America’s Rifle: The History of the AR-15

We are hard pressed to name a worthy victory which wasn’t preceded by a hard-fought battle, and the rise of the modern-day AR-15 is no exception. Early on, America’s Rifle struggled to gain a foothold in both military and civilian markets. Faced with extinction on numerous occasions, it responded by evolving and adapting, becoming all the more dependable and respected along the way. Today, the AR-15 and its plethora of variations boast a strong and devoted fan base in civilian, military and law enforcement sectors around the globe.

In order to properly honor the achievements of the AR-15, we must understand its journey from humble beginnings to over 50 years of military service.

Birth of a Legend

In 1948, prior to the end of the Korean War, the United States Army formed the Operations Research Office (ORO) with the intention of studying the ground weapon effectiveness in combat. Investigative findings yielded a wealth of information, including two very surprising findings:

    1. Overall, randomly fired rounds caused just as many casualties as aimed fired rounds;
    2. The sheer volume of rounds being fired contributed more to enemy casualties than specific marksmanship, and;
    3. Most casualties occurred at 100 meters or less, with very little effectiveness beyond 300 meters in most cases.

As a result of this research, ORO decided the military would most benefit from a weapon with low recoil that was capable of firing a large number of small rounds.

In 1957, following the ORO recommendations, the U.S. military requested that firearm manufacturers ArmaLite and Winchester create a .22 caliber weapon which would also be select-fire, capable of penetrating a helmet from 500 meters, and weigh less than 6 pounds when loaded.

ArmaLite possessed an interesting advantage in this feat due to the fact that it was a division of Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation. The plastics, alloys and anodized aluminum used for aircraft were much lighter than traditional rifle materials, but remained just as strong.

In 1958, using these resources and their previously developed design for the AR-10, Eugene M. Stoner (lead designer), Robert Fremont (supervisor of prototype manufacturing), and L. James Sullivan (drafter) created the first AR-15 (ArmaLite Rifle 15) prototype.

The AR-15 was designed to use a .22 caliber cartridge. This 55 grain bullet was capable of traveling nearly 3,000 feet per second, with accuracy up to 350 yards. Due to low recoil, it could easily be controlled during automatic fire. The AR-15 was much lighter than its predecessors, weighing just over 7 pounds when loaded with a 20-round magazine and standard components such as the lower parts kit, butt stock, upper receiver, lower receiver, and barrel. In addition, utilizing smaller rounds allowed for more ammunition to be carried by military personnel.

The Teen Years

In 1959, perhaps believing the AR-15 had little chance of competing with the M14 with regards to the U.S. military, the Fairchild Corporation sold both the AR-15 and AR-10 to Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company. By the end of the year, the first 300 AR-15 were produced.

In 1962, one thousand rifles were sent to South Vietnam for field trials. In 1963, following positive reviews from South Vietnam, 85,000 AR-15’s were purchased for the United States Army and another 19,000 were bought for the U.S. Air Force.

By 1966, the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War prompted a purchase of 840,000 AR-15 rifles for military use. The following year, with a designation of “M16,” the AR-15 became the primary infantry weapon for all branches of the United States military.

Tragedy in the Field

For military personnel in Vietnam, the adoption of the M16 quickly turned to chaos due to the weapon’s chronic tendency to jam. After failing to extract, the cartridge would remain lodged in the chamber, rendering the rifle useless. Clearing the malfunction was not a quick process, and many defenseless troops were killed as a result. Understandably, distrust of the M16 grew.

The United States Congress established an investigative subcommittee in 1967 with the sole task of determining the cause of the M16 failures. By the end of the year, several problems were identified.

First, despite the manufacturer’s recommendation to use specific gunpowder, the military opted to use an alternate powder in an effort to increase velocity. Unfortunately, this powder burned much differently, causing far more fouling and action seizures unless the firearm was cleaned frequently. Incidentally, this contributed to a second problem.

Because Colt marketed the M16 as being low maintenance, troops were not issued cleaning kits and did not receive training pertaining to rifle upkeep. These problems were further complicated by the fact that the military (reportedly in an effort to reduce cost) opted to forgo the manufacturer-recommended chrome-plated barrel bore and bolt group, resulting in susceptibility to corrosion and rust.

Once these issues were identified and corrected, incidents of malfunctioning dissipated and the M16 became a highly dependable weapon for personnel in the field.

Evolution and Expansion

In 1982, a newer version of the M16 (M16A2) was created in order for the rifle to chamber the NATO 5.56x45mm round. In addition to improved sights and rifling, the newer model had a heavier barrel and a 3-round burst setting as opposed to the previously fully-automatic.

A carbine version of the M16 (eventually named the M4) was created for urban combat at the request of United States Special Forces, and was issued to combat units beginning in late 1994. Since that time, numerous modifications have been made to existing M16 and M4 models depending upon specific military needs.

The Golden Years

It’s fair to assert that the civilian AR-15 has hit full stride since the expiration of the federal Assault Weapons Ban in 2004. It’s versatility is exponential – calibers, grips, stocks, optics, parts – nearly anything is possible with this platform. In addition, the civilian AR-15 has benefited immensely from over 50 years of testing, modifications and improvements of the military M16.

The original AR-15 platform has acted as a catalyst for firearm evolution throughout the world, and today’s variations of the AR-15, M16 and M4 require a family tree for full comprehension. Not only is that quite an impact – we’d say it’s a victory well deserved.

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