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Why is an AR-15 Magazine called a Magazine?

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Like most semi-automatic rifles, the AR-15 is magazine fed. Magazines allow you to store multiple rounds and feed them into the rifle during the firing process. Though magazines are on nearly every commercially available firearm, the origins of one of their key features are often still a mystery to enthusiasts.  

Why is a magazine called a ‘magazine’? We’re answering that age-old question as we go over its history as well as the assorted brands that produce them.  

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What is a Magazine? 

In its simplest form, a magazine is an ammo storage device that holds and feeds cartridges into a firearm. Though their construction varies across different platforms, their functionality is still the same.  

Rounds are loaded into the magazine; these rounds press down on the follower and spring assembly. The follower makes sure that the cartridges stay in line for proper feeding, while the spring pushes up on the follower to feed a new round in the chamber once a spent one has been ejected.  

For the AR-15, magazines have a standard carrying capacity of 30 rounds. Certain states have laws prohibiting the use of 30-round magazines, though, so 5-, 10-, 15-, and 20-round magazines are available for these states. Remember to always check with your local and state laws before buying any firearms and accessories to make sure they’re allowed. 

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Why is an AR-15 Magazine called a ‘Magazine’? 

Many people wonder how the term ‘magazine’ came to describe a part of a firearm, especially since most people know magazines as a form of publication. 

Interestingly, both uses of the word ‘magazine’ have a shared origin. Both terms come from an original Arabic word makhāzin (مخازن), which means ‘storehouse’ or ‘depot’ (usually in a military context). The term was adopted into French and Italian during the gunpowder age, and as firearm technology developed, engineers used the same term to describe the ‘storehouse’ of ammo inside the firearm itself. That’s why an AR-15’s magazine is called a ‘magazine’: engineers took the term for a military munitions storehouse to describe a component that essentially did the same thing. 

But how does this relate to the magazines we read? Well, that’s a story of metaphor and marketing.  

In the early 1600s, the English started using ‘magazine’ figuratively to describe books or publications that contained a large amount of information on specific subjects—that is, metaphorical storehouses of knowledge.  

This eventually led to its use in 1732 with Gentleman’s Magazine, a London-based periodical which contained collections of articles and information for men. The term had an authoritative feel to it, so it was perfect for publishers looking to present their periodical as an informed, comprehensive source. This usage of the term caught on, and soon, many similar publications were using the same term. 

That’s why ‘magazine’ has two meanings today. One which is close to its original meaning as a munition storehouse, and another that came from savvy branding from English publishers. 

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Types of AR-15 Magazines 

We mentioned how firearm magazines can have different ammo capacities, but they differ in other ways, too. Different manufacturers often put their own spin on magazines, so to speak. For instance, some magazines like those from DURAMAG are made of aluminum and designed to look nearly identical to USGI STANAG mags, albeit with upgraded springs and followers.  

One of the most popular magazine variants is the PMAG from Magpul. Instead of a full metal construction, they use a durable polymer that’s impact and crush resistant, making it durable enough for harsh conditions. There are other manufacturers making polymer magazines too such as Hexmag and Lancer Systems. Both manufacturers produce a great variety of polymer magazine variants with durability on par with Magpul. Our article on Magpul vs. Hexmag vs. Lancer Systems breaks down each brand in an informative comparison. 

Regardless of the material, there are additional magazine variants that greatly increase ammo capacity, such as drum and casket magazines. Drum magazines, depending on the platform and manufacturer, can hold up to 100+ rounds of ammunition. Drum magazines store cartridges in a cylindrical shape instead of stacking them on top of each other. While reliable when built with quality materials, drum magazines made with cheaper materials can fail to feed rounds into your rifle.  

Casket magazines, in contrast, can have the same capacity and work by ‘quad-stacking’ the cartridges. They keep the same overall look of standard magazines, but they’re much wider and use specialized followers and springs to be able to properly feed ammo into your rifle. Both options are reliable and great for carrying a larger amount of ammunition, but keep in mind that they take much longer to load and add a greater amount of weight to your rifle when loaded.  

While most magazines work the same functionally, we encourage you to look for magazines that are made of durable materials like aluminum or rugged polymer and have USGI rated springs and followers. This combination works incredibly well and is part of the reason mags from Magpul and DURAMAG have been so popular. Still, if you’re confused, our magazine buyer’s guide will point you in the right direction.  

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Caliber Specific Magazines 

While the AR-15 platform can be a great host for multiple calibers, this doesn’t translate to the magazines. Though some calibers can use the same magazine, like 5.56NATO and .300Blackout, most others can’t. For instance, 7.62×39 and 6.5 Grendel won’t store or feed properly in a standard AR magazine. Due to this, they need a specific magazine with a different shape to store and feed the rounds. 

Whatever caliber you end up running in your AR-15, be sure to double check to see if a caliber specific magazine is needed. If you’re on the fence about what caliber your next AR should be chambered in, our caliber guide will round out your knowledge on what’s available.  

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Magazine or Clip? 

It’s fairly common to hear enthusiasts call magazines ‘clips’. A clip is a device like magazines, but they aren’t identical. Clips store rounds of ammunition so that they can easily be fed into a firearm that has an internal magazine. Clip fed rifles must have some way of storing the ammo in the rifle, since in most cases, the clip is discarded after loading. Because of this, there is often a magazine built into the firearm itself so it can store multiple rounds. Some of the most iconic firearms that use clips are the M1 Garand, SKS, and the Mauser C96 ‘Broom Handle’ pistol.  

Wrapping it up 

While magazines are a piece of gear that’s practically synonymous with the AR-15, not a lot of enthusiasts know why exactly they’re called magazines, or the differences between manufacturer products.  

Though each manufacturer has their own distinct design, at the end of the day, they all perform the same task. Popular brands such as Magpul, Lancer Systems, DURAMAG, and Hexmag are some of the leaders in magazine production, with their products being increasingly popular amongst enthusiasts.  

If you own an AR-15 and haven’t done so already, it’s a clever idea to stockpile magazines. Contrary to what most think, magazines are a consumable good and they wear out over time with use. Our article on stockpiling magazines goes over this topic more in depth.  

Regardless of which magazine you end up going with, it’s important to know how to take care of them so they’ll last a good while. Our guide to magazine maintenance makes the process as easy as possible.