Machine Guns: How They Operate And Legality Of Their Ownership

October 25, 2019






By Marc Kelley

Syndicated by: Montana News

This week we will take a short look at automatic weapons. We will explore the various types of automatic weapons and some basic design features common to their function. While this overview is not intended to be a complete discussion of automatic weapons, it will serve as an introductory glimpse into what makes a firearm, a machine gun, the differences in how they operate and a brief look into how a private citizen can legally own a fully automatic weapon.





In my lifetime I have had the pleasure, or perhaps a better term would be, the "exhilarating experience" of handling several firearms of the full auto variety. While each and every weapon has its own points of interest, along with its own strengths and weaknesses, each are a very special and unique piece of engineering and history. If you are to understand automatic weapons or any other weapon for that matter, you must first learn a little about the firearm and how they function. Rather than going into a full blown lecture on physics, metallurgy and ballistic tables, I will explain some basic concepts of how full automatic weapons function, the difference between a machine-gun and a sub-machine gun and how the rate of fire, or cyclic rate is accomplished.





The terms Machine gun and sub-machine gun are often mis-used or used interchangeably. However, once you understand the difference, you will never again, confuse the two classes. A machine gun utilizes a rifle caliber cartridge, while a sub-machine gun utilizes an intermediate or pistol caliber cartridge. Perhaps the most recognizable American sub-machine gun, is the Thompson 1928 A1. The Thompson was designed around the 45 ACP cartridge, also know as the 45 Colt Automatic Pistol cartridge. The 45 ACP is legendary for its stopping power and when combined with the rate of fire of the Thompson, little can stand in its way. The brain child of John T. Thompson, this powerful weapon was designed in 1918 and put into production in 1921. Regardless of the moniker you prefer, The Chicago Typewriter, The Chopper or simply the Tommy Gun, it is easy to understand how this weapon became the favored tool of the prohibition gangsters, the FBI and our military. The Thompson is fed with either 30 round stick magazines or can be fitted with a 100 round drum magazine. Everything about the Thompson screams firepower!




The Thompson is designed to fire from what is called, an open bolt position. This design feature is easily recognized, as it requires the bolt of weapon to be pulled open, to its rear position to be fired. Unlike the firearms we are most familiar with today, a weapon which fires from an open bolt, does not utilize a true firing pin. Rather, the bolt itself has a solid point milled into its face. When the trigger is pulled the bolt travels forward picking up a fresh round from the magazine and chambering it into the weapon. As the inertia of the bolt moves forward the solid point impacts the primer of the cartridge as it seats it into the chamber, causing the weapon to discharge. As the energy created from the spent cartridge pushes back against the spent cartridge, the bolt is allowed to move backward, ejecting the spent shell casing and pushing against the recoil spring allowing it to clear the chamber. As long as the trigger remains depressed, this type of action will cycle back and forth. As each forward movement chambers a live round, it will be struck by the pointed bolt face, resulting in the discharge of another round. 






The advantage of a weapon which fires from the open bolt position, is found in the simplicity of the action.Weapons firing from the open bolt position generally, have fewer moving parts. The firing pin is often milled into the bolt face, saving on manufacturing costs; the inertia of the bolt closing also causes the fixed firing pin to strike a blow on the primer, without need for a separate hammer/striker and spring. In automatic weapons an open bolt helps eliminate the dangerous phenomenon known as "cook-off"; wherein, the firing chamber becomes so hot, rounds spontaneously fire without the trigger being pulled and will continue to fire until the ammunition is exhausted. Open-bolt designs typically operate much cooler than closed-bolt designs, due to the airflow that is allowed into the chamber, action, and barrel during pauses between bursts. It is this feature which makes the open bolt design, more suitable for full-automatic weapons. 





As with most designs, firing from and open bolt position also has its negatives. A weapon which fires from an open bolt position is more likely to discharge if it is dropped. The open mechanism is at a much greater risk of picking up dirt and other debris, when it is in the ready position and may require an additional ejector cover, to prevent dust and dirt from entering the mechanism.






