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How To Operate an AR-15 & M-16 Rifle

L.p. Brezny | Updated June 7, 2023 | Why You Should Trust Us | How We Earn Money
Man winter hunting with an AR 15 rifle
Author winter hunting with an AR rifle

Built as a military combat assault rifle the M-16 / AR-15 carbine has been designed to be user-friendly. That is after all the bugs were worked out of the early models of the Stoner designed rifles. Being the name “ AR” is often construed to mean automatic rifle, the fact is the “AR” stands for Armalite, the company that actually designed the rifle that was first built by the Colt firearms company.  What this rifle is has become a bit of a mess over the years bing almost everyone that is anyone offers one, the design modification are endless and when that runs out the art department takes over and the ever flowing line of color combinations begins to set in as well.

For the most part regardless of the brand, style, or chambered offering, you buy the basic nuts and bolts of the weapons operational setup remain exactly the same. That is to say the controls are placed to the left and right side of the receiver and can be reversed for use by left hand shooters. 

When I first became introduced to the M-16 I was a young street police officer and although I did not carry one in a patrol car I did hang around enough special unit SWAT officers so as to pick up enough information about them to get one up and running if ever required. Warfighting in my day was accomplished by the 30-06 M1, or the M-14 as chambered in the 7.62 NATO round. Most often the M-16 of even today is chambered in the 5.56mm NATO ( .223 Rem,) and came to be a bit after my prime days as a gunfighter.

As I see it there are three primary ways of viewing the M-16 in terms of become proficient with the weapon. The rifle has been and still is offered in three different variants. The first being the early full auto spray and pray style light machine gun/rifle. This model is operated by hanging a long high capacity magazine on the receiver, make some kind of move to sight or push the weapon out ahead of the shooter, and by hauling back on the trigger turn loose a stream of hot metal in the direction of an aggressor or paper target.  What was found in actual combat operations and even in police use of the M-16 in the full auto mode was that it went through one pile of ammo and hit very little in the process. In actual warfighting, the number of rounds expended versus the net body count it recorded was almost a joke.

As a second option, the military went to the three-round burst selector switch. The same left side receiver mounted switch is found on the full auto, but now a restrictor system only allowed three rounds to be fired with a single pull of the trigger. After that, the next position on the selector switch is a single round semi-auto function. What actually happened was the shooter’s accuracy improved, body count went up per rounds fired, and the system became adapted within the US Army. It goes almost without saying but there was also a whole lot less brass left on the ground after a fire fight. 

As a third element to this story, the M-16 / AR-15 can also be a safety selector switch and a fire position. This is what almost all of them are in the civilian world of AR shooting today. Only in the event, a defender is being rushed by a mob coming through a  restricted choking point the burst effect of rapid fire is no more effective than a single well-placed round on an individual selected target.

There are some variants in the AR rifle design that carry over into others. One of these is the AR-15 basic receiver but modified to retain the core receiver group and function, which includes the magazine well of the AK-47. Here the two worlds of the most prolific fighting rifles ever produced meet head on. Controls change here just a bit, but any trained AR-15 M-16 riflemen can adapt quickly to the Ak-47 version. I own this system in the 7.62X39 Russian short, and save for the high cap 30 round curved magazine and the AK styler trigger guard magazine latch the rifles tend to look much alike.

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Operational procedure. Getting the M-16 / AR 15 up and running

man shooting AR 15 at long range AR school Wasatch mountains
Author at long range AR school Wasatch mountains UT.

While I have covered briefly the basic controls involved in shooting the AR-type system’s design here are the details. We are assuming you’re shooting a street legal semi-automatic, that is to say the rifle fires a single round with each pull of the trigger. 

Loading the rifle requires that the correct magazine that will hold from 20 to 30 rounds is used. Some additional magazines are available for game hunters that in most states regarding the USA are required to keep the cartridge count under five. 20 round magazines are also available, and I like these and the five-round mags because I can lay out prone and still keep the receiver of my AR low to the ground making for correct eye alignment through a scope sight. 

The charging handle on the AR rifle is located at the very back of the receiver and it is shaped like a T bar grip. When the hand is pulled to the rear and the T bar is compressed a latch inside the grip left side depresses as well and this unlocks the bolt allow the weapon to charge a round from the magazine.  Now charged and a chambered round installed the left side of the receiver frame that carries the safety and fire selector which in this case is two being same and fire, with the switch flipped to the up position the weapon is in a fire mode and hot.

Now with a simple pull of the trigger, the weapon will cycle through its magazine of rounds, then remain open after the last round is fired and ejected. Reloading a second magazine and slapping the left side control that functions the bolt will again return the weapon to an operational state of readiness.

Coming from a long line of bolt action riflemen I tend to shoot the AR almost as a single fire system. Sure the extra rounds are there, but it is the first round that counts in a hunting situation. This is simply a style of shooting that returns some good results when taking careful aim and not depending on addition rounds downrange. The AR retains the telescoping buttstock that can allow for several stages of adjustment. This makes for a very workable setup in terms of getting accurate shot placement from the rifle. Regardless of how the exterior of the rifle looks these rifles are all very much like. The gas block that functions the action is well forward of the heat handguard. Hunters don’t trouble themselves with heat issues, but combat troops do.

Most AR’s offer a generous Weaver-style sight mounting rail and this adorns the use of scopes, red dot HUD display, and a variety of other sights, light, lasers, and ranging equipment designs. You can load this rifle up to the point you don’t want to carry it. I run the Trijicon ACOG military sight on my Smith & Wesson M&P 15-T, and it has been effective on coyotes, deer, turkeys, prairie dogs, and badger many times over in the past 2O plus years. I have a suppressor mounted on my rifle because the ranchers and also cattle like it when I am hunting at or near their feed lots, and in most cases I use the 5 or 10 round magazine. Keep the firing signature as low as possible. 

My AR-15 mounts a secondary set of open battle style sights in the event the ACOG goes down. It never has, but never say never in this business.

While you can buy hundreds of add-on stuff as applied to the AR-15 I have never made that move, but stayed with my completely stock off the shelf rifle. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.  The GemTech suppressor is a rebuild back from Afghanistan and has served me well for almost 20 years to date. Keep it clean and it can’t wear out.

The AR-15/M-16 and even its larger brother the AR-10 will be with us for a very long time. In many respects as police and military weapons, and also self-defense tools as owned by the average citizen, they are hard to best when it comes to firepower, simplicity, and value. Only the Russian AK 47 holds a larger place on the world market in terms of numbers manufactured and in the hands of shooters today. As to that story, it is again a whole different box of ammo. 

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