Why The AR-15 Is The Most Popular Rifle In America

1 year, 2 months ago

Housekeeping Note: Herschel is offline this week. We’re certain that the quality of the posts will suffer, but the quality of the discussion in the comments doesn’t have to!


…After the American experience in Korea, where servicemen faced massed assault from Chinese forces, it was decided that the World War II workhorse M1 Garand rifle was no longer adequate; its low capacity and lack of full automatic fire hamstrung U.S. troops.

The Pentagon wanted a new rifle. Around the same time, there was a push among NATO members to standardize a rifle caliber to simplify wartime logistics. American design philosophies dominated both, and the Army’s parochial Ordnance Corps dominated the discussion on design. Ordnance Corps officers clung to the popular myth of the heroic American rifleman, who wins the day with a few well-aimed, long-ranged shots from a full-power rifle.

Thus, the M14 was born, as well as the new NATO bullet, 7.62x51mm. But everyone soon discovered the difficulty of controlling full-caliber rifles on full-auto; 7.62 NATO weapons quickly turned into anti-aircraft guns in longer automatic bursts, rendering the feature ineffective. These experiences were supported by the results of Project SALVO, a Pentagon research project to develop next-generation infantry weapons. SALVO concluded that a smaller bullet traveling at high velocity would be as lethal, if not more so, than big calibers like 7.62 NATO; the SALVO report recommended that the Pentagon should adopt a little-known gun called the AR-15, designed by ArmaLite engineer Eugene Stoner, and based off his earlier file design for the AR-10.

The AR-15 was unlike anything seen before: It was constructed of forged aluminum and plastics, used a direct impingement gas operating system, and was chambered in the new 5.56X45mm cartridge. It was the antithesis of the M14. Naturally, the Ordnance Corps hated it, and moved to kill the project by resorting to testing practices and emulation that were ultimately unfair to the AR-15. The weapon languished in design committee as Army traditionalists butted heads with Robert McNamara and his RAND Corporation  “whiz kids.”

The article goes on to discuss the interesting history of the AR-15 type platform.


  1. On September 26, 2022 at 12:50 am, Georgiaboy61 said:

    Re: “Ordnance Corps officers clung to the popular myth of the heroic American rifleman, who wins the day with a few well-aimed, long-ranged shots from a full-power rifle.”

    The author of the piece, Christian Beekman, uses the argumentative fallacy of “damning with faint praise,” i.e., offering only weak praise since the none is justified. It’s a bogus form of argument and it is intellectually lazy.

    I can’t help but wonder if Beekman is on the younger side, because his analysis echoes so many of the talking points of the younger set who disdain those who came before them and the choices they made, where things like this are concerned.

    In fact, the AR15 and weapons like the M-1 Garand – in other words, assault rifles and battle carbines on one hand, and battle rifles on the other – have long been and remain at the center of an important debate about how ground troops, in particularly infantry, should be armed and equipped.

    It may be a cliche in the minds of some people, but the well-aimed rifle-shot on the battlefield can indeed carry the day. Small arms are certainly not always determinative on the battlefield, but they have been in many times and places in the history of warfare and human conflict. It is precisely for that reason that it persists in the collective memory of nations like the United States and many others besides.

    Or, as the old saying goes in the debate between firepower (rounds fired/minute) and marksmanship goes, “True firepower isn’t the number of shots fired, but the number which hit the target.”

    The armed forces keep detailed statistics as accurately as they can about the battles and wars they fight. This is sometimes a tall order given the chaos and confusion which always accompany war, but the effort is made none-the-less because of the importance of lessons learned.

    According to those who track such things, marksmanship with the rifle, the standard long-arm of the infantryman – peaked around the time of the Great War (WWI) and has been declining since then. Concurrently, the number of shots fired per confirmed enemy KIA has been rising dramatically alongside that decline.
    By the time of Vietnam, it was estimated by some authorities that as many as 50,000 rounds of small-arms fire were required for one enemy kill.

    Some of this was due to the nature of the war itself, fought in such difficult terrain, and also to the fact that the Vietcong and NVA did their best not to be in the open when Uncle Sam showed up to bring the heat down on them… but much of the decline in skill was due to flawed assumptions about how wars would be fought, and simple laziness and neglect on the part of the military.

