The AR-15 is among the most popular designs for long guns, along with the Russian-designed AK-47. While you can buy several variations on the AK-47 in the United States, the US-made AR-15 is far more common.
AR-15s and “Assault Rifles” get an inordinate amount of press in the media and are hotly debated in Congress on a regular basis despite being far less common than hand guns. AR15s also account for far less murders than handguns and even less homicides than hammers & hands/feet!
How Many AR15s are Owned in US?
According to the National Shooting Sports Federation, there were approximately 19.8 million AR-15 rifles as of 2020. However, sales for AR-15-style rifles and all guns spiked dramatically during the Covid Pandemic so that number is likely closer to 23 million today.
With over 434 million guns privately held1 in the US, that represents just 5% of all civilian firearms. According to Pew Research, among Americans that own only one gun, 62% own a handgun versus 22% who own a rifle, with the majority of those being AR-15s. The remainder own shotguns.
Private citizens vs. the US Government & Police
The M16 was produced for the US military and for export from 1969 receiving numerous upgrades. The final upgrade was in 1994 when the M16A4 (M4) was adopted. The M4 remains in use but is being phased out and replaced by the Sig Sauer MCX Spear as of 2020, another evolution of the venerable AR-15 design.
Overall 8 million units of all M16 rifle variants had been produced and sold over the course of its production run2, as of 2011. Of those, 4.5 million are in US military inventories3. Therefore, it can be reasonably deduced that there are approximately 4 to 5 civilian AR-15 variants for every military version.
Of course, this isn’t an apple to apple comparison since the military versions include fully automatic and burst fire modes that are strictly regulated in the civilian market as machine guns.
What is an AR-15?
Despite popular perception, “AR” does not stand for “assault rifle.” In fact, assault rifle is a political term that doesn’t relate to any specific feature or characteristic of the weapon. “AR” actually stands for “ArmaLite,” the company that originally manufactured the design from 1959-1964.
Based on the older AR-10 model, the AR-15 was designed to be light and easy to maintain while allowing infantrymen to carry more ammunition by using smaller caliber, high velocity rounds.
Early in its production cycle, ArmaLite was acquired by Colt who continued manufacturing the gun under the name Colt 601. However, when the US military came calling, the gun was redesigned and famously rechristened the M-16.
Due to contractual obligations dating back to the sale of ArmaLite to Colt, the “AR-15” logo remained on the gun throughout its evolution. This led to the popularization of the term as a generic reference to this style of rifle.
Today, AR-15 refers to any of a number of lightweight, semi-automatic rifles based on the Colt 601/602 design. This design became wildly popular following the expiration of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 2004. The design was rebranded as modern sporting rifles and the NRA deemed it “America’s rifle.”
Today, the AR-15-style rifle is coveted as a home defense weapon as well as a popular hunting rifle. It’s versatility, ease of use, simple design, and array of customizations make it a beloved fixture of modern American gun culture.
1 – Small Arms Survey, 2017
3 – AP News, June 2021
Researched and written by the American Gun Facts team. We are a group of Americans dedicated to providing factual information on firearms and fighting back against attempts to weaken or discard the Second Amendment. We write on topics ranging from firearm statistics, news, reviews, and more! AGF has been featured in the New York Times, NBC, MSN, Time, & many other publications.