The Militarization of the American Rifle

by John Hoyt Williams

Dr. William is professor of history at Indiana State University in Terre Haute.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 25, 1984, p. 75. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Tens of thousands of Americans are busily outfitting themselves like army rangers or SWAT police. When members of a local gun club in New Hampshire, Indiana or New Mexico can control more devastating firepower than the armies of Tanzania or Paraguay, it is time to rethink priorities.

Although the United States was spared any major assassination attempts during the past year, many Americans, both lawmakers and concerned citizens, are continuing to fight for gun control. The challenge of the Morton Grove, Illinois, no-nonsense handgun law has the National Rifle Association and other influential “pro-gun” groups scrambling for a major counterattack.

As usual, the gun-control campaign is focusing almost entirely on the handgun, unquestioned villain in thousands of murders and accidental deaths annually. There are currently some 60 million pistols and revolvers “in circulation” within the United States, a statistic that alone would appear to make gun control an unattainable goal. The rifle and shotgun, by contrast, are treated by most Americans -- proponents of gun control included -- as sacred. After all, people think of rifles and shotguns as hunting weapons, the tools of a game-and sport-conscious society. Large and bulky, they supposedly are not easily concealed, and, designed specifically for hunting, they are not considered effective antipersonnel weapons (and hence are subject to few legal restrictions). But recent developments in the gun world invalidate these perceptions.

In the past two years or so, a substantial proportion of America’s rifles and shotguns have been undergoing a metamorphosis into combat-oriented weapons. Their firepower has been dramatically augmented, their very configuration has been changed and, in many cases, they have blatantly been manufactured for killing human beings. The danger is not simply that a new class of firearms is finding its way to the potentially trigger-happy. The most frightening aspect of the problem is the quantum increase in short-range firepower (high cyclical rate of fire) which is now acceptable, and available to anyone with money. Unless this trend is reversed, we shall soon look back with nostalgia on the time when our worst threat was the “Saturday night special” in the hands of the local felon or psychotic. At least that weapon is prone to misfire, is wildly inaccurate and is able to fire only a small amount of ammunition -- slowly, at that.

Interested in purchasing a hunting rifle, I recently strolled into a local sporting goods store, with no malice in my heart toward firearms. Immediately, a clerk produced an intriguing rifle, which he claimed was a “bestseller” -- a sleek, lethal-looking instrument with a pistol grip and a rather short barrel. When I mentioned that it looked like a military arm, he told me that it, the Colt AR-15, is the same basic gun as the United States Army’s M-16, classified as a light machine gun (LMG). The only significant difference is that the AR-15 can fire only in the semiautomatic mode (that is, the trigger must be depressed anew for each shot).

Next, the voluble clerk proudly displayed some of the wide variety of extras, or “accessories,” available for the $500 rifle. Among these was a variety of telescopic sights designed especially for the AR-15, including an expensive night model giving extraordinary visibility in the dark. A bipod attachment would steady the rifle when fired from a prone position, without obstructing its bayonet mount (bayonets were temporarily out of stock). There was a special sale on AR-15 “Swat Paks,” canvas pouches normally worn over the shoulder. These carry three additional magazines for the rifle, each of which holds 20 rounds of .223 caliber (NATO 5.56 mm) ammunition. Thirty-round clips, in their own special Swat Paks, were also available, but were not on sale. If I felt, however, that I could make do with only one spare clip, I could buy a stock pouch in camouflage-color Velcro, to be strapped to the rifle’s stock for swift retrieval in case of an emergency. Amazed, I asked just what all this gear had to do with hunting.

“Nothing at all,” I was told. The AR-15 is, after all, a combat, self-defense or survival weapon, and even without all the accessories, it is not considered a decent hunting rifle.

The clerk told me that one of the AR-15’s major appeals, aside from its “macho” configuration, is its easy conversion to full automatic fire (the rationale for the Swat Paks, no doubt). After the conversion, the “hunter” can hit the trail with an M-16 LMG capable of a cyclical rate of fire of 1000 rounds per minute (assuming he could release and insert an impossible 50 magazines in 60 seconds). There are many people, I learned -- not all of them gunsmiths by any means -- who would be happy to do the (illegal) conversion for $100 or less.

That, however, might be money wasted, for one can buy a book titled Full-Auto AR-15 Conversion Manual (Desert Publications, $4.95), which, according to one advertisement, offers step-by-step instructions, with photographs and drawings, so that the handyman can do the work of conversion in the privacy of his own basement workshop. For perhaps $700, I could arm myself at least as well as an Army Special Forces trooper and, except for the conversion to the LMG category, could do it all legally. I could carry all the requisite gear, including the AR-15, out of the store immediately upon purchase, with no “cooling off” period (mandatory in most states for handguns only). My interest piqued, I soon learned to my horror that the AR-15 might well be one of the safest, most legitimate items being carried out of gunshops these days.

