With a history of being mislabelled as the icon of mass shootings, misconceptions of what the AR-15 really is and not understanding its rich history, it is easy to think that the AR-15 is evil and only has one function, that of killing. Not true.
The AR-15 is better known as the ArmaLite Rifle – Version 15 has changed the modern firearms world and the face of war. Its uses include recreational target shooting, amateur and professional sport shooting, home protection and hunting, in addition to the use in law enforcement and military deployment.
This is the story about the AR-15, its struggles, tribulations, alure and that of its founder.
In the early summer of 1990, two world’s gun titans met at a famed diner, once visited by President George Washington, in Alexandria, Virginia. Hosted by the Smithsonian Institute and funded by a hunting club in Washington, D.C., this significant meeting, hosting two of the world’s weapon pioneer’s clearly illustrated capitalism and communism through Eugene Stoner and Mikhail Kalashnikov’s lives.
Eugene Stoner was the genius who designed the AR-15, and Mikhail Kalashnikov the mastermind who designed the iconic AK-47. Both inventors went down in history as pioneers. Kalashnikov’s name will be remembered for developing the world’s first assault rifle based on the STG-44 Sturmgewehr designed by the Germans during World War 2. Eugene Stoner, the father of the AR-15 and military version M-16, designed out of composite materials, using the lighter 5.56mm round. The most common rifles globally, both the Soviet AK-47 and American M-16, have a unique history and have gone head-to-head against one another in various wars and conflicts, especially in Vietnam.
Stoner was a millionaire who flew into D.C. on his own plane, while Kalashnikov was a pauper who earned medals and citations for his work and never received a dime from any of the AK-47 sales globally.
Although the two inventors had a similar educational background, a history of overcoming adversity against government opposition, and a passion for small arms simplicity and interchangeability, their financial status was completely different from each other.
How did Stoner become so successful with his brainchild the AR-15? What challenges did he face? And why is the AR-15 so popular today? To answer these questions, we have to go back to when it all started.
Eugene Stoner – The designer of the AR-15
Stoner was born in Gasport, Indiana, in 1922. Later, his family moved to California, where he attended Long Beach High School, before starting to work at the Vega Aircraft Company, where he installed armament. When World War 2 started, Stoner enrolled in the US Marine Corps and was deployed as an Aviation Ordnance Specialist and served in Northern China and the South Pacific. It was likely during this time when Eugene Stoner got the inspiration to design firearms.
After the war, Stoner got a job at aircraft equipment company called Whitaker, and he worked his way up through the ranks until he became a fully-fledged design engineer. In 1954 he started to work for ArmaLite Company, a division of Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corp, which was founded by George Sullivan. Sullivan was interested in compact and lightweight weapon designs, and he began ArmaLite out of a small workshop with only a few employees.
When Sullivan met Stoner for the first time, he was trying out some of his designs at a shooting range, and test-firing his own M5. Sullivan realized Eugene Stoner’s potential and hired him as the Chief Design Engineer at his ArmaLite Company. Although Sullivan was aware of Stoner’s great potential, he never imagined that Stoner would invent one of the best-known firearms of the 20th century.
At ArmaLite, Stoner designed a number of firearms, namely the AR-3, AR-9, AR-11, and AR-12.
In 1955 the revolutionary AR-10 was born. The weapon was easy to fire, lightweight, and compact and the rifle was chambered to accept the NATO 7.52x51mm rounds.
In the meantime, the U.S. Army had to upgrade its outdated M-1 Garand. Ironically, its replacement was an upgraded M-1 Garand. The Rifle Steering Committee was established and initiated the Army Lightweight Rifle Program. The first two competitors were Springfield Armory’s T-44E, which produced an upgraded M-1 Garand chambered the same as the AR-10. The second competitor was Fabrique Nationale with the T-48 FAL. Finally, just when the Army was about to choose a rifle, ArmaLite appeared with the AR-10, but unfortunately, it was already too late.
For the first time, the AR-10 was tested at the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1956 and beat both competitors hands down. Unfortunately, the AR-10 entered the project late, so the M-14 (then the T-44E) won the bid. Therefore, the AR concept was not considered, even though it was what the U.S. Army needed. Ultimately the M-14 turned out to be a costly mistake with more stoppages than the AR-10 on average, as well as many other issues we will discuss later.
