For more than 100 years, America’s most iconic rifle has been the lever action. No other rifle begs to be picked up, have the action worked or tweaks that little bit of “cowboy” in us all. But to steal a phrase from Bob Dylan, “The times they are a changing.” The AR-15 is quickly becoming the long arm of choice for American gun owners.
For those who believe the spirit of a rifle can only be held deep within the marriage of oil finished walnut and blued steel, this can be a hard pill to swallow. I’m no different. There has not been and never will be a rifle that can touch my soul and warm my hands like Grandpa’s old .30-30. It’s no different for me with trucks. His old ’69 Chevy C 10 … now that was a real truck. I’ve owned several, but that bench seat, three on the column shifter and two-gauge dash are forever etched in my memory. Still, I would not trade the heated seats, XM Radio, power windows, four doors and high ground clearance of my modern pickup.
Machines—rifles or trucks—evolve faster than humans. With some things, we readily accept change. Few would give up their iPhone for rotary phones, party lines and pay phones. I doubt you know anyone who longs to trade their 55-inch, high-def flat screen for a black-and-white floor model. Advancements in luxury and convenience we warm to quickly; things challenging passions we experienced when we were first learning to hunt have a harder row to hoe.
An AR is no different than a smartphone. It can do many things. Its versatility is unmatched. By simply changing upper receivers you can go from a coyote-calling rifle in .204 Ruger to a 300-plus-yard big game rifle in .30 Rem. AR. Or, slap on a .22 Long Rifle upper and you have a squirrel rifle.
Ignore all that hogwash about a .223 Rem.—the original AR cartridge—not being enough for deer. Loaded with proper ammo such as Federal’s Vital-Shok 60-grain Partition or Remington’s 62-grain Core-Lokt Ultra, the .223 Rem. is every bit as deer-capable as a .30-30 Win. lever gun. And, contrary to popular claims that the .223 Rem. is not legal for deer in most states, my last count showed that 38 allow it.
The ability to do most of the jobs an American rifleman will ask of it is not the only reason for the rise of the AR. Our country has been at war for 10 years. Just like after World War I, when servicemen came home convinced that Colt’s 1911 was a handgun they could believe in; just like after World War II when they came back convinced that the .30-06 saved the world; veterans are now coming home knowing that they can trust an AR. Our military’s adoption of and our veterans’ experiences with the Colt .45 and the .30-06 made them not just popular, but iconic. With the AR, it’s no different.
Let me go on record and say that I’ve never picked up an AR and felt something stir deep in my soul. It has never helped recall a childhood memory, and holding one has never left the scent of wood smoke, boot grease and a hunter’s breakfast in my nose. When I pick up an AR I feel something different. I feel I have a very capable tool in my hands. I feel that I’m holding a precision-engineered instrument capable of allowing me to shoot to my upmost potential.
But most of all, I feel like a free American. It helps me connect with the idea that—at least for now—in this country I can own a rifle. And owning a rifle is what differentiates a citizen from a subject. No, there’s no walnut or blued steel, and I know a cowboy never carried anything like this. But I also know a cowboy never owned a repeating rifle he could use to do what I can do with an AR.
The beauty of the AR (America’s Rifle) is that buying one, owning one, shooting one or hunting with one does not mean you have to give up on all your others. I still own more lever and bolt rifles than ARs. I still hunt with both, especially when I want to connect to something special in my past. As a matter of fact, I’m taking a lever gun to Africa next month for buffalo.
There will always be a .30-30 or a lever gun of some sort in my closet, and there will always be an AR in there keeping it company. The AR represents the evolution of the rifle and this country—in freedom’s name.