September 23, 2010
By Terry Wieland
Could it be that the much-maligned, much-celebrated AR-15 is the most influential rifle of our era?
By Terry Wieland
Throughout American history, today's military rifle always becomes tomorrow's sporting rifle--for hunting, target shooting, and hanging over the fireplace.
First it was the Trapdoor Springfield single shot, which gave way to the Krag-Jorgensen bolt-action rifle; after 1918, the returning troops embraced the more advanced Springfield bolt action.
This phenomenon is due partly to technological advances--one always expects the military to have the latest--and partly to familiarity. When you have gone through boot camp and fought a war with a rifle, you are on intimate terms with it. If it served you well, you want to stick with it.
We skipped a generation with the Garand and its offspring, the M-14, for a number of reasons. Although the Garand was a semiauto, it offered no real advantage in firepower; it was heavy and cumbersome; and it did not lend itself to much in the way of modification, adaptation, or customization. In other words, it was what it was. Even in military terms, the Garand was a link, a stepping stone, not a rifle for the long term.
Then came the AR-15, the semiauto small-bore adopted by the Army beginning in 1963.
The author took on the project of building a true custom AR-15, replete with the finest walnut available.
With the AR (ay-are, as it is universally known today), the cycle revived with a vengeance. The AR offered everything the Garand did not in terms of mixing, matching, changing, and customizing, not only for the civilian market, but for every type of military and security application.
At first the decision to arm soldiers with a rifle firing a woodchuck round was greeted with amusement in some quarters, disbelief in others. In military terms, the AR-15--or M16 to the military--broke rules left and right: It was heresy not only to use such a small cartridge, but also to provide every foot soldier with a rifle that could fire full auto.
Combine that with the AR-15's distinctly science-fiction appearance, at least when it was introduced, and it is no wonder it received mixed reviews.
The AR was thrown immediately into the fire. The U.S. was fighting in Vietnam, and by 1969 most U.S. combatants were armed with ARs. Just as quickly, problems cropped up. Jamming was a serious problem, and one that grabbed headlines in mainstream newspapers and even august magazines like the Atlantic Monthly. No military rifle was ever subjected to such intense scrutiny and analysis.
But then, no new military rifle has ever been introduced and been considered perfect from the beginning. The Mauser went through many iterations between 1888 and 1898 as Paul Mauser perfected the design; Britain's Lee-Enfield evolved through five different models and countless marks; even the Springfield was modified a couple of times before the Army was satisfied.
At each turn, however, the AR-15 prevailed.
The buttplate is made of Cape buffalo horn and is attached via two screws that are hand engraved with "NSSF
" and "2010."
With each modification, it became a better rifle. Different barrels and bullet weights solved the jamming problem; accuracy became better and better as the makers refined their manufacturing techniques. Today, the AR-15 is capable of accuracy that, when it was developed in the late 1950s, would have been considered gilt-edged in a benchrest rifle.
And, unique among military rifles of any era, the AR-15 proved to be adaptable to a fault. With a short barrel, collapsible stock, and high-volume magazine, it becomes a submachine gun. Fit a heavy barrel and a good scope, and it is a 500-yard sniper rifle. In between, it is a rifle that can jump with the paratroops, ride in a tank, or mount formal guard duty. Outside the military, the AR-15 has been embraced by police forces and security units of all kinds.
Notable features of the AR that are different from everything that went before are its detachable box magazine, which later became available in a wide range of capacities, from five rounds to 30 rounds and beyond. Before 1939, the only military rifle boasting such a feature was Britain's Lee-Enfield. The new generation of military rifles post-World War II, including the FN-FAL and AK-47, all recognized that this was an indispensable requirement.
Similarly, the separate true pistol grip that put the main controls immediately under the shooter's thumb became a hallmark of the entire generation of rifles.
Where the AR-15 really broke ground, however, and the feature that I consider to be the basis of its longevity and its adaptability, is its modular construction.
Steel parts of the custom project were Cerakoted, and a NightForce NXS 2.5-10X 24mm scope was fitted and sighted-in with Federal's 69-grain Gold Medal Match load.
Any rifle consists of an assemblage of parts, fastened together more or less permanently. The AR-15, however, consists of separate groups of parts--the upper and lower--which can be removed or replaced.
So an AR lower unit can be fitted with upper units of varying configurations depending on the use to which the rifle will be put. The upper and lower units are fastened together using the break-action principle that originated with Casimir Lefaucheux, the French gunmaker, around 1851. It became the basis for the entire double-gun trade in Europe through the 19th and 20th centuries and has been used on all manner of single shots and doubles ever since.
The famous FN-FAL, introduced in Belgium in 1951, also uses a hinge mechanism to allow the rifle to be "broken," facilitating removal of the breechblock and breechblock carrier and making cleaning m
ore convenient. The FAL, however, was always considered a more or less contiguous unit. Although there were variations on its design, including heavy barrels, bipods, and full-auto capability in some models, the design was never carried as far as the AR-15.
The AR actively promoted the complete separation of upper and lower units to maximize modification for specialized purposes, and therein lies its true genius--and the basis for its eventual adoption as a civilian rifle for a wide range of activities.