An AR-15 style rifle has been used in at least 10 recent mass shootings, including Newtown, Aurora, and San Bernardino.

This has sparked a fierce debate over gun laws and access to AR-15 style weapons. Supporters defend their Second Amendment rights. Opponents call for a full ban to make the country safer.

Wherever you stand on gun laws, the AR-15 is one of the most popular guns in America. The debate is likely to rage on.

Find out more about the Armalite AR-15 – the history, the specs, the controversy- so you can weigh in on the debate.

Military History of the Armalite AR-15

Eugene Stoner is the original designer of the AR-15 military rifle. He first built the gun in his garage in the late 1950s.

During this time, the US was beginning involvement in Vietnam. Stoner designed the AR-15 rifle to replace the M14. The M14 was heavy, difficult to control and outmatched by the enemy’s AK-47.

Stoner also designed new bullets for his AR-15.

The new bullets were a .223 caliber round. They were capable of piercing a metal helmet from 500 yards away.

Stoner brought his design for an AR-15 to Armalite, where he became chief designer. Contrary to popular belief the “AR” in AR-15 doesn’t stand for “assault rifle” or “automatic rifle”. It stands for Armalite rifle.

In the late 1950s, when Stoner developed the AR-15, Armalite was a small company in southern California.  Armalite had a hard time selling the gun to the US military.

In 1959, Armalite gave up trying to market the gun and sold the design to Colt.

Colt had an equally difficult time getting the military interested in the new design. The military was committed to the M14 design and didn’t want to spend the money to re-equip troops.

In the 1960s, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara gave the official order to halt the production of M14 guns. In 1963, Colt was selected by the military to manufacture the AR-15 automatic military rifle for the troops in Vietnam.

The US military renamed the rifle the M16 assault rifle. It became standard issue for troops.

Made for Civilians

Armed with the success of a military contract, Colt increased production of the rifle. They started marketing it to law enforcement and civilians.

This semiautomatic version of the M16 was marketed under the original name, the AR-15.

In the 1970s, Colt’s patent on the AR-15 expired.

Other manufacturers began making similar models. Although the new guns were given their own manufacturer-specific names, AR-15 became a generic term for all the AR-15 styles rifles.

Some of the most popular AR-15 style rifles that are in production today include:

  • Bravo Company MID-16
  • Colt AR-15 A4
  • Colt LE6920 Law Enforcement Carbine
  • Daniel Defense DDM4 V7
  • Del-Ton Sport AR-15
  • DPMS Panther Oracle A3
  • Ruger AR-556
  • Smith & Wesson M&P15 Competition
  • Smith & Wesson M&P15 M-LOK
  • Smith & Wesson M&P15 Sport II

The Popularity of AR-15 Style Rifles

Stoner died in 1997. By that time, the semiautomatic civilian version of his gun was a bestseller.

The National Rifle Association estimates that there are close to eight million AR-15-style rifles in circulation today.

They joke that the gun is so popular the “AR” should stand for “America’s Rifle”.

There are some benefits of the AR-15 that have made this one of the most popular rifles in the country.

The AR was designed originally as a military rifle. This means that it was designed for speedy reloading in combat situations.

The semiautomatic version available for civilians requires you to pull the trigger to fire each shot, but the reload is rapid.

The butt of the rifle, also known as the stock, has a large spring that absorbs the kickback of each firing. With low kickback, or recoil, this gun is more easily used by people who cannot handle the recoil from a larger gun.

This makes it a great gun for women, children, and other smaller frame people.

The low recoil also makes it more accurate. The accuracy can be easily upgraded with customized scopes, lasers and more.

In addition to low recoil, the AR-15 is a comfortable gun all around.  It just feels natural to hold in the hands. When upgraded, it becomes even more ergonomically comfortable.

The AR-15 is arguably practical. It has applications in target shooting, professional competitions, and hunting for hogs and deer.

The popularity of the AR-15 has created a cycle. The AR-15 is so popular because it is the most popular rifle sold in America today. With so many on the market, there is an abundance of aftermarket parts and accessories available for it.

You can modify your AR-15 until you get it to be just right for your needs.

Customizing your AR-15

Modification and customization are near endless when it comes to your AR-15. There are a couple of choices you’ll have to make regarding length, gas system, and barrel. Then it’s all about the upgrades.


One choice is the gun length. AR-15s come in a carbine length, mid-length, or a rifle length. Carbine length has a 16-inch barrel. The mid-length has an 18-inch barrel and the rifle length a 20-inch barrel.

