The AR-15 is one of the most popular rifles in America – arguably the most popular – with millions in circulation among private gun owners. It’s beloved for everything from hunting and competition to plinking and home defense purposes.

I’m willing to bet that if you’re reading this article, you probably have one yourself or are looking to buy one. I’m right there with you! I love the AR-15, and it has earned its place as America’s rifle. 

A Little History

AR-15 Patent
Originally conceived as gas-operated system, the bolt and carrier both act as a piston and locking/unlocking mechanism inside the gun. (Photo: Eugene M. Stoner Patent)

The brainchild of Eugene Stoner, the AR-15 we know today actually springs from his AR-10 design chambered for 7.62 NATO dating back to the late 1950s. That original rifle saw limited service with countries such as Portugal, but the later ArmaLite AR-15 and its many kin that were scaled down and chambered for the smaller .223 Remington and 5.56 NATO rounds eventually gained adoption by the U.S. military and many other nations.

ArmaLite, which is where the “AR” is derived from and not the term “assault rifle”, also hints at one of the firearm’s key features – its light weight. This was done both by the design and Stoner's embrace of modern, lighter materials. Part of the brilliance of the design was a newly patented gas and bolt system that allowed the “bolt and carrier to perform a double function,” namely locking and unlocking the breach while simultaneously acting as a piston that operates the internal system. 

AR-15 Patent
Complex in appearance, the actual bolt and carrier break down quite easily. (Photo: Eugene M. Stoner Patent)
AR-15 Bolt
That multi-functional bolt, left, and carrier, right, are the heart of the AR. As an interesting side note, the firing pin in the center is also a free-floating part but lacks the mass to independently fire a round. (Photo: Paul Peterson/

Unfortunately, ArmaLite ran into some financial troubles and eventually sold its design to Colt, which wound up essentially coining it as the M16. Colt’s rifle started gaining U.S. military attention in the early 1960s, and by 1963 it was being issued to our troops in Vietnam. Let’s just say it didn’t make the first impression you’d expect, but after some quick changes and improvements, it became the U.S. military service rifle after the Vietnam war. 

Ruger AR-556
Inside and out, there are things about the AR-15 that just scream classic American. It's innovative, proven, and simple to use, yet somehow offers a level of complexity decades after it was designed that is still impressive and inspires new adaptations every year. 

The civilian market demand for the AR-15 wasn’t always as high as it is today, and the gun hosts significant differences from its military roots as a semi-auto-only rifle. However, its light weight, intuitive controls, shootability, and modularity have made it a long-term success. 


This vintage Colt AR-15 ad from 1963 shows the gun was always marketed to the consumer market as a sporting rifle from the beginning. (Photo: Chris Eger/


Once service members returned from Vietnam, the platform also made it easy for them to transition to civilian marksmanship. The popularity continued to increase, despite attempts to restrict the firearm and label it as an “assault weapon.” 

RELATED: Even the Media Says 'Assault Weapon' Term Incorrect

So, why has the AR-15 remained so popular despite decades of political and media attempts to make it go away? There are many reasons, but here are my top picks. 

Versatility & Modularity

Whether you need to hunt, defend your home, or just want to have some fun at the range, the AR-15 will have you covered. They can be found chambered in several different calibers ranging from .22 LR and 9mm to 5.56, .308, 6.5 Creedmoor, and many more. Fjestad's Blue Book on ARs lists more than 50 commercial calibers these guns have been chambered in over the years. 

If you’re like me, though, and prefer having a one-stop-shop rifle, grab an AR chambered for 5.56/.223 and then a .22 LR conversion kit. The .22 conversion kit will allow you to plink all day without breaking the bank. It will also give you another option if you need to expand your ammo options. 

CMMG .22 LR AR Bolt Conversion
One size does not fit all, but the standard AR-15 chambered for .223 Remington or 5.56 NATO can actually fit different bullets, proven by this conversion kit that turns a standard AR-15 into a .22 plinker with just a bolt swap. (Photo: Paul Peterson/

The modularity of the AR is another great aspect to keep in mind. You can easily build one from the ground up or modify a pre-built one. The market for accessories and spare parts is massive. Having all of these parts at your fingertips also helps increase the longevity of your rifle, since you can repair it yourself if the need arises. 

An adjustable low-power variable optic offers precision but also flexibility. It has become one of my go to options. (Photo: Paul Peterson/

As far as accessories go, I almost always add a hand stop or foregrip for added control of the rifle and an optic up top. Lately, I’ve been finding low-power variable optics, or LVPOs, to be the most versatile, giving you short, medium, and long-range support. Even small parts like take-down pins can be upgraded and swapped out, so your imagination can really run wild. 

RELATED: Why Use an LVPO Scope? U.S. Optics TS-6X Field Test

Regardless of which caliber you choose and the accessories you add or don’t add, the potential is always there for you to expand your AR-15 for all sorts of uses.

Defensive Capabilities

FN 15 Rifle
The 30-round capacity of the standard AR-15 magazine is also backed by the rifle's intuitive controls to make it a great home defense option with the right ammo. (Photo: Rutsen Eagle/

Unless you reside in one of the less-free states that have magazine capacity bans, you really can’t beat the capacity that an AR-15 brings to the table. The standard 30-round magazines ensure you’re able to handle most situations and are great for range trips or competition, but you can even find 50 and 60-round drum magazines to add a little extra.

Especially for home defense, the balance of stopping power and penetration with the appropriate rounds makes the AR-15 a great option. I find the 16-inch barrel length to be a nice common ground. It’s still easy to maneuver in close quarters but also adequate for shooting at longer distances. At the end of the day, having an AR-15 to defend yourself and your loved ones is a great asset.   


Smith & Wesson M&P15 Sport II AR-15 Rifles
There are budget-friendly options, like these M&P15 rifles. But you can basically build or buy whatever AR you can dream up as well. (Photo: Paul Peterson/

Despite efforts to ban the AR-15 every couple of years, they remain accessible. In fact, it seems that when efforts arise to ban them, they become even more popular. Price points vary tremendously, but you can almost always find a quality entry-level AR for at a reasonable price. Or you can jump on a custom rifle built for competition speed and precision.

There is no true “best” AR-15, and everyone will value certain things differently, but here are three I suggest taking a look at that cover a wide range of budgets and features.

Does the AR-15 Deserve the Top Spot?

In my opinion, yes. There are a ton of fantastic firearms out there for nearly every purpose, but the AR platform has proven it is flexible, reliable, and an American favorite. For all of the reasons above and more, I see the AR-15 remaining in that top spot for the foreseeable future. It is time-tested and versatile enough to cover almost all of your potential needs.

Plus, the design has endured even after decades. While the military doesn't use the same rifle that you can buy at your local gun shop, Stoner's design has gone on to create countless variations that still persist in the U.S. military as one of the longest-serving rifle designs of all time. While it has recently met it's new replacement in the XM5, there's little sign the military is ready to part ways entirely with it's now generations-old rifles.

Marine Recon hit the beach
From deserts and beaches to jungles and mountains, the AR design has proven itself. (Photo: Paul Peterson/U.S. Marine Corps)

Cover image: “PFC Michael J. Mendoza (Piedmont, CA) uses his M16 rifle to recon by fire.” (National Archives)

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