On the other end of the spectrum, some automatic weapon designers prefer a weapon which fires from a closed bolt. The closed bolt position, is without a doubt, the design most familiar to gun owners today. When this weapon is in the ready fire position, a round is chambered and the bolt is locked into the forward position. When the weapon is fired, the firing pin or striker discharges the round, the action is cycled by the energy of the spent cartridge, pushing the bolt to the rear, compressing the recoil spring, while extracting and ejecting the empty cartridge case. The bolt then moves forward, pushed by the recoil spring, feeding a fresh round from the magazine into the chamber and is ready for the next shot.





The advantage of a weapon, firing from a closed bolt position comes in terms of accuracy. Less movement of the heavy action prior to discharge, results in greater accuracy. Additionally, each round sits consistently in the chamber and because the action remains closed the majority of the time, the likelihood foreign debris entering the firearms action, is greatly reduced. Yet another advantage of the closed bolt, is a shorter interval between the operator pulling the trigger and round being fired, this operation is simply known as "lock time".





Just as weapons which fire from an open bolt have their disadvantages, the disadvantages of a weapon firing from the closed bolt position are two fold. First, are the economics, producing a weapon which fires from a closed bolt is both more complicated and more expensive to manufacture. Second is safety, less heat dissipation from the closed chamber increases the danger of "cooking off" ammunition, resulting in uncontrolled firing of the weapon. It is this consideration which led to the design concept of "quick change" barrels. A hot barrel can be quickly replaced by a fresh, cool barrel, allowing the gunner to continue to fire his weapon effectively. Additionally, the presence of a live round in the chamber, can be a safety hazard, as even when the magazine is removed, the round in the chamber will still be ready to fire.





Many people, including most of our elected officials in Washington D.C., will tell you, a private citizen cannot own a fully automatic weapon. Once again, this premise is incorrect. It is the 1934 National Firearms Act which regulates machine-guns. The 1934 NFA, sets forth the requirements for private ownership of machine-guns as well as suppressors, and short barreled rifles and shotguns. These items are said to be Class III weapons; and as such, must be registered with the government. Additionally, a $ 200.00 tax must be paid on each Class III item in your possession. The background check for a class III item is more extensive than the NICS background check, which was mandated by the 1993 Brady Act and has become standard for all sales and transfers which utilize a Federal Firearms License holder. The bottom line is….if you can pass a NICS check or if you hold a concealed weapons permit, you can more likely than not, pass a class III background check.






In a 1982 ruling, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms found that semi-automatic weapons which fire from an open bolt are readily and easily converted to allow fully automatic fire. Therefore, such weapons manufactured after the June 21, 1982 ruling, are classified and regulated as fully automatic weapons. Weapons manufactured prior to the date of this ruling are grandfathered and are still considered semi-automatic. And once again, in an effort to protect us from the evils of certain firearms, our Government created a market for these weapons, which have continued to increase in value and are greatly sought after by collectors and firearm enthusiasts alike.






Today, you will hear many political pundits, presidential wanna be's and anti-gun, special interest groups, try to explain how the Second Amendment can be interpreted to restrict gun ownership. The Second Amendment, does not place restrictions on the ownership of weapons or the types of weapons which can be legally owned; but rather, it is a restriction on our government itself. When framing our Constitution, The Founding Fathers worried, inevitably political power would ultimately result in corruption and tyranny, threatening the very rights we fought to secure, during the American Revolution. The Second Amendment was not written to give permission to our citizens to own firearms, it was written to place a restriction on our own government. The Second Amendment guarantees "The right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." Regardless of the changes in technology, the Second Amendment does not limit or define our right to own firearms, it simply forbids government interference in our right to keep and bear arms…..PERIOD.


It is a commonly held premise, it is The Second Amendment, which guarantees all other rights afforded to us, as US citizens. Next time you hear one of the self proclaimed enlightened members of the ruling class, explain how they will be coming for your guns, hand them a history book and refer them to the section of the Revolutionary War. Confiscating the firearms of law abiding citizens, will never be a good idea and will certainly end badly, for everyone involved.



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