The AR-15 was born in a California aircraft factory in the 1950s after some savvy engineers noticed that guns were so 19th century, as guns were then only made from wood and steel. This was an age when planes, cars and toothbrushes were using new plastics and more sophisticated metal mixes and manufacturing processes.
Here’s how the ah-ha moment for this very popular rifle’s story happened. Not long after World War II an aeronautical engineer named George Sullivan had a conversation with a Brussels-based arms dealer named Jacques Michault. The story goes that Michault entertained Sullivan with stories about how the Germans made lighter guns faster with stamped parts. This made Sullivan realize that guns could benefit from the aviation industry’s use of new materials and manufacturing techniques.
A few years later, in 1953, Sullivan met Paul S. Cleveland, Fairchild’s corporate secretary, at a convention. As they small talked Sullivan mentioned his idea about using new materials to bring guns up to date. Cleveland took this idea to Richard S. Boutelle, Fairchild’s president and a long-time gun enthusiast. Boutelle loved the idea and soon hired Sullivan to create an arm of the company that would develop new and better firearms.
Sullivan named the new Fairchild subsidiary “ArmaLite Corporation.” Now, this brings up an often-misunderstood fact. As ArmaLite invented rifles it placed the letters “AR” (for ArmaLite rifle) in front of each model. While today some in the media assume “AR” stands for “assault rifle,” it actually stands for “ArmaLite rifle.” In fact, though the AR-15 and its relations are what many in the media now refer to as “assault weapons,” this also deserves clarification, as the media often interchanges the terms “assault weapon” and “assault rifle.” According to Bruce H. Kobayashi and Joseph E. Olson, in the Stanford Law and Policy Review, “Prior to 1989, the term ‘assault weapon’ did not exist in the lexicon of firearms.” “Assault weapon” is a political term developed by anti-gun advocates to convince people that some guns are too, well scary, effective or something for U.S. citizens to own. The technical term “assault rifle” includes full-auto military firearms such as the M4A1 carbine. The AR-15 is not an assault rifle—it’s not full-auto; it’s semiautomatic (when you pull the trigger it goes bang once). Today’s AR-15s can’t be configured to be fully automatic.
But all that misinformation was to come. In the beginning the idea was that Sullivan would create gun prototypes by utilizing lightweight, modern alloys and plastics. The company would then license these firearms to manufacturers. The initial plan was to produce sporting firearms for the commercial market; however, shortly after Fairchild established ArmaLite, the company was invited to submit a rifle to the U.S. Air Force as a replacement for the then-standard survival rifle. ArmaLite submitted the AR-5, a .22 Hornet survival rifle that they said “floated” for Air Force evaluation. The AR-5 was adopted and designated the MA-1 Survival Rifle, but few were made as the gun fell out of favor.
Nevertheless, the initial success with the AR-5 led Fairchild to reverse strategy and focus on the military market. The decision to forgo the average consumer for the military would turn out to be a great miscalculation. But at the time Fairchild was flush with revenue from other parts of its vast business. For a while this enabled Sullivan to experiment freely without worrying about making a profit. As he developed new gun designs, Sullivan would bring his experimental firearms to the Topanga Canyon Shooting Range for testing. This led to the next fortuitous meeting that would change the future of rifles. At the range Sullivan happened to see Eugene Stoner, a former U.S. Marine who had served in Aviation Ordnance during WWII, shooting what looked to be a homemade rifle. Stoner was then a design engineer making dental plates. Sullivan and Stoner started talking. Before long Stoner joined Sullivan’s team as chief engineer for ArmaLite.
In 1955 ArmaLite submitted a gun design, the AR-10, devised by Stoner but based on Sullivan’s concepts using anodized aluminum, a plastic butt stock and other materials, to the U.S. Army. The Army was then searching for a new service rifle. The AR-10 looked cosmetically like what would later be the AR-15 and later the M16, but the AR-10 used the larger 7.62 mm chambering, a .30-caliber cartridge used by NATO. The chambering wasn’t novel, but the AR-10 was a modern rifle, a new rifle for an age with molded plastic cups, dashboards and eyeglasses. It was a modular looking rifle with a carry handle on top that utilized space-age materials. The AR-10 might have looked awkward at first, but it lightly fit into a person’s shoulder and pointed well. It also weighed 7.25 pound without a magazine—about two pounders lighter than the M14 it was competing with.
