The AR15, M16, M4.. This rifle has more generic names awarded to it than any other.. That is because it is not one specific rifle anymore but a concept which has evolved into a huge industry. The AR type rifle has come to achieve iconic status. To some it represents freedom, to others violence and destruction. The politics surrounding the AR have made it the most controversial rifle in the worlds history.
A brief history.
A company called Armalite produced a rifle they called the AR10 way back in 1956. The AR10 was a 7.62mm battle rifle made with cutting edge materials of the time. The benefit of such materials were in weight saving. The AR10 weighed over 1lb less than any other rifle in its class. A string of unfortunate incidents prevented the AR10 being sold in any great numbers to militaries. Armalite decided instead to make some tweaks, change the calibre and enter their new “AR15” into testing by the American army who were seeking to move to the smaller calibre. Armalite were a small organisation and lacked the weight required to win large military contracts. They sold the rights to the AR10 and AR15 to Colt Firearms. Colt had the money, connections and know how to start shifting ARs in large numbers and also win large military contracts. They dubbed the military version the M16 and it sold in good number both domestically and abroad. Military service soon uncovered a number of flaws which had serious consequences. The M16 was originally marketed to require virtually no cleaning. Field cleaning kit was not made or supplied for it and it was assumed that the rifles could be stripped and cleaned by the armoury only. Pretty soon the servicemen using it reported feed problems, misfires and jams and no means to fix it while in a firefight. The AR type rifle relies on gas from the barrel being syphoned off and used to cycle the action. The gas of course contained particles from the powder burning and these would build up in the action eventually causing a failure. Cleaning kits and new training were promptly issued but not before many of the troops had come to curse the rifle and favour the older and more reliable weapons. As time went on many of the ARs quirks were ironed out which luckily was pretty easy given the nature of it which brings us to the concept of its design..
The modular system
The AR10/15 are arguably the first truly modular rifles. Think of them as large mechano kits which require very little in the way of tools to assemble or dismantle. With basic training anyone can carry out work which would normally require a gunsmith. Parts which break can be easily replaced. If you broke the buttstock then a new buttstock replacement is about $50 and a half hour of unskilled labour. Traditional riflestocks would have to be replaced as a whole and often required a bit of inletting work to achieve a good fit. Other firearms manufacturers soon began to realise they could cash in as the AR15/M16 grew in popularity. They began to produce parts which answered some of the rifles quirks. They also began to produce clones of the entire rifle system. Fast forward to the market today and you have 1000s of parts from hundreds of manufacturers. These are what I and many others refer to as “AR type rifles”. Although they may not have been made by Colt they share the same concept and many are generic in terms of fit and function. There are plenty of guys out there making a good business from just assembling rifles using parts from multiple manufacturers. They advertise their build as “the ultimate” which it may or may not be. What it does demonstrate is great flexibility of the AR concept. A rifle can be made to be short and lightweight for a particular task. With minimal fuss one could change that to a longer more accurate rifle with no tools used.
The author with a short barrel .22 configuration.
A description of the main parts.
You may have heard the terms “upper” and “lower” used in relation to the AR. These are the two main components. The lower holds the trigger group and attaches to the butt stock. The upper houses your bolt and barrel. Both parts fit easily together and are held in place by two hefty pins. The two pieces should fit snugly with no obvious movement between them.
1. Magazine 2. Sling 3. Bolt 4. Charging handle 5. Handguard 6. Buttstock. Thanks to AR15.COM for the image.
You can clearly see the upper and lower in the image above. That shows the rifle broken down into parts for a basic clean. It can be taken down further as shown in the following pictures which also help demonstrate just why there are so many third party parts created for it. Most, if not all of the assembly/dissasembly could be accomplished by a skilled amateur at home.
All the components, most, if not all of which can be upgraded if one wishes.
Why the bad media?
Because of their modular design the AR can be configured to fullfil a number of roles. It can be used as the makers intended (a battle rifle). Many of us have come to associate the M16/M4 with shocking pictures and newsreels from theatres of war.
Images like this have both sealed the rifle as an icon and linked it to the horrors of war.
