Why the weapon of choice for so many mass murderers is not what a lot of its defenders would have us believe
Last month, after the horrific mass shootings at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, Monday Numbers took a look at the AR-15 style semi-automatic assault rifles favored by mass shooters in America.
Sadly, the July 4 mass shooting at an Independence Day parade in Highland Park, Illinois, has brought these weapons back into the headlines. Police allege 21-year-old Robert Crimo III used a legally obtained and registered Smith & Wesson M&P 15 — built on the AR-15 platform design — and three 30-round magazines in the shooting that killed seven people and wounded 46 others.
Before the tally of dead and wounded in this latest tragedy had even been finalized, a barrage of Internet memes, hot-take social media posts and pro-gun essays had again begun to circulate defending the AR-15 as not significantly different from guns like the Ruger Mini 14 and M1A. People who don’t know about guns are afraid of the “scary looking” AR-15 because of their own ignorance, the argument goes, not because the rifle is significantly different or otherwise worthy of singling out for regulation.
I’m familiar with these memes and these arguments because I’ve seen them in my own family. Not from my father — a career Marine and veteran of multiple foreign wars. He somehow managed to raise two children wherever we happened to be stationed, on or off base, without ever feeling the need to keep a firearm in our home for defense or to carry one on his person, open or concealed. My relatives who have never served, never seen combat and who live in relatively safe and affluent suburban neighborhoods? They find their AR-15s essential.
In reality, the assertion the AR-15 is no different from other rifles betrays an ignorance of both weapon specs and the gun’s unique history. I’ve fired various configurations of every rifle mentioned in this piece, including the M16, the fully automatic assault rifle adapted from the original AR-15 design for use by the U.S. military. There is a significant difference between AR-15s and less powerful weapons.
Today, a by-the-numbers history lesson on the origins of “America’s rifle,” from the battlefields where it first proved itself a superior killing machine, to the schools, grocery stores and holiday parades where it continues to fill body bags in staggering numbers.
1957 — The year the U.S. Army approached ArmaLite to create a new and superior assault rifle.
Many fans of the AR-15 note that those who don’t know much about guns incorrectly assume the weapon is an assault rifle because they mistakenly believe AR stands for “Assault Rifle.” It doesn’t. It stands for ArmaLite.
While the alpha-numeric designation doesn’t make it an assault rifle, ArmaLite’s chief engineer, the brilliant USMC veteran Euguene Stoner, did — at the behest of the U.S. Army. And he did a magnificent job of it.
How magnificent? The army wanted a light rifle that would be an improvement over the M14 (from which the modern M1A descended), one capable of semi and fully automatic fire and capable of “penetrating a steel helmet or standard body armor at 500 yards.”
Stoner gave them all that and more in a scaled down version of his AR-10.
Military testing repeatedly found the rifle more rugged, durable, easier to maintain, more accurate and versatile than the M1 rifle or M1 carbine and a host of the other rifles then in combat use.
1959 — The year a rapturous Pentagon report on the AR-15 praised its light weight and significantly reduced recoil, leading to greater accuracy and effectiveness. The report determined a “5- to 7-man squad armed with the AR-15 would be as effective as a 10-man squad armed with the M14.”
No significant difference? Tell it to the Pentagon.
But it would take a few years — and battle testing under some very specific conditions — before the military went all in on the new rifle.
1,000 — The number of AR-15 rifles the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) procured for use by South Vietnamese troops and their U.S. special forces advisors in 1961. In a then-confidential report, ARPA explained that the AR-15 seemed the answer to one of its many early Vietnam conundrums. They needed an assault rifle that could be easily and effectively used by relatively inexperienced South Vietnamese fighters. With its compact design, lighter weight and ease of use, DARPA said, the AR-15 was ideal for the average Vietnamese soldier, who averaged about 5 feet in height and weighed in at about 90 lbs.
My brother-in-law, an avowed fan of the AR-15, recently told me that my 11-year-old nephew loves to shoot the rifle because it is easy and comfortable for him to shoot at his weight and stature. It is lighter and has less recoil, allowing him take to the weapon quickly and confidently and to shoot with it accurately in a very short period.
