The AR-15 Rifle

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 Basics

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.

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9 thoughts on “The AR-15 Rifle”

  1. Guess I’m getting to freaking old..

    I still swing with the M14, always have, always will.

    Whatever one arms themselves for bad times, please become as tactical and profeciant with it as possible. Good tactics and a steady cool trigger finger wins every time, regardless of blaster platform…

  2. Can’t argue with any points brought up here, except for the point of reliability.

    Through out the rest world, The Ak and SKS get an equal measure of respect and honor.

    One has to be able to sleep in peace at night while knowing the arms you have chosen will
    See you through in case evil comes calling.

    I could never warm up to the AR style firearms, doesn’t mean they are not worthy, but my instincts have carried me a different direction. In a real SHTF scanario, there will be thousands of ARs one could acquire simply by picking one up off the ground.

    If you think the latest and greatest gadget added to your AR is going to save you – you are sadly mistaken. Staying out of a fire fight is a much better option.

    God forbid I ever find myself in such a situation, but if I do, an AR rifle will not be found in my hands, cold Dead hands included!

    A typical engagement distance we all fear will be no more than 100 meters in an urban setting, precision accuracy will not be needed. A simple 10-22 with a confident and competent trigger man will suffice.

    I could go on and on debating the virtues or pitfalls of any rifle platform, but once lead starts flying, all of this will mean nothing. Whatever firearm you select to bet your life on, so long as you are at peace with that selection that’s all that matters..

    Anyone engaging in an urban firefight with John Q. Public should expect to be killed within the first 100 inbound or outbound rounds fired, regardless of caliber, or type rifles involved.

    Even with prior military training, cut that round count down to 50 if engaging police or military for whatever reason.

    My firearms are for sporting purposes only!

    The instant any idiot starts shooting, I’m out of there. Believe me, there will be plenty of idiots to select from.

    My tactics and game plan starts after the first 30 days of any such TEOTWAWKI, that’ll be when the real warriors come out to upright the ship again.

  3. Beyond a well set up AR, the only thing I see a need for is a 12 or 20 guage and an M1A, .30-6, or .300Win Mag, and a 9mm or .45 Govt Model-my choice is the Para0rdnance 14+1, and a .22LR auto pistol. The AR, and .300, will take anything to 1500 yards and closer. A shotgun and the .22LR fill out the bill, yet the .45 Auto would be good. Gets down to this: how many guns can you carry and how much spare ammo along with them. It would take two people working together to actually work this out. So you cut it down to the AR and the 22LR and that’s really all you need. Eskimos kill polar bears with brain shots with .22LR rifles. Of course, after 10,000 years they’ve got all this shit down pat: exact aiming point and how close. I don’t know.

  4. I’ve had a Bushmaster AR-15 in the A2 configuration for almost 30 years. It’s GI, with a bayonet lug as I consider a rifle without the ability to mount a bayonet to be neutered. It has a great trigger and a heavy barrel with a 1 in 9” twist to accommodate a wide variety of bullet weights.
    I bought it because I was a soldier for 9 years. I’ll have muscle memory in a firefight and ammo/parts commonality in a SHTF situation. I’ve told Mrs. Overwatch to grab it first if the house burns down. I love this rifle and I feel confident that I can handle virtually any situation with it.

  5. they now make a pump action ar15, went into town a few weeks ago and stopped at runnings to buy ammo, saw ar15s with normal mags on the rack, and this is ny where they are illegal now. so i asked the guy at the counter how they could still be selling them with nys totalitarian gun laws, he showed me they are slide action (like a pump shotgun) not semi auto, the short, quick to work pump loads the next cartridge. since its pump action its not subject to the un-safe act and therefore legal. took a little while but it seems gun makers are making stuff that basically gets around those crazy laws (i bought an sks in the fall myself since i was surprised to see one available at a gun shop, they are in high demand in ny and rare to find but are still legal because they have a fixed box mag, so its not applicable to the un-safe act, i just use it with stripper clips and have bandoleer bags to carry clips in). saw this article and wanted to share this for anyone else in ny, ar15s come in pump now

  6. I thought I had added my thoughts on some of the options available. Either it was too long to fit, I forgot to add it (a real possibility), or it was edited out of my reply by the moderator before it was posted.

    No matter. The shortened version is:

    There are many calibers suited for the majority of the needs that a prepper might have. However, for practicality, which includes many of the points made in the article, I believe the primary weapon for preppers getting ready for some of the things I listed should be a version of a .308 (7.62mm x 51mm NATO) MBR (Main Battle Rifle) clone. I say clone, because most of the MBRs available are select fire. While that would be nice to have in perhaps 1% of the situations I am talking about, it is not worth the expense and hassle currently required to obtain one. And they are extremely expensive to practice with, even with reloaded ammunition.

    Some of the options are:
    1) FN SCAR-17, the semi-auto only version of the FN SCAR-H select fire MBR. In .308.
    2) Beretta BM-69, the full featured (other than select fire) version of the Beretta BM-59. Or a current clone. In .308.
    3) PTR-91, the product improved version of the G-3 issue rifle, again no select fire, but with some improvements to the original design. In .308.
    4) M1A, the civilian produced version of the M-14, without select fire, but otherwise fairly faithful to the original. In .308.
    5) AR-10 and variant clones of the original Stoner design that resulted in the issue M-16 and semi-auto varient AR-15. Semi-auto only, in .308.
    6) FN FAL clone of the original select fire military issure MBR. Also semi-auto only. In .308.

