That is a question posed all the time by mainstream media. I think it’s the wrong question to ask, but it’s an interesting question nonetheless. What I find odd about the question is the singular specificity of it. For example, you never hear anyone ask, “Why does anyone need to drink Jim Beam?” after a guy gets drunk and drives his truck head-on into a minivan killing an entire family. For that matter, no one ever asks, “Why does anyone need an F-250?” Or, when an angry individual beats someone to death with a baseball bat, no one ever asks, “Why does anyone need a baseball bat?”
Now, I can already hear you yelling…”Because baseball bats, trucks and even Jim Beam aren’t designed to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible like that weapon of war AR-15!” Maybe not. But they can be just as effective. Baseball bats, trucks and alcohol kill more people every year than do AR-15s. And it wouldn’t be that hard to make the case that AR-15s save more people through defensive use than those other three items to.
While it may seem pedantic, even the Department of Justice has decreed that the AR-15 is not a weapon of war—having never actually been fielded by any military. Moreover, tens of millions of people own AR-15s that have never killed anyone, let alone as many as possible. A few dozen get used by bad actors every year and some want to go banning the 15-20 million that are legally owned (by the way, while those are industry numbers; I think that’s way low).
All of that notwithstanding, the question of need is still a curious one. For one thing, we live in an ostensibly free society. Put another way, for the most part, I can do what I want, and own what I want as long as it doesn’t hurt or infringe on the rights of others. That’s becoming more and more debatable, but that’s another post. In the US, we don’t generally need-test things. I don’t have to justify a need to own a MacBook Pro. If I want one and can afford it, I go buy it. It’s the same with pretty much every other consumer product.
But when it comes to a particular semi-auto rifle with certain cosmetic features, suddenly, it is demanded we justify a need to own one. This is, of course, preposterous. Unless of course your entire knowledge of how firearms work comes from CNN and you think full-semi-auto is actually a thing (it’s not).
Now, I’ll not deny the AR-15 has some characteristics that make it an incredibly good defensive—and offensive—weapon. It’s why I have one set up as my home defense gun. But it also has one big drawback; it’s size. It’s hard to conceal. This is why long guns of all types are used in single-digit percentages of all illegal shootings.
Moreover, convincing the government to steal the AR-15(s) that are in my safe is not going to make a single person safer. Based on the hysteria I see on the news and in my Facebook feed, one would think that merely being in proximity to an AR-15 turns the average dude into homicidal maniac. But it doesn’t. I shot a match a few months ago and was literally surrounded by four dozen guys with AR-15s. We didn’t start killing each other just because we had a gun that has “the shoulder thing that goes up” in our hands. By the way, “the shoulder thing that goes up” is a literal quote from a Democrat lawmaker who wrote the Assault Weapons Ban of 2007 when trying to describe a barrel shroud. She’s not even close.
But enough about that. As I said, I still think the need question is the wrong one. It’s the wrong question for two reasons: First, it’s always asked in an echo chamber by people whose total knowledge of firearms amounts to jack and squat. While gets nods of affirmation around the table, it makes no effort to understand why so many people want one. Yes, people—a lot of people—actually want an AR-15. Or two. Or five. In fact, when anyone asks me, “Why does anyone need an AR-15?” [emphasis in my head] I respond with, “They don’t. They need 5-7 of them. Maybe more.”
When we were at the NRA Annual Meeting a few months back, there were AR-15 variants everywhere. An entire industry has grown up around building parts and pieces and complete AR pattern rifles and pistols. The variety is astounding. Now some cynics might think that this is just the evil gun industry peddling their tools of death. However, I think the reality is a bit more pragmatic. I believe the gun manufacturing industry works pretty much like every other consumer product manufacturing industry; it responds to the demands of the market.
A few years ago, everyone was clamoring for larger and larger smartphones. Eventually, even Apple—the original company that told it’s customers what they wanted—relented and produced larger smartphones. When car buyers started moving away from minivans and towards small SUVs, car manufacturers started making cute-utes and crossovers and larger small SUVs. Why? Because it’s what their customers wanted. The same is true of gun making.
And now I’ll explain why.
We Like to Tinker
When my dad grew up, young men would gather in each others driveways on weekends and tinker with their cars. They’d swap parts, take thinks apart, put them back together and continually upgrade their rides. We don’t really do that as much any more. Cars have become much more complex and are generally driven by computers. It’s a lot more expensive to upgrade cars today. Some still do, but many just drive straight-off-the-lot cars. But, we still like to tinker. The AR-15 is the ultimate tinkerer’s gun. There isn’t a single part on the entire platform that can’t be swapped out with basic hand tools.
Until about 15 years ago when the Clinton AWB expired, if you wanted to customize your rifle, you had to go to a gunsmith, figure out what you wanted to do, order the parts and wait 6-12 months. Today, with the explosion of the AR-platform parts market, if you want a new hand guard, trigger, sights, mag release, bolt catch or even a barrel, you can pick one up, swap it out in the morning and be on the range that afternoon (and that’s assuming you have to drive to the range).
For those of us who like working with our hands on actual physical objects, the AR is a dream come true. Parts are not expensive, they are readily available and there is no end to what you can do. Which leads to my next point.
