- Politics and Social Issues
Yes, they are Evil Black Rifles
December 15, 2012
Assault Weapon is a murky term. It tends to be a political term. Generally it is meant to mean a weapon with an ability to rapidly put many bullets into humans and/or a weapon with 'military' features. There really is no precise definition or clear way to place weapons in or out of the group. An Assault Rifle has a more specific definition. The one I most commonly see is that it is a selective fire weapon (either fully automatic or burst fire capable), fires an intermediate cartridge and has a detachable magazine. Many military main battle rifles fall into this category (e.g. AK-47, M16). A semi-automatic weapon is one for which you pull the trigger once and it fires one round. Most legally available handguns, rifles, and shotguns fall into this category.
The gun debate is one that seems to be always ongoing, especially of late due to the recent high-profile shootings. One of the most important things that we can do to further that debate is to make sure that we actually have accurate information. Incorrect terminology is one of the problems. Wrongfully classifying (or not classifying) weapons as assault weapons, assault rifles, or semi-automatic weapons is common. Those in the pro-gun community are generally quick to point these mistakes out, as they should, yet at the same time they often make their own incorrect statements—primarily that all semi-automatic weapons are basically equal. They are not. In fact, no weapons are exactly equal. That is why they make so many different models. Each has varying capabilities which lead them to be more or less effective at specific missions. Not acknowledging disparities in weapon capabilities is not being honest and does a great disservice to the ability for us to have a meaningful conversation.
The Porsche and the Pinto
Both vehicles are cars. Both have internal combustion engines which translate power through a transmission to a set of wheels Both, therefore, essentially, operate in the exact same matter. Are they the same? As long as they are sitting still, I suppose we could say that they are, but most people would obviously recognize this to be a rather silly assessment. Cars aren't meant to sit still, and out on the road, or on the racetrack, the Porsche and the Pinto clearly have very different capabilities. And while the Porsche can pretty much do anything the Pinto can do, getting groceries, for example, only one of the two can go 160 mph.
The AR-15 and Uncle Bob's Hunting Rifle
Both are rifles. Both operate in essentially the same way. One pull of the trigger and one bullet comes out. Are they the same? Absolutely not. No more than are a Porsche and a Pinto. Those who try to sell this argument, for whatever reason, always do so with the guns sitting still, but like cars that isn't what they are meant to do. Out in the field, or on the range, these two weapons have vastly different capabilities. A similar argument that goes along with this misinformation is that the AR-15 makes a good hunting weapon. That may be true, but hunting is the more mundane activity, like getting groceries, the AR-15 can hunt, that doesn't mean that Uncle Bob's Rifle can metaphorically go 160mph.
Of course we do not need to talk about metaphorical capabilities. What 160mph means when it comes to weapons is that they tactically perform at a high level. For my purposes I am defining a tactical situation as one in which you are engaged against a peer adversary. A peer adversary is intelligent, has some level of training (perhaps superior training), is equiped with some type of weaponry (again perhaps superior to yours), is going to be mobile, dynamic, potentially unpredictable, may cross through and over a variety of complex terrains, and may be a force which includes multiple elements.
This is a very different situation than an average hunting scenario. Animals are relatively dumb, have no combat training (obviously), and won't be fighting back (in most cases). While they also have some degree of mobility, the goal of hunting, generally, is to fire from a static position at a fixed target. Relative to humans, animals are predictable and are limited in the terrains they can cross and access, and while animal groups may have multiple members, it isn't usually a life-threatening requirement to engage all of them.
Mobility is a critical element of an effective tactical weapon, and includes the ability to move with the weapon (which is based on the weapon's size, shape and weight) and the ability to manipulate the weapon around the body (the ability to quickly bring the weapon to firing position, to switch targets, to change shooting positions, to fire from behind cover, or from both sides of the body, etc.) Tactical weapons are designed and built to maximize these capabilities. Hunting rifles are not, because simply put, these capabilities are generally unnecessary in a hunting scenario. The video above shows weapons being used in a high mobility situation. you will notice the lack of Uncle Bob's hunting rifle.
Of course, hunting and tactical operations both require accuracy, the conditions under which accuracy is needed are different. A hunter, in general, focuses on a single round from a solid shooting position while relaxed. A Tactical operator may be firing from a compromised position, a moving position, or may be very un-relaxed (wounded, or fatigued). They may also require accuracy through many rapid shots at multiple targets. There are many different design elements that can impact accuracy under these conditions. There are also very different sets of optics that can be used depending on the requirements.
The ability to add, customize, and adapt a weapon's accessories is not just an issue of cosmetics. The ability to modify a weapon platform, in general, and especially while actually in a tactical situation allows the rifle user to adapt to a dynamic situation and maximize their effectiveness against their opponent. That doesn't mean there are not some cosmetic additions that rifle owners add for the cool factor, but those who actually understand their accessories and master their weapon know that it is not about cosmetics. Below is a video of some obviously silly accessories. Four flashlights, several lasers, 270 onboard rounds, 23 pounds...
There are entire books written on the different design decisions that go into weapons and the impact they have on the weapon's performance. Ultimately, the only thing that really matters is the ability of a weapon to transfer energy via bullets into the flesh of a target. Key components of a weapon's ability to do this are related to the weapon's recoil and muzzle climb (or drift). Equally important is the trigger. Tactical rifles such as the AR-15 are specifically designed to maximize accurate rapid fire by controlling these factors. Below is a video showing an example of such accurate rapid fire. The VTAC 1-5 drill (explained in detail in the video) puts 15 center mass shots in 3 separate targets. Expert shooters can do it in under 3 seconds.
