Don’t be embarrassed: many of the hardest gun owners couldn’t tell you the main rifle vs carbine differences. Carbines and rifles are both types of long guns, but there are very important differences between them…
Rifle vs carbine, what’s the difference? The difference between a carbine and a rifle is primarily length. Carbines come in many shapes and types in both history and modern application, but carbines employ a shorter, more compact profile, either for use in tighter spaces for more maneuverability, or to be employed by officers or cavalry to free up mobility of hands for other uses.
Carbines are generally shorter and lighter than rifles, which means they’re easier to carry and maneuver. They also tend to be chambered for a smaller cartridge—generally the same ammunition you would fire from a handgun.
While the word carbine can, and is, used to describe many different aspects and models of rifles, we can look at both the historical appearance and origin of the word, as well as the modern application in commercial and military use to see the common theme of just what makes a carbine……a carbine.
History: The Carabiniers
The word carbine comes from the first users of shorter barreled muskets, the french cavalry, who were called Carabiniers, from the french word carabine.
This came about at the advent of modern warfare in the 16th century, in which ground troops used firearms, and thus, cavalry troops needed to do the same. As one can imagine, horse mounted troops would be hard pressed to ride and use a long barreled musket at the same time.
Enter the Carabiniers, who employed shorter barreled versions of the muskets in order to maneuver and fire their weapons while riding. This trend continued in lockstep during the 19th century as smooth bore muskets were replaced by rifled muskets.
A huge advance for both cavalry and the carbine came during the latter stages of the American Civil War with the advent of the Spencer Carbine, a breech loaded, tube fed, short barreled rifle.
This carbine gave Union troops a huge advantage when needing to fire from horseback, despite the fact that cavalry troops commonly dismounted and still engaged from the ground.
Image: Spencer Carbine Model 1865
The Spencer carbine showcased the importance of maneuverability and increased firepower, however, in the coming world wars, the carbine would take a temporary backseat due to the nature of battle.
Trenches and World Wars
During the carnage of two global wars, standard length firearms evolution did experience a general shortening of troop-carried rifles, with American Springfield, British Enfield, German Mausers, and Russian service weapons seeing barrels shortened to the range of 24- 28 inches.
These lengths were necessary due to the relatively high energy rounds these rifles fired, such as the 30.06 caliber of the American Springfield and M1 Garand rifles.
Any deer hunter who has fired a 30.06 round can imagine the toll an M1 would take on a soldier who fired hundreds of rounds in a day, and the cartridge would not have been practical in carbine length rifles of the day.
While these larger rifles and cartridges were used by the bulk of soldiers, carbine development still carried on.
Weapons like the M1 carbine, an 18 inch barreled weapon shooting the much smaller .30 Carbine round, were issued to rear soldiers and officers who needed free hands for other tasks such as radio use and issuing commands.
The scale and distance of engagement typically found in both the Great War and WW2 saw carbines stay as more of a niche weapon.
The 1960’s however, would see the nature of war change, and with it, an explosion of firearms advancement, carving out a huge place for carbines.
From Jungle to Desert to City
The word carbine is an inherently subjective definition in terms of how “short” a firearm needs to be to be deemed a carbine. However, in the late 1950’s and 1960’s, firearms development trended towards lighter powered cartridges in smaller weapons with increased rates of fire.
The inventions of the Russian Kalashnikov AK-47, and American Stoner M-16 rifles employed in Vietnam featured smaller cartridges at 7.62x39mm and 5.56x45mm fired out of shorter barrels at 16 inches and 20 inches respectively.
These weapons were fit to their intended use, where firefights were typically in close quarters, and exhibited more sporadic but intense engagements.
They were well suited for more lightly fitted, agile units that could nonetheless provide a large volume of fire in a short period of time, just as the cavalry soldiers from 300 years prior.
This time period also saw conflicts all over the globe morph from gigantic, industrial sized armies in prolonged drawn out battles, to the widespread adaptation of conflicts towards asymmetric, guerrilla like tactics, where wars exhibited smaller, precise and swift engagements in confined spaces. The carbine was a hammer that had found its nail.
From the jungles of Vietnam, to the deserts, mountains, and urban conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan, the carbine became the weapon of choice for regular soldiers riding humvees instead of horses, for special forces and swat teams alike, and the corresponding civilian population looking to arm themselves with a short, maneuverable weapon useful in most any sticky situation.
Carbines in Modern Flavors
As pointed out, at what length we call a rifle a carbine is subjective. Generally speaking though, American carbines, such as the M4 Carbine, took the M16 and shortened the barrel from 20 inches down to the 14.5 to 16 inch range.
The civilian version of the M4 Carbine is the wildly popular AR-15. The AR-15 owes a large part of its success to its incredible modularity, meaning with the same receiver (middle part of the weapon), one can change the stock, barrel and attachments to produce an astonishing number of finished weapons for different uses.
The M16 family of weapons, including the M4 Carbine and the modular AR-15 civilian version all use what is called a direct gas impingement system.
Which means a small port in the barrel traps exploding and expanding gas from the fired round traveling down the barrel, and redirects that gas backwards down a small tube towards the bolt.
When this gas hits the bolt, it pushes the bolt back until pressure from a spring in a buffer tube inside the stock forces the bolt back forward, cycling a fresh round into the chamber.
Another similar method to accomplish this and is implemented in AK-47 design as well as some AR variants is to trap the gas in a small chamber that pushes back a small, short stoke piston, which then pushes a rod back that cycles the bolt. This is commonly referred to as a piston operated or gas piston system.
How this method relates to carbines is again length. A carbine is generally a rifle with a barrel length in the neighborhood of 10-18 inches, so the position of the corresponding gas block or piston will be correspondingly lower.
Most “carbine length” gas systems will be located at 7” on the barrel, whereas “mid length” and “rifle length” gas blocks will be farther out, and conversely, “pistol length” at a shorter 4” length.
How all of this affects performance and functionality will be trade-offs in muzzle velocity, cycling reliability, and downrange accuracy.
Conclusion: Rifle vs Carbine
The take home for the carbine’s place in global firearms development and use has proof in the result.
No weapon in history has seen so many capable variants widely adopted in nearly every corner of the globe. It puts a mid-sized yet lethal cartridge and a highly maneuverable weapon with high rates of fire in the hands of standing armies and home-owners alike.
The carbine isn’t the downrange threat of the bolt action sniper’s rifle, nor is it the room clearing firepower of a 12 gauge, but it can and does accomplish all of this in one package, so what more can you ask for?