The world's first automatic rifle was the Mexican Mondragón rifle and was designed by General Manuel Mondragón. He began work in 1882 and patented the weapon in 1887. However, the automatic rifle traces its roots to World War I, where the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) first appeared. It arose from the concept of "Walking Fire", an idea urged upon the Americans by the French. The BAR never entirely lived up to the desigers hopes; being neither a rifle nor a machinegun. However, for its day it was a brilliant design and was the standard squad automatic rifle for the U.S. Military throughout World War II and the Korean War.
The Germans were the first to pioneer the assault rifle concept, during World War II, based upon research that showed that most firefights happen within 400 meters and that contemporary rifles were over-powered for most small arms combat. The Germans sought to develop a select-fire intermediate powered rifle combining the firepower of a submachine gun with the accuracy and range of a rifle. This was done by shortening the standard 7.92x57mm cartridge to 7.92x33mm and giving it a lighter 125 grain bullet, that limited range but allowed for more controllable automatic fire. The result was the Sturmgewehr 44.
Like the Germans, the Soviets were influenced by experience showing most combat happens within 400 meters and that their soldiers were consistently outgunned by heavily armed German troops, especially those armed with the Sturmgewehr 44 assault rifles. The Soviets were so impressed with the Sturmgewehr 44, that after World War II, they held a design competition to develop an assault rifle of their own. The winner was the AK-47. It was finalized, adopted and entered widespread service in the Soviet army in the early 1950s. Its firepower, ease of use, low production costs, and reliability was perfectly suited for the Red Army's new mobile warfare doctrines. The AK-47 was widely supplied or sold to nations allied with the USSR and the blueprints were shared with several friendly nations (the People's Republic of China standing out among these with the Type 56).
The U.S. Army was influenced by combat experience with semi-automatic weapons such as the M1 Garand and M1 carbine, which enjoyed a significant advantage over enemies armed primarily with bolt-action rifles. Although U.S. Army studies of World War II combat accounts had very similar results to that of the Germans and Soviets, the U.S. Army maintained its traditional views and preference for high-powered semi-automatic rifles.
After World War II, the United States military started looking for a single automatic rifle to replace the M1 Garand, M1/M2 Carbines, M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle, M3 "Grease Gun" and Thompson submachine gun. Early experiments with select-fire versions of the M1 Garand proved disappointing. Also, combat experience suggested that the .30 Carbine round was underpowered. American weapons designers reached the same conclusion as the Germans and Soviets: an intermediate round was necessary, and recommended a small caliber, high velocity cartridge.
However, senior American commanders having faced fanatical enemies and experienced major logistical problems during WWII and the Korean War, insisted that a single powerful .30 caliber cartridge be developed, that could not only be used by the new automatic rifle, but by the new general purpose machine gun (GPMG) in concurrent development. This culminated in the development of the 7.62x51 NATO cartridge and the M14 rifle which was basically an improved select-fire M1 Garand with a 20 round magazine. The U.S. also adopted the M60 GPMG. Its NATO partners adopted the FN FAL and HK G3 rifles, as well as the FN MAG and Rheinmetall MG3 GPMGs.
The first confrontations between the AK-47 and the M14 came in the early part of the Vietnam War. Battlefield reports indicated that the M14 was uncontrollable in full-auto and that soldiers could not carry enough ammo to maintain fire superiority over the AK-47. A replacement was needed: A medium between the traditional preference for high-powered rifles such as the M14, and the lightweight firepower of the M2 Carbine.
As a result, the Army was forced to reconsider a 1957 request by General Willard G. Wyman, commander of the U.S. Continental Army Command (CONARC) to develop a .223 caliber (5.56 mm) select-fire rifle weighing 6 lbs (2.7 kg) when loaded with a 20 round magazine. The 5.56mm round had to penetrate a standard U.S. helmet at 500 yards (460 meters) and retain a velocity in excess of the speed of sound, while matching or exceeding the wounding ability of the .30 Carbine cartridge.
This request ultimately resulted in the development of a scaled-down version of the Armalite AR-10, called AR-15 rifle. However, despite overwhelming evidence that the AR-15 could bring more firepower to bear than the M14, the Army opposed the adoption of the new rifle. In January 1963, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara concluded that the AR-15 was the superior weapon system and ordered a halt to M14 production. At the time, the AR-15 was the only rifle available that could fulfill the requirement of a universal infantry weapon for issue to all services. After modifications (Most notably: the charging handle was re-located from under the carrying handle like AR-10 to the rear of the receiver), the new redesigned rifle was subsequently adopted as the M16.
In March 1970, the U.S. recommended that all NATO forces adopt the 5.56x45mm cartridge. This shift represented a change in the philosophy of the military's long-held position about caliber size. By the middle of the 1970s, other armies were looking at M16-style weapons. A NATO standardization effort soon started and tests of various rounds were carried out starting in 1977. The U.S. offered the 5.56x45mm M193 round, but there were concerns about its penetration in the face of the wider introduction of body armor. In the end the Belgian 5.56x45mm SS109 round was chosen (STANAG 4172) in October 1980. The SS109 round was based on the U.S. cartridge but included a new stronger, heavier, 62 grain bullet design, with better long range performance and improve penetration (specifically, to consistently penetrate the side of a steel helmet at 600 meters).
In 1977, Austria introduced the 5.56x45mm Steyr AUG bullpup rifle and is often cited as the first successful bullpup rifle, finding service with the armed forces of over twenty countries. It was highly advanced for the 1970s, combining in the same weapon the bullpup configuration, a polymer housing, dual vertical grips, an optical sight as standard, and a modular design. Highly reliable, light, and accurate, the Steyr AUG showed clearly the potential of the bullpup layout. In 1978, France introduced the 5.56x45mm FAMAS bullpup rifle. And in 1985, the British introduced the 5.56x45mm L85 bullpup rifle. The adoption these rifles emphasized the trend from traditional designs to bullpup designs.
During the 1970s, the USSR developed the AK-74 and the 5.45x39mm cartridge, which has similar physical characteristics to the U.S. 5.56x45mm cartridge. Also during the 1970s, Finland, Israel, South Africa and Sweden introduced AK type rifles in 5.56x45mm. During the 1990s, the Russians developed the AK-101 in 5.56x45mm NATO for the world export market. In addition, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Yugoslavia (i.e. Serbia) have also rechambered their locally produced AK variants to 5.56mm NATO. The adoption these calibers cemented the world-wide trend toward small caliber, high velocity cartridges.
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