Regular readers have been following the aftermath of the recent Navy Yard Shooting in Washington D.C. Predictably, the media and the political left (I know: one-in-the-same) immediately latched onto the idea that the killer used an AR-15 of some kind, and despite assurances by the FBI that no such rifle was involved, have continued to inveigh against it.
The AR-15 has been called a high-powered rifle, a gun made for murder, and an entirely new firearm hybrid has been invented: the “AR-15 shotgun.” Professional anti-gun shock troops in the media and Congress have implied that the AR-15 and all of its variants are uniquely dangerous and commonly used in mass shootings and crime. This is, of course, nonsense. Rifles of all types are used in no more than 3% of all shootings, and rifles like the AR-15, an even smaller portion of that tiny slice of the pie.
The AR-15 has been demonized, and will continue to be disparaged because the anti-gun movement has, for decades, worked to convince the public that any gun that looks like a machinegun (actually, a submachine gun) must be a fully automatic weapon. One of the oldest tactics of these anti-freedom forces is to ban any gun, type of gun or accessory possible in that hope that such bans will be a foot in the door to eventual total bans of firearms in the hands of law-abiding citizens.
With this in mind, I present a basic AR-15 primer in the hope that facts are the best antidote to lies. Anti-gunners often call the AR-15 a “high-powered” rifle, or an “assault weapon.” Both are entirely false. The AR-15 fires a rifle cartridge of intermediate power at best, and there is no such thing as an “assault weapon,” which is entirely an invention of anti-gun organizations and the media.
For an understanding of the relative size of the cartridges mentioned herein, here is a photo of four of the most common contemporary cartridges. From left to right, the .22 Long Rifle, the 9mm, the .223, and the .308.
Battle Rifles: After WWII, the Army sought a replacement for the M1 Garand, a large and heavy rifle, firing a true high-powered cartridge, the .30 caliber 30.06. This–a high-powered, full-sized cartridge–is the defining characteristic of the battle rifle. Because of the power of these long-range cartridges, battle rifles tend to be heavy, weighing in the ten-pound range, and have been historically made of steel and wood, which has been replaced with plastics in the modern era. The M1 was the first generally issued semiautomatic battle rifle.
General George Patton called the Garand “the greatest battle implement ever devised,” but it did have drawbacks. Loaded, the weapon commonly weighed more than 11 pounds, and its magazine, loaded by metal clips, held only 8 rounds. The 30.06 is also a physically large and heavy cartridge, limiting the number of rounds a soldier can carry. The Garand remains the only widely available firearm that is actually fed via a clip, which term is commonly misused when one actually means “magazine.”
As the nature of war changed and it became obvious that engagement ranges would be far shorter than in the past, European armies and the British, tried to convince the US Army to design and standardize an intermediate cartridge, which would allow far more rounds to be carried for the same weight and amount of space as a high-powered rifle cartridge. There is evidence that the Army entered into a sort of agreement that if the British and European nations would accept the .308–while still a high-powered cartridge, smaller and lighter than the 30.06–the US military would purchase the excellent FN-FAL semiautomatic rifle in .308 caliber. Unfortunately, the “not invented here” syndrome took over and the US reneged on the deal and adopted the M-14, which was essentially an M1-Garand in .308, with a flash hider and a removable 20-round box magazine. This more or less forced NATO to accept the .308.
This was the rifle that initially accompanied our troops in Vietnam. Its unsuitability as a general issue rifle for counter insurgency warfare, particularly fought in a jungle environment, quickly became obvious. The need for a lighter weapon capable of fully automatic fire–battle rifles are too light to be controllable in full-auto mode–and firing a smaller cartridge became obvious.
Assault Rifles: The first true assault rifle was the German StG-44, first introduced near the end of WWII. It was this rifle that was the inspiration for the ubiquitous AK-47, the most widely produced assault rifle in history. True assault rifles have these characteristics:
(1) Shoulder fired
(2) Gas operated (with a few well-known exceptions)
(3) Single-operator fired
(4) Removable magazine fed
(5) Firing an intermediate cartridge
(6) Full automatic capability (and semiautomatic)
Eugene Stoner, working for the ArmaLite Company (hence “AR”), developed the forerunner of the AR-15, the AR-10, in the mid 1950s. Like the AR-15 that followed it, it was made with aircraft grade aluminum and plastics, and had a very futuristic appearance. Unlike the AR-15 it was chambered for the .308 (finalized as the 7.62 NATO) cartridge. It competed against the M-14 and the FN-FAL in Army trials, but the Army adopted the M-14 and the AR-10 was scaled down to become the AR-15, which would ironically require the kind of intermediate cartridge the British wanted. A more detailed history of the development of the AR-15 can be found here.
