How to Shoot an AR-15? EXPLAINED! [Detailed Step-By-Step Guide]

How to Shoot an AR-15

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For someone who has only ever shot bolt actions, picking up an AR-15 for the first time might be a bit intimidating. But no worries, AR-15s are not hard to operate.

We’re not referring specifically to an Armalite Rifle Model 15, which is now owned by Colt. We’re referring to all modern sporting rifles that are based closely on the design of the AR-15 and utilize many of the same mil-spec components. AR-15s and their variants can be chambered in multiple calibers, but the caliber doesn’t affect the process of shooting much.

How Do You Shoot an AR-15? (Quick Answer)

How to Shoot an AR-15

First, you need to prep the rifle by pulling back the charging handle while keeping the safety on. Next, you’ll insert the magazine and verify that it’s safe to shoot. Then you can anchor the rifle against your shoulder, line up your sight picture, and acquire your target. Finally, turn off the safety, fire, and observe your point of impact.

That’s essentially the whole process. After your first shot, you can keep the rifle anchored to your shoulder and continue to squeeze-and-release the trigger until the magazine is empty (or you’ve hit whatever it is you’re trying to hit). When the magazine is empty, the bolt will be locked in its rearmost position and you’ll be able to see that the chamber is empty.

Shooting an AR-15: A Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Prep the Rifle for Shooting

Prep the Rifle for Shooting

Before shooting your AR-15, you need to ensure that it’s properly prepared. Make sure that the safety is on. Then, pull back the charging handle all the way until you feel it catch. You should be able to see clearly into the chamber. If the bolt slams back into position after you let it go, you either didn’t pull it back far enough or there’s something wrong with your bolt catch.

At this point, if you haven’t already, you want to remove any lens covers on your optic and load your magazine with however many rounds you intend to shoot at the moment. 

Step 2: Insert the Magazine

Insert the Magazine

Next, insert the magazine into the modern sporting rifle. Make sure the magazine is seated properly in the mag well, and that you hear the magazine release button engage. Some AR-15 rifles use a button-release, while others use a paddle-release. There should be a clear click when the magazine is properly inserted, and when you let go the magazine should be held in place.

Ensure you insert the magazine so that the rounds are pointed the same direction as the barrel of the gun – away from you. If you can’t get the magazine inserted that way, it’s possible that you loaded the ammo in the magazine backwards. Most p-mags will have a little picture molded onto them that shows which direction the ammo should be loaded.

Step 3: Verify It’s Safe to Shoot

This depends on context – “safe to shoot” means something slightly different in a home defense situation than it does when you’re plinking at the range. But either way, your goal is to make sure there’s nothing downrange that you don’t want (or aren’t willing) to shoot. Make sure that you have a clear line of sight and that your shot won’t endanger any innocents.

Before shooting, it’s important to always verify that it’s safe to do so. Check the area around your target to ensure that there’s nothing you aren’t willing to destroy, such as a building, a person, or an animal.

Step 4: Hit the Bolt Catch

Bolt Catch

Once you’ve verified that it’s safe to shoot, you can release the bolt catch. The bolt catch is a small lever located on the left side of the receiver that keeps the bolt closed. When you perform bolt release, the bolt will move forward quickly and chamber a round from the magazine. This is the moment you get to feel awesome, so savor it.

You can just push the bolt catch with your thumb if you want, or you can actually hit it with the butt of your hand, which is a quick way to feel much cooler. Either way, the bolt will jump forward and chamber the first round. From this point on, your rifle is loaded.

Step 5: Anchor the Rifle in Your Shoulder, Get in Stance

Anchor the Rifle in Your Shoulder, Get in Stance

Whether you’re sitting, standing, or laying prone, you need to anchor the rifle in your shoulder and get into your shooting stance. Your shooting stance should be comfortable and stable, allowing you to control the rifle and absorb the recoil. A common stance is called the isosceles stance, which involves placing your feet shoulder-width apart and pointing forward.

You don’t have to use the isosceles or any other specific stance, as long as you are able to reliably and consistently aim the rifle at your target. Keeping the rifle tight in the shoulder is critical when it comes to handling the recoil well enough to do follow-up shots without taking too much time to realign everything. 

Step 6: Line Up Your Sight Picture, Acquire Target

Once you’re in your shooting stance, you can line up your sight picture and acquire your target by adjusting rifle scope. With irons, the sight picture is the alignment of the front and rear sights with your target. With an optic, you’ll line up the reticle with your target. It’s the same whether you’re using a red dot or 24x magnification

If you know what distance the rifle scope was zeroed at, you can adjust your aimpoint up or down slightly depending on the distance your target is from you. 

Step 7: Verify Again There’s Nothing You Aren’t Willing to Destroy

This is your last chance. Before the next step, verify once more that there’s nothing in the area around your target that you aren’t willing to destroy. Double-check your line of sight to ensure that your shot won’t endanger anyone or anything. Do your best to maintain situational awareness at all times while you’re shooting.

Again, this step looks a little different depending on what situation you’re in, but it all comes down to the same thing. It’s important to note that if you don’t have a “clean shot”, you shouldn’t take it. 

Step 8: Turn Off the Safety

Yes, you need to wait until this point to turn off the safety. Once you’re confident that it’s safe to shoot and pointed in a safe direction, you can turn off the safety. To turn off the safety, simply move the safety lever from the “Safe” position to the “Fire” position. Most safeties are on the left side of the firearm, but some rifles have an ambidextrous safety that you can operate from either side.

