Assault rifles have been a staple firearm for many military and private security organisations since their infancy and have seen use in conflicts across the globe including the Vietnam and Iraq Wars.
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Beginning as a more rudimentary weapon pioneered by German developers in World War II, the original assault rifle was created to form an amalgamation of submachine guns and traditional rifles whilst still preserving the efficacy of both.
After identifying most conflicts at the time took place under 400 metres from the target, German engineers shortening the cartridge by 57% which simultaneously reduced its weight as a result.
Following this and several other modifications, the creation of a proprietary weapon now known as the ‘Sturmgewehr 44’ was initiated.
This weapon allowed German soldiers to engage targets at medium distances without the need to equip a dedicated, conventional rifle.
As a result, troops quickly became more efficient and versatile on the battlefield, causing great intimidation to unprepared and comparatively ill-equipped Russian soldiers.
After the events of the Second World War, the Soviets sought to create a purpose-built assault rifle for their own military endeavours of which the now iconic ‘AK-47’ was heralded as the eventual winner.
The Kalashnikov (AK-47) was quickly adopted in the early ’50s and gained almost immediate popularity due to its minimal production costs, effectiveness in combat and robustness - three characteristics which sat extremely well with the Union’s requirements at the time.
To this day, the Kalashnikov has become the cardinal weapon for many nations, and has seen numerous iterations developed to extend its effectiveness including light machine gun variants such as the RPK-74 as well as the more contemporary AK-103 derivative.
In a continuous effort to out-arm their opponents, America soon began the development of their own alternative to the intermediary weapons created by their opposition.
However, initial designs proved to be unexpectedly lacklustre, with the M14 failing to achieve superiority in the early years of the Vietnam War after many American soldiers encountered difficulty with its small magazine size and poor automatic performance.
As a result of this tremendous failure, American weapon engineers were commanded to cease production of the M14 and begin work on a new weapon altogether.
After many prototypes, the creation of a new rifle which met all the army’s requirements was completed and approved in 1963: the M16 – a single weapon which could be issued to all infantry divisions with impressive results.
This weapon was incredibly influential following its implementation into the arsenal of US forces and inspired countries the world over to begin development of weapons under the same philosophy as well as adopting the new 5.56x45mm standard for their ammunition.
The next major advancement in firearm technology at this point is generally considered to be the Steyr AUG which still sees widespread use in the Austrian army and as well as many law-enforcement organisations in the country.
This expertly engineered weapon was years ahead of its time with advanced features including a bullpup design, modularity, progressive trigger system, integrated telescopic sight and polymer construction of several components.
‘Bullpup’ refers to the design of the gun whereby the action (the area where ammunition is loaded into the firing chamber) is located behind the trigger mechanism, contrary to conventional ideologies of the time.
This innovative reimagining of the weapon’s fundamental architecture allowed for Steyr Mannlicher GmbH & Co KG to manufacture a firearm with a reduced weight and length whilst still retaining and improving on the performance of many assaults rifles at the time.
This resulted in a weapon which afforded superior manoeuvrability to soldiers compared to other alternatives whilst also incorporating cutting-edge technologies which extended its effectiveness in the field.
The Present Day
There has certainly been progression since the emergence of the Steyr AUG assault rifle, however, the improvements made have been relatively slow compared to those introduced between 1940 and 1970.
Modern assault rifles utilise much of the same technology with advancements being made predominantly in areas such as the development of more sophisticated optical technology and changes in construction materials.
This is mainly attributed to the ongoing adoption of the 5.56 NATO ammunition standard in many countries - a testament to its performance in combat scenarios, even in the modern day.