Ask Ian: Most Changed/Updated Rifle of the 20th Century?

From Nick on Patreon:

“What small arm of the 20th century do you think got the most updates and changes from first production model to last? Was the effort worth it? Or should this country/company have adopted an entirely new design at some point before that last production?”

After initially jumping to the Mosin Nagant and then the Enfield, I realized that I think this really comes down to a question of AR vs AK. Both of those two rifles have been adapted and redesigned (updated and changed) for use in a wide variety of different roles. Ultimately I think the AK takes the prize on this question, with these variations:

Original AK-47, intended to be used as a submachine gun.
AKM, completely redesigned receiver and intended to be infantry rifle.
RPK, Heavier barrel, new trunnion and stock to be a squad automatic weapon/LMG.
PSL/Yugo M76, larger caliber, serve as designated marksman rifles.
AKS-74U, new top cover and sights, much shorter for use as PDW/SMG.

And plenty more less significant examples…

The shirt, BTW, is from Otte Gear.


  1. I would look at the AK as the champion because it was made in large numbers in a wartime-developed caliber, then that was officially replaced by the same basic design in a modern sub-caliber and again made in large numbers. The closest parallels with other guns involved enough changes that they were considered a different gun, i.e. M1 vs M14. The H&K and FN jumps from 7.62 NATO to 5.56 are treated as different guns because all dimensions are different. On paper you can turn an AKM into an AK-74 with a new barrel and bolt though I’ve never heard of it being done.

    • “(…)On paper you can turn an AKM into an AK-74 with a new barrel and bolt though I’ve never heard of it being done.”
      AK-74 rifle – a thoroughly modified AKM chambered for the new 5.45×39 mm caliber. The interchangeability rate between the AK-74 and AKM, despite the nearly identical appearance, is down to a mere 50% – and then limited to non-essential internal parts, like pins, retainers, screws, springs etc.

      • This is also why the AK series has never had the multiplicity of different calibers and etc. that the AR series has. Simply put, the AK feed geometry does not react well to a cartridge which strays very far from the dimensional and contour parameters of the 7.62 x 39mm M1943 round.

        Consider the amount of work that was needed to redesign it to accommodate the 7.62 x 54Rmm in the SVD. That’s not even including changing from the short-stroke to long-stroke piston action. Versions of the SVD in 7.9 x 57mm and 7.62 x 51mm required even more careful revision.

        By comparison, purely non-military versions of the AR action have shown that given a bit of adjustment in the dimensions of upper and lower receivers, it can apparently accommodate any cartridge you might conceivably want in an actual shoulder-fired rifle. And that’s not even including such items as a bolt-action upper feeding from a horizontal magazine in calibers like .408 CheyTac or .50 BMG.

        The AR may be the single most versatile rifle action/system ever designed. I grew up being a bit suspicious of it based on the early problems in Vietnam, but it appears that I was wrong. Those were the fault of Army Ordnance, not the designers at Armalite.



  2. Well, one forgotten weapon because under estimated is the Kommission gewehr 1888. Mannlicher manufactured it with modifications of extractor and ejector and this was the birth of the turn bolt Mannlichers including the Schoenauer. Austrian, germans and asians made a number of variatoins on this action. We can nearly include the 98-40 /M43. A great book exists on the 88 Kommission, in german but maybe an english version.


    Such a creature does not exist, anywhere, in any military documentation from the era when they were designed and fielded. Period. If someone can point out a use of that term to me that pre-dates the 1980s American fevered dreams of various gun magazine writers, I’ll happily stand corrected. You won’t do it, however. Not in English.

    “Battle rifle” is an utter oxymoron of a construction. WTF would a military rifle be for, if not battle? Do we issue “Peace rifles”? Has there ever been an individual combat weapon that we issued for non-battle purposes? Do we speak of “Riot rifles” specifically designed and produced for riot control operations?

    They’re rifles. Period. Quit paying homage to those cretins of the 1980s gun press who came up with the term. They don’t deserve it, at all; much of the misinformation and BS we have in the small arms world today stems from their incompetency, poor scholarship, and general ignorance. “Assault Rifle”, anyone? As if a semi-automatic rifle without the capability could be such a thing, in the first place… Let alone, let us not forget that the term itself was an artifact of Nazi German propaganda.


    Rant mode, off. I have another minor quibble with Ian’s answer to this question. He really didn’t answer it, at all. What he answered and provided good evidence for, would more accurately be the question of “What was the most versatile weapon of the 20th Century?”.

    The question was “What small arm of the 20th century do you think got the most updates and changes from first production model to last? Was the effort worth it? Or should this country/company have adopted an entirely new design at some point before that last production?”