“Yep,” I said. “That’s the idea.”
The simplicity of the design also made it quicker to learn to assemble and disassemble, DARPA found, cutting training time for maintenance in half.
All these factors make the AR-15 platform, to this day, the choice of civilian mass shooters who are not military size or in military shape, who do not have military training but wish to quickly and easily kill the largest number of people.
For its purposes in Vietnam, ARPA concluded, the AR-15 was “superior in virtually all respects to the M-1 rifle, M-1 and M-2 Carbines, Thompson Submachine gun and Browning Automatic rifle.”
The CIA came to the same conclusion through its own testing, the report said.
But it wasn’t just the rifle’s relative light weight, durability and simplicity that so impressed DARPA.
The report extolled the AR-15’s “phenomenal lethality” in chilling detail, recounting firefights in which single shots appeared to explode the heads of enemies, shots to the arm removed them completely from the body. Shots that would have produced wounds with other rifles were kill shots with the AR-15.
“All confirmed casualties inflicted by the AR-15, including extremity hits, were fatal,” the report read.
No significant difference? Tell it to DARPA and the CIA.
1963 –– The year U.S. Army adopted the AR-15, which became the M16. The rifle became the U.S. military’s dominant assault rifle.
But those Vietnam era AR-15s and the later M16s were capable of fully automatic fire and boasted modifications. Today’s mass-produced, unmodified A-15s are semi-automatic rifles that are inherently less lethal and not even true assault rifles. Right?
There are, to be sure, serious differences between a stock civilian AR-15 and the M-16 used by the U.S. military, including modifications like bayonets, under-barrel grenade launchers and shotguns. But perhaps the most hotly debated difference is automatic vs. semi-automatic fire and how big a difference this makes in lethality.
The U.S. Army’s Field Manual’s section on Advanced Rifle Marksmanship has a lot to say about semi-automatic vs. automatic fire, none of it favoring automatic fire. The manual calls semi-automatic fire “devastatingly accurate,” declaring it “the most important firing technique during fast-moving, modern combat.”
Far from praising the lethality and combat utility of automatic fire, the manual says the M16 should normally be used in its semi-automatic mode, disparaging fully automatic fire as “inherently less accurate than semi-automatic fire.”
“The first full-automatic shot fired may be on target, but recoil and a high-cyclic rate of fire often combine to place subsequent rounds far from the desired point of impact,” the manual says. “Even controlled (three-round burst) automatic or burst fire may place only one round on the target. Because of these inaccuracies, it is difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of automatic or burst fire, and even more difficult to establish absolute guidelines for its use.”
Fully automatic fire may be good for firing a large number of rounds as suppressive fire, the manual says, but not for hitting moving targets with accuracy and lethality in actual combat situations.
While none of this is likely to quell debates over the definition of “assault rifle” and whether the lack of automatic fire makes the modern, civilian AR-15 less deadly, it is clear the U.S. Army finds its semi-automatic capabilities superior.
1 in 5 — The number of American gun owners who say they own an AR-15, according to a new NPR/Ipsos survey. That number includes a quarter of Republicans.
That would have horrified Eugene Stoner, according to his family.
In 2016, as Stoner’s gun took its place as the weapon of choice in American mass shootings, his family told NBC News he designed the gun for use by the military and never contemplated it being widely available to civilians.
“Our father, Eugene Stoner, designed the AR-15 and subsequent M-16 as a military weapon to give our soldiers an advantage over the AK-47,” Stoner’s family said in a statement. “He died long before any mass shootings occurred. But, we do think he would have been horrified and sickened as anyone, if not more by these events.”
“After many conversations with him, we feel his intent was that he designed it as a military rifle,” Stoner’s family said. “What has happened, good or bad, since his patents have expired is a result of our free market system. Currently, a more interesting question is ‘Who now is benefiting from the manufacturing and sales of AR-15s, and for what uses?’”