There aren’t many more guns more misunderstood than the AR 15. Few people who aren’t gun enthusiasts even know what AR stands for. It’s this misunderstanding that fueled the creation of this article.
There’s nothing bad about the AR 15. The gun is one of the best semi-automatic rifles ever made. Looking into AR 15 history, you gain a better appreciation for what this gun represents and what makes it such a fantastic firearm.
In this article, we’re going to give you a bite-sized history of the AR 15, it’s lineage, its military and civilian use, and what makes it so unique. Ready to find out more about the Armalite AR-15? Then read on!
The Birth of the Assault Rifle
To see the roots of the AR 15, we need to look at the history of the assault rifle as a class of weaponry. The very first assault rifles were fielded in the Second World War. It was observed that most firefights happen at medium range and that the typical bolt-action and semi-auto rifles of the period were too focused on long-range combat.
As such, it was time for a new class of weapons. The submachine gun favored shorter ranges and the rifle longer ranges. What was needed was an intermediary: enter the StG 44.
This gun, designed in Nazi Germany in 1942 would also give the class of weapon its name. Sturmgewehr, the rifle’s name, can be translated as “assault rifle.”
The weapon proved its worth on the Eastern Front. It had an excellent rate of fire, was accurate at range, and was more compact than battle rifles. Luckily, too few were produced for the StG 44 to have too much effect on the war.
The StG would go on to have a profound impact on the AK-47, which became the world’s first mainstream assault rifle. Some people argue that the AK-47 is a copy of the StG but this is misinformed.
Take the AK-47’s trigger group for instance, which bears more of a resemblance to the M1 Garand. The AK-47 is also more powerful than the StG 44. It is, along with the Garand, an undeniable influence, however.
The First American Assault Rifle
Some would argue that the M2 Carbine was the first American assault rifle. This isn’t correct. The carbine has too short a range for it to be an assault rifle, select-fire or no select-fire.
If you want to split hairs, then the M14 could be called an assault rifle. Created in 1954, the M14 is technically a battle rifle, but it bears some similarities to an assault rifle.
It has a high capacity magazine and can be fired in fully-automatic. Where the M14 fell was its inaccuracy when fired in fully-automatic. The M14 fired a powerful 7.62x51mm cartridge, which meant controlled burst fire was a tricky thing indeed.
Some have argued that the M14 is one of the worst weapons fielded by the US military, but we don’t think that’s fair. The gun is a good rifle when fired in semi-auto. It’s not what the US army needed.
Then the AR-15 came along and changed everything.
AR 15 History: The Beginning
Armalite, which is what AR stands for, started in the early 1950s. They produced a few rifles before the AR 15 such as the AR 5 and the AR 7. The AR 5 was adopted by the Air Force as a personal defense weapon, as it was easily stowed by bomber crews and could float in case of a water landing.
Armalite was a small company but got its first exposure in 1955. The US Army began looking for a replacement rifle for the venerable M1 Garand. The AR 10 competed and lost against the Springfield T-44, which became the M14.
However, the military had liked the AR 10.
AR 15 history begins in 1956 when the gun was developed by Armalite. Finally, America had a true assault rifle that was compact, fired an intermediate cartridge, and was accurate. The only problems now lay with Armalite.
They were a small company and had trouble producing and selling the AR 15. Eventually, they sold the design, as well as that of the AR 10, to Colt in 1959.
Colt modified the AR 15 before it went into mass production. For a start, the charging handle was moved to the rear of the receiver. It wasn’t long until the AR 15 had its first customers, being sold to Malaya in 1959.
Yet the military version of the AR 15 wasn’t going to be around for long. Instead, it was time for the birth of the M16.
AR 15 History: The Birth of the M16
Come 1960, 8500 AR 15s were ordered by the Air Force. Yet it was the army that was having problems. The M14 wasn’t controllable when fired in fully-automatic mode, and it was getting outclassed by the Viet Cong with their AK-47s.
There was a tremendous amount of political backbiting before the M16 finally entered service with the Army. They were initially strongly opposed and the arguments even involved then-President John F. Kennedy at times.
The AR 15 was redesigned into the M16. This got a lot of modifications over the original AR 15, including a forward assist. Yet the M16 was not met with a good reception by the army.
It had a ton of problems in its first form. These included a lack of cleaning tools, regular jamming, and the lack of a chrome-plated chamber. Future versions of the M16 would refine the weapon into the gun that we know today.
We could discuss the M16, its designs, its politics, its flaws, for another whole article. But that isn’t what we’re here to do. We want to talk about the AR 15, the civilian gun.
Yet it was the genesis of the M16 that saw the true birth of the AR 15. The Colt ArmaLite AR 15 was discontinued and the Colt AR 15 became the civilian model.
The Colt AR 15
There are several differences between the Colt AR 15 and the M16. The most important one of these is the lack of a fire select option.
The M16 could fire in semi-automatic, fully-automatic, and three-round burst fire modes. The AR 15 meanwhile, can only fire in semi-automatic. Another key difference is the barrel length: the Colt AR 15 typically has a barrel longer than 16 inches to comply with the NFA.
Yet parts are mostly interchangeable between the AR 15 and the M16. The shared history of the AR15 and the M16 means that receivers, magazines, sights, and barrels can all be swapped between the two.
Other modifications were made to prevent the AR 15 from being converted into fully automatic. These include a different lower receiver, bolt carrier, and hammer. The only way that an AR 15 could readily be converted to “fully automatic” would be through the use of a bump stock.
In 1977, Colt’s patents expired and other companies began making their versions of the AR 15. Recently, the market has grown so saturated, that in 2019, Colt stopped making AR 15s for the civilian market. They do still produce them for law enforcement, though.
AR 15-style rifles have since become one of America’s most widely used firearms. The attempts to make them an object of controversy has only spurred this popularity further. What is it that makes the AR 15 platform so popular with America’s shooters?
Reasons For Popularity
One of the main reasons for the AR 15’s popularity is its ubiquity. You can get an AR 15 from any number of manufacturers today and it won’t cost you too much money. In return, you get an American icon that is a fantastic firearm.
The AR 15 is accurate, well-made, tried and tested, and uses a common cartridge. It was born to be a popular rifle, and it’s become one. It’s lightweight too, making it perfect for lugging around anywhere you desire.
The fact that it is linked to the M16 also means that former servicemen and women who are looking for a rifle will already be familiar with it.
Another reason why the AR 15 is so popular can be traced back to the interchangeability we mentioned earlier. AR 15 parts are many and varied. No matter what you’re looking for, you’ll be able to buy one.
If you want a pistol grip, extended magazines, different barrels, receivers, scopes, underbarrel attachments, anything, you can buy it, local laws depending. You can design and build your own AR 15, too. You can make one exactly as you want it: as far as firearms go, that’s a pretty good argument for popularity.
The AR 15 is Going Nowhere
AR 15 history is a complex topic, but if there’s one thing that you can be sure of, it’s that there are very good reasons for its popularity. The AR 15 is not going to go away any time soon. As much as people argue about banning it, it will not be banned.
It’s too popular, too solid a firearm, and it’s too inextricably linked to American culture.
Do you want to read more interesting articles like this? Follow us on social media and get the latest updates as soon as they’re published.