Throwback Thursday: What I Love About the AR-15, America’s Rifle

AR-15 Rifle on Tan Case

No rifle is more recognizable than the AR-15. Folks who know little about firearms know what an AR is. They sometimes make misidentifications, calling it an M16 or M4, but they recognize the black rifle.

The American sporting rifle is not a military rifle at all. With all due respect to economy rifles, most civilian-grade AR rifles would never hold up to the rigors of military service. They are just fine for recreation, hunting, and home defense, but they are not military-grade, with a few exceptions.

AR-15 Disassembled bolt and receivers
The AR is easy to fieldstrip, maintain, and modify.

A lot of soldiers returning home like to have a good AR in the safe. The rest of us like handling the rifle, cleaning it, chasing accuracy, and hunting with the rifle. The AR is a great small game and varmint rifle. It handles so well, so smoothly, with such good ergonomics, it begs the question of why we need another rifle.

In some ways, the AR is a symbol of the American fighting man from the Mekong Delta to Afghanistan. Some don’t understand this, they don’t get it, but then, they do not get American values at all.

Humble Beginnings

Military rifles have always had a great appeal to Americans. Springfield, Krag, Mauser, and Lee Enfield rifles have been sporterized and used for hunting. The bottom line is reliability. Although cheap, availability was once an attraction.

Today, folks are willing to pay good money for a high-quality AR-15 rifle. The AR is the Mr. Potato Head of rifles. You may change the barrel, trigger group, stocks, and grips without any trouble. The flat-top design allows mounting an optic or different types of iron sights. Slap a TruGlo Eminus on the rail or a good quality red dot and you are good to go. The result is a versatile rifle that allows a wide range of use, even quickly reconfiguring the same gun for different chores.

AR Rifle
Colt’s AR is among the most respected.

Gaining Popularity

The funny thing is, when I was growing up, I never saw an AR-type rifle, save on TV. No one seemed much interested in a Colt sporter. They were expensive and what good were they? The Army Ordnance division almost ruined the rifle with poor powder choice and other mistakes, but the basic design was sound, and survived and flourished.

Most of the rifles we use now are the M16A2 heavy-barrel type modified for civilian use. Perhaps the rifle was designed before modular was a catch word, but it has proven versatile and effective.

Without going too deeply into politics, the Assault Weapons Ban or Crime Bill actually served to stimulate AR popularity. Cottage industries rose up to modify and improve the rifle — kind of an “in your face” to the Clintons and Feinsteins of the world. The result was some of the finest rifles ever made in America.

Ar Trigger
The author has used the Elftmann trigger in several custom builds.

Customization Opportunities

Many of us have bent toward custom guns. This is expensive. We have custom-grade 1911 handguns from the factory and high-end AR rifles as well. But a working Joe — that’s me — armed with only a few hundred dollars and a kitchen table toolset may put together a rifle that suits well.

As an example, the rifle illustrated was built from Aero Precision. I used an Elftmann trigger. Some of the hardware is MagPul. The result is one of the best rifles I have owned. I have owned most of the big names and I have to admit that this piece is right up there with them in reliability and accuracy.

AR Rifle
This rifle is built from quality aftermarket parts and topped with a TruGlo red dot.

AR-15 for Competition

Over the years, the AR-15 has become a first-class competition rifle and even sparked a new type of shooting known as 3-Gun. The AR is at home in the fields as well. The .223 Remington is an ideal pest and varmint round. With the proper loads, it will take deer given good shot placement. The Hornady Full Boar load, as an example, is a good medium-sized game load. The .308 versions are even better for medium game.

A virtue of the ArmaLite system, is that whatever the caliber — .223, .204, .308 Winchester or others — the rifle offers moderate recoil. The system is not only reliable, it helps to control recoil. Any number of modern muzzle brakes aid to the comfort.

.223 Remington Hornady Ammo and Box
Hornady ammunition provides an edge in quality rifles.

A move I am not as fond of with AR rifles, is the move to heavier and heavier setups — a heavy long barrel, large scope, bipod, all the gear you think you need but maybe you don’t. That’s fine if you are interested in long-range accuracy. I like a finely-tuned rifle that is less than seven pounds if possible, but holds MOA at 100 yards. With modern ammunition and the AR rifle, it isn’t that difficult.

AR-15 for Home Defense

The AR-15 is also a great home defender. With the prospect of takeover gangs and multiple threats, the AR-15 offers a fighting chance for the good guys. A high hit probability and an instant second or third shot if needed makes for a fine defensive firearm.

