Like it or not, the history of America and its guns are closely entwined, and throughout our history there have been certain firearms that are considered so distinctly American that they literally defined an era. The long-barreled “Kentucky” Rifle of the Revolutionary War era, the lever-action Winchester 73 during the westward expansion, and the Colt M1911 from World War I to the Persian Gulf War are examples that spring to mind.
To that list I would add the ArmaLite Rifle-15, more commonly known today as the AR-15, or simply AR. The designation AR-15 today is a trademark of Colt Industries, but numerous manufacturers produce AR “clones” all based on the ArmaLite Rifle-15, which was originally developed in the 1950s. “AR,” by the way, stands for ArmaLite Rifle, not “assault rifle” or “automatic rifle.”
The AR-15 in civilian guise is a gas-operated, semi-automatic carbine usually chambered in 5.56 x 45mm (.223 Remington), with a detachable box magazine. Often called the “black rifle,” in its original configuration it was very distinctive with its black finish, integral carrying handle, and triangular (in cross section) forearm or front stock.
There are no exact figures, but the AR is probably the single most popular rifle being made and sold in the United States these days, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
I am not encouraging everyone to run out and buy an AR for themselves, although I would certainly support any law-abiding citizen’s right to do so (For the record, when it comes to hunting and to Second Amendment issues, anyone who knows me can tell you that I am proudly and unapologetically on the “pro” side of that debate), but rather I would like to examine why the AR is so popular with Americans these days.
First, practically every American service member since the 1960s was exposed to the AR-15 family of firearms, at least learned how to shoot and maintain them in basic training, spent countless hours on the range or in the field with them, or carried them in combat. They are familiar with them, slept with them even, and it is only natural that once they became available they would want something similar for themselves.
I myself confess to a long-term, love-hate relationship with the AR: on the military side I have carried everything from an early XM-16E1 (with a five-digit serial number, made by Harrington & Richardson), the M-16 A1 and A2, and the M-16-based M-4 carbine, so I am familiar with their operation and maintenance, and have a healthy respect for their capabilities, but I also dislike the shoot ‘em up mentality, and public shooting ranges left littered with shot-up old television sets, propane tanks, and cheap, non-reloadable, steel ammunition cases.
Second, they are just fun to shoot, have little recoil (making them ideal for younger or smaller shooters) and are capable of exceptional accuracy when properly outfitted.
Additionally, although designed over 50 years ago, they are perfect for today’s modern, plug and play mentality. For instance it is easy to put an upper receiver, barrel, bolt and bolt carrier from one manufacturer onto a lower receiver/trigger assembly from another manufacturer, coupled with a forearm from yet another supplier and sights or a telescopic sight from a fourth provider, and have all of these parts and components function perfectly well and reliably together.
Guns are cooler now, with improvements in machinery and standardization making precision-made aftermarket accessories affordable and easy to install, and with modern coating and surface treatments, such standardized designs can be customized to fit practically any consumer’s taste and style, in almost any color or variety. Want a pink camo AR-15 to recognize breast cancer victims? You can have it, with almost endless options, all coated to match.
Finally, it seems the more that certain politicians try to ban or restrict them, the more popular that ARs, and guns in general, become.
These are some of the reasons that “AR” should actually stand for “America’s Rifle.”
Just like the AK-47 represented the military projection of Cold War communism, for the past 50 years the AR-based M-16 has represented the United States and its allies in places like Vietnam, Central America, Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East – anywhere Americans have fought or served, it has been there.
To some people the AR summons images of American GIs wading through Vietnamese rice paddies or fighting in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, to others it represents gang violence, or a tool of freedom from oppression. It is loved (sometimes hated) by people who have carried them or who simply enjoy shooting them, and feared by others who see no need for private ownership and would rather see them banned.
In the next column I will examine some of the ways people enjoy using their ARs.
Jim Freeman is the wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District, and his column, In the Open, generally appears every two weeks. He can be contacted weekdays at 740-992-4282 or at firstname.lastname@example.org