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Recoils and Ricochets from the Reader Mailbag


Two things are inevitable whenever you write, as I did today, about guns for National Review. Willfully narrow reactions like this from David Frum:

@davidfrum: Why is AR-15 so popular? @DanFosterNRO explains: It looks cool + it can shoot a lot of rounds w/out hurting yr shoulder

And awesome e-mails from NR readers. Some of you pointed out minor flaws and fuzziness in my explanation of the AR-15 platform (e.g., yes, I should have been more clear that 5.56 mm is the military round but many civilian variants are chambered for .223 Remington; rifles chambered for the former can safely fire the latter, but not vice versa). Others of you added your two cents on why you love your ARs.

Here’s Joel from Virginia:

think that I would add another point to the “why ARs are popular” section. Cost of ammunition. Before the panic buying began, it was common to be able to obtain a box of 223 or 556 ammunition for $6 or so. That’s for a box of 20 rounds. Ammunition for more traditional hunting rifles, for example the lever action Winchester 94 in .30-30 or a Remington bolt action 700 in .270, costs substantially more. Usually in the neighborhood of $1 per shot, or $20 per box of 20.

The AR [also] really excels at recreational use. It has outstanding ergonomics and is durable, long lasting, reliable, accurate, etc. In addition, target shooting with it does not break the bank, so to speak. Ranchers leave them in their pickups as “truck guns.” Large numbers compete in service rifle matches with them. In fact, a new saying has arisen at the National Matches at Camp Perry, “shoot an AR or get beaten by one.” ARs are exceptional varmint rifles. Plus, they can be configured for low weight which makes them outstanding for beginning and diminutive shooters. Most of this is likely unknown to those who are writing new legislation.

And some of you, like Matthew in North Carolina, offered full-on dissertations on the evolution of the modern military rifle! I’ll include Matt’s e-mail after the jump, because it’s good stuff. And for the record, Matt, I do take “Jonah Goldberg Lite” as a compliment, though I think I can eat more chicken wings than him:


I thoroughly enjoy your writing at NRO and hope you will take my description of you as a “Jonah Goldberg Lite” in the highly complimentary intent in which it is meant.

Although fairly new to the gun-ownership fraternity, I have owned one AR (built on Smith & Wesson’s M&P lower), own another (a Colt LE6940), and am in the process of “building” my first one (all major parts acquired from DS Arms, a company more reputed for their FAL-pattern rifles). I agree wholeheartedly with many of your comments in your piece, and am sure you had to edit for space. But there are a number of important points that should probably be made:

·         The 7.62×51 round: The first automatic, single-crew rifles introduced (after WWII) basically followed the German StG44 approach: take an existing rifle round and shorten it to reduce the charge (and recoil), making them manageable to fire in full automatic mode from the shoulder. With the Nazis, it was the 7.92k (Kurtz, or short) round, developed from the 7.92 (“8mm”) rifle cartridge used in the Mauser 98 and MG42. The US chopped the M1’s .30-06 and created the .308 or 7.62×51. This was used in the category of guns that included battle rifles (M-14, FAL, G3), general-purpose machine guns (M-60, MAG), and sniper rifles (the standard M24). But the Army Staff’s experience was that the gun was still heavy, the round too potent, and ammo carrying capacity as a result limited.

·         The 5.56×45: Enter the 5.56mm round. Compared to its earlier sibling, it’s much smaller and lighter, which means not only that a Soldier can carry more rounds, but also that the platform (rifle) could be much smaller and lighter. One lesson learned in Korea was that, when you have 1000 screaming Asians running straight at you, it really doesn’t matter what caliber you have, because everything will happen in 100 yards or closer. So the reach-out-and-touch-someone ability of the heavier 7.62 round was found to be overkill. Worse, the heavier bullet had a nasty tendency to create “through-and-throughs” – that is, the bullet would go straight through the target and keep flying. Now a .3” hole in you is bad, but as many in Korea found out, it doesn’t necessarily prevent an even injured target from firing back. The 5.56, contrary to what you imply, does not have unstable ballistics – in flight at least. But the standard M193 bullet is 55 grains in weight (compared to the standard 7.62 M80’s 149 grains). When the lighter bullet hits a target, its energy dissipates much more rapidly and causes the bullet to pitch. If shot in the upper chest, this could result in the bullet yawing into the chest cavity, ripping its way through vital organs (hence the term “tumble round”). Not only is the damage much more severe than a through-and-through, it’s darned near impossible to medic. Additionally, the bullet, while only .22” in diameter, is literally ripping a half-inch hole through the body (the length of the bullet) doing disproportionately more damage than its relatively puny size would indicate (this is also why the FN P90s 5.7×28mm round is the preferred choice of the Secret Service).

