What is An AR 15?
Perhaps no gun in history has received the fame, praise, and the criticism as the AR 15 rifle. In the United States, the political advances of gun rights have easily made the AR 15 the poster child for both sides of the debate. No other gun is as beloved by gun rights supporters than the AR 15, as the rifle represents the perfect example of the Second Amendment.
On the Other side, supporters for gun control see it as a weapon of mass destruction that is simply designed to eliminate lives due to the nature of the weapon. They bring up it's ability to rapid fire and expanded magazine capacities. Even though this rifle (and many others like it) is used in less than 1% of total deaths in the United States, there is no denying the fact that this gun is in the spotlight for both sides of the debate.
The history and development of the AR 15 has many interesting twists and turns that finally led it to its popularity that it has today. It had a few bad starts in the very beginning, yet over half a century later the same design and concept is still being used in active military service and enjoyed by the civilian market alike. Very few firearm designs enjoy this kind of popularity and longevity, so what makes the AR15 so special? Where did this infamous gun get its start? Let’s talk about that!
The Design and Creation of the AR 15
The AR 15 gets its name from the Armalite Rifle Model 15. Contrary to popular belief as well as by misinformed gun control advocates, "AR" does not stand for “assault rifle.” It actually stands for "Armilite Rifle." In 1956, designer Eugene Stoner presented his Armalite Model 10 design to the United States military as a possible replacement for the famous M1 Garand. Eugene Stoner was well known for being quite the designer and engineer, but will forever be known for his designs that led to the infamous AR 15.
The United States Army was, at the time, searching for a new service rifle that could be chambered in 7.62 NATO which had been adopted only two years earlier. While Stoner’s AR 10 design was not eventually adopted, it did not go unnoticed and was considered by some other nations, such as Spain, and some commercial variants were eventually made.
Instead of the AR 10 design, the United States military instead went with the Springfield M14. At the time, they felt this rifle was superior for many reasons, such as reliability, a proven track record on the design, and build quality. Unfortunately, this gun was heavy and many argued that more and more modern firefight engagements were being fought much closer than the 600 or more yards that the 7.62 NATO was originally intended for.
Around that same time, gun manufacturer Remington Arms was in the process of developing a new, small diameter cartridge with increased velocity, specifically for use as a medium-range rifle caliber. This .223 cartridge was then used as the basis of Stoner’s designed scaled-down AR 10 that he was experimenting with. This later went on to be named the Armalite Rifle 15, or AR 15 as we commonly know it as today.
By the year 1959, the Armalite Company was in the middle of some extreme financial problems, and were unable to manufacture or experiment more with their new rifle. To combat this, they ultimately sold off the design of the AR 15 to another gun manufacturer, Colt. Colt would later go on to become one of the biggest producers of the AR 15 platform for a great length of time.
AR 15 Use in the Military and the M16
The Colt AR 15 very soon found its way into military use in the early 1960’s, offering shooters in the United States Air Force and Special Forces a select-fire option. When the United States got into involvement with Vietnam in 1963, it soon became clear that Springfield Armory was not going to be able to keep up with the production of the standard M14 battle rifles. This was the perfect opportunity for the AR 15 platform.
Many people proposed expanding the production of the M14 to some other companies, but the idea was eventually scrapped because of the high cost of the M14 to manufacture. It was a great rifle, but it cost a lot to make, its cartridge required more resources, and it was largely considered overkill for fights of 300 yards or less.
The Secretary of Defense at the time, Robert McNamara, made the decision to put the select-fire AR 15, or M16, to be put into full production for the war. This new rifle was much lighter and easier to carry, the ammo was much less expensive, and it was easily controlled while firing on full-automatic. All of these reasons gave way to give the American troops M16s and Colt was awarded the contract in order to make it happen.
A Battlefield Tested Firearm and the Disasters
Once the new M16 was issued to combat troops in Vietnam, it was considered new and untested. A war is not exactly the ideal place to test run a new gun, and this problem became apparent very quickly. The humid jungle environment, coupled with the tolerances in the gun, was the perfect recipe for malfunctions in the platform.
Using a new weapon in the middle of a war is going to have its fair share of problems, and there were even reports of dead soldiers being found after a conflict with their rifles completely dissembled in an effort to get them working again before they were tragically killed.
When compared to other firearms that had been previously used on the battlefield, such as the M1 Garand, the M16 not only looked extremely different, but it functioned different as well. While the potential was there to be a great battle rifle, this was often overlooked because of all of the issues it had.
