Nope, the AR doesn’t stand for “Assault Rifle.”
The ArmaLite Model 15 (AR-15) is a semi-automatic, high capacity rifle chambered for a 5.56 mm (.223) round.
There are different derivatives of AR-15, including the M-16 rifle that is currently standard issue for the United States military.
The AR-15 has a stormy reputation in the U.S. and abroad.
There are many AR models, including bolt-action and survival rifles, but the most well known are the Models 10 and 15.
AR-15 The History
Like many arms manufacturers before them, ArmaLite studied contemporary weapons and saw opportunities to introduce new technologies.
ArmaLite had intended to introduce new gun concepts to the civilian market, eventually introducing its designs to the military. However, in the 1950s, the company found itself with an opportunity to develop a new firearm for the U.S. Air Force to replace its existing “survival rifle.”
Foreshadowing what would become a daring reputation in weapons design, the ArmaLite company developed the Hornet .22 survival rifle. Called the Model AR-5, the U.S. Air Force adopted the rifle as the MA-1 in 1956.
The rifle could be broken down into three simple parts—stock, receiver, and barrel—and these parts could be stored inside the hollow stock, which would float.
This innovative design was later marketed as the civilian Model AR-7. Though not entirely reliable, this compact design offered some peace of mind for individuals who might find themselves in survival circumstances or cut off from traditional supply sources.
After its success with the AR-5 and AR-7, ArmaLite turned its attention towards developing and improving military firearms.
Even before the success of the AR-5, ArmaLite had been interested in producing a lightweight combat rifle.
Enter the AR-10
In 1955, ArmaLite had the opportunity to obtain a military arms contract. They presented a rifle composed of aircraft-grade aluminum and plastic, containing no wood parts.
This new, lightweight rifle was the AR-10, and was like nothing that came before it. Chambered for a 7.62 mm round, it was light and quick.
Although ArmaLite was not able to adequately develop the new weapon in time to win the Army contract, the Army was interested in the new design, and ArmaLite set out to perfect its rifle.
The AR-15 was a modified AR-10 chambered for a 5.56 mm round. It was even lighter than the Model 10.
However, neither of the models were successes, and in December 1959 ArmaLite sold its rights to the AR-10 and AR-15 to Colt firearms.
In 1962, Colt presented 1,000 Model 15s to the U.S. Department of Defense. Impressed by the firearms, the DOD ordered 85,000 M-16s for use in the Vietnam conflict, in spite of U.S. Army opposition.
In the jungles of Vietnam, the M16 turned out to be unreliable and inaccurate, and some platoon leaders were reporting troop deaths due to rifle malfunctions. The high heat and humidity caused rifles to jam, and few soldiers knew how to properly strip and clean the new weapons. The general feeling in the field and back home was that soldiers were dying because of faulty equipment.
Many wanted to return to the old standby M14, but it was heavy and soldiers could only carry up to 100 rounds of ammo.
The M-16 underwent a serious redesign, with chrome plating in the chamber and barrel, flash suppressor, and bolt assist. The butt stock was hollowed to provide a space for a cleaning kit, and improved ammunition was developed, along with a 30-round capacity magazine.
These modifications seemed to improve the rifle greatly, and it was reissued as the M-16A1.
In 1978, further improvements were made to the ammunition and barrel, sites, deflector, and hand-guards.In addition, a selector allowed switching from fully automatic to a three-shot burst mode.
The new iteration was called the M-16A2.
The Impact of the AR-15
Though initially rife with problems, the AR-15 developed into an accurate and reliable firearm with legions of devoted followers.
What was initially described as a “Mattel,” toy, or plastic gun was eventually recognized as a firearm superior in engineering and design.
Replacing conventional steel and wood gun parts with aircraft-grade aluminum and polymer created a lightweight, corrosion-resistant rifle. The straight lines of the AR were also a radical new design when compared to the traditional bent stock of classically designed rifles. A novelty at first, users soon realized that the design, along with the smaller caliber of ammunition, resulted in less kickback and muzzle rise.
Because of the modular design of the AR-15 and its clones, swapping parts and completing repairs is easy. The synthetic stock and grips are resistant to weather and wear, and the adjustable sites allow each user to custom-tailor their rifle to their specific needs and shooting style.
The AR initially inspired fear, in much the same way the Glock did when first appearing on the weapons scene. Concerns about the quality of the weapon, while initially justified, were soon supplanted by the common misconception that “AR” stood for assault rifle, and that this scary, black, futuristic-looking gun would be used to massacre civilians.
As a result, AR-15s continue to face strong restrictions in Australia, Austria, Canada, and the United Kingdom, and previously faced a number of restrictions in the U.S.
From 1994 to 2004, some features of AR-15s, like custom grips, stocks, suppressors, magazines, and mounts were deemed prohibited for civilian use. In September 2004, the Assault Weapons Ban expired, and today there are no federal restrictions on the ownership of AR-15 rifles in the United States.
Some models and features remain restricted in California. To own an AR-15 in California, it must have been registered as an assault weapon before 2000, have a fixed magazine, or be a stripped-down model without any of the features such as rear or forward pistol grip, telescoping or folding stock, flash suppressor, or grenade/flare launcher.
The AR-15s available to civilians are different from the military-grade M-16s.
Though they look nearly identical, the hammer and trigger mechanisms are of a different design. The firing mechanisms of the two weapons are not interchangeable so that the AR-15 cannot easily be made into a fully automatic weapon.
The AR inspired plenty of knockoffs, some of which are referred to as AR-type rifles, although only Colt firearms produces true ARs.
Today, sport shooters have become especially fond of the AR-15 and its clones for their lightness and accuracy.
This model is used by more than 80 countries. The M4 carbine, very similar to the M16, will eventually replace the M16 as standard U.S. Army issue.
The AR-15 was something of a novelty when it first came out—an ultramodern, high-tech weapon like nothing that came before it.
In spite of the AR-15 being rife with problems shortly after its introduction, it quickly overcame initial issues to become a very accurate and popular weapon.
Much of the popularity of the AR-15 endures because of features like collapsible stock and short barrel, allowing the gun to be portable and easy to use in tight quarters. Response is quick, recoil is minimal, and magazines can be quickly changed. Maintenance and parts replacement of the AR-15 are simple.
The AR-15 has undergone many changes since its initial debut, evolving from a novel experiment into a remarkably accurate and efficient firearm, and finally emerging as one of the most popular rifles in the U.S. today.