    The bright boys back in the Pentagon/DOD – Secretary of Defense McNamara and his “whiz kids” for example – decided that in the age of ballistic missiles, satellites and high-altitude bombers like the B-52, the humble rifleman no longer mattered as much in war.

    While it is inarguably true that assault rifles are useful weapons capable of filling a number of important roles on the battlefield, it is equally true that the older style of military rifle firing a full-power cartridge – the battle rifle – also has many important roles to fill in modern warfare.

    As firearms trainer/author Kenneth Royce, a.k.a. “Boston” of “Boston’s Gun Bible” states, it has long been understood that handguns don’t win wars, but if anything, the lessons of conflicts in recent decades confirm that neither do assault rifles win wars.

    The U.S. has just abandoned Afghanistan after a twenty-year effort which saw the U.S. and their coalition allies struggle to defeat Afghan tribesmen armed with antiquated Lee-Enfield .303 bolt-actions and RPGs. Sure, the “muj” used AKs, but they were also smart-enough to figure out that such weapons were less-effective beyond 300 yards/meters, and therefore sought to engage U.S.-ISAF forces beyond that range, in many cases using rifles and machine-guns firing full-power cartridges.

    And if we look further back into history, we see that skill with a rifle is often extremely important on the battlefield. The Boers gave the British Empire a very tough time in South Africa in the First and Second Boer Wars at places like the Battle of Spion Kop (23-24 January, 1900), before the British finally got their act together and won the war.

    The Boers were irregulars, largely drawn from farmers, ranchers, and others who had spent their life outdoors – but they were superbly-skilled with their individual rifles and on more than one occasion beat the professionals of the King’s army.

    The U.S. learned a similar hard lesson in the Spanish-American War during the Battle of the San Juan Heights, when Spanish and Cuban riflemen armed with Mauser 7x57mm bolt-actions extracted a heavy toll at long range upon the attacking U.S. forces before they managed finally to take the heights.

    Pretty much his first act as commander-in-chief, President Teddy Roosevelt – who’d been there – ordered that the U.S. ordnance establishment design a rifle to compete with the Mauser. The result was the excellent Springfield M1903 bolt-action 30-06, which adopted so many features from the German design that Mauser sued for patent infringement and the U.S. government ended up having to pay royalties to them.

    It is well-and-good to celebrate the virtues of Eugene Stoner and his genius for firearms design and engineering, but even he would probably agree that the AR15 (M-16) was not the answer to every tactical problem.

    Just as a skilled master craftsman or tradesman employs different tools for different jobs, so should the infantryman used different tools suited to the tasks he is trying to accomplish. The old proverb says that to a man holding a hammer, everything soon begins to look like a nail. This is no less true of proponents of the assault rifle. The trouble is, as good as that “hammer” – his M-16 – might be, that is not the only tool he needs in his toolbox.

    In parting, it is also a historical fallacy that the Garand rifle was ill-suited to the fighting in Korea 1950-1953. I can’t help but wonder if Beekman has ever even met or spoken to a man who was there. Sure doesn’t sound like it. Well, I have – quite a number of them – and there are a lot of elderly Korean War veterans around still who who would dispute his comments on the M-1 rifle.

    In fact, one of them was an uncle in my family, a army infantryman who faced Chinese human-wave attacks precisely of the kind mentioned in the article. He told me face-to-face in a conversation some years ago that he would not have made it home alive if not for his M-1 rifle. He said it never let him down.

  2. On September 26, 2022 at 1:12 am, Archer said:

    Once again, an honest reading of the history shows that the AR-15 was NOT designed as a “weapon of war”. Rather, it was designed for the civilian market, but was built well enough that the military eventually adopted a full-auto variant as their primary infantry rifle.

    Anti-gun talking points — specifically, that the semi-auto AR-15 is a “weapon of war” that was “designed to kill a lot of people as quickly as possible” — are outright falsehoods.

  3. On September 26, 2022 at 9:17 am, Drake said:

    It is a shame that Army Ordinance has a long record of picking the wrong caliber. .30-06 instead of .276 Pedersen, 7.62 / 5.56 instead of .280 British. Now this absurd new 6.8 mm round instead of something that makes sense like 6mm ARC.

