A Brief History of the Modern Sporting Rifle

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.

Today’s modern sporting rifles are just another step in the evolution of the tools hunters and target shooters use to enjoy our sports. These rifles may not look like your current hunting rifle, but remember, your rifle probably doesn’t look much like your grandfather’s either.

Becoming America’s Rifle 

According to the research firm Southwick Associates, Inc., in 2012 one in five rifles sold was chambered in .223 Remington—most of these are AR-15-type rifles. Today the AR-15 and its variations are manufactured by a long and growing list of companies. Modern sporting rifles are popular with civilians and law enforcement around the world because they’re accurate, light, portable and modular. More than 20 million were sold to the American public by 2020, making them one of the most commonly-owned firearms in America. Its design also allows it to be accessorized. A civilian can buy after-market sights, grips, lighting systems, stocks, muzzle brakes, bipods and more. In this way this rifle platform is more versatile than any other rifle. It’s also easy to shoot and has little recoil in the common .223  chambering, making it popular with women and beginners in the recreational shooting sports.

Given American history, and history of the modern sporting rifle, politicians who say the AR-15 is a “weapon of war” civilians shouldn’t be allowed to own are ignorant of our history or are lying. Historically, Americans have always owned similar gun types to those used in the military. Besides, the semiautomatic modern sporting rifles sold to civilians are internally different from the full-automatic M16. Sure, they look similar, but they are not machine guns like their military counterparts. The semiautomatic versions are in common use and legally utilized by law-abiding citizens every day.


[1] William Hosley, Colt: The Making of an American Legend, University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.