Small Wars Journal

The Complete History of the AR-15 Rifle

Wed, 07/12/2017 - 10:18am

The Complete History of the AR-15 Rifle

Sam Bocetta


The ArmaLite 15 is a classic assault rifle. You might know it better as an M-16, the U.S. Military's version of the weapon. Today, we are going to take you through the history of this iconic American weapon, from its inception in 1959 to the present day.

A common misconception about the AR-15 is that "AR" stands for "assault rifle," a phrase that stems from the German "Sturmgewehr" ("Storm" or "assault" rifle) used in World War II propaganda posters and later applied to military-style weapons. This shouldn't be confused with the term "Assault Weapon," a legal term for a specific class of illegal firearm during the years 1994 to 2004.

Ironically enough, the AR-15 fits both of these descriptions: it's a military style rifle that was illegal during the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban. The "AR" in the name, however, stands for the name of the manufacturer: ArmaLite.

1950's: The ArmaLite Company is Founded

The ArmaLite Company traces its humble beginnings back to the early 1950's in Hollywood, California. The company was founded by George Sullivan, who worked as the patent counsel for the Lockheed Corporation (today Lockheed Martin). The small arms company received its funding from the Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation, the company that would soon become Fairchild-Republic, a major manufacturer of military aircraft for the U.S. Military.

Originally, the company focused on weapons design, rather than manufacture. Instead of producing weapons themselves, ArmaLite focused on weapons design. The chief architect behind ArmaLite's weapons designs was Eugene Stoner, a young man in his thirties with a knack for weapons design. Sullivan quickly promoted Stoner to the position of chief design engineer for ArmaLite.

Eugene Stoner

1954-1956: ArmaLite Begins Designing Rifles

In 1954, the first weapon design from ArmaLite was produced: the AR-5. This bolt-action rifle with a .22 Hornet round was developed as a survival rifle for the flight crew in the U.S. Airforce.


What was the concept behind the AR-5? The United States Air Force needed a rifle that would be lightweight and compact enough to stowaway onboard a bomber in the airplane's survival kits.

The Airforce adopted the AR-5, calling it the MA-1, adopting it for regular use in 1956. The AR-5 came apart, letting you stow it away, and would even float, making it ideal for use during a water landing.

The AR-5 put ArmaLite on the map, giving them the credibility they needed to go on to develop new firearm innovations.

Many early designs were civilian survival weapons, like the AR-7.


Despite the company having the backing of two of the largest military aircraft manufacturers, ArmaLite originally intended to focus on making civilian weaponry, rather than craft weapons for the military.

These early ArmaLite designs were built to be taken apart into pieces and put back together; making it something that could be stored on an aircraft or vehicle for emergency survival situations.

1955: The U.S. Army Seeks a Replacement Rifle

In 1955, the United States Military decided it was time to replace the tried-and-true M1 Garand, the staple of World War II that had served admirably at the time, but was limited in regards to its ammunition capacity. The M1 Garand only held eight rounds and weighed over ten and a half-pounds, making the elegant firearm a bit of an antique.

M1 Garand

Armaline came late to the race to design the military's next rifle, introducing the AR-10 into the mix alongside the Springfield T-44 and T-48. The company only had time to show the military two hand-built models based on their fourth AR-10 prototype.


The AR-10 prototypes were designed with a straight stock, elevated sights, an aluminum flash suppressor, a recoil compensator, and a gas system.

Most of the military had positive things to say about the AR-10. It was lightweight, and many of the testers thought it to be one of the best rifles they'd ever shot.

Unfortunately, the barrel could not past the "torture test," bursting under pressure. Although ArmaLite quickly introduced a steel barrel to counteract this damage, it was too late, causing the Springfield Armory to advise the military not to adapt the AR-10 rifle, reporting that it would take five or more years of testing to bring the weapon up to date.

Instead, they chose the T44, now known as the M-14, which was adopted in 1957.


1956-1959: International Licensing Agreement For The AR-10

On the fourth of July, 1957 the Dutch weapons company Artillerie Inrichtingen bought rights to produce the AR-10 for five years.

In 1957, the international arms dealer Samuel Cummings secured a weapons contract with Nicaragua, the chief military commander of which was General Anatasio Somoza, the same Anatasio Somoza who would later become famous as the dictator of the country, until the Nicaraguan people had enough, overthrowing him in 1979. Anatasio Somoza tested the AR-10 rifles himself. While firing the rifles, the bolt lug over the ejector broke, nearly slicing the general's hand. This ended all deals with Nicaragua.

