in ammunition belts, drum magazines or box magazines. This means that they generally have hundreds of cartridges available to them, unlike the 20-30 cartridge magazines used by assault rifles. They are also generally heavier than rifles and assault rifles. Examples of machine guns would be the Gatling Gun, the Gardner Gun, the Bira gun etc. Modern machine guns include the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), the British Bren gun, the American Stoner 63, the Belgian FN Minimi etc.

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