It was the Air Force, not the Army, that initially adopted the AR-15, designated the M-16, for base security, in the iconic triangular hand guard configuration. The initial flash hider had a multi-pronged, open end, which was quickly found to catch on foliage, and was replaced with a closed end design as depicted here. Eventual redesigns of the rifle resulted in the round hand guard and the heavier barrel now standard on the military family of weapons. The .223 civilian cartridge was standardized as the 5.56mm NATO cartridge. While the cartridges have essentially the same dimensions, there are some caveats regarding their use, most particularly, it is entirely safe to fire .223 cartridges in weapons chambered for 5.56mm, but the opposite may be unsafe in some circumstances. Those interested can find more detailed information here.
The Civilian AR-15: The AR-15 is the best-selling rifle family in America. However, it is not an assault rifle, and certainly not a non-existent “assault weapon,” which is best defined as any firearm anti-gun forces want to ban on any given day, particularly if it is black or scary-looking to the uninformed. The standard military rifle has a barrel of approximately 20”, but the most popular civilian configuration resembles the military M-4, which is a short-barreled, fully automatic carbine with a collapsing stock. Civilian equivalents are not fully automatic firearms, and have barrels of no less than 16” to conform to federal law.
This AR-15 rifle is one of mine of original Colt manufacture. It is representative of the modern sporting rifle, which is easily adapted to a variety of configurations to meet a variety of needs. Among the non-factory accessories I’ve added (stock to muzzle) are a Magpul stock, a single point sling attachment, a folding rear sight, a trigger guard enlarger, a Magpul plastic magazine, a red-dot type sight, a fore end with four accessory rails, a laser sight, and a slightly modified flash suppressor.
Visible on this left side view is a Sure Fire flashlight in a quickly removable mounting.
This photo provides a better view of the laser sight and its activation pad.
This photo provides a better view of the flashlight. It is activated via a momentary button on the rear of the flashlight that falls easily to the thumb of the supporting hand. I’ve found this less cumbersome than using a wire and pressure pad.
It is possible to own a fully automatic weapon, but ownership requires onerous federal permissions and requirements, including exhaustive background checks and payment of a large tax. While the US government may not carefully vet its own employees carrying top secret clearances–the Navy Yard killer’s clearance was renewed only a few months before his shooting rampage–it absolutely vets any citizen that wants to own a fully automatic weapon. Such weapons are expensive indeed, and it’s a very safe bet that any AR-15 seen anywhere is semi-automatic.
Popular Features: The AR-15 family is one of the most versatile rifles ever invented. Because it is highly accurate and has very low recoil, it is useful for target shooting and competitions. Because it is lightweight and has excellent ergonomic features, it is suitable for men, women and even children. Even so, the AR-15 can be cheaply and quickly adapted to the individual without the time consuming and expensive ministrations of a gunsmith.
Anti-freedom forces often claim that the collapsing buttstocks of the AR carbines are somehow dangerous or sinister. In fact, these stocks collapse all of about 3.5” inches. These carbines are not useful as concealed weapons, and are not so used by criminals. Their real purpose is to allow quick and easy adjustment of the length of pull for people wearing thick clothing, tactical gear such as bullet resistant vests and load bearing equipment, and people of shorter stature. This easy adjustability makes AR carbines very user friendly for women and children. Technically, the tube on which they slide contains the rifle’s recoil spring and buffer, part of the design, with the gas action, that produces such light recoil.
The AR-15 is easily broken down and reassembled for cleaning, as illustrated here:
One merely pushes a pin through the lower receiver to allow the hinged upper receiver to open. Pulling back the charging handle removes the bolt group. The pin is retained in the lower receiver to prevent its loss, an important feature in a military design. The bolt group breaks down into just five primary parts, all of which makes cleaning rapid and relatively easy. All the disassembly required for normal cleaning can be accomplished with nothing more than the point of a bullet.
