So, you just bough your first AR-15 and you have no idea what to do now. Well, this is where I come in. Just as an introduction, I first want to talk about being a responsible gun owner. I fully support people’s rights to keep and bare arms, but I fully condemn irresponsible, negligent, and careless ownership of any weapon.
Politics aside, guns are dangerous. Even the smallest of calibers can kill someone. By the end of this introduction, I hope you will share my respect for firearms and understand my demand for gun safety. So, what do I mean by “responsible ownership”? Simply put, if you own a gun, you are responsible for whatever happens with that gun. You are responsible for every shot fired, for knowing where the gun is at all times, and, heaven forbid, you are responsible in the event your gun is stolen.
Part 1, Firearm Etiquette
When my dad taught me how to shoot for the first time, he said “make sure you point your gun where you intend to shoot”. Self-defense scenarios aside, never, ever, EVER point a gun at another person, regardless of whether or not it has a magazine in it, the bolt is back, the safety is on, you know there is no ammo in the gun, you have a breach flag in it; never point a gun at anyone. If you are shooting for the first time, make sure the muzzle of the gun is either pointing at the ground or down range. If it is a public range, and the range master, the guy who controls what happens at the range, calls for a “cease fire” or says the “range is cold”, then clear your gun and back away. Do not, under any circumstances, approach the firing line until the range master says, “going hot”. This is to ensure that people who walked down range do not get shot.
Just as a side story, when I was 10 years old and at the range, the range master called a cease-fire. At this range, you were supposed to open the chamber so the range master could make sure there was no ammo in the gun. I decided to go to the gun and open it up but people where already down range. Suffice it to say, I spent the whole cease-fire getting chewed out and had it in my to never do that again. The moral of this story is as follows, intentions don’t matter if someone gets shot, what matters is that you follow the rules and do everything you can to make sure everyone around you is safe, even if that means doing nothing at times.
Safety is about more than just where you point your gun or what to do when people move in front of the firing line. Safety also includes making sure your gun is properly maintained, making sure you are using the right ammo, and making sure you know what other people are doing around you.
Part 2, The Other Guys
Unless you can legally shoot on your own private property, you will most likely wind up shooting with other people. Some you might now and others you have never seen before. When in this scenario, it is important that you pay attention to those around you. They don’t know what you are thinking or what you plan to do. It’s possible they might think it’s safe to walk down range when you are just reloading. Or maybe you are at a range that, for whatever reason, has traffic go near the targets. Regardless of what happens, you must pay attention to everything. Bullets won’t decide to not hurt someone just because they made a mistake, though it would be nice if they did.
I have spent a fair amount of time already talking about making sure you make good decisions. Unfortunately, even if you give 110% to following the rules, accidents can still happen; specifically other people responsible for said accidents. I can’t even begin to count how many times I have gone to a public range and some guys drive by to dump a few hundred rounds as fast as possible. They would shoot as fast as possible and occasionally hit the hill behind the targets. For starters, don’t be like these people. But keep an eye on them. It is hard to control a gun when it is shooting fast, even the measly .223 or 5.56. if someone does this around you, stop shooting and back up. If something happens, it doesn’t matter that it is their fault; the bullets don’t care. You are just as responsible for your safety as well as the safety of those around you.
Lastly, let’s not forget that getting shot isn’t the only safety issue. When you go to shoot, make sure the people around are already wearing eye and ear protection. And if your are shooting steel close up, make sure they are out of the way of ricochets and splash-back, though ill elaborate more on that later.
To sum everything up in part 2, you are just as responsible for other people’s safety as you are for your own safety. Living by the golden and silver rules is very important; those being “Do to others as you would like them to do to you” and “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you”. Oh, and if you are going to shoot something really loud, be nice and let other people know.
The last thing to keep in mind is other people off the range. If you have children or friends who are unfamiliar with guns, you are also responsible for anything they do with your guns. A gun safe is tried and tested. Big, heavy, reliable, and having been around for centuries, gun safes are hard to beat. If you do not have the room or the money, there are a variety of gun locks you can use but they only make sure people can’t shoot them, it will not stop someone from steeling them.
