A few days ago, I came upon an interesting claim in an internet shooting “magazine.” The writer proclaimed, with no qualification whatever, that the AR-15 is “the most popular rifle in American history.”
Intrigued by this bold assertion, I read on to see if the writer would provide any basis for it, or qualify it in any way, or even explain why he made it. But no. Just a flat statement, as if written in stone, suggesting that this was the triumph of the ultimate rifle technology. It did make me think, however. I don’t believe the most popular rifle would be the AR-15, but if not that, what?
Assuming we are talking hunting rifles, I doubt very much that the total number of AR-15s used for hunting would come anywhere near the almost eight million Model 94s that Winchester has turned out, and virtually all of those were used for hunting and little else.
The only possible rival to the 94 is the Mauser 98 in its various forms and permutations. Commercial 98s, converted military rifles, derivatives like the Springfield 03A3 and Enfield P-14 & P17, and commercial offspring such as the Winchester Model 70 — we’ll stop the list there, simply because it could go on for pages. How many would that add up to?
These were used for hunting, target shooting, varmints, plinking, and just sitting behind the door, waiting for intruders. Some enthusiasts owned eight or ten of these, and collectors could easily amass a hundred. I have yet to meet anyone with a hundred ARs, or even 20.
Before someone objects that those Mauser-types were not all the same rifle — slight variations, different calibers, and so on — I would point out that the AR now comes in a mind-boggling variety of sizes and calibers, and only a madman would attempt to count the after-market modifications available. In that sense, the AR is no more a “standard” rifle than the Mauser.
Conventional wisdom says the bolt action really took off in this country after 1918, when returning soldiers with a taste for the Springfield demanded similar sporting bolt actions. Some suggest this always happens after a war, when there is a flood of demobbed soldiers, but I can’t find another real instance. After 1945, there was no great demand for semiautos because of experience with the Garand, and there was no shortage of Garands in the surplus-rifle ads for decades afterwards.
The Garand was not embraced as either a hunting rifle or a general target rifle, outside of strictly military matches. The problem was that it was heavy and complicated. The Springfield in military guise was heavy too, but it could be cut down and sporterized. This was not possible with the Garand. In 50 years of wandering about, I have yet to encounter a single hunter armed with one.
One major difference today from the years after 1945 is the wider variety of shooting sports and games, some of which demand an AR-type rifle. It is hard to imagine, however, that the total number of people involved in those activities outnumber the estimated 15-million hunters throughout the land.
Thinking back to hunting camps I’ve been in over the past five years, I cannot remember seeing a single AR, in spite of efforts to label it the “modern sporting rifle.” I don’t even see that many of them at shooting ranges around here. Its two main applications seem to be specialty competitions and home defense.
Because AR production is so fragmented, with dozens of small manufacturers producing bits, pieces, and entire rifles, it is probably impossible to put a handle on exactly how many have been made since 1965 and, of them all, how many are, or have been, bought and sold in the civilian market.
Even if evidence were produced to show that the AR has outsold everything else over the last decade, I suspect an awful lot of those went to people who bought one purely because they were afraid of a re-enactment of the Clintons’ assault rifle ban.
Sales and popularity are not synonyms anyway. I have a couple of ARs, but I shoot them rarely and if I were to list my favorites of the rifles I own, they would not be on the list. Just because I bought them doesn’t mean I love them, and outside of a few devotees, I suspect that’s true of many.--Terry Wieland
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Safari Times