The AR-15 is also uniquely suited to hunting. The .223 is suitable for small game up to and including animals the size of a coyote. The rifle’s rugged construction and corrosion-resistant finish help to prevent rust while eliminating shine. Its light weight is also a positive factor for the hunter.
But the AR-15 is not limited to the .223 cartridge. Because its upper receiver can be easily removed and replaced, a number of additional calibers have been invented that greatly expand the usefulness of the AR-15 family. All that is required is a cartridge that will fit the dimensions of the AR magazine well, a properly designed magazine, and an upper receiver chambered for the new cartridge. Uppers chambered in pistol calibers from .22 LR to 9mm and .45 ACP are available as are rifle cartridges as large and powerful as the 450 Bushmaster, 458 SOCOM and the 50 Beowulf. A general (not complete) listing of the current calibers available for the AR platform is here.
As previously noted, innumerable accessories have been invented for the AR-15, and more are being marketed all the time. These accessories, such as red dot sights, laser sights, flashlights and more make the AR family excellent choices for home defense and personal defense where the size of a rifle is not prohibitive.
The standard 30 round magazine is also a popular feature. This reduces reloading on the range–more time for focusing on marksmanship–and is an essential feature for competition shooting. Anti-freedom advocates call such magazines “large capacity,” and claim they are uniquely dangerous, demanding magazines of ever-smaller capacity. The truth is the magazines of any magazine fed firearm can be changed in a few seconds. Even in the very few mass shooting situations where AR-type rifles have been used, smaller capacity magazines would have made no real difference. This has been recognized by more and more law enforcement agencies that have begun replacing their shotguns with AR-type carbines with standard, 30 round magazines.
The recent Obama gun and ammunition shortage has affected the AR-15 market as well, however, prices of firearms are once again starting to come down to more or less normal levels, and I’ve recently seen basic AR-15 carbines in the $600.00 range. Ammunition remains somewhat scarce and expensive. Before the latest run on ammunition, 1000 rounds of .223 could easily be found in the $300.00 range, but it is now as expensive as $1000 per 1000 for some kinds of ammunition. However, there are signs that the ammunition market has begun to normalize once again.
Additional Reading: Other, related articles readers might find useful are a long gun primer article I posted some time ago, an article on magazine capacity, an article on the reality of the Clinton gun ban (which dealt with “large capacity” magazines), an article on the Smith and Wesson M&P 22-15, a .22LR caliber AR-15 clone, and an article on the laser sight depicted in this article.
Final Thoughts: Virtually everything the media and progressive anti-freedom forces have said about the AR-15 is false. It is a common semi-automatic rifle of intermediate power. Most common hunting rifles are far more powerful.
The Supreme Court, in its Heller and McDonald decisions made clear that the Second Amendment applies to the weapons most commonly and usually used for self defense. The court specifically mentioned handguns, the most common action type being the semiautomatic. The AR-15 semiautomatic rifle family is the most common and usual type of rifle used for self-defense, marksmanship training, competition, home defense and hunting, among other lawful and reasonable pursuits. No doubt, it too enjoys the protection of the Second Amendment, at least with the current Supreme Court.
Another factor in the success and popularity of the AR-15 is the number of former members of the military that purchase civilian-legal versions of their service weapons. This is long been an American tradition, and an essential part of our culture, regardless of how the effete, self-identified elite might wish to deny it.
Few firearms of any kind are so versatile. The AR-15 is not only useful for self-defense at short and long ranges, it is also a highly accurate precision rifle out to 300 yards and more.
Finally, the Second Amendment exists not to protect hunting, target shooting or any other pursuit, but to enable citizens to overthrow a repressive government should it become necessary. Progressives love to accuse anyone recognizing this essential truth of history of being radical and dangerous, but danger lies in trying to destroy any portion of the Constitution, not in defending it.
True radicals claim that weapons like the AR-15 could never be useful in resisting a modern army. This reveals nothing so much as their ignorance of history. In addition, if AR-15s are so ineffective, why are they so determined to ban them?
They realize that as long as honest men and women possess arms, they can never establish their utopia on Earth. They want to do away with firearms in the hands of law-abiding patriots not to ensure the safety of innocents, but to ensure their safety in imposing tyranny.
That’s more than enough reason to appreciate, and own, an AR-15.