Part 3, Gear and Environmental Hazards
In part 2, I told you to make sure everyone had eye and ear protection. If you don’t already know, guns are loud. Most guns can cause permanent hearing damage just by firing 1 shot. Earplugs are nice, and there are other types of hearing protection that go around the ears. I’ve had friends use pistol rounds as well but I would advice against that. Any construction grade earplugs will work for the most guns but if you are going to shoot larger calibers like .308, then you might want to do some research on something better.
Secondly is eye protection. Guns work by utilizing a controlled explosion to propel the bullet forward. The problem is that any un-burnt powder or contaminants in the powder can blow back into your face and into your eyes. Usually this causes severe eye irritation but it can blind you in worst-case scenario. Also, the muzzle break has a tendency to throw a shockwave towards the ground that can throw dust all around and into your face. Lastly, depending on how far you’re shooting, it’s possible, and in some cases inevitable that shrapnel will come back. Sharp copper jackets and pieces of atomized lead hurt when they imbed themselves in your skin, I shudder to thin what will happen to the eyes. Eye protection is fairly easy. There are shooting glasses, but workshop glasses, sunglasses and even prescription glasses will work to protect your eyes, just keep in mind they might get scratched.
The last bit of equipment is the most fun of them all: targets. Paper targets on cardboard backing are the least expensive and most practical. They also have a 0% chance of sending shrapnel and ricochets back at you. The main drawbacks are that they’re boring and can be unstable in the wind. Cans and clay pigeons are also fun to shoot, but they leave a mess. If you use these, please clean up after yourself. Another huge problem is that you have to rest them somewhere. Do not set them on or near rocks as you are just asking for a ricochet to come back at you. You can also shoot fruits and vegetables, but they can explode and make a mess, specifically, on you and your equipment. There are also rubber targets that are made specifically for shooting. They work well but have a short lifespan.
Lastly are steel plates. These are my favorite to shoot as you can see and hear the impact, and they have an indefinite lifespan to them. The problems with shooting steel are that you must use a solid lead projectile. Copper jackets will work but they can dent the plate and that jacket will come back to you at short distances. Large calibers and steel core will severely hurt the steel plate and if you get large craters in the steel, shrapnel is a guarantee. They are also relatively expensive and terribly heavy. If you shoot steel, you may want to consider wearing pants, a long sleeve shirt, and gloves.
Part 4, Know Your AR-15
I have been rambling on and on about general safety that applies for all firearms but I believe you should never forget the basics. Lets get to the fun part, the AR-15. For starters, AR-15 has become a rather vague term nowadays. Think of the AR-15 as being just as vague as a car. There are a lot of different types of Ar-15’s, each with it’s own purpose, it’s own caliber, everything.
The simplest way I can think to describe an AR-15 is that it has an upper and lower receiver that can easily be split. The AR-15 is a civilian model of semi-auto rifle that is based off of the original Vietnam era M16, and later the M4 that, I think, is still in use. There are a ton of variants just in the military side of the market that I can’t even keep track. Fortunately for us, you can’t have those so my life is a little easier. The AR-15 was originally chambered in the civilian .223 Remington but was later chambered in 5.56×45 NATO. To clarify the difference between these 2 calibers, one is civilian and the other is military. Also, if you rifle is chambered in the 5.56 you can shoot .223 out of it. If your rifle is chambered in .223, you cannot shoot 5.56 out of it. Most, if not all, modern rifles have the caliber printed on the barrel of the gun. That is the most reliable way to check.
Unfortunately, it’s not just those 2 calibers. In recent years, everyone has been trying to put every caliber under the sun into these rifles. The original was the AR-10, which is a bigger version of the AR-15 chambered in .308 or 7.62×51 NATO. And just like .223 and 5.56, one is military the other civilian, and the 7.62×51 can shoot both. Nowadays, you can build an AR-15 chambered in .450 Bushmaster, .450 SOCOM, 6.5 Grendel, .50 Beowulf and about 50 others. The most common variant is .300 Black Out but they even created a whole new AR-AK hybrid so you can shoot the Soviet 7.62×39 cartridge out of it.
