Lines Blur Between Military, Civilian Firearms
Firearms manufacturers, in their quest to build lighter, more reliable rifles and handguns for shooting sports and to kill opposing military forces, are increasingly blurring the line between what is appropriate for troops in combat and what is available for purchase for everyone from competitive marksmen to soccer moms.
The proliferation of AR-15 style assault rifles and accessories was readily apparent at the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s annual SHOT Show in Las Vegas.
Glock, the company that was inaccurately maligned in the 1990s for producing a pistol made primarily of composite plastic, has straddled the line between military and commercial sales.
“Our guns were initially designed for the Austrian military, which wanted a compact, safe, reliable last line of defense,” Mike Robinson, Glock’s director of marketing, told National Defense. “Those design elements translate easily to the commercial market. The purpose of these weapons are the same for both customers — keep me alive, keep me safe.”
At least seven companies debuted new versions of the M-16 that US. troops have carried since the Vietnam War. High-capacity tactical shotguns that can hold dozens of shells and are shorter and more compact than hunting guns were also ubiquitous at the show. Extremely powerful bolt-action sniper-style rifles were also prevalent. Many were chambered in .50 caliber, which the military uses for long-range firing up to a mile and are capable of disabling vehicles.
In a twist of irony, the Obama administration announced Jan. 16 the most sweeping gun-control legislation since the repeal of the 1994 assault weapons ban on the same day that SHOT Show, the largest firearms trade show on Earth, was at its apex.
President Obama signed 23 executive orders and asked Congress to both reinstate an assault weapons ban and expand mandatory background checks for prospective gun buyers.
On the heels of several mass-shootings, the debate over what sort of firearms civilians should be able to own has caught fire. At the center of the controversy is the AR-15 family of weapons, designated by the military and the M-16. That weapon, and its smaller cousin the M-4 carbine, are well known because of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Companies like Lancer are on the cutting edge of perfecting these weapons for military, law enforcement and sporting uses. The desires of one customer often overlap with those of the others, said Kas McManus, senior product engineer for Lancer.
“Our engineering for both the sporting world and military applications started with weight reduction,” McManus said. “Using polymer parts, we can shave ounces and even pounds off of standard materials used to build these rifles. For competitive marksmen, it means they can have a faster, more accurate rifle with less fatigue. For soldiers, every time we can eliminate weight, it allows them to carry more ammo and provides better operations.”
Lancer is pioneering weight reduction and ease of use for both the military and commercial markets. The application of polymer materials for rifle parts and accessories, including magazines, has reduced weight by 30 percent versus traditional hardened-steel materials, McManus said.
The company is also researching materials that are specifically designed to tolerate high heat for both military and commercial applications, including composites for use in unmanned aerial vehicles — more evidence of the blurring of the line between what is considered appropriate for combat and what should be legal for home defense or the civilian firing range.
A contributing factor to the confusion surrounding what makes a “military assault rifle” as opposed to what companies here are trying their hardest to rebrand as a “modern sporting rifle” is that military and civilian desires often overlap. Research-and-development efforts on the part of firearms manufacturers bounce back and forth between the military customer and the civilian. Remington and Colt both straddle that divide. Both companies, along with other major suppliers like Glock, Sig Sauer and FN Herstal, have both defense and commercial divisions.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation maintains that characteristics that define an “assault rifle” are merely cosmetic. They include a folding or telescoping stock, a pistol grip, a bayonet mount, flash suppressor or grenade launcher. Under the 1994 ban, any two of these elements branded a weapon an “assault rifle.”
“The rifles do resemble military firearms such as the M4, but the similarities are cosmetic only,” a NSSF statement reads. “Since the 19th century, civilian sporting rifles have evolved from their military predecessors, and the modern sporting rifle follows that tradition.”
An NSSF survey of modern sporting rifle owners revealed that 30 percent of the firearms were purchased between 2008 and 2010 and that more than half the respondents own more than one MSR. Respondents overwhelmingly use their rifles for recreational target shooting or hunting and most enjoyed “accessorizing them” for high performance.”
Still, political tides are turning against the firearms that have been used in high-profile shootings of late. An owner of a small gun shop said that he and his business partners have dipped into their personal firearms collection just to keep their shelves stocked in the face of rampant demand.
"People who aren't gun owners just don't understand why gun owners care so much about them," he said. "It's difficult to explain, but it's our right to own and sell guns."
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