By Patrick Sweeney


You can build an AR in any configuration from an entry gun, with a 10.5-inch barrel in 5.56 (with appropriate paperwork, of course) to a twenty-inch barreled marksmanship rifle in 6.5.

You can have iron sights, or a scope; you can have a stock that adjusts or doesn’t; and you can have a trigger that is breath-light or pliers-heavy.

All this beginning on the same upper and lower, without even having to get a special model to handle something out of the ordinary. Unless you’re going to a cartridge that doesn’t fit the magazine platform, you can do it all starting with the same basic upper and lower.

You can also swap from the original direct gas impingement system to a piston system, and back. (Well, some piston systems would make switching back a bit tough, but that is a small detail.)

No other rifle in history has been able to do this. The Mauser came close, being able to be chambered in a whole host of cartridges, but to do any of the work you had to be a gunsmith. Not so with the AR-15.

The original trigger was meant to be durable and GI-proof while not failing or breaking. In that, it is pretty good.

If you’re willing to do a little swapping and tuning, it is good enough to shoot things out to as far as your skill allows. I repeat: as far as your skill allows, which may exceed the ballistic oomph of the cartridge you are using.

While the direct-gas impingement system is generally known to be made and issued in the 1940s, with the Ljungman rifle, the French were experimenting with that method of operation two decades earlier.

They just didn’t get around to perfecting it, or issuing it in numbers enough to see if it needed perfecting.

The piston-driven system is older. John Moses Browning designed the 1895 Colt machine gun. It used a flapper, said part being blown open by gases, and the pivot of it working the action.

When it came time for the US to enter WWI, a flapper-actuated machine gun was clearly not useful in tanks. So, Marlin redesigned it to use an inline piston. Browning himself did the same, when he designed the legendary BAR.

So, the “DI vs. piston” struggle predates both the AR-15, and the AK-47, which are merely the modern incarnations of the two designs.

What the AR is, is the modern working man’s symbol of democracy. George Orwell wrote, in January 1941: “That rifle hanging on the wall of the working-class flat or labourer’s cottage, is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there.” The AR-15, on the cusp of becoming the modern sporting rifle, is also the very kind of rifle that George spoke of.

The AR is the first modular rifle. And it became such not because of government design bureaus or the genius of committees but because of the desires of the gun-buying public.

It is due to you, the AR shooter and reader, that the rifle is as refined as it is – so refined and so well-built today that Brownells can actually have a place for it on their web page. With the Brownell’s AR Builder, you pick and choose the items, options and brands you want.

The software shows you how it will look, and totals it up for you. Once you’re happy, hit “send” and it will be yours. Well, at least, the parts will be. But that is the beauty of the AR: once the parts arrive, it is not that big a deal to put them all together. That simply isn’t possible with other firearms, at least not to the extent and ease that the AR possesses.

The AR is a lot of other things, too. It is the most accurate rifle ever to grace the ranges of NRA High Power. (Don’t believe me? Check the scores and match results.)

It is the most reliable self-loading rifle ever made. “Comrade! Is not true! My AK is more reliable.” I will grudgingly give way there, but only in limited circumstances. If you’re going to treat a rifle as a neglected tool, like the rusty crescent wrench in your toolbox; never oil it, never clean it, never give it a moment’s care or consideration, then yes, an AK is more reliable than an AR. And a length of steel pipe is more reliable than an AK.

I’m not a third-world troglodyte, incapable of maintaining an essential life-saving tool. I know what lubricating oil and cleaning patches are for, and I use them. Maintained, the AR is the most reliable self-loading rifle ever made.

If you still don’t believe me, then fine. Have it your way. And while you’re using your “more reliable” AK in a match, I’ll be crushing your scores with my AR. And yes, Virginia, I’ve seen AKs malfunction.

What are we doing here? We’re having more fun than the law in some states allows. We’re reveling in the info, fun, and entertainment the AR allows.

And we’re expanding our knowledge and hopefully skills base as we do it. But most of all, we’re having fun.