Evolution of the AR (or sort of)
I was recently asked how the AR “evolved” it was a good question and something that seemed of interest to more than a few. Having been in this business for decades it is something I lived and live today. Experiencing things while still alive tends to provide a different perspective over the latest Internet search and maybe a few myths can be culled along the way. Not a “history” of the AR, that’s been done ad-nauseum, this is more about how it got to where it is today, because it has come a long way baby!
AR? What’s that?
The semi-auto variant of the AR goes back to the early 1960’s when Colt Firearms tried selling them to Law Enforcement and the civilian market. Largely panned as a plastic “toy” it did not catch fire and was mostly ignored. Hunters had no use and much of the LE world was using shotguns and lever actions. If an agency even had rifles (rare) they were 30 caliber, largely military surplus and free. No one had much use for that itty-bitty bullet, or a rifle made of plastic. Most had no idea what it even was. It wasn’t until after the Vietnam war it gathered some traction. History tells us those fighting in war tend to want the rifle they used when it’s over, they are familiar, and may have kept you alive during some scary times. Some returning Veterans had an interest, anything but sales Nirvana.
Interest increased in the 1980’s within the LE world, but they were still pretty novel. Entry teams used 9mm subguns or shotguns, rifles were still seen as too much firepower by the people with the checkbooks. Enter a gun store and you may have seen one or two, more likely none. Want one, you had two choices, Colt or Bushmaster and any differences were minimal to non-existent. It was not until the 1990’s things really caught on. Democrats in Congress implemented the best gun sales tactic on planet earth, the 1994 assault weapons ban. Ironic when you think about it, those trying to ban the AR were instrumental in its ultimate success, gotta love politics. Want people to buy something, tell them they can’t have it. Prior to the ban evil models with flash hiders and bayonet lugs were snatched up and demand outpaced production by far. Working retail at the time sales after the ban started to move, anything but earth shattering and the LE world remained skeptical, but they were catching on. All that changed in 1997.
The LA Shootout.
The now infamous LA bank robbery and shoot out was a huge motivator for AR sales in law enforcement. Nothing like a live shootout on national television to get things moving. All of a sudden, every agency needed something, cause what they had was not cutting it against criminals with rifles. Many of us in the police world knew that already, had been pushing it for years, it just fell on deaf ears until then. Something about officers getting shot up on television motivated administrators. It’s important to remember things like that were rare then, the media just did not cover them. Still, all of a sudden, my Chief is asking me how we get these things. Rifles, training, department policies, the door and the check book opened up for this rifle, a rifle that was largely unchanged from its roots and relatively unknown. Simple, moderately accurate, generally reliable, and relatively inexpensive they were easy to shoot. Even training was sparce, had to send my armorer to Smith and Wesson in NH, the only LE training company willing to “certify” officers as instructors and provide certificates. Even civilian training was minimal until Clint Smith of Thunder Ranch Texas introduced his “urban rifle” training. Slow to catch on it at first it grew in popularity, and now you can’t take two steps without tripping over a tactical AR class. As Hollywood began to toss them in every action movie it only progressed, and by the 2000’s things were on a roll.
A Tinker Toy with a Trigger!
Sales of rifle and more importantly accessories progressed, but once the ban expired in 2004 things really picked up. Consumers figured out the AR can easily be customized, and Americans customize everything. Firearms are probably second only to cars for changing things, even if just for looks. That was tough early on, in order to put lights on our first issued rifles we used a flashlight and duct tape to start, progressed to rubber bands, then when Surefire came out with the 1” lights we used scope rings screwed into the hand guard. As demand increased the industry stepped up offering a continual increase in “stuff” you could change, attach, or modify on your AR. Once we figured out you could build one from parts it took off and has never looked back. As CNC machining improved along with available materials and cost it moved into the stratosphere and has never looked back.
Lies, Damn Lies, and Marketing
While the AR continued its rise through the 2000’s it was still pretty widely ignored in the general hunting market, and while the self-defense market was growing it was still pretty small. That all changed when the marketing and manufacturing industry decided to “go tactical”, making the obscure AR the first choice for home, vehicle and self-defense. Building variants that were better equipped for that role and marketing heavily in every form of media the AR became THE rifle of choice for anyone who wanted to be tactical or tacticool. Movies, videos, then social media, training, followed by “influencers” and talking heads. Every company had some tactidude telling you how great their AR was. In the end every aspect of the industry adopted some sort of tactical theme and it worked. Did not matter if the changes worked, if it was tactical it was the thing to have and remains a strong motivator today.
Playing off that success the industry turned to the hunting market with the same vigor and although more slowly much the same success. Hunting with an AR is not only possible it is growing in popularity every year. Fast forward to today and every major manufacturer offers an AR of some sort designed for competition, defense or hunting supplanting all previous rifle lines. Many went kicking and screaming, but they went and made money, lots of it, and continue to.
It’s not your Daddy’s AR!
While many aspects of the AR platform are largely unchanged since the 1960’s it is anything but a “60-year-old rifle”. Advances in machining with an increased attention to detail makes the platform one of the most reliable on the market, this coming from someone who loathed the platform for years, still not my favorite. Better designed, manufactured, assembled and tuned, they are more accurate, infinitely more reliable, and far more useful. Decide what you need, and someone makes it, short, long, big bullets or small, light, heavy, pink or military green, hunting, defense or competition. Simple or complicated, rugged or jeweled there is an AR made for just about anyone. Live saving tool, range toy and everything in between the AR can do it and does, and prior to the latest change in the White House it often did so for a reasonable price.
Not really sure where the AR will go during its continued evolution, hard to tell with the political turmoil of the day. Manufacturers are still improving designs making them more functional, lighter, stronger and more appealing to a broader consumer base, and still can’t build them fast enough to keep the shelves stocked. Hmmm, sounds like 1994 all over again. One thing is for sure, today’s AR is a whole different animal. Starting from absolute obscurity the AR has risen to the top of the rifle heap with no signs of slowing down. Is it truly the “best” carbine or rifle out there, who knows, arguments will rage, they always do, and really who cares? Like it or not the AR is the most popular rifle today with no change in sight, and that says something. Not bad for a plastic “toy” that uses an “itty bitty” bullet the critics said will never catch on!