The saga of the AR-15 is really quite something. At first it was dismissed by the Army, backdoored into service by the USAF and then Congress, and while there was a great conspiracy theory spun by the Atlantic that the Army ordnance department tried to sabotage the adoption of the M16 it did get adopted, and upgraded many, many times through the “Engineering Change” process that upgraded the aluminum, the geometry of the lower and upper receivers, chrome lined the bore., etc.
Somehow through all that, the rifle that started out as the “Mattel Toy” or “jam-o-matic” became a grudgingly accepted piece of kit to the point where the elite forces of the US, UK, Australia, Canada and many other allies.
Now, all of this would have been just an interesting side note in history except for the election of Bill Clinton, the first Democrat in the White House since Jimmy Carter. Bill Clinton and the Democratic party immediately began their term of ruling the American public by passing a ban on “assault weapons” which they defined as any rifle featuring more than one “naughty feature” such as a pistol grip plus a flash hider and a bayonet lug. They also decided that 10 round magazines for all semi-automatics was the rule of the land, save for the ever valiant police and military forces which clearly required standard capacity magazines to deal with the threat of the unwashed citizenry.
because of that 1992 assault on the second amendment, two things happened. One was that “assault rifles” became really popular because the national motto for the United States may in fact be “E Pluribus Unum” most American’s think it stands for “You ain’t the boss of me!” and when told something is verboten, decide that is what they want most in life. The second thing is that now that semi-auto pistols were limited to 10 rounds or less, a lot of those “wonder nines” that started getting popular in the 1980s looked a lot less sexy compared to the old 1911 with an 8 round stack. This being back when “Federal Hydroshocks” and “Glaser Safety Slugs” were the most premium offerings on the defensive handgun ammunition market, having a 45 made a lot of sense.
So the 1990s saw a lot of people buying an “assault rifle” for the first time, and a lot of manufacturers upgrading their 1911 offerings. By this time all the patents for both the AR and 1911 had expired, but that didn’t stop Colt from taking other manufacturers to court of the use of the term “M4” and it didn’t stop Armalite from taking others to court over the use of the term “AR.” Colt lost, Armalite generally got some sort of settlement which is why those “Poverty Pony” rifles say “AM-15” rather than “AR-15” on the roll stamp.
But, in the 1990s you didn’t have many options for a quality AR-15. Colts even then were more expensive than they were worth, and Armalite right up there in cost. Bushmaster and DPMS started bringing down the price for more people, and “Olympic Arms” was never able to shake it’s reputation for having spotty quality control. But, at least there were options. You had the option of an A1 or A2 handguard if you wanted handguards, or you could have an A2 style national match free float handguard, or something that mostly resembled black aluminum pipe. If you wanted to attach a flashlight you had to get this wonky thing that filled up two holes on your A2 handguards to attache a 1″ flashlight using a scope ring, and then tape a light switch somewhere else.
Then…it seems almost overnight now but was really a series of years then a bunch of machine shops and AR-15 specialty builders got in on the action. DelTon in South Carolina, Rock River in Illinois, Aero Precision and Mega in Washington. Anderson in Kentucky, even older manufacturers that weren’t AR manufacturers got in on the act, like Savage, Remington, and Smith and Wesson. The number of aluminum blank manufacturers increased, a lot. By making the AR-15 a commodity product, it lowered prices enough to make demand increase.
Now, the real secret as to why the AR-15 got to be so popular is because they are really fun to shoot. The 223 Rem is easy enough on the shoulder that you can shoot all day, even if you aren’t a particularly large person used to taking recoil. The ergonomics of the AR platform have been adopted by many other rifles, from the massive Barret M82/M107 and even many aftermarket “precision rifle chassis” adopting AR parts for ergonomics.
I must say that Hollywood and Silicon Valley have also played a role in the popularity of the AR-15, showcasing it in many venues from first person shooters to war movies. Think about what “Enemy at the Gates” did for the popularity of the Mosin Nagant 91/30 rifle.
There are those that claim the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also helped increase the popularity of the AR platform, but while I’m dubious the numbers say that they certainly didn’t hurt either. Having experienced an all expenses paid vacation to both countries, I’m honestly of the opinion that the M4 pattern is highly over rated, but likewise there is nothing inherently wrong with it. The longer 20″ barrel is superior in every combat situation except for getting in and out of vehicles when you have on way more kit and body armor than is designed for getting in and out of vehicles…
But no matter how you look at it, the AR-15 has come a long way. From a largely boutique rifle that was marketed to ranchers and law enforcement to a commodity parts market where there are more “frankenguns” than factory offerings most days. I will say that the innovation for the platform has clearly moved away from the military and into the civilian market. Do you want a milspec carpenter 158 bolt? Or do you want the 9310 bolt that Faxon arms says is 7% stronger? I have no doubts that Faxon arms did their homework on that number. Do you want a chrome lined milspec barrel? Or do you want a nitrided barrel? I recommend the nitrided barrel for both longevity and accuracy for most people. Both of those items came about for the civilian market, and the military would do well to adopt them at some point.
If you don’t have an AR-15, there really isn’t anything special about them, other than owning one will make you smile with the “screw you statist asshole” level of satisfaction that you have something that someone, somewhere, doesn’t want you to have. And there really is nothing more ‘Murican than that.