Burst Selector: An Idea Whose Time has Come and Gone

A couple of years ago, the Army gave the lousy three-round-burst selector switch that was used on the M16A2 and successors, and the original M4, two in the chest and one in the head. There are still firearms with the bad trigger mechanism kicking around the services, but this decision was the beginning of the end of a gadget that was beloved of ordnance officers and log dogs, but utterly loathed by the guys who actually had occasion to launch those bursts in the direction of an armed enemy.

Burst mode has been experimented with almost as long as automatic firearms have existed; for example, some sources claim the 1890-1900 Italian Cei-Rigotti carbine was so fitted, although the best Cei-Rigotti source on the net, this page at Forgotten Weapons, doesn’t mention it.

Ultimately, this bit of 1960s technology was adopted in the 80s by the US Army and USMC, and had about a 30-year run in service, but it’s on the way out, with many powers opting to arm their men with a conventionally select-fire assault rifle, with safe, semi, and full-auto settings.

This is primarily because a burst selector solves a problem that doesn’t really exist with trained troops: troops firing rifles and carbines as if they were great-grandad’s water-cooled Maxims. Anyone can be trained and led to fire short, effective bursts, and anyone who’s been well trained uses an assault rifle in semi mode well over 90% of the time.

The New Zealand MARS-L is typical of current assault rifles: conventionally configured, AR based, highly modular, and lacking a burst option.

Where the burst-selector option is ordered, as it was by the mid-1980s USMC and Army, it’s often because logisticians and ordnance guys are having fantasies about all the money they can save in training, and a reduced logistics burden in combat, by taking the Talk To A Crowd® setting off their Joes’ automatic rifles.

They always seem to reach this blinding beacon of brilliance without much interface with combat guys, who are comforted by the security blanket of a Crowd Control switch, even if they’ve never needed or used it. Because when you do need it, you need it urgently.

There have been a wide range of burst selectors proposed over the years. Colt seems to have cataloged, at one time or another, at least one of each!

The most common burst selectors, though, have three or four positions.

  1. The three-position selector is usually configured Safe/Semi/Burst, with the burst usually being 3 rounds, sometimes 2 or 4. We use this form of shorthand: S/1/3.
  2. A second variation, seldom seen, is Safe/Burst/Auto. S/3/∞.
  3. The four-position selector is usually configured Safe/Semi/Burst/Auto. S/1/3/∞.
  4. It’s not, by definition, a “burst” selector, but the widespread safe/semi/auto selector we render as S/1/∞.

It’s also possible that a design separates the safety and fire-control selector. Weapons that did that included the M1918 BAR, the M2 Carbine, and various German select-fire weapons, like the MP.44 and FG.42. It was only postwar, with the HK/CETME system, the AK, and the AR-10 and successors that the idea of a combined safety/selector became the global standard.

Recent purchases have tended not to include a burst selector.

Recent (2015-16) Infantry Rifle Purchases and Competitions1 (not comprehensive)

NationModelCaliberFire ControlReplaced/-ing?
USM4A15.56S/1/∞M4 and M16 with burst.
FranceAIF (competitors include HK 416 SCAR-L, ARX160A3, SIG 550/553, HS Produkt VHS-2)5.56S/1/∞ (not 100% certain. But the COTS rifles France has considered are all S/1/∞).FAMAS w/ S/1/3/∞. One selector selects safe/semi/auto, a second control makes auto 3 shots or full-auto
IndiaExcalibur MIR (improved INSAS)5.56S/1/∞INSAS w/burst/FAL/AK
Czech RepublicCZ 806 Bren25.56S/1/∞CZ805 Bren w/ S/1/2 burst
UAECaracal CAR 816 (AR-15/HK416 knockoff)5.56S/1/∞Chinese Nationalist T91 w/ S/1/3/∞ and others
FinlandSCAR-L5.56S/1/∞SOF only.
AustraliaThales EF88/F905.56S/1/∞F88 (Thales-built AUG) w/ S/1/∞
New ZealandMARS-L (LM&T CGB16)5.56S/1/∞Steyr AUG A1 w/ S/1/∞
TurkeyMPT-76 (HK417 derivative)7.62 x 51 mmS/1/∞G-3 with S/1/∞
ItalyBeretta ARX-2007.62 x 51 mmS/1/∞Limited buy as DMR rifle
UKL129A1 (LMT LM308)7.62 x 51 mmS/1Limited buy as DMR rifle

There is one burst device which has potential, and that is a very high rate of fire burst, as configured in the never-deployed HK G11 caseless-ammunition rifle, and the Russian AN-94. In that type of mechanism, a slow, highly controllable rate of fire is used for full-automatic, user-controlled firing, but if “burst” is selected it’s delivered at a much, much higher rate of fire. The purpose is to use a small, dispersed burst to “correct” for aiming error by the shooter. As you might expect, even this burst device, which is potentially more practical than the usual type which cycles at the usual cyclic rate, is more of a mathematician’s delight than an infantryman’s.

Along with the definite decline of burst selectors, we also note that bullpups are also losing market and mind share. The Australians have gone with a new version of their bullpup, and France is considering replacing their bullpup FAMAS F1 and G1 with another bullpup (the Croatian VHS-2), but all the other candidates for the new AIF rifle are conventionally laid out.


  1. Source: Valpolini, Paolo. Small Arms. European Defense Review, Nº. 26., March/April 2016. pp. 19-26.

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