The Army, however, was skeptical. Time magazine profiled the AR-10 and called it a new “aluminum rifle” produced “at no cost to the taxpayer” and said the rifle “gave promise of being superior.” At the time the Springfield Armory was still making guns for the U.S. military, as it had since George Washington founded it. Civilian gun designers had always collaborated with the Armory and often pushed new designs into the hands of soldiers and citizens alike, but if this rifle was accepted it could mean the end to the Armory, as the Armory was counting on making the M14 and didn’t have the know-how to make plastic stocks and rifles with anodized aluminum parts. Some of the U.S. Army’s leadership were also reportedly turned off by AmraLite’s media blitz.
The AR-10 didn’t win a military contract for these and other reasons; however, in 1955, U.S. Army Colonel Henry Neilsen and General Willard Wyman got together and discussed the possibility of the AR-10 being chambered in a lighter caliber to truly make it a rifle for the future. Both were intrigued with the potential of this new rifle design. So intrigued that in 1956 both Neilsen and Wyman visited Stoner at ArmaLite to discuss the idea of chambering the AR-10 in a cartridge that would shoot a .22-caliber, 55-grain bullet at 3,250 feet per second at the muzzle.
Stoner went to work and soon developed the AR-15, a lighter, 5.56mm version of the AR-10. More military trials came as Wyman found ways to give the AR-15 a chance to win a military contract in 1957. Meanwhile, the Secretary of the U.S. Army, Wilbur Brucker, announced the adoption of the M14 as the new service rifle. The M14 had gone through years of manufacturing delays and bureaucratic problems, but was finally ready for full production. At this same time both Wyman and Neilsen, ArmaLite’s biggest fans, retired in 1958. As more tests took place the AR-15 seemed to have come along too soon and too late for the U.S. military.
After more machinations from the military’s bureaucracy, and after ArmaLite’s parent company, Fairchild Engine and Aircraft Corporation, hit hard times financially, a decision was made to unload ArmaLite. In January of 1959 the AR-15’s design and manufacturing rights were sold to Colt for the rock-bottom price of $75,000 and a 4.5 percent royalty on future sales.
Colt’s experienced firearms engineers went to work and quickly tweaked the AR-15’s design—the biggest change they made was relocating its charging handle from under the carrying handle to the rear of the receiver. Colt then started a public-relations campaign that knocked the M14 for being too old school as they talked-up the benefits of the lighter AR-15. The AR-15, with its lighter .223-caliber round, gave an infantryman the ability to carry as many as three times the amount of ammo as a soldier carrying an M14 chambered in .308 Winchester. The original AR-15 also weighed less than 6 pounds without a magazine, whereas the M14 weighed on average 9.2 pounds when empty.
Still, a lot of people thought of the .223 as a varmint round—many still do. The shift to the smaller .223 cartridge almost derailed the AR-15. But before long American Rifleman praised the AR-15’s attributes. In its May 1962 issue, American Rifleman reported: “It is not at all impossible to conceive of such a small bore military rifle. The United States Navy rifle was a 6 mm. (.236) for a number of years following 1895. Studies were made by most nations, including the United States, of cal. .22 military cartridges, sometimes even smaller. Rifles of cal. 6.5 mm. (.256) were adopted by several nations before the beginning of this century. The fact that they were adopted by very few major military powers, and even by those users were not considered fully successful in the test of World War II, need not prevent renewed consideration of small bores under requirements of the present.”
As other tests moved forward the AR-15 gained traction. In 1963 the U.S. military finally ordered 85,000 AR-15s for the Army. On July 1, 1964 the U.S. military ceased production of the M14. Soon the full-auto military version of the AR-15 was dubbed the M16.
Colt had already begun selling semiautomatic AR-15s to U.S. consumers in 1963. The November 1964 issue of American Rifleman reported, “A semi-automatic model of the Colt AR-15 cal. .223 (5.56 mm.) automatic rifle is now offered by Colt’s. Designated Colt AR-15 Sporter, it is made for semi-automatic use only….” The article further explained, “Design of this sporter is such that parts required for fully-automatic fire cannot be installed, and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Div., Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Treasury Dept., does not consider the rifle a ‘Firearm’ in the machine gun category.”
Fast forward a half-century and we find American gun enthusiasts in an AR craze. According to the research firm Southwick Associates, Inc., in 2012 one in five rifles sold was chambered in .223—most of these are AR-15-type rifles. Today the AR-15 and its variations are manufactured by a long and growing list of companies. AR’s are popular with civilians and law enforcement around the world because they’re accurate, light, portable and modular. Its design also allows it to be accessorized. A civilian can buy after-market sights, vertical forward grips, lighting systems, night-vision devices, laser-targeting devices, muzzle brakes/flash hiders, bipods and more. In this way this rifle platform is more versatile than any other rifle. It’s also easy to shoot and has little recoil, making it popular with women.