What were small arms fired

Conventional weapons

Small arms vary depending on the task and requirements, but they are all tough and easy to use. Modern automatic firearms are relatively light (less than 10kg) and have a high rate of fire (between 120 and 1200 rounds / minute). There are four types of small arms:

  • Rapid fire rifles and assault rifles¹,
  • Submachine guns and compact automatic handguns (PDW, Personal Defense Weapons),
  • Pistols,
  • Light machine guns.

Rapid fire rifles and assault rifles

Since the 1950s, all armies have been armed mainly with rapid fire rifles and (later) assault rifles for frontline combat. Millions of them are manufactured and half of all countries in the world produce one or more variants. They weigh approx. 3.5 kg and have an interchangeable magazine with between 20 and 50 rounds. Many automatic rifles and assault rifles are or can be equipped with a device that enables them to fire grenades.

Rapid fire rifles

Rapid fire rifles are full-size rifles with a self-loading mechanism that automatically inserts a new cartridge into the barrel after a shot has been fired. These rifles were the main firearm of Western armies before the widespread introduction of the assault rifle in the 1970s. Rapid fire rifles are often as long as single shot rifles. Sometimes they are designed to fire fully automatically (one trigger empties the entire magazine), but most of the time their fire mode is semi-automatic. Examples are the HK33 (Heckler & Koch, Germany) and the KBP A-91 (Russia).

Assault rifles

Assault rifles are the newest class of handguns. They fire fully automatically from a magazine that normally holds 30 rounds. They use smaller cartridges than automatic fire rifles and therefore have a shorter range of no more than 300m. Because assault rifles are relatively small and compact (and extremely effective), they are the modern day favorites for armies as well as insurgents. The first effective assault rifle was developed by Michael Kalashnikov. The weapon named after him (Awtomat Kalashnikov, model 1947 = AK47) was made in Russia and exported to over a hundred countries. It is probably the most widely used small weapon. Hundreds of models of the AK47 are manufactured in over fifty countries. Other widespread assault rifles are the M4 developed by Colt, a shorter version of the M16, and the G36 or the older G3 model manufactured by Heckler & Koch.

Newer assault rifles are equipped with electronic sights, telescopic sights, and rails to which lights, laser target markers, and cameras can be attached.

Submachine guns and compact handguns (PDW)

Submachine guns are small automatic firearms that were originally developed for close-range and trench warfare. Because of their small size, they can be easily hidden. They are particularly popular with resistance fighters, terrorists and for self-protection. They generally have rod magazines that hold 25 to 30 rounds. Many countries, including Germany, manufacture submachine guns. Although they are gradually being replaced by more modern, compact assault rifles, the older weapons are still dangerous. Many of them are recycled or sold. The short, heavy bullet used in submachine guns limits their range to about 100m. Examples of modern submachine guns are the HK MP7 (Heckler & Koch, Germany), the Uzi (IMI, Israel) and the Steyr TMP (Austria).

The compact handguns with the English designation Personal Defense Weapons (PDW) are a new type of submachine gun that is used for self-defense by rear troops and troop units such as armored infantry. They are produced by a few countries, including Germany and Belgium. Manufacturers are e.g. the German company Heckler & Koch and the Belgian FN Herstal. They generally require special ammunition, which is why they are almost exclusively used by armies.

Submachine guns are very popular with criminals, because due to their wide range, precise aiming is not necessary, they can be used for short ranges and they are compact. Most countries prohibit civilian possession of submachine guns.

Self-loading pistols

Self-loading pistols (commonly known as pistols) are among the handguns. They can be fired with one hand and are usually only designed for short ranges. The caliber size is between 6.5mm and 12.7mm (.22 to .5 caliber). While revolvers, which are seldom used by the military but are still widely used among civilians, have four to eight rounds in their drum, modern self-loading pistols have magazines with seven to 13 bullets, depending on the brand.

With pistols, after a shot has been fired, a new shot is automatically loaded into the chamber from a magazine, which is often hidden in the handle. With semi-automatic pistols, each time the trigger is pulled, a shot is fired and a new cartridge is positioned in the barrel. The trigger must be pulled again for a new shot to be fired. Very few of these weapons fire fully automatically, so all shots are fired until the magazine is empty. In most countries, civilians are not allowed to own fully automatic pistols.

The caliber size of modern self-loading pistols varies between 9mm and .45 caliber. They are generally used as a secondary weapon or as a side weapon by officers. The main producers are the United States, Germany, Austria, Spain, and Brazil, although many other countries make their own or licensed variants.

Light machine guns

Depending on the brand, light machine guns are equipped with ammunition boxes with 30 to 50 rounds or belts (or both). They mostly use the standard ammunition for assault rifles (the most common is 5.56mm) and have a bipod, which gives the shooter the necessary stability and increases accuracy. Examples are the MG4 (Heckler & Koch, Germany), the L86 LSW (Great Britain) and the RKP (Russia). They have a rate of fire of between 600 and 1200 rounds / minute. However, due to the high rate of fire, careless operation can melt the barrel or fail components.

Most modern armies have one or two light machine guns for each group of six to eight riflemen. Due to their greater range, they play a special role in infantry tactics on the battlefield.

The longer range and the high rate of fire means that they are extremely dangerous even for civilians who are in a combat zone, as they can still be accidentally hit from a great distance. Shots from light machine guns can even pierce house walls.

¹ The term “assault rifle” goes back in common usage to a type of weapon in World War II that was developed in Germany from the machine carbine. Here it is used for mostly fully automatic repeating military rifles, which were developed from the beginning of the 1950s and later.

Sources and further information:

BICC 05/2012