Semi-Auto vs Full-Auto Guns: Definition, Laws, and Pricing

I had a totally insane conversation with a friend’s dad just recently.

He’s outraged: “He legalized hunting with automatic weapons!”

Me: “Who? What?”

Him: “The governor! They’ll be blasting deer like it’s a war zone!”

Reloading Blows
Reloading Blows

Me: “Wait a sec.” He’s states away, so I’m frantically Googling.

Him: “They’re crazy! Why do they need machine guns to hunt deer?”

Me: I find the facts. “Um, he”—the governor—“just signed the bill.  Both houses of the state legislature passed it, and it’s actually for semi-automatic rifles.”

Him: ”That’s machine guns!”

Me: “No, no,” and the clarification begins.

Fully-automatic firearms continue to cycle the action (shoot) as long as the shooter keeps the trigger depressed, while semi-automatic weapons require a separate trigger pull to cycle the action and shoot again.”

Or…

Full-Auto: 1 Trigger Press = Pew Pew Pew…

Semi-Auto: 1 Trigger Press = Pew

Now that’s out of the way…let’s continue with a little history before we dive into the current US laws and some typical prices for legal fully-automatic guns.

The First Fully Automatic Gun

You know I’m a bit of a history geek, right?  So here’s a quickie…

The first fully automatic gun goes back to 1884 and Hiram Maxim, an American from Maine.

He was a brilliant creative-engineer type who ended up in London with 271 assorted patents—from automatically resetting mousetraps to airplane steam engines.

When he turned his problem-solving talents to designing a weapon capable of nonstop fire, he created the Maxim gun—a machine gun.

Maxim Gun
Maxim Gun

To master nonstop fire, he discovered how the right firing mechanism could allow the trigger to beat the speed of the bolt.

He figured out how to use the bullet’s own recoil power on the bolt to automatically recock the gun while also ejecting spent cartridges and loading a new round.

It was a bit complex and a design simplified over time, but Maxim’s gun was a fully automatic weapon that would fire up to 600 rounds a minute on just one sustained pull of the trigger.

That’s the difference between full automatic and semi-automatic: What’s in one pull of the trigger?

For a fully automatic gun, one sustained pull of the trigger can empty an entire magazine.

Full-Auto Mag Dump, David Hunter
Full-Auto Mag Dump, David Hunter

The First Semi-Automatic Guns

At the time, quite a few gunsmiths were trying to develop firearms that would speed up the firing process, and there’s debate about what was the first true semi-automatic weapon.

Was it Benjamin Tyler Henry’s repeating rifle in 1862?  It still had to be cocked after each shot after all.

Henry Repeating Rifle, Civil War Era
Henry Repeating Rifle, Civil War Era

Was it Mannlicher’s Model 85 semi-automatic rifle dating to 1885—a year after Maxim’s gun—or Mannlicher’s semi-automatic pistols?

Browning debuted its Auto-5 shotgun in 1902.

Browning Auto-5
Browning Auto-5


The Winchester Model 1905 wasn’t far behind.

Winchester 1905
Winchester 1905

Don’t forget the M1 Garand and its preloaded eight-round clips that eject.

M1 Garand, Hickok45
M1 Garand, Hickok45

While these guns focused in varying degrees on developing a firearm’s ability to fire, eject the case and put a new round in place, they still required a separate trigger pull for each and every round fired.

Outlawing Automatic Weapons

The machine gun’s debut in World War I revolutionized warfare with specialist corps and new firing tactics.

More portable fully automatic versions evolved like the Bergmann MP 18 and the Thompson series of submachine guns.

Thompson Sub Machine Gun, Hickok45
Thompson Sub Machine Gun, Hickok45

The war ended, but machine guns were not yet controlled.

Meanwhile, Prohibition in the 1920s and the Great Depression in the 1930s brought a series of bootleggers, gangsters, bank robbers, organized crime and often-fatal armed confrontations with law enforcement.

Fed up, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934 into law.

That leveled the tax, transfer and registration requirements on machine guns, short-barreled rifles and shotguns, silencers and destructive devices.

In 1986, the National Firearms Owners’ Protection Act prohibited the transfer or possession of machine guns.

The exceptions were government agencies—like the military and law enforcement—and machine guns lawfully possessed prior to May 19, 1986.

That’s right…

Only firearms manufactured and registered prior to May 19, 1986 are even eligible for sale or transfer.  To own one, you must:

  • Live in a state that allows you to possess one; not all do.  California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, the District of Columbia and Hawaii all have restrictions.
  • Pass a background check complete with fingerprints to qualify for a license from ATF to possess one.
  • Designate a licensed gun dealer to take control of the gun when you die.

