Book Review: Assault Rifle: The Development of the Modern Military Rifle and its Ammunition
By Chuck Madurski

Assault Rifle
The Development of the Modern Military Rifle and its Ammunition

By Maxim Popenker and
Anthony G. Williams
ISBN 1-86126-700-2
The Crowood Press Ltd.
Ramsbury, Marlborough
Wiltshire SN8 2HR

Assault rifles have been the primary arm of the foot soldier for nearly fifty years. Interestingly, the world’s armies are largely equipped with variations of two basic designs that date back to the earliest days ofassault rifle development. These are the AK47 and the M16. Though these two rifle types dominate the world market, that does not mean research and development has been lax. On the contrary, assault rifles have been the main focus of small arms development in recent years. Western countries looking to modernize and update from the 7.62 NATO have produced many new designs while newly independent eastern bloc lands have been busy as well. This book undertakes to catalog and review these new guns, along with their ammunition, while providing historical context andthorough treatment of current issue guns.

Written by Maxim Popenker, a reserve lieutenant in the Russian Armed Forces, and contributing editor to a Russian gun magazine, and Anthony G. Williams, the author of several gun related books, best known being Rapid Fire: The Development of Automatic Cannon, Heavy Machine Guns and their Ammunition for Armies, Navies and Air Forces, as well as being a regular contributor to Small Arms Review, Assault Rifle packs an impressive amount of information into its 224 pages. Divided into two parts, it additionally has an Appendix of Military Small Arms Cartridges, a Glossary, a Bibliography and a useful Index. Part One is the introduction to the subject and, giving credit where credit is due, features a discussion of the first true assault-type rifle, the Fedorov Avtomat of 1916.

A nice touch is the extent to which the authors work to ensure they are clear on the information they wish to convey. One example is taking the time to define the terms they use such as ‘assault rifle’. Thissort of rigid flexibility allows them to include the G3, FAL and US M14, clearly not assault rifles by strict definition, whileeliminating SMGs from the text other than mentions for historical context. The majority of Part One is made up of the two Technical Background chapters, one for the Weapons and the other for Ammunition Design and Ballistics.

In the Weapons background chapter is information on action design, advantages and disadvantages of differing action types, and detail on design trends. Some time is spent in comparing the traditional layout of a rifle, with the action between the hands and magazine in front of the trigger and pistol grip, as opposed to the bullpup guns, with the action and magazine generally behind the trigger and pistol grip. One particularly interesting portion of this section is the sub-chapter titled Rates of Fire and Their Consequences. Interesting because it does not solely focus on ROF and how it affects reliability, but also on those rifles that have a deliberately high ROFs (usually in a burst mode) for higher hit probability.

Things get really interesting in Chapter 3, Technical Background: Ammunition Design and Ballistics, and in Chapter 4, The Development of the Assault Rifle Cartridge. In Chapter 3, after a few pages of requisite background information on cartridge construction and internal and external ballistics, come the charts. Over the next several pages, interspersed in the text, are useful charts or lists quantifying characteristics of typical modern assault rifle cartridges. Sectional Density, bullet mass,velocity loss, Ballistic Coefficient, trajectory and more are shown for comparison. This all comes together at the end of Chapter 3 in the section titled The Search for the Perfect Calibre, accompanied by one last chart Characteristics of Some ‘Ideal’ Cartridges. Indeed, the authors stick their collective necks out and finish by describing their idea of the “perfect” round and why it is so.

Chapter 4 held several surprises. After discussing the origin of purpose-designed assault rifle cartridges through World War II, they delve into the myriad types experimented with in the post-war world. Of course the SPIW and Project SALVO are mentioned. However, many more interesting and enlightening photos, with the text, reveal rare and exotic cartridge designs little known outside of the countries they were designed in. Micro calibers are shown such as the .12 US (3x47) and the ridiculous looking 3.5mm FN (3.5x50.5). Many variations of the Soviet/Russian 39mm case, such as the 9x39, are listed and shown, along with performance data. And while the H&K G11 caseless round is covered, it is nowhere near the oddest of the lot. That label would have to be applied to either the boxy Hughes Lockless cartridge, looking like a small bar of soap, or the truly strange 5.56mm Folded (5.56x25), an attempt to make a rifle cartridge as short as possible. A favorite for its whimsical theme might be the HK/ CETME 4.6x36 round featuring the spoon tip or Löffelspitz bullet.

Part II of the book is titled “The Weapons” in which the authors basically catalog the assault rifles of the world country by country in alphabetical order. Popenker and Williams grant themselves wide latitude in order to review arms other than pure assault rifles to provide perspective. In that way, weapons such as the FAL, the Chinese Type 81S (belt-fed) light machine gun and even the illustrious German FG 42 are included. Written in a tight, concise and thorough manner, this encyclopedic section is an excellent resource, would serve well as a handy reference and enhances the usefulness of the whole book.

If there is any minor nit to pick, it might be the fact that Popenker and Williams seem to believe that the bullpup configuration is the future of assault rifles. They do well to explain their case while admitting the advantages of the traditional layout. However, to see one sterling example of why the bullpup may not be the answer, just view the photograph on page 35 of a Steyr AUG with an M203 40mm grenade launcher attached.

Ambitious in its scope, perhaps audaciously titled considering its relatively small size, Assault Rifle comes through admirably and presents not only good value, but good reading with the promise of future usefulness as a reference and more.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V10N12 (September 2007)
and was posted online on November 16, 2012


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