Chances are, if this is your first and you bought it at the store, it’s either .223 or 5.56. Just look at the barrel if you aren’t sure. Fortunately, most of the lower receivers are the same. Trigger assembly, buffer tube, spring, weight, and mag well, the works. There are two different ways any AR-15 variant will cycle; DI or Gas Piston.
DI stands for Direct Impingement, but technically it isn’t a direct impingement. I don’t full understand the techy definition but just know this; there is a hollow tube that runs from the middle of the barrel back to the receiver. This channels the same gas used to propel the bullet forward back into receiver to operated the bolt carrier group also denoted as the BCG. The other way is through the use of a gas piston. This is very similar to soviet style barrels, where gas comes out at the same spot it would a DI system, but instead of going down a tube into the receiver, it hits a metal rod that pushes against the BCG. Okay, so there is a third system; direct blowback. This is for those wonky looking AR-15 variants chambered in pistol calibers. There isn’t enough pressure from the pistol cartridge to operate a DI or gas piston so Newton’s third law takes over here.
I lied again, there is sort of, technically, kind of a fourth system; bolt action. I don’t actually know if there are AR-15 variants that work off of this, but there are bolt action rifles that use the same lower receiver but a bolt action upper so I’ll count it anyways. Why does any of this matter? Well, if you don’t have an AR-15 yet, this is useful to understand depending on what you intend to use the rifle for.
DI pros and cons: The direct impingement system, that technically isn’t, is lightweight, has less moving parts which means less places to fail, and was the original design for the rifle. The cons are that it is made out of very thin metal, which, under sustained fire, can easily explode. Just look up any AR-15 meltdown video on YouTube. The other problem is that gunpowder does not burn cleanly. All the soot, carbon, and other powder contaminants gets blown back into the receiver and can gunk up the bolt and bolt carrier group. This is the standard operating system for the AR-15 and it works seamlessly. Recommended for people who don’t mind cleaning, do not shoot a lot between cleanings, and who do not shoot a lot of ammo in a short period of time. Ideal for carrying around while outdoors and for precision shooting.
Gas piston pros and cons. I prefer this system and have a strong bias in favor of it, though I do use both variants. The pros are that it is durable, clean, heavy duty, and is the base for the infamous Soviet AK series of rifles. Because it does not blow the gunpowder residue back into the receiver, the bolt and bolt carrier group remain clean and wont jam as easily. The cons are that it is heavy and there are more parts that can fail. In my experience, this system is recommended for those who shoot a lot, shoot a lot quickly, who intend to use the rifle in less than clean conditions, and who don’t like to clean their rifles frequently.
The last thing to look for is mounting options. First comes optics. Optics mounting is solely done with the picatinny rail system. Fore grips, lights, lasers, etc. can also be mounted with picatinny. While I prefer the picatinny rails, there are other options. M-LOK is the newest system and is what most people find to be the best. The other is KeyMod, though we don’t talk about that. This is just a personal preference, for most, picatinny is hard to beat.
Part 5, Maintaining Your Rifle
It is important that you take care of your rifle. This is to reduce the likelihood of misfires, jams, squibs, and even preventing your rifle from exploding. The first thing you do should be the last thing you do before leaving the range or outing your rifle away; check the chamber to make sure it is empty. Slide the BCG forward and turn the safety to ‘safe’. Press the rear takedown pin and pull it out until it stops. There are small retaining pins in in both takedown pins to prevent them from coming out all the way. Fold the gun forward and then remove the front take down pin. Once that pin is out, the upper receiver will be completely detached from the lower receiver.
The lower receiver is the easiest to clean so I’ll start there. Just take a paper towel and wipe down any dust or oil on the outside, the face that leans against the upper receiver, and the mag well. Now do a visual examination of the trigger group, making sure that everything looks normal. Go ahead and turn the safety to ‘shoot’ or ‘semi’ and pull the trigger. Keep your thumb on the hammer and guide it forward to avoid any damage to the receiver. Push the hammer back into place and return the safety to ‘safe’. Next, check the mag release functions properly. You can insert a magazine just fin to help. If you decide to put a mag in the lower, insert it fully until its seated, then pull down on the mag to make sure the mag catch functions properly. Remove the magazine and set the lower off to the side, it’s finished.
