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How the AR-15 Rifle Became the Most Popular Gun in America [PICS]

The AR-15 rifle is easily the most popular and contested gun in America.

Image: PJ Media
Image: PJ Media

In recent years, the popularity of the AR-15 rifle has soared among gun owners. From a shooter’s perspective, it’s an adaptable, reliable and accurate weapon that can be used in sport shooting, hunting and self-defense situations. From a broader perspective, the AR-15 rifle is so popular because it’s been a part of American culture since the late 1950s.

While the AR-15 has been available to the civilians since the 1960s, it’s prominence in American culture is largely due to its military origins. The US Army used the M-16, an adapted version of the AR-15 rifle, extensively during the Vietnam War. Images of the M-16 in the hands of US soldiers were beamed back to Americans on their television screens, imprinting the rifle on the minds of a generation to come. In the 1980s, the AR-15 found its place in American pop culture, and was featured in several movies and television shows. The AR-15 has also been center stage in a number of high-profile mass shootings.

All of these factors have played a part in why the AR-15 is such a prominent and controversial American weapon. In this slideshow, we explore the origins of the AR-15 rifle and how it became the most popular gun in America.

RELATED: The evolution of the modern american sporting rifle. 

Click through the slideshow to view the history of the AR-15 rifle.

The Origin of the AR-15

In 1957, gun engineer Eugene Stoner designed the AR-15 for the Armalite Corporation. The AR in AR-15 stands for Armalite. Stoner and his team designed the AR-15 to be a lighter version of its predecessor, the AR-10. The AR-15 gun was 5.56 mm, also known as 5.56 NATO. Two years later, Armalite sold the design to Colt, who was responsible for developing the modern AR-15 rifle we know today.

The M-16

After acquiring the design from Armalite, Colt modified the AR-15. The most prominent feature of the new design was the relocated charging handle on the rear of the receiver. Colt marketed this new AR-15 rifle as the M-16, which was used extensively by US soldiers in the Vietnam War.

AR-15 Adapted for the Civilian Market

In 1963, the federal government gave Colt permission to modify the M-16 into a semi-automatic version for the civilian market. Colt sold their modified M-16 as the Colt AR-15. The new semi-automatic version looked the same as the fully-automatic M-16, but featured different firing mechanisms. During the 1990s, the US government put additional manufacturing restrictions on AR-15s to prevent them from becoming fully automatic rifles. All AR-15s that are legally sold to civilians are semi-automatic and cannot be easily modified into fully-auto rifles.


The AR-15 in Pop Culture

The AR-15 gained a strong foothold in American popular culture starting in the 1980s. Before this time, the American public’s only mass exposure to the weapon was from television clips of the Vietnam War footage that depicted American soldiers carrying M-16s. In the 80s, hit television shows and movies like “Rambo” and “Miami Vice” featured characters that used AR-15s. One of the Colt AR-15s most infamous cameos was in the 1983 film “Scarface,” when drug kingpin Tony Montana introduced the audience to his “Little friend.” As the AR-15 became more commonplace in pop culture, sales of rifle started to rise.

A Controversial Firearm

While the AR-15 is no more powerful than other legal rifles, its origins and involvement in recent mass killings have made it a highly controversial weapon in the US. Since the late 20th Century, gun control advocates and some US lawmakers have pushed for laws to restrict the sale and ownership of AR-15s in the US. The AR-15 is commonly referred to as an assault rifle, even though it is semi-automatic and of equal or lesser power to other legal rifles. Recent high-profile mass shootings prompted the federal government and a handful of US states to threaten prohibition the AR-15 or greater restrictions on ownership. While the broad majority of proposed gun control laws tanked last year, the number of AR-15 sales skyrocketed.

America’s Gun

Today, AR-15 rifles are one of the most popular guns in the country (and the world). Colt still retains the design for the original AR-15; however, hundreds of gunmakers have cloned it using different designations and modifications. In recent years, the firearms industry has adapted the AR-15 for the hunting and sport shooting markets. In the US, there are an estimated 5-10 million AR-15 owners. The gun has become a popular weapon for sport shooters because it is reliable, accurate and can be easily adapted to the shooter.

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