Tuesday, 27 October 2009

"Machine guns" that aren't

Most people know what a "machine gun" is - it's one where a continuous stream of bullets is fired when the trigger is pulled, until either that trigger is released, or the weapon runs out of ammunition. In this sense, a machine gun is also described as being "full-automatic." What many people do not appreciate, however, is that some weapons that were designed as machine guns can also be constructed or modified so that the are not capable of full-automatic fire. Most such variations are described as "semi-automatic," in that each bullet fired requires a separate pull of the trigger, with each round being fed automatically, ready for the next trigger-pull. It is also possible, but far less common, for even the semi-automatic function to be removed, meaning after each single shot the weapon must be manually re-cocked.

Many machine guns are large and heavy weapons requiring more than one person to operate them, and are often permanently or semi-permanently mounted on fighting vehicles, aircraft, or ships. These are "heavy machine guns." At the other end of the scale, a short and relatively light weapon that can be carried and operated by a single person is often termed a "submachine gun." Falling between the two, full-size rifles such as the ubiquitous Kalashnikov AK series, the American M16 and derivatives, or the British SA80 that can fire full-automatic are not classed as machine guns, but are "assault rifles." Another term used is "selective fire," if the weapon can be switched between semi- or full-automatic modes.

The firearm shown below is a good example of a submachine gun, and will be familiar to many people from various action films, such as the Die Hard series, or many Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Designed in Germany in the 1960s, the Heckler & Koch MP5 is used throughout the world, especially by special forces such as British SAS. The model shown here is capable of three modes of fire using the visible selector-switch. The single red round in a closed box denotes semi-automatic mode; the three red rounds in a closed box for triple-round "burst" (i.e. each trigger-pull fires a burst of three rounds only); and the multiple red rounds in an open-ended box for full-automatic. The single white round is the "safe" position, in which mode the weapon cannot fire.

In Britain the MP5 is also used extensively by armed officers in regional police forces as a more accurate weapon with greater ammunition capacity than a pistol. All such MP5s are semi-automatic only, without the capacity to fire full-automatic. Since by that definition they are inherently not "machine guns," they are usually referred to as "carbines," a general term long used to describe a short rifle. In H&K's model coding, such weapons are designated "MP5SF" for "MP5 Single Fire." The image of an MP5SF below clearly shows - in comparison to the one above - that the only selection available is between the "safe" and "semi-automatic" modes.

H&K also make larger assault rifles such as the G36 that are also used by British police, but again these are always semi-automatic only. Just about the only exceptions to this rule are the Metropolitan Police's five examples of a very short version of the MP5 - designated the MP5K (for the German "kurz" for "short"):

In 2002 the Metropolitan Police Authority noted that they were, "available for SO12-Special Branch Protection officers only," and required, "specific ministerial authority prior to its deployment and has very rarely been operationally carried." A few years previously, the distinction was discussed in Parliament:
Armed Police Officers

Mr. Cohen: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department (1) if he will make a statement on the presence of an officer with a sub-machine gun in Mansell street, Whitechapel, at midnight on 3 February; [14834]
(2) if he will make a statement on the arming of police officers with sub-machine guns in London. [14835]
Mr. Maclean: I understand that an officer armed with a carbine was carrying out counter-terrorist duties in the Mansell street area. The officer was part of a patrol exercising powers under section 13A of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 to stop and search vehicles and their occupants for articles which could be used for terrorist purposes. The weapon was not a sub-machine gun, but a carbine specially adapted to fire only one shot at a time. Such carbines are one of a number of weapons available for general issue to members of the City of London police tactical firearms group.

The City of London police have no automatic carbines. The Metropolitan police have a small number of automatic carbines. These are to be issued only under the most stringent conditions and in the most exceptional circumstances. It would not be in the interests of security for me to discuss any further details about the circumstances or conditions under which these weapons might be deployed.
Despite the above, the British media routinely describe police officers as being armed with "sub-machine guns," usually accompanied by a photograph of an officer carrying what is sometimes plainly visible as being an MP5SF. Perhaps the classic example of this type of willful misidentification was the near-hysterical reaction in August last year to Metropolitan Police armed officers having a stall at a local fete in Limehouse in East London explaining the nature of their work. Various pieces of equipment were on display, including an MP5SF, which members of the public - including children - were allowed to handle. The Daily Mail's report includes the photograph seen here, in which the semi-automatic only selector is clearly visible. This did not stop it from being describing as a, "submachine gun... which can fire at a rate of 800 rounds per minute." Bizarrely, the report acknowledged that it had in fact been deactivated, so was actually incapable of firing anything anymore!

