When Eugene Stoner invented the AR-15 in the 1950s, I doubt he ever imagined the rifle’s success of today. In the age where hardwood stocks and full power cartridges reigned supreme, the little “Mattel toy” rifle with plastic stock and aluminum parts looked like something from a science fiction film. First adopted by the Air Force, and then by the Military as the M-16, the rifle went on to widespread use in Vietnam. Teething problems and improvements quickly followed for the M-16 and found their way into civilian model AR-15s. This would be the case for the next 40 years.
The AR-15 began as a semi-automatic civilian rifle started when Colt started selling the rifle in the 1960s. At first, sales were slow, prices were expensive, and problems found on service rifles were mirrored in civilian AR-15s. The AR was never a popular rifle during the 20th century for civilians. Surplus WWII firearms, cheap Chinese imported AKs and SKS rifles, and other similar, cheap guns took a huge bite out of the AR’s market. Their reputation as a problematic firearm that jammed when slightly dirty did not help either.
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The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban seemed like the final nail in the pine box for the AR-15. Instead, it spurned one of the greatest quality improvements of a product in firearms history. During the ban, small companies started to improve the AR platform. At the same time, the Military adopted the M-4 Carbine. M-4 semi-automatic clones soon hit the civilian market when the ’94 AWB expired. The War on Terror and the expiration of the ’94 ban in late 2004 unleashed a flood of greatly improved tactical rifles that took the civilian market by storm.
The NRA successfully brought to civilian attention that an AR-15 is not a fully automatic assault rifle, but a very accurate and utilitarian rifle. All of this coupled by an increasingly gun-friendly society spurned sales. Though the AR competed with cheap AK pattern imported rifles in the early 2000s, scores of veterans returning from the Middle East provided a loyal following for the AR-15. With the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and threats of gun bans, the popularity of the AR-15 soared.
Every Shape and Size
With the adoption of the M4 by the US military and the sunset of AWB in ’04, almost all AR-15s are modeled after the M4 carbine. These compact AR-15s with their 16-inch civilian length barrels are built with 3 goals in mind. Accuracy. Reliability. Modularity. The modern AR-15 is the equivalent of the adult erector set. With a small set of tools and an Armorer’s wrench, a shooter can modify his rifle in his garage, or build one from scratch.
The AR-15 outfitted with its flat top receiver can use almost any optic available to man, from traditional rifle scopes, to combat optics such as the ACOG. Quad rails allow mounting of lights, rapid transition sights, lasers, and a whole host of other accessories. I know a shooter who mounted a bottle opener on his.
You can still find full-size AR-15 rifles the same dimensions as the M-16A2/A4, or you can opt for a Carbine length rifle. A mid length rifle is the same size as the carbine length M-4, but they offer the ability to be able to correctly mount a bayonet and provides more reliability with its gas impingement system.
The AR-15 Today
How has the AR become so popular? A huge reason was the threat of gun bans on semi-automatic rifles and what many Americans saw as a possible infringement of their 2nd Amendment rights. In 2008, one of Barack Obama’s campaign goals was a permanent version of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban. American shooters poured into gun stores over the next 8 years and purchased millions of semi-automatic rifles that were targeted by left-leaning politicians and anti-gun groups. This repeated itself in 2012 with Obama’s reelection, after the Sandy Hook shooting and right before the 2016 Presidential election. Between 2008-2016, it was estimated more than 1 million AR-15s were produced annually for civilians in the USA. That doesn’t count parts kits and lower receivers for people to assemble their own rifles.
A greatly improved product with the reliability nearly equal to an AK has helped as well. In fact, torture tests have demonstrated that the AR-15 is closing the gap with the AK pattern when it comes to reliability. Longevity, however, remains with the AK, whereas an AR-15 will need some critical rebuilding after 20,000 rounds or so. Aftermarket products such as grips, stocks, sights, and internals have spurned a huge custom rifle movement.
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Lastly, the increased demand starting in 2008 created an interesting problem. It forced gun makers to greatly increase production, saturating the market and causing prices to drop drastically. Prices have fallen on the AR-15. It used to cost a shooter at least $1000 for a decent AR-15 rifle. They can be had now for $400-$500. No longer is the AK the budget defensive rifle, that has now been taken over by the formerly expensive AR. In fact, a good com-bloc imported AK is now more expensive than an AR-15 from Palmetto State Armory. With a saturated market, improved quality, and a movement behind it, the AR’s time has truly, and finally arrived!
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