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America’s Rifle: Three things to know before buying your first AR

America’s Rifle: Three things to know before buying your first AR

The wait is over. You’ve pored over reviews and blog posts, flipped through gun magazines, watched YouTube gun gurus and consulted the experts at the gun shop nearby. You talked to friends, family members and the occasional stranger, digging for recommendations and scoping out gear you like.

You know you want an AR. You just need to know where to begin. 

For those new to the world of AR-pattern rifles, the sheer volume of information, options, and opinions can be overwhelming. To help new AR buyers find the rifle that’s right for them, our NRA Certified Instructors recommend answering the following questions: 

What do I want to do with my rifle?

What do I want to do with my rifle? 

Gun owners are an extremely diverse group of people, and the purposes for buying and using a firearm are wide-ranging. To meet the demands of a wide variety of shooters, AR-pattern rifle design varies greatly, with rifles tailored to suit the needs of hunters, competitive shooters, law enforcement, recreational shooters, among others.

Nate Judd, Lead Program Specialist for NRA’s America’s Rifle Challenge program, said knowing what you need your rifle to do is key to finding the right one.

For those looking to train or shoot recreationally, known as “plinking,” Judd recommends an M4-style carbine with a flat top receiver, chambered in 5.56x45 NATO/.223 Remington, that’s lightweight and mobile, yet durable enough to withstand rigorous use and high round counts. These light rifles allow countless customization options, and are often available at competitive price points.

Hunters looking at the AR platform will likely benefit from a heavier, larger rifle than an M4 clone, opting instead for longer bull barrels, fixed and precision-style stocks, and potentially larger calibers, like .300 AAC Blackout or .308 Winchester. 

Those interested in competitive shooting need even more finely tuned firearms, and depending on what discipline of competition you’re in, the AR you choose may vary greatly in how it’s built. We’ll touch on competitive shooting in later entries.

What goes with my rifle?

What goes with my rifle?

Like practically anything, the buying experience doesn’t end once you pick up your gun. Let’s face it: a gun with no ammo is effectively a paperweight, and while most rifles come with standard essentials, you’ll need a few extra pieces of gear to get on paper:

Ammo: NRA Lead Training Program Coordinator Brett Simon said when choosing ammo, it is imperative to know three things: caliber, twist rate and ammo type. AR-pattern rifles come in an increasing variety of calibers, so ensure you know what you want before you buy your firearm, and buy the right caliber for your gun. Most common to ARs is .223 Remington and 5.56x45 NATO. However, while rifle chambered in 5.56 will fire .223 Rem, tolerances on .223-chambered rifles have tighter tolerances, and may not be able to safely fire the higher-pressure 5.56 ammo. We’ll discuss ammo in more detail in a future article.

Twist rates, an example being 1:8, is the rate of twist in the barrel’s rifling. A 1:8 twist rate means the projectile will make one full revolution every eight inches. This spin stabilizes the bullet, much like the spin on a well-thrown football pass. Varying grains of bullets work best with different twist rates, so know your barrel’s twist rate when selecting ammo.

Ammo comes in different bullet grains, case material, and projectile types. Casings can be brass or steel, with some steel casings carrying a polymer coating. Also, ammo comes in various projectiles, varying in grains, or weight, and projectile construction, which can include full metal jacket, hollow point, polymer tips and even incendiary and tracer rounds. For range shooting and practice, Simon said it’s best to start with FMJ.

Magazines: Unless you want to manually load each round into the chamber between shots, you’ll need magazines. While many rifles include a magazine with the rifle, some do not, and you’ll definitely want to keep multiple magazines on hand.

Simon advises using magazines known for reliability, and suggests buying extras of the magazine your rifle came with, if applicable.

Sights: You’ll need some kind of sights in order to get on target. Most rifles include some configuration of iron sights, the basic rifle sighting mechanism. However, this also is not universal, and some rifles may include only a front sight, with others featuring no sights at all out of the box. In addition to iron sights, users can opt for red dots or magnified optics. We’ll touch on these in more detail in a later post.

How do I safely load and operate my rifle?

How do I safely load and operate my rifle?

Once you have your AR, sights, mags and ammo, you need to understand how to safely load and operate the firearm BEFORE you even visit the range. As with any firearm purchase, be sure to carefully consult your gun’s owner’s manual before using the firearm. 

Andy Lander, NRA Training Counselor Program Coordinator, offers seven steps to ensure you can safely get rounds in the chamber:

Step 1: Engage mechanical safety, and apply NRA 3 Rules of Safe Gun Handling:

  • ALWAYS keep the gun pointed in a safe direction
  • ALWAYS keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot
  • ALWAYS keep the gun unloaded until ready to use

Step 2:
Load the rounds into your magazine. Place your finger on top of a loaded magazine and feel which side of the magazine the cartridge is on. If the cartridge is on the left side, say out loud “LEFT” or “RIGHT,” depending on what side of the magazine the top-most round is sitting.

Step 3: Insert the magazine, and charge the rifle. If your bolt is closed forward, charge the rifle by pulling back on the charging handle, then using the bolt release, a latch that resembles a ping pong paddle.

Step 4: Remove the magazine, feel which side the top-most cartridge is on, and say aloud which side it is on. The cartridge now should be the opposite side as when you loaded it. If it is, your rifle now has a cartridge in the chamber. If the cartridge is on the same side as when you loaded the magazine, you may want to start over. Push the magazine into the magazine well firmly until you hear a click, then pull on it to ensure the magazine is properly seated. This is known as the ”push-pull” method.

Step 5: Re-insert magazine using the “push-pull” method.

Step 6: Tap the forward assist, if your rifle features it. Using your thumb or finger, push against the bolt to ensure proper seating and function.

Step 7: Close the dust cover, if your rile features it. This will prevent dirt from getting into the bolt and chamber, but also serves as a final mental check, as well as a visual indicator that lets you and those around you know your gun is loaded. From here, you simply need to manipulate the safety to fire the gun.

That’s a lot of information, especially for those new to the AR platform. However, NRA Certified Instructors provide the “gold standard” of training and education to shooters across the country, and believe the aforementioned provides a solid foundation for the beginner to walk into their local gun shop, find the AR they want, and understand the fundamentals of using it. 

Need more information about training with your AR? Interested in shooting in a match? The NRA America’s Rifle Challenge, presented by Daniel Defense, lets owners of America’s most popular new rifle platform develop and showcase their AR skills. Visit http://arc.nra.org for more information about training courses and matches.

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