A [Very] Brief History of the AR-15

AR-15 (courtesy wikipedia.org)

Tom McHale writes [via Ammoland.com]:

According to the news media, an AR 15 Rifle is any gun that someone uses in the act of doing something bad. What is an AR-15 really? Technically speaking, AR-15 is a brand name, like Kleenex or Xerox. And, just as with Kleenex and Xerox, the brand name has been hijacked by the general public to describe a whole class of things. Before we dive into the history of the modern AR 15 Rifle, we need to look the “AR” part. AR does not stand for Assault Rifle. Or Automatic Rearming. Or even Apoplectic Ruin. It is a product naming convention from the company that invented it, ArmaLite. In fact, there were a number of rifles with “AR” names, like the AR-1, AR-5, AR-7, AR-10, AR-16 and AR-17. Let’s do a quick review of AR15 Rifle history what got us from conception to where we are today . . .

1954
Eugene Stoner responsible for early development of the AR-15 rifle. ArmaLite was founded as a division of Fairchild Engine and Aircraft Corporation. While most people equate the AR 15 Rifle with military variants, the company was actually founded with the goal of developing civilian market guns using modern materials and manufacturing technologies.

The initial business plan called for establishing some success with commercial products, then using that momentum to get into the government and military business.

Eugene Stoner, a former marine and independent weapons designer, becomes Chief Engineer of ArmaLite. Stone meets George Sullivan, Chief Patent Counsel for Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. Sullivan has a super-sized bee in his bonnet about the possibilities of using advanced (at that time) materials like plastics and aluminum alloys in radical new weapons designs. Hold that thought…

1954 – 1956
Plans don’t last long once the action starts… Upon request from the United States Air Force, ArmaLite develops the AR-5 survival rifle. The AR-5 was a modular rifle chambered in .22 Hornet with a four round magazine and bolt action. The receiver and barrel disassemble and can be stored inside of the over-sized stock. This design not only makes the AR-5 waterproof, but also allows it to float. That’s handy for over water ejection scenarios, as downed Air Force pilots were not keen about scuba diving to retrieve their gear. The modern day version of this rifle is the Henry U.S. Survival Rifle made by Henry Rifles.

1955
The U.S. Army began a search for a rifle to replace the M1 Garand. While the Garand served admirable in World War II, all that combat use uncovered some areas for improvement. For example, soldiers wanted more magazine capacity than the eight rounds offered by the M1 Garand. Also, weight was an issue, with the M1 tipping the scale at ten and a half pounds. With World War II soldiers carrying their gear for (literally) years at a time, every pound counted. Front runners in the contest were an updated design based on the M1, the Springfield Armory T-44 and the T-48, which was based on the FAL design.

ArmaLite submits plans for the AR-10 rifle with similar caliber and performance characteristics as the T-44 and T-48. Unlike the others, the AR-10 incorporated radical design changes that allowed use of lightweight aluminum receivers and plastic stocks and hand guards. The key to the design was using a steel barrel extension to lock up the bolt rather than the receiver itself. This allowed use of lighter and less strong materials for receiver construction. The AR-10 weighed less than seven pounds – in theory allowing a solider to carry three extra pounds of ammunition and/or gear.

ArmaLite entered the contest too late in the game to work out new design kinks and ultimately the T-44 was adopted as the M-14 Rifle in 1959.

1956
Seeing possibility in the AR-10 design, the Army asks ArmaLite to work on a smaller caliber version to be named the AR 15 Rifle. The project is exploratory, as the military doctrine of the time called for large caliber rifles to be used in engagements at longer distances.

1956 – 1959
ArmaLite sells the AR-10 internationally through a licensing agreement with Artillerie Inrichtingen, the Dutch Arsenal. Not even the Dutch adopt the AR-10 and international sales are light. At this time, ArmaLite is only really selling the AR-5 aquatic survival rifle, so revenue pressures mount.

1959
ArmaLite licenses both the AR-10 and AR 15 designs to Colt Firearms. Robert Fremont, a key player in the design team of the AR-10 and AR 15 Rifle models, leaves ArmaLite for Colt Firearms to help with continued AR rifle development. ArmaLite launches the AR-7 Survival Rifle. The AR-7 was a .22 long rifle caliber rifle targeted at the civilian market, although a number of military organizations around the world bought it. Colt Firearms sells the first AR 15 rifles to the Federation of Malaya, later to become known as Malaysia.

1961
Eugene Stoner leaves ArmaLite to serve as a consultant to Colt Firearms. At this point, ArmaLite was out of the AR-15 business – for the time being. The United States Air Force tests the AR 15 Rifle and purchases 8,500 rifles.

