Development & A Brief History
Manufactured by Colt Rifles, the AR-15 is a 5.56x45mm, magazine fed, gas operated semi-automatic rifle. Colt currently manufactures the AR-15 rifles for its line of semi-automatic weapons that are marketed towards civilian and law-enforcement customers. (Source)
After WWII the U.S. Military started looking for replacements for their M1 Garand, M1/M2 Carbines, Thompson sub-machine gun etc. It was during the Korean War that the select fire M2 carbine largely replaced the submachine gun in U.S. service. Combat experience however, suggested the .30 carbine round was under powered and an intermediate round was necessary. Trials with several new weapons were and the manufacturer ArmaLite entered their AR-10 prototype in the fall of 1956. Some testers of this rifle commented that the AR-10 was the best lightweight automatic rifle ever tested. The U.S. Army, however, chose to go with a T44, now called the M14, an improved version of the M1 Garand.
It was during the early part of the Vietnam War that the M14 was put up against the AK-47. Reports from the battlefield stated the M14 was uncontrollable during automatic fire and soldiers were not able to carry enough ammunition to maintain fire superiority over the AK-47. The U.S. Military was then forced to reconsider a request to develop a .223 caliber select fire rifle 6lb when loaded with a 20 round magazine. The 5.56mm round had to penetrate a standard M1 helmet at 500 yards and retain a velocity in excess of the speed of sound while matching or exceeding the wounding ability of the .30 carbine cartridge. This resulted in a scaled down version of the ArmaLite AR-10, called the ArmaLite AR-15. Colt later acquired the AR-15 and redesigned the rifle to facilitate mass production. (Source) Colt later marketed the AR-15 to military divisions such as the U.S. Navy, Air Force, Army and Marine Corps. The AR-15 was adopted as the M16 by the United States Military (Source)
Quick Note on Bullet Caliber
So what is the difference between a .22 caliber bullet and a .223 caliber, when it’s the same caliber bullet? The answer is the masses and velocities of the bullets differ. The diameter of the bullet is the same. In a video demonstration one can see that when a .22 bullet hits a steel target the bullet compresses and leaves a larger hole than the .223. The .223 bullet which travels at a higher velocity and is a heavier bullet, travels strait through the metal target. (Source)
Is the AR-15 an assault rifle?
To find the answer to this question, let me walk you through my research. First I went to Google as one often does to find answers to questions and typed in “definition of assault rifle.”
The first answer that pops up is from a dictionary: “a rapid-fire, magazine-fed automatic rifle designed for infantry use.”
The next choice comes from Miriam Webster’s website where an assault rifle is defined as “any of various intermediate-range, magazine-fed military rifles (such as the AK-47) that can be set for automatic or semiautomatic fire; also : a rifle that resembles a military assault rifle but is designed to allow only semiautomatic fire
The third search result is from a website blog called The Firearms Guide with an article on “What is and is not an Assault Rifle” Here the author states that an assault rifle is a rifle that 1. has selectable firing modes 2. can fire in fully automatic mode.
In an article by Jeff Daniels of CNBC Daniels points out that the definition of an assault rifle is a contentious issue. See the following paragraph: That said, the gun industry’s traditional definition of an “assault rifle” is a weapon the military generally uses and has “select fire capabilities,” or the capability to switch between semi-automatic or a fully automatic mode. However, the civilian AR-15s do not have the select fire capabilities, only semi-automatic settings, so the firearms industry insists they are not an actual assault rifle or assault weapon.
I would like to point out that the AR in AR-15 does not in fact stand for “assault rifle.” Rather it stands for the initial manufacturer of the weapon, ArmaLite.
Additionally, the term assault rifle has a different legal definition in different states depending on local gun laws.
The conclusion to this question based on the research seems to state that the AR-15 is indeed not an assault rifle by virtue of its lack of fully automatic firing ability.
Is the AR-15 a combat weapon?