The fact is the AR-10 was far superior to the M-14 or the T-48, and it featured several new properties that the other rifles did not have. These included a recoil compensator, a straight-line stock design, a large aluminium flash suppressor, tough elevated sights as well as an adjustable gas system. The weapon was also incredibly light because of its fiberglass-reinforced construction at 6.85 pounds empty weight. That was exactly what the Army needed in a “Lightweight Rifle Program”: Accuracy, lightweight, and a high rate of fire.
However, the story didn’t finish here. When the AR-10 was submitted for trials, Sullivan wanted Stoner to present it with an aluminium/steel composite barrel. Stoner was against it, and he was right, because during testing, the barrel burst.
ArmaLite tried to fix the mistake by replacing the barrel of the AR-10 with a steel one, but it was already too late. The Army saw the new weapon as a prototype and expected that it would take around five years to turn it into a working and capable firearm. That was another reason why the Committee decided to go with the M-14 and yet another blow for Armalite.
Manufacturing and Selling the AR-10
Although the new lightweight rifle missed out the U.S. Army Programme, which didn’t buy the rifle, was a big blow for ArmaLite, it did not mean that there were no other buyers. So, ArmaLite decided to look for a weapon manufacturer to produce the new AR-10. They found a Dutch company called Artillerie-Inrichtingen (A.I.) and hired four salesmen, one of which was the famous arms dealer, Sam Cummings.
With a manufacturer secured and a sales team established, ArmaLite produced a great thing to sell, but they needed a buyer. That led to the Nicaragua Deal when in 1957, Cummings demonstrated the AR-10 to the military commander of Nicaragua, General Anastasio Somoza.
Somoza was so impressed that he ordered 7,500 rifles immediately. But, unfortunately, this deal was cancelled almost instantly.
Why was it cancelled? Cummings left his demonstrator rifle with the General, who decided to test the weapon. The bolt lug over the ejector popped off, almost killing the General, who immediately cancelled the deal. The AR-10 was turning into a failure that not even Nicaragua wanted.
However, things started turning around for ArmaLite as they managed to sell 2,500 AR-10’s to the Sudanese Government at $225 a pop in 1958. Once the success of the Sudanese order spread by word of mouth, this sale became a turning point for ArmaLite, after which struggled to keep up with the demand.
If you think about it, the U.S. Army was using upgraded M-1 Garand’s, while third world countries were using much better and lighter weapons.
ArmaLite manufacturing drastically increased since countries like Guatemala, Portugal, Cuba, Burma, Italy, and Germany were buying the AR-10. In addition, several other countries like Austria, Netherlands, South Africa, and Finland ordered test units for their military, too.
One would think that things were going well for ArmaLite, but the reality on the ground was far from it. Such challenges like Dutch export restrictions, Cuba’s worsening relations with the U.S., the Netherlands embargoing AR-10 shipments to Portugal, and ArmaLite’s poor production capabilities all contributed to ArmaLite’s problems. Was their luck going to change?
The birth of the AR-15
The United States Army launched its U.S. Continental Army Command Rifle Program. The Army was looking for a new super rifle capable of:
- Chambering a .223 caliber round.
- Weighing 6 pounds.
- Accurate up to 500 yards.
Eugene Stoner and ArmaLite did not want to miss out on the only opportunity for survival. So, Stoner created a great team of experts, such as himself, Jim Sullivan, and Bob Fremont. They got to work, and the fruit of their labor was the 1958 AR-15, very similar to the AR-10A. They basically changed the AR-10 to accept the .223 Remington cartridge.
Unfortunately, ArmaLite gave up too soon as they were not getting any buyers and burn through cash reserves. They only had one option left, which was selling intellectual property. They went ahead and sold the rights to the AR-10 and AR-15 to Colt Firearms for a mere $75,000, and a 4.5% royalty on all future sales.
Colt and Stoner realized which changes were needed to make a success out of the AR-15. The most significant change was in the simple replacement of the charging handle, which brought sudden success to the AR-15.
The AR-15 later became “America’s Rifle,” The U.S. Army first adopted the use of the fully automatic variant, namely the M-16, in 1964, about nine years before the Vietnam War ended. The Army accepted the M-16 after the U.S. Air Force ordered 8,500 AR-15’s. Also, Special Forces at the time adopted the AR-15 as their weapon of choice.
The M-14’s used by the US Forces in the Vietnam War had major drawbacks because of the type of war. Firstly, the M-14 was uncontrollable when firing in fully automatic mode. The other drawback encountered by the troops was that it was heavy. It was almost impossible to match the enemy’s ability to bring down suppressing fire, and the weapon weighed almost twice that of the AR-15. The increased weight of its ammunition was another critical issue. It was so bad that General McNamara had to order the termination of the M-14 production and issuing it to the U.S. Forces.
