The AR-15 is often used as a scapegoat for gun violence. Some media reports have even noted that the “assault rifle” is a weapon of war that has no place in the hands of the average civilian. It is often described as “nearly identical” to what U.S. warfighters carried on the battlefields of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The backlash from these reports has become so great that retailers such as Dick’s Sporting Goods announced in 2018 that it would no longer sell any AR-style weapons. And yet, the typical media descriptions of the AR-15 rifle rightfully fall into the category of misinformation.
The “AR” in the name isn't short for “assault rifle” but rather for ArmaLite Rifle, after the original maker of the firearm. The confusion lies in the fact that ArmaLite sold the patent and designs to Colt Firearms, which produced the military version—the M16—that saw service in the Vietnam War.
However, Colt produced the AR commercially too. The company continued to do so after those patents expired at the end of the 1970s. Since 2004, when the original Assault Weapon Ban expired, many manufacturers have produced similar models—launching an entire category of AR-style semi-automatic rifles.
While cosmetically similar in design to today’s military assault rifles, there are some significant differences.
The weapons carried by soldiers are select-fire, meaning they can operate in both semi-automatic and fully automatic mode. The media likes to play games there as well, by simply calling the weapon “automatic.” An infamous presidential campaign ad from John Kerry in 2004 went so far as to suggest that modern sporting rifles—the firearms industry’s preferred term for firearms such as the AR—could operate like a machine gun. However, the civilian models cannot operate in fully automatic mode, and by law, function like other semi-automatic sporting firearms and are only able to fire one round with each pull of the trigger.
The most commonly spread misinformation is that the AR-15 and similar firearms are also “high powered” weapons. That is technically inaccurate given that the rifles are no more powerful than other hunting rifles of the same caliber and in most cases are chambered in calibers less powerful than common big-game hunting cartridges like the .30-06 Springfield and .300 Win. Mag.
What makes the AR platform popular with shooters is that the weapon is lighter, has less recoil, and yet is accurate. Unfortunately, the gun’s ominous design has convinced some lawmakers that the AR-15 is more dangerous than other sporting or hunting rifles. California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York have restricted ownership of the AR-15.
President Joe Biden has repeatedly called for the weapon to be banned, but the fact remains—with some twenty million sold to date—America simply loves it AR-15.
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.