imagesThe AR-15 is a lightweight, 5.56 mm, magazine-fed, semi-automatic rifle, with a rotating-lock bolt, actuated by direct impingement gas operation or long/short stroke piston operation. It is manufactured with the extensive use of aluminum alloys and synthetic materials.

The AR-15 was first built by ArmaLite as a selective fire rifle for the United States armed forces. Because of financial problems, ArmaLite sold the AR-15 design to Colt. The select-fire AR-15 entered the US military system as the M16 rifle. Colt then marketed the Colt AR-15 as a semi-automatic version of the M16 rifle for civilian sales in 1963. Although the name “AR-15” remains a Colt registered trademark, variants of the firearm are independently made, modified and sold under various names by multiple manufacturers.

The AR-15 is based on the 7.62 mm AR-10, designed by Eugene Stoner, Robert Fremont, and L. James Sullivan of the Fairchild ArmaLite corporation. The AR-15 was developed as a lighter, 5.56 mm version of the AR-10. The “AR” in AR-15 comes from the ArmaLite name. ArmaLite’s AR-1, AR-5, and some subsequent models were bolt action rifles, the AR-7 a semiautomatic survival rifle and there are shotguns and pistols whose model numbers include the “AR” prefix.

1973 Colt AR-15 SP1 rifle with ‘slab side’ lower receiver (lacking raised boss around magazine release button) and original Colt 20 round box magazine

ArmaLite sold its rights to the AR-10 and AR-15 to Colt in 1959. After a tour by Colt of the Far East, the first sale of AR-15s was made to Malaysia on September 30, 1959, with Colt’s manufacture of their first 300 AR-15s in December 1959. Colt marketed the AR-15 rifle to various military services around the world, including the U.S. Navy, Air Force, Army, and Marine Corps. The AR-15 was eventually adopted by the United States military under the designation M16. Colt continued to use the AR-15 trademark for its semi-automatic variants (AR-15, AR-15A2) which were marketed to civilian and law-enforcement customers. The original AR-15 was a very lightweight weapon, weighing less than 6 pounds with empty magazine. Later heavy-barrel versions of the civilian AR-15 can weigh upwards of 8.5 lbs.

Today the AR-15 and its variations are manufactured by many companies and are popular among civilian shooters and law enforcement forces around the world due to their accuracy and modularity (for more history on the development and evolution of the AR-15 and derivatives see M16 rifle).

The trademark “AR15” or “AR-15” is registered to Colt Industries, which maintains that the term should only be used to refer to their products. Other AR-15 manufacturers make AR-15 clones marketed under separate designations, although colloquially these are sometimes referred to by the term AR-15.

Some notable features of the AR-15 include:

* Aircraft grade forged 7075-T6 aluminum receiver is lightweight, highly corrosion-resistant, and easy to machine
* Modular design allows the use of numerous accessories such as after market sights, vertical forward grips, lighting systems, night vision devices, laser targeting devices, muzzle brakes/flash hiders, sound suppressors, bipods, etc., and makes repair easier
* Straight-line stock design eliminates the fulcrum created by traditional bent stocks, reducing muzzle climb.
* Small caliber, accurate, light weight, high velocity round (.223/5.56x45mm)
* Easily adapted to fire numerous other rounds
* Front sight adjustable for elevation
* Rear sight adjustable for windage (most models) and elevation (some models)
* Wide array of optical aiming devices available in addition to or as replacements of iron sights
* direct impingement gas system (as designed) with short or long stroke gas piston, or direct blowback operating systems available
* Synthetic pistol grip and butt stock that do not swell or splinter in adverse conditions (regulated in some states)
* 30-round capacity magazine available where legal
* Ergonomic design that makes the charging handle, selector switch (safety), magazine release, and bolt catch assembly easy to access.
* 4 MOA Accuracy as a MILSPEC standard

