Assault Weapons vs. Assault Rifles vs. What You’ve Heard

m16 vs ar15

When it comes to researching firearms for a story, don’t go by looks. One of these is a genuine assault rifle, and it’s limited to military use. The other is a model any U.S. civilian with a clean record could own, and is not an assault rifle. Can you tell the difference? Leave a comment with your guesses. (Photos via Colt and Gun Digest)

One of my favorite crime writers, Benjamin Whitmer, author of my pick for the best crime novel of 2014, Cry Father, made a post on his website today that caught my eye. It mentions a bit about politics and the president, two subjects I try to avoid on this blog, but I couldn’t ignore his excellent point about the terms “assault weapons” and “assault rifles.”

Here it is, excerpted with permission:

Assault weapon is a political term for rifles that are cosmetically similar to real assault rifles, but without the actual capability. Meaning, they are semi-automatic only rifles, where you pull the trigger once and only one round is fired. The primary defining characteristic of a real assault rifle is that is selective fire, meaning it has the ability to be fired in fully automatic or burst fire mode. Usually what assault weapon means is a small caliber .223 rifle that fires in semi-automatic mode — like many other rifles and almost all handguns — but looks kind of scary.

What to Use

Whitmer covers a lot of ground in a few sentences, so let me recap.

Assault weapon: There is no set definition for what this actually is. It changes with the political climate. Some people pull the “I know one when I see one” a la obscenity. But that’s not good enough for items that have defined mechanical functions. It either isn’t or it is. I’d avoid using this term in your writing.

Assault rifle: This refers specifically to a rifle that can switch between semi-automatic and fully automatic modes. That means the shooter can pull the trigger and the gun will fire only one time OR multiple times so long as the trigger is pulled, depending on which mode the shooter has selected via a toggle switch. That ability to switch back and forth is referred to as “select-fire” or “selective-fire.” Per federal law, assault rifles made after May 19, 1986, may not be possessed by U.S. civilians. If you’re specifically referring to select-fire rifles in a story, use “assault rifle.” Otherwise, don’t use it.

Tactical rifle: This is a much better catch-all term for rifles with features that might be suited for combat or self-defense, but aren’t exclusive to those purposes. Don’t overthink this. Use “tactical rifle” as a default whenever you get the itch to toss in “assault weapon.”

The Confusion

Where this confuses people is when civilian firearms start to look like military firearms but actually aren’t. Take the picture up top. One of those is an M16, which is a legitimate assault rifle. The other is an AR-15, which looks like an assault rifle, but only fires once per pull of the trigger (it’s a semi-automatic, not a select-fire). That’s a huge difference. The AR-15 isn’t an assault rifle, even though it looks identical.

Adding to that confusion is when the terms “assault weapon” and “military-style” are thrown around. Those words don’t mean anything. With guns (and knives), appearances are misleading. The only things you need to know about when assigning a firearm to a character as it pertains to the law of your settings are:

  1. How the firearm functions
  2. How that function relates to the law

A Good Example: The AR-15

If you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend you read the What Is an AR-15? post from the archive. And for an example of a novel that gets its guns right, check out Whitmer’s Cry Father.

Get the Book

The Writers Guide to WeaponsThe Writer’s Guide to Weapons: A Practical Reference for Using Firearms and Knives in Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books) comes with everything but the ammo. Pick up a print or digital copy from these fine retailers:

8 thoughts on “Assault Weapons vs. Assault Rifles vs. What You’ve Heard

      • Specifically, the weapon on the left is an M16A2, judging by the barrel, handguards, and case deflector. It’s a little unusual to see one with a 20-round magazine.

        The weapon on the right is a generic “AR-15,” I think, in that it doesn’t look to have been made by Colt’s Manufacturing (holder of the AR-15 trademark). It might be a Stag Arms.


    • No, it is just the style of hardware the M4 style vs the M16 waffle style either could be a automatic or just a semiautomatic reproduction for collectors. LOL ee


  1. Actually, the 1986 law “the Hughes Amendment” does not prohibit the possession of select-fire firearms, but rather prohibits the possession of any produced after the law was put in place. Also, Assault Rifles aren’t any select-fire gun, they’re a class of military rifle; carbines are too, and they can be select-fire. A “Machine Gun” (except for military definition) is any select-fire firearm.


  2. A assault rifle is automatic capable and a tactical rifle is not, but can looks the same so it is more scary than a lever action or pump rifle. I personally to call bit a ergonomic rile they do make AR styled bolt action rifles as with the SIG Cross Rifle I think the big issue and mass shooting craz is really 5 things. As I am writing our Canadian Parliament about it is Mass Causality Events. 1. Compact Firepower, all manufactured detachable magazines and belts for all center-fire guns with a 10 round limit, no grandfather clause or pinning. 2. Federal Safe Gun Storage Laws that are pry, burn and smash proof attached to a permanent structure from inside. 3. Gun Licensing & Red and Yellow Flag Database that is portable that can be used at gun shows to just like a debit/credit system. 4. Barrel lengths for center-fire semi-autos with detachment magazines 20 or 24 inches. image.png


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