The AR-15 is by far America’s rifle of choice, the current and future king of the 5.56mm’s. Now a mature design since its inception back in the 1950’s, the AR is showing absolutely no signs of fading away or slowing down.
There have been many contenders to the throne, and some more recent rifle families may have it topped in one category or another, but few other rifles even come close to the advantages an AR offers in a single lightweight and robust package.
Around the world, the AR remains the standard by which all other intermediate caliber rifles are judged. It is telling that among armed professionals and civilian shooters alike, those that have a choice will usually reach for an AR when they need an all-around carbine or rifle.
This article will serve as a practical, down-and-dirty primer on the ins and outs of using and equipping an AR so you can catch up quickly if you are late to the party or just get right to the bottom line. We’ll be skipping the history lesson today, so if that is what you are after you’ll need to check out another article.
I’ll also be tackling several of the most timeworn myths and misconceptions that constantly orbit the AR’s legacy so you don’t wind up choosing a lesser rifle by mistake; if you are a prepper living in the U.S. and want a rifle for defensive purposes you had better be seriously considering the AR.
Opinion articles like this invariably end with ego-jousting in the comments because people love to be contrarian when it comes to what is objectively one of the very best firearms on the entire planet. Some will claim that they never saw an AR that ran right, and that they would only trust their life to a Mini-14, AK, Garand, FAL, M14 or whatever.
This is most assuredly puffery and bunk, but let them have it. What they are probably striking out at is that they either used or encountered an AR that was not running right for whatever reason, and so declared the entire family of rifles junk. Alternately, they are simply parroting what a friend/relative/neighbor who served in Vietnam parroted that they heard from guys who “were in the shit.”
ARs are made by very literally dozens and dozens of manufacturers. Some have stellar reputations for turning out hard-working tools, others pump out barely serviceable crap, just like makers of any other common pattern of rifle. There is certain price category where you can no longer attain quality. I am not interested in a race to the bottom.
I am also not interested in apples to oranges comparisons and neither should you be. Furthermore, I don’t care how “reliable” a design is supposed to be: if it is made by dirtbags it will not work. I can only about the tale of the tape between two designs of similar build quality. It is only there an honest assessment can be made.
Assume that for the purposes of this article I am referring to an AR’s made by good quality makers, not bargain-basement assembles or home workshop assemblers.
The standard AR-15 of today is a lightweight, direct impingement-operated carbine, chambered in 5.56x45mm and fed from a detachable magazine with standard capacity of 30 rounds. It is nominally lightweight, accurate, possessed of excellent ergonomics, and assuming it is made correctly by a good manufacturer, highly reliable and durable, contrary to popular opinion.
Parts, magazines and ammunition are all laughably easy to procure and often very affordable compared to other makes of rifle; the AR’s enduring and perennial popularity has naturally resulted in a market overflowing with supply in all corners of the US.
The design of the AR lends itself well to simple assembly, repair, modification and a certain amount of modularity. This makes the AR a breeze to keep running for those with just a little know-how and a few basic tools, and a new crop of enthusiast rifle-wrenchers have taken to building ARss from the bench up, every screw, pin and spring.
I said standard at the beginning of this section because “AR” now denotes any rifle that uses the familiar design pattern and action as designed by Eugene Stoner. AR’s come in a wide selection of calibers, operation mechanisms (like piston, versus direct impingement), configurations and more.
Caliber swaps can be simply accomplished by changing as little as just a barrel, or perhaps barrel and magazine. More involved caliber swaps, all the way down to a little .22 LR or 5.7x28mm or as enormous as .450 Bushmaster or .50 Beowulf, can be achieved by dropping on a complete upper receiver assembly with special barrel and internals and popping in the corresponding magazine.
What Makes the AR So Good?
The Secret Sauce to the AR’s magic is the sum total of all its attributes; it is not enough to single one out and declare, “Aha! That’s it!” as many rifles have the AR beat in one category or another (which their most rabid admirers will shrilly point out to you in defense of their Special Snowflake Syndrome) but none combine all of those qualities as ably as the AR.
In general, ARs combine excellent handling and user friendliness, very good accuracy and soft-shooting characteristics into a slim, lightweight rifle that is highly reliable, robust and well-sealed against intrusion from the elements.
The manual of arms is simple, as is disassembly for routine cleaning and inspection. All are desirable traits for any rifle, but even more valuable for a defensive gun. Very few rifles are as “shootable” as an AR, and it is easy to become proficient with them very quickly.
