Is an AR-15 a high-powered firearm?

“The AR-15 is a high-powered rifle.”  How often have we seen this claim made by advocates of gun control?  As is often the case with simple formulations of complex idea, though, understanding exactly what is meant and what of that makes sense takes some work.

The word, power, comes from Latin and through Anglo-French into Middle English.  In that period, it referred to ability, strength, or potential—sharing, in fact, the same root with that latter word.  The concept here is that we’re as powerful as our ability to act, to carry out our intentions.

As is frequently the case in the sciences—see the word, theory—physics has a specialized meaning for “power.”  The unit of power, the joule (J) is defined as force multiplied by the distance moved in the direction of force over time.  The force itself is momentum, in which the force equals the mass of the object times the velocity.  The technical usage here is more commonly described in the United States with the English unit, horsepower.  A more powerful engine, for example, will get a given car across a distance in fewer seconds than a less powerful engine.

When it comes to firearms, “power” can mean a variety of things, too.  The Browning Hi-Power is one example of this, a pistol that increased the magazine capacity usually offered in production handguns.  This harkens back to the etymology of power.

Shooting competitions use the physics concepts, specifically momentum.  The velocity of a bullet and its mass define the cut-offs between major and minor classes in IPSC matches, thanks to Jeff Cooper’s favoring of the .45 ACP over the 9mm Luger, and the same is true for categories in other sporting federations.  The NRA brings in the 5.56 NATO round in the High Power Rifle competitions that require service rifles, including the M-16, in the list of approved equipment. These definitions are largely arbitrary, a recognition that if we’re going to put competitors into groups, there have to be lines drawn between them.

Where does this leave us with regard to the assertions about the AR-15?  If we’re talking about the cartridge most often associated with that rifle, the 5.56 x 45/.223 Remington rounds, the physical fact is that there are lots of rifle chamberings that are much more powerful.  Compare that loading to what’s typical for a .30-’06—or with anything else not classified as an intermediate cartridge.  The little bullets move in a bigger hurry, but they weigh much less.  How we can address tumbling vs. temporary cavities and other such esoteric matters has never been adequately explained, but in terms of energy, most ammunition used in rifles is more powerful than 5.56 rounds.

What remains, then, is the meaning of power as the ability to act.  The Browning Hi-Power offered its users more rounds before having to reload.  The standard capacity of an AR-15 magazine provides even more.  But power isn’t only the delivery of force in a hurry.  It also involves skill and concentration.  Personal discipline confers a lot more power than technological solutions bring the lazy or inattentive.

The question of power, at heart, is a discussion, even a fear of how distributed ability has become in the modern world.  Citizens are powerful, not just because of the gadgets available to them, but as a result of asserting their right to govern their own lives and their willingness to make themselves capable of exercising that right.  Advocates of control show how afraid they are of power when they don’t recognize the moral differences among actions.  Power can be used for good or evil, and it’s the person acting who decides which one—or what mixture of both—will be realized.  If we don’t make those distinctions, we give up our own power.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of