Accidental discharges happen. They would happen less frequently if everyone kept the safety on until they were at this step in the shooting process. And keep your rifle in safe direction. If you are in a home defense or self defense scenario, you may want to turn the safety off after you’ve got the rifle anchored and you’re moving through the house trying to acquire your target. 

Step 9: Fire and Observe Point of Impact

Now that your rifle is ready to fire, you can pull the trigger. Observe the point of impact of your shot and adjust your aim accordingly. If you’re just doing target practice, there’s nothing wrong with putting a few shots down just to see where they’re hitting before you try and do any adjustments.

If your shot was off-target, there are a few reasons why. If you’re a novice shooter, chances are you are the reason the shot was off, and you just need to get more practice. Once you start getting decent groupings, then you can make a call whether the optic needs to be adjusted to better reflect where shots are hitting.

Step 10: Continue Pulling the Trigger

Continue Pulling the Trigger

Repeat the process of firing and observing your point of impact until your magazine is empty or your goal is met. If you need to reload, simply insert a new magazine and repeat the process. Remember, if you’re at the range and you see something moving while you’re shooting, put the safety back on immediately and call the rangemaster to close the shooting range.

Because an AR-15 is semi-automatic rifles, a single round will fire each time you pull the trigger. To fire another round, you’ll need to release the trigger and squeeze it again. 

Factors to Remember When Trying to Shoot an AR-15 Efficiently

Keep Your Rifle Cleaned

Keep Your Rifle Cleaned

It’s important to keep your AR-15 cleaned and well-maintained to ensure that it functions properly and accurately. Regular cleaning will help keep the rifle functioning smoothly, and will also prevent malfunctions and jams.

Cleaning a firearm is always important, but it’s even more important with AR-15s because they tend to cycle a lot more rounds than bolt action rifle and they’re gas-driven, which tends to dirty things up faster than other designs. If you don’t keep your rifle clean, you’re going to get more misfires and other failures than you would otherwise.

Don’t Use Dirty Ammo Unless You Have to

Don’t Use Dirty Ammo Unless You Have to

I know steel-cased ammo is a lot cheaper, but it runs a lot dirtier than good ol’ brass. And not all brass-cased factory ammo is the same either. You can do some research to find ammo that runs as efficiently and cleanly as possible with your rifle.

If you are shooting dirtier ammunition, just make sure to clean your rifle more often and you should be fine. The dirtiest ammo tends to be the cheapest, and the cheapest also tends not to run as smoothly. If your goal is shooting efficiently with as few malfunctions as possible, then dirty ammo is not your friend here.

Hold Strong Against Recoil

Another key to shooting efficiently and quickly is holding strong against recoil. What this means is that you need to keep the rifle tight against your shoulder and keep your grip on it firm with your forward hand. The recoil of a 5.56 is not too bad, but it can be jarring if you’re not used to it. Do your best to keep your cheek against the stock and your eye lined up with the sights. Speed loaders on AR15 rifles can significantly reduce the time and effort required to reload, improving efficiency and enhancing overall shooting experience.

If you have to readjust everything between each shot, your follow up shots will take a long time. Alternatively, if you can get good at keeping everything nice and tight while you shoot, you can get off accurate follow-ups very quickly.

Maintain Situational Awareness

Finally, it’s important to maintain situational awareness when shooting an AR-15. Be aware of your surroundings, including any potential threats or hazards, and make sure that it’s safe to shoot before firing. Things can change quickly, especially if you’re out shooting on public land rather than on a designated shooting range, and you need to do your best to stay on top of it.


Is an AR-15 Worth Buying?

Whether an AR-15 is worth buying depends on your individual needs and preferences. The AR-15 is a versatile and reliable rifle that’s well-suited for a variety of shooting scenarios, from hunting to target shooting to home defense or self defense. If you’re looking for a high-quality rifle that’s capable of fulfilling a variety of roles, an AR-15 is definitely worth considering.

Is the AR-15 More Powerful?

Depends on what you’re comparing it to. If the question is whether the AR-15 is the most “dangerous” or most powerful firearm legally available, the answer is no. If you’re asking whether it’s more powerful than a typical handgun, the answer is (for the most part) yes.

But this also depends on what you mean by “powerful”. Do you mean kinetic energy? Do you mean magazine capacity? Do you mean penetration? Overall, the 5.56 is a pretty small caliber, so you’ll have very fast speeds compared to many other rounds, but it also won’t pack *as much* of a punch as some other ones.

How Is an AR-15 Different From an AK-47?

They were designed with slightly different priorities. The AK is a battle rifle, plain and simple. It’s designed to reliably go bang and uses a beefier round than the AR. It is more dependable and reliable than the AR platform, but is also less customizable and versatile.

The AR was designed with modularity and customization as a priority. The idea was to create a single platform that could be built on in different ways for different roles on the battlefield. An AR-15 can be chambered in a variety of different calibers, while an AK cannot. AR-15s are designed to have largely interchangeable components, while the AK was not.


Shooting an AR-15 can be a fun and rewarding experience, whether you’re hunting, target shooting, or preparing for home defense. By following the steps outlined above, you can ensure that you shoot your AR-15 safely and effectively. 

Remember to keep your rifle clean, use clean ammunition, control the recoil, and maintain situational awareness, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a skilled AR-15 shooter. Most semi-automatic rifles are very similar in function to the AR-15, and you’ll find that many of the skills translate.

Any tips I should have included here? Any steps I missed? Hit me up in the comments or on twitter @cameroncporter.

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