Public safety is high because there are less wild rounds riding around. Load the rifle with Hornady Critical Defense, mount a TruGlo red dot and rest easy. The AR-15 is America’s rifle and worthy of respect and affection.

Why do you love the AR-15? What’s your favorite AR-15 rifle and setup? What do you use your ARs for? Let us know in the Comment section.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in June of 2021. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (34)

  1. “There is one HELL of a difference in reliability between entry level rifles and good rifles.

    Colt, Springfield, SIG are battle worthy. Parts guns seldom are.”

    @Bob Cambell: I kind of agree with the first part. Cheap entry level rifles/carbines can be a crap shoot. If you know what you’re doing when assembling or know what to correct, they can be made reliable, but certainly not combat ready. The other part though… there’s a few others like Daniel Defense to name one. But again, a parts gun, CAN be IF you know WTF you’re doing. Don’t buy your parts from the bargain bin. If you’re buying stuff from some place like DTT then well, I wouldn’t expect it run well or even at all. I will say this, and some folks chuckle until they shoot it, I have an AR that I hand assembled. Every single part of the upper was manufactured by DPMS and assembled by me. The LPK is DPMS as well. The lower, a Gen 2 80% polymer from JMT. A 1:9 pencil barrel. A2 style detatchable carry handle sights. I run C-Products Defense stainless 30rnd STANAG mags. In 15 years it has yet to let me down. I once ran some rounds my brother picked up from some show. Lake City headstamped 5.56mm from 1973! It ran just fine but one round blew the primer out when the trigger was pulled. Scared the bejeebus out of me of course. It blew the floor plate of the mag out, along with spring and follower… I inspected the carbine inside and out. No damage, not even to the poly lower. Inspected the mag, no damage. I reassembled the mag, loaded it. They both have provided excellent service for over a decade since that incident.

  2. One error I’ll point out is technically an AR-15 can’t fire 308 rounds, you need an AR-10 to fit that long of a round.

  3. I have several AR platforms, and they all perform well, but in all seriousness….They feel fragile compared to my AK variants. AK gets a undeserved knock as being inaccurate, and while not as accurate as most ARs, they beat a Ruger mini-14, 8 times out of 10. Hopefully we never have to experience actual battlefield type environment, but if I did, I’d feel much better with a quality AK platform.

  4. I really wish people would STOP telling this story wrong the AR15 came before the M16 !!! The Colt model 601 was a civilian market weapon that existed BEFORE the M16. Please stop letting the anti-gun nuts control the narrative on this. The AR15 is NOT a civilian version of a military weapon, the M16 is a militarized version of a civilian weapon !!!!!!!

  5. I love me an AR rifle for the simple fact, I am a sure shot with one (USMC) and thanks to the all American version of the Beowulf upper, I use mine for home defense but as a .50cal protector! God bless America! Semper Fi to all my brothers and sisters!!!

  6. “No rifle is more recognizable than the AR-15”. I disagree with that statement. Being that the AK47 is the most widely used rifle outside the US, mostly by scumbags. That said, I own and enjoy both platforms for different reasons. I’ve bought and built my own AR’s. I prefer side charging uppers, that rear charging is not my favorite mechanism. The real beauty of the AR is the ability to switch uppers and have a multitude of calibers to choose from. Same goes for the AR10. The upper makes all the difference, a lower is a lower, whether its a $70 stripped lower or a $500 complete designer upper.

  7. the AR….more versatile than any firearm I know of….I noticed some in 243 caliber..competition for 6mm ARC ?

  8. During my 24yrs in the service and depending which command I was at I was issued a M16 and some times a Colt 1911 besides. Yrs ago I had an Armilite AR180 which was a awesome gun for me but I just prefer the 308/7.62 round. So now I’ve got a Springfield M1A that I very had for the last 4yrs. Enjoy your articles

  9. JUNK= ‘You can tell itr’s MAttel’ it’s swell.’
    During their Vietnam War, everyone who could kept their M-14’s. This applied especially to Marine.

    During the Firsy Gulf War, it was discovered that paqat 100 yards,
    both the 55-grain and the upgraded 62-grain bullets
    failed to penetrated effectively beyond 100 yards per the International Wound Ballistics Association and DoD studies.

    The new .277 SIG Fury, no coming on line in the Dod is a fast improvement with an effective range appaordching 800 etres.

  10. Jerry

    Recreational guns are cheap. You do have to pay for a good one.
    It would take a book to explain the differences maybe I will do that one day.

