Celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the AR-15

Gun News

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 7.62×54 (.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.

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