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The AR-15 Isn’t an Assault Rifle Nor Is it a Weapon of War

AR-15 History
Image: Creative Commons.

With President Joe Biden in the White House and Democrat control of the House of Representatives and the United States Senate, owners of AR-15 and similar firearms have a valid reason for concern. Such guns have been targeted for legislation including registration, increased background checks, and even outright bans.

Many who want to see such firearms banned try to use terms that, while sound scary, don’t really apply to the AR-15.

The Assault Rifle Claim

The AR-15 platform has been singled out by opponents of the Second Amendment, using the worrying phrase “assault weapon,” a term embraced all too often by the mainstream media. The firearms industry has countered by more accurately describing those firearms as “modern assault rifles.”

However, an assault weapon typically is selective fire, meaning it can fire in a semi-automatic mode where the trigger needs to be pulled to fire each round; or in automatic mode where the weapon operates like a machine gun. An AR-15 has no selective fire mode, as fully-automatic weapons are banned by U.S. law.

A Weapon of War? 

Adding fuel to the fire, so to speak, as the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) has noted, “Though the semiautomatic design used in today’s pistols, rifles and shotguns was invented in the late-nineteenth century and was popularly sold to consumers in America and Europe in the early twentieth century, the modern sporting rifle has been called a ‘weapon of war’ by those who want to ban them.”

The ‘weapons of war’ moniker is largely based on the general appearance, but there are significant differences.

High-Powered?

Additionally, the media – and many politicians – also try to confuse the matter by using the adjective “high-powered” when referring to assault weapons and even modern sporting rifles. This is factually incorrect in both cases.

The first assault weapons developed during World War II actually were chambered in a new “intermediate” round that was larger than the pistol rounds used in pistols and submachine guns, and the rounds used in the main battle rifles of the era. In fact, today in most cases a modern sporting rifle is chambered in calibers less powerful than commonly used big-game cartridges including .30-06 Springfield (.30 caliber) and .300 Winchester Magnum.

Because it isn’t as powerful, it doesn’t have the same “kick” or recoil of those larger rifles, and that fact has made the AR-15 popular with sport shooters.

According to NSSF numbers, there were more than 16 million modern sporting rifles owned by civilians in 2018, and that number likely greatly increased in 2020 with many first time buyers embracing the platform.

Military Guns, A Forgotten History

M4 Carbine. Image: Creative Commons.

There is another important component to this story that even supporters of the Second Amendment fail to note. Until the passage of the National Firearms Act in 1934, it wasn’t that unusual for civilians to own weapons on par – and even better than – what the U.S. military used.

An argument used by opponents of the Second Amendment is that the founding fathers wouldn’t have allowed private ownership of even our modern sporting rifles, but that fails to understand that those same men expected the citizens to have access to the same weapons as the military.

During the American Revolution, it was weapons such as the Pennsylvania and Kentucky Long Rifles that proved superior to the British Long Pattern Musket (Brown Bess) and other “military” long guns of the era. Throughout the 19th century, civilian firearms were no less accurate or powerful than what the military carried. And while the U.S. Army carried the Model 1873 “Trapdoor” Springfield, a slow to reload single-round rifle, repeating rifles were market to consumers.

It also wasn’t until the late 19th century that rifles carried by the U.S. military were arguably superior to what civilians had access to. Only during the First World War were some weapons, such as the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), restricted to military sales that were by contract and not actually to keep civilians from owning the weapons. In fact, after the war Colt Arms Company did produce the Colt Automatic Machine Rifle Model 1919, which was even made up of BARs intended for the military.

The BAR didn’t sell well because the price was simply too high for most consumers. Other gun makers faced similar issues.

Auto-Ordnance marketed its Thompson Submachine Gun for private sales to ranchers and security companies, but as with the BAR, the cost – which was on par with a new car – was the issue. However, the weapons were still available to those who could afford them.

All that changed with the passage of the NFA, which actually restricted civilian ownership of such firearms.

But the point remains that for much of the country’s history the difference between military and civilian firearms was blurred. Moreover, no soldier today would want to go into battle today with a civilian AR-15 when given the opportunity to use true military firearms such as the M4 Carbine or M249 machine gun. Those are the actual weapons of war, whilst the AR-15 is a gun designed for the shooting range and remains a top choice for home defense.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. PopSeal

    February 19, 2021 at 8:49 am

    Facts don’t matter when the narrative is set, the voting machine fix is in, and the insatiable lust for power over their victims now drives leftist policy.

