The Nature 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.

Back in the early 1980s, I described the origins of the AR-15 rifle, and its military counterpart the M-16, in an Atlantic article called “A Bureaucratic Horror Story” and a book called National Defense. This week I did an item about the AR-15’s role as the main weapon in America’s modern mass shootings. It explained that one reason for the AR-15’s killing power is that its bullets were designed not to pass straight through an object but to “tumble” when they hit, destroying flesh along the way and leaving a large exit wound on departure.

Readers write in, pro and con. Here’s a sample, starting with pro. From a reader in (pro-gun) Vermont:

There are a great many things wrong with the military, both in practice and in concept, but it offers one bit of education that is of use and more people should be aware of.

My father's experience was typical of many people I have heard of. He left his time in the (peace time) military with absolutely no interest in ever owning a gun. The Army had taught him in no uncertain terms that the one and only purpose of a rifle (not a "gun", a "gun" is what civilians call a cannon) it to kill people. And the one and only purpose of a pistol is to kill a human right in front of you. The main purpose of a military pistol is  for officers to shoot their own men with. The lesson being that if you are not interested in killing someone, you shouldn't have a firearm. Period.

There is a legitimate culture in the countryside of hunting, but that is all about killing as well. The idea of guns as fashion statements or toys for macho posing or as general abstract symbols of something is the result of dangerous stupidity. The contemporary of Mark Twain, the comedian Bill Nye, referring to guns in the Wild West said a gun was something "with a coward at one end and a dead body at the other".

From a friend who is a veteran news reporter:

As you know, during WWII, the standard issue for GI’s was the M-1. It could hit a target at 100 yards but wasn’t effective in spraying potentially deadly fire.

I wrote a piece for [a major paper] in the late 50’s on why the Army was sticking with the M-1. What it came down to was that at the time, the NRA  sponsored competitions which the Army brass wanted to win. It was my first brush with the Pentagon bureaucracy: a dozen senior officers in a conference room with one young reporter. The paper ran my story which got some attention. But it required another war for things to change.

And similarly on the military background of the weapon:

I remember reading in a book on military history during my enlistment which said that there was a proposal in the 1930s for the US Military to switch from the existing .30 caliber (now known as the NATO 7.62mm x 51mm) round to a smaller, higher velocity round, but budget issues because of the Depression prevented the change over.

During basic training, I also had a drill sergeant tell us that the reason M16's were replacing M14's was both to allow the increasing number of women in the military to be able to use the weapon and to allow us carry more bullets. [The more-bullets point is one I discuss in my “Horror Story” article.]

I also think that part of the solution to the gun violence issue is finding a non-lethal home defense weapon to help remove the incentive to own either a pistol or long gun. I live in a crappy neighborhood, and the local beat cop recommends a 20-gauge semi-automatic shotgun with a laser sight for home defense because it will stop a home invader at the less than 20-foot distance of most home invasions, but it won't go through a wall and kill you neighbor.

In the same vein:

Thanks for your piece on the lethal power of the AR-15 bullet. I wish it would help change the thinking of the NRA and Americans who practice what the NRA preaches.

The piece also reminded me of my basic training drill sergeant at Fort Knox, just before Vietnam, explaining the virtues of the .30 caliber bullets used in our Korean War vintage M-1 Garand rifles: they would penetrate the wooden wall of a house, he said, and take out someone inside.

That sounded positively thrilling to my fellow trainees—18 and 19 year old recruits from Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania west of Philadelphia, where I had found a Reserve unit with a vacancy just before the draft would have taken me.

On the other side, first from a reader in the Carolinas:

I think it is so funny when people like you, that it is very apparent that you know nothing about guns tries to convince people, That a AR15 is any more lethal than any other rifle. Even though I have watched ballistic test, that shows that an AR round of .556 or .223, does not have near the stopping power as many other regularly used hunting rifles. Many hand gun rounds are larger and more deadly.

The AR 15 has never been, nor ever will be a military grade weapon. No matter what lies you left wing liberals keep try to tell people.

For what it’s worth, the 1981 article described at length why the AR-15 was in fact more lethal than its military counterpart, the M-16. But judge for yourself.

Similarly, with the subject line “Why Are You A Coward?” and with a grace-note slur on my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates, another reader in the South wrote:

Why are and that reparations Boy with the made up name the only ones who refuse to allow comments on your writing?  What are you afraid of?  Is your Libtard ego not able to handle different opinions?

“A poor killing machine”:

Your article lacks foundation and fact. The AR-15 is a civilian version of the M-16. [As pointed out.] …

The AR-15 is not more lethal and is in fact a poor choice for defense or hunting. Las Vegas shooter fired over 2000 rounds with 57 deaths shows how poor a killing machine it really is. [Nice.]

