Is the AR15 Uniquely Deadly?

High Powered Assault Rifles

The claim is often made that the AR-15 (used to be AK47 that was the evil rifle, but that seems to have fallen out of favor) is "high powered" rifle that somehow causes more damage than other guns.

Well, lets look at that claim. The typical AR-15 uses .223 (or 5.56mm if you insist) ammunition, and fires a bullet which is actually .224" diameter as it enters the barrel. For comparison, here are, left to right, a .223 (5.56) bullet, a .308 (7.62) and a 9mm typically used in handguns and submachine guns (SMG).

The .308 is typically used in hunting rifles, in military rifles such as the M1-A, H&K G83, FN FAL and machine guns such as the M60. The 9mm bullet is typical of a semi-auto handgun. As you can see, the AR-15 bullet is actually pretty small. So why would the US military use something that small in the M16 (an AR-15 derivative)? Well, until the Vietnam war the US military used 30-06 (essentially the same size as the .308, but with a bit more powder behind it) and the .308 in their rifles. The rationale behind the switch was as follows:

  • Bullets are much smaller and lighter - troops can carry lots more of them.
  • With full-auto guns, troops need more ammunition. (Full auto was a mistake, and rapidly backed out in favor of a three round burst).
  • Its less-lethal.

The less lethal part was based on the theory that a dead enemy is just one less fighter. A wounded enemy is one less fighter, but you also have to transport them to a hospital, provide medical care and rehabilitation. A wounded soldier is a much higher cost to the enemy. If they begin abandoning them or not treating them, they will lose the trust of their troops and face mutiny.

There is something to be said for that with a civilized enemy. The less civilized simply "euthanize" their wounded.

The M16 is a militarized version of the AR-15, which existed first. Not a civilian version of the M16 as is sometimes claimed, similar to the M24 sniper rifle being a militarized version of the Remington 700 hunting rifle.

The .223 bullet has received a lot of complaints from the front line, that it can't be relied upon to stop a target (see here for example) sometimes requiring multiple hits before they stop advancing, and that in some areas, such as Afghanistan, enemy armed with higher caliber weapons have greater range and can engage US troops before they can effectively shoot back. In many cases old M1-A rifles have been bought out of retirement and one or two members of each group carry these to engage the enemy at ranges that the .233 (M16) can't.

Several times the US army has explored new caliber weapons, sizes between the .223 and .308 as a compromise.

Some states won't allow .223 caliber guns to be used for deer hunting because it is considered too weak, and likely not to kill on the first shot, even if it is well placed. It is worth noting that in states that do allow it, the AR-15 is widely used for hunting, contrary to claims that it is not. It is probably worth mentioning that the AR-15 is available in multiple different calibers, even though the 5.56/.223 is the most common. A fairly common variant uses a .308 caliber bullet fitted into a cut-down .223 case (known as 300 AAC, or 300 Blackout) which is very commonly used for hunting.

.223 is actually a quite popular round for "varmint" rifles (small game) and there are many rifles (semi auto and bolt action) that use it. There is nothing special about the AR-15 that makes it behave any differently. The same bullet from one barrel is pretty much the same as from another. In fact, most AR-15 rifles use a 16" barrel so the velocity (and hence the potential for damage) is lower than a typical varmint rifle with a 20" barrel.

Rate of Fire

The AR-15 is a semi-automatic rifle, which means that it fires one shot for each pull of the trigger. Just like any other semi-automatic rifle, any handgun, even a revolver. There is nothing about it which makes it shoot faster than any other semi-automatic firearm. If you have never seen it, here is video of 12 shots being fired from a (6 shot) revolver (remember, NOT semi-automatic) - so a reload is involved: link

Of course, normal people can't shoot that fast, and trying to shoot fast typically destroys any pretense of accuracy.

The truth is:

  • The AR-15 is a small caliber rifle (not "high" caliber -- they actually mean large caliber. Caliber is the size of the bullet.)
  • Neither the rifle nor the ammunition is in any way more deadly than anything else.

There is, of course, a difference between bullets fired from a rifle (any rifle) and a handgun. Rifle bullets carry a lot more energy.