1963
The Air Force standardizes the AR 15 and designates the rifle M-16. 85,000 rifles are purchased by the Air Force. Also this year, the US Army purchases 85,000 more M-16 rifles.

1965
By this time, the M-16 had become the military’s primary service rifle, with over 300,000 purchased from Colt, now known as Colt’s Inc., Firearms Division.

1983
ArmaLite is sold to a Philippine company, Elisco Tool Manufacturing Company.

1987
ArmaLite operations in the US are ended by Elisco Too Manufacturing Company.

1988
Colt loses the government contract to supply M-16 rifles to the military.

1989
Jim Glazier and Karl Lewis of Lewis Machine and Tool Company (LMT), operating a new entity called Eagle Arms, begin producing complete AR-15 rifles for the consumer market. By this time, many of the earlier AR 15 Rifle related patents had expired, thereby opening up the market for complete AR-15 type rifles.

1992
Colt, now known as Colt’s Manufacturing Company, Inc., enters Chapter 11 Bankruptcy proceedings and a period of litigation.

1994
Mark Westrom purchases Eagle Arms. Colt wins a contract to supply 19,000 M-4 Carbine variants of the M-16 to the US Army and Special Forces Command.

1995
Westrom and Eagle Arms purchase rights to the ArmaLite brand. Within a year, ArmaLite is producing the AR-10B rifle, chambered in .308. During this period, Knight’s Manufacturing produced an AR-10 derivative rifle, the SR-25. Colt wins another contract for 16,000 M-4 Carbines.

Knight Manufacturing SR-25 Rifle
1998
Colt’s wins back the procurement contract for military M-16 rifles with an initial order for 32,000 M-16 rifles. An additional order follows to upgrade 88,000 M-16 A1 rifles to the A2 configuration.

2009 – 2011
With support from the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the term Modern Sporting Rifle gains popularity as a more descriptive name for AR-style rifles.

AR 15 Rifle Present Day
At last count, 16,973,489,012 companies are making AR-style rifles. Actually, I lost count at just over 12 million, so this number is really more of an estimate. Whatever the actual figure is, it’s a lot. Kidding aside, the AR 15 Rifle has become the most popular general purpose rifle platform since, well, since ever.
————-

Tom McHale is the author of the Insanely Practical Guides book series that guides new and experienced shooters alike in a fun, approachable, and practical way.  You can also find him on Google+, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

comments

  1. avatar Chip in Florida says:

    These are all facts. Which means that the Media has license to completely ignore them and continue to use their other handy chart which visually shows which weapons are AR-15’s.

    On an unrelated note, the Media has a similar visual guide that shows which dogs are pitbulls.

  2. avatar Stoopid1 says:

    I wish the AR10 won.

    1. avatar Excedrine says:

      AR-10: Turning cover into concealment since 1957. ;D

    2. avatar Big Jim says:

      The reason the AR-10 Didn’t win the contract was they were looking for A smaller caliber rifle so that the troops could carry more ammunition Especially in the jungles of Vietnam. The higher ammo capacity per Soldier Let the men be on patrol For weeks at a time Without resupplying.The Vietnam War was fought quite differently than World War II Or even the Iraqi or Afghanistan war today. They would have units Patrol for weeks at a time on Search and Destroy missions In the jungle. We no longer do this in the military Reset objectives Move take those positions Secure them and move on. We rotate in and out of the front lines Every couple of days sometimes a week At most Keeps you from getting burned out. And going nuts. That in a big vitamin B12 shot LOL.

      1. avatar int19h says:

        He was talking about the earlier contest for the 7.52×51 battle rifle – the one that saw M14 win over FAL.

  3. avatar O2HeN2 says:

    “According to the news media…” Reminds me of this oldie but goodie:

    http://blog.cheaperthandirt.com//wp-content/uploads/2012/07/mediaguide.jpg

    O2

    1. avatar Prudikal says:

      I got a good laugh over that thank you. i needed it.

    2. avatar Mikial says:

      That’s great! Thanks for that.

      Now we need one showing how many different things, including shotguns ala the DC Navy Yard shooter, they call “AR15 assault rifles.”

  4. avatar Steve says:

    “At last count, 16,973,489,012 companies are making AR-style rifles. Actually, I lost count at just over 12 million, so this number is really more of an estimate.”

    I don’t believe either of these numbers.

    1. avatar Kyle says:

      He was kidding.

      1. avatar Cliff H says:

        When you leave out the word “companies” and insert “people who are completing 80% receivers” the 12 million may not be that far off.

