Putting the AR-15 in Context

Full disclosure (thanks for asking): No, I am not a fan of the AR-15 nor of the 500 or so other brands of “black guns” modeled on it, although they are really fun to shoot. Yes, one can burn through 200 rounds of ammo in slightly more than a few blinks of an eye. Yes, many of the new versions are among the most accurate firearms ever built. Yes, they are very popular for hunting, and are available in dozens of calibers. Yes, I believe it is folly to engage in discussions of AR-15-type firearms without understanding the context within which they exist today. Allow me.

If you have followed this Friday column over many of these past 993 Fridays, you are aware of my long-held views of what is or is not a proper hunting rifle or sporting firearm. Given the current furor over “legitimate” arms for hunting or sport shooting, I invite you to wander through context with me.

In my mind, our modern hunting rifles grew from military firearms of WWI and WWII. Soldiers used bolt-action and auto-loading rifles, and those familiar tools grew sportier, lighter, more accurate and graceful as soldiers returned home to traditional hunting and shooting activities. Over the decades before and after WWII, many fine rifles were built around European and American military surplus actions (the mechanism moving the cartridge into the barrel’s chamber and locking it in place).

New cartridges in many calibers (the bullet’s diameter in inches or metric) were developed to expand beyond 7mm and .30 caliber military cartridges. With varying success, cartridges were developed for hunting critters of all sizes, with bullets in calibers from .22 and 6mm (.243) to .500 caliber.

A quality rifle had a strong, smooth action screwed onto a carefully forged and machined steel barrel. This “barreled action” was fitted to a finely carved and finished wood stock (likely walnut, but maybe maple, myrtle, or another strong and attractive hardwood). This finished rifle would deliver a bullet with consistent accuracy to a point of aim downrange. Given how wood rifle stocks might swell or bend, and affect the rifle’s accuracy, all sorts of solutions – from “free -floated” barrels to laminated wood stocks to new sealers and finishes – were developed.

Accuracy was paramount; commonly described in minutes of angle, or MOA. One MOA covers one inch at 100 yards, so MOA accuracy meant that bullets would consistently hit within a one-inch circle at 100 yards. Many hundreds of articles have been written over the decades on hunters’ responsibility for accurate shooting afield – and one MOA is the standard.

That accuracy was found in a sleek blued steel barreled action precisely fitted to a wood stock carefully shaped for weight and balance and shooting pleasure. To me, and many others within a couple generations of me, THAT was a hunting rifle.

War, soldiers, tools and times changed. We sent our young men and women to fight in places that were often hot, wet and muddy, and traditional military arms didn’t hold up. New firearms were developed.

The first AR-15 (Armalite Rifle 15) was created for use in Vietnam in the early 1960s, and is still the military weapon of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan. (The M-16 is the version most GIs learned to carry.) Although it had its problems, it was light, dependable and could lay down a terrific barrage of fire. The original caliber was the 5.56mm NATO – a version of the .223 Remington – which could spit tiny bullets at 3200 feet per second. At that velocity, the round could do a lot of damage, and a soldier could carry a lot of ammo.

Those soldiers, like the WWI and WWII vets before them, brought home expertise with a light, semiautomatic, gray/black carbon/plastic firearm with corrosion-resistant metal where needed. And just like the GIs before them, they started playing around with the tools they knew.

Today, AR-15 type firearms – black guns – are made for many calibers. A good many will shoot sub-MOA groups, and cost several thousand dollars. Even shotguns and handguns are made with this light and weatherproof technology.

The transition to AR-15 rifles as firearms of choice for hunters, target shooters – and self-defense devotees – has not been easy for those of us who “know” how a real rifle looks and feels, but…

Let me give you a context here. According to Wikipedia and other sources, as of 2017, there were more than 10 million rifles from the AR-15 family being used by US civilians. They are the most popular rifles in America. They are manufactured for cartridges in 31 Imperial calibers from .17 to .50, 19 metric calibers (5.45mm and up) and 14 handgun calibers. (Larger calibers have become preferred for hunting deer, wild pigs, bears and other game.) Only Colt makes the official AR-15, but there are about 500 US and international manufacturers of AR-15 type guns.

Thus, to me, a continuing argument about civilian use of AR-15 type firearms is folly. Perhaps we might focus on safety and training – it is generally how we successfully deal with tragic happenings in our country.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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