The M-16 fired at supersonic speed up to 500 yards on both semi-automatic and fully automatic modes. The modified .223 Remington cartridge could even penetrate steel plates at 500 yards thanks to its high muzzle velocity. The M-16 used lighter-weight ammunition as well, which made logistics much more manageable. Besides, it was easier to carry 300 rounds of 5.56mm ammunition than the same amount in 7.62mm calibre.
Later on, the M-16 was upgraded to the M-16A1. The reason for this was that the M-16’s first issue let the GI’s down. They were prone to jamming and had not-chromed chambers, which meant they rusted more easily. A Congressional investigation in 1967 also found that the gunpowder used to produce the .223 Remington rounds was not the kind that was supposed to be used. That caused weapons to become dirtier more quickly and to jam more often.
The upgrade M-16A1 addressed all these concerns. Years later, the M-16 was upgraded to the M-16A2 variant, which moved away from the spray-and-pray mentality. The weapon had no fully automatic setting but a setting for single fire and a three-round burst fire. The next upgrade to M-16A3 status briefly returned to the fully automatic version, and the M-16A4 automatic fire was once again replaced with burst fire mode. The M-16A4 was also the first M-16 to have rails.
Later, the M-16 was phased out to the M-4 used by the U.S. Army and other U.S. Forces today.
The AR-15’s popularity
People wrongly assume that an AR-15 is an assault rifle. To the untrained eye, the rifle looks like an M-16 or A-4. People also suppose that the AR stands for automatic rifle, which is, of course, not true. The AR-15 is still a semi-automatic weapon.
As far as popularity is concerned, Guns.com reports that the AR-15’s sales and similar semi-automatics dubbed Modern Sporting Rifles by the NSSF account for an estimated 19.8 million units across the U.S. Almost 20 million AR-15’s and similar rifles are in use in the U.S. That is perfect data regarding the AR-15 popularity.
Why is the AR-15 so popular? The main reason is that the rifles have a reputation for being reliable, they look good, and their customizability is almost limitless. The M-16A4 is not as customizable, and the AR-15 is perfect for the person who wants a rifle that suits their needs. For example, the AR-15 does not have a chrome-plated barrel, but if you want it, you can have it – at extra cost, of course.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) has classified the AR-15 lower receiver as the actual licenced firearm, which means everything else can be customised since everything else is seen as simple add-ons to the actual firearm.
The M-16A4 may be created for war, but the AR-15 is definitely built for accuracy. The fact that the M-16 has a forward assist indicates that a GI had to be able to load a round manually in a critical warfare situation, for example, when the round did not go into the chamber properly due to dirt or mud. A soldier can load a round manually and carry on with the firefight by pushing the forward assist. Obviously, the AR-15 does not need this since civilians are not under pressure.
The M-16A4 has a reputation as being an accurate rifle, but the AR-15 has an even better reputation regarding precision. With the ability to customize, the AR-15 can be even more adjusted according to its owner’s needs. With the ability to load their own ammunition, the owner who wants the best from their firearm can load their ammunition to sniper or sport shooting standards.
Another reason for the AR-15 widespread popularity is its relatively cheap ammunition, especially if compared to other high-performance rifle rounds. By July 8, 2021, the price of a .223 Remington was $0.49 per round, whereas the price of a 30-06 was $1.24, and that of the .308 Winchester was $0.62 per round. Besides, the .223 Remington rounds are getting cheaper.
There are many reasons why the AR-15 is popular, and one of them is the ease of firing. Compared to other rifles, the AR-15 has a reasonably low recoil and high accuracy, which can be further exploited by compensators means. These use the gas emerging from the front of the barrel to stop the barrel from jumping upwards and thereby losing aiming stability.
The AR-15, quite simply put, is a gunman’s rifle.
The popularity and widespread use of the AR-15 is not questionable. This rifle is one of the most beloved and most vilified in the U.S. and probably will continue to be for some time in a future. Nobody owns an AR-15 without feeling good about their purchase. The way the weapon looks, the way it fires, its accuracy, and its reputation contribute towards what we know as “America’s Rifle.”
This weapon is a piece of art in terms of its design. It owes a lot of its popularity to the effort put into it by Eugene Stoner. Just like the AK-47 carries the soul of the late Mikhail T. Kalashnikov, the AR-15 has the soul of Eugene Stoner.
Likely misunderstood by the ill-informed, the AR-15 remains one of America’s greatest inventions of all time.