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Explaining the AR-15

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

Modernized FDE AR-15 with red dot and magpul furniture

Everyone has heard of it, the media is obsessed with it, elections are won and lost over it, and the gun market is dominated by it. You really can't overstate the importance and ubiquity of the AR-15 to the world of shooting and to the American zeitgeist as a whole.

So how did we get here? And why are we so stuck on the AR-15 in particular when there's a whole world of other rifles out there? Let's dive in.

In this article:

What Makes it So Popular?

The Round it Fires.

Back when the AR-15 and its predecessors were first being developed by ArmaLite throughout the 50's and 60's, the Western militaries of the world were also seeking a new,

.223 Remington Ammo
.223 Remington, the civilian sibling of 5.56

smaller round to replace their current slow, heavy 7.62x51 NATO cartridge. The new round

came to be known as the 5.56x45 NATO, and the AR-15 was selected in the US as the new infantry rifle to fire it. Since past military rifles fired the much larger 7.62 and the even bigger 30-06, the advantages were immediately obvious to the average soldier. In part because of the smaller round, the AR-15 -- soon to be known as the M16 by the military -- had extremely low recoil, was very lightweight, and very easy to shoot with great precision. Soldiers could also carry more of the new, smaller ammunition. Due to these factors, it was the right gun at the right time to impress the world in tandem with its new 5.56 cartridge.

Innovative Design.

While Eugene Stoner and the other creators of the AR-15 at ArmaLite didn't outright invent many of the best features of the AR-15, they did effectively combine many cutting-edge technologies and weapon concepts into an excellent and somewhat revolutionary package. It also owes much of its success to its still-popular predecessor, the AR-10, also designed by ArmaLite. The AR-10 was designed to have very little recoil and be very light (two factors which normally counteract one another), all the while firing the large 7.62 or 30-06 rounds.

ArmaLite prototype AR-15
An early ArmaLite AR-15 design

Many innovations were needed to pull this off, including its direct-impingement gas system, the heavy usage of aluminum and polymer parts, and a stock that was perfectly aligned with the action, recoil spring, and barrel in order to mitigate muzzle rise. When the military later asked for a rifle chambered in the comparatively tiny 5.56, all of these (now overkill) recoil-reducing features were passed down from the AR-10 to the new AR-15, giving it excellent performance even compared to other 5.56 rifles.

Military Adoption.

Whenever the US armed forces give a piece of equipment their stamp of approval, the world inevitably takes notice. Whether it's a vehicle, a weapon, or just a camo pattern, military adoption can make a thing famous (and highly marketable) in short order, especially with the help of pop culture. On top of this, although it had some speed bumps early on, generations of soldiers have now trained and served with variants of this rifle, coming home and spreading the word of its ease of use and reliability. This further cemented the AR-15's legacy as America's weapon of choice.

...and Good ol' Capitalism.

If you ask the owner of an AR-15 why they made the decision to buy one, you'll likely get an earful about how they're the "Lego" of the firearms world, letting you swap out any part for an endless number of alternatives to best suit your specific needs while staying on a budget. However, this wasn't always the case, and in fact it wasn't until the last twenty years or so (following the death of the federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994) that the civilian market really took off for these guns.

Modern AR-15 SBR with aftermarket parts and red dot optic
Nothing oldschool about this gun

The more popular it became, the more widespread and competitive the market grew, driving prices further and further downwards while spurring on countless innovations and improvements to every possible facet of the AR-15. A modern AR can often look wildly different from ArmaLite's original design, and with significant improvements to boot. An AR can be anything these days, from a backyard .22 plinker, to a cutting-edge decked-out home defense gun, to a long-range precision rifle. The market has shaped the AR-15 into a true jack of all trades, and a master of many. To this day, it's tough for even excellent new rifle designs to overcome that much momentum and aftermarket support.

The Controversy of the AR-15

It should go without saying that this rifle is the topic of a lot of heated discourse, and I don't just mean at Thanksgiving. Due to all this notoriety and its use in several high-profile shootings, there is a constant push by many to literally ban it by name, as has already been done in numerous US states and other countries as of late, including the previously quite gun-friendly Canada.

The AR-15 may be America's rifle of choice, but it's also become the unfortunate political poster child of all that is wrong about gun culture and firearm policy today. For many on both sides of the issue, it's been variously scapegoated, fetishized, and glorified far beyond its actual capabilities as a tool or a weapon. While it is indeed a good and able rifle as outlined above, its role has moved beyond simply being one of the better options for target shooting, hunting, or defense. In the current American consciousness, the AR-15 is more symbol than firearm.

And of course, despite 2020 FBI data indicating once again that rifles such as the AR-15 only make up a tiny percentage of the total number of firearm-related deaths, the scourge of mass-shooters seen with an AR-15 make it easy fodder for media and politicians alike to exploit without bothering to go after the more difficult-to-solve and far more prevalent sources of gun deaths, such as suicides, domestic violence, and gangs -- let alone make an attempt to tackle root causes in our society that lead to such tragedies.

In spite of all the irrational, overzealous obsession surrounding the gun from both sides of the aisle, we like to believe our readers are a bit more grounded on the issue, right? Good. An AR-15 is just one of many comparable inanimate objects in the world of guns, each with its own pros and cons. So on to the big question:

Should I Get One?

If you're in the market for a rifle with modern features, you will certainly be very well served by an AR-15. To this day, it is an exceedingly practical rifle, even when left in its most basic configuration. It's light, it's dependable, it's affordable, and it's incredibly easy and pleasant to shoot, and shoot well. For those reasons it can be a fantastic first rifle, too.

On to the downsides: Like any design, there are compromises and even some outright flaws. For starters, remember that fancy lightweight "direct impingement" and recoil system we mentioned earlier? That very same system results in excessive buildup of grime in all the worst places. Other common gripes are the somewhat awkward position of the charging handle, lack of ambidextrous controls, and the inability to incorporate a folding stock; issues that are not found on most other modern rifles.

Having said all that, these downsides are incredibly minor in the grand scheme of things. Any half-decent AR-15 will famously keep on firing in spite of any accumulated filth on the inner workings of the rifle. The less-than-ideal charging handle is essentially the one annoyance in an otherwise fantastically ergonomic and logical layout of the rifle's controls. On top of this, the charging handle can be changed entirely if it doesn't suit you, the controls can be affordably upgraded to an ambidextrous set, and with a little modification you can even get a folding stock on there, too. If there's one remaining complaint, it's that the AR-15 is almost TOO tame to shoot...but that's admittedly a pretty good problem to have.

Ruger AR-556 with free-floated handguard
The Ruger AR-556 with free-floated handguard

There are most certainly other rifle options out there which fire the very same 5.56 NATO round, and that will do some things better and some things worse, but none with a fraction of the aftermarket support -- and they'll usually cost you two to three times as much money. In other words, it often comes down to this: Does your need to have something unique supersede the advantages and affordability of the AR-15?

If you're ready to take the dive yourself, we recommend this modern AR-15 made by Ruger (we wouldn't be selling it if we didn't think it was an excellent choice). For more good info, be sure to check out our other articles!


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