"This is my rifle. There are many like it but this one is mine. My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. Without me, my rifle is useless. Without my rifle I am useless. I must fire my rifle true. I must shoot straighter than my enemy, who is trying to kill me. I must shoot him before he shoots me. I will. Before God I swear this creed: my rifle and myself are defenders of my country, we are the masters of our enemy, we are the saviors of my life. So be it, until there is no enemy, but peace. Amen." Gunny Hartman's "Marine's Prayer". Full Metal Jacket.
"This is my rifle, this is my gun <grabs crotch>; this is for firing, this is for fun <grabs crotch again>" Gunny Hartman's "Not a Gun song". Full Metal Jacket.
The stabilizing grooves inside the barrel - known as rifling - were first developed in the 15th Century as a solution to the inaccuracy of smooth bore firearms. Since no better solution than rifling has yet been found, the technology was developed over the centuries until it became the norm rather than the exception in military weapons. In the early years, rifles and smoothbore weapons (see musket) competed fairly evenly for popularity since the tight fit required for a ball to take advantage of rifling greatly reduced the rate of fire of a muzzle loading weapon.1
The gap was shortened first by Minie style obturating bullets and then by the general introduction of breech loading, and with that any advantage from a smooth bored weapon was lost - except for the specialist roles allocated to the shotgun and for certain artillery applications.
Rifle ammunition is generally low calibre, high velocity stuff with a long case for its width that is often necked down to a much narrower bullet - popular calibres for military applications in the present day include 7.62x51mm NATO, 7.62x54mm WARPAC, 7.62mmx39mm WARPAC (the diet of the famous AK47), 5.56x45mm NATO and 5.45x39mm WARPAC - the numbers being the diameter of the bullet x the overall length of the round.
Older calibres include .303 British, .30-06 Springfield and 7.92x57mm Mauser (all popular in WW2) and the .22 rimfire longrifle round used in practice weapons, some suppressed pistols and for vermin control.
Today rifles are traditionally divided into the following subcategories:
- Single action rifles - old fashioned weapons requiring manual re-cocking after each shot, still popular for applications requiring solidity and accuracy and where restrictive governments prevent civilians from owning more effective weapons. Current examples would be the US M40, the UK L96A1 and the civilian Remington 788. All muzzle loading rifles were single action by default.
- Self loading rifles - an intermediate design of rifle which fires one round for every pull of the trigger and then chamber a new round and re-cock themselves. Examples would be the US M14, the UK L1A1 and the Soviet SKS.
- Assault Rifles - rifles capable of fully automatic fire and/or fire in bursts, firing several shots for a single pull of the trigger, recocking and chambering a new round after each. Almost all assault rifles can also fire single shots like a self-loading rifle and some of the more complex designs can fire fully automatic, limited bursts and single shots.
- Assault rifles are often subdivided further into Battle Rifles firing a full calibre (~6.5-8.0mm) round (example: the H&K G3, firing 7.62NATO or the AK47 firing 7.62x39 WARPAC2) and the remainder, which fire more modern lower calibre rounds. Another frequent subdivision of the assault rifle is the Support Rifle such as the BAR or L86, which are sometimes considered light machine guns and sometimes enhanced rifles and frequently do neither job well.
- Finally there is the Carbine - traditionally a rifle or musket shortened for use by horsemen, this designation is generally used today for shortened variants of mainstream rifles such as the L22, the M4, the G36C and the AKS-74U. Confusingly this designation has also been used from time to time for rifle like weapons firing pistol rounds like the WW2 Era M1 Carbine or the modern MP5 family of submachineguns. A carbine may be single action, semi- or fully automatic.
Also worthy of note is the anti material rifle - which will belong to one of the previous types (usually single action or self-loading) but is of a high calibre and heavy loading to allow it to sucessfully attack inanimate objects like vehicles.
In science fiction the term 'rifle' may end up being attached to any longarm that is standard military issue, whether it possesses a rifled barrel or not (e.g. a gauss rifle), or even whether it fires solid ammunition or not (e.g. a laser or a plasma rifle).
Game and Story Use
- Military troops in games in the Modern Era or Twenty Minutes Into The Future will often carry some sort of rifle as their primary armament.
- Some game systems penalize shots with long arms in melee, others give bonuses for point blank fire. This can really alter the dynamics of how a close quarters fighting plays out. See the corresponding section of our Pistol page for more information.