When you opened this, I bet you thought it would be yet another article explaining that AR stands for ARmalite (the original manufacturer) and not ‘assault rifle’. Guess again. Today we’re simply going to talk about how AR-15 rifles work and how people in America use them. My goal is to avoid the duck vagina problem.
1) They are less powerful than your grandpa’s deer rifle.
They are used for deer hunting in some states, but forbidden for deer hunting in others because they are considered too weak for an ethical, clean harvest.
To be clear, the AR platform is a very flexible design and — like Glock pistols — these rifles can be configured to shoot many different calibers. For the AR, this includes 7.62X39, 6.5 Creedmore, 6.8 SPC, .243 .300 Whisper, .50 Beowulf, .458 SOCOM and more. You can even find AR rifles chambered in common handgun calibers such as 9mm and .45ACP.
But the standard AR-15 fires only .223 Remington or 5.56 NATO ammunition. Both of these rounds fire a small bullet that most commonly weighs around 55 to 90 grains (compare this to a standard .45ACP pistol bullet of 230 grains). 1 The bullets have a diameter just barely larger than that of the .22LR, although both rounds use more energy than the .22 does.
All of this means that the most common AR-15 rifle uses small and light bullets that have lower penetration and lower energy than most hunting calibers, so they are often not suitable for big hunting opportunities. The light bullet does not work well in high winds or across long distances, nor does it do as much damage as a larger bullet usually does. This is why the minimum deer hunting caliber in many states (including Washington and Colorado) is 6mm — a round that is larger and more powerful than either .223 or 5.56.
Bottom line: AR-15 rifles have limited hunting utility not because they are uniquely powerful or destructive to game animals, but because they are considered small and underpowered for many hunting tasks.
2) They can be built from scratch using simple tools.
An AR receiver isn’t complicated to make. In fact, it is one of the easiest gun parts to manufacture using simple tools. In the past week, my Fb feed has served up pictures of AR receivers carved out of wood, or bolted together using different widths of aluminum sheeting from a hardware store. A higher-tech option for those with access to a 3D printer: it’s easy to find online blueprints to simply print that piece. And of course anyone with access to a machine shop who has basic mechanical knowledge could make a receiver in less than an afternoon.
Because the AR-15 is a modular design, many of the parts can be interchanged. The serialized part — the crucial central piece that gets tracked as the core of the firearm under federal law — is called the lower receiver or simply the lower. The other parts of the gun include an upper (or upper receiver), a stock, and a barrel. People who talk about “building” an AR-15 mean that they have chosen a specific set of parts to go with the receiver they purchased. Many people have multiple parts to go with a single receiver, so they can swap out the type of barrel their gun uses or choose a different configuration for the sighting system by changing the gun’s upper.
There are many thousands of AR-15 accessory parts available online, from hundreds of different manufacturers. Many gun owners also have dozens of AR parts just lying around in a closet or garage somewhere, waiting for the owner to get around to putting them together on a rifle.
3) There are an estimated 15 million AR-15 rifles owned by regular people in America.
From NBC News: “Today, one of out of every five firearms purchased in this country is an AR-style rifle, according to a NSSF estimate. Americans now own an estimated 15 million AR-15s, gun groups say. New AR-15 style guns range widely in price, from about $500 to more than $2,000.”
Why so many? The AR-15 platform is — as we noticed above — very easy to personalize for the user. With an adjustable stock, the rifle can fit nearly every shooter in the family, from a petite young teen to a very large adult male. This makes it a surprisingly economical choice for family shooting fun. As we also noticed above, the .223 round is lightweight, which means it produces very little recoil, so a lot of people (especially those sensitive to recoil issues) find it both fun and easy to shoot.
In addition to the fun factor, many people use AR-15 rifles in competition. The action shooting sport of 3-Gun is perhaps the fastest growing competitive shooting sport in America, and part of what drives that growth is the flexibility of the AR-15 design. The light weight and easy versatility of the design make it ideal for such competitions.
For serious defensive use, let me quote Massad Ayoob: “The cops are the experts on the current criminal trends. If they have determined that a ‘high capacity’ semiautomatic pistol and a .223 semiautomatic rifle with 30-round magazines are the best firearms for them to use to protect people like me and my family, they are obviously the best things for us to use to protect ourselves and our families.”
So these guns are very popular for many good reasons.