There are some people out there who aren't interested in an honest debate about weapon capabilities. They might take a look at this video and say that it's no big deal and that they can do the same thing with their .22LR hunting rifle. A similar argument, and equally dishonest one, is that the .223 bullet fired by the AR-15 is almost the exact same diameter as the .22LR bullet and therefore not much different. Both of these arguments are meant to do the same thing: to try to deceive people into believing that the AR-15 is no more dangerous than a .22LR you would let a child hunt with
The truth about the .22 vs .223
It is true that diameter-wise the bullets are very similar, but the diameter alone is only one dimension of the cartridges that 3-dimensionally are very different from each other. Below is an image of the two cartridges next to one another. Keep it in mind and understand that anytime you hear these types of arguments, these are the two different rounds that they want you to believe are essentially the same thing.
There are difference even besides the size. The .22LR is a rimfire cartridge with a rounded tip while the .223 is a centerfire cartridge with a pointed tip. These differences matter. Of course size is the primary difference. While the .223 bullet may be nearly the same diameter as the .22LR, it is longer and heavier (2-3 times heavier than the .22LR), and the larger casing means more powder and more pressure exerted on the bullet.
For a real world comparison, the difference in energy of the two bullets is like the difference between dropping a brick on your foot versus a 40 pound dumbbell.
Energy, however, is not free. The greater energy delivered by the .223 means there is also more recoil and muzzle climb. It is no surprise that a .22LR, with relatively insignificant energy, is able to deliver rapid accurate fire, but a fair comparison between rifles would require comparing the AR-15 to a hunting rifle that delivers comparable energy to the target. If you know of anyone doing speed drills with such a rifle let me know. There probably aren't any because speed is not a high priority for the typical hunting rifle.
The Big Lie
The video below is a perfect example of the deception that all semi-automatic weapons are virtually the same on account of them having the same basic action. All other features of the weapon according to this deception are simply cosmetics. It's especially odd, because the gentleman in the video starts out talking about the importance of accurate information. Especially watch the part (around 6:20) where he makes 'cosmetic' changes to a regular hunting rifle to make it look like a weapon that might get labelled as an 'assault weapon'.
The image below shows the weapon before and after his cosmetic changes, which includes switching the overall housing, adding a folding stock, adding a tripod and a large magazine. The internal working parts are not altered at all.
The problem with his argument is that none of the changes he makes to the weapon are purely cosmetic. Every single modification made changes the tactical capabilities of the weapon. The large magazine provides more rounds to fire. The folding stock can improve mobility. The tripod provides a solid shooting platform for increased accuracy. The housing may or may not make a difference. If lighter, it might also improve mobility. Even the black color isn't just cosmetic. It reflects less light and makes the weapon's profile less easy to discern.
It is tremendously important that people understand how deceptive this argument is. It is like a guy taking a Pinto, adding a turbocharger, beefier manifolds and exhaust, high performance wheels and suspension, a spoiler and ground effects, and saying that it is still just like any other Pinto! No it isn't.
Choosing a Weapon
Anybody who has ever bought a weapon, knows that choosing a firearm is a big decision with an enormous number of variables. There is no perfect choice; it always depends on the individual and the task and the environment.
For hunting dangerous game in Africa, the double rifle has always been a popular choice. You can get off two rapid aimed shots with it and it's simple action allows for a short gun that is quick to bring to bear. Both valuable features for this type of hunting. A lot of people in my family use muzzle-loaders for hunting deer. Not sure why. Could be economics, they just like them, or because of the extended hunting season. If you're hunting ducks, a shotgun is the weapon of choice. Rifles are illegal for duck hunting, but even before that was true, they were still the weapon of choice. A spread of pellets is simply more reliable for hitting small targets, especially in flight, and can take multiple birds per shot. Sniper rifles generally are bolt-action rifles. All other things being equal, a bolt-action rifle, is more accurate and consistent than a semi-automatic. Bolt-actions also tend to be very durable and reliable.
If you want a rifle for short to mid-range tactical engagements than the weapon of choice is an AR style weapon—a weapon with excellent mobility, and the ability to deliver extremely accurate fire at a rapid pace and quickly engage multiple targets. And that is why if you look at military forces, police forces, government agencies, or the competition world (e.g. IPSC) who use semi-automatic rifles you will see them using AR-style weapons rather than Uncle Bob's hunting rifle. This decision is not just some grand cosmic coincidence. It is a thoughtful decision based on weighing the differential capability for weapon platforms to perform a particular task.
And if you want to walk into a room and kill a lot of human beings it is also the weapon of choice. And though that doesn't count as a tactical engagement, all of the features valuable in a tactical engagement (speed, rapid engagement of multiple targets, etc) are equally desirable for massacres.
Sandy Hook Elementary, CT, 14 December 2012, AR tactical rifle
Clackamas Town Center, OR, 11 December 2012, AR tactical rifle
Century 16, Aurora, CO, 20 July 2012, AR tactical rifle
Utøya island, Norway, 22 July 2011, Ruger Mini-14 tactical rifle
Port Arthur Massacre, 28 April 1996, AR tactical rifle
Evil Black Rifle?
So does that make AR-15 style tactical rifles evil? No, of course not. They are sophisticated hunks of metal and plastic. That's all. But, that doesn't mean we can't evaluate them honestly for their capabilities to do things like massacre human beings. They are exceptionally good at it. That analysis needs no emotive statements. We don't need to call them evil and the NRA doesn't have to pretend they are harmless trinkets and I am just some scaredy-cat. They are what they are.
A note about the term Tactical Rifle
The military and police often use the term Tactical Rifle to refer to a long-range precision rifle (sniper rifle). I am using it to refer to a semi-automatic rifle with short to mid-range tactical capabilities as described in this article. Hopefully that doesn't just add to the confusion. It seems like the most appropriate term for such weapons.