History of the AR-15

Brownells XBRN177E2 is a great rifle, a lightweight AR-15 too.

If there’s one gun that really splits America down the middle right now it’s the good old AR-15.

This is America’s favorite rifle, and it’s most hated. It’s got fans cheering and gun control advocates shaking their heads, but no one can deny its impact on the country’s gun culture.

The Early Days of the AR-15

Back in the 1950s, a company called Armalite created the AR-15 for civilian use thanks to the genius Eugene Stoner.

Contrary to popular opinions on Twitter, the letters “AR” don’t stand for “assault rifle” or “automatic rifle.” Nope, it’s just the name of the manufacturer who first came up with the most popular gun in American history and then conspired to lose it.

The Armalite Rifle has gone down in history and everybody knows their work, which is basically the same design as the rifles you can buy right here, right now.

AR-10’s Failure Laid the Foundations For the AR-15

He first developed the gas operated bolt and carrier system for the AR-10, chambered in 7.62x51mm, the military version of 308 WIn Mag ammo.

That could have become the M14 rifle, but in typical fashion, ArmaLite Rifles simply supplied the test gun too late and the US military rejected it in favor of the T44.

You can’t help thinking if a polished rifle arrived early in the test schedule, this could have been the new M14 military battle rifle rather than a slightly improved M1 Garand.

Vietnam Was a Disaster for the M14

Field reports from the Vietnam War suggest the final M14 was woefully inadequate against the AK-47 wielding enemy. It was almost uncontrollable with select fire and soldiers couldn’t carry enough ammo for that kind of spray and pray approach.

The cheaper and simpler AK47 kicked the M14 all over Vietnam, in short. The M14’s only advantage came at long range, but not in full auto mode.

With a 6.8lb final weight, straight muzzle-stock design, phenolic composite stock and forged aluminum alloy receivers, there was a lot to love about the new AR-10 though.

The AR-10 was the answer that arrived just a little too late. But the M14’s failure and the AR-10’s strength laid the foundations for the AR-15.

Financial Woes at ArmaLite

The AR-10 design was then licensed to Dutch firm Artillerie Inrichtingen, who went on to sell the design to military forces around the world.

But the American test team liked the basic concept so much that it asked for a scaled down .223 Remington version. In 1958, ArmaLite provided 100 test rifles that weighed in at 6lb, could pierce a standard US M1 helmet at 500 yards and match the terminal ballistics of the 30 Carbine round.

The end result, the AR-15, was three times as reliable as the M14, soldiers could carry 3 times as much ammunition and effectively turned a 5 man team into an 11 man team. But still it got vetoed by Army Chief of Staff General Maxwell Taylor.

Mired in financial issues and frustrated by the lack of progress, ArmaLite sold the designs to Colt. In all honesty the gun has barely changed since then and you can buy a Colt M4 Carbine to this day.

The Colt M16, the original military AR-15 that evolved from the AR-10 that was designed by Eugene Stoner.

Colt Turned the AR-15 Into a Winner

Colt began selling the AR-15 to civilians in 1964, and the rifle quickly became popular. The AR-15 was a lightweight, accurate, and easy-to-shoot rifle. It was also relatively affordable and modular so both hunters and target shooters could add accessories to create the gun they needed.

The AR-15 also gained popularity among law enforcement officers. The rifle was easy to use and maintain, and it was also very accurate. This made the AR-15 a good choice for law enforcement officers who needed a rifle that they could use in close-quarters situations.

Colt Took AR-15 to War

The AR-15 finally made it to the Vietnam War thanks to Colt, although it wasn’t standard issue. Now the M16, to use its militayr designation, didn’t love the constant humidity in Asia and there were some issues with jamming, but it was a massive improvement over the M1 Garand based M14 rifle.

Colt adapted the M-16 for law enforcement and civilians. They created a semi-automatic rifle that basically is the rifle you can buy online today. Or in a shop, I mean that part doesn’t really matter.

The AR-10 remains a niche choice, but one hell of a battle rifle. The lesser powered and cheaper AR-15, though, has become America’s darling.

Colt’s patents expired in the 1970s and that meant suddenly there was a free for all. This was a simple rifle for home defense and the increasingly popular recreational shooting niche. As it was designed to be relatively foolproof for inexperienced soldiers in the heat of battle, it kind of works for everybody.

Massive Numbers of AR-15s in America

Now you can buy a $400 AR-15, a $4000 custom AR-15 and everything in between thanks to market forces and good old capitalism.

Out of the frankly epic 434 million firearms in circulation, at least 20 million are AR-15 rifles. That’s a big portion.

Returning soldiers from the Vietnam War loved the AR-15 because it resembled the M-16 they used overseas. It was designed to look more like a military weapon than a hunting rifle.

Plus, you can customize it with accessories or even assemble the parts yourself.

