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Writing About Guns Is Tedious But Useful

March 12, 2015

The National Liberation Army of Colombia

It became a rare thing. A listicle that worked like a crystal ball.

This was The Assault Rifles of the Near Future (TAROTNF), an awful pictures-and-text essay that sought to leave the Internet more knowledgeable about the world’s small arms. It’s been updated thrice in two years to accommodate the staggering number of new rifles from manufacturers.

On any given day of the week TAROTNF attracts massive traffic, a sure sign that structuring content like a BuzzFeed post is a formula for success. (Can the listicle bubble ever burst?) But TAROTNF didn’t just grab international eyeballs. For what seemed the first time ever, here was proof that in our peaceful age conventional weapons are spreading–proliferating–at an incredible rate.

It’s an old dictum in practice. Technology never stands still.

Consider this:

By the end of the 1950s, there were only four assault rifles being exported and mass-produced. The Heckler & Koch G3, the FN FAL, the AK-47, and later on the M16.

Half A Century Later

Today there are a hundred different kinds of assault rifles available for militaries and police forces. Many are variants of older models, others are viable concepts nobody wants to buy. Then there’s a selection of rifles unique to national armies. (Japan’s Howa Type 89 comes to mind.)

If taking an epic survey of assault rifles accomplishes anything, it suggests the general direction semi-automatic weapons are heading toward.

The direction is uniformity.

Assault rifles are turning amorphous and interchangeable. A perfect example is the unexpected journey of the Colt M4. What was meant to be a defensive weapon for rear echelon personnel is now a “modular” rifle that supports countless upgrades and even different calibers–so long as its barrel is replaced.

The M16 and M4 is used by dozens of countries and is the basis for different assault rifles, i.e. the German HK 416, the Turkish MPT-76, the Taiwanese T91 and the Caracal 816 from the UAE.

The far-reaching consequence of this homogenization is what used to be considered military standard no longer applies. The inventory of one national army is the same as its neighbors. Russia mass-produces its own 5.56x45mm rounds for bespoke Kalashnikovs. Bulgaria, Poland, and Romania each build their own 5.45mm AK-74’s.

China’s state-owned arms manufacturers go farther. The PLA might have settled on the bullpup QBZ-95 but the same factories that mass-produce this rifle make at least six other rifles for export: the NAR-10, the Type 81, the Type 56, the AK-2000 (an AK-74 clone), the CQ (an M16 clone), and an M14 clone. Lo and behold, the PLA are transitioning to a new infantry small arm.

The World Goes Flat

Iran is another egregious example. Its military-industrial complex churns out copies of the G3, the M16, the AK-47, dubious experimental rifles, and an assortment of light and heavy weapons. Ditto India and Pakistan.

More governments are reverting to domestic small arms production. The growing list includes Croatia, Sudan, Bangladesh, Azerbaijan, the UAE, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Vietnam.

Up to a half dozen African countries are mass-producing unlicensed AK-47s. In South America several types of assault rifle are churned out by government-owned factories, these include FX-05, the FN FAL, the FN FNC, the AK-47, the SIG 540, and the Galil. Meanwhile, in the US hundreds of startups are either modding or inventing new firearms.

Then there’s Eastern Europe and its orgy of small arms in whatever caliber. Simply put, shopping for rifles and machine guns isn’t hard and is bound to become more convenient. With assault rifles so ubiquitous no country can have better small arms than its rivals.

A solution attempted by the US, France, South Korea, China and now Canada, is a “smart” rifle. But these efforts have proven futile. In the medium-term there could be an ultimate leveling out of conventional weapons. By then the holy grail for R&D are rare specialist “intelligent” firearms.

Or maybe hunter killer robots.

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