ArmaLite AR Rifles: A History

An AR-15 featuring a silver stock and black barrel and accessories

Ask a person — even in many cases people at least casually acquainted with firearms — what the “AR” stands for in “AR-15,” and you’re likely to get the following response: “assault rifle.”

As those in the know know, that’s about as far from accurate as it’s possible to be.

First of all, a simple search of the dictionary tells us that an assault rifle is “any of various intermediate-range, magazine-fed military rifles (such as the AK-47) that can be set for automatic or semiautomatic fire; also: a rifle that resembles a military assault rifle but is designed to allow only semiautomatic fire.”

Most experts might even quibble with that definition. They would say it’s not truly an assault rifle unless it’s fully automatic — basically, a “machine gun.”

Second, in the specific case of the AR-15, the “AR” stands for ArmaLite Rifle. ArmaLite is the American company that originally invented the AR-15, one of the most popular firearms available.

The confusion stems in large part from the fact that an AR-15 and similar firearms often look like fully-automatic rifles. However, by law, they are quite different.

The design, functionality, and performance of the AR-15 have inspired many similar firearms. So many, in fact, that most people refer to these other firearms as AR-15s, even if they are not technically the same rifle.

History of ArmaLite and the AR Rifle

ArmaLite was founded in 1954 in Hollywood, California, by Richard Boutelle, president of Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation.

Over the next few years, the company worked on modifying and perfecting what it called its AR line of rifles, culminating in the AR-15. Fairchild then began to license its AR-10 and AR-15 designs to Colt, and in 1959, sold the AR design to Colt.

In 1963, Colt manufactured the M-16 for the U.S. military. The success of the rifle led them to create a semiautomatic version for law enforcement and civilians, which it marketed as the AR-15.

ArmaLite ceased operations in the 1970s, but the name carried on, and in 1996, former U.S. Army officer Mark Westrom bought the brand name. In 2013, the company was sold again, this time to Strategic Armory Corps.

Today, there are about 8 million AR-15s in the United States, so many that the National Rifle Association says “AR” should really stand for “America’s Rifle.”


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