Celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the AR-15

AR-15 history - model 602

Most folks know and assume that it was Eugene Stoner who developed the AR-15. Is this true? Yes and no.

In the 1950s, commander of the U.S. Continental Army Command, General Willard G. Wyman, conceived of and requested a new gun and a new round, both lighter and smaller than the then currently issued M-14.

After receiving numerous and formal complaints from the field that the M-14 was not matching up against the smaller, higher-capacity AK-47, the Department of the Army looked again into Gen. Wyman’s idea: a magazine-fed, select-fire, 5.56-caliber, sub-6-pound rifle.

Ultimately, that became the AR-15 as manufactured and sold by Colt’s Manufacturing Co.

Considering 2019 is the 60th anniversary of when the first AR-15s sold back in 1959, let’s take a look at how it became the most popular rifle in America.

(It is Thanksgiving Day after all, so why not take this opportunity to celebrate and be thankful?)

Colt's magazines
Early AR-15 magazines from Colt’s Manufacturing.

AR Stands for  ‘Armalite’

It wasn’t really Colt that did the first AR-15s. It was Armalite.

Armalite was founded in 1954 as a division of Fairchild Engine and Aircraft Corporation with the idea and purpose of creating new firearm designs using alternative means of fabrication.

(And also incorporating “new” materials, like high-grade aluminum alloy and plastics, into the production of firearms.)

Eugene Stoner was their lead engineer. Originally, Armalite was going after the civilian/consumer market; they were not founded with the goal to become a military contractor.

However, Armalite’s first success was its AR-5, a little bolt-action .22 Hornet adopted by the Air Force as a survival rifle for flight crews. Another notable Armalite product was the AR-7 Survival Rifle, now newly available from Henry.

It floated, and the disassembled rifle stored inside its own stock.

Eugene Stoner laid out blueprints for what became the original AR-15 design, but it wasn’t for an AR-15. It was for his AR-10, which, as a 7.62x51mm (.308 Win.), failed to be adopted over the M-14.

Financial difficulties resulted in Armalite parting with the Stoner-developed technology when it was all sold—lock, stock, and barrel extension—to Colt’s Manufacturing Company.

These things—the request for the new round and rifle, the formation of Armalite, Stoner’s AR-10 concept, Armalite sale to Colt’s—all coincided.

AR-15 history - model 602
Model 602. The first AR-15 to be produced for sale. Circa 1959.

Further Developments

Stoner and the leading Armalite design engineers, L. James Sullivan and Robert Freemont, went to work for Colt’s. Sullivan and Freemont were tasked with the job of “converting” Stoner’s AR-10 to 5.56 to give Gen. Wyman that new gun.

Those two don’t get mentioned often (enough), but were ultimately responsible for what became the AR-15, and their plans were submitted in 1957.

In my mind, the AR-15 rifle (and the 5.56 round developed for it) are inextricably linked. Both together defined Wyman’s dream package.

Development of the 5.56 cartridge sent the AR-15 team to Remington. Development started there with suggesting its relatively new (1950) .222 Remington.

That round couldn’t meet the Continental Army Command velocity and penetration requirements, so Remington morphed it into the .222 Remington Special. The new round had a shorter neck and longer body, both for more capacity.

Concurrently, Springfield Armory developed the .224E2 Winchester, an even longer-bodied .222 Remington, but dropped out of this contest—that round later became the .222 Remington Magnum.

In 1963, the Remington .222 Special got its designation as 5.56x45mm and was officially adopted for use in the new M16 rifle (even though it was already in use). SAAMI certification came the following year as “.223 Remington” for commercial loadings.

The first customer for the Colt AR-15 was Malaya (now Malaysia). They ordered 300 Model 602 select-fire rifles in 1959. These very earliest guns were stamped “Armalite AR-15” with the Colt’s logo along with it.

The M16 wasn’t officially adopted by U.S. Armed Forces until 1964. Colt’s submitted a request for approval from BATF on October 23, 1963 and the first civilian-consumer AR-15 was produced for sale by Colt’s January 2, 1964.

It’s been around longer than most imagine.

AR-15 history
Armalite parted with all Stoner-developed technology when it was sold.

How the AR-15 Became America’s Rifle

For decades, the Colt’s brand was the only option if you wanted to own an AR-15. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, it was almost a curiosity, not commonly encountered. Eventually, as we well know, the AR-15 exploded in popularity.

That was driven, I think, by a few other coincidences. First, it’s an amazingly inherently accurate and pleasant gun to fire. Reasons are numerous. It also can be configured almost endlessly to adapt to different needs and wants. And, about that…

Its ultimate popularity was, in my view, all made possible by President Bill Clinton.

Some 30 years ago, Clinton exercised and exploited a legal clause that said contracted products designed for the military include the intellectual property rights (the design itself) and, therefore, are public domain.

The blueprints are owned by Department of Defense and freely available. Colt’s Manufacturing, among others, wasn’t happy about that. Colt’s lost its M16 contract in 1988.

AR-15 blueprint
This is all public domain now, and it’s the main reason there are so many interpretations of the “AR-15.”

The first commercial “clone” (from Eagle Arms) showed up on the civilian market the next year, and that’s when the production and modification ball got rolling.

