Getting the terms right: semiautomatic vs. automatic rifles

An excerpt from the Encyclopedia Britannica website defines the term assault rifle as a “military firearm that is chambered for ammunition of reduced size or propellant charge and that has the capacity to switch between semiautomatic and fully automatic fire.”

The latter part of the assault rifle definition, “the capacity to switch between semiautomatic and fully automatic fire,” is significant.

A semiautomatic firearm will shoot a single bullet when someone depresses the trigger. Semiautomatic rifles take many shapes, including the traditional hunting rifle that responsible outdoorsmen have been using since 1885.

An automatic firearm, on the other hand, will rapidly shoot bullets until it runs out of ammunition or the trigger is released. Automatic rifles take on many shapes but are primary designed for war and have been around since 1887.

Automatic firearms are prohibited in Canada and are expensive and highly regulated in the United States.

Some modern semiautomatic firearms appear similar to full automatic versions, much like many sports cars have similar appearances.

What is under the hood, however, determines their real performance. Although two sports cars may appear similar on the surface, the engineering inside one car can greatly outperform the other.


Unlike upgrading sports cars, however, it is often difficult to modify legalized semiautomatic firearms to automatic.

Many of these firearms may appear the same on the surface to the casual observer, but experts are usually involved in determining which are legally appropriate for civilian circulation after studying their internal engineering.

If you see a military stylized rifle in the hands of a civilian, rest assured it is likely to be a semiautomatic and not truly an “assault rifle.”

Unfortunately, some members of the media seem to ignore or are unaware of these facts when reporting news relating to firearms.

Frequently we find non-automatic rifles and shotguns described as assault weapons. It would seem that if journalists were to be credible news sources, they must report clearly and concisely on the facts of a story.

It is equally important to think critically about what is presented by the media. If a story gains your attention, you should diligently consider it before drawing substantial conclusions. It could be misleading to accept things at face value.


Firearms are serious subjects. They deserve respect when discussing and handling them. Treating them without logical sober thought is dangerous both for the individual and society. This responsibility should ex-tend to the news media.

Firearms are also incredibly useful tools. Like the individual pieces of gear in a handyman’s toolbox, each firearm has a different specialization. There are firearms that aid in national security, some that help put food on the table, others that protect farms and remote homes from predators and others that are used in sports competition.

Each kind of firearm has an appropriate time and place to be used, much like a hammer is used for one task while a handsaw is used for another.

We need to be concise if we are to treat firearms with the respect they deserve.

Kim Quintin is a Saskatoon outdoor enthusiast and knife maker. He can be reached for column content suggestions at


  • watt smith

    This article would be so much more useful if it didn’t ignore the existence of the term, “Assault Weapon” and lump it together with, “Assault Rifle”. Assault weapon is a legal term created in the early 90s to describe semiautomatic firearms that had the appearance of fully automatic assault rifles, pistols, and/or shotguns so they could be banned. The law is a bit more specific than that, but for the sake of brevity it’s based on cosmetic features. Ignoring this stupid term won’t make it go away and only adds to the confusion. Please stop leaving out the fact that an assault rifle and an assault weapon are two completely different things.

  • Kim Quintin

    Hey Watt Smith,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. You make some valid points.

    When writing the article, I determined the ideological swamp that surrounds “assault weapons” would extend into a number of newspaper pages beyond the scope of a single column, which was why I tried to focus on the media’s misuse of the term “assault rifle” for now.

    The issue of firearm cosmetics upsetting the inexperienced observer particularly troubles me. It is difficult to educate the disinterested and fearful, which seems to be an topic some parties wrongfully capitalize on to suit their own goals.

  • Erik N

    Mr. Kim Quintin,

    Great piece! I’d like to mention (not that I assume you’re unaware of this) some other terms and language use around firearms that seems to be popping up all over Canadian media. Terms like “unrestricted” and “sniper rifle”… The use of “unrestricted” when referring to “non-restricted” firearms is pretty obvious, it implies that there are NO restrictions on the firearms when in fact there are. As we know, the only major differences between a “restricted” and “non-restricted” firearm are storage/transportation requirements and where they can be used. Next is “sniper rifle”, this seems to be used to describe any rifle with a scope mounted on it… Again, inaccurate, but it serves their purpose…

  • John

    Good article. I would like to see more of these type of educational pieces regarding firearms, and firearms violence in the mainstream media. There is definitely too many people in canada that have limited knowledge on the subject, but believe these riffles are more dangerous than a woodstock bolt action.

    And too many people that have been fooled into thinking firearms in the hands of civilians means blood in the streets. Keep it up please.

  • Kim Quintin

    Hey Erik N. and John,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I have always been a fan of positive dialogue.

    This article was intended to focus on the misuse of basic terms relating to firearms, particularly in the wrongful use of “assault rifles” in the media and how the casual observer could be led astray. I have seen frequently in the media, as you may have as well.

    This topic touches on many other firearm-related issues but I felt it wise to try and stick with this issue and keep it reasonably simple. The Outdoor Pursuits column of the Western Producer was intended to be a series of location and product reviews with some opinion articles. I am happy to see this particular article has struck a chord with some readers and I hope it fosters positive firearms discussion for those interested.

  • BigRevolver

    Good article.
    People, including kids, should have more training on firearm safety and firearm recognition, which will help them in urgent situations.

  • Wait a minute. When will triggers be released and become illegal in Canada? Or maybe I misunderstood the cutline.
    Just being picky because my wife’s an editor.

  • James Wiebe

    Excellent article ! What you have, perhaps inadvertently, done is to highlight the deliberate misuse of language to demonize firearm owners; in the first place by those with an agenda and secondly by those in the media who should know better but who all too often are influenced by the same agenda. So much for dispassionate reporting.