    2. avatar jwm says:

      Yeah, they’re too low. I think I may be the only person left in the western world that doesn’t own an AR. I hear shannon watts has 3.

      1. avatar Katy says:

        And I guess I’m the second. And probably will be the last. I keep meaning to get/build one (or an AK), but there are all sorts of disappearing old rifles that want to take my money. Next up is an 03A3. I’d rather get something else first, but limited availability makes purchase a priority. I suppose I’ll end up as one of those scrambling in the weeks between the potential election/inauguration of that woman.

        1. avatar jwm says:

          03a3 is more rifle than the AR. Got a “sporterised” one at a yard sale when I was 13 and rode it home on my bike. Things have changed since my youth.

          .30-06 is a bit much for plinking. But then I say that and don’t hesitate to send 40-60 rounds of 7.62×54 downrange in a single session. But that’s cheap spam can ammo.

          Can’t find any of that in 06.

        2. avatar Geoff PR says:

          “And I guess I’m the second. And probably will be the last. ”

          Pick up a stripped lower for $50 or so, then finish the build later…

        3. avatar 16V says:

          Tens of millions of gun owners don’t give a rat’s ass about a poodle-popper that pukes in it’s own mouth.

          There’s a reason no other gun has been designed direct-impingement since, and that the “upgrades” all feature a gas piston.

  5. avatar Peter says:

    Supposedly, the AR-10 submitted had an experimental, lightweight barrel. Despite Stoner’s objections, this was the rifle submitted to the first trials, which promptly blew up.

  6. avatar Jimmyjames says:

    I remember not to to long ago going to gun shows and the only brand of AR15 there was, was Colt. Then all of a sudden there was a bunch of no brand name AR’s, parts guns with no warranty or customer support. Then the flood gates opened…with name brand AR’s, which turned out to be parts guns with very limited warranty and and very limited customer support.

  7. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

    A couple of interesting facts about the Garand and the replacement projects:

    1. There was a detachable magazine considered on the Garand in the 1930’s. Army brass rejected the idea because they were afraid infantrymen would “waste ammo.” Oh, and they’d drop their magazines on the ground.

    2. The Garand was originally going to be chambered in .276 Pedersen, a round you can’t find today. It launched a 125gr or 126gr projectile with a very slippery form factor (similar to modern low-drag bullets) downrange at 2700+ fps.

    If these two original ideas had been implemented, odds are there would be no AR-15, no M-16, etc.

    3. After WWII, when they Army wanted to implement a box-fed infantry rifle with full-auto capability, no less an authority on the matter than John Garand himself told the US Army that a full-auto rifle firing a full-powered .30 cartridge (regardless of whether it was a .30-06 or slightly downpowered .30-06 called the .308 or 7.62×51) wasn’t going to work in a 10lb (or lighter) rifle. Army brass, still being completely horrified by the idea that infantrymen were shooting bullets less than half the mass of the 405 grain bullet of the .45-70 of the Good Ol’ Days, were going to go no lower in bullet mass than the ball 7.62 NATO round.

    As a result of the intransigence of the Army Armory system, the M-16 slipped in through the side door – the USAF, and Gen. Curtis LeMay’s eagerness to try anything that was new and high-tech. A second result has been that every five years or so, the Congress/DOD/Army/Marines spend millions of our tax dollars looking for something better than a aluminum and plastic rifle launching a varmint round.

    That rant aside, my first AR-15 that I purchased new was an Eagle Arms. Still have it, too. By the early 90’s, I came to despise Colt’s management and what they had done to the company.

    1. avatar The Original JohnO says:

      I read just the other day that MacArthur, then chief of staff, nixed the .276. Since the Army’s light machine guns and BARs ran on -06, he thought providing a different rifle cartridge would be a logistic pain.

      1. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

        McArthur and others. The reason was, as you stated, logistic, but also one of the “gravel belly” officers thinking that only big, heavy bullets and long-range shooting were the tactic of the US military.

        Reading the history of Army light arms development from the Civil War to WWII is a fascinating (and infuriating) piece of history. The Garand is the only time in our history that the US military advanced the canonical infantryman’s weapon ahead of the rest of the world’s.

        1. avatar int19h says:

          I would argue that BAR was also in that category. It was almost an LMG.

          Also, arguably, the downscaling of 7.6×39 to 5.45 by Soviets was also a big leap (that everyone else avoided because they were still lagging behind with full-size battle rifles). In Russian literature, it’s considered important enough that 5.45, 5.56 and similar calibers have a special term to distinguish them from other intermediate rounds – they’re called “low-impulse”. In which case US was also the leader in that area (and it is, indeed, how the aforementioned Russian literature portrays it).