Technical Highlights of the AR-15

Stoner’s system is commonly called direct impingement, which is kind of true. But it’s more than that. “This invention is a true expanding gas system instead of the conventional impinging gas system,″ said Stoner.

It is a modular rifle designed for easy field stripping and reassembly with simple hand tools and split into simple sections.

  • Upper Receiver – Contains the fore stock, gas operating system, charging handle, barrel, bolt and bolt carrier group.
  • Lower Receiver – Magazine well, pistol grip, buttstock, trigger assembly, hammer and fire control group.

This made basic gunsmithing relatively intuitive for new soldiers under duress.

Key Features of the AR-15 Design

The stock is in line with the muzzle to keep recoil low, it basically fits everybody thanks to the adjustable stock and it’s simple to operate and reload. You can complicate things, but the basic AR-15 is a spectacularly intuitive and easy semi-auto rifle.

Designed to protect the charging handle, the carry handle and requisite elevated sights have become an icon in their own right.

The oversized duckbill flash suppressor was seriously useful in a military setting, as it protected the shooter’s night vision rather than hide soldiers from the enemy, and the adjustable gas system was clever in its day.

Originally the magazines held 25 rounds, too, but these were dropped in favor of disposable waffle stamped aluminum 20 round mags. They were designed to be cheap and light rather than durable.

The whole rifle was designed with in-line movement in mind, too. Not only does that contain recoil, it also drives forces directly to the rear, rather than to the side, which helps with repeatability with select fire.

American conscripts didn’t get endless range time, and not all of them were expert shooters. This simple rifle design meant the aim point didn’t shift dramatically with each shot, which means tighter grouping and reduced user fatigue.

Modern Day AR-15s

Gun enthusiasts love their tacticool accessories and vague military feel. You know it’s true.

But the really amazing thing is how little the AR-15 has changed in all this time. Sure you can get lightweight AR-15s with carbon fiber and other materials, and there are wilfully different designs with a skeletonized grip etc. Basically, though, the new guns look a lot like the old ones…

The AR-15’s popularity skyrocketed in the 2000s. The federal ban on semi-automatic assault weapons expired in 2004, and patriotic sentiment was at its peak after 9/11. America frickin loved the AR-15

In 2005, the Protection of Lawful Commerce Arms Act protected the gun industry from civil action related to the criminal or unlawful misuse of firearms. This opened the floodgates for AR-15 marketing and more companies joining the game. With the rise of right-wing politics and the association of the AR-15 with firearms ownership, it became a symbol of industry growth.

But the times they are a changing…

Mass Shootings Turning AR-15 into a Political Football

Now, let’s address the elephant in the room. The AR-15 has become synonymous with mass shootings in the U.S. A study found that the use of semi-automatic rifles in mass shootings increased over time.

Ar-15s hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, both used AR-15-style weapons. It was the same gun type used to kill children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, concertgoers in Las Vegas in 2017, and teenagers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018.

But here’s the reality check. While AR-15s often feature in mass shootings, they’re responsible for a fraction of overall gun-related deaths.

Suicides make up over half of gun-related deaths, and handguns are involved in the majority of gun-related homicides. Rifles like the AR-15 account for a small percentage.

State Restrictions on AR-15 Rifles

Some states have implemented restrictions on AR-15-style rifles, along with high-capacity magazines. The end result is the featureless rifle you see in California and New York and they hella ugly and impractical.

These States have basically banned the straightforward AR-15 we all know and love and have some heinous restrictions in place:

  • California
  • Delaware
  • Hawaii
  • Maryland
  • New Jersey
  • Washington
  • Connecticut
  • New York
  • Massachusetts
  • New York

A Gun Control War is Raging

That’s not enough for some on the Left, though, who have made the AR-15 a symbol of the gun control battle. Incorrectly labeling them ‘assault rifles’, smoking Joe Biden and the Left wants to ban them, it’s that simple.

Illinois and Washington were two of the most recent states to implement a ban on sales. Interestingly those that already have them can keep them. Sooooooo, you might want to buy an AR-15 online now, while you still can.


A lawsuit against Daniel Defense, brought by the victims of the Uverde shooting, is testing the waters of the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce Arms Act and public opinion seems to be crucial here.

There’s no doubt that the AR-15 is under attack, but it’s gun and it should be able to look after itself.

This is a critical time for America’s favorite rifle, though, which has become a political symbol as much as an all round hunting and home defense rifle.

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  • Nick Hall

    Nick is a lifelong gun enthusiast who has a simple mission. He wants to find the best deals for guns online and help you make the best choices with weapons your life may depend on one day.Nick won a minor league shooting competition at the age of 11 and it all went from there. Now he runs one of the biggest firearms websites on the net and his work has featured in Playboy US, Tatler Asia, Forbes and a whole host of national magazines and websites.

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