Luckily many of the complaints were heard, and a few quick but smart design changes were made. Training programs were started in order to teach soldiers how to properly feed and care for their weapons, new models were installed with a feature called forward assist, and ammunition was put back to all powder, all of which were things that helped to combat the reliability issues noted. These training programs taught soldiers how to properly take down and build their guns, and how to keep in the fight instead of being at the mercy of a jammed rifle.
Because of this quick overhaul of the M16, it made the entire platform a much more reliable and functional weapon out on the battlefield. Because of its weight and controllability, the average American soldier could use this gun much more effectively and ran a smaller risk of malfunctions, although they still did happen.
Over the lifetime of its service, small changes were made to help tolerances and reliability issues. Any gun, no matter what make or model, will jam and malfunction if it is not cleaned and cared for properly, but the M16 quickly became known for being notoriously willing to jam at a moment’s notice. With these small improvements, many soldiers came home from the war confident and happy with just how lightweight the gun was, and how effective it was out on the battlefield.
The AR 15 after the War
After the Vietnam War, the M16 was officially made the United States’ military service rifle. While it had its hiccups, the low cost and high magazine capacity helped lead it to where it was. Colt still had a hold on the design and most of the production, and when the war was over, they continued making the civilian, non-select fire, AR 15 for the growing civilian market.
At first, the AR 15 was not all that popular among civilians. In fact, during the 1960s and 1970s, there was very little in AR 15 manufacturing or popularity with only small numbers of the rifle even being made. Many firearm shooters did not see a need or have a want for this new gun, and overall demand was very low. It wasn’t until the 1990s when the AR 15 really hit the big spotlight among Americans and around the world, although maybe not in a good way.
The 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban did little too actually save any lives, but it did help bring light and attention to the AR 15. This ban was the result of an effort to curb gun violence, although it did have a sunset clause made for 2004. While the AR 15 was still legal during this ban, it had to be severely modified and special restrictions were implemented.
While technically the Federal Assault Weapons Ban restricted certain firearms and firearm accessories, it almost in a way helped the AR 15 rise to power. During this period, the manufacturing of the AR 15 continued, and because the ban had a sunset clause, it was set to end after the ten years was up. Studies have long shown that the ban had little effect in doing anything, especially curbing criminal activity, firearm violence, and overall lethality of gun crimes. There were several attempts to renew the ban when it ended, but none were successful.
With the Ban’s end in 2004, gun sales started to increase. Many gun owners were fueled to buy these guns either for the novelty or in fear that another ban may soon be enacted. This fear was fueled even further with every tragic event such as mass shootings, or even something as simple as words from anti-gun politicians. While this definitely helped the AR 15 gain plenty of popularity, it wasn’t the only reason that this gun quickly became so popular.
Another reason the AR 15 quickly rose to power and became so popular was its modularity. Once the craze started to take effect, almost every major firearms manufacturer started producing their own AR variant rifle. Also factor in the hundreds of other small manufacturers that started producing their own receivers, parts and accessories, and the gun quickly became one of the most popular firearms to not only own but to build and accessorize. There are even 80% lower receivers that can be legally bought and used to allow a person to finish making their own firearm, and all that is needed is a few simple tools that can be bought anywhere.
Modularity and Many AR 15 Variations
As mentioned before, the AR 15 is easily one of the most modular firearm platforms on the planet today. Parts and pieces can easily be swapped out and replaced, there are plenty of options out there at all different price points, and it can be effectively shot by just about anyone. A distinctive two part receiver is used in both military and civilian models, allowing for easy take down and cleaning. This did not stop efforts to upgrade or replace the gun, however.
The AR 15/M16 platform has seen a few attempts for upgrades and replacements for military and police purposes. Many calibers have been created and tested specifically for the platform, such as the 6.8mm SPC and the 300 Blackout.
Speaking of different calibers, the AR 15 can be chambered in many different ways. Sometimes the only thing that is needed is a simple swap of the upper receiver and bingo! You now have a new caliber weapon. While the staple 223/556 is super popular, you can find or chamber an AR 15 in calibers such as 22LR, 17 HMR, 204 Ruger, 224 Valkyrie, 243, pistol cartridges such as 9mm, 40 S&W, 45 ACP, as well as many other cartridges out on the market today. The bigger brother AR 10 can handle longer cartridges such as the 22-250, 6.5 Creedmoor, 257 Roberts, 7MM, 308, 300 Winchester, and many others as well.