So that, along with eventual patent expirations, is how Colt’s lost its exclusive on commercial AR-15 production and how commercial production now has become a snowball involving dozens of manufacturers.

Colt’s, by the way, still legally owns the “AR-15” trademark (and that’s why all those variously available now are “Another-Thing-15”).

“AR-15-style” (being all legal and all) firearms, thanks to Stoner’s original engineering, can and have been made into just about anything a firearm can be or be used for: target, hunting, defense, pistol, rifle, carbine, you name it.

And that’s how it ultimately became “America’s Rifle.”

What are your fondest AR-15 memories? When did you get your first AR-15? Tell us your stories in the comments below.


The preceding is adapted from information contained in Glen’s book America’s Gun: The Practical AR15. Visit his website for more information, plus downloads from Zediker Publishing.

About the Author:

Glen Zediker

Glen Zediker is the owner of Zediker Publishing, which specializes in books and other publications focused primarily on AR-15s, handloading, and shooting skills. Since 1989, he has authored or co-authored 20 books.

He started shooting at age 5 and competing in NRA Smallbore rifle at age 8. He got his first AR-15 at age 15 and has now had 45 years of experience with that firearms platform. He’s worked professionally with some of the greatest shooters on the planet and leading industry professionals. And he does pretty well on his own! Glen holds a High Master classification in NRA High Power Rifle and first earned that using an AR-15 Service Rifle. He’s also competed in many other forms of competition, including USPSA, Steel Challenge, Silhouette Rifle and Pistol, Bullseye Pistol, ISSF Air Rifle, Practical Rifle and shotgun sports.

Since 1986 Glen has been a frequent and regular contributor to many publications, having had over 500 assigned articles published. See more at
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Comments (9)

  1. I bought my first AR15 in 1978. I own six of them now in various calibers and configurations. IMHO military rifles utilizing cased ammunition reached it’s zenith with the AR15.

  2. Hi I’m new to shooting and this article helped me understand something’s about AR designation
    I thought that the AR stood for automatic rifle,so if I’m the only person who learned something (which I doubt) thank you

  3. Regarding intellectual property rights, you are not precisely correct. Whenever anyone develops anything for the US Government, they can assert rights they own under a clause called “rights in technical data and computer software”. This means that if, during the development of the article, the contractor uses anything they developed independently and used in the article. they can claim ownership of any of these data. The Government can’t demand ownership of these data. That means that the contractor can demand compensation for the use of this info. This right is attached to anyone the Government authorizes to produces the article, and, under the contractor’s patents, for anyone else who manufactures the article.

  4. Picked up my first AR-15, a Colt LE40, about 6 years ago. Put on an ACOG sight. Can’t go more than a week without using it on the range. Love it!

  5. Got my first AR-15 in 1972 for $212,00 in Nacogdoches, Tx. a SP with a triangular forearm. Always remember shooting metal silhouettes at the local range in Lufkin, Tx, the 52 gr. bullet would knock down the chickens and turkeys but just splatter on the pigs and rams. Great for paririe dogs and wild hogs, accurate out to 300 yards no scope needed. Do remember having trouble getting decent bullets for reloading. Solved this when my brother in the army talked with a sergeant in the armory who shipped me a wooden case of jams and deformed cartridges from the firing range. I pulled the bullets, saved the powder, and reloaded them. Had that rifle until the late 80’s when I upgraded to something to shot in military high power matches, faster twist and heavier bullets.

  6. The US Army issued me my 1st AR-15 (M-16) in the fall of 1967. We shipped out to Vietnam in October 1967. Once there, the Army had us turn in the AR’s and issued us M-14’s again. I still have a personal AR made by Colt.

  7. Entering the Marine Corp in December of 1968, I had read about the Stoner designed M-16. I saw it being used in Vietnam and was anxious to see what it was all about. I was familiar with the M-1 in ROTC and was issued the M-14 in Marine boot camp. All M-16 production was shipping to S.E. Asia and didn’t fire the M-16 until 5 weeks prior to shipping out to Vietnam. I had no issues with it and loved it. It inflicted horrible wounds on the small enemy we were fighting. It defied everything I knew about ballistics, recoil, and accuracy. It checked all the boxes then, still does. A change to 6.8 SPC ammo is coming. It will only improve the greatest battle rifle since the M-1.

  8. Have handled, bought and built the AR since 1968. I have staked my life on it, enjoyed the looks and the functions of it. In my 70s and have bought and built, customized and kept simple….truly a “convertible” in the firearms world. Hell, you can even assemble it in pistol form. Like me… it is in the ANTIQUE realm and is now an “antique” collectable phase … I think that happens after they turn 50 *S*. It is so neat that after all of this, a form has survived as our military weapon. You can cry all you want but the “ol’ 5.56 is still kicking ass. I have other calibers…300AAC and the 7.62×51 but love shooting the 5.56.

    I know for decades they have tried to replace the venerable platform but… it hangs on and does it’s job. Sometimes the “Star-wars” crap just doesn’t impress me. This one is a tool for many uses. I did my military teething on the M-14 and still have a place in my safe for one to fill a “Bucket List” desire…that may be soon. But until then.. happy with my AR collection.

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