A. Origins. The AR-15 Rifle was designed by Eugene Stoner and his team of engineers in the 1960's for entry into U.S. military trials for a new battle rifle to replace the M-14. Mr. Stoner, working at the time for ArmaLite (a division of the Fairchild Aircraft & Engine Corporation), engineered a revolutionary new rifle utilizing non-traditional rifle materials such as aluminum alloys and plastics. It was initially designed around the .222 Remington cartridge. It was later, at the request of the Army, re-chambered in .223 Remington (5.56x45mm) which propelled a 55-grain bullet out of the AR-15 at roughly 3000 ft.-plus per second. With the .223-calibered AR-15 rifle, for the same weight, a soldier could carry more ammunition than the older .308 Win (7.62x51mm) ammunition for the heavier M-14 rifle.
After lengthy evaluation and revisions, the AR-15 rifle was only adopted by the U.S. Air Force for use by its base security personnel. For a variety of political reasons, the Army did not select the rifle. However, as America became involved in the Vietnam War, Secretary of Defense James McNamara cut through the Army Ordnance Department's red tape and selected the AR-15 for issuance to troops. The Army gave it the military designation of "M16".
In the Vietnam War, the rifle initially earned a reputation as being prone to jamming and stoppages. This was, in hindsight, due to three primary factors: 1) insufficient training of the troops on weapons maintenance, 2) poor-to-non-existent distribution of cleaning kits to those same troops in the field, and 3) improperly formulated .223 Remington ammunition which caused heavy fouling (a primary cause of stoppages). Eventually, the situation was recognized and remedied as troops were properly trained to keep their weapons clean and well-lubricated, issued proper cleaning kits, and issued .223 Remington ammunition that was properly formulated to burn cleanly.
B. The AR-15 Legacy. Today, the AR-15 rifle has become really one the most highly engineered and refined battle rifles of modern armies. It has since earned a reputation for reliability and accuracy. It has been in service in all branches of U.S. Armed Forces now for nearly 30 years. In the process, it has been upgraded from the "M16", to the "M16-A1", all the way through the latest "M16-A4". The U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) and the U.S. Military Special Operations Command (SOCOM) also currently issues to its troops, the M-4 rifle, which is essentially an M-16 with a 14.5" barrel, collapsible stock, detachable carrying handle, and other special accessories such as laser/infrared sighting systems, reflex-type optics, grenade launchers, flashlight attachments, etc. For these Special Forces, the M-4 has also been in certain instances reconfigured to fire "full auto", as opposed to "tri-burst".
The current generation of military M-16's and civilian AR-15 models differ from the originals in many ways, reflecting the improvements and refinements of the rifle over the last 30 years. Current Military Specifications (Mil-Spec) for the rifle's barrel is for a heavy barrel (HBAR), replacing the original lightweight barrel which was prone to overheating and bending. Nearly all current civilian AR-15's now are built with Mil-Spec HBAR's. The original triangular-shaped, non-perforated handguards have been replaced by rounded, perforated, and heat-shielded handguards for rapid heat dissipation of the barrel. Other changes include; a tri-burst sear on the M-16 replacing the fully automatic sear of the original, adding a brass deflector to keep spent cartridges out of left-handed shooters faces, adjustable front sight and fully adjustable rear sight for windage and elevation, detachable carrying handles, etc.
Today's military contract for the M-16 variants has been awarded to Fabrique Nationale d'Armes de Guerres (FN) of Belgium (though the actual rifles are built here in the United States). Colt's Manufacturing's Co., which lost the lucrative M-16 contract, has retained the smaller contract for the M-4 rifle mentioned above. It has been reported that prior to Colt's obtaining the M-4 contract, Bushmaster Firearms Co. had manufactured a limited run of M-4's. (Note: According to recent firearms industry news, as of December 1997, Colt is currently in the process of acquiring FN.)
C. What's in a Name? The name, "AR-15", in general is used by the shooting public in reference to all current rifles (regardless of manufacturer) made to look, function, and swap-parts with the AR-15. Non-military contract AR-15's are also commonly referred to as "clones". The actual and original "AR-15", manufactured by ArmaLite and then Colt (after buying the manufacturing rights from ArmaLite) has been discontinued for political reasons. Each manufacturer of AR-15-patterned rifles now has its own moniker for the rifle these days; like Colt's "Match Target", Bushmaster's "XM15E2", DPMS's "Panther", and the hilarious Olympic Arms' "PCR"'for "Politically Correct Rifle".