The AR-15 America's Rifle

By R.K. Campbell

The AR 15 has been a controversial and undeniably interesting rifle. In many ways the rifle was an adaption of existing design, but also a brillantly engineered and original rifle. My first exposure to the AR 15 rifle dates to the 1960’s. My grandmother bought this youngster a RAT PATROL jeep and play figure outfit.

The tiny plastic rifles supplied with the figures were M 16’s. In my first blush of historical indignation I felt cheated when I learned the M16 was not used in World War II!

But the AR 15 was definitely a child of the Great War. After World War II, intense study into small arms was undertaken. A small study of handguns was also done. While the .45 was retained, the Army’s interest resulted in the development of both the Colt Commander and the Smith and Wesson M 39. When the Army speaks, everyone listens as careers and fortunes are there to be made. Army tests centered upon the rifle and how it was used. Not surprisingly it was agreed that among the deadliest weapons in Army hands was the Browning Automatic Rifle. BAR handlers accounted for a great share of enemy casualties. During the war, a few armorers had cut and welded Garands to accept BAR 20 round magazines, producing a high capacity Garand. The M 14 and the .308 cartridge were logical advances, giving troops a fully automatic rifle and a quick change magazine. However, while the M 14 is a fine rifle and a true rifleman’s rifle, the weapon was not controllable in full auto fire. The M 15, a heavy barrel version, did not prosper. The German Army developed the first true assault rifles. These were high-capacity, full- auto weapons, really carbines, which fired a reduced power cartridge. This has some precedence in military doctrine. The American Civil War proved the value of less powerful but fast shooting carbines. The Turks purchased large numbers of faster shooting Winchester rifles and used them against adversaries with devastating effect. The United States M 1 .30 caliber carbine, while far from perfect, was much appreciated as a fine rapid-fire weapon for use inside 200 yards.

Basically, the new studies showed the fast, reactive fire would kill as many soldiers as aimed fire.

Many interesting and innovative designs were brought forth as the new Army rifle. After much discussion in the late 1950’s, Armalite, a division of Fairchild Aircraft, was given a contract to develop a lightweight military rifle.

Eugene Stoner was the primary engineer on this project. Stoner had developed the AR 10, a new design that was used by Sudan and Portugal but did not enjoy great commercial success.

The Army gave Fairchild/Armalite a list of requirements. The rifle would have full- auto/select fire capacity, use a twenty round magazine, and weigh about six pounds.

The Army demanded a capacity of penetrating steel helmets at 500 meters, at odds with the short-range profile and unachievable with most .22 centerfire loads. Remington Arms developed the .223 Remington cartridge specifically for the M 16.

Stoner’s work continued as he refined the rifle, always working toward a rifle that was simple to operate and manufacture. Plastic and aluminum were used in this rifle for the first time in an infantry rifle for use to US troops, although the M 3 grease gun could have been the first Mattel-like U Martial arm.

Stoner used a new type of IMR (Improved Military Rifle) powder in developing the M 16. This powder burned clean as was necessary for a small bore, gas-operated rifle. During initial testing, Stoner and the Military were often at odds over the handling and reliability test given the AR 15. Eventually, Armalite sold manufacturing rights to Colt and reorganized.

Colt’s first coup was with the Air Force, not the Army. General Curtis LeMay knew guns and knew the Air force’s M2 carbines were due for replacement. Air Force sentries received the first military M 16 rifle.

During the early days of the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong were armed with a mismatch of Japanese, French, Russian and even American Arms. The South Vietnamese were armed with American weapons including the M 1 rifle and M 1 and M 2 carbine. The M 16 was given a trial by fire beginning in 1962. The M 16 gave outstanding results. Hit probability was high in rapid-paced engagements known as infantry shootouts. Often, several rounds of an automatic burst would strike the enemy. Effect was difficult to describe, but close range 5.56mm hits were often described as gruesome. The 3.000 fps plus load gave up all its energy in the target.

The debate on the M 16’s suitability for Army use reached to the very top, as President Kennedy ordered side by side testing of the M 16 and the AK 47. Finally, the M 16 was adopted as a limited standard. The Army would change the menu on the M 16 on several occasions, nearly ruining the fine jungle-fighting rifle. The M 16 received a forward assist that would fully close the rifle’s bolt if the weapon failed to lock during firing.

Incredibly, no cleaning kits were originally issued with the M 16. (This may be partly due to Colt’s claims of less maintenance.) Even worse, Army Ordnance now specified ball powder in 5.56mm loadings. Ball powder hardened more quickly and left more residue than IMR powder. This resulted in multiple M 16 failures and jams. No cleaning kits were supplied and in some cases no lubricant was available. Among a GI’s most prized possessions was a tube of commercial Gun Slick. Gumming of the gas ports also increased the weapon’s cyclic rate, decreasing control.

The problem went as far as to a congressional subcommittee. The same Army that chose the Springfield 1903 and M 1 Garand was found to have mismanaged the M 16, which Congress found “is an excellent weapon’.

A heavier buffer and a change in the chemical composition of the 5.56mm rifle’s cartridge powder was ordered. Cleaning kits were issued (!) and a new buttstock was designed to contain this cleaning kit. The M 16 soldiered on with excellent results. Today, the M 16 remains a capable, world-class rifle that hardly shows its age.

Several changes have been made in modern production. One of these is the change of rifling twist from one turn in 12 to one turn in 7. This was to accommodate European developed SS 109 ammunition. Early rifles will not handle the new generation of heavy 60 to 80 grain .223 rounds well, but new rifles are plenty accurate with old style 40 to 55 grain bullets.

In civilian hands, the AR 15 has been used for everything from pest control and varmint hunting to taking small deer. The latter really stretches the .223’s envelope but we cannot argue with success. The Colt has made a good name in competition and many gunsmiths respect this system. The AR 15 is a valuable rifle to many, many American shooters.

As a peace officer, I appreciate this rifle’s civil applications. The .223 rifle is among the finest public safety weapons any agency can adopt. The rifle is seldom fired more than once or twice, reducing the danger of missed rounds. Extensive tests show the 5.56mm with 55 to 64 grain soft-point ammunition is LESS likely to penetrate the human body than most 9mm Luger loads. But the 5.56mm cartridge is an emphatic stopper of motivated, deadly assailants. Ricochet potential is low, accuracy is high.

Our personal AR 15 is an HBAR, a nice rifle with excellent target sights. While certainly capable of many types of serious shooting, this rifle is probably the greatest fun rifle in our collection. My sons enjoy this rifle very much. A lack of recoil and gilt-edged accuracy are part of this enjoyment.

We have learned quite a few tricks with this rifle. We have fire hundreds of rounds at a time with no cleaning, only wiping the bolt and chamber with Sentry Solutions lubricated Tuf-Cloth. The rifle keeps working. While the forward assist is controversial-some say it is an unnecessary complication - we have occasionally used it to chamber an off spec handload. (We have never experienced a malfunction with factory ammunition or 99% of our handloads).

The AR 15 is the fastest military rifle of all to reload. Simply strike the magazine release with your forefinger and ram another home, then hit the bolt release. This is the fastest load I have worked up with any military rifle - and you don’t get the M 1 thumb!

We like the AR 15 very much. While a sense of history certainly exists, for us the Black Gun is a fun gun. It would be a sad day indeed if American citizens could not own such a rifle. As present, we enjoy these rights. But civil rights are nothing we are born with or granted. We have earned these rights, and should continue to exercises these rights. Vote and be vocal.

Use your rights or lose them!

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V4N5 (February 2001)
and was posted online on September 12, 2014


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