    This is not the AK series of weapons. It isn’t the AR-10 through M4 Carbine, either. Those would easily get the “Most Versatile” ribbon, but what the question is actually asking is more along the lines of “Who screwed the pooch the hardest and most thoroughly, necessitating massive and deep modifications to make it work?”

    By the nature of the beast, those weapons would all be mostly failures. You don’t really need to heavily modify “success”, which Mikhail Kalashnikov’s and Eugene Stoner’s teams attained almost right off the bat.

    The real contender for “most updated and changed” would be something like the UK’s L85. Mainly because they had to change it, not because they could. You could issue the original AK47 and M16 in their original formats today, and they’d still be effective weapons. As we see in the Russian mobilization for Ukraine…

    No, the real winner for this question isn’t the AK series or the M16 series: Those are contenders for the title of “most versatile”, and given that the AK has lent its basic mechanism to things like the PK, I’d have to submit that it wins, hands down, for “Most Versatile”.

    The real winner for this question? I’d be willing to entertain other contenders that I maybe don’t know as well, because they were utter failures, but I’d have to say that the L85 ought to get the nod for actually requiring the most changes and modifications to remain on issue over its service life.

    The HK G3 ought to in there somewhere, in terms of what it was adapted to, but I feel like its relatively short service life in first-line service compared to the AK and M16 militates against it getting the nod for “Most Versatile”. Part of the reason for that was the roller-delay monomania of HK itself; they applied that principle to thing it was clearly not suited for, and paid the price in terms of service longevity.

    So, yeah… I’m quibbling with Ian on this one.

    • “WTF would a military rifle be for, if not battle? Do we issue “Peace rifles”? Has there ever been an individual combat weapon that we issued for non-battle purposes?”

      U.S. Magazine Rifle, 7.62mm, Model of 1916 would seem to qualify, although we later did issue it for battle purposes. Its original purpose in US service was as a training rifle. ; )

      (And yes, the name seems to be made up. Ordnance called them Russian three-line rifle, caliber 7.62mm).

      The L85 is a good fit to the question in a negative way, and absolutely the Brits should have given up & just adopted the AR, which they are increasingly doing.

      The G3 soldiers on in Swedish Reserve service, so I’d say service longevity is there.

      • Note the minor caveat of “front line service” in my statement. The G3 hasn’t been on general issue with a major military power since the early 1990s, same as the FN FAL.

    • “(…)someone can point out a use of that term to me that pre-dates the 1980s American fevered dreams of various gun magazine writers, I’ll happily stand corrected. You won’t do it, however. Not in English.”
      I can.
      Hatcher’s Notebook, 1957 edition, page 169
      …Finally, ex-
      perience by the Marines with both types in the Southwest Pacific
      demonstrated the fact that the Garand was unquestionably a better
      battle rifle than the Johnson. The Johnson rifles that the Marines
      had acquired were turned in and Garands obtained to take their

      Scan is available for viewing

      • In English, Hatcher was not using that in the sense that “battle rifle” was a class of weapon. He was using in terms of “fitness for use in battle”, and I would also point out that there’s nothing official in Hatcher’s work, either.

        Maybe I better qualify what I said and meant a little better: The term “battle rifle” is not to be found ANYWHERE in any official doctrinal military publication I’ve ever seen. And, I’ve gone looking through everything the US published, a lot of Canadian and British stuff, and nowhere do you find any official use of that term in reference to a class of firearms. The usage “battle rifle” only really appeared as a class designation in the 1980s within the civilian gun press, which was full of idiocy and effrontery beyond belief. Few of those asses knew much about the subject of military rifles or doctrine, and were beyond contempt for the number of fallacies and outright lies they told the public. I blame them for a lot of our problems, much as I blame the inimical influence of the “gravel bellies” back in the old days. The fact that the term “battle rifle” as a class term has now penetrated into semi-official military use is a marker of how inimical the lies and BS were, and how poorly trained much of our military is when it comes to actual skill-at-arms with their weapons.

        Few of these idiots are actually even vaguely familiar with the original source documents; they accept what they read in entirely unverified and ill-informed sources as being gospel truths, when the reality is that they’re merely mouthing vapid and entirely erroneous misspeakings of people whose ignorance is both vast and deep as the Mariana’s Trench.

        I wouldn’t mind, so much, but when you spend a career dealing with the lies and misinformation these assholes spouted, trying to fight back against the misinformation? It’s maddening to see it propagated.

        Ever wonder where all the BS about “Matty Mattel M-16s” came from? Who told all these people that the M-16 was an irreparable POS, beyond help? The gun press of the 1980s. Swear to God, about half of any training class I ever ran on small arms was spent in refuting and correcting the crap people picked up out of those things, like “…the M-16 was designed to wound…” or “…the M-16 tumbles through the body, tearing off limbs…”

        The use of the term “Battle Rifle” as a class designation for the 7.62 NATO rifles once prevalent in the West is a clear case of BS coming out of the ignorami of the press. Drives me f*cking nuts, every time I hear it.

