The AR-15: A Reality Check

The AR-15 rifle is back in the news. Since Nikolas Cruz’s senseless attack on the students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the calls have gone out to ban or restrict sales of the AR-15. Thousands of students are demanding that Washington do something about the demonized and dreaded “assault weapon”. 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. The first AR-15s were made by Colt which bought the rights from Armalite*. There are now 34 companies in the U.S. that produce variations on the AR-15 and its larger and older sibling, the AR-10. “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 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, fired the 7.62x33mm cartridge (.30 Carbine), which was no match for the Russian AK-47 in jungle combat.

A new call went out for a rifle chambered in a smaller, lighter round. The Army wanted a cartridge that would be intermediate between the .30 carbine and the .308 Winchester yet could be close to the larger .308 round in lethality.

Armalite then went back to the drawing board and developed the AR-15, a smaller, lighter version designed around the 5.56x45mm (.223 Remington) cartridge. Armalite won the contract for the new M16.

Long story short, Armalite didn’t want to be in the large-scale manufacturing business and sold the rights to Colt Patent Firearms (now Colt’s Manufacturing Company).

Colt released a semi-automatic version of the M16, called the AR-15 in 1964, the same year the Army officially adopted the M16. The “AR” stands for “Armalite Rifle”, not “Assault 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.

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. The rifle is easy to maintain and simple to disassemble.

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.

One of the most brilliant design features of the AR-10 and AR-15 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. In some calibers, the same magazines can be used. Examples of this are the .300 AAC Blackout, which has a .30-caliber bullet and the .458 SOCOM. This turns a rifle suited for smaller game into a rifle that is suitable for deer and other medium game. Some states ban the use of .223 ammunition for deer because it can’t deliver a killing wound as well as a larger-caliber round.

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, have purchased somewhere between five and ten million AR-15s. It is a favorite of hunters for small-to-medium game, competition shooters including an estimated 300,000 Americans that participate in competitions 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, like the Czech Republic, Germany and Italy.

Despite all of the hysteria and hype, the AR-15 is not some demon weapon that presents a clear and present danger to the American people.

Here are some things the AR-15 is not:

First and foremost, the AR-15 is not an assault weapon. There is no such thing. The term “assault weapon” was coined to make a AR-style rifle sound more threatening.

Second, the AR-15 is not an assault rifle. It does not have selective fire, which is part of the U.S. Army’s definition of an assault rifle. The AR-15 is semi-automatic only.

Third, the AR-15 is not a high-powered rifle. As I mentioned earlier, the Army wanted a round that was somewhere between the .30 Carbine and the .308. The .308 was a shorter version of the .30-06 round that was the Army standard from the adoption of the 1903 Springfield until the replacement of the Garand in the late 1950s. Both are far more deadly and are accurate at longer ranges. The Springfield, Garand and M14 were considered battle rifles: the AR-15 is not.

The gory details from a doctor treating victims of the Parkland shooting must be considered in relation to the wounds from handgun rounds that seem to have made up most of the doctor’s prior experience. A close-range wound from any centerfire rifle round is pretty catastrophic. Had Cruz used something like an AR-10, the carnage would no doubt have been greater because the .308 creates a larger wound cavity and has more penetration. This is not to make light of wounds that can be inflicted with a 5.56 NATO/.223 Remington round or its lethality. However, hyping its performance in relation to other rifle rounds is dishonest.

Fourth, the AR-15 is not a threat to American society. As mentioned earlier, the AR-15 has been on the market since 1964 and millions have been purchased. Out of 120 killers in mass shootings since 1964, A AR-15 has been used by 28; 16 of those have been incidents occurring in the past three years. In 47 mass shootings between 1964 and 2000, a AR-15 was used three times.

As a matter of fact, the hysteria and calls for a ban on all semi-automatic rifles are way overblown. FBI data for 2016 notes that all types of rifles and shotguns combined were used in less than 4% of murders reported by the 50 states and District of Columbia. More killers used their bare hands than used either rifles or shotguns. No one knows exactly how many rifles and shotguns are owned by Americans, but the 652 used for homicides is a vanishingly small percentage.

Fifth, the AR-15 does have uses beyond being a defensive or military rifle. It is popular for hunting and competitive shooting. It offers advantages possessed by no other style of rifle.

Right now there are calls to raise the age of purchase for the AR-15 to 21. In 54 years, one person under 21 has used a legally purchased AR-15 in a mass shooting. That one person is Nikolas Cruz. The only other person under 21 to use a lawfully possessed AR-15 in a mass shooting was Tyler Peterson, a deputy sheriff. He used a department-issued rifle to kill people in a private residence in Crandon, Wisconsin in 2007. In every other usage in the under-21 group the rifle was stolen.

Cruz is also the youngest killer since Robert Hawkins opened fire inside of Westroads Mall in Omaha. That was in 2007.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are more than 12.7 million young adults in the 18 to 20 age group in the U.S. One out of 12.7 million sounds like a very poor reason to deny the rest a chance to buy a modern sporting rifle if they desire.

So thousands and thousands will march for all the wrong reasons. They have accepted distortions and hysteria, believing that that the laws they demand will somehow end these killings. By now, they be incapable of accepting the sad fact that everything we know compels us to believe otherwise. What’s worse is that nobody has the guts to stand up and tell them the truth: We don’t have a quick fix.

*Armalite is now owned by Strategic Armory Corps of Arizona, which makes AR-style rifles under the McMillan and Surgeon brands.

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