  2. Tommyboy

    February 19, 2021 at 10:57 am

    A Mossberg 500 series hunting shotgun (perhaps the most popular shotgun for the last 50 years) is a weapon of war – the US Army currently uses the Mossberg 590. The most popular hand gun in the world, a 9mm semi-auto, is a weapon of war – the US Army uses a Sig Saur 9mm pistol. The Remington 700 deer rifle is a weapon of war – until a few years ago a version of the Remington 700 was the standard US Army sniper rifle. The AR-15 has never been used by the US Army and is not a weapon of war.

  3. Dantes

    February 19, 2021 at 11:22 am

    It is a mistake to argue that specific firearms are not weapons of war. You’re accepting the false narrative that citizens should not be allowed to possess weapons of war.

    There is not a single firearm design which has not at one time been a weapon of war, beginning with muskets and muzzle-loaders, revolvers, shotguns, single shot pistols (the Liberator) semiautomatic handguns, bolt action rifles, etc.

    Similarly, accepting the premise that it is proper to argue whether a gun is ‘high powered’ or not is falling into the liberals trap. All firearms are deadly if misused. Just as any other tool, such as a chainsaw or car, is dangerous.

    The proper response is that firearms have been used as weapons of war, but we possess and use firearms as weapons of peace. The firearm isn’t the issue. The person who owns and uses it is the issue.

    BTW…there was a military, full automatic AR-15 issued in the 1960s to the Air Force, I believe, and is stamped AR-15. I know, because I legally own it.

  4. Doc

    February 19, 2021 at 11:38 am

    Weapon of War is a term that 2nd amendment proponents should not acknowledge.

    It is a false dilemma invented by gun grabbers to justify registration/confiscation of all firearms. As many know there are
    no weapons that have not been used in war. Don’t enable the gun grabbers.

  5. Charlie

    February 19, 2021 at 3:11 pm

    The firearms industry does not refer to the AR-15 and its derivatives as “modern assault rifles.” (Use of the “assault” term is a (ahem) “trigger” for gun controllers’ sensibilities.) Rather, they refer to them as “modern SPORTING rifles.”

  6. Roger Beeman

    February 19, 2021 at 9:49 pm

    I think you meant “modern sporting rifle” instead of “modern assault rifle” where you mentioned what the firearms makers call them…

  7. Ben David

    December 1, 2021 at 9:03 am

    Agreeing with some of the pseudo-critical assessments of the above article…this story cherry-picks facts to paint a misleading idea of the state of our nation’s 2nd amendment.

    By focusing on the AR-15 platform only, you’re really burying the lede. Bump stocks may be illegal now, but they weren’t a few years ago if you wanted a more controlled “automatic” rifle.

    You’re using “high powered” to compare civilian & military rounds despite them being chambered in the same calibers. A HK416D uses & accepts the exact same round as its civilian counterpart—the HK MR556.

    I’d also mention that your reference to the M249 SAW is already partially outdated as US Service Branches like USMC have already replaced it with the M27 IAR (HK416). USMC’s reasoning for the replacement is that controlled, precision fire greatly offsets the inaccurate spray of wasted ammunition caused by belt-fed suppressive fire weapons like the Mk46/Mk48/SAW.

    So with the exception of select-fire AR rifle platforms like the M4A1/HK416 and soon-to-be outdated automatic LMGs, our military uses the same weapons we call “PDWs.” Pistols are identical. Shotguns are identical. Marksman rifles like the MR762, SR-25, Mk14 are identical. And long-range rifles like the Barrett M82, Remington 700, MSR, and the M2010 are all available to civilians for accurate kill shots from 1000m-3000m.

    We have access to any suppressors on the market, any optics, the same attachments, accurized laser mounts, flashlights, bipods, and monogrips—not to mention nearly all the same tactical gear available to our military.

    So while I agree that our troops would prefer to enter battle with M4A1 Carbines rather than a Smith & Wesson MP-15, but that doesn’t mean that 30 million civilians armed with similar AR rifles, handguns, shotguns, and sniper rifles couldn’t wage war on each other—which is apparently what we’ve been doing rather well for years.

    You can’t say something isn’t a weapon of war or that it’s made for personal defense when the people who own them or have access to them are killing/shooting those who don’t. That makes them an assault weapon.

    You can be pro-gun & pro-common sense about gun control too. They’re not mutually exclusive.

  8. Gene James Lewis Jr

    June 5, 2022 at 7:53 pm

    Why do we keep fighting over words? The AR rifle is a fighting rifle of the assault type less select fire. No need to hide this. I embrace it. I own my fighting rifle for the purpose of fighting. This why the 2nd Amendment exists.

  9. fake money for sale

    August 24, 2022 at 5:19 am

    A great post without any doubt.

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