Malicious or magnificent? Why the AR-15 is America's most popular rifle

Glassing the countryside from a high vantage point for whatever might be there, the camouflage-clad figure that appeared out of a brush-choked ravine surprised me, since I thought I was alone. And he gave me pause — the first time I had seen someone carrying a "black gun" in hunting country.

The AR-15 was draped on a sling on the fellow's shoulder and I thought: What in the world is he doing with that thing in this country?

Having carried black guns of one sort or another during a career in law enforcement, they were the last thing I wanted to carry hunting. For my sensibilities, if a hunting gun didn't have a walnut stock and blued steel it didn't belong. That was many years ago and it took some time for me — certainly a "gun guy"— to reflect and realize the only thing wrong was my closed-minded perception. We mortals all seem to share that at one time or another.

Assumptions based on what we've heard or saw or what our parents told us lead to perceptions that may have no basis in reality, but we are all guilty of judging people or animals solely on appearance.

Rarely, though, are inanimate objects perceived as evil or bad, a noted exception being firearms. Particularly the AR-15, arguably the most ill-perceived firearm in history, even while being near perfection in its design and implementation.

What the AR-15 is not

Here's what the AR-15 is not, it isn't by definition an assault rifle. Assault rifles are capable of fully automatic fire, civilian AR-15s (except those legally owned Class III automatic weapons that are defined by the National Firearms Act of 1934 and legally purchased according to the special requirements of ownership defined in Title II of the Act) are not.

They fire one shot with one press of the trigger, the same as any other semi-automatic firearm. They do not possess a soul, they have no ill intent.  They are not magically capable of hitting targets by merely pointing them in the general direction and jerking the trigger.


[Learning how to use AR-15 properly]

Nor are they the gun of choice for murderers. The actual number of AR-15s used in criminal activity barely registers in FBI crime statistics. The federal "assault rifle" ban that targeted AR-15 type firearms, was implemented in 1994 and in effect for 10 years. It was not renewed in 2004, because there was no realistic difference in "assault" rifle crime rates from before the ban was enacted through the 10-year period it was in affect.

Here's what the AR-15 is:

*A design that may be the easiest, most user-friendly platform ever designed for a repeating centerfire rifle.

*The standard cartridge it fires, the 5.56mm X 45mm NATO or the .223 Remington (for practical purposes they are identical) produces virtually no recoil thanks to a light (55 grain) bullet driven at moderate velocities and the gas operating system that cycles the action and soaks up recoil.

*The controls used to operate the AR-15 — safety, trigger, charging handle, magazine release — are all incorporated into a package that's easy to learn.

Early on, there were some accuracy issues with the AR-15. But the popularity of the AR-15 platform has, over the past 50 years, led to improvements in the rifle that make it capable of accuracy as good as or better than the reigning accuracy champion, the bolt-action rifle.

Action-shooting sports, where competitors shoot on a variety of courses that involve fast shooting, movement and skilled manipulation of firearms, have become popular across the country. This has resulted in a proliferation of accessories and modifications to the AR-15 — perhaps only rivaled in scope by the 1911 Government Model .45.

Many, including myself, do not believe the AR-15 in .223 is a viable big-game hunting rifle. For that purpose, the cartridge is anemic at best, but some use it with success. For those who love the gun and would like a more-suitable big game cartridge chambering, they are available. Some manufacturers are building rifles on the basic AR-15 platform in a variety of calibers that make it a viable big game hunting rifle. In fact there have been numerous cartridges developed specifically for the AR-15 platform such as the 6.5 Grendel and the .300 ACC Blackout, moderate-velocity cartridges that offer heavier bullet weight for deer-sized game at moderate ranges.

The AR-10, the predecessor to the AR-15, is a slightly larger rifle with the same operating system chambered for the 7.62 X 51 NATO, better known as the .308 Winchester. For a price, you can have a .300 Winchester Magnum built on a basic AR-15 platform.

With that, it doesn't seem as though the AR-15 will make noticeable inroads into the big game hunting arena soon. It is, however, gaining a significant following for predator and pig hunting, pursuits that the AR-15 seems ideally suited for given the small size of these animals.

Some people own and learn to use AR-15s as a means of defending themselves, family and friends. Personally, that will be the only reason, outside of just the fun of shooting them, that I will ever employ an AR-15 again.

Fun to shoot

But that doesn't take into account the primary reasons folks love the gun. The AR-15 is quite simply a fun gun to shoot. The ammunition, thanks to the military influence, is relatively economical. It is powerful enough and makes enough noise to satisfy the American lust for such things.

But it seems there is another reason it is popular, and oddly enough, it seems romantic in nature.

My generation, which now comes under the general heading of "old guys," grew up idolizing cowboys and gunfighters as depicted by so many Hollywood productions. As shooters and hunters, we wanted to carry the 1873 Colt .45 Peacemaker in gunslinger leather on our hips and stuff a Winchester lever action rifle in our saddle scabbards as we went forth to right wrongs and save damsels in distress. Of course, we couldn't do that, but we could have the guns and the gear. Except in those days disposable income wasn't what it is today and most of us only wished.

Fast forward to 2017 and the movies as well as our heroes have changed. Soldiers and law enforcement, particularly those in Special Operations, have captured the imagination of the past couple of generations.

Witness the incredible explosion of "tactical gear" companies that are significantly supported by those who, it seems, have no practical use for it but want a taste of what it is like to be in the arena. These folks have no more nefarious intentions than my generation, they just want to experience a bit of what it might be like to do what their heroes do. It's as American as apple pie.


The irony, of course, is that many of the people who have made millions popularizing the AR-15 in movies and other entertainment are those who would like to take away American citizens' pursuit of their Second Amendment rights.

For all of those reasons, it isn't surprising that the AR-15 style semi-auto rifle has become America's most popular rifle. Nevertheless, this fall I'll still be carrying a wood-stocked, blued-steel, bolt action of some sort.

Steve Meyer of Soldotna is lifetime Alaskan and an avid shooter. He writes every other week about guns and Alaska hunting. Contact Steve at oldduckhunter@outlook.com.

Steve Meyer | Alaska outdoors

Steve Meyer of Kenai is longtime Alaskan and an avid shooter who writes about guns and Alaska hunting. He's the co-author, with Christine Cunningham, of the book "The Land We Share: A love affair told in hunting stories."