10 Hallmarks of Assault Weapons — and What They Do

High-capacity Magazine
Signs at a 2011 Florida gun show advertise high-capacity magazines and accessories. © Roy Morsch/Corbis

Early rifles and handguns fired a single shot, a characteristic embodied by weapons like the Springfield Model 1855 rifle-musket, which saw extensive use in the American Civil War. While the Springfield was a fine weapon, the need for greater firing efficiency drove manufacturers to develop guns that could hold multiple rounds of ammunition and then chamber and fire those rounds rapidly.

All those rounds necessitated a structure to hold them, so the magazine was born. Spencer and Henry repeating rifles, or repeaters, featured magazines that ran through the butt or under the barrel of the gun respectively. These were followed by bolt-action rifles with integral box magazines, such as the Mauser Gewehr 1898 and the Springfield Model 1903. In these early weapons, the magazines held between five and 15 rounds, giving soldiers firepower they simply couldn't achieve with single-shot muskets.

The next giant leap came with the introduction of detachable magazines in semi-automatic or automatic weapons. Now a soldier could fire 15, 20, even 30 rounds of ammunition without pausing to reload. And with several magazines waiting in the wings, he could fire hundreds of rounds in a matter of minutes. Modern semi-automatic weapons used by civilians, including popular pistols such as the Glock 17, continue this tradition. Most feature removable magazines capable of holding up to 30 rounds, and a few accept high-capacity drums packed with 50 rounds. Some gun control advocates think this is too much firepower in nonmilitary situations and are seeking to ban magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.

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