A brief perusal of standard mass-circulation gun, mercenary and survival magazines was a revelation. In one advertisement, the announcement that “Uzi is Here!” appears in one-inch type. It certainly is a grabber, for the UZI, “Manufactured by Israel Military Industries,” is a Special Forces, Secret Service and counterterrorist weapon of legendary proportions. Anyone who saw the televised report of the attempt on President Ronald Reagan’s life saw the UZI, which magically appeared in the hand (and along the arm) of the most visible Secret Service agent. It is standard issue for the secret service of many nations because it is extremely small, short barreled, and fitted with a 20-round magazine.

On full automatic, the UZI belches bullets at an unbelievable rate, and like almost any other semiautomatic rifle or carbine, it easily can be converted to its intended fully automatic mode. With its folding, tubular stock and short barrel, it can be hidden beneath a suit jacket, thrust into a waistband or even taped to a forearm. Here is a weapon infinitely more dangerous than any pistol ever made, and it is now available to the general public -- albeit with a slightly longer barrel than the Secret Service’s version. Because it is classified as a rifle rather than a pistol, it is not subject to state and local regulations.

Properly impressed that UZI is here, I next learned that so is the equally legendary Ingram, with its folding stock. Almost pistol-sized, the Ingram won fame as a reliable “pocket machine gun” and Special Forces and commando weapon. It can now be purchased in either a 9mm (32-round magazine) or a .45 caliber (16-round magazine) version. In addition to holding the Ingram itself, its swat case has room for three spare clips (totaling 96 rounds of 9mm, or 48 rounds of the awesome .45 caliber ammunition), a flash suppressor (whose weight also stabilizes the barrel and keeps it from “climbing” during full automatic firing), a loading tool and cleaning accessories. The case itself, when loaded with “Kevlar” inserts and hung around the neck, becomes a bullet-proof vest stretching to the knees. Not at all a sporting proposition.

Within the past few months, another strictly military legend has appeared: the AKM. Infamous as the Kalashnikov assault rifle, this weapon has killed more American soldiers since 1952 than any other weapon in the world. Next to the Ingram, the AKM looks rather quaint. It is considerably longer, has a genuine wood (detachable) stock and a forward-curving magazine. It can be had with the full range of combat accessories, and is, no doubt, destined to be a big hit with the plinking crowd, many of whom, ironically, dodged Kalashnikov bullets in Vietnam.

There are many other such weapons currently and widely available. One of the favorites is the Heckler & Koch 91 Assault Rifle in 7.62 mm (the standard NATO combat round, which means easily available ammunition). Originally produced in Europe, the H&K 91 proved so popular with American “sportsmen” that it is now being manufactured in the United States to keep up with the demand. A recent gun-magazine review waxed rhapsodic about the accuracy of the gun: “The most noticeable feature of the 91 was that everyone seemed able to hit man-sized silhouettes at unknown ranges . . everything we looked at we could hit.”

Readers will be cheered to learn that, according to one advertisement, “Now you can own it. . . THE WORLD’S MOST FAMOUS GUN!” The object of this hyperbole is not the 19th century Colt peacemaker or the Winchester carbine: it is the tommy gun, the same Thompson submachine gun made famous by Eliot Ness and World War II marines. It is, of course, sold only in semiautomatic, to our tremendous relief. The Thompson can be purchased in either .22 or the original .45 caliber, with either a 30-round clip or the more “classic” drum magazine, holding a good deal more ammunition. Thompsons can also be had without a stock, becoming, when converted to full automatic fire, a dandy machine pistol, a tremendously effective short-range devastator. Hunters might be pleased to know that such a weapon could cut a full-grown Kodiak bear in half with less than two seconds of automatic fire.

M-S Safari Arms recently released its custom-made ($1,600) sniper rifle in .308 caliber, complete with a modified Marine Corps special issue sniper stock, in fiber glass, and a 20-round magazine. For the penny-wise, there is the intriguing BMF Activator for only $19.95. This little toy attaches to any Semiautomatic rifle in seconds. The marksman then simply turns a crank instead of pulling a trigger. The crank can turn so swiftly, according to the promo, that the rifle can spit out up to 1,200 rounds per minute -- 20 per second! For another $12.95, one can buy a bipod, so that one can steady the LMG and not shear down trees with it accidentally.