The carbine length is the most popular. However, the rifle length was the original design of the AR-15 and the best performance. The carbine length is more maneuverable, but is prone to reliability issues.

Gas System

You’ll also need to decide on the gas system.

The AR-15 uses either a piston system or a direct impingement system. Most use the direct impingement system, which is less expensive than a piston system.

Parts are easier to replace for the direct impingement system. It is also more accurate. Most beginners or first-time gun owners opt for the direct impingement system.

However, the piston system operates more cleanly and is more reliable in rough environments.


Choosing a barrel is the most important decision when buying an AR-15 after choosing your length and gas system.

The options are a chrome-lined barrel, a stainless steel barrel, or a nitride barrel.

A chrome-lined barrel has great corrosion resistance and will last a long time. However, the process that applies the chrome to the bore is inconsistent and can leave you with an inaccurate barrel.

US military opts for a chrome-lined barrel for its M16s.

Stainless steel barrels are inherently more accurate than chrome-lined barrels. The downfall is that they need to be replaced much sooner than a chrome-lined barrel. As a rule of thumb, a stainless steel barrel will last ten thousand rounds before it needs to be replaced.

Nitride barrels are often the barrel of choice if you’re on a budget. They are far cheaper than chrome-lined or stainless steel barrels.

While nitride barrels may not deliver the long life expectancy of a chrome-lined barrel or the accuracy of stainless steel barrels, they still offer excellent performance for the price point.


After the basics, you can upgrade to your heart’s desire. Upgrades to your AR-15 customize it, but also increase the value.

Here are some of the common upgrades people choose:

  • Grips
  • Triggers and Guards
  • Extended Magazine Release
  • Back-Up Sights
  • Ambidextrous Charging Handle
  • Ambidextrous Safety Selectors
  • Extended Bolt Releases
  • Anti-Rotational Pins
  • Optics
  • Muzzle Devices

Whether you’re looking for the best AR-15 charging handle or some seriously modified sights, the AR-15’s versatility is precisely why it became so popular.

Gun Laws for Assault Weapons

The Las Vegas slaughter of 58 people October 2017.

The Sutherland Springs, Texas, church shooting that claimed 26 lives in November 2017.

The Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., that left 49 dead in 2016.

The San Bernardino, Calif., shooting that killed 14 people in 2015.

The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut that took 27 lives in 2012.

The AR-15 remains at the center of the controversy on gun laws because it has been the weapon of choice in so many mass killings.

In 1994, an assault-weapons ban signed by President Bill Clinton made the AR-15 illegal to buy.  The 1994 law many loopholes. Gun manufacturers circumvented the new ban on the AR-15 by modifying the weapons from their original design.

The ban on AR-15 style guns expired in 2004, making the AR-15 completely legal today. During both George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s administrations, the sales of AR-15 style guns increased.

Gun advocates argue that semiautomatic weapons, such as the AR-15, should not be lumped together with assault weapons. They are not fully automatic and have valid recreational purposes such as hunting and target shooting.

On the other end of spectrum, strict gun-control advocates claim the distinction between semiautomatic and automatic is arbitrary. If a semiautomatic is designed to kill a large number of people quickly, it is still an assault weapon.

One sticking point for gun-control advocates is the high muzzle velocity on an AR-15. The high velocity, combined with the small .223 round, makes the weapon particularly deadly.

Other common hunting rifles use much larger rounds that travel at slower speeds. These bullets don’t create the same ricochet inside the body as an AR-15.

In 2012, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced legislation to ban assault weapons following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

This signaled a change in the gun-control debate.

The effort eventually failed, but the proposed ban sparked the renewed vigor of the gun-control conversation.

Today gun-control advocates want the 1994 assault weapon ban reinstated. They support a ban on selling and manufacturing two hundred and five military-style assault weapons, including the AR-15 style weapons. They also call for a ban on high-capacity magazines, which increases the bullet count in a gun.

Future of the AR-15

Whether it is a conviction about Second Amendment rights or a desire to protect our school and other public places, emotions are high when it comes to the debate on guns.

Now that you know more about the AR-15 – the specs, the military history, the popularity- it is easy to see why the long and complicated past has thrust the AR-15 into the center of this hot button debate.

The future of the Armalite AR-15 is uncertain. Will it be banned? Will it survive as “America’s Rifle”?

Only time will tell.

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