The AR-15 platform rifle is the most popular rifle in the United States. The meaning of “AR” (as in the AR-15 or AR-10 rifles) has been the subject of much debate for a long time. Some folks say it means “assault rifle” or “automatic rifle.” Some of this confusion is due to ignorance and some is due to a desire to spread deliberate misinformation by gun control advocates.
Instead, the AR stands for “ArmaLite Rifle.” ArmaLite is the company that developed the rifle in the 1950s, along with the brilliant firearms design Eugene Stoner.
But aren’t they made by Colt?
We’ll get to that in a minute. But first, From The Pages Of Firearm History!
ArmaLite, initially styled “Armalite,” was a small arms concern started by George Sullivan, a patent lawyer who worked for Lockheed. The Fairchild aircraft company realized the potential for small arms manufacturing (with an eye on selling them to the military) and bankrolled the new operation.
They picked up some personnel, including Eugene Stoner, and set to work creating new rifle designs.
Their first designs were the AR-5 and AR-7 takedown rifles, which found adoption as survival rifles for military pilots in the early 1950s. Since the US military wanted a new battle rifle to replace the aging M1 Garand, Stoner et al. set about making a bigger gun.
The first design was not, in fact, the AR-15 rifle; ArmaLite’s nomenclature is ArmaLite and then the model number, with AR-1 being their first design. The AR-10 came first, with work commencing in 1954/1955.
Stoner and his small team (the company had fewer than ten employees at the time) created some innovative features. The stock was polymer, reducing overall weight. Trigger pull was rather light for rifles of the day. The firing system was changed from a traditional gas piston system to a direct impingement system to simplify the action, along with a rotating bolt.
Without getting overly bogged down in the details (the comments section can fill in the blanks if they wish; this is the elevator version here) a standard gas-operated semi-automatic rifle or shotgun works by using exhaust gases to drive a piston which in turn cycles the action. Direct impingement pipes exhaust gases directly into the receiver, cycling the bolt carrier.
The upside is that it makes the rifle simpler, which allows it to be lighter. (This was part of what the Army wanted in a new battle rifle.) The downside is that exhaust gases and particulate matter is piped directly into the action, making it dirtier and accelerating wear on parts.
Anyhow, the first version – the AR-10 – was chambered for the 7.62x51mm cum .308 Winchester round and submitted for Army trials. That design included features you’d recognize, including the charging handle and carry handle, as well as the hinged upper and lower receiver.
However, the Army believed it a bit undercooked and selected the then-T44 rifle, re-designated the M14, as its new rifle instead. But since the M14 was known to be uncontrollable under full-auto operation and the M1 carbine was known to be weak sauce, the US army asked ArmaLite to cook up a version in .223 Remington (later changed to 5.56mm NATO) that would be easier to lay down suppressive fire with.
The rifle had to weight 6 lbs unloaded, had to be effective out to 500 yards, and carry a 20-round (at least) magazine. Stoner and ArmaLite said “No problem!” and came up with the AR-15, which underwent successful testing in in 1957 and 1958. However, the US Army (in fact, Gen. Maxwell Taylor) nixed adopting it in favor of sticking with the M14.
At that point, stymied by the government changing its mind about whether they wanted the thing or not (and knowing they wouldn’t have be able to cope with demand) ArmaLite sold the design to Colt, who re-branded it the Colt ArmaLite AR-15, to honor the company that developed it. When it became obvious that the M14 wasn’t cutting the mustard, the military changed its tune.
The military version of the rifle, eventually designated the M16, was select-fire capable and also added a forward assist. Adoption began in 1963. A civilian version (semi-automatic only) was introduced by Colt (the first was dubbed the AR-15 Sporter) in 1964 during the Vietnam War. It was also sold to law enforcement as well as civilian sport shooters. The M16 underwent a number of revisions and eventually became the modern M4 carbine that’s used today.
ArmaLite, the company, continued developing rifle designs, but fell into obscurity and wound up pushing up the daisies by the 70s. The brand was revived by the late 1990s, and now sells rifles based on Stoner’s designs along with some new stuff such as chassis-based long-range bolt-action rifles.
Today, the AR-15 is the most popular style of modern sporting rifles among American gun owners. (They’re not “assault weapons”…that’s another story entirely). Everyone and their brother makes them. (It’s gotten out of hand if you asked me, but never mind that.) Colt’s patents lapsed in the 1980s, so any gun company can just look up the blueprints and start making them.
Long story short, “AR” never, ever meant “assault rifle” or anything remotely close to that. It’s always stood for ArmaLite. So now you know.