The 5.56mm round is no pipsqueak, again contrary to the opponents, and is more than adequate for defense against humans and the taking of medium or soft larger game out to several hundred yards. Its availability and variety of loads allow an AR user to stock ammo cheaply and readily, as well as procure simply a selection of special purpose loads should they desire.
Just as important is the breathtaking array of components that let a user customize the rifle to serve their purposes, anything from a long range precision rig to a tiny, backpack-blaster or anything in between. Combine that with all the other perks an AR brings and you have a recipe for success.
A bone-stock “legacy” AR replete with classic round handguards and CAR or M4 tele-stock is still a very capable and formidable weapon if you are a halfway decent shooter, but any gun, no matter how good it is factory standard, is only just a starting point for enhancement or customization if you want it to be.
Some folks are purists, and do not believe in much addition from the standard design. Other folks are remorseless customizers, people who stop at nothing to wring every fraction of performance or “better” from their guns. Luckily, the AR will handily serve both.
All of this can be had for around $1,000 or a tad more or less (for a quality gun), with spare parts, magazines and ammo aplenty quite literally anywhere. This greatly eases logistical concerns of maintenance, repair and parts procurement, all legitimate concerns for those preparing for long-term survival scenarios or who are procuring multiple copies of a gun for their family or survival group.
Bottom Line: For American shooters desiring the true do-it-all rifle, the AR has the most advantages for the most people, period. Short of a dedicated need to penetrate heavy cover or the hunting of very large game, an AR will take care of you.
The Most Common AR Myths
Those who would steer you away from the AR will usually fall back on trotting out one of a handful of boilerplate flaws about the AR as a design. Some of these might have a grain of truth to them, but none of them hold water under professional scrutiny.
Below are some of the most common falsehoods leveled against the AR along with my rebuttal.
“The AR is unreliable!”
See my disclaimer above. The two most persistent sources of this myth derive from the speaker’s encounter with a single, solitary AR of poor grade (or just a bad magazine) or the aforementioned scuttlebutt repeated infinitely since the AR’s choppy start in Vietnam as the M16.
For starters, the AR of today in all iterations is far beyond the botched rollout in Vietnam and continual refinement and improvement in the design has yielded a rifle of superb reliability and durability in all conditions. It is one of the longest-fielded and tested small-arms in history. Its pedigree is proven beyond all doubt.
Yes, you can buy a crappy enough AR, feed it shitty enough ammo through horrendously bad magazines and expect it to fail constantly. Once again, this is not a race to the bottom: your objective is not to find a rifle that will work flawlessly when abused and mistreated beyond any shade of reality. Such a rifle does not exist anyway.
“Rifle X is more reliable!”
As for the claim that another design is more reliable, that may be true, but finding reliable lab data, or even a large enough, vetted sample size of anecdotal reports to back it up in its quest to dethrone the AR is a tall order.
You’ll often hear this one come from AK fans. The AK is an excellent, legendary rifle, and the AR’s chief foreign counterpart, but even much of the vaunted AK’s hallowed invincibility is the stuff of fantasy.
Based on what you hear on the average forum or around a gun counter, an AR will explode into pieces if it gets dusty, while the AK will feed mangles ammo from a dented soup can, each impact striking with meteoric force.
Yeah, ok, right. Turns out a poorly made AK is just as likely, even more likely to malfunction than a comparable AR, and no autoloading firearm will endure a crappy magazine.
Good ARs work, crappy ones don’t or work as well as can be expected of any cheap gun.
“AR’s Need Intricate, Laborious Cleaning!”
Not true. This is more info that percolated down from the military that is a little divorced from reality.
Thanks to the high failure rates (and lack of issued cleaning kits) in the M16’s heyday issuing in the Vietnam War, and the white-glove-clean as disciplinary measure method of military instruction, the unwitting shooter thinks an AR with a speck of carbon in it is a malfunction waiting to happen.
They will also cite the dirtiness of direct gas impingement systems as rapidly fouling the operating parts of the gun with carbon.
This is partially true, as direct gas impingement guns do vent the gasses of a fired cartridge directly into the receiver to cycle the action. Yes, it will get dirty and sooty. No, it isn’t a big deal so long as the gun is lubricated! It is just that simple. Halfway regular lubrication of an AR will see it run for ages with no cleaning, not even a courtesy brushing.