The AR is Infinitely Customizable
As mentioned above, every part on the gun can be easily swapped out. That means it’s possible to purpose-build an AR for just about any use you can think of. “No one needs an AR-15 to hunt deer.” Maybe not. But I know a lot of people that hunt deer, hogs, prairie dogs and just about everything else with them, and they’re highly effective. With the uncontrolled explosion of feral hogs in the Southeast and Southern states, many people have put together dedicated hog guns. I know people that hunt elk with them (technically, those are AR-10s, but same concept).
With the rise of various shooting competition sports, it’s not unreasonable to have 2-3 ARs set up for different sports. For example, if one wanted to compete in IDPA or USPSA Pistol Caliber Carbine divisions, it’s easy to set up an AR to fire a 9mm handgun round. A competitive gun for that sport would be lightweight, handy and have a 1x optical sight on it.
But let’s say you want to shoot 2-Gun matches. In that case, you might want a rifle with an 18” barrel, a 1-4x, 1-6x or 1-8x scope on it, a quick-detach bipod and maybe a little more weight. A mid-length or rifle-length gas system would be standard.
If you want to shoot PRS (Precision Rifle Series), you’d likely select an AR-10 platform in a larger caliber than the standard .223/5.56 of the AR-15. It’s only a little harder to build an AR-10 in 6.5mm Creedmoor, .260 Remington, 6mm Creedmoor, or .308 Winchester. Then you’d probably go with a 20-22” barrel and a larger optic. You’d want a adjustable rifle stock, a barricade stop, bipod and a big scope. For 3-Gun, you might want something similar to a 2-Gun rifle, but probably with an offset 1x optic on it for close & fast targets.
For competition alone, I just named four AR-pattern rifles that someone may want to own. Could you do all with two? Maybe (the PCC would be entirely unsuitable for PRS, 2-gun or 3-gun). But once you catch the competition bug, you want to do as well as you can. It becomes pretty clear pretty quick that purpose-built guns will serve you better.
Caliber Swaps are Easy
Recently, I came across a list of calibers that one can build AR-pattern rifles in, and it numbers into the dozens. If you know (or care) nothing about shooting and reloading, this doesn’t mean much to you. However, for those of us that enjoy cooking up our own ammo, the AR is perfect. In the AR-universe, swapping calibers is typically as simple as swapping barrels; and sometimes a bolt and magazine. A barrel swap can be accomplished in about 20 minutes with $100 worth of tools. Thus, when a new wiz-bang caliber is introduced like the new .224 Valkyrie, one would need only spend a few hundred dollars on a barrel, bolt and mag to try it out. Switching from .223 to .300 Blackout is a simple barrel swap.
Because of the design of the AR platform, there is an even easier way to swap calibers. Last year, I built a mid-range target rifle capable of shooting out to 600 yards. I built it with the express intent of being able to swap uppers (the upper receiver, barrel and hand guard). This means I can have a .223 Wylde upper, a .224 Valyrie upper, a 25-45 Sharps upper, a 6.5 Grendel upper and a .300 Blk upper if I want. Changing calibers would be a matter of pulling two pins and swapping the barreled upper. The amount of flexibility in the platform is amazing.
They are Easy and Fun to Shoot
The AR’s relative light weight, excellent ergonomics and low recoil make it perfect for people just getting into rifle shooting. Ammunition in .223 Remington or 5.56 NATO can be found everywhere and it’s fairly inexpensive. And, because the AR is so ubiquitous now, there is ammo for every purpose. Want to plink? 55 grain ammo is cheap and available. Shooting 500 yards? It’s easy to find 69 grain or 77 grain open tip match ammo that will shoot small groups at distance. Need defensive ammo? There are almost too many choices to list.
Shooting offhand, it’s not at all hard to be on target the first time you shoot one. I’ve taken people who have never shot a rifle before and had them ringing steel at 500 yards in 5 minutes. The low recoil doesn’t beat you up, and you can shoot for hours without breaking the bank—assuming you’re shooting .223.
If you spend 6 seconds searching YouTube, you’ll find plenty of videos of 9 year old kids shooting ARs. They are that easy to shoot. And, because they are reasonably accurate, it’s easy to hit what you’re shooting at. Hitting what you’re shooting at makes shooting more fun. And when shooting is fun, you want to do it more. That’s a big reason people can’t stop once they buy their first AR. It’s such fun to shoot that everyone quickly wants to try another variant. I’ve never handed someone an AR to shoot for the first time and gotten it back with a frown. Everyone has a huge smile on their face after the first magazine—and everyone asks for another loaded mag!
It’s a Great Home Defense Gun
I’d be remiss if I didn’t list this characteristic. A lot of people use handguns or shotguns for home defense, and I have no problem with that, I do as well. But my primary bump in the night gun is a AR-15 carbine with an illuminated reticle 1-4x scope and a flashlight on the end. It will soon be another gun I’m working on, but that one is still coming together. The .223 rounds tend to over-penetrate less than shotgun rounds do, and because the gun is light and handy and has virtually no recoil, follow up shots are quick and accurate. With 28 rounds on board, I feel pretty good about my odds, even with multiple assailants.
But forget me, the AR-15 is easier for smaller-framed people to operate effectively. Women and even kids can and have used ARs to defend their families to great effect. Unlike a shotgun which takes a fair amount of skill to manage recoil and manual of arms, the AR-15 is very easy to deploy. With a red dot optic and momentary-on flashlight, one has both positive target identification and easy aiming.
So that, in 2,311 words is the tip of the iceberg of why people need an AR-15. Or three. Or five.