Gun Digest

Retro AR-15: The Old Rifles That Inspired The New Ones

An AR-10 rifle that was the precursor to the black rifle produced by the Dutch company of Artillerie-Inrichtengen. Photo: Rock Island Auction Company

Looking back on the forward-thinking black rifle with a new-production retro AR-15 options.

There was a time when the black rifle, what we’ve come to refer to as the AR-15 today, might not ever have happened. In fact, in the beginning there were several times when Armalite went back to the drawing board, so to speak. Other U.S. government projects like SALVO and AGILE greatly impacted the development of the so-called black rifle. Truth be told, the AR wasn’t even black in the beginning. When the barrels of early prototypes exploded during Army tests, you would think that would have halted any further development. It didn’t, it just made Armalite think smarter.

When a new caliber was adopted by the U.S. government, a complete redo of the rifle morphed into a new variant. Then there was trouble brewing in a southeast Asian country no one ever heard of called Vietnam. These events collided in the late 1950s and early 1960s to spawn the “black rifle” moniker — the nickname given to the AR-15 (Armalite’s name), the Model 601 (Colt’s nomenclature) and the M16 (the U.S. military designation). You see, the story of the black rifle is not cut and dry, but filled will glorious moments of success, the agony of defeat and ultimate perseverance. Perhaps the pivotal moment took place on a warm summer day in 1960 when two watermelons spectacularly demonstrated the effectiveness of the black rifle and the 5.56mm NATO cartridge to a brash Air Force general. But we’re getting ahead of the story. Let’s back up to 1956 and Hollywood, California. That’s where and when the black rifle’s story starts.

Jungle warfare helped shape the design of the black rifle. It was also the first time the rifle saw combat. Photo: DoD

Birth Of The AR-15

In the mid–1950s, Armalite Corporation was a small machine shop in Hollywood, California, that was immersed in creating cutting-edge weapon designs. Its business model was to design a weapon and then license the design to a manufacturer, and its claim to fame was the AR-5 and AR-7 survival rifles designed for the Air Force. Armalite’s ideas needed funding, so it became a subdivision of Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation. It hired Eugene Stoner as chief design engineer. Yes, the Eugene Stoner. Under Stoner’s direction, Robert Fremont and L. James Sullivan developed and engineered new small arms designs.

In fall 1956, Armalite developed an ultra-modern combat rifle. The prototype was designated the AR-10 and it was unlike any rifle — non-reciprocating charging handle, hinged upper and lower, modular components, select-fire, gas-operated direct impingement system, lightweight aluminum receiver, synthetic stock, aluminum/steel barrel to name just a few unique design characteristics — and it was chambered in 7.62mm. The Armalite promo film shows a soldier emerging from the ocean firing an AR-10 in full-auto as he walks up onto the beach. Think I’m kidding? Google “Armalite promo video” and if you are of a certain age the sound and quality of this video will remind you of movie reels you were forced to watch in high school: except this one will have you glued to the edge of your seat and will give you an idea of what Armalite was up to when communication technology consisted of a rotary dial telephone.

Armalite hurriedly submitted four sample rifles into the U.S. Army’s tests for a replacement of the M1 Garand. The competition was Springfield Armory, which submitted the T44E4, and Fabrique Nationale, which entered the FAL. During torture testing, the AR-10’s barrel burst and so, one would think, the U.S. government’s confidence in Armalite. The AR-10 could have gone down as a footnote in military arms history. The Springfield Armory T44, a more conventional design — basically an M1 Garand with a removable magazine — got the nod from the military and, in 1957, the Army designated it the M14.

By the time the Vietnam War was under way, the main-issue rifle was an M16. Photo: DoD

Far from licking its wounds, Armalite licensed the AR-10 to Artillerie Inrichtingen in Holland to manufacture the rifles to fulfill contracts with Cuba, Nicaragua, Portugal, Sudan, Guatemala, Italy and Burma. But the real money would be made with a U.S. military contract, not some banana republic or small country that might pony up cash for a paltry 1,000 rifles.

While the Army opted for the M14, it also funded the SALVO research project in which high-velocity .22-caliber weapons were found to have the same lethal power as .30-caliber weapons, but without the recoil or lack of control in full-auto fire. Plus, a soldier could carry more .22-caliber cartridges than .30-caliber ones — more firepower per soldier.

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Armalite shifted gears and developed the AR-15, borrowing many features from the AR-10. The AR-15 was space-age and high-tech compared to other military rifles at the time. Ten AR-15 rifles were tested at Fort Benning, Aberdeen Proving Ground and in the Arctic in 1958. Testing discovered the design needed modifications, but the final reports stated the AR-15 was a viable replacement for the .30-caliber M14. Armalite didn’t pop the champagne cork just yet. There were backdoor deals going on and production of the M14 rifle continued. Armalite was hemorrhaging money so Fairchild sold the manufacturing and marketing rights to Colt’s Patent Firearms and Manufacturing Corporation in Hartford, Connecticut. Colt then began the hard sell of the AR-15 to the U.S. military. It wasn’t a question of if the AR-15 was going to be adopted by the military but when.

An Army Specialist fires an M16A2 rifle from the kneeling position during the weapons qualification in 2016. Note the round handguard and birdcage muzzle device. Photo: DoD

Under Live Fire

In 1960 in Hagerstown, Maryland, a Colt salesperson demonstrated the AR-15 to General Curtis LeMay, Air Force Chief of Staff. This is where the watermelons come in. LeMay was convinced of the killing power of the AR-15 and requested an order for 80,000 AR-15 rifles for the Air Force. The military was loathed to have two different caliber rifles in service and President John F. Kennedy nixed LeMay’s request. LeMay would not take no for an answer. And then there was this troubling thing in southeast Asia. Before the 1960s, Vietnam was virtually unknown to most Americans. That would soon change.

