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AR-15: The Complete History

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Aaron Spuler is a firearms enthusiast and recreational shooter. Follow more or his work at The Weapon Blog

In 1955, American soldiers were sent into Vietnam with M14s. At first glance, this wasn’t a bad idea until American soldiers fought the North Vietnamese’s secret weapon: the AK-47.

In comparison to the M14, the AK was lighter, faster, and controllable in fully automatic. This gave the North Vietnamese the upper hand over American troops.

When the battle reports came in, the Army saw the problem bright and clear: the M14 wasn’t holding up. They needed a new weapon and fast. So the United States Army Continental Army Command (CONARC) sponsored the development of a next generation .22 military rifle based on ORO’s earlier findings.

They asked Winchester and Armalite to come up with designs. They needed the rifle to be:

  • Lightweight (6 lbs loaded)
  • Capable of Selective Fire (full and semi auto)
  • Chambered In Lighter Caliber (.223 Remington)
  • High-Velocity
  • Large magazine (20 shot magazine)
  • Lethal (penetrate a standard Army helmet at 500 meters rifle)

Here were the manufacturer’s submitted rifles:

  • Winchester – .224 Lightweight Military Rifle — patterned after M1 and M1 Carbine.
  • Springfield Armory .224 model based on the M14. Although forbidden to enter its rifle by those opposed to small caliber concept, they did have this rifle lined up.
  • Armalite A lightweight .22 Military rifle derived from the AR-10.

This was Eugene Stoner’s original AR-15. The AR-15 had met all of the CONARC requirements: It’s lightweight, versatile, lethal, accurate — especially if equipped with an AR-15 optic, and reliable. In fact:

When compared to the M14 rifle, the AR-15 was more powerful, soldiers could carry more ammunition (649 rounds vs 220 rounds), and was three times more reliable (as noted in during the tests).

The best part? The AR-15 production could be highly automated, making it inexpensive to manufacture. In short, it was a perfect match. However, there was one hurdle Armalite had to first overcome: politics.

The Politics Surrounding The AR-15’s Adoption

The Army hesitated to adopt the AR-15.

The believed traditional larger caliber rifles with long-range accuracy were better for warfare. So the U.S. Army stayed with the M14, despite field tests clearly showing the AR-15 outperforming the M14 in all departments.

When the Air Force tested the AR-15 in 1960, they were impressed by its performance and ordered a whopping 8,500 rifles (along with 8,500,000 rounds of ammunition). In 1961, the U.S. Air Force requested an additional 80,000 AR-15s, however, the request was rejected. Why? Because General Maxwell Taylor (supporter of the M14) advised President Kennedy that having two different calibers within the military system could cause problems.

That’s when William Godel, a senior at ARPA sent 10 AR-15s to South Vietnam for testing. The response? They loved it, requesting additional AR-15s to be sent. Despite the great deal of success, the U.S. Army STILL didn’t want to adopt it.

At this point, the U.S. Secretary of Defense (Robert McNamara) had two conflicting views: the USAF and ARPA favoring the AR-15 while the Army favoring the M14. To help resolve the confliction, Cyrus Vance, secretary of the Army, ordered an investigation into why the AR-15 wasn’t being adopted.

The investigation found the tests were rigged in favor of the M14. Upon discovering this, the U.S. Army quickly adopted the AR-15 (renaming it to the M16).

The Military Adopts the M16

At first, the U.S. soldiers were getting wrecked by the enemy’s AK-47.

But when the soldiers were equipped with the new M16, the tides turned real quick. The North Vietnamese trembled. In fact, the M16 earned the reputation as “The Black Rifle” by the North Vietnamese in the war. The reason?

The rifle was deadly. Matter of fact, the rifle was so deadly that the photographs of the gruesome wounds were classified well into the 1980s — more than 15 years AFTER the Vietnamese war ended.

But the M16 had its weaknesses. Specifically, the rifle would keep jamming. This cost the lives of countless soldiers. As one Marine recalled:

“We left with 72 men in our platoon and came back with 19. Believe it or not, you know what killed most of us? Our own rifle. Practically every one of our dead was found with his (M16) torn down next to him where he had been trying to fix it”.

This was due to the damp environment and increased carbon. As a result, the cartridge would get stuck in the chamber after firing. To resolve this problem, a new rifle was designed:

The M16A1. It featured a chrome-plated chamber and bore to eliminate stuck cartridges and corrosion. In addition, the rifle came with a comic book-style manual outlining how to clean the rifle. As a result, jamming problems greatly diminished and the M16A1 rifle’s reliability significantly improved. Shortly after, the AR-15 slowly reared its way to the civilian market.

The AR-15 is Sold to Everyone

It didn’t matter whether you were a veteran, gun enthusiast, law enforcement or civilian, anyone could buy the AR-15. And it wasn’t long until the AR-15 became the most popular weapon in America — with over 12 million in circulation. It’s no wonder — the AR-15’s modular design, versatility, accuracy and low-recoil makes it one of the most popular modern rifle choices today.

This article by Richard Douglas originally appeared here.


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