Breaking the stigma of 'AR'

LAS VEGAS — If Jim Zumbo had the National Shooting Sports Foundation in his corner a few years ago, he might still be the hunting editor of Outdoor Life magazine.

Zumbo was literally driven from the temple after expressing discouraging words in his web site blog about the viability of so-called "black rifles" or AR-15-style guns as hunting firearms. Unfortunately, Zumbo expressed his opinions just at the time black rifles were gaining traction in the shooting sports world, and his comments touched off a firestorm of protests.

Zumbo and Outdoor Life parted ways, though the famed hunter has since regained his lofty status in the outdoor world. He also has redeemed himself in the eyes of his former detractors by participating in such programs as Purple Heart Hunters, whose members are among the primary users of black rifles: the United States military.

It is to reduce the likelihood of such faux pas that the NSSF announced here at the SHOT Show an ongoing effort to educate shooting sports enthusiasts about black rifles, euphemistically termed "modern sporting rifles" by the organization and its members that manufacture the firearms. Hopefully, what such traditionalists as Zumbo will learn from the project will rub off on the general public, though the process of osmosis might be unclear at this point.

"Modern sporting rifles are constantly being misrepresented and called terrorist weapons in the media," NSSF spokesman Mark Thomas said. "Our campaign has the twofold purpose of developing an understanding among sportsmen about this type of rifle and to dispel some of the myths about these rifles among the general media."

On the first count, Thomas has a willing ally in most of the major rifle manufacturers here. When staid wooden-stock companies such as Bennelli announce that it has entered the market with its own version of the modern sporting rifle, which it did with the MR 1, it's time to say that the black rifle has arrived.

The growing popularity of these rifles follows a familiar pattern. The military adopts the latest, greatest fighting weapon, whether a Winchester lever-action or a Springfield '03 bolt-action, and soon those firearms enter the civilian market. That's also what happened with black rifles, whose fame began in the Vietnam War era. Vets, and second- and third-generation vets since then, notched out a place in their hearts for such firearms long after their terms of duty ended.

In a scrum of "modern sporting rifle" enthusiasts, one is apt to hear unfamiliar words such as "platform" spoken, and hear of calibers with "Xs" in them, or in which the decimal point is not in its familiar far-left position.

That's not to say the traditionalists have been left out, though outside the .223, no American caliber is safe with this crowd. Which suits most such shooters, because they largely compose a group that came up through the ranks with NATO calibers and the latest rounds that proved their mettle in the deserts of Iraq and mountains of Afghanistan. Even the most jaded Winchester Model 94 shooters from the wilds of Pennsylvania are now sold on the concept, if not the guns' looks.

"This type of rifle is winning more and more acceptance for a number of reasons, but chief among them, I believe, are their accuracy and their adaptability," says B.J. Blick of Rock River Arms, an Illinois-based manufacturer that was among the pioneers in the process of convincing sporting shooters that such firearms were just the ticket. "The accuracy potential of most models nowadays is as good as it gets. Also, you've got the advantage of multiple shots, which is very important to predator and varmint hunters, and even deer hunters.

"Finally, these guns are so adaptable. There are so many interchangeable parts and accessories that a shooter can literally fine-tune the gun exactly the way he wants it. With traditional firearms, if you want something different, you buy another gun."

As to the second part of the NSSF campaign, there is still the problem of what to do about the general public and the perceptions it forms through the mass media. As was the case with every other type of gun in its turn, crimes are committed nowadays with firearms that look, if not perform, like assault rifles. "One bullet at a time," is the mantra of those who know and preach the essential difference between the AR-15 semiautomatic platform and the AR-16 fully automatic version that is generally unavailable, or at least legally so.

Though most non-shooters have softened their stance on gun ownership somewhat of late, and no politicians are prepared to march lemming-like over the cliff of gun control after the Al Gore debacle of 2000, modern sporting rifles still have a two-letter problem: "AR."

An assault rifle is an assault rifle, as far as the general public and the mainstream media is concerned, and while the AR-15 models being marketed here shoot one bullet for one trigger pull, just as any other rifle does, the AR-16 shadow hangs like a pall over the shooting sports community.

Slowly but inevitably, perhaps modern sporting rifles will win tolerance, if not universal acceptance. They've already won the hearts of shooters, but the public is always a harder sell.