Semi-automatic AR-15s for sale to civilians are internally different from the full automatic M-16, although nearly identical in external appearance. The hammer and trigger mechanisms are of a different design. The bolt carrier and internal lower receiver of semi-automatic versions are milled differently, so that the firing mechanisms are not interchangeable. This was done to satisfy United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) requirements that civilian weapons may not be easily convertible to full-automatic. Despite this, through use of a “Drop In Auto Sear” or “lightning-link,” conversion to full automatic is very straightforward (sometimes requiring slight modification to the bolt carrier). Such modifications, unless using registered and transferable parts made prior to May 19, 1986, are illegal. (The Firearm Owners Protection Act in 1986 has redefined a machinegun to include individual components where a semiautomatic firearm can be converted to full-automatic based on a 1981 ATF ruling on machinegun parts.)

Automatic variants have a three-position rotating selective fire switch, allowing the operator to select between three modes: safe, semi-automatic, and either automatic or three round burst, depending on model. Civilian AR-15 models do not have three-round burst or automatic settings on the fire selector. In semi-automatic only variants, the selector only rotates between safe and semi-automatic. Due to this, weapons modified to full automatic using a lightning-link are capable of full automatic fire only—unless a special full automatic fire select mechanism and modified selector-switch is substituted.

The main mechanism of operation for the rifle is known as direct gas impingement. Gas is tapped from the barrel as the bullet moves past a gas port located above the rifle’s front sight base. The gas rushes into the port and down a gas tube, located above the barrel, which runs from the front sight base into the AR-15’s upper receiver. Here, the gas tube protrudes into a “gas key” (bolt carrier key) which accepts the gas and funnels it into the bolt carrier.

The bolt and bolt carrier together form a piston, which is caused to expand as the cavity in the bolt carrier fills with high pressure gas. The bolt is locked into the barrel extension, so this expansion forces the bolt carrier backward a short distance in line with the stock of the rifle to first unlock the bolt. As the bolt carrier moves toward the butt of the gun, the bolt cam pin, riding in a slot on the bolt carrier, forces the bolt to turn and unlock from the barrel extension. (The gas system only serves to unlock the bolt while the projectile has long exited the barrel). Once the bolt is fully unlocked it begins its rearward movement along with the bolt carrier. The bolt’s rearward motion extracts the empty cartridge case from the chamber, and as soon as the neck of the case clears the barrel extension, the bolt’s spring-loaded ejector forces it out the ejection port in the side of the upper receiver. The bolt is much heavier than the projectile, and along with the recoil-spring pressure inside the stock buffer-tube performs the cartridge ejection function and chambers the following cartridge.

Behind the bolt carrier is a plastic or metal buffer which rests in line with a return spring that pushes the bolt carrier back toward the chamber. A groove machined into the upper receiver traps the cam pin and prevents it and the bolt from rotating into a closed position. The bolt’s locking lugs then push a fresh round from the magazine which is guided by feed ramps into the chamber. As the bolt’s locking lugs move past the barrel extension, the cam pin is allowed to twist into a pocket milled into the upper receiver. This twisting action follows the groove cut into the carrier and forces the bolt to twist and “lock” into the barrel’s unique extension.

While out of the box an AR-15 already shoots tight groups(sub-.80 center-to center, five-shot groups at 100 yards using 69 grain hollow-point boat tail match Federals or Winchesters), accuracy can be made even better, with more consistent and tighter groups, by free-floating the barrel.

Legal status of civilian ownership


AR-15 rifles, like all semi-automatic rifles, are subject to strong restrictions of ownership in all states and territories in Australia. The only means of legally owning an AR-15/M16-type rifle in Australia today beyond law enforcement is to have a Category D Firearms License (e.g. a professional animal culler), to have a Firearms Collector’s License and the firearm deactivated (with the barrel plugged up and the action welded shut), or converted to blank fire if one is a member of a military re-enactment organization.

The heavy restrictions on semi-automatic rifles were introduced in 1996 in response to the Port Arthur massacre – one of the firearms used in the attack was an AR-15. Before 1996, AR-15 rifles were legal to own in a number of Australian states and territories, namely Queensland and Tasmania.

