Honestly, I’m a little tired of seeing the cult of the AR-15 preach its superiority as an “ergonomic” platform. While the AR-15 is an excellent weapon, and lord knows I own many of them, it’s not the superior choice for a weapon platform in a sea of continuously expanding alternatives. A weapon designed mid last century for right-handed operation only cannot hold a candle to other later generation platforms.
Now, before all the fanboys get their torches and pitchforks. The intent is not to trash the platform, which is truly reliable and battle-proven. My intent is to point out the fallacy that people often speak of when venerating the platform. The AR-15 was and is an excellent step forward, but its far from perfection and in light of new offerings is an old design where new ones have set the standard of “ergonomic”
To start, let’s have a working definition of “Ergonomic” from Google:
- relating to or designed for efficiency and comfort in the working environment.
There are two parts to the definition: Designed for efficiency AND comfort in the working environment. I specifically emphasized two portions on purpose, we’ll get to that in a moment.
What is important to note is that the AR-15 was revolutionary for its day. The weapon system combined the use of lightweight materials, in-line recoil, large capacity small caliber high-velocity rounds, and striking aesthetics, but that was for its day. The AR-15 was designed for the soldier and combat of the early 1950s, where shooters were or were forced to be right-handed and that combat was expected in relatively open spaces.
The world where these rifles are employed today is far different. MOUT, or Military Operations in Urban Terrain is the rule of thumb with notable exceptions for Afghanistan. The use of weapons transitions between both hands and the speed required to deal with malfunctions has made the AR-15 ergonomically obsolete, despite the operational success the weapon enjoys when employed by trained troops.
While I can do into a variety of detail on a myriad of topics on the weapon, I have purposefully picked 5 reasons why the AR-15 is not “ergonomic”
- Designed for Right-Handed Shooters & One-Sided Functions
The weapon was designed with two key design requirements, lightweight, and right-handed shooters. This created functions on the weapon decided one-sided such as the magazine release and bolt catch/release. While right-handed shooters appreciate these, left-handed shooters or righties doing off-shoulder transitions are left with a completely different manual of arms using fine motor skills. In combat, fine motor skills are bad, thought I will give credit that reloading the weapon is generally considered faster with its push-button mag release and ability to just smack it on the paddle – still its small paddle.
While efficient for one side, the design is not fantastic for both hands in the working environment by use of fine motor skills. Therefore, it is not ergonomic.
2. Charging Handle
Perhaps the only point that the fanboys will readily agree with is the charging handle. Originally designed to use two fingers (again, those pesky fine motor skills) across a weapon that was removed from the shoulder, the charging handle does indeed work to charge the weapon, but going back to the in the working environment criteria, it’s significantly lacking.
Even those that add ambi function and allow for one-handed operation have to contend with removing their face from the stock to charge a weapon. Combined with the one-sided bolt catch functions, clearing a malfunction often turns into a complex ballet of hands changing location on the weapon – not advantageous for combat which is the working environment.
One could further argue that the design is not even efficient. Charging handles are known to break under heavy and repeated usage. Combined with damage done during “mortarting” the charging handle is likely the largest weakness of the platform.
3. Mag Catch / Release
On the opposite of the last point, this one may perhaps rile up the platform’s aficionados. One of the first rifles to employ drop-free straight magwells with a bolt release, the AR-15 was and is extremely fast to reload. However, I assert that the design is flawed for two reasons:
First, the straight push movement is prone to dropping magazines. When the weapon is used in its intended environment, the button is easily depressed. While more difficult today with the fencing, the most obvious proof of this assertion is the addition of the fencing around the magazine, to begin with. Then, as soon as one goes ambidextrous releases, the problem can get worse with the button now being available on the side of the weapon most likely touching the shooter’s body and gear when not in use.
Second, and directly relating to a literal definition of ergonomics is the location of the button itself. It is directly in the way of “straight and off the trigger” that is taught in the military and tactical schools today. If one were to actually take the instruction literally, the button would be depressed as soon as firing was complete each time. It takes conscious thought to not hit the release.
4. Bolt Catch and Release
While the paddle was revolutionary for its time, especially when compared to the AK-47 it’s an antiquated design now. In physical operation, it either requires fine motor skills of the offhand’s thumb or gross motor skills that when used, take the weapon off its intended target. Further, by using the off-hand, it takes longer for the shooter to get their weapon back into a firing stance as there is a delay between the release of the bolt to when the offhand is back on the weapon helping stabilize it.
This is compounded by the physical action for both engagement and disengagement is the same movement, separated by only a few hundred thousandths. Trying to go for the bolt catch, its all to easy to hit the bolt release and under the pressure of adrenaline, the mistake is all too common.
5. Gas Venting
I do not mean this as a criticism of the DI system – its ability to function under amazing conditions is well-documented, but in Stoner’s implementation did not foresee modern usage. In Stoner’s design the gas is primarily vented out of the ejection port and some does escape the bolt into the receiver set itself. Under normal conditions, this is perfectly OK, but with modern weapons accessory additions, notably suppressors, the venting of gas in this manner is most problematic.
I shoot suppressed as much as I can, but when setting a weapon up for non-suppressed usage, the weapon is then immediately “overgassed” by the use of standard baffle suppressors. In a piston gun, this added pressure is resolved far farward of the shooter, but in Stoner’s implementation, the extra cloud of irritating compounds is expelled close the face. Further, with poor seals in the weapon, gas can likewise escape at the eyes in sufficient quantity to distract the shooter.
I love the AR-15. In today’s market with the plethora of accessories, much of this can be addressed, but the weapon itself is not “ergonomic”. Sure, it’s better than many that came before (and a few that came after it), but it’s not the holy grail that many gun scribes ascribe it to be.
To me, the weapon is certainly usable, but calling something good because it uses AR-15 ergonomics is an insult. Simply put, there are better functionally ergonomic designs out there, though I will cede that they may be operationally inferior and often they are not.
For example, the G36, ACR, and the forthcoming Desert Tech MDR are all better functionally ergonomic platforms. They are inherently ambidextrous and looking at the usage in a working environment, the allow the shooter to keep their trigger finger on the grip and sights on target at all times.
Fortunately for us all, manufacturers recognize this and various updates to the AR-15 platform have made it to the market. Examples like LWRC and Falkor show that the lower can at least be ambi and various uppers like the Faxon ARAK, Adcor BEAR, and others show the improvements that a charging handle can bring.
What is most exciting to me is to see how the AR-15 continues to evolve into an actual functional ergonomic platform as even more companies propose, manufacturing, and display updated designs bringing Stoner’s platform from the last century to the new one.