Key point: The War on Terror was a major encourager of new rifles designs.
The field of modern sporting rifles—semiautomatic rifles with detachable magazines—has exploded in popularity over the past decade. The expiration of the Federal 1994–2004 Assault Weapons Ban and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fueled an interest in these weapons. Innovation, in part due to research and development into military small arms, introduced new and interesting rifle designs. Here are the top five modern sporting rifle designs.
The undisputed king of the MSR movement is the AR-15. The AR-15 is very similar to the M-4A1 and M16A4 rifles in U.S. military service, with the exception of a minimum sixteen-inch overall barrel length and the inability to fire in fully automatic or burst modes. Many AR-15 parts are interchangeable with the service weapons, and the civilian AR-15 industry has benefited from wartime Department of Defense and industry research and development, introducing features such as the M1913 Picatinny rail attachment system, optics, polymer ammunition magazines, and even suppressor technologies. The strong growth of the AR-15 market has spawned cottage industries for rifles in other calibers, including .308 Winchester, nine-millimeter Parabellum, .458 SOCOM and others.
Introduced in 1974, the Ruger Mini-14 has been around for more than forty years, predating the AR-15’s commercial success. The Mini-14 is basically a M-14 7.62-millimeter battle rifle scaled down to 5.56-millimeter caliber, resulting in a lighter and handier rifle. Indeed, the gas-operated, rotating-bolt operating mechanism was first introduced to the United States in the M-1 Garand service rifle, which eventually grew into the M-14. The Mini-14 uses detachable ten-, twenty- or even thirty-round magazines and typically comes equipped with a wooden stock. Like all modern sporting rifles, the Mini-14 is semiautomatic only and is incapable of fully automatic fire.
In the 1980s, semiautomatic Chinese AK-47 clones began hitting the streets in America. While Chinese firearms were later banned from import, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union fed America’s strange appetite for this Communist Bloc icon. AK-47s, assembled from surplus Soviet, Bulgarian, Romanian, Czech and Yugoslavian parts, became so widespread not just because of their relatively low cost but because of their popularity in the wider culture. Unlike Russia, Ukraine and other countries that continue to use more modern AK-74 rifles chambered for the 5.45-millimeter round, American AKs are overwhelmingly based on the older AK-47 and AKM patterns using the older 7.62×39-millimeter round.
Heckler and Koch MR556
Introduced to the American civilian market in 2007, the MR556 is the civilian version of the Heckler and Koch 416 assault rifle. Like the 416, the MR556 uses the gas-piston operating system, a significant break from the direct impingement system used in the AR-15. In fact, the system is similar to that used in the Mini-14. The result is a rifle that releases dirty gases instead of using them to cycle the rifle, making the weapon cleaner running and less prone to overheating. The MR556 is identical to the 416, lacking only the ability to fire burst or fully automatic fire. The U.S. Marine Corps new standard infantry weapon, the M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle, is based upon the 416.
The Tavor SAR is the civilian version of the infantry weapon that replaced the Galil and M16A1 in Israeli Defense Force service. A bullpup design, the Tavor shifts the weapon action and magazine insert rearward, behind the trigger group, making for a more compact weapon. This makes for a 16.5-inch barrel in a weapon in a package 26.5 inches long, although the fixed length of pull makes it a less ergonomic for individuals with shorter or longer arms than average. The barrel is also chrome lined and cold hammer forged, for durability and accuracy. The weapon is fed from a thirty-round magazine, can accept AR-15 pattern magazines. The Tavor is also manufactured in nine-millimeter, .308 Winchester and .300 Blackout configurations.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009, he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami. This piece was originally featured in December 2019 and is being republished due to reader's interest.