The “AR-15” style or pattern rifle was developed in the late 1950’s-early 1960’s. Originally developed by engineers with the Armalite Corporation (the “AR” designation was for “Armalite Rifle”), after some difficulties in refining their basic design, they sold the rights to Colt Firearm Company in the early 1960’s. Colt advanced the design and presented it as an improved and modernized military rifle to the U.S. government.

In a change from traditional rifles at the time, the rifle was made out of aircraft grade aluminum alloy and molded plastic instead steel and wood. This made the AR-15 lighter and somewhat easier to maintain (reduced chance of rust, ease of disassembly for field maintenance, etc.). The military adopted the rifle and put it into use in the mid 1960’s, giving the rifle the designation M-16. Although there were a variety of problems with the rifle when first deployed in the Viet Nam war, those problems were resolved – and the M-16 and its variants and derivatives are still the primary fighting rife for the U.S. military over fifty years later.

The civilian AR-15 rifle is a semi-automatic rifle – while the external appearance looks like its military cousin, its internal mechanisms are quite different. Like many other rifles for hunting and sporting use, handguns, and even the revolver, when you pull the trigger on a semi-auto firearm – the gun fires one round of ammunition, and only one round of ammunition. Semi-automatic firearms use a mechanism that chambers a fresh round after the gun fires, so the shooter doesn’t need to manipulate an external lever to chamber another round. Over 90% of firearms sold today are categorized as “semi-automatic” firearms, and include: semi-automatic rifles, shotguns, and handguns.

A military rifle such as the M-16 may be fired as a “fully automatic” gun – meaning when you pull the trigger the rifle continues to chamber and fire rounds one after the other until you release the trigger (or the ammunition is expended). The M-16 rifle is designated as “select fire” meaning you can select between either “semi-automatic” (one round at a time), and “full automatic” (multiple rounds fired based on how long you hold the trigger). The most common and best known example of a fully automatic firearm would be a “machine gun.”

As I noted above, the “AR” in “AR-15” is not an abbreviation for “Assault Rifle.” Although widely applied by those who may not know any better, that term is an oxymoron as applied to firearms available to non-military entities. Select-fire rifles (those that can be fired in both semi and fully automatic modes) that are used by military forces to assault and secure a location or territory during battle with enemy forces – are a closer fit for the definition of the assault rifle designation. A more appropriate term for semi-automatic rifles available to civilians (regardless if outward appearance is similar to a military firearm) would be “Modern Sporting Rifle,” a term that accurately describes its use and intended function.

In the United States, all firearms that are capable of firing in a “select fire” or “fully automatic” mode, are restricted to military, law enforcement, and a small number of firearms dealers and collectors that are licensed to own them. Possession of such a firearm without the proper licensing risks a felony conviction with ten years in prison and tens of thousands of dollars in fines. The licensing procedure requires the payment of a special tax, the written approval of law enforcement officials in the applicant’s city or county, and an extensive background check including submission of fingerprints (typically requiring some four to six months to complete).

A revolver can only fire cartridges as fast as you can pull the trigger. A lever action rifle (think the rifle used by John Wayne or seen in western movies) can only fire as fast as the action can be manipulated to chamber another round after shooting the cartridge in the chamber. If you remember the opening sequence of the television show “The Rifleman,” you can see how quickly Chuck Conners was able to accomplish that motion. With a semi-auto model firearm, you are also limited to shooting the firearm to the speed you can pull the trigger, release it, and pull the trigger once again.

As is the history of arms designed for military application, the advancements soon begin to spread and filter down into civilian use. Metallic cartridges, repeating lever actions, bolt action rifles, and semi-automatic rifles all were originally developed for military use, and then became available for widespread use among sportsman and recreational shooters. The light weight, ease of maintenance, simple manipulation and operation, accuracy, low recoil, and robust construction of the AR-15 have become very desirable among civilian shooters.

Many of those who served in the military learned basic firearm safety and marksmanship on their issued AR rifles. After discharge from the military, they purchased the civilian version to own – knowing it’s advantages and not needing any additional training to use it effectively. Hunters, sportsmen, competitive shooters, recreational shooters, and those who choose to own firearms for self-defense want a firearm that works. The following is an excerpt from an article on VOX by writer Jon Stokes:

“This is all part of the reason why I, a civilian, own a military-grade combat weapon. I don’t want to shoot and miss; I don’t want the gun to jam because it’s dirty or cold; and when I’m hunting game I don’t want to hit my target and then have it run off into the woods and die lost and wounded because I didn’t “bring enough gun.” Like my grandpa with his “military-grade” lever action rifle, I want a modern firearm that’s popular (which means parts and training are cheaply and widely available), ergonomic, rugged, accurate, and reliably effective, so that none of the aforementioned bad things happen to me when I’m shooting.”

