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AR-15: The Most Popular (And Hated) Gun in America?

AR-15 History
Image Credit: Smith & Wesson.

Along with abortion, climate change, and censorship – few topics divide Americans like firearms. And today no firearm has been in the proverbial crosshairs as much as the AR-15 and its derivatives. To those calling for gun control, the AR is a weapon of war that has no place in civilian hands; while sport shooters love it for its ease of use, accuracy, and adaptability.

Now it is true that the AR-15 style rifles are a class of lightweight semi-automatic developed as a scaled-down derivative of Eugene Stoner’s AR-10 design. The firearms designer developed the AR-10 while working at ArmaLite in the late 1950s. In fact, contrary to what many gun control advocates will suggest, the “AR” stands for ArmaLite, a post-World War II firearms start-up that was a division of the Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation. The AR-15 patents and trademarks were sold to Colt’s Manufacturing Company in 1959, and the military adopted the select-fire version as the M-16.

While the patents for the gas-operated bolt and carrier system expired in 1977, Colt retained the trademark and remained the exclusive owner of the AR-15 designation.

The Civilian AR-15

The Colt AR-15 has been on the civilian market since 1964 and is marketed as the Model R6000 Colt AR-15 SP1 Sporter Rifle. It was expensive, at least compared to the bolt action hunting and target rifles of the era and because of its use of composite materials and unique design, it wasn’t an immediate hit.

In fact, for the next 30 years, the AR-15 wasn’t really that popular of a firearm. In 1994, the Federal Assault Weapons Ban went into effect and restricted the sale of the AR-15 and some derivatives in the United States. The ban expired in 2004 – and thanks to the popularity of the firearm in video games, renewed interest from veterans and excellent marketing efforts, the AR-15 market exploded.

In 2004, just 107,000 ARs were produced. A year later that number increased to 1.2 million. Today there are tens – possibly even hundreds of millions of the AR and its derivatives in American’s hands. One out of every five firearms purchased in 2017 was an AR-15 style rifle and that number has likely increased.

However, there was a lot of confusion – much of it due to bad reporting and misinformation presented by gun control advocates – that the AR-15 was a “weapon of war.” The civilian version, which is now produced by dozens of companies, is available in semi-automatic only. It isn’t “high powered” as the media will have you believe – as it is chambered for intermediate cartridges less powerful than many hunting rifles today.

Modern Sporting Rifle

AR has become a catchall term that includes a number of similar firearms from Remington’s Bushmaster to Smith & Wesson’s M&P15 to Springfield Armory’s Saint. The 10-year ban served to be the greatest marketing effort of a product. Americans bought what had been forbidden, and with it the gun shop culture changed as well. Shops that had typically sold bolt action hunting rifles now routinely are stocked up in ARs – and the guns sold extremely well in 2020 and have continued to sell this year.

What has also made it popular is that it is available in a variety of versions with prices ranging from $700 to $2,000 or more. It is an adaptable firearm that can be customized to the operator. The same can’t be said for most off-the-shelf weapons, and “customization” was something limited to only high-end firearms built specifically to an individual. The AR has changed that and because of its adjustable stocks and ability to add accessories the same firearm can be used at the range by husband and wife, father and son with just a few quick changes.

The term “modern sporting rifle,” which was introduced in 2009 by the U.S. trade industry group the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), clarifies that this isn’t a weapon of war, but is a firearm meant for the modern sport shooter.  Despite this fact, calls to ban the firearm continue, and it has become both the “most beloved and most vilified rifle” in use today according to The New York Times.

Stoner likely could never have imagined that his design would prove to be so popular yet so hated. That says a lot about the simple AR.

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

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

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