Ars Technica co-founder takes a scientific look at AR-15's popularity

Kudos to Ars Techica founder (and fellow Texan) Jon Stokes for going out on a limb and explaining why he “needs” his AR-15. Stokes gave a pretty detailed explanation of the AR-15’s popularity and how the “weapons of war” quote from President Barack Obama is hopelessly ignorant of history. Via Medium:

The vintage Henry lever action rifle — the quintessential 20th century deer rifle — was originally deployed to devastating effect in the Civil War…

The Henry was the AR-15 of its day, and it was followed over the years by the invention of the even more effective semi-automatic firearm, and then by a succession of long guns that we now generally take to be suitable for civilian use.

My point in bringing up the lever action rifle is that civilians have been buying “weapons of war” for a very long time, since the black powder musket days. This is partly because soldiers who come home from wars to enter civilian life often want to buy a version of the weapon they were trained on and trusted their life to. And it’s also because “military grade” is widely (if sometimes mistakenly) understood to mean “this technology has been tested in the real world, the kinks have been worked out, and its reliability and effectiveness have been proven in the field by an entity with the resources of an entire nation at its disposal.”

Stokes’ point is pretty clear: not everyone who joins the military is going to stay there for life, and they’ll want to own similar weapons once they leave the service (my friend Krystle confirmed this when I asked her on Twitter about her AR-15). So it makes sense for weapons manufacturers to offer civilian variants of military rifles. The comments Stokes makes about the Henry Rifle and its relationship with the AR-15 is a historical point more Second Amendment activists should be willing to bring up (and something I wish I’d thought of myself). There’s a reason why the 1911 is still a popular handgun because of how well it served the armed forces (and the awesomeness of John Browning in general). The Beretta 92 enjoys similar popularity, and almost two dozen countries use the FN SCAR rifle because of its functionality. Stokes makes a similar declaration with the AR-15 by pointing out how it’s the “”patrol rifle” of choice for modern police departments from Mayberry to Manhattan,” so it’s not a weapon “suitable only for indiscriminate, spray-n-pray mass slaughter…” The AR-15 is a weapon used by more than “just criminals,” so Stokes point is that civilians should also have access to them.

But Stokes takes his defense of the AR-15 a step further in his missive, by going scientific on its popularity.

The AR-15 is less a model of rifle than it is an open-source, modular weapons platform that can be customized for a whole range of applications, from small pest control to taking out 500-pound feral hogs to urban combat. Everything about an individual AR-15 can be changed with aftermarket parts — the caliber of ammunition, recoil, range, weight, length, hold and grip, and on and on.

In a the pre-AR-15 era, if you wanted a gun for shooting little groundhogs, a gun for shooting giant feral hogs, and a gun for home defense, you’d buy three different guns in three different calibers and configurations. With the AR platform, a person with absolutely no gunsmithing expertise can buy one gun and a bunch of accessories, and optimize that gun for the application at hand…

So cops and civilians “need” an AR-15 because that one gun can be adapted to an infinite variety of sporting, hunting, and use-of-force scenarios by an amateur with a few simple tools. An AR-15 owner doesn’t have to buy and maintain a separate gun for each application, nor does she need a professional gunsmith to make modifications and customizations. In this respect, the AR-15 is basically a giant lego kit for grownups.

Stokes wrote a similar piece at Wired in 2013, looking at the AR-15 as a “gadget” instead of a gun. Bob Owens did his own take on how handy-dandy AR-15 is over at

I have a simple yet effective “A2”-style flash suppressor on the end of the barrel. The slots in the flash suppressor direct burning propellant gasses away from my line of sight while also minimizing them, so that I can always see threats…My red dot sight does not offer any magnification, but I when I look through it, it places a bright red dot on potential threats that only I can see, day or night. I can easily keep both eyes open with this kind of sight, enhancing my peripheral vision so I can better see both potential threats that I might need to shoot, and more importantly, innocent bystanders.

What both Stokes and Owens are pointing out, albeit with different language, is the AR-15 isn’t like it is in the movies where it’s “load and go shooting,” but a complex weapon which can be customized for any and all circumstances and situations. Their pieces aren’t going to convince everyone of the benefits of an AR-15, but it’s a different take on the rifle which more people should be willing to consider. Obviously, emotions are high whenever any mass shooting (or terrorist attack) happens but logical explanations of why AR-15’s are so popular can really help people trying to explain their usefulness. Of course, it’d also be nice if people used logic when arguing emotional issues, but that’s probably wishful thinking.

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