A Rock River Arms LAR-15 Delta CAR in the classic 5.56×39 caliber.

Even for people who know little or nothing about firearms, the outline of an AR-15 is widely recognizable. More than that, it is a shape that has meaning. While terms like M16, M4, and AR-15 might be greeted with a blank stare, the iconic silhouette of an AR carries with it a host of associations, both good and bad, depending on the viewer’s perspective.

It evokes images of the military, given that the M16 and its descendants have been the main battle rifle of the United States for more than half a century. We’ve seen it wielded by Marines in Hue City, carried by soldiers across the sands of Iraq, and thrust bayonet- first into the ground, adorned with helmet, boots, and dog tags, to form a Battlefield Cross commemorating our fallen. It has become a symbol of the American warrior.

Among anti-gunners, it is a malevolent object, something with a sole purpose: to kill as many people in as short a period of time as possible. For these folks, and their like-minded elected representatives, features like pistol grips, flash hiders, collapsible stocks, and high-capacity magazines are what separate the AR from other semi-auto rifles, elevating it to the status of Public Enemy Number One. As such, efforts to restrict, ban, confiscate, and otherwise keep the AR out of civilian hands is their top priority. Never mind that ARs are used in the barest minority of firearms crimes, and that crime rates continue to fall to historic lows. (In 2014, rifles were used in 248 homicides, compared to 11,961 killings of all types, including 660 by unarmed attackers, according to FBI statistics. There is no subset of data that addresses ARs specifically.) It is the high-profile shootings that motivate these people and their belief that there is no “need” for ARs, despite the fact that “needs” do not figure into the discussion of our well-established Constitutional rights.

Then there’s the way that ARs are perceived among sportsmen. There has been a sea change in attitudes toward ARs and other “black” rifles in the last 15 years, which followed the precedent set by Springfields, Mausers, Garands, and other military arms that were embraced by sport shooters. The sharp lines of demarcation between AR shooters and other gun owners—specifically, hunters—have been blurred, and the us-versus-them mentality of the “Rambos” and the “Fudds,” which used to be the prevalent dynamic, is now just a sideshow perpetuated by a few bitter, diehard clingers.

What we’ve seen over that time is the rise of the AR, which has become America’s most popular rifle, as well as the greatest battle rifle of all time.

How did this happen?

Dormant Period

Think of the AR as a seed planted in the 1960s, when the military adopted the rifle, known both as the M16 and the XM16E1 initially.

The rifle got off to an inauspicious start in Vietnam. Shoddy construction in the form of barrels and chambers that hadn’t been chrome-lined, poorly made ammo that used the wrong type of powder, and the lack of cleaning equipment and training for the troops who were issued the rifles led to disaster on the battlefield. Rifles malfunctioned, and soldiers and marines died. The grunts and GIs lost faith in the M16, and Colt, which had purchased the manufacturing rights to the rifle from Armalite in 1959, had a public-relations disaster on its hands.

The fallout of that era created a tide of ill will and misinformation—like the myth of the M16’s tumbling bullets—that kept the AR seed dormant for decades while the military slowly modified the platform to address its shortcomings.

The M16A2 made its official debut in 1982 and featured a heavier barrel, a faster twist rate, and a three-round burst mode in lieu of a full-auto setting. Then, in the mid-’90s, models like the M4 and M16A3 were introduced, with flattop receivers with Picatinny rails and adjustable telescoping stocks and shorter barrel lengths.

These evolutions in the platform augmented the AR-15’s excellent ergonomics, and gave the rifles more flexibility and modularity to adapt to different missions. And, finally, the seed could grow and bloom. What the AR needed for this to happen was a catalyst, and it came from an unlikely source: the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB), which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

Unintended Consequences

The AWB was authored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and prohibited the sale of semi-automatic rifles with detachable magazines that had more than one of the following features: pistol grips, threaded barrels, bayonet lugs, folding or collapsible stocks, flash suppressors, and grenade-launcher mounts. Similar provisions applied to semi-automatic pistols and shotguns. The ban also limited magazines to a 10-round-maximum capacity.

The goal of this was, of course, to kill off these semi-autos in the name of public safety. The “logic” being that these guns—AKs and ARs, in particular—contributed to crime because of their cosmetic and ergonomic features.

At first it did seem that the AWB had taken the legs out from under the AR platform. Major gunmakers backed away from the category and stopped aggressively marketing the rifles to civilians.

“Before the assault weapons ban, ARs were expensive, hard to find, and didn’t work all that well,” says firearms expert Michael Bane. “When it came on, all the big players got scared off, and this opened the market. For that 10-year period [before the AWB expired in 2004], the little guy got the innovative edge because there was no one there to knock them off.”

Into that vacuum stepped entrepreneurs and innovators like Randy Luth, Karl Lewis, and Jack and Teresa Starnes who saw the potential of the AR and started introducing everything from aftermarket parts and accessories to complete rifles.

It was during this period that the AR realized its potential as a modular platform. The adaptation of the Picatinny rail system created new possibilities for accessories. The early innovators also weren’t afraid to take chances, inventing new categories of products that had never been associated with ARs before. It ushered in a golden age in the mid- to late ’90s, during which the pages of publications like Shotgun News were filled with dozens of ads hawking products for ARs. Armed with nothing more than a phone and a credit card, a gun owner could reinvent his rifle by changing out barrels, handguards, triggers, stocks, and optics. And once the economic doldrums took hold of the gun industry in the mid-2000s, it was the sustained enthusiasm for ARs that kept the gun industry afloat and drove most of the innovation. Contrary to popular stereotypes, the people attracted to this market weren’t basement-dwelling doomsdayers, but were competitive shooters, hunters, active-duty military personnel, and enthusiasts who loved to tinker with their guns.

This created an information feedback loop with the upstart manufacturers that tested ideas, techniques, gear, and tactics in real-world scenarios—in the early outlaw 3-Gun matches, in the deer woods, and on the battlefield.

The results of this vetting process were spectacular. Not only were the kinks worked out of the original system, but the AR came to take on tasks that certainly never occurred to Armalite’s Eugene Stoner when he designed it.

As a battle rifle, it can engage opposing forces accurately at distances a fighter with an AK couldn’t dream of. Accurized for precision rifle work, it can shoot tight groups at 1,000 yards. For hunters, it can be lightened up and chambered in hard-hitting cartridges for any type of large game.

But most important, the AR has become a bridge for shooters, connecting what used to be disparate communities of firearms owners and uniting them around its modular platform, encouraging people who used to stand toe-to-toe instead to fight side-by-side to protect our rights.

Any rifle that can boast this series of accomplishments deserves to be called the greatest, no question about it.