The news that front-line Toronto police officers will soon be equipped with C8 patrol carbines ought to get us thinking. There’s room for debate on whether these weapons actually belong in every police cruiser, given that Toronto is the safest large city in North America, given a falling crime rate, and given that you can count the number of times the ordinary police officer has needed such a weapon in the past ten years, nation wide, without taking off your mittens. On the other hand, on rare occasions, officers have died only because they were outgunned. But I don’t want to talk about whether cops need rifles. As usual, I want to talk about language: about the words “patrol carbine,” what they mean, and what they really tell us.
What is this patrol carbine? The C8 is the carbine version of the C7 rifle, which is itself an adaptation of the US Army’s M16, which in turn is derived from the AR-15. The Canadian Forces adopted the C7 and C8 in the late 1980s, to replace the FN C1 rifle and the Sterling submachine gun. The C8 differed from the C7 in having a shorter barrel and a collapsible stock. It is a selective fire weapon chambered for 5.56 x 45mm NATO, an intermediate cartridge, fed by a detachable box magazine.
In other words, the C8 is the kind of gun that’s normally called an “assault rifle.”
Nowadays, disgruntled gun owners like to grouse that “assault rifle” is an expression coined by “the antis” in an Orwellian attempt to demonize semi-automatic rifles. But the truth is that the term “assault rifle” first appeared in gun magazines, to describe modern military firearms that had evolved from earlier “battle rifles.”
As usual, a brief history lesson is in order. Up to (and during) World War II, the world’s armies used bolt-action rifles: rifles that reloaded from a box magazine when the shooter manually operated the bolt. These guns fired full-bore cartridges, such as the British .303, and could kill at long range. But times were changing: armies needed rifles with a higher rate of fire. And on the bloody eastern front, the Germans and Russians made a discovery: most infantry combat occurred at short range, where full-bore rifle cartridges were unnecessary. What they needed was a hybrid: something like a submachine gun, but with enough punch to kill at 300 yards if necessary.
The German answer was the StG 44, which had three important features. First, it fired an intermediate cartridge, a compromise between a full bore rifle cartridge and the relatively weak pistol cartridges used in submachine guns. Second, it had a detachable 30-round box magazine, like a submachine gun. And third, it was a selective-fire weapon: one with both semi-automatic and fully automatic modes.
After the war, the Russians followed the German example with the AK-47. The United States, meanwhile, stuck to full-bore cartridges, replacing the Garand with the M14, until experience pushed them towards the AK-47 model. Gun writers, looking to distinguish the two approaches, called full bore semi-automatic or selective fire rifles, such as the M14, “battle rifles.” The children of the StG 44 and AK-47, they called “assault rifles,” by translating the full name of the StG 44: Sturmgewehr.
An assault rifle is a specific kind of weapon: a selective fire weapon firing an intermediate cartridge, that used detachable box magazines. Or it was a specific thing, until marketers stepped in. Advertisements for civilian versions of military rifles, such as the AR-15, touted these rifles as “assault rifles” even though they didn’t fit the strict definition. And after high-profile mass public shootings in the late 1980s, gun control advocates further muddied the water with “assault weapon,” a term intended to include not only assault rifles but other guns, such as semi-automatic, civilianized submachine guns.
The word “assault” became inconvenient. What were we to call a semi-automatic rifle with a detachable box magazine, chambered for an intermediate cartridge? The National Shooting Sports Foundation now calls them “modern sporting rifles,” suggesting that they’re no different from all those bolt action rifles that came home from the war and became deer rifles. Other people like to call them “black rifles,” for the customary colour of their stocks and forearms.
We now have numerous names for the same gun: assault rifle, assault weapon, modern sporting rifle, black rifle. And naturally, those names all serve political ends. The assault rifle and the modern sporting rifle are fundamentally the same gun, but “assault rifle” and “modern sporting rifle” are two very different things.
And if that wasn’t Orwellian enough for you, enter Canadian police, who call this thing a “patrol carbine” when a police officer carries it, and an “assault weapon” when it’s in the hands of the public.
Why is this? I have to think it’s because the people throwing this language around believe that people are idiots, who are easily manipulated by word games. And the sad thing is, they may be right. I don’t see a lot of people discussing how or if we ought to regulate semi-automatic, intermediate rifles with detachable box magazines. I do see a distressing number of people fighting pointlessly over the definition of “assault rifle.”