Readers know how I feel about the gun Eugene Stoner built. Furthermore, readers know that we speak the name Eugene Stoner only in hushed reverence. But that’s not my article title – it belongs to John Snow at Outdoor Life.
What we’ve seen over that time is the rise of the AR, which has become America’s most popular rifle, as well as the greatest battle rifle of all time.
How did this happen?
Think of the AR as a seed planted in the 1960s, when the military adopted the rifle, known both as the M16 and the XM16E1 initially.
The rifle got off to an inauspicious start in Vietnam. Shoddy construction in the form of barrels and chambers that hadn’t been chrome-lined, poorly made ammo that used the wrong type of powder, and the lack of cleaning equipment and training for the troops who were issued the rifles led to disaster on the battlefield. Rifles malfunctioned, and soldiers and marines died. The grunts and GIs lost faith in the M16, and Colt, which had purchased the manufacturing rights to the rifle from Armalite in 1959, had a public-relations disaster on its hands.
The fallout of that era created a tide of ill will and misinformation—like the myth of the M16’s tumbling bullets—that kept the AR seed dormant for decades while the military slowly modified the platform to address its shortcomings.
We’ve dealt with the issue of bullet flight before, and while the 5.56 mm round doesn’t tumble in flight (that would cause keyholing targets), it does in fact yaw in flight and rock back and forth, even boat tail ammunition. This occurs at the beginning and close to the end of its flight. See Small Caliber Lethality: 5.56 mm Performance In Close Quarters Battle, specifically see Figure 4. This is not a myth. It’s real, and reproducible. The bullet also tends to fragment into multiple pieces, causing multiple wound tracks. For this, see “Terminal Mechanics” on page 5.
The M16A2 made its official debut in 1982 and featured a heavier barrel, a faster twist rate, and a three-round burst mode in lieu of a full-auto setting. Then, in the mid-’90s, models like the M4 and M16A3 were introduced, with flattop receivers with Picatinny rails and adjustable telescoping stocks and shorter barrel lengths.
These evolutions in the platform augmented the AR-15’s excellent ergonomics, and gave the rifles more flexibility and modularity to adapt to different missions. And finally the seed could grow and bloom. What the AR needed for this to happen was a catalyst, and it came from an unlikely source: the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB), which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
The AWB was authored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and prohibited the sale of semi-automatic rifles with detachable magazines that had more than one of the following features: pistol grips, threaded barrels, bayonet lugs, folding or collapsible stocks, flash suppressors, and grenade-launcher mounts. Similar provisions applied to semi-automatic pistols and shotguns. The ban also limited magazines to a 10-round-maximum capacity.
The goal of this was, of course, to kill off these semi-autos in the name of public safety. The “logic” being that these guns—AKs and ARs, in particular—contributed to crime because of their cosmetic and ergonomic features.
At first it did seem that the AWB had taken the legs out from under the AR platform. Major gunmakers backed away from the category and stopped aggressively marketing the rifles to civilians.
“Before the assault weapons ban, ARs were expensive, hard to find, and didn’t work all that well,” says firearms expert Michael Bane. “When it came on, all the big players got scared off, and this opened the market. For that 10-year period [before the AWB expired in 2004], the little guy got the innovative edge because there was no one there to knock them off.”
Into that vacuum stepped entrepreneurs and innovators like Randy Luth, Karl Lewis, and Jack and Teresa Starnes who saw the potential of the AR and started introducing everything from aftermarket parts and accessories to complete rifles.
It was during this period that the AR realized its potential as a modular platform. The adaptation of the Picatinny rail system created new possibilities for accessories.
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As a battle rifle, it can engage opposing forces accurately at distances a fighter with an AK couldn’t dream of. Accurized for precision rifle work, it can shoot tight groups at 1,000 yards. For hunters, it can be lightened up and chambered in hard-hitting cartridges for any type of large game.
But most important, the AR has become a bridge for shooters, connecting what used to be disparate communities of firearms owners and uniting them around its modular platform, encouraging people who used to stand toe-to-toe instead to fight side-by-side to protect our rights.
Any rifle that can boast this series of accomplishments deserves to be called the greatest, no question about it.
The author then gives us the personal perspectives of a number of people, including Kyle Lamb.
Kyle Lamb doesn’t have any patience for the haters. After more than two decades in the Army, most of it spent in special operations with Delta Force, he’s seen enough combat and has headed up enough training to know exactly what the modern-day descendants of the original M16 can do.
“People hate this gun. Even people on our side,” Lamb says. “But it is the most modular and accurate battle rifle we’ve ever had on the planet. The AK? It’s great too—unless you’re actually trying to hit somebody.”
Lamb’s military career, which started in 1986, coincided with the evolutionary refinement of the M16. This isn’t surprising, given that Lamb and his fellow soldiers in the special operations community were key players in perfecting the platform.
After Lamb joined Delta Force and started shooting every day, he learned how to get more out of the M16 and saw where it needed improvement.
In combat Lamb and his colleagues discovered one shortcoming was the sights.
“We showed up in Somalia with Aimpoints with big red dots. The dots were bigger than the dudes we were shooting at,” Lamb says. “So we got into better sights. Guys started adding regular hunting scopes to the rifles and making shots out to 400 yards.”
The tactical evolution of the platform progressed quickly from there. Lamb and other Delta Force soldiers upgraded internal components like extractors for greater reliability. They added free-float handguards to improve accuracy. They slapped on Picatinny rails to mount other accessories. The AR platform became lethal for everything from long-range engagements to close-quarters battle.
And don’t forget the 600 meter shots Travis Haley made in Al Najaf. I’m sure there are a lot of M1 aficionados who would argue with the conclusions of the article, but the AR-15 platform has proven to be one that has killed hundreds of thousands of enemy fighters in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, from field shots to CQB.