Meanwhile, Artillerie Inrichtingen kept finding factory defects and problems with the new AR-10 rifle, which meant that the rifle received very distribution. Most of the AR-10 rifles made their way to Sudan and Portugual.

1959: ArmaLite Sells the AR-15 Design to Colt; Production Begins

In 1959, ArmaLite finally catches a break, striking a deal with Colt. The company manages to sell both the AR-10 and the new AR-15 designs to Colt Firearms.

At this point, Robert Fremont, who had been one of the major players on the design team for both weapons, heads over to Colt to help oversee production.

At this time, the AR-7 gets launched full scale, marketed as a civilian survival rifle, although it also saw some military use.

The first AR-15 weapons were sold by Colt to the Federation of Malaya (modern day Malaysia).


1961: Eugene Stoner Becomes a Consultant at Colt

At this time, Eugene Stoner leaves the ArmaLite company, taking a position as a consultant at Colt. Around the same time, the United States Airforce tests the AR-15, commissioning 8,500 for Air Force use.

1963: The M-16 is Born

With the AR-15 in the hands of the Air Force, a standard model of the rifle is born. They dub it the M-16, the most famous service weapon of the United States Military.

General Curtis LeMay saw a demonstration of the AR-15 in 1960. Impressed by the prowess of this new firearm, when General LeMay became the Air Force Chief of Staff in the Summer of 1961, he placed 80,000 AR-15's on order for the U.S. Air Force.

In 1961, ten AR-15's were sent to South Vietnam, as the United States continued to penetrate into the jungles of Indochina.

Despite a great deal of success, US Army wasn't enthusiastic about adopting the new rifle.

Although test after test was ordered, even demanding the attention of President John F. Kennedy itself, two things were clear. First, the United States was outmatched and outgunned by the AK-47 in South Vietnam. Second, the U.S. Army was too rigid and opposed to change to replace the clearly inferior M-14.


Despite the continued resistance, production problems with the M-14 forced the hands of Robert McNamara, the U.S. Secretary of Defense. The United States needed a rifle that could be used in all four branches of service. The M-16 would be this weapon.

As I mentioned, the M-16 was adapted to be used against the AK-47. Today, of course, the AK-47 is known as the M-16's greatest nemesis. The debate about which of these two weapons is better has kept history buffs and gun owners up until the wee hours of the morning many a late night.

In this article, we'll refrain from passing judgment between the two.

1965: The M-16 Becomes the Primary Service Rifle

The first M-16 rifles were issued in March of 1965.

The Vietnam War was in full swing, and American troops poured into South Vietnam, armed with 300,000 brand new M-16's bought from Colt.

The rifle wasn't without its problems. First, soldiers weren't given cleaning kits. Even today, the AR-15 models are infamous for being much less able to take rugged terrain than its Russian counterpart: the Ak-47.

Colt had erroneously claimed the rifle to be self-cleaning. This meant the rifle wasn't clean, and would keep jamming. Most often, the problem was "failure to extract," i.e. the cartridge would get stuck in the chamber after firing.

Report after report came in about soldiers found dead, rifles in pieces in front of them as they desperately tried to put their rifle back together in time to shoot back. In the words of one Marine:

"We left with 72 men in our platoon and came back with 19, Believe it or not, you know what killed most of us? Our own rifle. Practically every one of our dead was found with his (M16) torn down next to him where he had been trying to fix it" (Time Magazine, 1967)

The new rifle was designed, a version of the M-16 called the M16A1. Included with the rifle was a comic book, outlining how to clean and take care of the rifle.

1989: Production of the First AR-15's for Civilians Begins

With the AR-15 patents long expired, Jim Glazier and Karl Lewis started manufacturing the first civilian versions of the AR-15. These opened AR-15's up to the civilian market from the year 1989 to 1994.

1994-2004: Civilian Production Halts

Civilian production had to be halted, however, after the Federal Assault Weapons Ban made civilian assault weapons illegal from 1994 to 2004. Unfortunately, this legislation resulted in no significant decrease in gun violence.

Did the legislation ultimately fail? In light of the growing number of public mass shootings in recent years, the debate between gun enthusiasts and anti-gun activists continues.

2012-Present: The AR-15 Media Controversy

The AR-15 has recently been in the media spotlight, as the weapon has been involved in a number of deadly assaults on civilians in the United States. This has launched a heated debate over the future of civilian versions of the AR-15 and other similar rifles.

The AR-15 was used on the deadly assault on Sandy Hook, the 2015 attack in San Bernardino, as well as the shooting a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado.

Could renewing the Federal Assault Weapons Ban have prevented these violent crimes? Lawmakers continue to disagree. Most statistics, however, point in the direction of handguns, not rifles, as being involved in most violent crimes.

Today: The M-16 and Militaries Around the World

The AR-15 continued to be the service weapon of the United States in the years to come, until finally being phased out for the M4 Carbine, a weapon based off the M-16, but designed to be shorter and lighter.

Nevertheless, the M-16 is still used throughout the world by militaries all over.

Even though it's starting to be phased out in the United States, it still remains a popular choice for militaries across the world.

The M16 remains in use in more than fifteen NATO countries and over eighty countries across the globe. Manufacturing continues in the United States, Canada, and China. It has also become the focus of civilian gun enthusiasts who have developed new markets for accessories like AR red dot scopes and other optics systems.

The M-16 might have been replaced in the United States Military, but it's far from an antique. Production continues, as the M-15 models continue to see use in militaries around the world. Likewise, the AR-15 continues to be a favorite of hunters and gun hobbyists, making it one of the most popular modern sporting rifle choices on the market today.

Categories: AR-15 Rifle

About the Author(s)

Sam Bocetta is a retired engineer who worked for over 35 years as an engineer specializing in electronic warfare and advanced computer systems. Past projects include development of EWTR systems, Antifragile EW project and development of Chaff countermeasures. Sam now teaches at Algonquin Community College in Ottawa, Canada as a part time engineering professor.


Hello, in the part of this article, the paragraph for 1989 is incorrect. They were already for sale at least eight years before. I purchased my AR15 in 1982, and of all places I bought it in Brooklyn NY from Alpine Arms on Ft Hamilton parkway. Just a FYI

Great article, huge thanks! What I'd like to say is that AR-15 controversy is linked to how popular model have had become over last decades. It's most a factor due to it being extremely modification friendly. It can be a military rifle, a home defense and a hunting rifle, all in one with minor adjustments(which market got a lot of tools available for). Good example would be how different it is to even install something like a silencer or a scope on AR-15 and other more "niche" platform - like ak-47. You have various mount and rings available for AR, but for AK you need a very specific rail system that might not even be available at many places, and to top that, installing silencer on AK platform requires some modifications done to the barrel itself a lot of the time( or specially built supressor). Point is, you can go to any hunting or outdoors store like and get every modification you'd need for your AR. Meanwhile, other platforms aren't even half as easy to get. Controversy was born from availability, and that's the biggest compliment you can make to the AR-15.

Civilian production of a semi-automatic AR-15 began long before the date claimed in the article above.

Or from a letter quoted in a otherwise anti-gun article:
"The Colt AR-15 has been on the civilian market for 53 years (since 1964), and AR-15 pattern rifles made by companies other than Colt have been for 40 years (since 1977, when Stoner's patent on the AR-15 gas system expired). Sales of the AR-15 to civilians even predates background checks (Gun Control Act of 1968)."

J Harlan

Fri, 07/14/2017 - 4:24pm

"Civilian production had to be halted, however, after the Federal Assault Weapons Ban".

No. Civilian production of AR-15s (For US sales. Guns going to other states were "pre-ban") continued but without all of the normal features- flash hiders, collapsible stocks and bayonet lugs etc. The result was an increase in the value of "pre-ban" guns and an increase in sale of after market parts to retroactively make "post-ban" guns more appealing. Once the AWB expired there was a run on parts to bring AR-15s up to normal.

The entire AWB business was for show but gun violence did decrease during the AWB but it didn't and couldn't have anything to do with whether a AR-15 had a flash hider or not. The trend for less violence continued after the AWB expired despite the warnings (& hopes?) by some on the left that it would increase.

Similar nonsense is underway today in California where legislators have enacted laws to require certain "bad guns" to be registered and the remainder to conform to a new list of cosmetic details. As usual gun makers have found ways around the laws before the ink was dry and the result of laws aimed at lawful gun owners is the usual uptick in both sales and disrespect for lawmakers and the law.


Fri, 07/14/2017 - 3:27am

The author failed to mention as the 'spray and pray' approach took hold in Vietnam we were forced into using WW2 stocks of ball propellant designed for 303/308 rifles. It was only after a reformulated WC propellant containing less calcium carbonate packing reached fighting units, that the rifle's reputation was salvaged.


Wed, 07/12/2017 - 10:31pm

In reply to by mred

No Worries. Happy to help.

Thanks mred. Typos corrected - much appreciated - Dave D.