Modern Sporting Rifle: A Brief History

A Brief History

The AR-15 (what the media has dubbed an “assault weapon”) is merely the latest example of private citizens using and helping to develop a firearm type that had been used by the military. Every major firearm type used by the U.S. military has also been owned and used by civilians. This goes for lever-action Winchesters, bolt-action Springfields, pump-action shotguns from Browning and the AR-15. Those who say that “weapons of war have no place in civilian hands” are either unaware of American history, are misled or are dishonest.

American gun companies have always worked to invent and perfect gun designs that were then used by the military, law enforcement and civilians. Gun companies were in fact a big part of the American industrial revolution.

In 1836 Samuel Colt perfected and patented a revolving handgun by bringing together features from previous guns and fashioning them into a mechanically reliable revolver. Colt even thought of developing an assembly line to manufacture his product. School textbooks often call Henry Ford’s use of an assembly line nearly a century later (in the late 1920s) a major innovation, as Ford used an assembly line to make the Ford Model T. But a gun maker a century before had this idea. Colt wrote in a letter in 1836 that the “first workman would receive two or three of the most important parts and would affix these and pass them on to the next who add a part and pass the growing article on to another who would do the same, and so on until the complete arm is put together.”[1]

Today’s modern sporting rifles are simply the latest example of America’s gun companies making new firearms for citizens and for the government.

This is widely misunderstood, as it is rarely covered accurately by the media or taught by educators.

The ‘Assault Weapon’ Misnomer

Instead, modern sporting rifles have become many in the media now call “assault weapons.” This deserves a clarification, as the media often interchanges the terms “assault weapon” and “assault rifle.” According to Bruce H. Kobayashi and Joseph E. Olson, in the Stanford Law and Policy Review, “Prior to 1989, the term ‘assault weapon’ did not exist in the lexicon of firearms.” “Assault weapon” is a political term developed by anti-gun advocates to convince people that some guns are too scary, effective, ergonomic or something, for U.S. citizens to own. The technical term “assault rifle” includes full-auto military firearms such as the M4A1 carbine. The AR-15 is not an assault rifle—it’s not full-auto; it’s semiautomatic (when you pull the trigger it goes bang once).

“AR” doesn’t stand for “assault rifle.” It stands for the first two letters of the original manufacturer’s name: ArmaLite Corporation. AR-15s cannot be configured to be fully automatic. Assault rifles, being full-auto machine guns, are already heavily restricted.

The term “assault weapon” is a relative term used by some to include a growing number of firearm makes and models some want to ban. To see how this century-plus-old technology suddenly became a target for anti-gun groups and politicians, we need to look back to the late 1980s. In 1988, anti-gun activist Josh Sugarmann, who was the communications director for the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, recommended that gun-control groups use public ignorance and fear to ban everything they can stuff into the phrase “assault weapon” when he wrote, “Assault weapons … are a new topic. The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons…. Efforts to restrict assault weapons are more likely to succeed than those to restrict handguns.”[2]

The political shift to dubbing these semiautomatic rifles “assault weapons” led to the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban (a federal law that expired in 2004) and to bans in seven states and the District of Columbia, including California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. All this is why Richard Lowry, editor of National Review, called the term “assault weapon” a “manufactured term.”[3]

It has been politically difficult to pass another federal ban on semiautomatic rifles that look a certain way because the data show that the number of people shot and killed with semiautomatic rifles didn’t change appreciably during the 10-year period (1994-2004) that those firearms were banned from being sold.[4] Specifically, reports submitted by state and local law-enforcement agencies to the FBI and published annually in its “Uniform Crime Reports” indicate that firearms-related murders and the non-negligent manslaughter rate per 100,000 of the population decreased from 6.6 for 1993 to 3.6 for 2000. The rate held steady at 3.6 for 2001 and fluctuated thereafter between a high of 3.9 in 2006 and 2007 and was a low 3.2 in 2010 and 2011.[5] No matter how someone plays with these statistics, they don’t show any correlation with the 1994-2004 ban.

There is also another glaring number few in the media like to report: According to FBI crime statistics murderers used rifles just 2.5% of the time in 2011. Modern sporting rifles make up an even smaller fraction of that percentage.[6] Almost four times more murderers used knives (323 used rifles whereas 1,694 used knives or another sharp object in 2011) to kill someone. Hands and feet are also used more frequently than are rifles.


[1] William Hosley, Colt: The Making of an American Legend, University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.
[2] Violence Policy Center, “Assault Weapons and Accessories in America,” chapter 2 and “Conclusion.” (
[3] Richard Lowry, Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years, 2003 Regnery.
[4] National Research Council, Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review (Washington, DC: 2005)
[5] See: