When looking at the AR it is possible to become overwhelmed with the choices available. There are AR-15 rifles, AR-15 pistols, AR-15 carbines, and several calibers. This article will present information to help demystify the topic. Many manufacturers produce AR-15 “like” weapons as well as accessories for them.

To begin the process of demystification, there is some terminology to address. First, most second amendment supporters understand this, but it is still worth saying – “AR” does not mean Assault Rifle. Popular culture and media propagation widely use assault rifle terminology to describe military or tactical style weapons fed by a magazine. In the civilian world these weapons will be semi-automatic, which simply means one round is fired each time the trigger is pulled.

6 Best AR-15 Pistols [2022 Complete & Build List] - Pew Pew Tactical
AR-15 Rifle and AR-15 Pistol

Not as scary as popular culture makes it seem. However, the “AR” in AR-15 technically means Armalite Rifle. These are manufactured by the Armalite company which is part of Colt Manufacturing. There are many derivative AR platforms in various calibers.

For the purposes of this article, information will focus on the AR-15 type platform specifically. This means a few specific things:

  1. tactical semi-automatic weapon;
  2. magazine fed;
  3. specifically 5.56x45mm North American Treaty Organization (NATO)/.223 caliber.

Types and Specifications

The AR-15 can be a rifle, carbine, or pistol type. Please note that you may find any number of lengths so what is described here are typical lengths.


  • AR-15 Rifle – Barrel length 20”; Overall length 39”; Weight 6.7 lbs (w/20 round load)
  • AR-15 Carbine – Barrel length 16”; Overall length 35”; Weight 6.5 lbs (w/20 round load)
  • AR-15 Pistol – Barrel length 9.5”; Overall length 23”; Weight 5.75 lbs (w/30 round load)

Now that “typical” is defined, it needs to be clear that the AR-15 is the most customizable, modular weapon platform available. Standard AR-15 builds pair a specific serialized lower assembly with variable length upper assembly that includes the barrel and gas cylinder. Rifles and carbines are made by pairing a rifle lower assembly with an upper assembly that has a minimum 16” barrel. The only real difference in a rifle and carbine is the shorter barrel length, and subsequently overall length, for carbines.

The AR-15 pistol requires a serialized pistol lower assembly and an upper assembly with a barrel length under 16”. The differences come in the legalities of the definition of firearms in the United States.AR-15 pistol is considered a handgun and must meet these legal criteria:

  1. Barrel must be less than 16”
  2. Overall length must be less than 26”
  3. Cannot have a standard rifle stock. However, it may be outfitted with a stabilizing brace.
  4. Cannot have a 90-degree (vertical) foregrip.

Any weapon that exceeds one of these criteria is considered a rifle. The legal aspects are important because the penalties for concealing a handgun without a concealed carry permit are significant. But owning an AR-15 pistol is legal in most states. This is an important factor when considering building or buying an AR-15 pistol.

Owning Your AR-15

One of the most joyful aspects of owning an AR-15 is in the selection process for your weapon. There are literally hundreds of choices to consider. This starts with the basic pistol versus rifle versus carbine question. Once that question is answered, the specifics of barrel length, overall length, gas tube length, rails for accessories, classic look iron sights, material, and color become crucial considerations. One beauty of the modularity of the AR-15 is that most all the accessories, like optics, fit any rifle, pistol, or carbine configuration that is similarly equipped. So, a person has many options to consider

Let’s start with the basic question of what platform to purchase. As with many things, it depends. The basic use you foresee for your AR-15 will drive what is the best fit for you. Consider that the application is for a “bug-out” or SHTF situation. The defense needs will vary between short range and long range. Longer range accuracy will be important so barrel lengths over 16” should be the primary focus. The typical AR-15 upper rifling is 1:7 or 1:8. This means one full twist of the bullet every seven or eight inches respectively. A round will achieve two full twists transiting a barrel that is 16” long. This means tighter rotation and improved long range accuracy. Many AR-15 rifles with 20” barrels are accurate at ranges up to 300 yards.

At the other end of the spectrum, barrel lengths for AR-15 pistols are shorter. AR-15 pistol barrels can vary between 7.5” and 11”. For accuracy purposes a round gets one or slightly more rotations when fired through an AR-15 pistol. Longer range accuracy suffers because the muzzle velocity is lower leaving the shorter barrel. Accuracy has everything to do with stabilizing the projectile and muzzle velocity is a key factor. That being said, accuracy with an optic sight and 10.5” barrel have been consistent at 100 yards. But consider the application for a pistol. The length and weight of these pistol platforms make them ideal for home defense or private security situations. The overall length of the weapon makes it more easily concealed for private security teams. They often need to maneuver in crowds or tight places, so weight and length are important considerations.

For home defense the short barrel makes moving through the house more efficient. If a homeowner has to “pie” a corner, they can do so at a safer distance with the shorter pistol configurations. Back in the Vietnam War days, the Colt AR-15, or CAR-15, was much shorter and more maneuverable in the jungle than the M-16. They were highly sought after and prized weapons. So, the AR-15 pistol is ideal for tight situations. This means long range accuracy is not an issue so fewer twists through the rifling should not pose an issue. The majority of users these days will be well satisfied owning an AR-15 pistol for personal protection. They are certainly popular at the range these days. If you go regularly are look at other people’s gear, you will notice.

Buy Versus Build

The question of whether to buy a pre-configured AR-15 or purchase your upper and lower plus accessories is hotly debated. The passionate enthusiasts have more arguments that a dispute between holy men or husbands and wives. Well, the answer is, both sides are correct. There are many people in the world who are Patriots but, bless their heart, the have no mechanical aptitude. For these people, purchasing a pre-configured AR-15 is probably the right move. For the rest of us, the question comes down to cost and flexibility.

So, does it cost less to build your own AR-15? It is a fair question, and the answer is maybe. As with the plethora or choices for lower and upper assemblies, there is a wide range of price points to consider. These can be bare bones economy all the way up to Lamborghini. It is reasonable to state that on the surface, one can get a mid-range cost upper and lower assembly for less than buying a preconfigured AR-15. But there are some hidden costs in there that must be accounted for. First, there is hands on assembly that must be completed.

This takes time which is a valuable commodity for many of us these days. Second, if you do not possess a Federal Firearms License (FFL), you will have to employ the services of one to receive the lower. The fees FFL charge are usually nominal, but you will have to expend more time and energy. Third, one must be very careful buying upper assemblies. Many DO NOT come with a charging handle and bolt carrier group (BCG). This will be an added expense not accounted for in the basic cost options. Lastly, most upper receivers do not come equipped with sights. This will be an additional expense.

From a purely cost perspective when comparing apples to apples it is a bit more economical to purchase a configuration already assembled. This approach does limit a buyer’s ability to customize and get exactly the configuration they want.

Operating Your AR-15

No matter which type of AR-15 is chosen, their basic operation is the same. Load rounds into a magazine, insert magazine into weapon, pull and release or release the charging handle, thumb the selector switch from “safe” to “semi”, sight the weapon, and squeeze the trigger. The magazines are interchangeable. The charging handles are all in the same location as are the selector switches. Therefore, if you have ever used an AR-15 before, changing to a different type will pose no operating problem.

You also get the high velocity (~2,000 feet per second) 5.56 rounds that cause significant damage to your target. It is widely thought the damage caused by the 5.56 round was due to tumbling. While the round will tumble, the high velocity leads to much fragmentation and causes most of the damage. You get this benefit from any platform you choose. The interchangeability of accessories, ubiquity of 5.56 ammunition, and uniformity of magazines make the AR-15 a superior choice for any needs.