In Austria, semi-automatic centerfire rifles have to be classified as sporting or hunting firearms in order to obtain civilian-legal status. After this classification, they are considered “category B” firearms, which means that holders of gun licenses may own them. These licenses are may-issue items if the applicant specifies a valid reason (self-defense at home for example is considered valid by law in any case), passes a psychological test and attends a gun-basics course. Currently, only one centerfire AR-15 version, produced by German manufacturer “Oberland Arms” was given the B-classification. This Austrian version differs slightly from the original design in order to ensure that no military full-auto trigger, bolt and barrel may be installed. Additionally, bayonet lugs and flash hiders are prohibited on semi-automatic rifles while Muzzle brakes and compensators are legal. There is no minimum length for barrels, therefore even barrel lengths as short as 7.5″ are possible.

The Government of Canada classifies the AR-15 (and its variants) as a restricted firearm. For anyone wanting to lawfully own an AR-15, they must obtain a Possession and Acquisition License (PAL) valid for restricted firearms, (commonly known RPAL,) and then each acquisition of a restricted class firearm is subject to approval by the Chief Firearms Officer (CFO) of the would-be buyer’s province of residence. With the introduction of strict gun control measures by former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien (Bill C-68), the AR-15 had originally been intended to be classified as a prohibited firearm, making it all but impossible to privately own one. However, due to the presence of nationwide Service Rifle target shooting competitions, the AR-15 was granted a sporting exception.

As with all Restricted firearms (including most pistols, some shotguns, and some rifles) AR-15s are allowed to be fired only at certified firing ranges since the CFOs of all provinces and territories have agreed to issue ATTs (Authority To Transport) for these guns only to certified ranges. Since owners can’t legally take these guns anywhere else that shooting is allowed, they can in effect only shoot them on certain ranges. In order to legally own and transport a Restricted firearm, the firearm must be registered with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Canadian Firearms Program and must apply for an Authorization to Transport (or ATT) from the Chief Firearms Officer (CFO) for their province or territory. Additionally, the firearm must be unloaded, deactivated by a trigger or action lock, and be in a locked, opaque container during transport.

The issuance of ATTs varies considerably from province to province, and is generally reflective of a particular province’s political and social levels of acceptance toward gun ownership. In Ontario the only way to obtain an ATT for restricted firearms is to become a member of a range, whereas in Alberta, where firearms ownership is widely accepted, generally a single ATT is promptly issued that allows citizens to transport firearms to border crossings, gunsmiths, and shooting ranges. Firearms transfers in provinces such as Quebec can take up to 3 months to process.

Germany and Finland

In Germany and Finland, possession of semi-automatic rifles, including the AR-15, is legal, provided that the rifle’s owner acquires a permit for owning one. A license is required for each individual firearm and there needs to be a specific reason for ownership such as participation in the shooting sports and hunting.

For German hunters, their semi-automatic firearm’s magazine must be modified in such a way that its maximum capacity is only 2 rounds (excluding handguns), meaning that when hunting only 3 shots in total can be fired (as one additional round is loaded in the chamber) without reloading.

In Italy, the AR-15 rifle belongs to B7 class and can be owned by civilians, provided it doesn’t shoot full auto. Like every other gun it must be registered and to purchase it citizens must have a valid license, which is granted to every person who qualifies. Most of the rifles are in .223, but 5.56×45 is also allowed. Since long arms with a caliber bigger than .22 are considered hunting weapons, it is possible to own unlimited AR-15s as they are hunting rifles according to the law.

