Black guns often get a bum rap. They can look a bit menacing, and their configuration and controls are radically different than those found on traditional sporting firearms. But the hunter who automatically dismisses AR-style rifles as legitimate sporting guns would be doing himself a major disservice. Why? Because the AR is one of the most capable, adaptable, and appealing firearm platforms on the market today. And these characteristics are helping it gain traction in the civilian market in its semi-automatic-only form.
So, what exactly is the AR and why is it so appealing? First, AR stands for Armalite, the company that created the guns back in the 1950s (not Assault Rifle as is commonly thought). However, it has now come to refer generally to all manufacturers' civilian versions of the design.
When the first AR rifles were introduced they were radically innovative compared to popular guns of the day. The classic Winchester Model 70, for example, with it’s wood stock and blued carbon-steel barrel, looked great, but it also had an action based on a 19th century design. The AR was something completely different: It combined advanced aluminum-alloy forgings and synthetic materials. It featured a modular design with a two-piece receiver that allowed users to easily swap out upper assemblies of different chamberings or configurations. The two-piece stock design let users reconfigure the AR with different stocks and fore-end systems. That kind of versatility has allowed the AR (which was born as the AR-10 and adopted by the military as the M16) to become the longest-serving rifle in our country’s history.
Over the past 50 years manufacturers have taken advantage of the gun’s modularity to attach optics and accessories, add new operating systems, allow larger chamberings, and even create civilian-legal semi-automatic-only versions. These guns have proved capable and popular with shooters of all stripes, especially varmint hunters. And recent developments have expanded the platform to big-game hunters as well.
This is because the qualities that make AR rifles so successful as a military design also make them highly capable as hunting firearms. Many models boast sub-MOA accuracy right out of the box, with some variants featuring performance that rivals that of custom target rifles.
What follows is my personal list of the top 25 ARs. This list includes guns ranging from tactical rifles to hunting rifles, plinkers to pistols, all of which is designed to give shooters a good idea of the range of ARs available to them today. Unless otherwise noted, all guns on this list are chambered for standard 5.56x45mm/.223 Rem. cartridges. -Michael Humphries
Michael O. Humphries spent seven years on the editorial staff of NRA’s American Rifleman magazine before going freelance to cover military-pattern firearms for a variety of gun magazines, including Field & Stream's sister publication SHOT Business.
Humphries has attended many amorer’s courses and shooting schools while researching articles, including events held at Gunsite, Direct Action Resource Center, the Crucible and U.S. Training Center (formerly known as Blackwater USA). He lives in North Carolina.