History Of The AR-15

With the politicization of gun rights in the U.S., the AR15 became the poster gun for both sides. Beloved by gun rights supporters, the rifle represents the ideal of the Second Amendment: a tool of not quite military standards in the hands of citizens ready to defend hearth and home. Gun control supporters see it as a weapon of mass production capable of taking countless lives in a whimsical moment of poor impulse control. Even though the rifle and its clones is used in less than 1% of deaths in the US, there is no denying that the power it represents is what brings it into focus for both sides.

The AR15 had a few false starts in the beginning and several bad decisions during its initial deployment cost the lives of an untold number of soldiers, threatening to relegate the design to the garbage heap of bad ideas, right next to the Chauchat. Yet over half a century later the design is holding on in active military service and is at the epicenter of a political firestorm. All designs should be so lucky to have such staying power and to be sure, there are several features that play into this longevity.

When Was The AR-15 Invented?

Introduction of the Armalite Rifle

a schematic of the armalite ar10 rifle
Eugene Stoner presented his Armalite Model 10 design to the U.S. military in 1956. (Source: Armalite)

The AR-15 gets its designation from the Armalite Rifle Model 15. Eugene Stoner presented his Armalite Model 10 design to the U.S. military in 1956 as a replacement for the M1 Garand. The Army had begun searching for a new service rifle chambered in 7.62 NATO which had been adopted two years before. Re-chambering Garands was a short-term solution to getting the U.S. to conform to its new military treaty obligations but it was a good opportunity for new designs to be submitted. Stoner’s AR10 design was not adopted but it was not forgotten as it did go on to be considered by other nations, including Spain, and commercial variants were eventually adopted.

The U.S. armed forces decided instead to go with the Springfield M14. Considered by many to be a superior battle rifle for many reasons, it was also heavy. Many commentating observers questioned the need for a full-sized rifle given that many engagements of the preceding decades happened much closer than the 600 or more yards that the 7.62 NATO was demanded to perform to. Other well-informed commentating observers also took note of a new rifle the Soviets had fielded in the 1950’s: the AK47.

Remington Arms had been developing a new, small diameter, hyper velocity cartridge for use as a new medium range rifle caliber. The .223 was the basis of Stoner’s scaled down AR10 design he was exploring in anticipation of U.S. demand a light battle rifle. This obviously became the Armalite Rifle 15.

By 1959, the Armalite company was experiencing financial difficulties and was unable to meet manufacturing requirements to further test and promote the rifle. So, they sold the AR15 design to Colt.

Introduction of Military Use

The Colt AR-15

photo of an ar15 rifle with magpul furniture outdoors
The Colt AR-15 uses the direct gas impingement system to cycle the action.

By the early 1960s Colt provided select fire rifles to the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Special Forces. With U.S. involvement in Vietnam threatening to ramp up in 1963, it became clear that the Springfield Armory was not going to be able to keep up with production of M14 rifles. The decision to expand production to other companies was proposed, but the cost of M14 manufacture became an issue to U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The M14, as stated, was a fine rifle. Yet it cost a lot to make and its cartridge required more resources and was considered overkill for engagement distances of 300 yards or less. McNamara decreed that the AR15 with select fire capabilities, in other words the M16, be put into full production abandoning the M14. The new rifle was lighter to carry and cheaper to make, its ammo was also less expensive and easily controllable on full-automatic fire. It appeared a no-brainer.

The new rifle needed a lot of new ammunition: there were no stockpiles of .223 Remington or 5.56×45 ammunition and that company could not answer the demand of arming all the military branches over-night, especially as U.S. involvement in Vietnam increased. The Olin Corporation, the name behind Winchester, was contracted to make up the shortfall. However, in the rush to get the ammo, Olin changed cartridge loading from standard Dupont stick powder to ball powder. In turn, muzzle pressure increased, and the rifle’s gas port had to work harder, due to stick powder not burning as quickly as ball. This infamously resulted in increased fouling and led to ejection failures on the battlefield.

The AR15/M16 operates on direct gas impingement, where the expanding gas pushing the bullet out of the barrel is tapped back to cycle the action. This blows gas, and carbon, directly into the chamber and the burnt gas particles inevitably collected there and built up during firing. This was not all that unusual, it is how self-loading rifles worked since the days of John M. Browning and Hiram Maxim. Stoner’s design does have tighter tolerances than many military weapons to date. The obvious hindsight answer was that the rifle would require cleaning, something soldiers were taught in Basic Training.

Disaster On The Battlefield

photo of vietnam war US soldier firing an m16 rifle
1967, Quang Ngai Province, Republic of Vietnam: PFC Michael J. Mendoza (Piedmont, CA.) fires his M-16 rifle into a suspected Viet Cong occupied area. (Source: National Archives and Records Administration)

When the M16 was issued to combat troops in Vietnam, it was new. It was modern. It fired a new bullet that seemed anemic but promised to deliver terrible destruction (it did). Yet, in the spirit of calling the TITANIC unsinkable, the M16 was introduced to soldiers fighting in the jungle as a weapon that was self-cleaning. The combination of damp environment and increased carbon was a recipe for jamming.

The teething problems of using a new weapon design in the middle of a war are almost always tragic, and as reports came in of dead GIs being found after combat with their rifles disassembled in a frantic effort to get them working again before being killed, the State Department moved with uncharacteristic vigor.