      • Daweo, look at the fact that the term used there is a qualifier that actually makes sense–“Drill Rifle” meaning that it was not a rifle to take to war. You had to add the qualifier to identify that it was merely a training dummy.

        They did feel the need to add “battle rifle” to the nomenclature for the non-drill rifles; “rifle” was enough of an identifier, and calling it a “battle rifle” would have been seen as senseless superfluity.

    • Kirk,

      I think the term “battle rifle” came about to distinguish 7.62mm rifles (which were probably best used in semi-auto mode, by and large) from 5.56mm assault rifles, which were properly selective fire. So a “battle rifle” does not fire an intermediate cartridge, and does not need to have full auto capability. An assault rifle does. An “assault weapon” is something Joe Biden does not need to define in order to try and ban.

      Thank you for thinking of the unloved SA80 series. As you so rightly say, change was ab absolute necessity for the dog which was the L85A1. The subsequent L85A2 has now reached the dizzying heights of being “adequate”, as per the Gun Jesus.

      Was that you commenting on Samizdata the other day? If so, glad to see we follow the same sites!

      • John, I’d agree that the construct can be useful in discussion. What I object to is that the people using it mouth it as though it really meant something, when it manifestly does not. Go looking for the term “battle rifle” in the various and sundry NATO dictionaries; no such animal. NONE.

        Tactically, the people designing and issuing the things saw no differentiation at all between them and any other previous iteration of “rifle”, nor did they make any distinction between the later 5.56mm general issue individual weapons. You do not see the M-14 manuals emblazoned with “Battle Rifle, M-14…” on their covers. It is a null term, of no meaning or value to any discussion of tactics. You don’t operate differently because your formations were equipped with the FAL, the G3, or the M-14. No doubt, they should have, but they did not. There wasn’t a separate set of Infantry manuals for the formations with the M-14 vice the M-16, although there were cases where the implications came through, like having the M-16 substitute for the Automatic Rifle role by having more magazines and a bipod issued to that slot in the fire team.

        Language is a tool of thought; the 13th Analect of Confucius explicates why sloppy language leads to ill-disciplined and mistaken thought, which then leads to poorly conceived actions resulting in failure. This is the main reason I object to this fake-military terminology being used, and I truly despise the fact that it’s leaked back across the BS barrier from civilian “journalism” into actual military use.

        Had any of the people at the time said “Yeah, we’re building us a “battle rifle” when they designed and procured any of the 7.62 NATO rifles? I’d have zero objections to use of the term. Raw fact is, they didn’t make that class distinction, because they did not consider any such thing as their having been working to create such a class of weapons. The distinction didn’t exist in their minds.

        The other question is, is the term really of any real value? Are those rifles sufficiently different from their predecessors and successors so as to be worthy of an entirely new class designator? I would submit that they do not. You don’t fight any differently with a 7.62 NATO rifle in your formations than you did with an M-1 or an M-16. Arguably, maybe you should have, in detail, but if you go back and trace it out…? What changes have been made to small unit tactics derive not from the rifles but from supporting arms.

        And, yeah… That was me, over on Samizdata. I can’t help myself, sometimes.

        • The only actual change in Manual of Arms I’ve seen is regarding bullpups, which require different “maneuvers” when used on parade.

          For instance, when the command “Fix bayonets” is given. It’s the same for the M16 as it was for the M1903, or the M1892 Krag for that matter. Ground the butt, withdraw bayonet from scabbard, attach, evolution complete.

          Now watch a British soldier do it with the SA80 series. Grip butt between knees, hold rifle at fifty-degree upward angle, then fix bayonet. Not quite like doing it on an SMLE, No. 4, or LAR.

          Watching Her Majesty’s state funeral, I was struck by the care with which he troops were holding the rifles while at attention. It seems to me that it would take practice to hold the rifle in the vertical, hand cupped under the butt, without it pivoting forward and being dropped.

          I’ve noticed that the U.S. forces still retain M14s or, in the USN’s and USCG’s case, even M1 Garands for such duties.



          • Eon:

            You are right, the SA80 family is really too short for drill, and the British army has to work around that. There is no way to ground it whilst retaining hold of it, it is too short, so the soldier has to bear the weight at all times. Sadly, it weighs about as much as an L1A1.

            I do think that the L1A1 was perhaps the best rifle for drill, long enough to be grounded, and the pistol grip made it very convenient to carry at shoulder arms. So the guys who had to drill between 1960 and 1990 had the best of it.

