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Last fall, I found myself nine-to-fiving in the corporate communications department of one of our nation’s top health insurers. I witnessed the fright that gripped everyone in the industry regarding the looming H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic. Fear was palpable throughout the organization. Hasty generalizations, snap judgments and uninformed business decisions were the order of the day. Although my company was far better informed about the potential pandemic than our average customer, we still didn’t really know what was going to happen. And that’s what scared us the most. The fear of the unknown can have some very negative long-term effects. For my former employer, that meant a bureaucratic farce of poor communications planning. Individuals who fear things that they don’t understand often create a deep-seated bias: a profound misunderstanding about a subject that clear, rational thinking can’t illuminate. For a lot of folks, the familiar silhouette of the AR-15—one of the most common rifles in the world—represents something that is simultaneously mysterious and scary, with an emphasis on the latter (often because of the former).
Forget the possibly-menacing aesthetics of the weapon itself: a gun that many non-gun folk view as a purpose-made tool for military combat and spree killing. Even those who wouldn’t know an AR-15 rifle from a Mossberg 500 shotgun are put-off by the weapon; the oft-applied moniker “assault rifle” is sufficient to conjure up disturbing images of Rambo-esque war and/or Jack Torrance with an itchy trigger finger.

Let’s temper this “emotional recoil” with a generous helping of logical thought. A more reasoned, comprehensive look at the AR-15 should dispel the notion that it’s merely an instrument of destruction; although, like any gun, that it is.

The AR-15 was designed in the 50’s by Eugene Stoner, a brilliant engineer working for Fairchild Engine & Airplane Company. The defense arm, ArmaLite, tried to sell the U.S. Army their A-10 rifle. (So that’s “AmaLite Rifle,” not “Assault Rifle.”) Despite besting the competition in size, weight and user-friendliness, well, military procurement.

Despite the setback (or because of it), Stoner’s assistants (Robert Fremont and Jim Sullivan) modified the A-10, scaling it down to fire the small-caliber .223 Remington cartridge. Commercial success did not follow. In 1959, ArmaLite sold the rights to the gun to Colt. The new company was better at, uh, marketing. The U.S. Army eventually adopted the AR-15 as their standard military issue rifle (as the M-16). It remains so today, as the M-16 rifle and the M-4 carbine (despite concerns about its long-range capabilities in the field).

Developed to meet various military specifications, the AR-15 was—and still is—a marvel of engineering. The design provided users with a combination of attributes never previously seen in a single, medium-caliber weapon: selective fire (semi- or fully-automatic), high magazine capacity, light weight (an aircraft-grade aluminum receiver), low recoil, excellent accuracy and a degree of modularity and adaptability found in few other weapon systems.

WARNING! The following scrape from Wikipedia describes the gun’s inner workings. People who’ve never cracked the binding on a manual, feeel free to skip ahead.

The mechanism of operation for the rifle is known as direct gas impingement. Gas is tapped from the barrel as the bullet moves past a gas port located above the rifle’s front sight base. The gas rushes into the port and down a gas tube, located above the barrel, which runs from the front sight base into the AR-15’s upper receiver. Here, the gas tube protrudes into a “gas key” (bolt carrier key) which accepts the gas and funnels it into the bolt carrier. The bolt and bolt carrier together form a piston, which is caused to expand as the cavity in the bolt carrier fills with high pressure gas. The bolt is locked into the barrel extension, so this expansion forces the bolt carrier backward in line with the stock of the rifle. As the bolt carrier moves toward the butt of the gun, the bolt cam pin, riding in a slot on the bolt carrier, forces the bolt to turn and unlock from the barrel extension. Once the bolt is fully unlocked it begins its rearward movement along with the bolt carrier. The bolt’s rearward motion extracts the empty cartridge case from the chamber, and as soon as the neck of the case clears the barrel extension, the bolt’s spring-loaded ejector forces it out the ejection port in the side of the upper receiver.

