AR 15 Rifle – A Brief History & Historical Time Line

By Tom McHale

AR 15 Rifle – A Brief History & Historical Time Line

Modern Sporting Rifle AR15 Patriotic Flag AR 15 Rifle
AR 15 Rifle – A Brief History & Historical Time Line
Tom McHale headshot low-res square
Tom McHale

USA -( According to the news media, an AR 15 Rifle is any gun that someone uses in the act of doing something bad.

What is an AR-15 really? Technically speaking, AR-15 is a brand name, like Kleenex or Xerox. And, just as with Kleenex and Xerox, the brand name has been hijacked by the general public to describe a whole class of things.

Who in corporate America asks their intern to “make a photocopy of that document using the Canon copier?” Or at home, few parents tell their kids to “grab a Cottonelle nose cloth before you sneeze!” Exactly. When a brand name is successful, we regular folks tend to commoditize it.

“Hey, will you Xerox the annual report for me?” or “Connor, I’m not telling you again! Don’t blow your nose on your sleeve! Grab a Kleenex!”

The AR in AR 15 Stands for ArmaLite

Before we dive into the history of the modern AR 15 Rifle, we need to look the “AR” part. AR does not stand for Assault Rifle. Or Automatic Rearming. Or even Apoplectic Ruin. It is a product naming convention from the company that invented it, ArmaLite. In fact, there were a number of rifles with “AR” names, like the AR-1, AR-5, AR-7, AR-10, AR-16 and AR-17.

Let’s do a quick review of AR15 Rifle history what got us from conception to where we are today.


Eugene Stoner responsible for early development of the AR 15 rifle.
Eugene Stoner responsible for early development of the AR 15 rifle.

ArmaLite was founded as a division of Fairchild Engine and Aircraft Corporation. While most people equate the AR 15 Rifle with military variants, the company was actually founded with the goal of developing civilian market guns using modern materials and manufacturing technologies.

The initial business plan called for establishing some success with commercial products, then using that momentum to get into the government and military business.

Eugene Stoner, a former marine and independent weapons designer, becomes Chief Engineer of ArmaLite. Stone meets George Sullivan, Chief Patent Counsel for Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. Sullivan has a super-sized bee in his bonnet about the possibilities of using advanced (at that time) materials like plastics and aluminum alloys in radical new weapons designs. Hold that thought…

1954 – 1956

Plans don’t last long once the action starts… Upon request from the United States Air Force, ArmaLite develops the AR-5 survival rifle. The AR-5 was a modular rifle chambered in .22 Hornet with a four round magazine and bolt action. The receiver and barrel disassemble and can be stored inside of the over-sized stock. This design not only makes the AR-5 waterproof, but also allows it to float. That’s handy for over water ejection scenarios, as downed Air Force pilots were not keen about scuba diving to retrieve their gear. The modern day version of this rifle is the Henry U.S. Survival Rifle made by Henry Rifles.


Armalite AR-5 .22 Hornet Survival Rifle : This "AR" doesn't look much like a mythical "Assault Weapon" does it?
Armalite AR-5 .22 Hornet Survival Rifle : This “AR” doesn't look much like a mythical “Assault Weapon” does it?

The U.S. Army began a search for a rifle to replace the M1 Garand. While the Garand served admirable in World War II, all that combat use uncovered some areas for improvement. For example, soldiers wanted more magazine capacity than the eight rounds offered by the M1 Garand. Also, weight was an issue, with the M1 tipping the scale at ten and a half pounds. With World War II soldiers carrying their gear for (literally) years at a time, every pound counted.

Front runners in the contest were an updated design based on the M1, the Springfield Armory T-44 and the T-48, which was based on the FAL design.

ArmaLite submits plans for the AR-10 rifle with similar caliber and performance characteristics as the T-44 and T-48. Unlike the others, the AR-10 incorporated radical design changes that allowed use of lightweight aluminum receivers and plastic stocks and hand guards. The key to the design was using a steel barrel extension to lock up the bolt rather than the receiver itself. This allowed use of lighter and less strong materials for receiver construction. The AR-10 weighed less than seven pounds – in theory allowing a solider to carry three extra pounds of ammunition and/or gear.

ArmaLite entered the contest too late in the game to work out new design kinks and ultimately the T-44 was adopted as the M-14 Rifle in 1959.

Armalite AR10 Rifle
Armalite AR10 Rifle Click here for more AR images


Seeing possibility in the AR-10 design, the Army asks ArmaLite to work on a smaller caliber version to be named the AR 15 Rifle. The project is exploratory, as the military doctrine of the time called for large caliber rifles to be used in engagements at longer distances.