The goal of Project AGILE was to deter the communist presence in South Vietnam. AGILE was launched in 1961, and a handful of prototype AR-15s designated by Colt as the Model 601 were sent to South Vietnam for testing and evaluation. Design tweaks were made, and the Colt Model 602 — also known as the XM16 — succeeded the 601. These early rifles had a buttstock, pistol grip and handguard with a green finish. They were still not yet black. The test rifles were well received by users. The next year, an additional 1,000 were sent to South Vietnam for use by Special Operations forces and advisors. In combat the rifles proved to be effective, and the power of the 5.56mm cartridge made devastating kills on enemy combatants.

The year 1963 cemented the black rifle’s fate. While the military was still stuck on the conventionally designed M14, the reports from AGILE recommended adoption of the AR-15 platform and the military ordered rifles. This is when the black rifle got a black eye.

Originally the M16 was not issued with a cleaning kit. That changed when jamming issues caused American soldiers to die in combat. Photo: DoD

In 1965, the XM16E1 was issued to troops without cleaning supplies or instructions. Two versions of the rifle were made: the M16 without a forward assist for the Air Force and the XM16E1 with a forward assist for the other branches of the military. The Army ordered 85,000 XM16E1 rifles and the Air Force 19,000 M16s. These rifles were the first true black rifles, as they featured black furniture. The XM16E1 sported a fixed buttstock, triangular handguard and a three-prong “duck-bill” flash suppressor on a 20-inch barrel. Standard issue was a 20-round magazine.

In 1964, the .223 Remington/5.56x45mm cartridge was officially adopted by the U.S. Army for use in the AR-15 platform. What caused the black eye and congressional investigations concerned gun powder. There were insufficient quantities of 5.56mm ammo on hand so the military changed the type of gun powder in the ammunition to speed up delivery. The nitrocellulose-based powder the rifle was designed to use was replaced with a nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin-based powder that left a residue in the rifle’s mechanism.

The AR-15’s gas impingement system was designed as self-cleaning, requiring minimal maintenance. Originally the M16 was not issued with a cleaning kit, but that soon changed as U.S. soldiers began to experience stoppages in combat with cartridge cases lodged in the chamber. U.S. casualties were discovered, literally with soldiers killed over rifles disassembled while trying to fix jams. Congress soon intervened as evidence of jamming rifles mounted and an investigation was launched. It was found that the main issue for the failure-to-extract stoppages was the gun powder in the ammunition.

These rifles appear to be M16A1s, in use toward the end of the Vietnam War. Note the triangular handguard. Photo: DoD

Rifle Of Many Faces

By 1967 the problems with the XM16E1 were addressed and the rifle was standardized as the M16A1 with a chrome-lined chamber, the recoil buffer was modified for the ammo, the “duck-bill” flash suppressor was replaced by the A1 “bird-cage” flash suppressor. The three-prong muzzle device would catch on vegetation and gear. The three-position safety selector on M16A1 is marked “safe,” “semi-automatic” and “fully automatic.” The firing modes on the A2 are marked “safe,” “semi-automatic” and “burst.” A cleaning kit was supplied to troops, too. Will Eisner’s comic manual, The M16A1 Rifle: Operation and Preventive Maintenance, was passed out among G.I.s. With the design changes and maintenance, the reliability of the black rifle increased, and so too did our troops’ confidence with the rifle.

A short-barreled variant, the XM177 Commando, was also distributed during the Vietnam War. This rifle with a 10-inch barrel was more compact and maneuverable in thick jungle cover. The XM177 used a distinct-looking muzzle device to reduce flash and moderate sound. The carbine had a CAR adjustable buttstock, which was the precursor to the M2-style buttstock. The handguard was round. By the mid–1980s, the Marines requested extensive design changes and adopted the M16A2. Some of the requested changes were a thicker barrel with new twist-rate, new sights, different flash suppressor, brass deflector and three-round burst among others. The M16A3 is a full-auto version for use by SEAL forces.

The fourth generation M16 is the M16A4, which has a removable carry handle so optics can be mounted. It features quad rails to mount vertical grips, tactical lights and laser pointers. The M16A4 is what most U.S. troops now use and is the most modern variant.

Marines take the last objective during a simulated raid as part of urban training. These are M16A4 variants. Photo: DoD

The most current compact version is the M4 carbine with a 14.5-inch barrel that makes the weapon more easily maneuverable in vehicles and in urban combat situations such as in buildings. With the shortened barrel there are reports of less-than-stellar terminal ballistics. Remember, the platform was designed around a 20-inch barrel.

New Old Rifles

While black-rifle scholars know there were other, numerous AR models as the design was constantly tweaked, there are also black-rifle enthusiasts who covet original models and hoard original parts kits like gold. There are reproduction retro AR-15 rifles available from Brownells and Troy Industries and I have had some quality trigger time with these rifles. Brownells offers reproductions of the AR-10, AR-15, Model 601, XM16E1 and M16A1. All these rifles are true to the original models down to the fine details. They are a viable option to owning an original. Troy Industries reproduces the XM177 model and calls it the XM177E2 Commemorative. Stag Arms and Rock River Arms make versions of the M16A2.

While the Black rifle has been in use with the U.S. military for over 56 years, there is still much life left in this iconic, groundbreaking rifle design. The story of the black rifle doesn’t end here.

Editor's Note: This article is an excerpt from Gun Digest 2020, now available at

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