          • You can slap it’s “butt” good to make a decent, slap; noise. With it being metal… Short, yes… Surprisingly heavy though for the short’ness; yes it does want to pivot forward now you mention it. But you get used to it… I watched a trooping of the Colour, from the… Late 70’s I think; was Colour telly, SLR rifles “They did a very good job, no doubt” but I do remember thinking that rifle is huge, trying to imagine it.

            Mind you they probably got used to it, etc vs a No.4…

          • Mind you “Slapping it’s arse, good & alot” possibly caused the need to forward assist it.

            One thing I never quite understood, is although the Ar has a forward assist; I assume from use… In Nam… So somebody thought it was a good idea, to add one. I always blamed the 7 lugged bolt design per se, but then thought well in an Ar15 it is more “inline” as oppose the ar180/l85… Did anyone use enough ar180’s to know, given it’s bolt is less “inline” like the L85 if it just went (wonky) as a consequence of it being less inline, also? Or does nobody know, as nobody did.

            Or it wasn’t that, instead it was butt slapping it. The A2 did not eliminate the need to forward assist, it’s cocking handle stopped ejected rounds from being caught between it and the ejection port; but it was hardly a revolutionary improvement. Given the cost. It worked, a bit better. Slap it’s arse.

          • When I say “inline” I mean; like, er… Brewers droop, if you will. If you imagine, the Ar180/L85 bolt carrier being legs… With the bolt as a “willy” dangling out like. As oppose in an Ar which is a straight, up the poop shoot… Design so to speak; Queens English etc.

          • Do Americans slap their Ar’s arse? Much… I have heard of some need for forward assisting, but it hardly seemed like it was essentially a must to ensure the bolt was indeed in battery everytime you cock the fucker.

          • Bet you could give a wood stocked Ak a good spanking… Oiled wood… Anyway, I digress; he he.

          • There is possibly some legitimacy in what I just said, in regards trunnions/feed ramp position etc in Ar180 vs M16; albeit I said it in a somewhat colloquial manner, alluding to a firm pair of buttocks. Possibly oiled… Slap.

            Anyway, all good.

          • And I still think it is seven lugs, due to the short turning circle via the Johnson rifle cocking handle angled ramp; the Ar.

          • Gravity… You know the bolt hanging out, so “down” out of the ar180/l85 carrier.

            Droop. Over time; it just, is less straight when entering the “poop hole” than an Ar.

            Anyway, I thought I made valid points; but I stop adding to my previous comments he he.

          • The Ar’s bolt, is longer; and sits in the carrier deeper… Supported 360 degrees, doesn’t pop out as much.

            Reckon I am right; if so, maybe the solution is to extend the bolt so it sticks out the arse end of the carrier.

            As oppose “coating stuff in black stuff” and giving you mags that were as heavy as the gun, which all got scrapped. Albeit the bolt handle change worked; food for thought eh, are we going to pay HK again for… Well, and again, etc A5. Be cheaper buying c4’s.

          • A3 being “Flat dark earth” A4 having a tampon pouch, in the pistol grip “For trans folk who lack vaginas” and the A5 being modified to similar dubious value. Regardless of fancy forestocks/sights.

          • “(…)Be cheaper buying c4’s.”
            What do you mean by c4 with lowercase, i.e. definitely not explosive C4?

    • I agree with you completely, battle rifle is most retarded designation ever.

      As for the german ww2 namesake you claiming it “a propaganda relict”, bear in mind that english term assault is not 100% the same as “sturm” – that could mean a charge also.

  4. In the 20th century, I mostly agree w/ Ian though the HK family of submachinegun to belt fed GPMG is a pretty damn strong contender. If we take the question of a 20th Century gun to today, the AR has so many different operating systems & calibers I don’t see how it doesn’t win in 2022, even w/ the introduction of blowback AKs running 9x19mm from Glock mags.

  5. “(…)AR vs AK(…)”
    Regarding weapons of early Cold War-era, my bet goes to CETME series
    Firstly it was using custom 7.92x40mm cartridge.
    Then it used 7,62×51 mm non-NATO, which should not be feed using 7,62×51 mm NATO cartridge, that was Modelo A
    Then it become convertible which could use either 7,62×51 mm non-NATO or 7,62×51 mm NATO, that was Modelo B
    Then it become purely 7,62×51 mm NATO fire-arm, that was Modelo C
    Also 5,56×45 mm was spawned by Modelo B which is Mod. L
    Said weapon, itself spawned telescoping butt weapon, namely Mod. LC

  6. Must mention the Mauser K98 bolt action rifle. There are more “knock offs” of the basic Mauser action design for military and commercial production than any other rifle. Too many to mention here.

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