No one needs an AR-15 for hunting! Actually, the AR-15 is a modern sporting rifle that makes a perfect rifle for hunting – and its increasing popularity with hunters is proving that. Pulling two pins allows the upper receiver to be removed and replaced with an upper receiver that is chambered for a variety of calibers suitable for most game animals. The ability of the AR design to stand up to conditions present when outdoors and in the field (dirt, dust, moisture, bumps, heat or cold, etc.), has been proven on battlefields around the world – and ensures the AR rifle carried by a sportsman will function when they need to make that special shot.

The AR-15 rifle and the many variants of the AR style have been the most popular rife sold in the United States for the past decade. Production figures from recent years indicate that well over a million AR-15 pattern rifles are manufactured and sold to the public every year. This numbers have increased, but this is nothing new, the AR-15 rifle has been sold to the public for over fifty years. As a result, there are many, many, million AR-15 rifles owned and used by devoted owners throughout the country.

Why are they so popular? Once you shoot an AR-15 pattern rifle, you will quickly understand. The light weight makes it easy to hold, the recoil is felt, but not enough to be painful or distracting. The design makes it easy to shoot, and easy to hit your target. The controls are quick to learn, and simple to manipulate. Young, old, small, large, tall, short – the reaction from those shooting an AR rifle for the first time is identical – a large smile, and the exclamation “that’s FUN!”

But it’s MORE deadly and MORE dangerous than handguns! All rifles, by their design and the more power ammunition cartridges they are chambered for, are more powerful than handguns. Rifles have a longer barrel and sight radius, when combined with holding them with several points of contact between them and your body make them more accurate than handguns. On the other hand, because of their length, they are harder to conceal than the smaller and lighter handgun.

When comparing the AR-15 to other rifles, it has advantages, and disadvantages. As noted above, its ergonomics and ease of operation makes it easier to shoot than many other rifles. On the other hand, the .223/556 cartridge used by most AR rifles was derived from a cartridge used for hunting small game (Coyote, varmints, and smaller game weighing less than 60 pounds). For home defense use, bullets from the 9mm cartridge, or shot pellets from a shotgun have more weight (mass), and as a result will penetrate more residential walls than the lighter weight bullets of the .223/556 cartridge.

In military use, the wounding qualities of the high velocity, lower weight projectiles offer an advantage (“you need two soldiers to carry each wounded soldier off the battlefield”). For more effectiveness and more lethal results, there are a great number of other rifles and more powerful cartridges available for them – if that is your primary concern.

The AR-15 in and of itself is no more dangerous or deadly than any other rifle. Its features and appearance are designed for function – and not beauty. The same attributes that make it the most popular rifle in America today for a large number of gun owners, and its widespread availability – also make it the gun of choice for those who choose to use it to further their evil intentions.

Some will say the AR-15 should be banned, or access to such firearms be severely restricted. Before choosing to join that chorus, look at the reality: In places where guns of all kinds are restricted, such as New York, England, Paris, and elsewhere in Europe – attackers make do with other options – driving cars, trucks, and semi-trucks into crowds of people. They use knives, machetes, and other cutting tools to stab and chop at people. And in Boston – two brothers used bombs built into pressure cooking pots to kill three and injure over two-hundred fifty people.

We don’t look at banning cars and large vehicles, small tanks of propane, swimming pools, household chemicals and fertilizer, commercial airplanes, knives, or cans of gasoline – because while each of these pose some risk, and through accidents or intentional actions take many lives each year, they also offer us tremendous benefits. Firearms handled safely and held in the hands of good people offer recreation, sport, protection, and enjoyment for over one hundred million people (maybe more, maybe less – depending on where you get your statistics) each year.

The tools used by madmen to harm others varies. If they can’t access the one tool they prefer to use, they will turn to another. The web is filled with information about how to make simple household objects into devices that will kill and maim innocents. Take away the AR-15, and they will use another tool to complete their evil. The problem is not the tool they use – it is the evil intent in their mind.

Mental issues and distorted reality, prescription medications (psychotropic drugs) that effect the brain and increase the chance of violent behavior, laws mandating the release of mental patients from hospitals and treatment facilities, those who follow an ideology that encourages using great violence against others, the desire to make a statement and get 24/7 media coverage, as well as a host of other issues – these are the real problems, and need to be addressed thoughtfully to reach a real solution.

Unfortunately, these are not easy problems to solve, and they are even harder to distill into a quick sound bite that will be repeated again and again on cable news. Beware of those who offer a simple solution to these complex issues. At best they are probably not offering a real answer – at worst, they are only seeking to further their own agenda.