The upper has a lot more to do. Start by pulling the charging handle back about an inch. Then pull the BCG up and out. Once the BCG is out, remove the charging handle by pulling it all the way back and pulling up. Set both off to the side. If you have optics, take this time to cover the glass to avoid getting anything on the lenses. Start by applying bore solvent or a barrel cleaner to a bore brush; make sure the brush is attached to a cleaning rod. Run the brush back and forth several times and let sit. While the cleaner is doing its job, wipe down the charging handle with a paper towel.
Here is where I get nitpicky. I like to do a full takedown on the BCG every time I clean my AR-15. This should be done at least every thousand rounds but it doesn’t hurt to do it more frequently. The bare minimum would be to wipe down the BCG. If you don’t want to do the full cleaning, skip the next paragraph.
To clean the BCG, start by removing the retaining pin on the side of the BCG. This will allow the firing pin to slide out. Once the firing pin is out, you can pull out the cam pin. These usually involve you rotating them 90degrees once that is out, the bolt will be able to slide out. Spray gun cleaner on everything and wipe them down. Take this moment to check the bolt. Take a round of whatever caliber the gun is for, ideally a spent cartridge but a live round is still safe. Press the round against the bolt making sure the extractor grabs the case and the ejector pin works. The ejector pin should be fairly stiff and hard to press against. Press the round until it fully seats with the bolt, then pull the casing directly away from the bolt. If you cant pull it out, then everything works. Apply a small amount of oil on everything that was inside the BCG and the interior of the BCG. Reassemble the BCG by following the disassembly steps backwards.
Now that the charging handle and BCG are clean, set them aside. Go back to the upper. Run the brush a few more times, through the barrel. If you have a breach brush, apply the same clean and begin cleaning the breach. Mae sure you get under the teeth of the breach, as that is the area that actually matters. Use a cleaning cloth and the corresponding attachment for the cleaning rod and run it through the barrel until nothing else comes out. Use multiple patches as needed. Ensure the beach is also wiped down.
Apply a small amount of oil in the breach, to the breach face on the bolt, on anywhere there is signs of contact on the BCG, on the teeth of the charging handle, and on a cloth and run the cloth through the barrel. Reassemble the upper. Now reattach the upper to the lower. Aim the barrel of the gun in a safe direction, ideally towards to floor, release the safety, and pull the trigger. Do not sore the rifle with the hammer or the BCG back. Doing so will strain the springs and make the rifle less reliable.
When it comes to oil, I don’t believe you can use too much. If you do, the next time you shoot you will see a large white cloud of oil and that’s all. Sometimes you can over oil the bolt and it could jam, but that hasn’t happened to me yet.
Part 6, Storage
Now that your rifle is nice and clean, put it away to gather dust. Storing it in a safe not only prevents people from stealing it, but it will reduce the amount of dust will land on it. Do note that iron and iron compounds will rust over time. If you know the rifle will be stored for a long time, then put some oil on a rag and wipe down the barrel of the gun. You can also get dehumidifiers for the safe and reduce the amount of humidity in the safe. If the rifle sits in the safe for more than a year, you will need to clean it again before you use it again.
In my experience, some oils do evaporate over time, and the dust can cause the rifle to jam. This does take at least a year to be a problem though. As stated earlier, make sure the hammer and BCG is forward. Do not store springs under load or they will fail over time.
And that’s it. If you listen to, and apply what you learned here, then you will be a safe, responsible, and worthy gun owner. If there is only one thing you takeaway, it is gun safety. Accidents happen. There are even times where the impossible happens. There was a time when, after returning from the gun range, there was a rifle that had a live round in the chamber. I thought I had cleared the gun 3 times before going to put it away but I noticed something strange. The safety for my rifle only engages when the hammer is back. I almost pulled the trigger but decided to check the chamber anyways. I would have hurt my ears really bad if I didn’t think twice, but because I did, I saved my ears, and my ego too. Good luck and happy shooting and enjoy your new AR.
Lastly, if you would like to learn more about guns in general, consider checking out these channels.