1956 – 1959

ArmaLite sells the AR-10 internationally through a licensing agreement with Artillerie Inrichtingen, the Dutch Arsenal. Not even the Dutch adopt the AR-10 and international sales are light. At this time, ArmaLite is only really selling the AR-5 aquatic survival rifle, so revenue pressures mount.


ArmaLite licenses both the AR-10 and AR 15 designs to Colt Firearms. Robert Fremont, a key player in the design team of the AR-10 and AR 15 Rifle models, leaves ArmaLite for Colt Firearms to help with continued AR rifle development. ArmaLite launches the AR-7 Survival Rifle. The AR-7 was a .22 long rifle caliber rifle targeted at the civilian market, although a number of military organizations around the world bought it.

Colt Firearms sells the first AR 15 rifles to the Federation of Malaya, later to become known as Malaysia.


Eugene Stoner leaves ArmaLite to serve as a consultant to Colt Firearms. At this point, ArmaLite was out of the AR-15 business – for the time being. The United States Air Force tests the AR 15 Rifle and purchases 8,500 rifles.


The Air Force standardizes the AR 15 and designates the rifle M-16. 85,000 rifles are purchased by the Air Force. Also this year, the US Army purchases 85,000 more M-16 rifles.

Colt M16 Semi Automatic Rifle
Colt M16 Semi Automatic Rifle


By this time, the M-16 had become the military’s primary service rifle, with over 300,000 purchased from Colt, now known as Colt's Inc., Firearms Division.


ArmaLite is sold to a Philippine company, Elisco Tool Manufacturing Company.


ArmaLite operations in the US are ended by Elisco Too Manufacturing Company.


Colt loses the government contract to supply M-16 rifles to the military.


Jim Glazier and Karl Lewis of Lewis Machine and Tool Company (LMT), operating a new entity called Eagle Arms, begin producing complete AR-15 rifles for the consumer market. By this time, many of the earlier AR 15 Rifle related patents had expired, thereby opening up the market for complete AR-15 type rifles.

Eagle Arms EA 15 Rifle
Eagle Arms EA 15 Rifle


Colt, now known as Colt's Manufacturing Company, Inc., enters Chapter 11 Bankruptcy proceedings and a period of litigation.


Mark Westrom purchases Eagle Arms. Colt wins a contract to supply 19,000 M-4 Carbine variants of the M-16 to the US Army and Special Forces Command.


Westrom and Eagle Arms purchase rights to the ArmaLite brand. Within a year, ArmaLite is producing the AR-10B rifle, chambered in .308. During this period, Knight’s Manufacturing produced an AR-10 derivative rifle, the SR-25. Colt wins another contract for 16,000 M-4 Carbines.

Knight Manufacturing SR-25 Rifle
Knight Manufacturing SR-25 Rifle


Colt’s wins back the procurement contract for military M-16 rifles with an initial order for 32,000 M-16 rifles. An additional order follows to upgrade 88,000 M-16 A1 rifles to the A2 configuration.

2009 – 2011

With support from the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the term Modern Sporting Rifle gains popularity as a more descriptive name for AR-style rifles.

Racks of new Modern Sporting Rifles. The AR 15 Rifle is well on its way to be America's most popular rifle ever.
Racks of new Modern Sporting Rifles. The AR 15 Rifle is well on its way to be America's most popular rifle ever.

AR 15 Rifle Present Day

At last count, 16,973,489,012 companies are making AR-style rifles. Actually, I lost count at just over 12 million, so this number is really more of an estimate. Whatever the actual figure is, it's a lot.

Kidding aside, the AR 15 Rifle has become the most popular general purpose rifle platform since, well, since ever.

AR 15 Rifle Resources:


Tom McHale is the author of the Insanely Practical Guides book series that guides new and experienced shooters alike in a fun, approachable, and practical way.  You can also find him on Google+, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.


  • 47 thoughts on “AR 15 Rifle – A Brief History & Historical Time Line

    1. I Carried one of the Air Force’s AR15/16 as a Security policeman stationed at Harmon Air Force Base in Stephenville, Newfoundland in 1965/66.

    2. We should get away from calling them Assault Rifles. The police refer to them as Patrol Rifles. So we should call them Patrol Rifles or Sporting Rifles.

