By Brad Steenrod
The AR platform has undergone many changes over the years, and it can be pretty confusing to the average gun-owner. The goal of this article is to help you keep it all straight.
AR-15 vs. M16 vs. M4 – What’s the Difference?
To understand the different types of AR platform rifles, you first need to start with a little history.
The .223/5.56 AR-15 rifle was a direct evolution of the 7.62×51 AR-10, which was developed by Eugene Stoner in the 1950’s. The first ones were no more than scaled-down versions of the AR-10.
In the late 1960’s, the US military began use of an AR-15 variant known as the M16 rifle. This rifle became standard equipment for the US Army beginning in the Vietnam War. The rifle has gone through several generations of improvements since the original model – we will explore these later in this article.
In the 1980’s, Colt began work on a new platform based on the M16A2 rifle, which was eventually known as the M4 Carbine. The M4, which features a shorter barrel, collapsible stock, and other modifications, has become standard equipment for close-quarters combat throughout the US Military.
While the military still uses the M16 for some infantry applications, it’s being phased out in favor of the M4, as the M4 offers distinct advantages in portability and maneuverability through its lighter weight and smaller dimensions.
A1, A2, A3 and A4 Similarities and Differences
You’ll often hear people refer to the different types of AR-15s as A1, A2, A3, or A4. These terms actually refer to the different generations of the M16 rifle, and they’re often used incorrectly when referring to AR-15’s.
So what are the differences between these different types of M16’s?
The carry handle is a big difference between models and is a good place to start.
The A1, A2, and A3 have a permanently-attached carry handle that the A4 doesn’t. Although the A4 has a removable carry handle option, it doesn’t look anything like the previous versions.
The A1 carry handle also featured the rear sight which had a tool-adjusted windage selector (a bullet tip could also be used to make the adjustments, and that’s what most soldiers would do).
One feature that’s similar to all these models is the rifle’s forward assist. It is a standard feature and is equipped in all the 4 types – A1, A2, A3, and A4. The forward assist can be used to make sure that the bolt is fully forward and locked.
The A2 and A3 went further on the idea and incorporated easy adjust windage and elevation selectors on their carry handle rear sight. These are all nonexistent features in the A4 with the carry handle having been removed from its design.
The A2 design featured several improvements over the A1, including a spent case deflector immediately behind the ejection port to prevent cases from striking left-handed users, a heavier barrel, and the modified action that replaced the fully-automatic setting with a three-round burst setting.
The A3 is so similar to the A2 that they are almost twins. The main difference between them is the fire-select feature on the A3. Other than that they are virtually the same rifle.
The A4 may be referred to as the flat top version because of the removal of the carry handle. It distinguishes itself as the only one in the group ready to be equipped with an optic. That’s very much unlike the A1, A2 or A3 which require an adapter to fit on optic on top of the handle.
To summarize, much has changed with these rifles through the years, and the US Military has driven many improvements on the original AR platform. While all of these various changes can get a little confusing, the result has been improved weapons for both military and civilian use.
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One Last Tip
If there’s anyone that knows the AR-15 platform, it’s the US military. As a special offer for our readers, you can get the Official US Army Manual for AR-15/M4/M16 right now – for free. Click here to snag a copy.
This article was originally published in AT3 Tactical AR Academy and is reprinted here with permission.