The Black Sheep of the Family? AR-15s as Collectibles


My mother was raised in abject poverty. So, naturally, she was always on the lookout for signs of uppity-ness and pride on my part and eagerly awaited opportunities to put me in my place.

One day when I was about 30, I was having Sunday dinner at Mom’s house. She offered me some peas. “No thanks,” I said. For some reason, Mom took that as a prideful insult and, banging down the wooden serving spoon like a gavel, hurled a stinging accusation at me: “You … pea snob!”

Even today, 15 years later, my wife calls me a pea snob when I put on airs. It’s true, I suppose — or at least it was in the past. For example, for decades I avoided military and paramilitary firearms, believing I was too good for them or that they weren’t good enough for me. Colt 1878 Double Action? Sure. Browning Auto-5? Certainly.

Winchester Model 54? Bring it on. But show me a Mauser 1898 or an M1 carbine or, God forbid, an AR-15 and I’d point my nose in the air, snort contemptuously and say, “Puh-leeeeze!”

Maybe I couldn’t make the leap from blued steel and walnut to parkerized finishes and synthetics. Maybe I didn’t want to be accused of playing G.I. Joe.

But for whatever reason, I avoided “black guns” like the devil would avoid a holy-water spritzer with a lemon twist.

Then one rainy day about 10 years ago, I took in a preban AR-15 clone on trade. Maybe I could trade it for, oh, a Model 12 Duck Gun or something actually worth having. But fate intervened in the form of a box of .223 Remington shells left over from my old Ruger No. 3 carbine.

On a whim, I loaded up the AR-15 and took it out back to the range. As I squeezed off the first round, the rain stopped, the gray clouds parted overhead, a beam of golden sunshine stretched down and kissed my brow, and an unseen angelic host burst forth with a C-major chord.

At last, I had seen the light. The gun wasn’t half-bad!

Is the AR-15 somehow beyond the pale of legitimate, serious gun collecting? I used to think so. Now, obviously, I don’t. Yet I understand — but don’t agree with — the reasons why some otherwise well-balanced gun collectors don’t pursue the AR-15.

It’s Ugly

If you think the AR-15 is ugly now, imagine how it must have looked in 1964, when the U.S. Army officially adopted the AR-15 as the XM16E1.

At the time, the short-lived M14 and the .30 M1 carbine were standard issue — and whatever their faults, at least they had walnut stocks and looked more or less like a rifle was “supposed” to look. But the AR-15! Oh my! It must have had George S. Patton spinning in his grave.

With its plastic stock, carry handle and exaggerated pistol grip, the AR-15 looked like something Flash Gordon would use to mow down Ming the Merciless. To modern eyes, the AR-15 looks, well, different, like ugly but lovable Aunt Edna.

However, in my opinion, the AR-15 looks no odder than one of those ornate mid-’50s “Shah of Iran” Weatherby rifles, which legendary stockmaker Jules LaBantchni described as looking like a Navajo blanket. Nylon 66 rifles, XP-100 pistols and yes, even the 1911 Colt automatic, all looked weird in their day. Now, they’re hot collectibles.

The AR-15 is like a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz: Both were the product of a unique era in American history. For that reason alone, the AR-15 is worth having. And I wouldn’t mind a 1959 Caddy, either!

They’re Not Accurate

When the AR-15 was designed, the concept of “massed fire” still influenced military thinking. Better known as “spray and pray,” this concept emphasized firepower over individual accuracy. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the AR-15 suffers from the general opinion that as a military gun, it can’t be very accurate.

In the words of Pepe LePew, “Au contraire, mon cher!” Several months ago, I watched as a local shooter put his AR-15 through its paces at a local public range. He had a Rock River upper decked out with an ER Shaw bull barrel with a Leopold 12X, and even I, who was raised on checkered walnut and blued steel, had to admit it looked like a formidable outfit.

As I stood there, this fellow put three consecutive shots from sandbags onto the paper with handloaded ammunition. When we arrived at the target, I found I could cover the holes with a dime.

That, friends, is 17.91 millimeters edge to edge.

That’s the best group I’ve ever seen made with an AR-15. I have no illusions that I could shoot such a group myself, but it shows what a good AR-15 can do.

I Don’t Like the 5.56 NATO Round

You don’t? Well, blame Donald Hall of the U.S. Army’s Office of Small Arms Research and Development. He suggested, way back in the mid-’50s, that a high-velocity .22 centerfire would have about the same battlefield lethality as a .30-caliber cartridge in most situations.

For those who say that the 5.56/.223 has no sporting applications, I’d like to introduce them to several groundhogs and a fox or two who would not concur. The .223 is not my first choice for a deer cartridge — although I have no doubt that a Speer 70-grain spirepoint could do the job — but as a varmint or target round, the .223 is a real performer.

Besides, AR-15s are also available in .308 Winchester and 9 mm Parabellum, so take your pick.

They’re Not Collectible

In collecting anything — whether it’s guns, cars, art pottery or guitars — the first rule is the thing must exist in sufficient variation to make collecting challenging and worthwhile. There must also be a continuing demand for the thing collected.

The AR-15 qualifies on both counts. If fact, if you wanted to collect only Colt AR-15s, you’d have your job cut out for you. Colt-produced AR-15s are classified as sporters or nonsporters. Nonsporters generally have bayonet lugs and flash-hiders and generally bear the “AR-15” designation on their upper receivers.

Collectors further distinguish between “preban” and “postban” models, the “ban” referring to the late and generally unlamented “assault weapons” ban of 1994 to 2004. Prebans generally fetch higher values than post-bans, though this isn’t always true since the lapse of the ban. For current AR-15 pricing information, see the chart below.

Take Another Look

To those who collect AR-15s in all their magnificent variation, I applaud you. To those who disdain AR-15s, I understand but respectfully suggest you take another look.

And to Mom, wherever you are, please pass the peas.


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