And with the subject line “Your Crappy Article,” from a reader (who gave his real name) in California:

As someone with a lifelong liberal orientation but who has also spent a lifetime in and around firearms, your article is worthy of Fox news.  The .223/5.56 round is being replaced because it LACKS lethality, it isn’t legal to be used on deer or anything larger for that reason.  In addition, what lethality the round had originally has been discarded in favor of accuracy by increasing the rifling twist and hyper stabilizing the projectile.

But most of all, modern tactics which drove the adoption of the AR and other modern assault weapons was the understanding and belief that wounding the enemy was more effective than killing him.  Dead people don’t need supply trains, wounded people tie up vast amounts of resources.   The AR was somewhat effective shooting malnourished 100lb Vietnamese boys, it is NOT proving lethal against full grown men in the ME.

ARs are popular because the kool kids like them and they make cowards feel powerful.   They are used for that reason, not because they are more lethal or even more effective.  The shooter in the Texas tower had a bolt action rifle and if you want to talk about lethality, hunting rifles are VASTLY more lethal.

More than happy to have an intelligent conversion about this because until the left can speak with at least a modicum of accuracy about weapons, the right is never going to listen to or trust any gun control efforts and because the laws are written by people who mistake appearance for reality, gun control laws are rarely effective.  [

Of course, I am just one more opinion in the wind but I have actually shaken Mikhail Kalashnikov’s hand, worked for some of the largest legal machinegun dealers and firearms importers, and have known the owner of the company that manufactures the US army’s heavy machineguns since I was a kid and have a bit more than your average layman’s knowledge.   In addition, I worked on liberal campaigns from Gary Hart to Bernie Sanders and am not a right wing nut.

My only reply for now is: read the 1981 article and decide for yourself its level of accuracy about firearms. I should add that I’ve just received a long, detailed, supportive-with-additional-detail note from a person who was directly involved in the M-16 design and manufacture back in the 1960s, which I’ll share tomorrow.

Finally for now, from a reader in Canada:

You, and every other Hollywood sensation are actually making us safer spreading this bull about the lethality of the AR 15, and we salute your for this misinformation campaign. The wacko criminals are reading this stuff and want that “full metal jacket” imagine as they do their crimes. That’s a good thing because it diverts their attention away from the reality of ordinary big game hunting ammo and its truly devastating terminal ballistics. Some day one of those criminals is going to do a shoot up with hunting ammo and then the media will be awakened and horrified.

But it is amazing how this lethality myth works on so many people in America. I guess they are mostly urban dwelling experts on guns or have served in the army and want to celebrate the authority that gave them, big guns and all. I have met plenty of Canadian army people who are in that same league.

But here on the prairies any kid over 6 that ever shot a gopher knows that “hard point” or “full metal jacket” ammo has pathetic killing power compared to hollow points. It should only be used on fur bearing animals where you specifically don’t want to do much damage. And when a 16 yr old kid starts hunting deer he better have learned that an AR 15, shooting .223 Remington calibre, is ILLEGAL BECAUSE IT LACKS KILLING POWER and leaves wounded animals. Our hunting regulations have prohibited .23 and smaller calibres for big game hunting for at least 50 years for that reason!

Of course a Colt AR-15 is a restricted gun here in Canada, thanks to the political activist’s perception of its lethality as seen on TV…

There are tons of AK-47 style rifles kicking around and they are cheap, robust, and more lethal at close range than a AR-15. But they just don’t scream America. Even Canada is awash in $200 Chinese SKS rifles used as “plinkers” because the media isn’t focused on them, ammo is so cheap, and its widely available in 500 round cases. Most Vietnam Vets would know the AK-47s are more lethal than an M-16 at close range due to its bigger penetrating bullet. [My article goes into this in some detail.] And even my son now knows not to take on a bear in the bush with one! He could also tell you that ordinary Winchester hunting ammo is too potent and will destroy some of those old Soviet and Chinese guns….

The basic deer gun around here is a 308 (7.62 NATO) or a 30-06, or one of many hunting cartridges that use the same casing and have about the same ballistic energy (eg 25-06, .243WIN, 284 WIN). Hunting regulations specify the use of “expanding bullets” such as “hollow points”, “soft points” or any of the more sophisticated expanding bullet types to insure the lethality of the ammo. These calibres and ammo are expected to kill a 300lb game animal swiftly in a single impact….

If a wacko shooter ever uses one of these ordinary hunting rifles every person hit will be dead and so will the two people standing behind them. Lets hope the wackos were never competent hunters. Lets keep them mis-informed.