The History of America’s Gun the AR-15

From the moment the M-16 first stepped foot into the jungles of Vietnam, it began its path towards becoming America’s gun. By far and large the most popular rifle in American gun culture today, the civilian version AR-15 is loved for its many uses. It can be used to hunt, for recreational shooting, self-defense and more. However, one might wonder how a rifle created for service in Vietnam became so adored in civilian circles today. The history of the AR-15 is not without controversy, but knowledge can dispel many of the common misconceptions about the rifle. First and foremost, that the AR in AR-15 somehow stands for “Assault Rifle.” It does not. It never has and if you take nothing else from this article, please, for the love of the 2nd Amendment, walk away with that piece of knowledge. So let’s jump right in and talk about the beautiful history of America’s gun, the AR-15.

The Birth of the M-16 in the Jungles of Vietnam

It is perhaps misleading to say that the AR-15 was born in the jungles of Vietnam as it was manufactured in the 1950’s. However, most Americans were oblivious to the rifle that would become America’s favorite until the military version M-16 was seen in the hands of soldiers and Marines in Vietnam.

The AR-15 was born out of a desire to find a happy medium between the powerful M-14 and the lightweight M2 Carbine. After World War 2, the United States was looking to replace the M1 Garand and M1/M2 Carbines. Experience in Korea showed that the M2 Carbine lacked the power to stop a horde of fanatical enemy and the military wanted a single .30 caliber cartridge for all its platforms.

In the mid 1950’s, the ArmaLite corporation got in on the race to create the military next service rifle. They created the AR-10 which fired a 7.62x51 cartridge and initial tests showed in performed well. However, the Army ultimately went with the M14 which was essentially a dressed up version of the M1 Garand.

In 1957, a request from an Army general to create a .223 caliber rifle that weighed only 6 pounds when fully loaded was fielded. ArmaLite’s response was the AR-15. Early tests showed that the AR-15 vastly out performed the M14. However, the Army Chief of Staff stepped in and the AR-15 was officially shelved in favor of the M14.  

Colt Enters the AR Business

ArmaLite was now under serious financial pressure and as a result, opted to sell the AR-10 and AR-15 to Colt Manufacturing Company. Had ArmaLite been able to see the future of Vietnam coming, they might have had an incentive to hold on. However, it would be the Colt ArmaLite AR-15 that would claim its place in military history.

That’s right, the AR in AR-15 stands for ArmaLite and not “Assault Rifle.” Winston Churchill once famously said, “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.” I’ll say it again one more time as the AR in AR-15 stands for ArmaLite. Now, let’s move on.

Early reports from Vietnam were that the M14 was a major problem. Combat is often the most authentic proving ground, and it showed that the M14 and its ammo was simply too heavy. It was difficult to control in full auto and grunts simply couldn’t carry enough ammo to sustain the fight. Meanwhile, the M2 Carbine was underpowered.

With years of testing that showed the AR-15 was up to the challenge, Defense Secretary McNamara was obligated to take action in favor of the AR-15. Modifications were made and the M-16 was born. The Army insisted on the inclusion of a forward assist which led to a particular variant known as the M16A1. It would be the M16A1 that would become the uniform model and it was put into service in Vietnam in 1963. In 1969, it would officially replace the M14 as the standard service rifle for the United States Military.

Early Problems for the M-16 and the Rebirth of the AR-15

tactical rifle optics

Despite testing well, early field reports from the M-16 were plagued with misinformation and mistrust. The weapon was reported to have jammed frequently and didn’t hold up well under dirty conditions. Soldiers began to fear the weapon and the reports of its failure reached Congress. The results of the investigation discovered the following:

  • The M-16 was somehow billed as a self-cleaning weapon which led soldiers to believe regular maintenance wasn’t required. The truth is that no weapon has ever been self-cleaning. 

  • The M-16 was issued without instructions on how to clean the rifle or the cleaning kits required to do so. Ask any Marine or soldier today and they will regale you with tales of countless hours spent cleaning the M-16 on any given day. However, proper maintenance of the M-16 was not part of regular culture or SOP when first issued.
  • When the M-16 was tested, it used a different type of powder than that which was currently being fielded. The current powder created a greater mess which exacerbated the need for maintenance.

  • There was no forward assist on early models which made rifle useless when jammed. 

  • The lack of a chrome-plated chamber led to corrosion problems, which led to more failures.
Vietnam   U.S. Troops  Guns

Consequently, the future wasn’t looking good for the M-16. However, Colt was quick to make the necessary modifications and by 1968, the M16A1 had earned the respect and trust of the grunts fighting it out in the jungles of Vietnam. 

The AR-15 Becomes America’s Gun

tactical ar 15

The success of the M16A1 in combat led to the eventual adoption by the United States Military as its standard service rifle. For the past 50 years, the appearance of the M-16 and its future variants has become synonymous with U.S. military power. The 5.56 became the standard for NATO rifles and it became the antithesis of the Soviet AK-47. The good guys carried the M-16 and the bad guys carried the AK-47. That’s how the world saw it and the M-16 was forever enshrined into American gun lore

Meanwhile, Colt saw the power and potential of this rifle in the civilian market. Colt introduced the AR-15 to the civilian market as a semi-automatic only firearm. It’s popularity among sportsmen and personal defense enthusiasts skyrocketed during the coming decades. Apart from the brief moment in time when the AR was banned by the 1990’s Assault Rifle ban, the AR-15 was America’s most beloved and popular rifle.
Now that you know the history, let’s get a little more specific about America’s favorite firearm.

Comparison between Civilian and Military Versions

M16 Rifle

While there are noticeable differences between the military M16 and the civilian AR-15, they are for all practical purposes the same rifle. Their similarities have fueled the modern gun control debate as those opposed to their civilian use claim that “weapons of war” have no place in society. 

However, it helps to know that the Colt AR-15 has been marketed to civilians nearly since its inception. Yet, with truth being incontrovertible, they are nearly identical twins. The AR-15 is a lightweight, magazine fed, gas operated, air cooled, and shoulder fired weapon. So is the M-16. So let’s break down each component. 

Features of an AR-15

1. Lightweight

The weight of the rifle can vary by about a pound or so based on the variation and modifications made. However, the AR-15 weighs on average 6.5 pounds. The M-16A1 will come in around 7.5 pounds and with both, you can add about a pound for a fully loaded magazine. 

2. Magazine Fed

This refers to the method in which the rounds make their way into the chamber. The AR-15 utilizes a staggered column detachable box magazine. Please don’t call it a clip. It’s a magazine. Typically, the AR-15 would use a 20 or 30 round magazine that could take advantage of its semi-automatic capabilities. However, due to restrictions in some states, 5 and 10 round magazines are made to ensure legal compliance.

3. Gas Operated

The gas produced by firing the weapon is really the fuel that makes this whole platform work. When the weapon is fired, gas from the barrel is tapped from a gas port located near the end of the rifle. The gas expands down a gas tube and back towards the bolt carrier group. The force pushes the bolt carrier towards the back of the rifle while the empty empty cartridge case is ejected. The buffer spring then pushes the bold carrier forward again where it catches the new round pushed up by the spring in the magazine and locks it into place for the next shot.

4. Air Cooled

Firing a bullet produces a tremendous amount of energy and where you have energy, you have heat. The barrel of a rifle can become extremely hot when repeated rounds are fired in short order. That’s why the AR-15 utilizes hand guards around the actual barrel. This serves to protect the hands, but also to draw in cool air to cool down the barrel. 

5. Shoulder Fired Weapon

Regardless of what the latest action movie might show you, the AR-15 was meant to be fired with the buttstock placed firmly against the shoulder. Scenes of warriors firing it from the hip make for terrible movies and an excessive waste of ammunition. When fired properly from the shoulder, the AR-15 is a remarkably accurate weapon that can easily hit a point target without an optic at 500 yards.

Features of an M-16

The features of the M-16 are everything you just read above. The primary difference is that the M-16 versions offer the ability to fire at a fully automatic rate. Meanwhile, the AR-15 is semi-automatic rifle. This means one must pull the trigger to initiate each shot whereas with many variants of the M-16, one can “spray and pray” if they so choose.

However, it is important to note that many versions utilized by the military do not offer the fully automatic feature. The M16A2 offered single fire and three round burst option as it was thought fully automatic fire made the weapon inaccurate. Future variants of the M-16 and ensuing M-4 did offer fully automatic fire as combat experience during the Global Wars on Terror showed some scenarios where laying down a massive blanket of fire was necessary

Gun Control and AR-15’s in Modern Mass Shootings

The striking similarities between the civilian AR-15 and the military M-16 have fueled the modern gun control debate in America. However, rifles in general account for a remarkably small number of gun deaths in America with AR variant weapons accounting for even less. As much was admitted by the New York Times in an article titled The Assault Weapons Myth.

That being said, the AR platform is an exceptional weapon and has been the weapon of choice during several of America’s rare, but frightening, mass shootings. With each new shooting, calls to renew the ban on AR style weapons emerge. Advocates of the 2nd Amendment refute those calls by pointing out the facts at hand over the emotions involved during a genuine tragedy.

Numbers are not clear, but it is estimated that there are between 10 million to 20 million AR style weapons and similar models in private hands today in America. That means when a single AR is used in a mass shooting, it represents 0.0000001% or 0.00000005% of the rifles in circulation today. 

In addition, the AR-15 is of similar caliber or less than many other rifles available on the market today. The 30-06 Springfield will drop big game in a big way and yet, is rarely targeted due to hits power. The incontrovertible truth is that AR-15s are used for peaceful recreational or hunting needs from sea to shining sea.

Finally, nearly all recent mass shootings in the United States have taken place at soft-targets like schools or other gun-free zones. With the AR-15 being a single-fire weapon, there are other single-fire weapons that could cause similar carnage when unopposed for any length of time. The facts simply do not support that the elimination of one variation of rifle would change the course of those who are mentally deranged or pursuing a fanatical call to pursue violence. 

The AR-15 and American Liberty

While gun control supporters point to the similarities of the AR-15 and M-16 as reason for banning them, many advocates of the 2nd Amendment point to those similarities and highlight that this is exactly what the 2nd Amendment requires.

It is true that the founding fathers did not foresee the invention of the AR-15. While they were clearly forward thinking men, there is no indication that they were psychic. However, what they put into place with the 2nd Amendment was not the enshrinement of any particular piece of technology. Rather, they put into place the principle that a free people should never be unarmed against their own government. 

The founding fathers knew with 100% certainty that they were arming their population with same weapons used by the military in their day. They were not confused over what those weapons were capable of in the hands of civilians as that was how they had just thrown off the tyranny of the British Empire. So it is today as the technology may have changed, but the principles of freedom has not. 

The 2nd Amendment, at is base level, serves as a check on the powers of government. It doesn’t have to be that citizens march on D.C. with pitchforks and firearms. Rather, because the civilian population is comparatively armed, the government cannot march on the citizenry.

Doing so would initiate a sort of “mutually assured destruction clause.” The price would be too high and thus, the 2nd Amendment and civilian ownership of the AR-15 fulfills its role. Some might scoff that the American patriot could hold off against tanks, planes, and artillery. However, the Taliban have held their own with small arms in the mountains of Afghanistan and one might find the mountains of Montana or Colorado little different.

The AR-15 and the Assault Weapons Ban

Despite the solid case in support of civilian ownership of the AR-15 and despite the weapons massive appeal to the American public, some states have moved to limit the firearm. Many would argue that state level actions are a violation of the 2nd Amendment. However, cases brought before the Supreme Court have yet to restrict states from taking action on guns.

There was a period of time where AR style weapons were banned nationwide. In 1994, President Clinton signed The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act. More commonly referred to as the “Assault Weapons Ban”, the act made semi-automatic “assault” style weapons illegal as well as banned high-capacity magazines.

In order for the act to garner enough votes to pass, a sunset clause was inserted into the bill. After 10 years, the bill would become defunct if not renewed. In 2004 with Republican President George W. Bush in the White House, the ban was on AR style weapons ended. The American public responded by purchasing ARs in large numbers which reinforced the notion that the AR was still America’s gun. 

Current Restrictions on the AR-15

Before you proceed with our current overview of restrictions on the AR-15, we must remind you that we are not lawyers. Moreover, with gun laws ever changing at a rapid pace, we would always encourage you to consult your local gun laws before making a decision on purchasing a firearm.

However, as of the date of this article, there are currently 7 states and the District of Columbia that have bans on AR style weapons. Those states are California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. It is important to note that each state defines the dubious term “assault rifle” slightly different.

Minnesota and Virginia do not ban the AR-15,but have restrictions on such firearms. Then, a variety of local municipalities like Cook County, Illinois, offer their own restrictions. It just so happens that despite the ban in Chicago, Cook County sees some of the highest levels of gun violence in the nation.

Meanwhile, in the other 43 states, one can acquire an AR-15 after following the normal requirements to purchase a firearm without any additional restrictions. Several states have added the requirement that one be at least 21 years of age to purchase an AR-15 as a result of the shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Despite the gun legislation efforts, what remains true is that there remains millions AR-15s in the hands of private civilians and they are rarely used in a criminal act of any sort. However, as long as mass shooters choose to use this firearm with any frequency, the AR-15 will continually be under threat from the next push for gun control. Check your local laws frequently know your elected representatives positions on this issue, regardless of which side of the law you land. 

The AR-15 in Modern America

Since its inception, the AR-15 and its military variants have been synonymous with American power. Despite the bans and their occasional use in a criminal act, the AR-15 remains America’s most loved and popular rifle. From the jungles of Vietnam to the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, ArmaLite’s creation has been on the front lines of American freedom. The firearm will continue to be the subject of much debate in the future, but armed with the facts, you can participate in that debate and argue the incontrovertible truth.