    2. avatar int19h says:

      >> There was a detachable magazine considered on the Garand in the 1930’s. Army brass rejected the idea because they were afraid infantrymen would “waste ammo.” Oh, and they’d drop their magazines on the ground.

      That one, at least, was not unique to US army. There was similar (albeit unsuccessful in that case) opposition to detachable mags on AVS and SVT, and why SKS had a fixed mag. And if you go back even further, when Lee-Enfield was designed with a detachable magazine, the concerns about soldiers losing the mag were so high that they were actually originally issued with magazines attached to the rifle with a chain.

      I also find it interesting that Swiss originally had a 12-round detachable mag on the original Schmidt Rubin, but replaced it with a 6-round fixed mag in later models.

    3. avatar Desert Dave says:

      Seems like the Italians had a version of the M1 with a detachable 20 rnd mag, but it was post WW2 of course. Easily done at the factory, if you wanted to.

      1. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

        Correct – the BM-59. A Garand modified by Beretta to take a box magazine, chambered in .308/7.62 NATO.

  8. avatar Greg says:

    An AR-15 is my weekly enjoyment at the range as well as a means
    to an end if things go South.

  9. avatar I1ULUZ says:

    This can’t be true, in 1961 the Air Farce tested and purchased a new weapon type? Now how many years will it take the Army to decide on MAYBE a pistol?

    Wonder how much the USAF paid for each M16 back then, compared to today’s cost of a mid-grade modern sporting rifle, adjusting for inflation.

    How many times has Colt gone under only to be saved BUY Uncle Sammy’s welfare checks?

    1. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

      The USAF was the leading-edge organization back then, and mostly because of one man: Curtis LeMay.

      LeMay was a forward thinking leader, a man who detested the reasoning “because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” His career history is fascinating to read.

      AR-15’s with serial numbers 101 through 14,484 went to LeMay’s first order for the rifles.

  10. avatar Marcellus Hambrick says:

    How can you give an AR-15 history, even brief, without mentioning Curtis LeMay?

    1. avatar Indiana Tom says:

      …or Bob McNamara.

  11. avatar Indiana Tom says:

    The AR-15 was really part of the small caliber carbine program which had dragged on since WWII and was to replace the M1 Carbine. The M1 Carbine was used as a mule for .222 and .222 Magnum development by Remington. The .223 was sort of a marginally improved .222 Magnum. Remington used a very different powder than the current military .308 powder, which would cause serious repercussions later on.. The genesis of the Mini-14 sort of came out of the M1 Carbine small caliber program. The AR-15 was actually a replacement for the M1 Carbine which is why LeMay and the Air Force was so hot for it. Positive usage in Vietnam and Bob McNamara pushed the AR-15 as a possible weapon for the Army.

  12. avatar Indiana Tom says:

    One very significant aspect of the AR-15 program was the direct impingement feature along with the Remington rod powder. The AR-15 was designed around Remington ammunition and its pressure curve and clean burning characteristics. The switch to Winchester ball powder was disastrous on several levels. The AR-15 would pass torture tests easily with Remington ammo; Winchester ammo would result in significant failure rates.

    1. avatar seans says:

      That’s simply not true. The major issue with the early M16s was a lack of chrome lining, and absolute horrible training of personnel especially armorers. The powder change, while not ideal, didn’t have major issues until fielding in Vietnam, where the pitting of the chamber combined with the excessive increase in fire rate caused FTEs and specifically the dreaded case head separation.

      1. avatar Indiana Tom says:

        That simply was true.
        Read and watch the James Sullivan interviews.
        InRange has an excellent interview (and range video!) with Jim Sullivan, a designer of the AR-15,

      2. avatar Indiana Tom says:

        with the excessive increase in fire rate caused FTEs and specifically the dreaded case head separation.
        The increase in fire rate was due to the different pressure curve which the substituted powder caused.

        1. avatar seans says:

          While I respect James Sullivan for what he has done. His analysis of the issues with the AR platform doesn’t hold up. The powder change by itself doesn’t cause case head seperation by itself. Early reports of the powder change considered the increase in rate of fire to not be a negative, but a positive. It became a issue when increased rate of fire coupled with chamber pitting. Which after the M16A1 was fielded the major issue of case head separation all but disappeared even though the other issues associated with the powder change still existed. They just were not the major issues that lack of chrome lining caused.

  13. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

    Oh, one other thing:

    “Whatever the actual figure is, it’s a lot. Kidding aside, the AR 15 Rifle has become the most popular general purpose rifle platform since, well, since ever.”

    Um, no.