    FN is another good maker. Wilson Combat is probably at the top of the heap, it isnt
    necessary to pay that much for a rifle, but there is certainly a difference in quality contorl.


  11. Thanks for the info, Bob. I also prefer Magpul. I have a couple 20 rd Colts from the ’70s. Still good. The local Police prefer Magpul. Bob, what specific parts need those extra qualities to endure heavy use? I have seen a cam pin that was beat up a little but it still worked. Can I assume that I don’t need a $1,200 brand name rifle? Can I just buy higher quality components? Sorry, but this still seems vague to me. Sincerely, jerry

  12. Jerry

    My associates and I have literally ran ARs into the ground and my son builds good AR rifles.

    There is one HELL of a difference in reliability between entry level rifles and good rifles.

    Colt, Springfield, SIG are battle worthy. Parts guns seldom are.

    Big differences in fit, finish, and reliability. Hobbyist are fine with cheap guns.
    I agree on magazines. Some magazines are surprisingly poor. MagPul, OK< Colt, Brownells are good



  13. I bought my AR recently, mainly because I was worried that they would be outlawed again. I was not initially enamored with it, but it has grown on me. Accuracy, plus the ability to change the caliber is totally cool. I added a sling for additional support while shooting. This has also improved my accuracy.

  14. Other than the AR lower platform needing a much overdue AMBIDEXTROUS redesign due to tactical training now forcing ambidextrous simulations (it is no longer a left or right argument), Mr Potato Head, for those budget strapped, can also order one, one piece at a time, as well as the assembly tools, and enjoy their adult Lego set. Once assembled the way one wants, there is also the advantage of ordering, part by part, and assembling different UPPERS, for different uses, like a heavy over accessorized upper, or a very light tactical upper, push two pins and switch them out, and use the same lower we are use to. The best part is; like all of us, each one is like its owner, different in it’s own special way. Probably why it is America’s favorite. 🙂

  15. I respect the author’s opinion on some ARs being battle worthy but not others. I’ve heard that opinion before with no facts to back it up, so I must disagree. In my opinion, if you want reliability, you need name-brand, proven magazines. You also need to stay away from those delicate drop-in triggers (I use those triggers for testing the accuracy of a given upper or for hunting, not for defense.). The AR is not my fave, but it has many attractive features. It’s more accurate than competitors like the AKs and Ruger minis and lighter than the M!A. Besides, I trained with one for six years so muscle mem is a plus. Almost unlimited calibers is great, too. I hate that not-so- ergonomic and breakable charging handle. That is the worst! Stay safe and shoot straight.

  16. Never really cared for the gas operated action of the AR but really fell in love with the 300 blackout round. Now own a custom built AR in that caliber. Not as gassy as a 5.56 and can run shorter barrel,so very light and maneuverable. Great hunting round using a red dot and 150 grain soft point. I can replace my 30-30 with this gun with about the same range and a lot less recoil. I also love the wide range of ammo from 110 g to 220 g all out of the same gun.

  17. I feel I am well served by my Stag Arms AR-15. To the original 5.56, I have added over the years uppers in 7.62×39, 6.5 Grendel, and 450 Bushmaster. The 5.56 and the Grendel are scoped. The others are alternated between iron and red dot. I haven’t yet gone in for much in the way of rail accessories, but I do have a second lower on layaway.

  18. First AR I ever owned was a Colt SP-1… 1:12 Light barrel…. No forward assist… A1 sights… Open bottom bird cage… Didn’t even have a case deflector or mag latch fence… But that ole girl shot great. Never jammed… Never an issue… Great in every aspect… Simple… Reliable… Light… I agree with the author 100% in respect to the weight of an AR… Too many people load em up w so much chit that they couldn’t carry it a half a mile. My last build focused exclusively on weight and a reasonable expectation of how it would be used. One of the all time greats… The AR… Long live the American King….

  19. First AR-15 I ever handled belonged to a fellow VMI cadet. SP-1 tricked out with the 3x Colt carry handle scope. I thought “cool” and went on about my business. Three years and one 2LT commission later I was on a long training TDY – my first assignment – at Vandenberg AFB, Ca. Having a pocket full of dislocation allowance, I walked into a Santa Maria gunshop looking for a long-desired Colt SAA. They laughed a that….hadn’t seen one in years. On the wall was a pristine SP-1. Proprietor said, Vietnam vets walk in here, take one look at that and walk out. I want it gone. It’s yours with the box and a bag of ammo for $250. One 4473 nd no waiting period later I walked out with my first of four Colt SP or HBAR Ar-15’s. Remembrance of things past…and if Judge Benitez’ ruling stands, the future….