In addition, the transferor—the person selling the gun to you—must:

  • Register the gun’s transfer with the Secretary of the Treasury and gain advance approval for the transfer.
  • Pay a $200 transfer tax.

Note that you cannot manufacture a new fully automatic weapon. That is banned.

So how many pre-1986 full automatics are there?  In a Freedom of Information Act request, the ATF gave figures of fully automatic weapons registered in the National Firearms Registration Transfer Record System:

  • 297,667 post-1986 guns restricted to law enforcement.
  • 17,020 sales samples.
  • 175,977 pre-1986 transferable guns.

Since such a finite, limited number of pre-1986 fully automatic transferable firearms even exist, each carries a premium price.

You want a Colt M16-A1?  Reserves start at $20K with a buy it now at $35K.

Full Auto Colt M-16 Auction
Full Auto Colt M-16 Auction

If that’s too rich for your blood, we found an Uzi for $16,000.

Full Auto Uzi Auction
Full Auto Uzi Auction

Yeah, it’s expensive.  Fully automatic machine guns easily run $10,000 to $25,000 or more.

That’s a bit much for the average gun enthusiast.

At some ranges, you can rent machine guns, but that’ll cost you too.  Ammo, dude—ouch!

Settling for Semi-Automatics

Before you boohoo about what you can’t have…

Semis offer some pretty impressive performance even if it is one trigger pull per round:

  • For recoil, the force of the shot makes the barrel fly back, which ejects the casing and loads a new round in the chamber.
  • For gas, the gas from the fired round drives a piston in the barrel to eject the spent casing and load a new round.

Either way, it’s not like you have to cock the hammer between shots.  It’s pew, pew, pew as fast as your trigger finger can take you.

Plus, let’s not forget slide or bump fire systems.  Got an AR, AK or another nifty semi favorite?

That’s pew-pew-pew to the hundredth power.

Swap in a bump fire stock—about $100—and you’ve got an automatic in all but name only.

AR-15 Slidefire, Lisa Jean
AR-15 Slidefire, Lisa Jean

First, yes, it’s legal—though they’re technically banned in California under Penal Code 16930, which prohibits “multiburst trigger activators” that increase the rate of fire of semi-automatic weapons.

Federally, however, these products are not considered “adjustable stocks” or “trigger manipulation devices.” In fact, most sites carry a copy of ATF’s own approval letter.

Second, yes, it works. The stock allows space for the recoil, and sheer physics do the rest.

Your firing hand’s finger crosses the trigger to pull back on the finger rest.

Meanwhile, your other hand cradles the rifle but also maintains light forward pressure, allowing more space for recoil and successive fire.

Hold it just right, and the back and forth will serve up just what you’re expecting—400 to 800 rounds a minute.

Not too shabby.

Not Semi-Automatic

Interestingly, revolvers—double-action revolvers to be specific—are not considered semi-automatic weapons even though all you have to do is pull the trigger to fire successive rounds.

Revolvers aren’t “semi-automatic” because manually squeezing the trigger is what moves the cylinder forward and gets the next round ready to fire.  Semi-automatic pistols automatically cycle the action to load the next round.

Beretta M9 Double Action Single Action
Beretta M9 Double Action Single Action

Some other examples of guns that aren’t semi-automatic are weapons that rely on:

  • Bolt action. You have to raise, slide and lower a handle prior to each shot.
  • Lever action. You have to prime a lever before each shot.
  • Pump action. You have to slide, or pump, the weapon prior to each shot.
  • Single-action. You have to cock the hammer prior to each shot.
  • Single-shot. You only get one shot. I put break barrels in this category too.
  • Automatic. One held trigger pull can empty a magazine.

Conclusion

So there you have it.

By the way, notice that I stayed well clear of the dreaded term assault weapon?

That’s because that’s a whole different issue, with its own set of ifs, thens and buts.

I won’t slay you here with a bunch of statistics.  However, I will point out that in 2014, for example, out of 8,124 gun murders, handguns—yes, handguns—were the weapon of choice for 5,562 of them—that’s like 7 out of every 10.

What’s even more sobering is maybe the rate of suicide by gun that same year—nearly double the homicide rate.  Of all gun deaths, 63.5 percent were suicides—and, well, none were by machine gun.

As always, I’m just trying to give you the dirt that’s important, keep you safe and maintain that all-important perspective.

Hopefully I’ve also given you some helpful ammo for the next crazy Rambo-Bambi conversation you’re forced to endure.

After all, I’m still trying to get that stick out of my mind’s eye.

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