    I’d love an AR in 6mm ARC or .224 Valkyrie, but I’m not buying a new rifle with hard-to-find ammo that costs well over a $1 a round.

  4. On September 26, 2022 at 9:59 am, Panhandle Frank said:

    “Anti-gun talking points — specifically, that the semi-auto AR-15 is a ‘weapon of war'”

    “Weapon of war” is a disarmist distraction, designed to conflate AR15s/M16s with RPGs and hand grenades.

    ALL firearm designs are, at the end of the day, “weapons of war,” as they have all been used by warfighters — whether uniformed armies, or guerillas, or civilian resistance. And the 2A explicitly protects “weapons of war.”

    We need to publicly lean into that fact, not shy away from it with assertions that “no army has ever issued the [insert semi-auto rifle here].”

    (And DON’T EVEN get me started on that “Modern Sporting Rifle” bullspit … )

  5. On September 26, 2022 at 5:17 pm, Georgiaboy61 said:

    @ Archer

    Re: “Once again, an honest reading of the history shows that the AR-15 was NOT designed as a “weapon of war”. Rather, it was designed for the civilian market, but was built well enough that the military eventually adopted a full-auto variant as their primary infantry rifle.”

    How do you reach that conclusion? The history of the AR15 project began with the design of the Armalite AR10,chambered in 7.62×51 NATO, which was intended to be an entrant in the army ordnance trials of the mid-1950s held to select a new service rifle for the U.S. military.

    When an experimental laminated-barrel prototype failed destructive endurance testing, and Armalite was not selected to provide the new rifle, that seemed to be the end of it. However, General Willard Wyman – head of Continental Army Command or CONARC, indirectly provided a life-jacket to the then-struggling company in the form of the “light rifle project.”

    Wyman sought bids or proposals for a lightweight select-fire weapon chambered in .22-caliber and firing a 55-grain slug at 3300 fps muzzle velocity with an effective range of 500 yards, at which distance the weapon was to penetrate a sheet steel helmet.

    Armalite decided to participate, and head engineer Eugene Stoner and his team set about downsizing the AR10 to fit this new intermediate cartridge, what ultimately became known as 5.56×45 NATO M193 Ball, or .223 Remington in civilian guise. The successful result of Stoner’s efforts was the Armalite AR15, better known as the M-16 assault rifle, under military nomenclature.

    The new rifle and its ammunition impressed United States Air Force Chief of Staff, General Curtis LeMay, who sought to procure them in order to arm his air police and base security personnel, and was also adopted and used successfully by U.S. Army Special Forces in Vietnam. Once these two early adopters were on-board, the success of the venture was assured.

    In a twist of fate however, Armalite, however, did not profit particularly – as they had by then sold the rights to their new rifle to Colt Repeating Arms of Hartford, Connecticut. For years Colt was the sole vendor of the M-16 and its derivatives, as well as civilian semi-auto only versions sold in the commercial firearms market.

    That history certainly seems pretty military-focused to me… is there something missing in this account?

  6. On September 27, 2022 at 5:50 pm, Paul B said:

    lot of ink has been wasted on this subject. Remember some boys coming back from Nam and most did not have good things to say about the matel rifle.

    I have a couple and know more about it, but I wonder if the M-14 might have been a better choice at the time.

  7. On September 28, 2022 at 1:00 pm, Panhandle Frank said:

    @Paul B

    “It’s been 50 years since the problems with the M16 were fixed, but the rifle still suffers from a legacy that it never deserved.

    “The M16 did not fail in Vietnam. On the contrary, even with its problems, it was in every possible way a vastly superior rifle to the M14.

    “Fault doesn’t rest with the M16, Stoner, or even with Colt. Instead, it lands with the officers in the U.S. Army who not only allowed the problems to occur, but ignored the designers, the men testing the rifle, and everyone in between.

    “Today, the M16 and M4 are outstandingly reliable rifles, but only because they are allowed to be.

    “Civilian AR-15s, as long as they are reasonably well made, are hands down the best rifles you can own for self-defense, competition, or bugging out.”


    But what do I know? I was just a Jet Mech inn the USAF …

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This article is filed under the category(s) AR-15s,Guns and was published September 25th, 2022 by PGF.

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