* | The AR-15: A Brief History

Above: The Model 602 was the first AR-15 to go on sale.

In the 1950s, General Willard G. Wyman, commander of the U.S. Continental Army Command, requested the design and development of a .224 caliber and a rifle to fire them.

Very early in the Vietnam conflict, it was M-14s vs. AK-47s. In the face of serious complaints that the M-14 could not hold its own against the smaller, higher-capacity Kalashnikov, the Department of the Army revised General Wyman’s concept, which was essentially a magazine-fed, 5.56-caliber selected fire, Sub-6 Pound gun. Ultimately, that led to the AR-15.

A lot has happened between asking for this new rifle and receiving that new rifle, and that new rifle ended up being the AR-15, which was manufactured and sold by Colt’s Manufacturing.

The “AR” in AR-15 stands for Armalite

It wasn’t really Colt who made the AR-15, but Armalite. The very first weapons were stamped “Armalite AR-15” with the Colt’s logo. That’s how it happened.

Armalite was founded in 1954 as a division of the Fairchild Engine and Aircraft Corporation with the aim of developing new designs with alternative manufacturing methods and also integrating “new” materials such as high-quality aluminum alloys and plastics into the production of firearms. Eugene Stoner was their chief engineer. The first success was the AR-5, a small .22 Hornet bolt action rifle that was used by the Air Force as a survival rifle for flight crews. Originally, Armalite was aimed at the civilian consumer market; they were not created with the aim of becoming a military contractor. Armalite has a couple of things up for sale. The AR-7 Survival Rifle, in particular, sold pretty well. It floated and the dismantled rifle was stored in the stock.

Stoner’s gas system patent.

While at Armalite, Eugene Stoner drew the blueprints for the original AR-15 design – but it wasn’t for an AR-15 and it wasn’t the original idea he’d hoped to succeed with. This original idea was his AR-10, which as 7.62×54 mm (.308 Win.) Was not adopted over the M-14. This was Stoner’s first attempt at developing a military rifle.

Difficult financial times led Armalite to part ways with the technology developed by Stoner, the lock, shaft and barrel – or perhaps the lock, shaft and barrel extension. Armalite sold everything to Colt’s Manufacturing.

Stoner and Armalite’s leading design engineers, L. James Sullivan and Robert Freemont, worked for Colt’s. Sullivan and Freemont were tasked with “upgrading” the AR-10 to 5.56 NATO. Plans for the AR-15 were submitted in 1957.

The first customer for the Colt AR-15 was Malaya, now Malaysia, which purchased 300 Model 602 Select Fire rifles in 1959. The M16 was not officially adopted by the US armed forces until 1964.

It’s been around longer than most people imagine. But how did it get so popular?

Colt’s filed for BATF approval on October 23, 1963, and the first consumer AR-15 was put up for sale by Colt on January 2, 1964. For decades, Colt’s was the only option if you wanted to own an AR-15.

In my opinion, its popularity was made possible by none other than then President Bill Clinton some 30 years ago. If he exercised a contract clause that said that contract products designed for the military include the intellectual property rights (i.e., the design itself), they become public domain. Colt’s Manufacturing lost its contract to manufacture the M16 in 1988 and the first commercial “clone” (Eagle Arms) appeared a year later. And that (plus loss of time on patent expiries) is ultimately why Colt lost its exclusivity for commercial AR-15 production, even though they still legally own the “AR-15” brand (if you were wondering why the now differently available “Something-Other-15”, let’s go). So the Department of Defense owns the blueprints, and many manufacturers have them.

My opinion on Stoner

Eugene Stoner was not a gunsmith or otherwise trained in weapon design. He was an aircraft engineer with a radically different background than Paul Mauser, John Browning or John Garand. He had ideas on how to apply the materials and manufacturing standards that were cutting edge in aircraft component manufacturing at the time. To say the firearm designs he came off his desk at Armalite were different would be a gross understatement. They didn’t look like conventional guns, nor were they built like conventional guns. His AR-10 didn’t make it; instead it was struck by the M-14. The one AR-10 I edited had this (ineffectively) simulated wood grain plastic furniture set, which was clearly an attempt to mitigate objections to its otherwise completely unconventional design. Shortly thereafter, Stoner had his ultimate success with the AR-15.

The standout achievement of Stoner design is that an AR-15 is a collection of components that can be put together to create virtually anything a weapon is meant to be. I see it this way – when all the other gun designers looked at what Eugene Stoner was doing and asked, “Why?” Stoner replied, “Why not?”

The foregoing is a specially adapted excerpt from Glen’s book America’s Gun: The practical AR15. Visit www.buyzedikerbooks.com or www.zediker.com for more information and downloads from Zediker Publishing.

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