Doing the math here, if a person wanted to suggest a mass government purchase of these rifles at fair market value, it would cost… um… pulling out the scratch pad, lesseee…. hmmmm, let’s lowball the general cost of the rifles, down to $1000 per, just to make the math easier, so we get…
$1000 x 15,000,000 = $15,000,000,000 (compensation)
But of course that would not be the actual cost of the program. An extremely efficient government program would spend around 20% of the money on the payout portion, and around 80% for overhead and administration. So…
$15,000,000,000 x 5 = $75,000,000,000 (admin & overhead)
Add the two parts together and we get…
$15,000,000,000 + $75,000,000,000 = $90,000,000,000 (total program cost)
90. Billion. Dollars.
$90,000,000,000 is rather a lot of money. For comparison only — and not to get into some stupid political argument because really who has time for that? — ‘the wall’ along the southern border proposed by Trump and his supporters would cost, by some estimates, at least $25 billion dollars. And that number is widely agreed to be far out of America’s budgetary reach. 2
Of course, the numbers above assume that all AR-15 owners willingly participate in the program and that there are no unanticipated costs to enforce refusals. For comparison, when the state of New York passed the NY SAFE Act to simply register such rifles, there was a 90% noncompliance rate. Nine out of ten gun owners in that state did not submit to simple registration, and it seems unlikely that a confiscation or buyback effort would gain any higher rate of voluntary compliance. Enforcing compliance against unwilling participants would likely drive the costs (both human and monetary) far higher than most would expect.
4) The military does not use them.
Because AR-15 rifles are not machine guns, because they are not fully automatic or capable of burst fire as explained below, they are not issued to America’s troops. Rather, the military previously issued the M16, which is a full-auto or burst-fire design that looks nearly identical to the AR-15 but does not work the same way. 3 The current issue rifle for many of American troops is the M4 carbine, a smaller and lighter variant of similar design.
What’s the difference? As most of us know by now, a fully-automatic firearm fires many shots with just one press of the trigger. Each trigger press sounds like this: BRRRRPPPPPP! and then the magazine is empty and must be refilled. Some M16 variants will fire the entire magazine all at once like that, while others will fire three shots with each trigger press (burst fire) and then the user needs to press the trigger again to fire more BRRRPPP-y shots. In either case, as Clint Smith of Thunder Ranch says, “Full auto is a great way to turn money into noise.”
A semi-automatic firearm, such as the AR-15 and most carry pistols, fires just one shot with every press of the trigger. Each trigger press sounds like this: BANG. You have to press the trigger again to get a second or third or fourth shot, just as you do with your carry gun. You can get a constant BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG going when you are a fast trigger-puller, but this isn’t the same thing as the BRRRRRPPPP of a full auto.
Also see: Why isn’t a revolver a semi-automatic?
Bottom line: Although there are rifles used in military service that look a lot like AR-15 rifles, they are not the same gun and do not work the same way when the trigger is pressed.
5) Most of the scary-looking ‘military’ parts are actually safety features.
Yes — really! When military procurement specialists look for firearms to purchase and issue to the troops, safety is high on the list of things they look for. So let’s look at the safety features on an AR-15 / M16 style rifle.
Adjustable stocks on a rifle are an exact analog to interchangeable backstraps and grips on a carry pistol. These parts make it possible for one firearm to better fit different sizes of human. A better fit means more controllability, which reduces the risk of errant shots harming innocent bystanders.
Similarly, many people find that a rifle with a pistol grip is more controllable, especially in tight quarters such as a hallway inside the home.
The barrel shroud — that’s the piece of plastic encircling the barrel at the forward end of the gun, sometimes called a handguard — protects the user’s hand from getting burned. (By the way, this is the part that gun owners sometimes gigglingly refer to as “the shoulder thing that goes up.”)
A flash hider or flash reducer does not make the flash invisible. It doesn’t even necessarily obscure the flash from outside observers. What it does do, is make it so the user does not get blinded by a bright flash of burning powder at the end of the barrel when they fire the gun. As a safety idea, being able to reliably see what’s in front of the muzzle might seem pretty important.
So there you have it. Five things about AR-15 rifles you probably didn’t know.
- One pound = 7000 grains. ↩
- h/t to Claude Werner for the comparison. ↩
- Modern AR-15 rifles are semi-auto and available for purchase by ordinary citizens under the same rules that govern other types of firearms. Modern M16 and M4 rifles are fully automatic and available only to military and law enforcement personnel in line of duty. Twenty years ago and more, there was a full-auto version of the AR-15 used in military service, but the full-auto version of the rifle used in military service then is not identical to the semi-auto version available to civilians now. If this sounds confusing, that’s because it is. And that is one of the reasons the military rifle’s designation was changed to M16 — because so many people were so easily confused as to which configuration was under discussion, the full-auto military version or the semi-auto civilian one. ↩