Behind the bolt carrier is a plastic or metal buffer which rests in line with a return spring that pushes the bolt carrier back toward the chamber. A groove machined into the upper receiver traps the cam pin and prevents it and the bolt from rotating into a closed position. The bolt’s locking lugs then push a fresh round from the magazine which is guided by feed ramps into the chamber. As the bolt’s locking lugs move past the barrel extension, the cam pin is allowed to twist into a pocket milled into the upper receiver. This twisting action follows the groove cut into the carrier and forces the bolt to twist and “lock” into the barrel’s unique extension.

Although fully-automatic versions of the AR are restricted to military and police use, civilian rifle owners have found that most of the weapon’s other traits—-characteristics that make the AR such a desirable package for government use—created an extremely attractive rifle. Sales have increased steadily—to the “tipping point” where Colt has to defend the AR-15 name from becoming the generic designation for any “black gun.” Especially the AR-15 clones, guns that look virtually identical to the AR-15.

But aren’t AR-15s dangerous? Show me a gun that isn’t. But weren’t AR-15s so dangerous that they were banned? Don’t get me started. Let’s just say that it’s true: you can now buy AR variants that were previously prohibited by the now-expired, Clinton-era assault weapons ban. At the same time, please note that least one Federal agency found the assault weapon ban’s effects on violent crime too small to be measured. Yet another posited that reinstating the ban would result in a similar non-effect.

Aren’t they just killing machines? Show me a gun that isn’t. But in addition to, yes, wreaking havoc on battlefield enemies or, true, waging gang war on cross-‘hood rivals, the AR-15 is uniquely equipped to excel at competitive target shooting, just-for-fun target shooting, hunting, defending livestock from hostile animals, defending yourself from hostile animals, home defense, and—in sad but necessary cases— euthanizing animals.

The AR-15 has developed a rep for being the survivalist’s weapon-of-choice (not to mention the domestic terrorist’s tool). Well why wouldn’t it be? And if not that, something else. Meanwhile, it’s worth saying again: the AR’s compact size, light weight, rugged design and terrific accuracy are valued just as highly by law-abiding, legally-armed citizens who use it as a tool or sporting arm as by those who covet it for more politically paranoid or indefensibly nefarious purposes.

Probably the most civilian-friendly element of the AR-15: the rifle’s modularity and adaptability. Numerous firms build AR-15 rifles and components, and an extensive aftermarket offers a phenomenal farrago of accessories for the weapon.

For example, a handy “rail” system fits around the hand guard (which surrounds the barrel). It can be purchased from any number of American manufacturers who wage a Darwinian struggle to make the best guard at the best price. To this 360-degree mounting surface, AR builders can affix laser or other low-light sighting options, flashlights of every shape and size, collapsible bi-pods for steadying the weapon, and vertical grips for hand-held barrel support (since the rail and mounted accessories often take up much of the space around the hand guard).

The AR’s impressive adaptability continues with options for conventional or collapsible (folding or telescoping) stocks, various types of pistol grips which can be fitted to the lower receiver, and upper receivers that can be manufactured with either the originally-designed iron sight/carrying handle or a machined-in rail mount for connecting telescopic or other types of sights or accessories.

The AR-15 benefits from unparalleled modularity, as well. Various trigger modules can tailor trigger effort and feel to any user’s liking; only a few modifications are needed to swap the standard .223 Remington upper receiver and barrel with similar components chambered for other popular calibers (such as 7.62mm, 9mm and even cheap-to-fire .22 LR). For a quick look at how easily-customizable the AR platform is, check out TTAG’s recent post on Brownell’s “AR15 Builder” website feature.

Obviously, the AR-15 isn’t for every legally-armed citizen. But given the fact that the AR-15 embodies a totality of great engineering that appeals to users with a wide variety of needs, it would be foolish to paint every gun of this type with the broad “assault rifle” brush, perpetuating inaccurate stereotypes and evil connotations in the process. Here especially, it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

In Part II, I’ll discuss specifics about the incredible diversity of options that legally-armed citizens can choose from when selecting an AR-15.  You’ll be able to watch this discussion live on TTAG’s new YouTube channel as I visit one of the Southeast’s premier AR custom shops, The AR Bunker in Newnan, Georgia.

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