    I now have a really nice BCM Recce with all the bells, and three Aero lowers I am building out for my boys. And two Arsenal AKs, a PTR-91, and an SP-1. I will never not have an SP-1. Oh…and i finally got my Colt SAA…2nd gen, blue/case, .45 Colt with ivory grips….

  20. I first became familiar with the AR platform way back in 1975 when a TV show called SWAT popularized the rifle. I remember being so excited on the day that my brother, me and a friend went to a Ben Franklin store to get our plastic toy M16s that our mothers purchased for us. I don’t remember the package or box they came in but I know that it was related to that SWAT show. Prior to that, I was only familiar with the 1894 Winchester rifle on my parents top shelf that I frequently saw, along with boxes of .32 WS ammo. Well…the excitement with the plastic M16 didn’t last long because our friend broke his in half as he tried to run into our front door with his rifle in a horizontal position. He cried a lot and that was the end of our excitement with that rifle. Years later at a shot show on June 2016 I purchased my first and only AR~15 after shooting several ARs, including a few Colts and custom ARs. The M&P Sport II felt the best in my hands, so got that one. I had no intention of getting an AR~15 because I was relatively new to guns at that time. I only got one because Barry Soetoro was threatening to ban ARs. Now I’m planning to build a custom AR because the one I have is too heavy after additions to it like a light and sling.

  21. Pity I didn’t have money or a way to easily ship, way back then. On 3 Oct ’78 as we stopped for dinner, I looked in a hardware store and saw an AR-15 Sporter for sale. $350.00, i believe. I was on the bus from JAX FL to Lackland AFB for Basic Training. As luck would have it, never bought an AR till this century as family and other considerations put up different priorities. What would have been. Barbie of adults, or LEGO if you will. Start basic and accessorize to your heart’s, and wallet’s content!

  22. Enjoyed you article but for the quip about needing to appreciate the AR to understand American values.
    As a longtime gun owner and range hound, I can appreciate and accept that my perspectives regarding guns and shooting aren’t held by every American citizen. And that’s OK.

  23. I have to say, after owning many different hunting rifles, the AR is by far my favorite.
    It handles so smooth and love that I easily was able to modify it. So comfortable, accurate and smooth. It is not a military weapon. Why isn’t the cowboy long colt 45 considered a military weapon.
    They just want something to complain about. A 22-250 is a great varmint weapon and so is the 223.
    Just my two cents.

  24. Just bought my first AR….S&W15 Sport 2 having been a Mini14 man for decades. Changed out the fore end, charging handle, pins and put a folding foregrip on it. Took it too my range 2 weeks ago. At first my rounds would not load from the Smith mag or the Hex mags. Then they wouldn’t seat without using the forward assist. Once I started putting rounds downrange….wow. Iron sights at 50 yards was an 8 inch grouping. I wish my Mini could do that. Optics are next to see how far I can take this out to. Then when my stepson comes home from Fort Benning…’s time for a shoot off.

  25. Good article. I’ve been an AR-15 fan ever since I bought my first back in th late 70s. Still have that weapon and she’s still pretty much stock, accept for a red dot system I mount on top of the handle. I would like to put a flat top upper with a shorter barrel and I’m looking at a pistol convertion for close-in home defense work.

  26. 50-60 years ago I worked in gun store. We sold Model 70s, Remington 700smodel 94 and Marlin 336. We even carried in stock Remington 40XB customs in spotter stocks.
    Roger Mini-14 was $200.
    CO LT “Mattel rifle” was $250 as I recall. Sold few.
    A few years ago I got a Ruger AR556. I soon put MAGPUL grip that is close to 1911. MAGPUL handguns and buttstock.
    Weaver 1″ rights attack a Maglight. XL50. Weaver rights attach an old Weaver K4 wide field scope.
    A tritium front post and the light make a compact home defense and small game up to deer and pigs and vermin.
    The bore isn’t chrome lined but it is a great MSR. BTW MSR is MILITIA STANDARD RIFLE.