    3. Actually “assault rifle” is a military term originally from U.S. arms makers translating Sturmgewehr and was used to describe a select fire, light weight , high capacity (compared to traditional rifles), intermediate caliber (between full power rifle and pistol rounds), rifle where as “battle rifle” was a term created for similar features in a full power (308 usually) rifle such as a Cetme or M14. The Sturmgewehr was a German invention tailored to close battle and engagements out to about 300 yards. The Russians duplicated this in the AK47. Stoner knew the American military would never approve of stamped steel and bakelite furniture so he used aluminium forgings and fiberglass to save weight. This was thought of as “space age” and modern. The U.S. Arsenals had already tried intermediate cartridges first scaling up a pistol round in the .30 Carbine, then scaling down a rifle cartridge in the 308 (from the 30.06 M2 round) and found neither to be practical in full auto mode so the 5.56 was eventually derived and coupled with the AR15s “in line” recoil to create a very controllable weapon.

    4. The first export AR15 were offered and sold to foreign governments and could be purchased as semi or select fire rifles. Armalite / Colt AR15 as well as Colt M16, M16A1 and M16A2 could also be purchased from Colt, thru their law enforcement dealers, in semi or select fire from the 1960’s thru 1986. Also the patents expired around 1977 and manufactures like SGW – Olympic Arms started selling semi and select fire rifles to the general US public. A lot of the NFA transferable AR15 and M16’s are ex law enforcement trade ins.

    5. The author of this article is dreaming. The AK-47 is the greatest battle rifle ever made AND the most popular at well over 100,000,000 sold and distributed.

      1. Personally, I would never own a Russian designed AK-47. I’ll stick to an American Rifle. A piston driven AR-15 for me, but that’s just me.

    6. “At last count, 16,973,489,012 companies are making AR-style rifles.” Rifles made? I am sure there are not 16 billion + companies!

    7. In Viet Nam, we were told it was an m-16 (yeah, I know) and it was a piece of junk. Every time I cleaned it it would jam so I carried a small can of WD-40 and just spray it down every so often. Doing this instead of cleaning worked great and I never had another jam. I guess that’s why I still don’t care for “black guns”.

      1. It was not the rifle it was the powder in the ammo(ball over stick powder). If you carried WD-40 and sprayed it down than you caused another malfunction. WD-40 must NEVER be used on any firearm. WD-40 neutralizes primers.

          1. The proper terminology for an M-16 is: AR-16, light infantry, hand held weapons platform. It is a 5.56MM auto or semi auto weapons platform. Now the definition is: A 5.56mm, gas operated, hand held, magazine feed, air cooled, select fire automatic/semi automatic shoulder fired weapon.

        1. IMO, none. If a person is assaulted with a slingshot, then the slingshot is an assault weapon. I know that many in the government considers any semi-automatic as an assault weapon.

        2. An ASSAULT RIFLE is a rifle you whack someone in the head with, there really is no such thing as an ASSAULT RIFLE! As for the ASSAULT STYLE RIFLE again it is a rifle you hold in a position to whack someone in the head! Now if you are really serious about this, the AR-15 Semi-Automatic Sporting Rifle, which fires 1 round per 1 pull of the trigger was developed way before the M-16, where as the M-16 which is Semi- Automatic (1 round fired per 1 pull of the trigger), 3 round burst per 1 pull of the trigger or Full Automatic at 650 rounds per minute or as fast as you can change a magazine and pull the trigger again. There is one hell of a difference between to so called Assault Rifle M-16 and the Assault Look A Like AR-15. The real thing they have in common is they are BLACK in color and weigh about the same. The Military was looking for a new rifle, light weight, fast, easy to maintain, saw the AR and asked if they could be made to Mil Specs (a.k.a. FULL AUTO). Now try to explain this to a Dummiecrat I mean Democrat Liberal and they get all P.O.’d at you!

          1. Sorry, but Assault Rifle is a REAL term, M-16, AK-47, G36, FN-FAL, Galil ACE are all examples of “ASSAULT RIFLES” The term assault WEAPON was made up by the liberal media to describe ANY weapon that they don’t like so that they could ban them.

            1. Very real. The name originates from the WW Ii German Stermgewher (StG) 44, which literally translates to “assault rifle 44.” As the names denotes, it’s controllable, rapid rate of fire was intended to keep the enemy from returning fire when assaulting a defensive position. It produced a significantly higher rate of fire than the 5-shot, bolt action K98 carbine usually carried by a German soldier.

            2. Throughout recorded history of weapons, there has only been “One Rifle” that was classified as an actual assault weapon. I won’t go into details, but, if you do your research, you’ll find out about it and its history. Sorry, but, the AR-15, AR-16, AK-47, G36, FN-FAL and Galil are not classified as assault weapons.

