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Understanding the AR-15 and the Meaning of ‘Weapons of War’

By: Peter Suciu

One of the most oft-repeated (and erroneous) criticisms waged against the AR-15 is that it is a “weapon of war” or “military-style assault rifle.” Gun control supporters and ill-informed reporters argue this semi-automatic rifle should be banned because it is a combat weapon. While the AR-15 is, in fact, based on the military’s M-16, there are numerous differences between the two– most notably the fact that the military version offers select fire, meaning it can be switched between semi-automatic and fully-automatic, or burst fire modes.

It’s important to understand the history of the AR-15, why it’s not a “military-style” weapon, how such an influential rifle has become the inappropriate target of censure, and to appreciate how the concept of “weapons of war” has affected U.S. history.

Why the Sudden War on Words?
The AR-15, despite the very sudden uproar regarding it, has been available to consumers for well over 50 years. The first commercial version was introduced in 1963 as the Colt AR-15 Sporter – yet sales were slow because the gun was expensive, and its fixed sights and carry handle made it difficult to mount scopes. When Colt’s patents, which it had bought in 1959 from ArmaLite (hence the “AR” in AR-15, which does not stand for “Automatic Rifle” or “Assault Rifle”) expired, other manufacturers began producing and selling AR-15-style rifles.

Now available in a variety of configurations and with modular designs, the AR is one of the most popular choices for semi-automatic rifles in the United States today. The rifle has the ability to mount a scope, forward grip, and other attachments, and, as it’s been said, these features do not make the AR-15 a weapon of war.

The AR is also not a “high-power” weapon. No knowledgeable gun owner considers the AR to be high-powered. It’s also not a “military-style” weapon. The military would not equip soldiers with a weapon that’s incapable of switching into fully-automatic mode. The AR is simply imposing looking to those who don’t know any better, and unfortunately, that’s a lot of people in the mainstream media.

Fearing a firearm because of its design or because it was once a combat weapon is misguided, to say the least. The anti-gun establishment’s habit of doing so shows ignorance, not only of firearms, but also of history, and reveals the glaring holes in their illogical arguments for gun control.

A World War II M1903 Springfield bolt action rifle, for example, looks similar to a modern hunting rifle and was designed for use by the military, yet it is seldom (if ever) attacked by anti-gun activists, whereas the AR-15, which has always been a commercial rifle, is constantly and inaccurately described as a weapon of war.

Looks can be deceiving, and those opposed to firearms in general completely miss the point as to what “a weapon of war” is, and why it matters (but shouldn’t).

Military and Civilian Guns – Long One and the Same
We’ve established that the M-16 and the AR-15 are not identical. But even if they were, it shouldn’t matter. America has a long tradition of its citizens owning and relying on what were considered to be “weapons of war.”

To understand the “weapons of war” concept, we have to go back to the very founding of the United States. The Second Amendment clearly recognizes the right of citizens to act as a militia, using military-grade firearms. The Bill of Rights was written before the United States had a large and well-equipped, standing army, and citizens used the exact muskets that the Continental Army had carried in the American Revolution. Those who suggest the Constitution’s writers were thinking of some sort of “civilian musket,” as opposed to those that the military used, should know privately owned firearms and those carried by the soldiers of the era were one and the same.

Moreover, many citizens who lived on the frontier relied on the so-called “Pennsylvania” or “Kentucky” rifles. These guns were oftentimes superior to the standard American long rifle of the era – so here is an early example of citizens having better weapons than the few professional soldiers serving in the then very small U.S. Army of the time.

Fast-forward to the Plains Wars of the post-Civil War era, when, again, private citizens were often armed with repeating rifles, including the Henry Rifle and later the Winchester, while the U.S. Cavalry carried singe shot “Trapdoor” Springfield carbines into the 1890s (Some Trapdoors were even still in use during the Spanish-American War.) It has been argued that one reason General George Armstrong Custer lost the Battle of the Little Bighorn is because his troops were simply outgunned by the Lakota warriors!

In fact, until World War I, it could be argued that what private citizens could buy and own was superior to what the military was issued. While few Americans could likely afford an early Maxim machine gun, they were available to anyone who wanted to buy one. One notable example is that during the Spanish-American War, the family of Lt. William Tiffany, a close friend of Teddy Roosevelt who served alongside him in the Rough Riders, purchased two Colt M 1895 “potato digger” machine guns for the regiment.

After World War I, Ordnance Arms, which had offices and a showroom on Broadway in Manhattan, sold the Thompson submachine gun directly to consumers, marketing the weapon in one famous ad campaign to cattle ranchers!

It wasn’t until passage of the National Firearms Act of 1934 that consideration was given to regulating the sale of certain small arms to private citizens. That act finally put restrictions on how such weapons could be purchased by the general public.

Until the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986, there was no total ban on the owning of firearms carried by the military. Even that law didn’t technically outlaw owning what are now considered to be “weapons of war,” but instead banned the creation of new machine guns and limited civilian ownership (with a proper background check and transfer) to guns made before May 1986.

Military Surplus
Today, at gun shows, gun shops, and in many sporting goods stores, surplus military rifles, true weapons of war, are routinely sold. These aren’t M-16s or today’s M-4 carbines, but vintage World War I or World War II bolt action rifles, M1 Garands and M1 Carbines, Soviet bloc SKS semi-automatic rifles, and other firearms that most certainly were used on past battlefields – and they’re readily available for purchase.

There have been attempts to limit the sale of some of such weapons. In New York City, the British Lee Enfield bolt action rifle is outlawed simply because of its 10-round removable magazine, and the M1 Garand is banned because it has a bayonet lug and holds eight rounds in its internal magazine.

Ignorance Begets Illogic
American citizens, as we’ve illustrated, have, since our nation’s founding, had the right to possess the same – or even better! – weapons as members of our military. It should be noted, however, that today’s soldiers are equipped with select-fire assault weapons, rocket launchers, and hand grenades, and have support from aircraft, armored vehicles, artillery, and drones, whereas common citizens, of course, do not. Exactly what a “weapon of war” is has become a moving target, but because of gun control measures, no real “weapon of war,” i.e., firearms our modern military uses, are available to the general public.

No soldier today is going to want to go into combat with an AR-15 when there are M-4 carbines and other true weapons of war available. So the next time you hear the mainstream media blabbering on about “military-style” weapons, remember: It’s a moot point.

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer based in Michigan. Contact him at petersuciu@gmail.com.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Gunpowder Magazine.