Let me start this article by saying I hate the term ‘assault rifle.’ It is thought to have been originated by Adolf Hitler to describe the Sturmgewehr 44, both for propaganda and to differentiate it from German submachine guns.
Its use to describe ARs and, eventually, several other rifles grew out of a misunderstanding of the initials “AR,” which stand for Armalite Rifle. The anti-2A crowd, with their usual disdain for facts, continue to use it to describe any rifle with attributes they find scary with the goal of outlawing their sale. The shooting community has countered with the term Modern Sporting Rifle, but the other guys stick to Assault Rifle for their own purposes.
The Basis for ‘Assault Rifle’ Gun Control
According to the FBI 2019 Crime in the United States report, rifles of all kinds were used in 2.6% of all homicides. Firearms (type unknown), which no doubt includes some rifles, were used in an additional 23.9% of homicides. But even if every gun in the type unknown was a rifle, which it certainly would not be, it would still only be around half of the 45.7% of homicides committed with handguns. Knives and blunt instruments like hammers account for another 22% of all homicides, leaving rifles well in the minority.
However, the spectacular nature of their use in mass shootings makes ARs a convenient target for gun control legislation. This is in spite of the fact that the total death toll from most mass shootings is less than the homicide rate for a few days in many large cities. For example, there were 21 homicides in Chicago during the last week of October 2023 alone.
Facts notwithstanding, the anti-2A crowd have rifles they consider assault rifles firmly in their sights. This leaves us as responsible gun owners who enjoy having ARs and AKs for sporting and home defense potentially in a bad place. All it would take is an election cycle with Democrats in control of both houses of Congress and the Presidency for the sale, and possibly even the possession, of anything they choose to call an assault rifle to be made illegal nationally. Add to that state governments, some of whom already have such laws on the books, and the situation for having a solid home defense rifle could be bleak.
The Scary Characteristics
The list of things that make so-called ‘assault rifles’ scary and are used to ban them in places like New York and California is interesting, to say the least. Most make no sense whatsoever and are aesthetic features at best. Here are some of the things they include.
- Folding or telescoping stock
- Pistol grip
- Thumbhole stocks – Apparently, because it mimics a pistol grip.
- Flash suppressor – In some cases, a threaded barrel is banned altogether, while in others, you can have a muzzle brake but not a flash suppressor…go figure.
- Bayonet mount – Because so many people are bayoneted to death.
- Grenade launcher mount – Because so many grenade launchers are used in crimes.
- Detachable magazine – This is the biggest and most limiting feature.
Experienced shooters know that most of these are insignificant in influencing the effectiveness of a rifle, and some are downright silly. But when you have no actual knowledge or understanding of firearms, you can only go for things that are visible to the untrained eye. The central characteristic is that the rifle has a detachable magazine. Many of the other characteristics are fine if the rifle uses an internal magazine.
Alternatives to Assault Rifles
Many manufacturers offer state-specific versions of their AR rifles. These do away with banned features and modify others, like the pistol grip, to meet freedom-challenged state’s requirements. But gun laws are irregular and often subject to frequent change, as the ATF’s ruling on pistol braces demonstrates.
The situation could potentially get even more restrictive if the federal government got involved. Consequently, it doesn’t hurt to look at some alternatives that would still allow you to have a legally owned repeating rifle. Several good alternatives will provide you with a rifle that does not fall under the legal definition of an assault rifle and is capable of semi-auto fire and reasonably quick reloading.
Lever guns have been around since the mid-19th century. The 1860 Spencer Carbine, which fed from a seven-round tube magazine in the stock, was issued to Union troops during the Civil War. The Winchester 1873 was probably the most famous lever gun and featured the pattern of a tube magazine under the barrel and a side loading gate that is the standard today.
Lever guns are chambered in versatile calibers like .30-30 Winchester and pistol calibers like .357 and .44 Magnum. Magazine capacity is usually between 5 and 8 rounds, depending on the caliber. That isn’t a lot compared to a 30-round magazine, but at least you can easily add shells through the side gate while continuing to shoot.
The lever action is fast to manipulate and can be worked when firing from the hip. Prices range from well over a thousand dollars for a nice Henry to under $500 for a used Marlin. Most come in traditional wood stocks, but some, like my Mossberg 464 SPX, feature a synthetic telescoping stock and integral rails. Since it does not use a detachable magazine, the politicians don’t consider it an assault rifle. Mounting a rail and optic on any lever gun is easy, and they are very accurate out to about 300 yards.
The SKS was an interim military rifle design the Soviet Union developed at the end of WWII to replace their venerable Mosin bolt action rifles. Its semiautomatic action and 10-round capacity were a major improvement at the time. The SKS was only in front-line service for a few years before being replaced by the AK-47.
Even though the Soviets phased it out, several other nations used it for many decades, including China and North Vietnam. It’s a robust 7.62X39 rifle with decent accuracy and better ergonomics than the AK. On the downside, it feeds from an internal 10-round magazine, but at least it uses stripper clips for faster loading.
For our discussion, the lack of a detachable box magazine takes it firmly out of the political ‘assault rifle’ category, as does the solid wooden stock. It does have an integral bayonet, but that can be easily removed. Other positive attributes are its durability and the fact it uses plentiful 7.62X39 ammo. With practice, you can learn to load very quickly using the 10-round stripper clips.
