The AR-15 rifle is possibly the most demonized firearm in American history. According to the media, politicians and those who don’t know any better, the AR-15 is an inherently evil weapon with no other purpose other than killing the maximum number of people in the shortest amount of time.
[Note: Throughout this article, I use “AR-15” as a generic term. “AR” stands for “Armalite Rifle” not “assault rifle.” The term “AR-15” is a registered trademark of Colt’s Manufacturing LLC.]
Armalite, then a subsidiary of Fairchild, developed the AR-10 to compete for a U.S. Army contract to replace the M1 Garand. The Army wanted a rifle that was lighter than the Garand, was selective fire (either semi-automatic or fully automatic) and was chambered for the new, shorter 7.62x51mm (.308 Winchester) cartridge. The AR-10 went up against the Springfield Armory’s T44, which was adapted from the Garand. Despite the fact that some testers said the AR-10 was the best lightweight automatic rifle they had ever tested, the contract went to the T44, which was adopted as the M14.
As the U.S. was drawn into the Vietnam conflict, the M14 and the M2 Carbine were found to have problems. The heavy M14 was difficult to control in full-auto mode and the weight of the ammunition meant soldiers could carry fewer rounds. The M2, which had been in service since World War II and had replaced the Thompson and M3 “grease gun” submachine guns, fired the 7.62x33mm cartridge (.30 Carbine), which was no match for the Russian AK-47 and its more powerful 7.62x39 cartridge in jungle combat.
A new call went out for a smaller, lighter rifle chambered in a smaller, lighter round. The Army wanted a cartridge that would be intermediate between the .30 carbine and the 7.62x51 yet could be close to the larger .308 round in lethality. In addition to being more controllable, the specifications called for lighter weight and reduced cost. The lighter weight was to allow the soldier to carry more ammunition and the reduced cost was because the Army needed tens of thousands of rifles and millions of rounds. The Army selected the 5.56x45 cartridge developed by FN Herstal of Belgium. (Note: 5.56x45 is virtually the same as .223 Remington in size.)
Armalite then went back to the drawing board and developed the AR-15, a smaller, lighter version of the AR-10 designed around the 5.56x45mm new cartridge. After a lot of military politicking, Armalite won the contract for the new M16. Keeping a long story short, Armalite sold the rights to Colt Patent Firearms (now Colt’s Manufacturing LLC) in 1959.
Colt released a semi-automatic version of the M16, called the AR-15 in 1964, the same year the military began issuing the M16 and five years before the Army officially adopted the M16 as its standard service rifle.
These days, the gun industry calls these guns “Modern Sporting Rifles” although a design that’s more than 60 years old isn’t exactly modern. It’s the latest version of the magazine-fed semi-automatic rifle, a type that has been sold to American hunters since the Remington Model 8 went on sale more than 100 years ago. When the doughboys went to Europe with their bolt-action 1903 Springfield rifles in World War I, hunters were already using semi-automatic rifles.
The AR-10 and AR-15 are advancements in firearms design and technology. The straight stock houses a tube for the buffer spring, allowing more compression and reduced felt recoil. The forearm fully encloses the barrel, reducing the potential for burns. The pistol grip, necessitated by the straight stock, allows a more ergonomic hold with the wrist held at a more natural angle. The rifle is easy to disassemble and maintain.
The design of the stock allows for the use of collapsible stocks that can be adjusted to people of different sizes and adapted to people with physical impairments. Unlike a folding stock, a collapsible stock varies the overall length of the gun by four inches or less so it’s not really a big factor in concealability; the rifle will be more than two feet long no matter how the stock is set.
For civilian use, the most brilliant design feature of the AR rifle is the use of two main assemblies: the upper, which houses the bolt, chamber and barrel and the lower, or receiver, which includes the stock, grip, magazine well and trigger group. This means that the AR-style rifle can be easily and quickly disassembled, not only for cleaning and maintenance, but for conversion to another caliber. For less than the cost of another rifle, a hunter can have an AR suitable for varmints and other small game as well as for feral hogs, deer and other medium game.
