Is the AR-15 a “weapon of war,” as many claim? The short answer is “Yes,” but perhaps not for reasons many may think. The 2nd Amendment reads:
“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Assuming for a minute that an AR-15 (or AK-47 semi-auto rifle) is a “weapon of war,” that is clearly what the 2nd Amendment was designed to protect. It states it exists to protect a right to own a weapon useful for warfare by the American citizen who could be organized into a people’s army, or “militia.”
At the time of the writing of the 2nd Amendment, a rifle an American might own was useful for waging war, hunting, and even target shooting. The equivalent to an “assault rifle” of that day was a smooth bore musket. The smooth bore could be loaded much quicker than a firearm with a rifled bore (which makes the bullet spin resulting in much greater long-range accuracy).
The musket was designed for formations of soldiers to blast away at each other at close range. The rifle with a rifled bore, being much slower to load, was for a more distant, but much more accurate fire. Not that it couldn’t be used in the same way as a smooth bore, but a formation at close range would be at a distinct disadvantage against an equally sized formation armed with smooth bore muskets (as a group armed with AR-15s today would be at a disadvantage against a group armed with fully automatic M-16 rifles).
Now we come to the point of what is a weapon of war. Any firearm that can be used in some situations to kill an enemy soldier is conceivably a weapon of war. My Winchester Model 70 bolt action rifle, usually characterized as a hunting rifle, is potentially a weapon of war. It loads much slower than an AR-15 and holds only 4 rounds (one in the chamber in 7mm Remington Magnum). The 7mm Remington Magnum, by the way, is way more powerful than the .223 (5.56 mm) round fired by many AR-15s.
The Marines at one point in the Vietnam War used the Model 70 as a sniper rifle (they switched to another bolt action rifle, the Remington Model 700 later on, but still technically a bolt action with limited magazine capacity where one had to manually cycle the bolt to load the next round).
Handguns are weapons of war too. They can be useful for killing enemy combatants at close range. An old single-action revolver would work, as would a more modern double-action revolver, or an even more modern striker-fired semi-automatic pistol by Glock or Sig Sauer.
During World War 2 America designed a single-shot, .45 caliber pistol called the “Liberator.” It was extremely cheap to produce. The idea was to drop thousands of these behind enemy lines so that civilians could use them to kill an occupying soldier in order to “liberate” a much better weapon. For various political (not practical) reasons, not many were so deployed.
When people talk of the AR-15 being a “weapon of war” one thing they might not point out is that no nation on the planet currently issues an AR-15 to their soldiers. The Air Force did at one point in the Vietnam War issue them to airmen guarding their bases, but this was before the fully automatic M-16 was widely available.
Going back to one clear purpose of the 2nd Amendment, the ability of ordinary citizens to have the means to defend themselves against a government bent on tyranny, the AR-15 is definitely inferior as a weapon of war to the M-16. However, there is another dimension. Joseph Stalin, the murderous dictator of the Soviet Union, is credited with the saying that “Quantity has a quality of its own.” There are a lot of armed American citizens today. They would outnumber uniformed soldiers by a huge margin.
No rational person knows how such a scenario would work out. I certainly don’t claim to. But the claim that the AR-15 is a “weapon of war” is a distinction without a difference. All firearms are potential weapons of war. Some are more suited for some purposes than others, for example, the M-16 with fully automatic fire is a great assault rifle, many bolt actions are great sniper rifles, and pistols are good for close combat. War encompasses all of those uses.