What Is the Best Assault Rifle Ever? We asked one of our top firearms experts to make his pick: There is always controversy when deeming someone to be the “Greatest Of All Time” (GOAT) – just ask Simone Biles or Tom Brady.
A bad routine or poor performance in one game and even their most loyal “fans” will quickly tell you all the reasons why they’re not GOATs! It is even worse with “The Best,” whether it be a car, motorcycle, TV, or smartphone.
In the latter case, it is a moving target as newer is often equated to be “better,” making it impossible for what came before to ever be the best.
This is most certainly true with military hardware where it is all too common for someone to proclaim a particular fighter plane, tank or most notably a firearm was “The Best.” It is part of the game that writers (including this reporter) play all the time. We try to offer the merits of why one particular piece of equipment is better than the other.
In the case of the Best Assault Rifle Ever, we’d need to narrow down the list considerably.
Yet, it would have to include the AK-47, AK-103, Armalite/Colt M16, FN SCAR, H&K G35, IMI Galil Ace, SIG SG 550, Steyr AUG 3, and VZ 58 – and feel free to leave a comment to tell me which gun I might have missed.
Best Assault Rifle? Definitions Matter
We must also consider what is meant by an “assault rifle” as the mainstream media along with many left-leaning politicians will certainly have a different definition than those actually in the firearms industry. It is generally agreed that an assault rifle is a rapid-fire, magazine-fed automatic rifle designed for infantry use. Such a definition hits the key points – yet, it still misses some important facets.
Exactly what is meant by “rapid fire” is at issue, so much so that this year, the Associated Press dropped the term “assault rifle” from its style book, due to it being a highly politicized term. In fact, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the firearms industry’s trade association, has described commercial/civilian models that lack some of the key attributes of military weapons to be “modern sporting rifles.”
So, what should define an assault rifle?
For starters, it should be “select fire,” meaning that it can operate in both semi-automatic and either fully-automatic or burst mode; and more importantly, it should be chambered for an intermediate cartridge. That latter point is especially noteworthy as it explains why firearms such as the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) and Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 1915 CSRG (aka Chauchat) couldn’t be considered assault rifles.
The latter actually has the dubious distinction of being described as the “worst machine gun ever” by those who have never fired or even held one. Yet, it actually could be on the list of best assault rifles were it not for the aforementioned fact that it was chambered for a rifle cartridge, not an intermediate cartridge. Moreover, the Chauchat was among the first (if not the first) select-fire automatic rifles produced. It also featured a pistol grip, bipod, and forward grip – all features common in today’s assault rifles. It certainly had some problems, but those have been so overstated that it doesn’t bear repeating.
Enter the StG44
Typically missing from most modern lists of “The Best Assault Rifle” is arguably the first, the StG44. Introduced at the end of the Second World War, it was certainly a significant leap forward that led to the development of the AK-47, and many other notable firearms. Much like the Chauchat, the German-made StG44 offered some key features still employed today.
Designer Hugo Schmeisser may have noted the benefits of select-fire and a pistol grip – which was also used in the American-made Thompson submachine gun, even as subsequent German designs, including the MP28, MP34 and MP35 used rifle-style stocks. The merits of the pistol grip were essentially overlooked by German gun makers until the development of the MP38/MP40, which had only a fully-automatic mode.
Yet, again, it was actually the development of the intermediate cartridge – including the German 7.92x33mm Kurz – that defined the concept of an assault rifle. The round was seen as a perfect compromise as it offered greater power than the pistol cartridges employed in SMGs, while it had reduced muzzle energy compared to the fully powered rifle cartridges used in most of the bolt action rifles of the era.
As the recoil was significantly reduced compared to the full-power cartridges, the fully automatic mode was far easier to control. Moreover, it was still considered sufficient for an effective range of 300 to 600 meters (330 to 660 yards), which included most typical infantry engagement situations in modern conflicts.
With all this said, is the StG44 the best assault rifle ever?
No, it was a well-designed weapon, but it was expensive to produce and its overall mass was way too great, making it far heavier than it needed to be. It was far from easy to disassemble, which made servicing difficult. The AK-47, which was certainly influenced by the StG44, was a lighter and less complex firearm. Yet, it wasn’t all that accurate compared to the assault rifles to come.
Thus, it would be easy to simply dub the AK-103, a vastly improved and modern descendent of the original Kalashnikov design, or the IWI Galil Ace as the best of the bunch. Each is a fine weapon, yet a strong case could be made for most modern assault rifles.
The category is simply too broad to declare a single firearm, even in a specific category, to be the absolute best. Instead, a case could be made for so many assault rifles – so let’s just say that we wouldn’t have these excellent modern weapons had it not been for the likes of such firearms as the Chauchat, the Thompson, MP34, MP38/40, FG42 and StG44.
Even when those might have been far from perfect, they simply led us to where we are today.
A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.