Birth of the AR-15
The history of the 5.56x45mm cartridge and the AR-15 series rifles is a long and convoluted one awash with
marketing strategies, conniving, deal-cutting, good ole boys tradin favors, downright stubbornness and pretty
much any and all of the drama venues found in our best soap-operas today on TV. This is the story of people
being, well, human and doing what human nature tells us they will do. The story relayed on this page is
a mere microcosm of the events that transpired leading to the military acceptance of the AR series rifles.
The complete tale can be located in the excellent articles by Daniel Watters at 5.56mm Timeline
In 1948, the U.S. Army established the Operations Research Office (ORO) to analytically study a number of problems associated with ground weapons in the nuclear era.
One of ORO's early projects was ALCLAD, a search for better infantry body armor. During this search, the ORO discovered just how little was known about how individuals were wounded in combat. ORO looked into several questions regarding the manner in which soldiers were struck by rifle projectiles and shell fragments, including the information below.
- frequency and distribution of such hits
- types of wounds incurred in combat
- average ranges at which wounds were inflicted
Answers to these questions were obtained by evaluating over three million casualty reports for World Wars I and II, as well as data from the Korean conflict.
ORO's investigations revealed that in the overall picture, aimed fire did not seem to have any more important role in creating casualties than randomly fired shots. Marksmanship was not as important as volume. Fire was seldom effectively used beyond 300 meters due to terrain (WWII, Korea) although sharpshooters in WWI frequently saw 1200m shots, and it was discovered that most kills occur at 100 meters or less.
From this data, ORO concluded that what the Army needed was a low recoil weapon firing a number of small projectiles, so in 1957 the United States Army Continental Army Command (CONARC) sought commercial assistance in the development of a 5.56mm military rifle.
CONARC sponsored the development of a .22 military rifle and asked Winchester and Armalite to come up with designs for a high-velocity, full and semi auto fire, 20 shot magazine, 6lbs loaded, able to penetrate both sides of a standard Army helmet at 500 meters rifle. The competing rifles were:
- Winchester - .224 Lightweight Military Rifle - patterned after M1 and M1 Carbine
- Springfield Armory - an Ordnance Corps facility, was forbidden to enter its rifle by those opposed to small caliber concept, but it too had a .224 model based on the M14
- Armalite AR-15 -
The Armalite Division of the Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation, Costa Mesa, CA was established in 1954 for the sole purpose of developing military firearms using the latest in plastics and non-ferrous materials. It's team of Eugene M. Stoner - key designer, Robert Fremont - prototype manufacturing supervisor, and L. James Sullivan - who oversaw drafting work had been the key developers of the AR-15.
Prior to the AR-15, Armalite had developed:
7.62 NATO parasniper rifle, extremely lightweight, using Mauser-type bolt action;
7.62 NATO self-loader using aluminum receiver, fiberglass stock, and multiple lug locking system similar to the one later incorporated into the AR-10
.22 Hornet survival rifle developed for US Air Force and officially designated the MA-1
.22 long rifle self-loader, receiver and barrel store in plastic stock. (1959-1960)
12 gauge self-loading shotgun with aluminum barrel and receiver (5lbs) 1955
7.62 NATO auto-loader, aluminum receivers, led to AR-15 design
only prototypes built in 1954
The AR-15, designed around slightly enlarged version of the .222 case firing a 55gr projectile at 3300fps, and weighing in at 6.7lbs, took some of the best features from earlier designs:
Project SALVO, a number of studies conducted by the Operations Research Office at Johns Hopkins University and supported by several contractors chose the AR-15 as the best small caliber weapon and it was adopted as the M16. The AR-15 had met all of the CONARC requirements, and AR-15 production could be highly automated, making it inexpensive to manufacture. It's 5.56mm cartridge fired a small 55gr bullet at nearly 3000fps, and it was accurate and effective to 350 yards. That small cartridge combined with the buffer system and inline stock made it far more controllable in automatic fire than the M14.