Editor’s Note: With so much misinformation and confusion in the gun debate, Liberty Nation presents the final installment of this three-part series examining the facts on firearms. In this segment, we explain the difference between automatic and semiautomatic weapons.
There’s no reason a civilian should be able to own an automatic weapon. That seems to be a favorite line among gun control activists, and it’s often heard in protests after public shootings, regardless of the type of firearm used. For the sake of this informational piece, we’ll ignore the ethics of the argument and focus on the technical. First, generally speaking, civilians can’t own machine guns. The weapons ignorantly referred to as machine guns are, in fact, semiautomatics. This particular misconception is all about action – the action of the gun, that is. What is an automatic and a semiautomatic? Much like the phrase “weapon of war” from Part I, the answer might not mean quite what you think it does.
Time for Some Action
When gun folks talk about the action of a firearm, they’re referring to how the weapon cycles – that is, how it goes from firing one round to firing the next. You’ve almost certainly heard this term before; think lever-action rifle, bolt-action rifle, or pump-action shotgun.
From the examples above to revolvers and single-shot guns, there are numerous options for those who want to do a little work before taking another shot. But you’re here for the automatics, so let’s move on!
When semiautomatic firearms first came about, they were called autoloaders and automatics because they cycled from one shot to the next on their own. You still get only one shot per trigger pull, but you don’t have to take either hand off the rifle, pistol, or shotgun and manually work some action to eject the empty shell and load a new one – it’s automatic.
Many semiautomatic guns say Auto or Automatic on them, and several calibers bear those words in the names – like .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) or the 10mm Auto. These firearms are automatics because they can fire multiple shots with nothing required from the shooter before pulling the trigger a second time beyond releasing the trigger so that it can reset.
In a fully automatic weapon – or a machine gun – the trigger doesn’t have to be released to reset. One can pull the trigger and hold it, and so long as there are rounds to be cycled into the chamber, the gun will continue firing. It won’t stop firing until the trigger is released, there are no more bullets, or something fails on the weapon – and, yes, that last one happens from time to time in automatics of both varieties.
So the simple answer is this: A fully automatic firearm will keep firing with the trigger held so long as there’s ammo, and a semiautomatic won’t. And that makes a big difference. According to studies done by the FBI, a novice shooter can fire about three rounds in a second – that’s ten seconds for a 30-round magazine, assuming the shooter isn’t terribly concerned where those bullets land. A trained shooter, the FBI posits, can fire twice that – so six in a second or five seconds for a 30-round magazine. Now imagine laying down the AR-15 and picking up the M4 carbine, a similar looking rifle used by the US military. It is rated for 700-950 rounds per minute and can be fired on full auto. That’s between 11 and 15 rounds a second – or a 30-round magazine emptied in just two seconds – no special training needed.