With the politicization of gun rights in the U.S., the AR15 became the poster gun for both sides. Beloved by gun rights supporters, the rifle represents the ideal of the Second Amendment: a tool of not quite military standards in the hands of citizens ready to defend hearth and home. Gun control supporters see it as a weapon of mass production capable of taking countless lives in a whimsical moment of poor impulse control. Even though the rifle and its clones is used in less than 1% of deaths in the US, there is no denying that the power it represents is what brings it into focus for both sides.
The AR15 had a few false starts in the beginning and several bad decisions during its initial deployment cost the lives of an untold number of soldiers, threatening to relegate the design to the garbage heap of bad ideas, right next to the Chauchat. Yet over half a century later the design is holding on in active military service and is at the epicenter of a political firestorm. All designs should be so lucky to have such staying power and to be sure, there are several features that play into this longevity.
The U.S. armed forces decided instead to go with the Springfield M14. Considered by many to be a superior battle rifle for many reasons, it was also heavy. Many commentating observers questioned the need for a full-sized rifle given that many engagements of the preceding decades happened much closer than the 600 or more yards that the 7.62 NATO was demanded to perform to. Other well-informed commentating observers also took note of a new rifle the Soviets had fielded in the 1950’s: the AK47.
Remington Arms had been developing a new, small diameter, hyper velocity cartridge for use as a new medium range rifle caliber. The .223 was the basis of Stoner’s scaled down AR10 design he was exploring in anticipation of U.S. demand a light battle rifle. This obviously became the Armalite Rifle 15.
By 1959, the Armalite company was experiencing financial difficulties and was unable to meet manufacturing requirements to further test and promote the rifle. So, they sold the AR15 design to Colt.
The new rifle needed a lot of new ammunition: there were no stockpiles of .223 Remington or 5.56×45 ammunition and that company could not answer the demand of arming all the military branches over-night, especially as U.S. involvement in Vietnam increased. The Olin Corporation, the name behind Winchester, was contracted to make up the shortfall. However, in the rush to get the ammo, Olin changed loading from ball powder to standard Dupont stick powder. It made no difference to the ballistic performance of the weapon but stick powder does not burn as fully as ball, making increased fouling.
The AR15/M16 operates on direct gas impingement, where the expanding gas pushing the bullet out of the barrel is tapped back to cycle the action. This blows gas, and carbon, directly into the chamber and the burnt gas particles inevitably collected there and built up during firing. This was not all that unusual, it is how self-loading rifles worked since the days of John M. Browning and Hiram Maxim. Stoner’s design does have tighter tolerances than many military weapons to date. The obvious hindsight answer was that the rifle would require cleaning, something soldiers were taught in Basic Training.
The teething problems of using a new weapon design in the middle of a war are almost always tragic, and as reports came in of dead GIs being found after combat with their rifles disassembled in a frantic effort to get them working again before being killed, the State Department moved with uncharacteristic vigor.
Ball powder was put back into the ingredients bowl; training programs were instituted to teach soldiers how to feed and care for their new wonder weapon; new models were installed with a feature called a forward assist. Initially, many discarded it as superfluous because there was no other way to manually close the bolt with a non-reciprocating charger. Far from being discarded, the M-16 was given a quick overhaul to make it a reliable fighting weapon. Fortunately, its winning characteristics in weight and controllability continued to play out, especially on an American soldier who was a draftee more often than not looking forward to the end of his tour rather than winning a war with no clear set objectives for ultimate victory.
When the U.S. finally extricated itself from Vietnam the M16 was the established U.S. military service rifle. Colt had primary control over the weapon design even though to meet manufacturing quotas it subcontracted for components out to other companies, including apparently Mattel. When the war was over, military contracts had dried up, but Colt continued making the civilian, non-select fire, AR15 for the civilian market.
The AR15, however, was not a popular civilian rifle. Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s production numbers for the rifle rarely exceeded 3,500 a year. When Colt’s patent on the rifle expired in 1977, there was not a lot of concern.
First, even when Sam Colt ran the company, patents for civilian markets were rarely pursued. The company focused on military contracts which frequently left the company in jeopardy when governments were not buying.
Second, at the time the AR was not a terribly popular rifle anyway. The market was limited pretty much exclusively to Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP) competitions and an occasional veteran or gun enthusiast. The AR15, from Colt’s perspective, may very well have been a specific purpose tool that the consumer market simply would not support or make worth-while.
This may be hard for the modern aficionado to grasp. While gun control has always been a political issue, the polarization of recent decades has a lot to do with the popularity of the AR. That polarization is stoked and directed by the media, the effects of which cannot be underestimated on really any issue from climate change to what shoes kids wear. Of course, there is also the issue of gun bans.
Among the most recent, and accepted, statistics, however, show that the AR is the safest weapon around: of the estimated 11,000 people killed in 2011 with a firearm, 322 were killed with an “assault style” weapon. This includes AK and other variants as well as ARs. While one loss is too many, if saving lives is the goal, if there were a successful AR ban (a big “if”) it would yield comparatively negligible, from a purely objective perspective, results.
At the same time, hundreds of thousands of ARs were being sold in the U.S. without a comparative increase in shootings.
There are two primary factors that have turned the AR from something to be dismissed by Colt to the weapon that virtually defines modern America’s attitudes on both gun control and gun rights. The first is a ban.
The second primary factor is the gun’s modularity. Virtually every major firearms manufacturer (with the exception of Glock) makes an AR variant rifle. Add to that hundreds of small manufacturers turning our receivers. There are hundreds more making AR-15 accessories. Then there are the 80% receivers that allow a skilled tool user to make their own firearm for personal use (not federally illegal but many states have outlawed it) finishing it off with components that can be mail ordered.
On the technological end, there have been efforts to upgrade, if not replace, the AR15/M16 platform for military and police purposes. This has led to different calibers such as 6.8mm SPC Remington and .300 Blackout. This is done by a simple upper receiver swap. The platform can also be used to fire pistol calibers with magazine adapters and upper assembly replacements, or .22 LR with a chamber insert.
A further development is for a piston driven system instead of the traditional gas impingement. While technologically interesting, it does not solve the problem that regular cleaning does. For sustained use in situations where cleaning is not possible – deployment on long assignments in hostile territory for example – the piston system is of use, but for civilian applications, it may simply be more than necessary.
The AR, despite its technological roots, has become a weapon of the people rivaling the AK47. This would not be possible without the rifle’s modularity: part interchangeability makes the rifle the “Barbie Doll” of gun enthusiasts. Of course, quality and exact fit are always variables among manufacturers, but the appeal and possibilities are there. This, with the political climate, means the AR is not about to be replaced anytime soon.