The answers to this question based on research seem to be answered as simply as this: it depends on who you ask. I found an article by James Fallows of The Atlantic which provided answers from those who claim it is and those who claim it is not.
Take the following excerpt for example: This past Tuesday Dean Winslow, a medical doctor and retired Air Force colonel who had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a flight surgeon, appeared before the Senate Armed Services committee. It was considering his nomination as the Trump administration’s assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.
At the hearing, Senator Jean Shaheen, a Democrat of New Hampshire, asked Winslow about mental-health issues in the military—and specifically about the shooter in the Sutherland Springs massacre, who had been courtmartialed and given a bad-conduct discharge by the Air Force for offenses that included threatening people with guns.
Winslow answered that question, and then volunteered a view that would have gotten more attention if not for the avalanche of other news. As a military veteran with first-hand experience treating combat wounds, he said he wanted to underscore “how insane it is that in the United States of America a civilian can go out and buy a semiautomatic assault rifle like an AR-15.
The question Dean Winslow raised—whether a weapon designed for the battlefield should be in wide circulation among civilians—is one I’ve been addressing on this site.
However, Fallows points out a dispute from a reader where Fallows used a quote obtained from one of the engineers of the AR-15 that the gun had gone into military production as the M16 before appearing in the civilian market. The following is the reader’s statement: In your article “Why the AR-15 Was Never Meant to be in Civilians’ Hands“, your source claims that the AR-15 was not commercially available to civilians before it was standardized by the military. This is factually incorrect.
Colt sent a pilot model rifle (serial no. GX4968) to the BATF for civilian sale approval on Oct. 23, 1963. It was approved on Dec. 10, 1963, and sales of the “Model R6000 Colt AR-15 SP1 Sporter Rifle” began on Jan 2, 1964. The M16 wasn’t issued to infantry units until 1965 (as the XM16E1), wasn’t standardized as the M16A1 until 1967, and didn’t officially replace the M14 until 1969. Colt had been selling semi-automatic AR-15’s to civilians for 5 years by the time the M16A1 replaced the M14. Going off of the serial number records for the SP1, Colt had sold at least 2,501 rifles to the civilian market by 1965, 8,250 rifles by 1967, and 14,653 rifles by 1969.
The engineer mentioned above worked at Colt Firearms on the M16. The engineers comment is as follows:
There was no commercially available civilian version of the AR-15 prior to the U.S. Military’s decision to make it the default military rifle replacing the M-14, and designating it as the M16A1. I have significant personal experience with the issues experienced by the M16A1, which were the result of a combined civilian/military screw-up. [JF note: this screwup was the subject of my original article.]
The AR-15 was developed specifically as a military weapon to replace the M-14. It was probably one of the first major weapons systems to be privately developed following the DOD’s decision to privatize the design and development function. This function had heretofore been carried out by publicly funded government operations, most notably, in the case of military small arms, the Springield Arsenal.
The AR-15 derived from a design by Eugene Stoner. His original design using that architecture and operating system was the AR-10, which used the 7.62mm NATO round. Seen today, it looks like an overgrown AR-15. The Armalite Company tasked two engineers with developing a version of the AR-10 that used the 5.56mm cartridge; these engineers were Jim Sullivan and Bob Fremont.
Only after civilian manufacturers like Colt’s made boatloads of money producing M16A1’s and selling them to the government did someone (I believe it was Colt’s Firearms) decide to make and sell a semi-automatic-only version of the weapon for civilian sale. It was, of course, known as the AR-15.
I have also asked a friend who is a veteran from the U.S. Military and served in Afghanistan, if the AR-15 was an assault rifle. His statement was as follows: “Assault rifle is the legal term. The combat version, i.e. CAR-15 or M-4, are class III weapons with automatic fire rates (full auto or 3 round burst). So the ones that have been on the market for the past decade are semi-automatic weapons that shoot assault rifle rounds.”