Brief History of the Iconic AR-15 Rifle

Many rifle enthusiasts will be able to pick this semi-automatic rifle out of a line-up.

Known for its distinctive features, the AR-15 rifle has a long history of use stemming back to its inception in 1964 as the Colt AR-15.

Although it is undoubtedly one of the most popular rifles ever constructed, the chances are that there are a lot of aspects of the AR-15’s history that you were not aware of.

Let’s dig in and find out what kind of events lurk in the history of the AR-15 and how it came to be one of the most sought-after semi-automatics.

The Founding of ArmaLite in 1954

Ever wonder what AR actually stands for? It’s not Automatic Rifle. It is named in part for its manufacturing company, ArmaLite. ArmaLite used the AR acronym as a naming method for its rifles, including the AR-1 and AR-17.

Back in 1954, Fairchild Engine and Aircraft Corporation founded a division that was supposed to be dedicated to manufacturing high-tech guns for the civilian market.

This division was named ArmaLite. ArmaLite’s then-Chief Engineer Eugene Stoner and Lockheed Aircraft Corporation’s Chief Patent Counsel George Sullivan started brainstorming ideas that year for a lightweight rifle that downed airmen could use to aid in their survival.

As a World War II Marine, Stoner knew small arms well and understood the need to develop more high-tech survival rifles. This gave birth to the AR-5, a .22 Hornet bolt-action survival rifle.

Replacing the M1 Garand

Almost as soon as the AR-5 came into being, the U.S. Army began its quest to replace the outdated M1 Garand.

While the M1 Garand was a beloved WWII rifle that probably fired one of the last shots in the war, it was bulky (weighing in at 10.5 pounds) and only had an 8-round magazine capacity.

Therefore, plans were drafted for a lightweight model, the AR-10. However, since ArmaLite started drafting their design well behind their competition, the Springfield Armory T-44 was picked instead to replace the M1 and became known as the M14.

Adapting From the AR-10 Design

The Army liked the potential of the AR-10’s lightweight design, which featured a steel barrel extension that was used to lock up the rifle’s boat instead of the receiver, thereby creating leeway for ArmaLite to use lighter materials for the receiver. In all, the AR-10 topped out at under 7 pounds.

From 1956-59, ArmaLite had international sales deals, including with the Dutch, to sell the AR-10. Sales of the gun, however, were lagging by 1959, which is when ArmaLite decided to license the AR-10 and AR-15 to Colt Firearms.

Once Colt had its hands on the AR-15 design, it started selling these rifles to what was then known as the Federation of Malaya (now known as the country of Malaysia), which, at the time, was under the rule of the United Kingdom.

This commenced the military sales of the AR-15, although United States troops were still getting the M14s.

Standardization in the 1960s

By 1961, ArmaLite had temporarily suspended its involvement with the AR-15, and Stoner had jumped ship and joined Colt as a consultant.

In 1961, the United States Air Force began testing the AR-15 to see whether or not it might fit some of their needs. The Air Force decided that the AR-15 could be a practical and useful lightweight weapon and bought 8,500 AR-15s for their troops.

The Air Force eventually standardized the AR-15 as the new M-16, and, in 1963, bought another 85,000 of these guns. Additionally, the United States Army also decided to invest in 85,000 M-16s.

Over the next few years, the M-16 became the military’s service rifle of choice, and they ended up purchasing a total of over 300,000 M-16s from Colt.

ArmaLite and Colt in the 1980s and 90s

Use of the AR-15 as the M-16 continued, but both ArmaLite and Colt struggled on the business end of things during the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1983, ArmaLite was sold to Elisco Tool Manufacturing Company, based out of the Philippines, only to have those operations ceased four years later in 1987.

Colt wasn’t faring much better. In 1988, Colt lost its contract with the United States government to supply the Air Force and Army with M-16s. The M-16 had a lot of issues with reliability during the Vietnam War, making it the subject of a long investigation conducted by U.S. Congress.

Congress found that the M-16 would completely stop working when jammed since it lacked a forward assist, that corrosion was caused by the absence of a chrome-plated chamber, and that the weapon had been issued to troops without instructions on how to clean the gun or without a cleaning kit, among other issues illustrated within the report.

These issues were corrected in the M-16 variant, the M16A1. Despite the fact that the gun saved thousands of lives in Vietnam (whereas the M-14 might not have been so effective), the M-16’s popularity had dwindled.

AR-style Rifles Today

Today, many brands manufacture AR-15-style rifles, and many of these are popular (and wise) purchases. For example, the ArmaLite M-15 A4 and the Colt LE 6920 lead the pack of the best AR-15s for the price right now.

The U.S. Military once again started using M-16s when it signed another contract with Colt in 1998. This resulted in the upgraded use of the A2 instead of the A1. Many soldiers who served overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq reported that they felt confident in the M-16 and thought it was a reliable weapon when well cared for.