The AR-15, like all other semi-automatic rifles, is legal for individuals who need one for competitive use (IPSC rifle or 3-gun matches). A valid competition license is required, and all weapons are registered with the police. There are no banned “assault weapon” features or parts. However, the AR-15 is not allowed for hunting use.
United Kingdom

As with all semi-automatic, centerfire rifles, AR-15s are classed as a Section 5 weapon, i.e., a person must provide an exceptional reason and gain permission from the Home Secretary, making ownership all but impossible for a private citizen. However, AR-15s in a manually operated straight pull configuration or semi-automatic AR-15s that are chambered to fire a .22 rimfire cartridge are legal and can be held on a standard Section 1 Firearms Certificate. There are no restrictions on ‘assault weapon features’ in the UK, and no restrictions on magazine capacity. There are a number of UK manufacturers of “straight-pull” AR-15 variants. Southern Gun Company has tried to introduce a 9mm “self-ejecting” variant for gallery rifle shooting nicknamed the “Unicorn” but, despite numerous units being sold on the understanding that the rifle was a compliant Section 1 firearm, the rifles were seized and subjected to stringent testing by the UK Forensic Science Service (FSS). A small number of pre-production models were found to be non-compliant with section 1 status. However, later models were deemed Section 1 compliant and were returned to their owners.

United States

There are no federal restrictions on the ownership of AR-15 rifles in the United States. During the period 1994–2004 variants with certain features such as collapsible stocks, flash suppressors, and bayonet lugs were prohibited for sales to civilians by the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, with the included Assault Weapons Ban. Included in this was a restriction on the pistol grip that protrudes beneath the stock, which was considered an accessory feature under the ban and was subject to restrictions. Some rifles were manufactured with a grip not described under the Ban installed in its place. Those AR-15s that were manufactured with those features, as well as the accompanying full capacity magazines, were stamped “Restricted Military/Government/Law Enforcement/Export Only”. The restrictions only applied to guns manufactured after the ban took effect. It was legal to own, sell, or buy any gun built before 1994. Hundreds of thousands of pre-ban ARs were sold during the ban as well as new guns redesigned to be legal.

Since the expiration of the Federal AWB in September 2004, these features became legal in most states. Since the expiration of the ban the manufacture and sale of then-restricted rifles has resumed completely.

At least two states regulate possession of AR-15 rifles either by the restriction of certain features or outright bans of certain manufacturers’ models. For example: the A3 tactical carbine pictured above is legal for sale and possession in the United States generally, but is illegal for sale in California.

Under U.S. firearms laws, the lower receiver of the AR-15 is considered a firearm and subject to purchasing restrictions. (This is not universally the case with rifles. On some other rifles, such as the FN FAL, Heckler & Koch 91, 93, (G-3, G-33), 94, MP-5 or SP-89 (plus clones), the upper receiver is the serial-numbered part, and thus the firearm.) The AR-15 upper receiver assembly is considered a part, and may be purchased and mail-ordered in most locations. This is a desirable feature for enthusiasts, who can purchase a number of upper receivers (often in different calibers and barrel lengths) and interchange them with the same lower receiver.

Adding a shoulder stock to an AR-15 with a barrel shorter than 16″ would constitute constructing a Short-Barreled Rifle (SBR) under NFA rules – subject to a $200 tax stamp. The receiver, or serial-numbered part is still considered a firearm, but a receiver has unique status assigned by the Gun Control Act of 1968 as amended, and ATF regulations or rulings. ATF ruling 07-07-2009 illustrates a receiver’s unique legal status even if the receiver can only be made into a rifle. Under the United States v. Thompson-Center Arms Company Supreme Court ruling, an individual can possess parts for both the rifle and pistol so long as they are not assembled improperly. This SCOTUS ruling has been further clarified by the ATF Director in a ruling (ATF Ruling 2011-4) dated July 25, 2011 which restates most of the findings in the Thompson case.

The ATF maintains that the finding in United States v. Thompson-Center Arms Company only applies to products of Thompson Contender,[citation needed] and not to any other companies’ products. No person as of July 2012 has challenged the ATF on this point with respect to other products under the same ruling, and as such, are untested legal grounds. This has changed[citation needed] under ATF ruling 2011–4 which states.

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