Many of the great firearms in history underwent a protracted development period. Most were slow to gain acceptance. The Beretta 92 and GLOCK pistols, for example, faced an uphill struggle. The Johnson rifles were interesting rifles never quite caught on.
Many of those using the AR-15 rifle today do not realize how old the original design really is and how tough the development and acceptance of the Colt AR-15 really was. But good rifles are often long-lived.
The Lee Enfield, as an example, fought the Zulus prior to 1900 and was on the front line in Korea. It is still a fixture of the Canada Rangers. The history of AK rifles speaks for itself. The AR-15 rifle is another legend.
The AR may be nearing middle age, but its most important improvements are pretty fresh. The AR-15 is a sophisticated system that performs well. It is easy to maintain and quite accurate.
Many of the rifles in use in training our young warriors are older than the soldiers using them. (Rifles on the front line are a different matter.) Yet they continue to serve. The rifle is the first choice of top-notch security teams and armies.
Note the Israelis have their own Galil and thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of captured AK-pattern rifles. They seem to prefer the AR-15 types. Those of us that have a choice of any weapon system most often choose the AR rifle.
The rifle was developed by Eugene Stoner and the contract was awarded to Colt to produce the rifle. The M16 was designed as a counter to the fully automatic AK-47 rifle. The AR cartridge was developed from a high-velocity varmint round, the .222 Remington.
Low recoil, longer range than pistol caliber carbines, and control in fully automatic fire were important parts of the Stoner design.
Early Errors and Problems
The AR is gas-operated. The gas doesn’t operate by a piston—at least in the vast majority of the rifles—but the gas is led directly to the bolt in this gas impingement system.
When the rifle was issued in Vietnam, the lightweight, accuracy, controllability and easy firepower were greatly appreciated. Soldiers on long patrols could carry a lot of ammunition.
But Army Ordnance made a grievous error (that Congress later concluded verged on criminal negligence). The original 5.56mm loading was developed for a clean burn and high energy.
The Army specified that the same ball powder used in the 7.62mm NATO cartridge be used in service ammunition. The result was a different pressure curve and clogged gas ports.
Worse, after the problem was identified, the Army did not withdraw the ammunition from service in Vietnam. The AR was not originally issued with cleaning gear! Even the original low-maintenance rifle, the M1 carbine, needed cleaning frequently.
The Army entered into several knee-jerk fixes. One was to issue cleaning kits and a comic book-type cleaning manual.
Modifications and Improvements
Colt was asked to modify the firearms to function with ball powder-loaded ammunition. The problem was met with a recoil device with an “internal plurality of masses” that was geared for the ball load. They also increased extractor tension to help in extracting the cartridge.
In some cases, the cartridge case would stick in the chamber—sometimes during combat operations. Was the Colt AR-15 that was designated M16 sent into combat prematurely?
Probably not, but the system was castrated by the poor choice of ammunition and insane lack of cleaning gear. The M16 was developed into a reliable firearm, but at one time was not as highly regarded as it is today.
The short-barrel designs, such as the CAR 15 and others, demanded more development and did not work as well as the later short barrel rifles. The XM177, as an example, demonstrated stupendous muzzle flash. Sufficient gas volume was not generated.
The XM177 rifle, however, used the first telescoping stock on an AR.
The Modern Colt AR-15
Today, the 14.5-inch barrel M4 is a fast-handling rifle that has proven reliable in action. The 16-inch barrel carbine is the shortest legal length for civilians without jumping through a lot of hoops, paperwork and expense.
In between the M16 and the M4, the AR rifle went through several modifications. Some of these were related to ammunition performance. The 5.56mm load was found to offer excellent wound ballistics against lightly clad Viet Cong. Performance falls off past 100 yards.
The universal adoption of the rifle as a front-line rifle rather than a special-use firearm for jungle combat led to the M16A2. This rifle features a different barrel twist to stabilize the 62-grain load.
Heavier than the original 55-grain loading, the 62-grain bullet offers greater penetration against heavy web gear that might be encountered in Europe. The M16A2 features improved sights and excellent performance. This rifle is simpler to the Colt HBAR released for civilian sales.
During this time, Colt continued to offer the AR-15 rifle for civilian sales, and they were the first to do so. The original Colt Sporter and the HBAR were popular rifles. The standard 16-inch carbine is popular, and the first flat-top rifles for mounting optics followed.
The inexpensive Colt Expanse was not as well-received. Cheapening a product built on a reputable name isn’t always a good idea. The Colt M4 SOCOM is as close to the military-issue rifle as possible. Colt rifles have set the standard for reliability for many years.
The rifles work as designed and demonstrate a high level of performance. While I own several good rifles, the Colt is my go-to rifle and has been for some time.
Recently, Colt announced that they are cutting sales of AR-15 rifles based on “sagging sales.” There are many cheaper AR-15 rifles available. and there are also many highly developed, superbly fitted and accurate rifles that do not bear the Colt name.
Colt has been through hard times before and will probably withstand the storm. Just the same, it may be a good time to grab the Colt you have wanted while you are able. It is, after all, a piece of history.
What do you think of Colt’s AR-15? Do you agree with their decision to cut Colt AR-15 sales for citizens? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.