These advantages have helped the AR-15 to become the most popular style of rifle sold today. Over the 54 years it has been on the market, it’s estimated that civilians, including law enforcement officers’ personal purchases, have bought somewhere between five and ten million AR-15s. In addition to hunters, the AR-15 is a favorite of competition shooters including an estimated 300,000 Americans that participate in sports like 3-Gun.
Incidentally, the AR-15 isn’t strictly a U.S. rifle anymore. Similar rifles for civilian sale are built in other countries, including the Czech Republic, Germany and Italy.
The hysteria over the AR-15 is groundless. It is an advancement in firearms technology that offers advantages possessed by no other style of rifle. It has been demonized because of the way it looks by people with little or no knowledge of firearms and even less regard for the truth.
As mentioned earlier, the AR-15 has been on the market since 1964 and millions have been purchased. Out of the 125 killers in mass shootings since 1964, An AR-15 variant has been used by 24; 14 of those have been incidents that occurred in the past three years.
How about school shootings? Over the past 54 years, killers have had AR-style rifles in five school shootings including Umpquah Community College where the rifle was not used and Rancho Tehama Elementary School, which was one of the places Kevin Neal fired on during his murderous spree in November 2017. One student in the school was wounded by a bullet. Of the three incidents where students were targeted and an AR was the primary weapon, one took place in 1984, another happened in 2012 and the most recent was in February this year.
Data from the FBI, Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and Florida Department of Law Enforcement (which includes the Pulse nightclub killings) indicate that all types of rifle and shotguns combined were used in 6.5% of murders reported by the 50 states and District of Columbia in 2016.
Yes, the AR-15 can fire bullets as fast as one pulls the trigger. The same is true of any semi-automatic firearm. It’s also true for every double-action revolver.
Yes, the AR-15 can accept high-capacity magazines. The same is true of the M1 carbine that the U.S. government sold by the tens of thousands on the civilian market after World War II and Korea. They were available by mail order and even at stores like F.W. Woolworths. They cost about $25, the equivalent of about $236 in 2018 dollars. The Remington Model 8 of 1911 could be ordered with a 15-round magazine and a law enforcement equipment company offered aftermarket 20-round magazines. Texas Ranger Frank Hamer had a Remington Model 8 with a 15-round magazine when he led the ambush of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in May 1934.
The AR-15 has been used in mass shootings and the use has become more frequent in recent years. But the evidence indicates that the selection of that rifle may have been driven more by the media and political frenzy than anything else.
The primary competitor to the AR-15 is the AK-47 adopted by the Soviet army in 1949. It arrived in the U.S. as the semi-automatic Finnish Valmet rifle in 1976. From that time up to 2007, mass shooters used the AK as often as they did the AR-15 (seven times each). Yet since that time, use of the AK and its variants has virtually disappeared. Nikolas Cruz bought an AK-47 clone a month before the shootings at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School but still used the Smith & Wesson rifle he had purchased a year earlier.
If it was purely a matter of utility, one would expect the AK-47 to be used at least as often, if not more often, than the AR-15 because the AK-47 and its 7.62x39 cartridge are typically less expensive. But that isn’t the case.
We have created such hysteria that politicians looking to score quick points rush legislation through without considering reality.
Nikolas Cruz is the only mass shooter under the age of 21 to use an AR-15-style rifle that they had legally purchased on their own. There are an estimated 12.7 million young American adults between the ages of 18 and 20. The misdeeds of one person should not be a reason to penalize millions of others who have done nothing wrong.
It’s time to bust the myths that have been used to scare people — all too often in advancing a political agenda. The boogeyman isn’t real. The AR-15, in all of its variations and configurations, isn’t some mythical superweapon; it’s just a semi-automatic rifle.
*Armalite is now owned by Strategic Armory Corps of Arizona, which makes AR-style rifles under the McMillan and Surgeon brands.