SKS rifles used to be available for under $100. These days, they fetch a considerably higher price when in nice condition. You can also do what I did and buy one that has been sitting in a cosmoline bath for the last 30+ years for a couple hundred dollars. Mine is technically still a work in progress since I still need to refinish the stock, but after stripping it down completely and cleaning it thoroughly, it shoots very reliably with cheap Eastern European ammo.
A word of caution. Because the SKS uses a floating firing pin, well-used models can be prone to slam fire issues. If you go the SKS route, I recommend sending the bolt carrier assembly off to a good SKS gunsmith for rebuilding. I used Murray’s Gunsmithing in Bowie, Texas, and haven’t had a single problem with the operation or a slam fire.
M1 Garand – Honorable Mention
The Garand is a venerable design that has been obsolete in terms of military guns for decades. It’s big, heavy, and uses an internal 8-round magazine. On the other hand, it is accurate, powerful, and very reliable.
A Garand is too big to be used easily inside a house, but you would be hard-pressed to find a better rifle for longer ranges that still provides semi-auto operation. Although the internal magazine only holds eight rounds, it can be loaded very quickly using the 8-round en bloc clip. The clips are inexpensive and easy to purchase. Since it doesn’t use a detachable magazine and doesn’t look like a scary assault rifle, it’s safe from anti-2A legislation.
On the downside, the Garand rifle is neither easy to find nor inexpensive. You can plan on paying over $1000 +/- for one. Another problem is ammunition. Although it chambers standard .30-06 Springfield cartridges, you should not use regular .30-06 ammo because it is too hot for the rifle. Prolonged use can easily lead to a catastrophic malfunction. Fortunately, several ammunition makers offer .30-06 Garand ammo specifically for it.
No one usually recommends a rimfire rifle for a defensive rifle. Under most circumstances, the cartridge just doesn’t have enough horsepower to quickly stop a threat. But high capacity and a high rate of semiautomatic fire mean they do have their uses. Unfortunately, some proposed anti-gun legislation included wording that would outlaw even benign rifles like the Ruger 10/22 because it uses a detachable magazine. Fortunately, nothing that restrictive has passed…yet.
There was a time when many manufacturers offered semi-auto .22 rifles that used an internal tube magazine. They were either under the barrel or in the stock, and some held as many as 20 rounds. These days, most .22 rifles use a detachable magazine, and many are an AR pattern, although there are lever and pump action rifles out there. If you want a semiautomatic internal tube magazine .22 rifle, you will have to prowl the pawn shops to find one.
Rifles That Are on The Edge
The biggest determinant of whether a rifle will be targeted by the anti-2A crowd or not is the removable magazine. Some proposed legislation has attempted to target any rifle that has one. However, in general, if a rifle doesn’t have any of the other characteristics of an assault rifle, and especially if it doesn’t look like an AR or AK, it may escape becoming an outlaw. That puts a couple more good rifles on the alternates list.
The M1A is a semi-auto version of the M14 rifle. It is chambered in .308 and can use either 7.62NATO or .308 Winchester ammunition. It’s powerful, accurate, and available in several models, including versions with 16” and 18” barrels. While you can get SOCOM models with a telescoping stock, most come with a standard wooden or synthetic rifle stock.
It uses a detachable box magazine, so its legality could be in question depending on what other features any legislation might take into consideration. Springfield does offer a New York-compliant model, so that is an option if you live there. You would have to check your state’s laws if you live in another freedom-challenged state, and there’s no guarantee what future legislation might dictate.
The M1A is an expensive rifle but a very nice firearm. It is an excellent alternative to AR and AK rifles that fall under the ‘assault rifle’ category that still uses a detachable magazine. The SOCOM and Scout Squad models are short enough to be maneuverable indoors.
The Mini-14 is, as the name implies, a scaled-down version of the M14/M1A rifle. It uses the same action and has the same lines as the original. Although there are models available with collapsible stocks and pistol grips, most Mini-14s feature a wood or synthetic traditional rifle stock. That should keep them from looking too scary.
The Mini-14 is chambered in 5.56 NATO and feeds from a detachable box magazine. It is small, maneuverable, and easy to shoot. If you prefer 7.62X39, the Mini-30 model is chambered in that caliber. They are not cheap, and a new one will cost over $1000, but you can probably pick up a used one for less than that.
The biggest drawback to the Mini-14 line is that they use a Ruger proprietary magazine rather than being capable of using AR magazines, which are inexpensive in comparison. Nevertheless, they are a solid rifle that does not include many of the features that are specifically listed as characteristics of ‘assault rifles.’
Where Things Stand
Generally speaking, it is still legal to own firearms the government terms ‘assault rifles’ in most states. Some, like New York’s assault weapon law, prohibits manufacturing, transporting, disposing of, or even possessing an assault weapon. Others, like Washington, make it illegal to manufacture or transfer one, but if you already have one, you can keep it.
If you don’t already own a Modern Sporting Rifle and can legally buy one, I suggest you do it soon. If it’s already too late, there are some alternatives that will at least give you something to use in its place. As the saying goes, they aren’t ideal, but they’re better than nothing.