More on the Military and Civilian History of the AR-15

Joshua Roberts / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This past Tuesday Dean Winslow, a medical doctor and retired Air Force colonel who had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a flight surgeon, appeared before the Senate Armed Services committee. It was considering his nomination as the Trump administration’s assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.

At the hearing, Senator Jean Shaheen, a Democrat of New Hampshire, asked Winslow about mental-health issues in the military—and specifically about the shooter in the Sutherland Springs massacre, who had been courtmartialed and given a bad-conduct discharge by the Air Force for offenses that included threatening people with guns.

Winslow answered that question, and then volunteered a view that would have gotten more attention if not for the avalanche of other news. As a military veteran with first-hand experience treating combat wounds, he said he wanted to underscore “how insane it is that in the United States of America a civilian can go out and buy a semiautomatic assault rifle like an AR-15.” You can see Winslow making these comments starting at about time 1:19:00 in the Armed Services Committee video here, and read about the reaction here, here, here, and from a pro-gun site here.

* * *

The question Dean Winslow raised—whether  a weapon designed for the battlefield should be in wide circulation among civilians—is one I’ve been addressing on this site.

Back in the 1980s,  I wrote a long detailed article about the design concepts that the AR-15’s creator, Eugene Stoner, put into this weapon, and the ways it changed before going into service as the military’s M-16. If you want to know about the “barrel twist” differences in various models of the rifle, or the controversy about its bullet size, or how the AR-15 and M-16 compare with the Soviet-designed AK-47, or why it uses the kind of gunpowder it does, I would direct you to that article. (Or—please!—at least consider reading the article before firing off an incensed complaint that I haven’t addressed any of those aspects.)

In the past week I’ve posted several sequences of reader mail about the AR-15 and its uses. You can read the sequence first here, then here, then here. The latest item was from a one-time Colt engineer with a perspective like Dean Winslow’s: These rifles were meant for the military, not civilians.

Mail keeps pouring in on this topic. After a first winnowing,  by throwing out messages that include the words “libtard,” “cuck,” “ass from your elbow,” or “left-wing liar,” I’ll offer a sample of the range of views, some of them extremely detailed. Here goes:

When did the AR-15 first become available to civilians? One of the engineers I quoted said that the AR-15 had gone into military production (as the M-16) before appearing on the civilian market. Several readers disagree, with details like the ones offered here:

In your article "Why the AR-15 Was Never Meant to be in Civilians' Hands", your source claims that the AR-15 was not commercially available to civilians before it was standardized by the military. This is factually incorrect.

Colt sent a pilot model rifle (serial no. GX4968) to the BATF for civilian sale approval on Oct. 23, 1963. It was approved on Dec. 10, 1963, and sales of the "Model R6000 Colt AR-15 SP1 Sporter Rifle" began on Jan 2, 1964. The M16 wasn't issued to infantry units until 1965 (as the XM16E1), wasn't standardized as the M16A1 until 1967, and didn't officially replace the M14 until 1969. Colt had been selling semi-automatic AR-15's to civilians for 5 years by the time the M16A1 replaced the M14. Going off of the serial number records for the SP1, Colt had sold at least 2,501 rifles to the civilian market by 1965, 8,250 rifles by 1967, and 14,653 rifles by 1969.

Your source further says that he's shocked to "see this weapon any place other than the battlefield", and suggests that Stoner would have been as well. Colt was literally selling the rifle to the civilian market at the same time that they were testing and refining the rifle with the military in an attempt to land a contract. I don't understand how one could have been working at Colt and not have known this, particularly with so many civilian sales by 1967. It would have been something like 7 rifles sold on the civilian market per day that year, at least.

Furthermore, while I'm don't want to suggest that you're attempting to mislead by quoting this source in your article, it's prudent to note that there have been numerous articles lately (and have been over the years) which have been attempting to portray the civilian sale of the AR-15 as some recent development in order to explain the rise in mass shootings. The Colt AR-15 has been on the civilian market for 53 years (since 1964), and AR-15 pattern rifles made by companies other than Colt have been for 40 years (since 1977, when Stoner's patent on the AR-15 gas system expired). Sales of the AR-15 to civilians even predates background checks (Gun Control Act of 1968).

