AR-15/M16: The Rifle That Was Never Supposed to Be

The Army/Marine version adopted towards the middle of the Vietnam War to serve the U.S. Marines (until 1983) and the Army (until 1986). Note the forward assist, magazine release fence “Boss” and the “bird cage” flash suppressor. Note the 25-meter zeroing target.

The Army/Marine version adopted towards the middle of the Vietnam War to serve the U.S. Marines (until 1983) and the Army (until 1986). Note the forward assist, magazine release fence “Boss” and the “bird cage” flash suppressor. Note the 25-meter zeroing target.

This article is an excerpt from the Gun Digest Book of Classic Combat Rifles.

On February 19, 1959, Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Connecticut purchased the rights to the AR-15 and AR-10 from Fairchild Stratos (ArmaLite) for a lump sum of $75,000 plus a royalty of four and a half percent on all further production of the AR-15 and AR-10. Colt also paid Cooper & Macdonald (a sales group who did a lot of work in Southeast Asia) $250,000 and a one percent royalty on all production of AR-15 and AR-10 rifles.

In July of 1960, Air Force General Curtis LeMay attended a Fourth of July celebration where a Colt salesman placed three watermelons on a firing range at distances of 50, 100 and 150 yards — then gave General LeMay an AR-15 and loaded magazines. Following this hands-on range evaluation, General LeMay ordered 80,000 rifles on the spot. However, Congress put the General’s order on hold.

Concurrently, Colt had requested a re-trial from the Ordnance Corps to demonstrate improvements to the rifle. Initially the request was denied, the Ordnance Corps saying the military had no use for such a weapon. However, a request arrived at the Pentagon from Lackland Air Force Base requesting the AR-15 be qualified as a candidate to replace M2 carbines. This turn of events caused Congress to investigate why the Ordnance Corps had boycotted the AR-15. Subsequently, the Ordnance Corps set up the test without delay.

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This article is an excerpt from the Gun Digest Book of Classic Combat Rifles. Click the cover to order this book and read more gun histories.

The test was concluded in November 1960. Three rifles were subjected to a light machine-gun test and two to accuracy tests. There were a total of 24,443 rounds fired. One rifle in the accuracy test delivered an amazing 10-round group at 100 yards that measured only 1.5 inches; any group under six inches at 100 yards being acceptable for an assault rifle. The rifle also performed admirably in the unlubricated, dust, extreme cold and rain tests. The final results indicated the AR-15 was superior to all competitors, including the M14. The rifle was then approved for Air Force trial.

It took General LeMay three tries before his request was approved. In the summer of 1961, the Deputy Defense Secretary approved 8,500 AR-15 rifles for the Air Force, pending congressional approval … which Congress withheld. General LeMay then brought the issue to President Kennedy, without success. Finally, in May of 1962, the purchase was approved. With things warming up in Southeast Asia, the AR-15 was about to meet the Army.

Many of the U.S. advisors in Vietnam were equipped with the new AR-15 rifle. Rifles began to surface throughout Vietnam, totally outside the normal small arms procurement process. The first troops using the AR-15 under combat conditions were very enthusiastic, preferring it to all other weapons. The South Vietnamese were impressed with the rifle, as well. In December 1961, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara authorized a purchase of 1,000 AR-15s.

There was further testing (Project AGILE) to explore the compatibility of the AR-15 rifle to the smaller Vietnamese. The results indicated the AR-15 was more suitable for the South Vietnamese military than the M2 carbine. In actual combat, the new 5.56×45mm cartridge was found to be more lethal than its 30-caliber counterparts. while Project AGILE testing was being conducted, the Army completed the Hitch Report, which was a comparison of the AR-15, AK47, M14 and Ml Garand. The report concluded that the AR-15 was superior to the weapons to which it was compared.

Testing of the AR-15 weapon system had met with contempt from the Ordnance Corps. In one test in the Arctic, weapons were malfunctioning at alarming rates. As soon as Gene Stoner heard, he was on the next plane to Fort Greeley, Alaska. He found parts misaligned, front sights removed (front sights held in with taper pins have no reason to ever be removed) and replaced with pieces of welding rod.

With missing and damaged parts, there was no way the weapons would function properly and, with welding rod replacing the front sight, accuracy suffered. The arctic test was, in fact, rigged to make the AR-15 look inadequate. Gene Stoner repaired all the weapons; the test resumed and the weapons performed admirably.

Fortunately, Defense Secretary McNamara was fond of the AR-15, knew the Ordnance Corps was dragging its feet on the weapon and on January 23, 1963, halted all procurements of the M14. Finally, in 1964, Defense Secretary McNamara ordered the Ordnance Corps to work with all branches of the armed forces to get the AR-15 ready for issue to all military personnel…one rifle for all branches. The Army purchased 100,000 rifles for issue to the Air Assault, Airborne, Ranger and Special Forces units.

4 thoughts on “AR-15/M16: The Rifle That Was Never Supposed to Be

  1. master gunny

    As the armorer for the 6th Engineer Bn I one had to use a hammer and screwdriver to force the bolt into full battery (with a round in the chamber!) in order to clear a malfunction. I was shocked because the weapons was not anywhere dirty enough to explain the severe malfunction. That same day I have another stoppage, same problem, but again the fowling was not that severe. I could go on and on with why I feel the weapon is a poor choice for an infantrymen but suffice to say that I will stick with my M1A and HK-91.

  2. master gunny

    With respects it’s obvious to me that you guys are too young to remember the controversy surrounding the introduction of the M-16. Not mentioned in yourt article were the constant complaints about the weapons, their unreliability, the congressional hearings on the malfunctions that that were literally getting our tropps killed in Vietnam. Numerous accounts of troops found dead in their fighting holes with their weapons diassembled were presented as evidence that the weapon was despised by the troops. Mothers would get urgent letters from their sons asking for cleaning gear and solvents because the weapons fouled so easily and severely. The forward assist, and chrome chamber were just a couple of the modifications necessary to solve some of the problems.

    More offensive to me was the remark that the M14 was prone to jams and problems and speaking from experience I can tell you that is exactly the opposite of the truth. The M14 was rock solid reliable, accurate, and robust. The M1-16 fragile, unreliable, ualofre

  3. tinock28

    I liked the article on the AR-15/M16 rifle very much, I remember an article back in 1956-57 in one of Gun Mag’s about the AR-10, I thougt at the time it was a good rifle.

    1. master gunny

      Read Colonel Moore’s book, “We were soldiers one and Young” to get a better understanding of how critical reliability is to a grunt. One passage, regarding Lt. Herricks surounded platoon, say it all. Troops fighting for their lives against overwhelming odds were forced to discard their weapons and pick up those of their wounded comrades in order to stay in the fight. Many times those weapons were also not functioning and so the troops had to rummage through the perimeter to find a working weapon. Trust me, that sucks