·         It should also be noted that even the Soviets – slowly and reluctantly – recognized the practicality of a smaller round. While most AK-pattern rifles are chambered in the ex-Soviet 7.62×39mm round, in 1974 the Soviets introduced the AK-74, chambered in 5.45×39mm – for the exact same reasons as the 5.56 (lighter rounds, more control, recognition of the close-combat nature of fighting, etc.).

·         Pansy Europeans: The concern over the tumble round led to the development of the M885 round, which has a 62-grain bullet (the SS109) with a steel penetrator that centers the bullet’s mass and helps the bullet maintain trajectory after making contact. It results in more through-and-throughs, but its bigger benefit is that penetrator – it helps cut through body armor more easily and is also more effective on light vehicles. The Israelis (surprise!) have perfected the SS109 round and I think manufacture a higher-charged cartridge for it as well. The US manufactures and fields both rounds (and an even heavier 70+-grain round).

·         The 5.56, and its M-16 rifle, was hated by GIs when first issued. The recoil was “flimsy,” and the dang thing was made of plastic instead of gen-u-wine wood! It also weighed in at a slight 6 pounds, something not appreciated until the likes of my dad had to slog through mud and rice paddies in Vietnam (Dad was 1st of the 7th Cav, serving with Major Norman Schwarzkopf and Colonel Hal Moore). Once certain serious teething issues were remedied (the M-16 was marketed as self-cleaning and therefore issued without cleaning kits – and jammed severely on south Asian mud; some of the plastics were in fact crap), it gained the respect of many a ground-pounder like my dad.

·         Ammo versatility: One caveat to your discussion here is that the ammo you wish to use (and for which your upper is chambered and buffer is tuned) must fit in the AR magazine – which must fit in the lower receiver’s mag well. So, yes, you can buy an upper chambered in AAC .300 Blackout, e.g., and that will work just fine. The 5.7 x 28 works just nicely (Google “AR57” for images) – it utilizes the P90s top-loaded 30/50-round magazines and drops the spent brass through the mag well. (I want to get one of these, as I own a few 5.7-chambered firearms, including the civilian-approved PS90.)

·         You mention the versatility of the AR. When people ask me what I like about it – in addition to all the points you make – I say “Think of it as the Mr. Potato Head of long guns – you can put whatever your imagination desires on it!” That about sums it up. On my LE6940, for example, I have replaced the factory stock with the MagPul STR, the factory pistol grip with the MagPul MOE, attached a MagPul AFG Angled Fore Grip, A MagPul ASAP single-point sling attachment (I’m a southpaw), and an EOTech 512 holographic reflex sight. My new build will be a Desert Sand MagPul MOE edition effectively, with a stainless M4 barrel.

·         You conclude with the main reason for their popularity: they’re fun. I second that wholeheartedly. They’re fun to shoot (both target and tactical), fun to build (like I’m going to lathe a stock for a bolt-action rifle!) and absolutely fun to customize. And it’s fun to go out to the range and see how others have tricked their rifles out – not many rifles offer this degree of flexibility, something that Eugene Stoner probably never imagined when he introduced the first prototype back in the late 1950s.

I have quite a few rifles, but none are more fun to tinker with than the AR15. I can’t wait to be able to say that I built my own.

Thanks again for the enjoyable read!


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