    The AR-15 and all AR-15 variant rifles have quite a ways to go before they eclipse the total number of Mauser 98 and 98-pattern rifles produced in the last 100+ years. That number is north of 100 million rifles.

    1. avatar jwm says:

      Preach it, brother. And how many of those AR rifles will still be functioning in a 100 years with their original parts? I have a 78 yo 91/30 that appears to be all as issued and still going. And the 91/30 is not the rifle that a mauser is.

      1. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

        I dunno. The AR design has a couple of advantages over the Mausers for durability – if you’re not using it much. Aluminum doesn’t rust, the plastic furniture doesn’t rot, a chrome-lined bore won’t corrode.

        Still, aluminum won’t handle the same level of strain/bashing, wood is more durable than many composites (especially older wood that is well cured, as it was in the old rifle days), and both parkerized steel and wood can soak up a terrific amount of oil/wax to prevent corrosion, so steel/wood has some advantages too.

        1. avatar Indiana Tom says:

          The MP44, the AK 47 AK74, AR 10, AR 15, AR 18 were sort of cheaper semi-disposable rifles anyway. The rifles built prior to WWII were built with a little bit longer lifespan in mind.

        2. avatar 16V says:

          The AR/M platform is just like the rest of American dreck in the 50s/60s. Not well thought out, but iooked “cool’ (if you never read a design mag).

  14. avatar guest says:

    –the way I heard it from a family friend, a Marine that served in Vietnam, and came home a junky and a killer, —those black rifles did not work, the vc would pop up from a rice paddy, shooting ak’s, and the new guns jammed—and if it worked the rounds would not penetrate the bush—-when issued, they were thrown away—–I later read that a lot of trouble with the gun was because of the bean counters, (the whiz kids I believe they were called), who decided that certain items were too expensive—chrome chamber etc.——-either way too many men did not return, and the only monument were the muscle cars they left chained to storm sewers….—-by the way a guess I am number three——–

  15. avatar samuraichatter says:

    The AR/M-16/M4 along with the .223/5.56 round is one of, if no the most, expensive small arms system on the planet. It has been tweeked ad nauseum; it took alot to get it where it is today. I can think of several rifles issued to soldiers world wide that performed (much) better out of the gate.

    I have yet to hear of or see anyone who fired a Gen1 M-16 in combat say something like, “I love this rifle and would pick it over any other.” However, there are numerous other rifles that have that said about them.

    1. avatar seans says:

      You might want to read up on the M16 if you didn’t think early models were highly praised. US SOF and certain conventional forces were huge fans over the M16 compared to the M14.

      1. avatar Big Jim says:

        Plus if you read any stories about Eugene Stoner as I have You learned That The problems the original M16 had in Vietnam Were mainly due to the type of powder they were using in the cartridge casings. They were using ball powder when Eugene Stoner had designed the rifle to be shot with stick powder Which is a more consistent Hotter burning More stable powder. The other issue that was involved with the M16 was the fact that the troops were not trained for the rifle or trained with the rifle in basic training. They did not know how to clean the rifle And lubricate its moving Parts correctly. My father said There was a deuce and a half Sitting At his base camp And you would walk by with your M14 Throw it in the back of a deuce and a half Go about 25 feet forward and get handed an M16 that was your introduction to the M16 from the M14. No class on how to disassemble the bolt carrier and bolt to make sure it’s clean of carbon And in proper powder used in the ammunition that they shot exhaust tons of moisture And cause all kinds of problems Cases rupturing Sticking in the chambers Kill the lot of troops that way.

  16. avatar hurricane567 says:

    Just to make sure I am using the right nomenclature, when I say “AR” that covers semi-auto rifles as well as INTENTIONALLY and SAFELY full-auto or burst select fire rifles, right? I qualify that with INTENTIONALLY and SAFELY because some would argue that because you can rig an AR to slam fire out of control that makes it an assault rifle. FYI:I paid $1000 for my Colt M4 at Wal Mart when Feinstein was waving around her gun ban list right after Sandy Hook. Never had a problem with it.

  17. avatar Dan l says:

    I have ar’s in 223, 9mm, 300 bo, 6.5 grendel, from colts to parts guns I built, I never clean them, have shot thousands of rounds, dozens of hogz and deer and no matter the ammo they don’t jam. And they kill really well. I think they only jam and wound if your in the jungles of laos, cambodia, and or vietnam in the 70s and 80s. ..

    I have bolt guns and m14s / ar10s, but when I go to hunt, a 6lb ar15 always gets the nod. They are light, easy to get in and out of vehicles and blinds with and accurate.

    U can build a good one for 400 bucks these days. Not owning one should be a crime. Lol jk

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