A part of the reason why this myth persists is that some users either do not lube adequately or with appropriate lubricants. A thin film of lube will not do. An AR should be run pretty wet for good function.
Likewise, a purpose blended gun lube that is designed to withstand high temperature is the best choice for an AR, though any lube will do if you use enough.
I cannot tell you how many times I and my associates have run AR’s through multi-day classes, with thousands of rounds fired, and encountered no malfunctions with our ARs and did not clean them a stitch.
When it comes time to actually clean one of these filthy things, I brush the barrel extension, bolt and carrier down with a plastic brush, spray it down with cleaner, wipe it off, re-lube and call it good.
I will from time to time punch out the barrel with a snake or rod. I do not, and have not in years wasted any time scraping carbon off the tail of the bolt or any other hidden crevices. Completely unnecessary and a waste of time.
Just like the engine in your car, an AR does not mind being greasy on the inside at all. Keep it a little wet and it will keep running.
Best AR Setups for Any Situation
No matter who you are or what kind of rifle you need, an AR can accommodate you. Below you will find a few of my favorite design permutations for any kind of work and any budget.
Best No-Frills Defensive Gun on a Budget
I get it; you have visions of Instagram glory but a Google + budget. You want a quality gun, but cannot trick it out without sacrificing mightily on quality, which, being a smart prepper, you are unwilling to do. Here’s your fix:
Get a Smith & Wesson Sport II, or Colt 6920. The only thing a defensive gun positively, absolutely must have is a light and a sling. Buy a Magpul MOE forend to fit, the matching light mount, and Streamlight or cheaper Surefire handheld (like the G2) to fit it. Pop on a good, inexpensive sling like the VTAC quick-adjust two pointer and you are good to go.
You can still kick butt with irons (though you should use an optic if you can afford it), and for all their coolness short handguards and classic stocks are still just fine and plenty durable. All the other things you can live without until you can afford them. Now get to practicing!
Best All-Around Gun
Look for one of several makers who use a mid-length gas system in their rifles. Plenty do, but you can get a high-quality gun for not too much dough from Sons of Liberty Gunworks, Daniel Defense and BCM when they have blemish rifles. The important thing is that the mid-length gas system is generally agreed by many experts to offer the best combination of shooting and wear characteristics.
Dress up this rifle with a nice, but simple, free-floating handguard for accuracy, a 1-4x or 1-6x variable scope, offset iron sights or red dot, and a nice stock to improve your interface with the gun, and you have a rifle that is just as much at home reaching out and touching distant targets as it is clearing rooms.
You do not need a specialized, long precision rifle to get the accuracy you need for most common purposes, and furthermore being flexible is always best in a survival situation.
Best Guns for Going Low Profile
The current hotness for compact AR’s aren’t rifles at all: AR pistols are all the rage for those who desire a super-stubby rifle for maximum maneuverability inside a structure or vehicle.
Compared to a traditional short-barreled rifle, or SBR, which requires paying the gubmint an onerous $200 tax and then waiting for months or over a year for them to approve your acquisition of it, you can simply buy an AR pistol.
For all practical purposes, an AR pistol is just an AR with a short 7, 10 or 11 inch barrel and the stock replaced by an odd wrist brace contraption that is conspicuously useful as a stock. Note that YOU cannot replace your AR’s barrel with a shorty then add a brace and do the same thing. That’s a no-no according to the upright agents of the ATF, but oh well.
What is important is that an AR pistol allows you to cash-and-carry it right out of the gun shop the same way you’d buy an AR, er, rifle and go about your business, no additional wait, no additional fees, and definitely no notifying the ATF that you plan to cross state lines with it.
Their legal classification as pistols also makes keeping them in the passenger compartment of a vehicle more viable compared to a “true” rifle or shotgun.
Buyer beware, as most short barreled ARs are pickier than their fullsize cousins on ammo selection and maintenance requirements; they may be a little fussy without tuning or strict adherence to specific ammo brands, but most folks today are willing to make the trade for compact, discreet firepower.
The AR family of rifles is here to stay, with millions in service in the hands of our military, cops and civilians, and it serves all equally when the need is for an efficient, reliable and accurate rifle.
No matter what configuration or size you need, there is an AR to suit every requirement. Don’t be lured away from the glory and grace of Stoner’s masterpiece by false promises. When the chips are down, experts and professionals choose AR’s. You should too.
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.