There’s a lot of talk about “assault weapons” and “assault rifles” and whether or not one is the other. And, it might seem like people are just arguing semantics. Mostly, they are.

However, the difference between “assault weapon” and “assault rifle” is important because the terms get thrown around a lot in legislation. When it comes to laws, semantics matter.

So, let’s look at the difference, and why that difference isn’t as trivial as it seems.

Man with assault rifle
What is an assault weapon?

Assault rifles

Assault rifles are an actual class of rifle, not a made-up political term. The definition is simple:

An assault rifle is a select-fire rifle that fires a round of intermediate caliber, and is fed from a detachable magazine.

There’s a key term in this definition:


Selective Fire (Courtesy of KE Arms)

A rifle must have at least two firing modes to be considered select-fire. “SAFE” is not a firing mode. That means that a rifle needs either semi-automatic and fully-automatic, or semi-automatic and burst-fire modes to be considered select-fire.

This is important because civilian rifles often have detachable magazines and fire intermediate caliber rounds. But, burst-fire and fully-automatic weapons have been illegal in the civilian market for decades.

All civilian rifles have only one firing mode: semi-automatic. Which disqualifies them from being assault rifles, regardless of other characteristics like being compatible with any optic, detachable magazines, or pistol grips.

Assault weapons

Assault weapon” is technically not a political term (though it did originate in political speech). It means something. However, the definition is far too broad.

An assault weapon could be anything. That’s no exaggeration. If a person uses an object to attack another person, whatever implement they use in that attack would be an assault weapon.

man with smg
It looks scary but is it an assault rifle?

Even if you limited the definition of “weapon” to only things which were designed to be used for violence, it’s still a very broad term subject to interpretation.

A combat knife seems pretty easy to call an assault weapon. But what about a serrated kitchen knife? What about a baseball bat, which is designed specifically for striking things?

The problem with the term “assault weapon” isn’t that it’s ridiculous. The problem is that it’s too broad to be used for legislation, which must be very intentional and specific, otherwise people get wrongfully convicted or laws are too easily abused.

But what people are rightfully concerned about are the motivations of people who insist on calling things assault weapons. It seems that many people use the term “assault weapon” because it’s broad enough that it could mean anything.

Slipping the term “assault weapon” into legislation could result in the government having the power to confiscate just about anything in the name of safety, which is clearly a dangerous path to walk.

Don’t miss our Automatic Weapons Overview

How much does the difference matter?

In the course of casual conversation, the difference between “assault rifle” and “assault weapon” is almost purely semantic. An assault rifle would qualify as an assault weapon. So, at worst, it causes some sort of misunderstanding.

But, in legislation, the difference matters a lot. Laws must be written so that they permit certain actions by law enforcement organizations and systems.

But, legislative language must also be written so that laws prohibit certain actions by the enforcing bodies. Otherwise, government oversight can quickly get out of control.

So, yes, there is a difference between an assault rifle and an assault weapon. What makes the issue complex is that the difference could be trivial, or it could be devastating, depending on the context.

And since the trouble is inherent to the term “assault weapon,” the best solution may be to find a better, more specific term that can’t be so wildly interpreted.

* This guest post is brought to you by our friend J. Montgomery *

J. Montgomery is a proud resident of Davenport, Iowa, where you can find him doing target practice on a specialized outdoor gun course, tinkering around the workshop, and taking care of his two dogs along with his lovely wife, Sandy. He currently runs a blog at

Sam M

Sam is an avid firearms enthusiast who loves sharing his knowledge and experience with fellow gunivores.

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