Story of the M16

04/02/2021

Story of the M16

The story of how the M16 became the standard issue rifle for the U.S. military is an interesting one. Shortly after the end of World War II, the Department of Defense began looking for a replacement for the M1 Garand. In 1956, the United States Army began testing several new weapons chambered for the newly created 7.62x51mm NATO cartridge. Springfield Armory and Fabrique Nationale submitted rifles to the competition, as well as a new company, ArmaLite. The ArmaLite submission was called the AR-10. It had a straight-line barrel/stock design, which was innovative at the time. It had a forged aluminum alloy receiver and a composite stock. It also had elevated sights and flash suppressor features that are still recognizable on the gun today. 

The Army ultimately chose the Springfield rifle, designating it the M14. The gun saw its first action in the early days of the Vietnam War. Reports from the field were that the gun was uncontrollable on full auto and that soldiers had trouble carrying the heavy ammo. So ArmaLite resubmitted their rifle for consideration, this time chambered for a new round, the 5.56mm NATO. They called this variant the AR-15. Army testing revealed that troops could carry three times as much ammunition in 5.56mm as they could in 7.62x51mm. The AR-15 was also found to be three times more reliable than the M14. For some reason, however, Army Chief of Staff General Maxwell Taylor again chose the M14 over the AR-15. ArmaLite was dejected and sold the rights for the AR-15 to Colt in 1959.

At this point, the AR-15 could have been forgotten completely, if it weren’t for a Fourth of July celebration in 1960. Air Force Vice Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay was invited to an Independence Day celebration thrown by ArmaLite President Dick Boutelle. At the event, guests were invited to fire the AR-15 at watermelons set up downrange. General LeMay, being the guest of honor, was given the first try. General LeMay was so impressed with the rifle that he ordered 8,500 of them for the Air Force inventory. By the summer of 1961, General LeMay was promoted to Chief of Staff of the Air Force and requested an additional 80,000 AR-15s. General Taylor, however, had also been promoted to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (and was now LeMay’s boss) and nixed the order. It looked as if General Taylor yet again stood in the way of the AR-15.

In October of 1961, the U.S. Army Special Forces sent 10 AR-15s to be tested by the Green Berets in the fields of Vietnam. They loved them so much that they immediately requested 1,000 additional rifles. Reports from the field boasted of the rifle’s stopping power and praised the 5.56mm cartridge. They pressed their leadership for the adoption of the rifle for conventional troops as well.

At this point, the controversy over the AR-15 had reached the highest levels of government, with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and even President John F. Kennedy weighing in. They had two opposing viewpoints on the gun. The Air Force and Special Operations reports in favor, and General Taylor’s contradicting view. McNamara ordered another round of testing to be conducted by the Army, pitting the AR-15 against the M14 and AK-47, the enemy’s favored weapon. The Army again reported that the M14 was the superior rifle, but McNamara was concerned about the impartiality of the testing. He ordered the Inspector General to investigate the testing and found irregularities. For example, accuracy for the M14 was tested in semi-automatic mode, while for the AR-15 it was tested in full auto. 

In January of 1963, McNamara was informed that Springfield would be unable to fulfill the complete order for M14s that the government had requested. McNamara immediately put a halt to further production of the M14. The Colt ArmaLite AR-15 was the only other rifle tested and ready for production, so by November of 1963, McNamara put in an order for 85,000 AR-15s. The rifle was redesigned the M16 and has been the standard-issue rifle for all branches of the U.S. military ever since.

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