  27. I guess I am really dating myself when I say that the AR-15 was not well known at all when I was growing up. I heard about it but only because I was reading up on this place called South Vietnam after something called the Tonkin Gulf Incident and the quickly following Tonkin Gulf Resolution which meant that thousands of young men would be drafted and sent someplace most of us had barely heard of before JFK was assassinated. After the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, almost every American male was made aware of the Selective Service and we all knew too much about Vietnam just watching the evening news. I first heard of the AR-15 in a book by Richard Tregaskis called “Vietnam Diary”. It was there that he mentioned seeing it being used by Special Forces troops in the field.

    I was intrigued by this weapon and did a little research on it. It was not really available to the common man back then, too expensive and ammo was an issue. Nor was it seen as a viable hunting rifle for the kind of hunting people I knew did, and it was not legal for deer back then. Where I grew up in Nebraska, you either took deer with a .30-30 that only needed to shoot from the barn to the water tank by the windmill, maybe 40 yards or else you needed a flat shooting, high powered rifle that could reach out and touch that deer at distances measured in hundreds of yards at the edge of the field where they were staying, out of harm’s way, they thought.

    My first experience with the AR-platform was with the M16A1 in Army basic training in 1971. I did not care for that weapon at all. I was used to wooden stocked, substantial feeling, long guns, and frankly the weapon I was issued in Basic did not feel substantial at all.
    When I went overseas, I was a medic on a team that was trained in Search and Rescue as well as Recon. As a medic, I was assigned a 1911A1. That made me happy as I carried too much stuff when I was in the field and the 1911 was easier to bring to bear. I was the only guy on the team that was not issued an M16. Did not bother me at all.

    When I got out, I did not really think about the AR style platform for many years. I did not feel the need to get one as they were still too expensive for me to actually use, and that cartridge back then was not legal for deer in Oklahoma where I was now living.
    Years went by, decades actually, and the cartridge became legal for deer in Oklahoma. I was still not that much of a fan because, having seen what it could do to a person, and also what it did not always do to a person, I did not believe it was a good deer cartridge and therefore, for me, there was no reason to get one.

    Long story short, I was given a great deal by someone who had an AR and needed some money. I pulled the trigger on that and now I have one tucked away in my arsenal. It has optics and nice stuff, shoots much better than the one I had in Basic, in my mind, at least.
    It is fun to shoot and I have done some varmint hunting with it and it has done very well in that respect. For those of you who have never tried it, raccoon makes a very good pulled barbecue. I am a big fan of it, my wife, not so much, but the rest of my family is used to eating wild so they will not turn it down.

    The cartridges available are much better than they were 50 years ago when I first fired one in Basic. Depending on where I am hunting this fall, I may take it with me when I am deer hunting and switch off with my 6.5×55 with iron sights.

  28. They are ok. Precision is not their forte. They burn dirty and direct impingement even dirtier in the action. Fun to shoot though. I like traditional wood stocked hunting, and tactical precision rifles better. However, no denying the infamous AR is worth owning. I doubt anyone would be disappointed owning one.

  29. Like the author when i was younger the AR-15 was primarily a varmint gun with the flat top you can really reach the potential of what ever chambering the rifle has. I shot the M16 A1/A2 while in the service peep sights to 500 yards. I have since built several my favorite being aa20 inch A2 profile in 6.5 Grendel a welterweight cartridge that punches far above it’s class with very little recoil. The author does mention the 308 but I’m an AR it would be the AR10 not the AR-15 a heavier rifle not as easy to find parts for. Part of the beauty of the AR-15 is the choices from 22lr to 50 Beowulf and everything in between off it can be stuffed in the magazine the rifle can be built to shoot it the genius of Eugene Stoners simple modular design is amazing.

  30. Many of the store ARs I shoulder feel forward heavy, because of a thick barrel and/or overgeared handguard, and because my length of pull usually needs to fully extend any adjustable stock. Minimalist or hyper-skeletonized aftermarket stocks don’t help either. I favor balanced weight over light weight, so when I build I usually go with an A2 tube and a stock with some mass to it like a Magpul PRS.

  31. I truly believe that if a firearm ‘fits’ a person, they will shoot better. No gun is more customizable than the AR-15, easily allowing a person to modify it to fit them. Even people with physical handicaps are able to easily modify it,allowing them to shoot the rifle comfortably abd accurately. My favorite aspect of these weapons platforms,and what I’ve done, is build the lower receiver to my specs, loading it with all the features I want. Then if I want to use it for hunting, I can just change calibers by swapping out the upper receiver. I have a couple of lowers, and a half dozen uppers of different calibers and configurations. Eugene Stoners genius design I believe will be as enduring as those of John Browning. This is AMERICA’S RIFLE!

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