            3. If anyone wants the legal description of “Assault Rifle” as per the Bill Clinton assault weapons ban it is any semi-automatic rifle that includes 3 or more of the following features: Pistol Grip, Detachable Magazine, Folding stock, Flash Suppressor or Bayonet Lug. So the Sandy Hook AR would not have been classified as an Assault Weapon under the Clinton Ban as it only had the pistol grip and the detachable magazine that is if the picture that I saw on the news is in fact the weapon.

            4. The term “Assault Rifle” was used by the gun manufactures and sporting magazines such as Guns and Ammo and Field and Stream to sell these rifles and it worked. Another term used in those magazines was Parabellum. These are the same folks blaming the left and the media when it is misused when they only have themselves to blame for it.

          2. you are an idiot. M-16 and AR-15 are identical except for the sear block… the one part that makes it a full auto. plus the selector switch that prevents full auto. otherwise the same. i own one… a full blown democrat.. idiot repuke-lican.

            1. You are wrong. The m16 lower is machined differently to create a pocket for for the secondary sear and the hammer is modified to operate with this sear. The bolt is milled differently to trip the secondary sear after the bolt returns to battery and locks. A semi auto bolt will not trip the secondary sear. The m16 M4 is a short barreled rifle. A short barreled rifle can’t be purchased at a regular gun shop and requires, fingerprints, a tax and application to ATF (takes months).

          3. “Now try to explain this to a Dummiecrat I mean Democrat Liberal and they get all P.O.’d at you!” Sooooooooooooooooooooooo true.

    8. So was the AR-15 originally select fire? Or did it become select fire after it was made into the M-16? Also, when did civilian sales start? The reason why I’m asking is because I was certain I read somewhere that the AR-15 was marketed FIRST to civilians, then the military picked it up and had it made into a select fire M-16. I f this is correct, then it blows that Sandy-Hook lawsuit out of the water.

      1. That was at the top of the article. Yes the AR was a semi-auto. IMHO the Sandy Hook lawsuit has zero merit based on previous case law. But then I’m not a lawyer and most certainly not a demented Leftwing nut job afraid of their own shadows. I’m just afraid of a government that doesn’t respect my God Given Rights.

        I have a bit of an issue with the authors “16,973,489,012 companies are making AR-style rifles”. I’m going to guess that may high even for the nunber of MSR/AR/M4…rifles actually built.

        1. He was joking about all the companies out there make AR style rifles, not how many rifles were produced. You need to read again what you quoted!!!!

      2. He clarified that with the following ITALICIZED and BOLD statement:
        “Kidding aside, the AR 15 Rifle has become the most popular general purpose rifle platform since, well, since ever.”

      3. Regarding the Sandy Hook lawsuit, it doesn’t matter that the AR15 was originally designed as a select-fire rifle. The crux of their argument is that the AR-15 we’re currently familiar with has no “legitimate” use aside from killing people. Considering that it’s one of the most popular rifles ever designed for plinking, target shooting, hunting and competition, that should be a hard argument to win.
        Colt was advertising the AR-15 SP1 from day 1 in 1964 as a hunting rifle. Its light weight, quick follow-up shot and synthetic materials (stable through moisture and temperature changes) made it an excellent choice for the sportsman in the field.
        While the AR15 was designed in select fire for martial purposes. it was designed in semi-auto for sporting uses. Two separate designs, two separate purposes.

      4. My reply to the question of semi-auto didn’t post, so I’ll try again.

        The original “AR15”–the Colt Armalite AR15 Model 01–was a select-fire rifle. While it was perfectly legal for civilian ownership under the NFA of ’34, the primary intended markets were military and law enforcement.

        After the military started placing orders and after they assigned the AR15 a military nomenclature (M16), Colt modified the design and reintroduced the AR-15 (note the hyphen) as a semi-auto only rifle, with a primary intended market of sportsmen. That rifle, released to the public in 1964, was the AR-15 Model SP1.

        Since 1964, most people have used the select-fire capability as the difference between the M16 and the AR-15.

      5. It was originally designed as a select fire rifle, The Air Force in 1961/62 originally ordered select fire (full auto) AR-15’s. The left side of the lower receiver was stamped ArmaLite AR-15 made by colt. At my first base in 1983 in the Air Force, the Security Police had one of those rifles Serial number below 2000. Colt started selling AR-15’s semiautomatic and full auto to the public in 1963ish. In 1963 to buy a full automatic weapon, all it took was a $200 tax stamp and the paper work at the ATF.

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