A battle rifle is a military service rifle that is capable of semi or fully automatic fire, and fires a full-powered rifle cartridge. The term "battle rifle" is a retronym created largely out of a need to better differentiate the intermediate-powered assault rifles (e.g. StG-44, AK-47, M16, AUG) from full-powered automatic rifles (e.g. FG-42, FN FAL, M14, H&K G3) as both classes of firearms have a similar appearance and share many of the same features such as detachable magazines, pistol grips, etc.
While most battle rifles largely resemble modern assault rifle designs, the term may also describe older military full-powered semi-automatic rifles such as the M1 Garand, SVT-40, Gewehr 43, FN Model 1949, and MAS-49. Before the 1980s and 1990s, the term was not well defined and was used as a general description for all types of military rifles.
During World War I, all of the world's armies were equipped with bolt-action rifles, and the thought of fully automatic fire in a design that was lightweight and controllable enough to be used by a single soldier was seen as something that would be extremely useful in the static conditions of trench warfare. The Russian Empire produced the world's first battle rifle, the Fedorov Avtomat, which was select-fire and fired the rather underpowered 6.5mm Arisaka round from a 25-round box magazine. Only about 100 were produced and used during the war before the Russian Civil War forced Russia to withdraw its forces in 1917, and so there is an absence of reports on the combat effectiveness of Fedorov rifles, but they continued to be produced until 1925. Fedorov rifles were also used in limited numbers during the opening stages of the Winter War.
The battle rifle was of major significance during World War II, with the United States, Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan all producing them in some capacity, and millions were produced during this era, but overall, with the single exception of the United States, bolt-action rifles were much more common.
At the outbreak of World War Two, the United States was the only nation in the world to have formally adopted a battle rifle as their service rifle. The M1 Garand fired the .30-06 Springfield, and loaded from an eight round en bloc clip. When empty, this clip would eject upwards out of the rifle, making a distinctive ping sound in the process. The adoption of the rifle allowed American riflemen to offer much greater firepower than their enemies, but it was somewhat heavier than the M1903 Springfield that it replaced. Additionally, when inserting a new clip into the rifle, an operator could get their thumb stuck in the bolt, a condition known as Garand Thumb. The Garand continued to see front line service during the Korean War, and served as the basis for the M14 rifle.
The Soviet Union issued one major battle rifle, the SVT-40, which was invented by Fedor Tokarev, who is also well known for creating the Tokarev pistol. It uses the 7.62x54mmR round, and reloaded with a 10-round magazine, but the receiver was open-top, meaning it could also be loaded with 5-round stripper clips, the same ones used in the Mosin Nagant. The SVT's performance was overall unsatisfactory, owing largely to its lack of reliability, in particular that it needed frequent cleaning, and the stock was of a poor quality. Nonetheless, over 1 million rifles were produced, and it continued to see service until the end of the war. Like the Mosin, it was replaced by the AK-47 shortly after World War II. A select-fire variant named the AVT-40 was also produced in limited numbers where regular machine guns such as the DP-27 were not available, but the weapon's 10 round capacity made it somewhat unsuitable for fully automatic fire.
Nazi Germany was responsible for a large amount of experimental weaponry during the war. Among these was the FG-42, a rifle built specifically for the Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers). The rifle was meant to be a jack-of-all-trades, that would be used during the first stages of an airborne operation, before heavier weapons like the MG-42 could be sent in. The FG-42 was a select fire rifle, which had a 20-round magazine that loaded on the left of the rifle, and it used the 7.92x57mm Mauser round. It was first used during the Battle of Rhodes (1943), and continued to see limited service until the end of the war, with a total of about 7,000 produced. Postwar observers were very impressed by the rifle, resulting in the British EM-2 rifle, a failed prototype, and the American M60 Machine Gun, which was standard issue in the U.S. during the Vietnam War. Both of these designs were heavily influenced by the FG-42.
Another German design built during the Second World War was the Gewehr 41, which was produced by Walther Arms and Mauser, and had a 10 round internal magazine, loaded with 2 stripper clips. About 145,000 were produced before the Mauser design was worked upon and made into the Gewehr 43. Externally, the two rifles look mostly identical, and the main difference that sets them apart is that the G43 reloads with external box magazines (10 rounds), and has a short-stroke piston, whereas the G41 uses the same system as that in the M1922 Bang rifle. Over 400,000 G43s were built.
During the Pacific War, the Empire of Japan created the Type 4 rifle, also known as the Type 5, to act as a counter to the American M1 Garand. While initial attempts were made as rudimentary copies of the Garand, it was found that the Japanese 7.7x58mm Arisaka round didn't respond well to being fitted into the Garand's internals, and so, the en-bloc clip design of the Garand was replaced with a 10-round internal magazine, loaded with stripper clips, as was seen in the German Gewehr 41. Only 250 were built, in 1945, when the Imperial Japanese Army was already at its breaking point, and production ceased with the surrender in August of that year.
The most enduring battle rifle of the Cold War is the FN FAL. The FAL is a select-fire rifle, produced by Belgian company FN Herstal, firing 7.62x51mm NATO from 20-round box magazines. It was first produced in 1953, at which point all the nations of the Warsaw Pact were all equipped with the AK-47, or some variant of it, but most NATO countries had their own, domestically produced designs. For instance, the United Kingdom used the Lee-Enfield, America, the M1 Garand, and France, the MAS-49. The FAL was supposed to solve this issue, however, the United States chose not to adopt it, primarily because their own design, the M14 rifle, was a pound lighter, less internally complex, and there was financial benefit for the United States in producing it domestically. At the time of its creation, it was adopted by several NATO countries, including Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, among others. The United Kingdom manufactured their own version of the FAL, the L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle, which is semi automatic. Though assault rifles are typically more common in contemporary usage, the FAL is still in active service in many nations (none of which are in NATO), most notably Brazil. In total, the FAL has been used by over 90 countries, and over seven million have been produced, leading to the rifle's other, unofficial name: "The Right Arm of the Free World.".
The M14 rifle is an American design, made to replace the M1 Garand, which was used as the basis for the M14. It is a fully automatic weapon, firing 7.62x51mm NATO from 20 round box magazines, and was primarily used during the Vietnam War, but once deployed into combat, there were complaints about the weapon's performance, predominantly that it was too difficult to control in full auto, its profile was too long, and the weapon was generally unreliable - a 1962 Department of Defense report described it as "completely inferior" to the M1 Garand. The M14 was eventually replaced by the M16 assault rifle which was a controversial decision - the M16's own lack of reliability, combined with the fact its was much smaller and lighter, and made almost entirely of plastic, lead some soldiers to sardonically call the rifle the 'Mattel 16'. Despite initial shortcomings, however, the M16 remains in American military service to this day, and it is the most produced rifle in its caliber.
After the United States formally adopted the M16 rifle, the precedent was set - intermediate cartridges were more controllable, much lighter, and still offered acceptable levels of penetration, making them a better choice, and gradually battle rifles began to be replaced with weapons such as the Steyr AUG, Heckler & Koch G36, and FAMAS. However, battle rifles do continue to be used in certain roles where the extra power is appreciated, for example, designated marksmen in the Bundeswehr use the HK417. Other examples of contemporary battle rifles include the SCAR-H, Mk 14 Enhanced Battle Rifle and IWI Tavor 7.
Since World War II, Battle Rifle is the term given to standard infantry weapons that fire full-sized rifle cartridges in either semiautomatic or automatic mode.