The ARs used by sports shooters like myself differ somewhat. We like them because they offer so many options and upgrades can be carried out yourself. We tend not to equip laser designators and grenade launchers. The target shooter is much more interested in accuracy and their rifles reflect this. Another useful feature for the sporting shooter is that you could have several uppers allowing a quick change to suit various different competitions or disciplines. I have a .22 upper featuring a 12″ barrel which is superb for mini rifle/gallery comps. I also have an upper with a .223 20″ barrel which is fantastic for practical rifle. I leave them both with optics fitted so it is just a case of removing 2 pins and changing the upper. Far from an “assault rifle” and more like a do everything system.. A rifle version of lego with endless combinations. Many have suggested the rifle “looks bad” or “tactical”. The modular design necessitates various rails/buttons and catches many of which offer convenient or comfort based features such as a collapsible stock. The magazine capacity is often cited as being “high capacity” which anti gun folk suggest “is not needed by sports shooters”. In all sports shooting disciplines the competitors will look to get an advantage. In timed comps high capacity mags are used by everyone to minimise loading times. There is nothing more sinister involved than a will to win in a sporting enviroment.
My AR set up for practical rifle type competition.
The negative sides to the AR platform.
Every rifle has its quirks and issues. The main issue users report with ARs are either feed or accuracy related. As mentioned before it is vital that you keep your AR reasonably clean. I say reasonably because personally I like to leave the bores dirty on all my rifles and clean them every 500 rounds. I find this provides a sweet spot in terms of accuracy. The parts that need to stay clean are the trigger, bolt and gas system (if you are running a semi auto). I am in the UK using a straight pull. Very little cleaning required! I give it a warm frog lube session every couple of months shooting in all weather and no issues or rust. Some semi autos have reportedly been fussy regarding ammo. Some brands will not cycle the bolt. This seems to be most common in short rifles or AR pistols. This is because the gas system was designed for barrels of certain length. If you shorten things to much then the gas would need adjusting. Accuracy issues can be caused by many things – wrong type of ammo for barrel is a fairly common example. Barrels tend to be 1-7,8 or 9″ twist. They are made for either .223 or 5.56mm and also in “Wylde” chambering which suits either. The variety of choice is great but does require the shooter to make a sensible ammunition choice which suits. Being a large and popular industry means as well as some great upgrade parts there are some which are very poor. Even some standard issue milspec internals are poor in relation to sports shooting. The trigger is such a part… A gritty 9lb trigger may suit adrenaline filled soldiers and law enforcement but it is a bugbear to the target shooter. I spent 10 years shooting a target rifle with a 125 gram trigger pull. The 8.5lb stock trigger on my AR was a tad heavy in comparison. Luckily companies like Geissele triggers make super smooth drop in units. I run an ACT trigger with a 4.5lb break. The CSR comps I occasionally enter set that as a minimum. Personally I would prefer lighter..
Too much modularity?
Last but not least I should probably mention the current trend of accessorizing to the extreme!! All that rail space and DIY enthusiasm combined with some ridiculous “celeb” instructors recommendations have led to ARs that must weigh 20lbs+. They are draped in night vision, lasers, torches, extra optics and so on. Just ask yourself what you need to compete in the chosen discipline. Do you need a torch on a match rifle? Will you ever use those 2 sets of “backup sights”? I have a 4-12x scope on my 5.56mm and a red dot on my .22. Both are more than adequate for my humble needs.
Raf keeping his AR simple, accurate and functional to his needs..
I love the AR platform. I think the ability to adapt it to any kind of shooter, discipline or enviroment make it a real do anything design. Anyone who appreciates function and clever engineering would be hard pressed to disagree. Equally anyone who loves tinkering with stuff themselves will love the endless options available to them. I really cannot imagine a more versatile sporting rifle. The standard 5.56mm may not be everyones favourite but the platform continues to evolve offering other calibres which may well suit your requirements. If you have never had a go with an AR you are missing out on a real treat. I suggest you go try it at your local range, cast your preconceptions aside and try not to grin to much 😉