The first record I could find of a shooting with an AR-15 was George Banks in 1982 - at which point it had been on the market for 18 years, and Colt's SP1 serial numbers indicated 158,201 rifles sold… Its popularity in modern era mass shootings is unique, and is no doubt spurned on (like the mass shootings themselves) by media fetishization of the details, motives, and equipment of mass murderers.

Finally, I take issue with your article "Why the AR-15 Is So Lethal". The wounding potential of fragmentation (which is a result of a fast moving bullet yawing in tissue) is negligible compared to the wounding potential of hollow point bullets which generally expand to twice the bullet's diameter. Such bullets have existed since at least 1899 when they were (in my opinion, erroneously) banned by the Hague Convention. Jim Sullivan, one of the AR-15's designers, confirmed as much here:
"But 5.56 can’t complete with hunting cartridge bullets which can legally be expanding hollow point that are more lethal than tumbling and their lethality is based entirely on how powerful they are."

Hollow point bullets have been available in just about every cartridge for decades, and outclass military ammunition across the board (due to the Geneva Convention restrictions). The recommended cartridges for police and government use are all hollow point derived designs, whose lethality is thus correlated with the size of the projectile - not the weapon system itself. No departments use the original M193 or M855 to my knowledge for this reason.

In short: these two articles appear to be portraying the AR-15 as a rifle that was never supposed to be sold to civilians/was only sold to them at a later date, and a rifle which is inherently uniquely lethal. On both counts this is demonstrably false. There was good research in your articles (and the 1981 one), to be sure, but there is yet more correct information available and I believe the headlines are misleading ("Why the AR-15 Was Never Meant to be in Civilians' Hands", and "Why the AR-15 Is So Lethal"). More correct headlines would be something like these: "Why the AR-15 was sold to civilians before the army decided to adopt it", and "Why the AR-15's cartridge was and is not particularly lethal compared to the modern technology available at the time." Of course, they wouldn't exactly grab your attention.

You’d expect me to disagree with a lot of this perspective, and I do, but I’ll save that for later. For now I’m giving a range of people their say. Here is another reader with a similar complaint:

Regarding your comments made in your recent article "The Nature of the AR-15": you are being disingenuous when you claim that the AR-15 is "more lethal" than the M16, at least without making the distinction between the original ArmaLite AR-15s and the AR-15s sold commercially today. [JF note: the point of the article was that the M-16 became less reliable than the AR-15, because of changes in the process of “militarizing” it.]

The AR-15s sold at your local sporting goods store are a far cry from the ArmaLite AR-15s first used experimentally in Southeast Asia back in 1962-63, for two reasons. 1) The original AR-15s used in Vietnam were capable of semi or full-automatic fire, whereas all AR-15s sold to civilians today are semi-automatic only. 2) The original AR-15s had a 1-in-14 barrel twist, the effects of which you yourself described in your 1981 article. Virtually all AR-15s sold today have a 1-in-7, 1-in-8, or a 1-in-9 barrel twist. [This lower barrel-twist rate makes the bullet rotate more rapidly and therefore stay more stable in flight — and on impact.]

And from another reader, further on the twist ratio:

Most of the complaints by troops serving over seas currently is that the hits they are making are going right through with little damage.

When Stoner first shrunk the AR-10 in 7.62 [a larger bullet] to the smaller AR-15 with its 5.56 bullet, the barrel had a twist of one rotation in 14 inches.  

The Marines asked that this be increased to one twist in 12 inches as they felt the accuracy, especially in cold climates was insufficient.  

Most current Civilian and Military 5.56mm rifles use a twist of 1:7, 1:8 or 1:9.  At these high twist rates, the tumbling that was seen in the 60's and 70's is nonexistent.  

In fact most of these are considered over stabilized based on the weight of the bullets most are shooting.  