Ball powder was put back into the ingredients bowl; training programs were instituted to teach soldiers how to feed and care for their new wonder weapon; new models were installed with a feature called a forward assist. Initially, many discarded it as superfluous because there was no other way to manually close the bolt with a non-reciprocating charger. Far from being discarded, the M-16 was given a quick overhaul to make it a reliable fighting weapon. Fortunately, its winning characteristics in weight and controllability continued to play out, especially on an American soldier who was a draftee more often than not looking forward to the end of his tour rather than winning a war with no clear set objectives for ultimate victory.

AR Platform Popularity

When the U.S. finally extricated itself from Vietnam the M16 was the established U.S. military service rifle. Colt had primary control over the weapon design even though to meet manufacturing quotas it subcontracted for components out to other companies, including apparently Mattel. When the war was over, military contracts had dried up, but Colt continued making the civilian, non-select fire, AR15 for the civilian market.

The AR15, however, was not a popular civilian rifle. Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s production numbers for the rifle rarely exceeded 3,500 a year. When Colt’s patent on the rifle expired in 1977, there was not a lot of concern.

First, even when Sam Colt ran the company, patents for civilian markets were rarely pursued. The company focused on military contracts which frequently left the company in jeopardy when governments were not buying.

Second, at the time the AR was not a terribly popular rifle anyway. The market was limited pretty much exclusively to Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP) competitions and an occasional veteran or gun enthusiast. The AR15, from Colt’s perspective, may very well have been a specific purpose tool that the consumer market simply would not support or make worth-while.

This may be hard for the modern aficionado to grasp. While gun control has always been a political issue, the polarization of recent decades has a lot to do with the popularity of the AR. That polarization is stoked and directed by the media, the effects of which cannot be underestimated on really any issue from climate change to what shoes kids wear. Of course, there is also the issue of gun bans.

The AR-15 And The Media

photo of a target shot by an ar15 rifle
The AR-15 is capable of high accuracy as shown in this image of a target shot with .223 ammo at 25 yards.

The presence of AR rifles in high-profile events as the 2002 DC Sniper, the 2012 Sandy Hook School Shooting and the 2017 Las Vegas Shooting (just to name a few) have made it the villain celebre to the media. Even to the point of incorrectly making it the weapon reportedly used in the 2013 Navy Yard Shooting (in fact that attacker used a shotgun and two handguns).

Among the most recent, and accepted, statistics, however, show that the AR is the safest weapon around: of the estimated 11,000 people killed in 2011 with a firearm, 322 were killed with an “assault style” weapon. This includes AK and other variants as well as ARs. While one loss is too many, if saving lives is the goal, if there were a successful AR ban (a big “if”) it would yield comparatively negligible, from a purely objective perspective, results. 

At the same time, hundreds of thousands of ARs were being sold in the U.S. without a comparative increase in shootings.

There are two primary factors that have turned the AR from something to be dismissed by Colt to the weapon that virtually defines modern America’s attitudes on both gun control and gun rights. The first is a ban.

Federal Assault Weapons Ban

photo of an ar15 rifle on plywood
The Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 outlawed the AR-15 and other semi-automatic rifles.

The 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban may have done little to save lives but it did wonders for mobilizing the nation’s gun industry into a political and industrial powerhouse. The ban gave voice to gun owner’s fears of being turned into criminals by legislation rather than their individual actions. With the ban’s sunset in 2004, gun sales were fueled marginally by novelty and largely by fears of another ban being adopted. This fear was stoked after every tragic event and fed by the words of politicians advocating a ban. It is of small comfort to gun control advocates that President Barak Obama’s presidency coincided with the greatest sales of AR15s in all of history. This was not a coincidence.

The second primary factor is the gun’s modularity. Virtually every major firearms manufacturer (with the exception of Glock) makes an AR variant rifle. Add to that hundreds of small manufacturers turning our receivers. There are hundreds more making AR-15 accessories. Then there are the 80% receivers that allow a skilled tool user to make their own firearm for personal use (not federally illegal but many states have outlawed it) finishing it off with components that can be mail ordered.

Different AR-15 Variations

On the technological end, there have been efforts to upgrade, if not replace, the AR15/M16 platform for military and police purposes. This has led to different calibers such as 6.8mm SPC Remington and .300 Blackout. This is done by a simple upper receiver swap. The platform can also be used to fire pistol calibers with magazine adapters and upper assembly replacements, or .22 LR with a chamber insert.

photo of a man in the woods shooting an ar15 rifle with 223 ammo illustrating the history of the ar-15
The AR-15 has become one of the most popular rifles in the U.S. thanks to its versatility.

A further development is for a piston driven system instead of the traditional gas impingement. While technologically interesting, it does not solve the problem that regular cleaning does. For sustained use in situations where cleaning is not possible – deployment on long assignments in hostile territory for example – the piston system is of use, but for civilian applications, it may simply be more than necessary.

The Modular Rifle

The AR, despite its technological roots, has become a weapon of the people rivaling the AK47. This would not be possible without the rifle’s modularity: part interchangeability makes the rifle the “Barbie Doll” of gun enthusiasts. Of course, quality and exact fit are always variables among manufacturers, but the appeal and possibilities are there. This, with the political climate, means the AR is not about to be replaced anytime soon.

a photo of the modular ar15 rifle system
The modular AR-15 system.

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