Let’s accept that what we call the “AR” is a controversial firearm. It’s widely demonized by the anti-gun crowd, but even among shooters it receives a mixed reception. Those who love it, really love it, but many of us have more traditional tastes. There are a lot of shooters from my generation who aren’t crazy about the AR platform, and I believe that, in part, it’s because many of us simply don’t understand them.
Now, I know I need to be careful! The only gun writer I know who had the temerity (or ignorance?) to say bad things about the AR in a Friday-night blog post woke up Monday without a career. (A shame, really—he’s actually a good friend of mine!) So, let me be clear: From my standpoint, there’s nothing bad to say about the AR. Gene Stoner’s 60-year-old design remains a fantastic firearm! (For those who don’t know the AR’s history, Stoner delivered the AR10 in 7.62×51 in 1955. His engineering team-mates, Robert Fremont and Jim later scaled it down to the AR15 in 5.56x45mm.)
My Personal History with the AR
It’s true that I’m not an AR expert. I don’t write about them much because I’m more interested in and attracted to other designs and action types—some like pickup trucks or SUVs, others like sports cars. (Hopefully we are allowed preferences in firearms!) However, that doesn’t mean I don’t respect and understand the AR platform! I own several and, after all, for my first 20 years in the Marines, I carried an M16, then an M16A1, and then an M16A2, until my tour was done as a battalion commander. After that, I couldn’t justify carrying a rifle even for show, though I always felt kind of naked without one.
A Brief History of Assault Rifles—and Why the AR Isn’t One
Unfortunately, the AR or “modern sporting rifle,” as we sometimes call it, suffers from a huge case of mistaken identity. In our terminology “AR,” whether AR10 or AR15, is short for Armalite, Gene Stoner’s outfit. It’s an unfortunate coincidence that the initials are often confused as an abbreviation for “assault rifle.” The press does this so often that it’s probably not altogether ignorance, but it’s also done by folks who should know better.
StG44: The Original Assault Rifle
The prototype and archetypical “assault rifle” is the StG 44 Sturmgewehr, developed by the Germans at the height of WWII. Instead of the full-up 8x57mm rifle cartridge or the 9mm pistol and submachinegun cartridge, it used an intermediate 7.92x33mm cartridge, which had greater range than the pistol but less than the rifle. It also had reduced recoil and, thus, better controllability. This is important because the StG 44—and all true “assault rifles”—have selective fire capability: semiautomatic or full automatic at the shooter’s choice. The intent was to provide an edge in firepower during a close assault. Sturmgewehr, said to be coined by Hitler himself, means “storm weapon.”
AK-47: An Improvement On the StG 44
Mikhail Kalashnikov studied the German design, simplified it, and made the most prolific military weapon of all time: AK-47, with the intermediate 7.62x39mm cartridge. Others didn’t do quite so well.
Our M14 is a great battle rifle, but it’s chambered to the full-sized 7.62x51mm cartridge. As designed, it’s a selective fire rifle, intended to be an “assault rifle”—but it’s uncontrollable in full auto, and although we still use a lot of M14s in the Marines, I can honestly say that I have never seen one that didn’t have the selective fire capability disabled.
The M16-series, with the mild-recoiling 5.56mm cartridge, are different stories. The M16 through M16-A4 and the M4 carbine, as designed for the military, are selective-fire assault rifles and also great battle rifles.
Commercially-Available ARs: Semiautomatic Only
The innumerable civilian versions on the AR10 or AR15 frame are semiautomatic only and, by definition, are not assault rifles. They are accurate, incredibly fun to shoot, and, depending on cartridge, suitable for a wide array of sporting purposes. They’re darned good guns, and so popular that ARs have been manufactured under more than 90 brand names. With the exceptions of John Moses Browning’s timeless 1911 pistol and Peter Paul Mauser’s 1898 bolt action, this is unprecedented in the firearms industry!
AR Platform Offers a Wide Range of Options
ARs range from very basic to serious custom jobs, with match barrels and more. They all have the same basic action, but prices range from a low of about $500 to ten times that and more. I suppose the same could be said of the bolt action! Perhaps the greatest validation of the AR has been its adoption by major manufacturers: first Remington, then Ruger, then Mossberg.
Obviously, there’s a market for the AR platform. The big companies are banking on a continuous demand, and I assume they are correct. The AR10 was designed around the 7.62x51mm NATO cartridge, and the AR15 and the 5.56x45mm NATO round were designed together. This creates limitations on both frames; however, given some creative cartridge design, both have proven quite versatile.
The 7.62x51mm/.308 Winchester family is large—maybe large enough—but look at all the cartridges designed to fit the AR15 frame: from Federal’s new .22 Valkyrie all the way up to .450 Bushmaster and .50 Beowulf. In the middle, the 6.8mm Remington SPC is solid, and the 6.5mm Grendel and .300 Blackout are taking off like rockets.
A Basic Frame Provides a Foundation for a More Complex System
After all, the beauty of the AR frame is that all you need is an upper receiver, a magazine that will feed, and an appropriate recoil spring. It’s a system that is both complex, yet exceedingly simple. I won’t argue between piston and direct impingement—I guess you have to be more of an AR guy to have a firm opinion. I have both models, and both work fine… you suppose there’s more than one way to skin the cat?
The real secret is the multi-lug rotating bolt, which provides concentric lockup and exceptional accuracy when mated to a good barrel and paired with good ammo. The rotating bolt with multiple locking lugs comes straight from Peter Paul Mauser’s timeless bolt-action, which is still used in most bolt-actions today in a number of varieties. So it’s not really a stretch to say that the AR’s lineage starts with Mauser! It’s not true that the AR is more rugged or more dependable than Kalashnikov’s simpler design—but it is more accurate and more versatile, and with proper ammo and cleaning ARs run extremely well.
How I Use My ARs
Most of the ARs I own are fairly basic. The one I shoot the most is a Rock River 5.56mm. I love it because I’m left-handed, and mine is one of the uncommon left-hand mirror-image ARs. It’s my go-to ranch rifle on my Kansas farm; I carry it for varmints, from armadillos to coyotes, and I’ve taken several deer with it. It needs a faster twist for the really heavy bullets, but with bullets from 50 to 62 grains it’s a consistent 1.5 MOA rifle. That’s plenty adequate in my Kansas woods, and not bad for a basic out-of-the-box AR. Some will do much better, others a bit worse, but with all basic factory rifles, extreme accuracy takes a bit of luck. My Ruger SR5.56 is about the same, while a S&W VTAC is a solid one-inch/100-yard rifle.
The Benefits of Going Custom
On the other hand, there are custom and semi-custom ARs—at higher prices, of course—that deliver awesome accuracy. I had a Nosler Varmegeddon that was exceptional, and a Proof Research AR that was also amazing. This rifle had a Proof Research carbon fiber-reinforced barrel, which not only extremely accurate, but also heats up very slowly. With costlier Ars, you tend to get better barrels and better triggers as well.
Tracing its history from the original design to the dozens of available models today, it’s clear that the AR platform’s customizability is one of the reasons why it’s so popular today. Even if you don’t splurge for an expensive custom model, you can add aftermarket barrels and triggers to any AR—that’s part of the beauty of the platform.
Thanks to the rail system, scope mounting is easy, and you can accessorize an AR to your heart’s content. Sights, lights, lasers, adjustable stocks, multiple sling attachments, you name it. I keep mine pretty basic, but that’s my choice. You may not think of me as an “AR guy,” but I appreciate that it has a great action and a wonderfully versatile platform. Like I said above, it’s an accurate, multipurpose rifle that’s fun to shoot and offers many options for shooters at any level.