For a different perspective on the broader question of semiautomatic weapons in civilian hands, first here is a reader who mocks an earlier reader’s claim that the AR-15 can’t really be all that deadly. After all, the 2000 or so rounds fired in Las Vegas killed “only” 58 people:

Thank you - 36 years late - for the piece on the history of the AR-15. A friend who knows of what he speaks praised it as the most comprehensive look at the multitude of nightmares.

Concerning the tactless and inane comment on the 2000 shots fired to 58 deaths in the Las Vegas accident, it seemed really unusual that the author would provide that ratio as evidence that the AR-15 is ineffective.  

After all, the GAO reported that the military averaged 250,000 shots fired per kill in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

Another reader, on another argument that the AR-15 isn’t really all that deadly:

One thing seems to be overlooked by many of the readers who object to your characterization of the AR-15’s lethality. Several have commented that the AR-15 is not suitable for hunting big game, because it lacks “stopping power” or will leave large deer or bears merely wounded.

I am willing to assume that these readers, who seem to be experienced hunters, know what they are talking about, as far as shooting large animals in the bush is concerned.

This raises two issues to me:

1. It rather discredits any NRA claim that AR-15s are for sportsmen to hunt with.

2. It ignores the circumstances of the mass shootings you have been discussing.

Shooting a charging bear in the woods clearly requires different tactics and ammo than shooting large numbers of unarmed victims at close range in an enclosed space. You don’t need “stopping power” when you targets are children cowering on the floor at your feet or concert-goers gathered in crowds before a stage.

In these circumstances, the strengths of the AR-15 that you noted—such as speed of firing, lack of recoil, ease of use, rapid reloading, and so on—are clearly more important that raw “stopping power.” At the kind of close range involved in the church, theatre, and school shootings, there is no need for a large round to effectively kill the victims. And the speed of firing allowed the shooters to hit far more victims with a murderous “spray” in a short time.

The Las Vegas gunman was shooting farther, but not beyond the rifle’s effective range. And the massive number of rounds he was able to fire were the key to killing so many in the crowd in such a short period of time. These mass shootings are awfully close to the cliche of “shooting fish in a barrel.”

So I would submit that these reader objections may wll be accurate, but are not relevant to the kinds of incidents you are discussing. If you’re hunting bear, it’s key to be “loaded for bear.” But if you are hunting families at church, bear ammo may not be the most effective choice. Based on the information in your “Bureaucratic Nightmare” article and the comments of these readers, it seems the AR-15 is poorly suited to big game hunting, but all-too suited to murdering large numbers of confined civilians quickly.


While many can’t perhaps believe that these tragic losses of life could be any worse, as a US Army Infantry Vet I certainly can .   

Ban or heavily regulate those semi auto rifles ?  Select-fire ones from Mexico will be the replacements, with rocket propelled grenades. Good bad or indifferent, that's the reality.

Finally for today, from a recent veteran of the military:

In my mind there are three reasons for gun ownership

  1. Sport (hunting, competitive shooting)
  2. Personal protection
  3. "Safeguarding liberty" - or put bluntly, the ability of citizens' to overthrow a tyrannical government through violent means

The list above is, in order, my sympathies towards gun ownership. I believe that shooting is a fun past time that ought to be shared and participated in. I believe that when we live in a world where people reasonably do not trust the authority and power of the state and law enforcement, they should be allowed to protect themselves. I used to be in favor of the argument that a free society needed guns.

In reverse order, I believe the list above matches the intent of the framers of the Constitution. They were concerned with an overzealous state, and believed that a (white) man ought to protect himself. I am sure they were aware of sport shooting and hunting but I doubt that had anything to do with the right to bear arms.


So how did I, a red-blooded veteran who enjoys guns and loves America because of its evangelical mission for freedom, find myself almost at odds with the founders?

Really, our only sticking point is point #3 - that guns safeguard liberty. I believe there is legitimacy to this argument. I believe that it is not worth the price of mass shootings. I changed my mind after Newtown, CT. And I will fully admit that after I changed my mind I justified it with the following arguments.