    All are semi-auto, box magazine fed, .308 rifles with proven track histories of excellence. Each has its drawbacks or weak points, just as any weapon does. Standard issue magazines are almost all 20-rounds, though there are other capacities available for most, if wanted. Most can be set up for maximum accuracy for use as a sniper weapon or big game hunting rifle.

    In minimal configurations they are not much heavier, if any, than many of the tricked out standard AR-15s being sold or built, at around 10-pounds. All have original or after market folding or retractible stocks. All can mount a scope of one sort or another, though a couple are not as well suited for scopes.

    There are many more options out there, both in caliber and platform. None have the after market support that these do, and these do not have as much as the AR-15 in 5.56 does, though there is some for several of them.

    I would happily take any one of the rifles in the list, pretty much in the order listed, if given to me. Having to purchase rifle and any accessories on my own, that list arrangement would change, simply based on budget considerations. #3, #4, & #5 would becoming #1, #2, & #3, with #2 becoming #4, #1 becoming #5, #6 staying the same.

    Just my opinion.

  7. I pretty much agree with the technical aspects of the article. The AR is a good platform as described. And millions of them are out there, owned by millions of people. Kind of like a PC (IBM’s original version of a Personal Computer) running Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office software. The dominant game in personal, home, and small business computers. Just not with the implied universal ‘This is best for every prepper’ aspect.

    But if you need something that is not essentially generic; made for the masses; the-buyer-adapts-to-the-item; where the buyer must change from what they really want to what that item is and can do; then an AR in 5.56mm x 45mm might not be the best choice for that person.

    Just as PCs running Windows and Office worked for millions, the Apple systems were chosen for newspaper editing and publishing, graphic arts work, and several other major niche uses. And they were much better at those tasks than the PC/Microsoft ‘everyone has one so they are good enough for me’ combination.

    The AR in 5.56 is ‘good enough’ for the majority of preppers. Because they do not plan for nor prep for many of the situations that some preppers do, either by choice or by not knowing about those possibilities. Situations that call for something other than an intermediate cartridge in a carbine configuration. (Or rifle, for that matter most of the time.)

    And, from what I have seen, and I am a keen observer of human actions, that there are many preppers that do not consider these other situations, because in doing so, it means that an AR in 5.56 might not be adequate, and they either do not want to spend the money to get something different, or do not want to ‘be different from the other guys’, and ‘besides the experts say the AR in 5.56 will work for EVERYTHING that could happen’.

    I see this, even though most articles from most experts (although not in this one) have at least one qualifier, and often more, such as ‘but’, ‘usually’, ‘however’, ‘except’, ‘excluding’, and so on. Words that indicate that, yes, “The AR in 5.56 will work for all the things I said would, but there ARE some things that it will not work for very well.”. And they leave it at that, with no mention of for what it will not work well, or any options for something that will work well in those situations.

    As I said initially, the AR in 5.56 is fine for the majority of preppers. They neither want; or do not have the money in some cases; or cannot put in the time to learn another system if they have experience with ARs (as in ex-military); are one situation/one type of situation preppers that need nothing else; or are simply overwhelmed with the idea of weapons and are willing to take the experts’ and he majority of fellow preppers’ adamant suggestions that an AR in 5.56 is fine for everything that could ever happen that would require a gun.

    Personally, I prefer to prep for 700-yard to 1200-yard shots that have enough bullet energy left to take down a person reliably.

    To prep so if I need to I can shoot through solid concrete block and even 4″ concrete with a few rounds, causing deadly injuries on the far side from spalling concrete if not the actual bullets.

    To prep so I can shoot scarce big game, and dangerous game, and take them down reliably with a single, or at most, two shots and not have to dump a full magazine to stop them from reaching me when they or another might charge me at close range.

    To Prep for 300-yard to 400-yard to 500-yard shots that will penetrate at least some types of cover effectively with enough energy left to wound if not kill.

    To prep for 200-yard to 300-yard shots that have a good chance to disable an unarmored vehicle with engine hits.

    To prep for some unlikely, but possible, situations that have actually occurred over the years, and are quite likely in some places in some circumstances, where I would use an ‘elephant gun’ if I had one available.

    But each prepper has to make their own decisions, based on their own needs and beliefs. Do not take my suggestions as anything more than what they are:

    Just my opinion.

    • My reasoning for the 5.56 is being a common caliber and available ( hopefully ), when nothing else will be around. I’m currently in the process of changing my ar to a piston from g.i. system, the bad part is that I won’t be able to use a .22 lr rimfire conversion ( hmm, that means maybe another ar , or at lest another upper just to be able to use a .22 conversion. Extra weight ( maybe ))

    • Jerry,
      As you suggest, perhaps there’s an alternate to the author’s focus on the .556. Please share with us the “MacIntosh” of firearms to better handle the mentioned alternate situations. As a relative “newbie”, I certainly would be interested.


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