A variation, of course, is a picture that is not of any sort of MP5 at all, such as the example below from the Daily Telegraph, which was captioned as, "A hand-picked team from CO19 will carry submachine guns in gun crime hotspots" accompanying a report that only mentioned MP5s. The weapons visible are, in fact, an H&K HK416 (front) and G36C (rear) carbines. As a further distinction, both fire a high-velocity 5.56mm rifle cartridge, as opposed to the low-velocity 9mm pistol cartridge of the MP5 series.

Such errors are now so widespread in the media, and the reality such a simple distinction, that it has become clear to me that they continue to be misused through either widespread ignorance, or a calculated desire to sensationalise the reports in which they appear. A pertinent question is whether newspapers will take notice of reasonable corrections?

On Thursday 22 October it was reported in the London Evening Standard that the Metropolitan Police were to mount regular armed patrols in gun crime "hotspots" in Brixton, Haringey, and Tottenham, stating:
"The officers — some on motorbikes — will be armed with Heckler & Koch MP5 sub-machineguns capable of firing up to 800 rounds per minute and Glock semi-automatic pistols."
In response, I sent the following e-mail:
"Subj: Metropolitan Police firearms

The apparent need of the media to persistently "big up" police weaponry never ceases to mystify me. The Heckler & Koch MP5s used by the Metropolitan police and other forces in the UK are semi-automatic only, and so by definition are not "sub-machineguns capable of firing up to 800 rounds per minute" ('Standard', Thu 22/10/09). In the form used by British police, the MP5 is merely a short rifle or carbine, with each bullet being fired requiring a separate pull of the trigger."
The next day (Friday 23 October), a follow-up report headlined "Met ‘must rethink’ plan to put machine gun police on street" stated:
"[Members of the London Assembly] They said the Met's decision, which will see machinegun-carrying officers engaged in routine policing for the first time, was “unacceptable” and harmful to community relations."
Strangely, the editorial comment on the subjest in the same edition did manage to refer only to, "officers openly carrying carbines and pistols," but I figured a follow-up of my own wouldn't go amiss, and sent a second e-mail:
For the second day running the 'Standard' repeats the myth that the large firearms the Metropolitan police use are "machine guns" (Fri 23 Oct, page 6). A "machine gun" is a firearm that keeps firing as long as the trigger is depressed. The firearms used by the Met and other British civil police forces are semi-automatic, i.e. for each bullet fired there has to be a separate single pull of the trigger, so by definition they are not "machine guns." That the 'Standard' actually gets it right and describes them as "carbines" (i.e. short rifles, which is what they effectively are) in the Editorial Comment in the same issue makes the continued erroneous use of "machine guns" elsewhere all the more mystifying. The idea of the Met seeing the need to carry out routine armed patrols is alarming enough, without the press "bigging up" the weaponry at their disposal.
After a weekend off (the Standard is only published on week days), I was a bit disppointed to see that they had made the same mistake again on Monday 26 October in a report with the headline "Armed police patrols are a leap in the dark, says expert":
"The officers, some on motorbikes, will have Heckler & Koch MP5 sub-machineguns capable of firing up to 800 rounds a minute, and Glock semi-automatic pistols."
Does anyone actually read e-mails sent to the newspaper, I wondered? Do they even care that they are misrepresenting the situation? The next morning I sent another e-mail:
"For the third day of consecutive publication, the 'Standard' has again referred to Metropolitan Police officers using, "Heckler & Koch MP5 sub-machineguns capable of firing up to 800 rounds a minute" (Mon 26 Oct, page 9). For the third time I find myself writing to point out that the MP5s used by the Met and other British regional police forces are semi-automatic only; each single pull of the trigger fires a single bullet and no more. By definition they are not "machine guns." Rates of fire such as those quoted are only meaningful when dealing with fully-automatic firearms, which continue firing as long as the trigger is despressed. I'm sure you are not suggesting that Met firearms officers are capable of pulling a trigger 13 times in a single second? The arming of the police is a serious subject that should not be sensationalised by "sexing up" the weapons they use."
To be continued...?