  • A) There are free, stable democracies across the world - Europe and Japan since WWII, India as well but with less economic freedom. For most of my lifetime, South Korea and South Africa as well. Great strides in Latin America since the Cold War. And in all those countries, only 2 have a "right to bear arms" in their constitutions - us and Mexico. (Guatemala does as well but they aren't the most stable democracy, yet). Both Guatemala and Mexico specifically do not allow "military-style" weapons, so they have it for the reason of personal protection.
  • B) The founders (some of them) would be most horrified by our police force and our standing Army (more so than the Navy and Air Force). Any theoretical rebellion for freedom would necessarily be asymmetric. We have decided against their intent because we now have a doctrine that securing the blessing of liberty means America must be the "Arsenal of Democracy." I tend to agree with this doctrine, and think it neuters the ability for military-style small arms to be effective in safeguarding liberty among the citizens.
  • C) I believe our Federal system - with State-controlled National Guard units, and equal representation of states in the Senate - very effectively checks and balances the power of the federal government. See: California in the time of Donald Trump.
  • D) Article IV, Section 2, Clause I has been interpreted to give Americans a "Freedom of Movement." And yet we allow for restrictions on this - "No Fly" Lists (which I believe are too much), the security procedures at airports you've documented, the licensing procedure to drive and own a car. Gun control does not mean the end of freedom to own guns.
  • E) Likewise, whenever we've been faced with attacks of any other kind - Timothy McVeigh using a VBIED, 9/11 - we've adjust our policies and procedures significantly. We didn't end flying on 9/11 or truck rentals after OKC. But we've managed to effectively limit the impact of terrorists copycatting.
  • F) And finally, the most successful armed insurrection in United States history came from an entrenched interest group of wannabe aristocrats. They purposefully took up arms against their country and convinced their fellow citizens to do so as well - and did so to advance the cause of slavery, against freedom.

The 2nd Amendment was written and ratified when the French were transitioning power to a Constitutional Monarchy - when the idea of sovereignty was still wrapped up in the idea of kingship. When America was a radical idea. When the "Declaration of the Rights of Man" and the "Bill of Rights" were both extreme ideas, and nobody was sure if they'd really be implemented or last. And I still think it's important.

But it is not limitless, and the founders were wrong that it is "necessary to the security of the state" for citizens' to be able to overthrow their government through violent means. I believe that was their intent. I believe it had has disastrous consequences. I also believe I'm justifying re-interpreting this because of those consequences.

So what should we do? You've pointed out before - it's not realistic to remove guns. I don't want us to do that. I believe it's needless and also unfair. But either way it isn't realistic to stop modifiers like "bump stocks" from being taken off the streets.

My solutions:

  1. Register every transaction of guns in America
  2. Register all sales of ammunition
  3. Require a notification with the ATF if guns are being transported across state lines
  4. License all gun owners (on a state by state basis)
  5. For anybody who owns more than, say, 8 guns, license them as gun collectors  (state)
  6. Partner the ATF with the NRA or somebody else for "outreach and training" to extend safe gun knowledge and usage an ownership
  7. Ensure that every state has a "no ownership" shooting range where gun enthusiasts can practice and train and decide if gun ownership is for them
  8. Likewise, allow (and endorse) game areas to rent firearms to hunters for use in a designated area since there is now an onus on gun ownership for sport

It's a burden. It would make for a safer society. It would sacrifice a bit of liberty. Security and liberty will always be at odds with each other. I'm ok with this.

Overall: you can argue about exactly how deadly the AR-15 is, but indisputably it is lethal enough. You can argue about when exactly it first got into civilian hands, but with at least five million now owned by Americans other than the military, it is certainly widespread to a degree none of its designers foresaw. And I find it hard to argue with Dean Winslow—retired Air Force colonel, Trump administration appointee—when he so bluntly says it is “insane that in the United States of America a civilian can go out and buy a semiautomatic assault rifle like an AR-15.”