Because of the versatility of the calibers, the AR 15 and AR 10 have become increasingly popular among not only shooters but also long range precision marksmen, as well as hunters. Being able to get a semi-automatic rifle in your caliber of choice for the intended purpose you want to pursue has made it an all-around favorite.
Not only can the AR platform be used to shoot in different calibers, it can literally be outfitted in just about any shape or configuration that you can think of. Thanks to aftermarket parts, the different barrel lengths, stocks, rails, handguards, grips, scopes, optics, lasers, lights, triggers, etc. give so many different options for the AR 15 that it is almost impossible to find two identical guns.
There are so many options on the market today to fully customize an AR 15, and set it up exactly how one prefers. Because of all the universality, availability and domestic manufacturing of the gun and its components, prices have recently begun to get getting lower and lower, making it easier than ever to own an AR 15.
AR 15 in the News and Media
Unfortunately for the AR 15, despite its massive success among civilian shooters, it rarely sees favorable mention in the media. Especially among tragedies, the AR 15 and other semi-automatic sporting firearms are usually portrayed unfavorably.
Take for example, January 17, 1989. Patrick Purdy, a madman, walked into a schoolyard in Stockton, California and opened fire with his AK47. He killed five children and left thirty-two others wounded before eventually taking his own life. Even though it was not even an AR 15 involved in this incident, Colt decided to suspend sales of its AR 15.
Every time a shooting occurs, the AR 15 is usually posted front and center on the page of every newspaper as if it was guilty itself of killing innocent people, instead of the lunatic that used it. In shootings such as Orlando, Las Vegas, and Sandy Hook, the AR 15 took the brunt of the blame and every time there are calls for more gun control legislation.
While it is no debate that the AR 15 is showing up in more and more mass shooting tragedies, it has mainly gotten a bad rap from the media and anti-gun haters. When talking about AR 15’s and their part in shootings, a gun owner from Illinois gave his input on why many mass shooters choose the AR 15. “It’s really just a perception thing,” he said, “There are rifles that are much more dangerous and powerful that are not being used.” It is believed many mass shooters generally choose the AR 15 because they are so popular and they usually do not know much about guns.
While these incidents definitely need to stop, it does not make sense putting all the blame on the AR 15. The vast majority of all of America’s shootings (totaling around 40,000 a year) involve handguns, and not rifles of any kind. But the media is often quick to point the finger of blame to the “scary” black rifles, the AR 15, even if the rifle wasn’t even used in the incident.
For example, after a shooting at Santa Fe High in Texas killed 10 people, the story made its rounds on social media. It portrayed several inaccurate statements, including the city of Santa Fe and the use of an AR 15. The only problem was this: the madman was accused of using a shotgun and a small revolver, no AR 15’s in sight. This is not the first time that inaccurate statements were made in the media about the AR 15, and it surely will not be the last.
The media may never be kind to the AR 15. Gun control supporters are not familiar with firearms and will most likely never be, but that will not stop attempts to shed a bad light on the platform and its uses. The best thing we can do as gun owners is try to educate and show the real life benefits to owning and using a rifle such as the AR 15, and take the right actions against threats, not by trying to disarm law-abiding gun owners.
The AR 15 and Its Future
As you can see, there’s no way of denying that the AR 15 holds and will continue to hold a prominent place in firearms history. Whether people see it as the best rifle ever made, or as a tool of destruction, it is easily recognizable and famous around the world.
While the AR 15 is still up for consideration for upgrades or replacement within the confines of the military and police forces, for now it still remains the go-to platform and in active use. Even though gun bans and legislation are still a very real threat in today’s political climate, the some 18 million AR 15’s in the world ensure that they are not going away anytime soon.
With some proper care and maintenance, an AR 15 made today could still be an effective weapon 100 years from now. No amount of gun laws or bans will change what is already out there, or get the genie back into the bottle so to say. With so many AR 15’s in the hands of people, it would be near impossible to get them all back.
With more and more companies and manufacturers jumping into the civilian AR 15 market, I think it is safe to say, at least for now, that the AR 15 is here to stay. Whether you use your rifle as a tool, self-protection, a precision instrument to hunt animals, or as a statement of freedom, the AR 15 has rooted itself deeply into American culture.
While it may have even gotten off to a rocky start, the AR 15 still managed to work its way into the firearms industry and completely dominate it like it does today, being one of the most popular firearms and truly proving to be, “America’s Rifle.”