Paladin Press, Desert Press and others offer the “sportsman” such favorites as Home Workshop Silencers, Principals of Quick Kill, Get Even: The Complete Book of Dirty Tricks, Special Forces Handbook, U.S. Army Sniper Training Manual, Techniques of Harassment and How to Kill, the latter in four volumes.

Some venerable and respected manufacturers, such as Ithaca, are now producing special riot guns for the public, and even shorter-barrel models for the police and military. Sporting goods stores routinely carry a variety of such lethal models (known in the popular argot as “intimidators” -- an understatement if there ever was one). Loaded with “double 0” shot, or perhaps the very new 12-gauge “Flechette” round, with its 20 tiny, finned steel arrows, these are perhaps the most devastating short-range antipersonnel weapons ever devised. Since it is almost impossible to aim or control the spray of shot, riot guns are also the least discriminating of weapons.

And what of the duck hunter’s darling, the all-American shotgun? It too has been transformed. Advertisements abound for “retooling” ones shotgun into a “swat combat” riot gun. Almost any commercially manufactured shotgun can have its stock removed and be fitted with pistol grips and/or folding stocks. This work can be done with common household tools by anyone with an hour or so to spare. Feature articles in prominent gun magazines enter into very explicit detail on how best to convert a common Mossberg or Remington bird gun into a riot gun, which, it goes without saying, has no hunting applicability whatsoever.

Finally, and on the cutting edge of the future, is a new technology bursting upon the rifle (and shotgun) scene. Laser Products Corporation is now marketing a laser aiming system designed to fit a variety of weapons, including the AR-15/M-16 and riot gun. This little gadget can make a Wyatt Earp out of an aged grandmother or a ten-year-old, for it sends a very narrow, concentrated beam of red light to the target. When the red dot appears on your target’s forehead, the bullet or shot will hit that forehead, for what you see is what you hit. It is all but impossible to miss. So far the laser system, costing in excess of $4,000, is restricted by law, but efforts are under way to make it “safe” for the “average” shooter. This simply entails blocking the emission of laser “radiation” to avoid harming the gunman.

Almost all of the weapons and gear described above (and much more of the same, such as the “restricted” and armor-piercing Teflon-coated bullet) are readily available to all but the obviously insane, and much of it can be purchased by mail. A modest survey of gun and sporting goods stores indicates that if the AR-15 and H&K are not on the rack at any given moment, it is because they sell so fast that they are difficult to keep in stock. They are, however, on order, rest assured. Tens of thousands of Americans are busily outfitting themselves like Army Rangers or SWAT police.

The implications of the transformation of the American rifle and shotgun are many. None of them inspires optimism. Here are a few not-so-outlandish scenarios of what could happen, based on incidents traditionally involving handguns:

Bobby Joe, drunk as a skunk in his local saloon and enraged by someone’s pawing his girlfriend, goes out to his pickup truck. Reaching into the glove compartment, he extracts his trusty Ingram, folds down the frame stock and stomps back inside. In two seconds or less he could empty his 32-round clip, spraying bullets hither, thither and yon. The Ingram’s rate of fire would more than compensate for any lack of marksmanship on Bobby Joe’s part. Even greater mayhem might be produced if our protagonist reached instead for his Mossberg ten-shot riot gun, with which he could hardly avoid blasting everyone near him to shreds.

Max, the urban sniper, could lie on a tenement roof with his M-16, equipped with telescopic sight, bipod, flash-hider and Swat Pak. Or, if he preferred the ultimate in accuracy at the expense of cyclical fire rate, he could use his M-S Safari Arms sniper rifle.

Terrorist Claudine could bring her stockless H&K or UZI (with a spare magazine or two) to political rallies. The UZI, like the Ingram, would fit into any large purse. If Claudine had steady nerves, if she could retain her sense of timing, she would almost certainly be assured of a score (or two, or three. . . .)

The potential for political or social havoc inherent in the availability of these weapons is staggering. Traditionally, the police and the Secret Service have at least had the advantage of being considerably better armed than society’s miscreants. This condition can no longer be taken for granted. Had President Reagan’s would-be assassin been armed with an UZI, an Ingram, an H&K 91 or a riot gun, the results would surely have been far more serious, and for more people.

If street gangs begin acquiring large numbers of such weapons the probability of major violence approaches the unthinkable. The police would have to laager their wagons, and America’s cities could become vast “Fort Apaches.” Today’s zip gun may become tomorrow’s shortened M-16, and today’s switchblade its bayonet.

Criminals, vigilantes and paranoid survivalists “gain” from such weapons; sportsmen and society as a whole do not. When members of a local gun club in New Hampshire, Indiana or New Mexico can control more devastating firepower than the armies of Tanzania or Paraguay, it is time to rethink priorities.