By Scott Stoppelman
The history of the company now known as ArmaLite Inc., of Geneseo, Illinois is a long and somewhat convoluted one. Established first as a division of Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation in 1954, the company would change hands several times before becoming ArmaLite again in 1995. Current owner Mark Westrom bought out Eagle Arms which was already making AR15 type rifles and parts one year earlier, then acquired the ArmaLite name from John Ugarte, a previous President of ArmaLite. Thus rifles with the ArmaLite name began production in 1995 and Eagle Arms then became a division of ArmaLite Inc.
In the years between these events the company had gone through all manner of trials and tribulations with the AR5 and AR7 Air Force Survival Rifle, then the AR10 and what would become the AR15 rifles. The AR7 is now made by Henry Arms and was previously licensed to Charter Arms.
The rifle we know today as the AR15 or M16 began as a design by Eugene Stoner who was ArmaLite’s Chief Engineer in 1954. The forerunner of the AR15 was the AR10 in 7.62 NATO, similar gun just on a larger scale.
All attempts to sell the AR10 to the U.S. Government failed in part because it was bucking the government’s own Springfield Armory, (not the current commercial company), which was offering the T44, a modified M1 Garand which fired the new 7.62 NATO round from a 20 round box magazine. This rifle was adopted in 1959 as the M14. AR10s were made here and abroad in small numbers and used by a couple of governments, in particular the Dutch, but it never achieved any hoped for sales goals.
Development of the AR15 rifle began in 1956 and was then licensed to Colts Patent Firearms Manufacturing Co. in 1959. To this day, Colt retains the AR designation on their commercial rifles. AR stands not for “Assault Rifle” as some think but rather for “ArmaLite Rifle”.
Seeing that Colt was getting a lot of sales with their design, ArmaLite set out to design another rifle to compete head-on with the AR15. This project, the AR18, began life in 1963. The gas system which Colt now held rights to had to be redesigned and the receiver material was sheet metal instead of forged aluminum. It would be chambered in the .223/5.56 NATO round as was the AR15. The AR18 series guns were designed so that simple sheet metal stamping processes could be used for most of the parts.
The AR18 was made in several factories around the world and stateside, but again wasn’t adopted by the U.S. forces, the target buyer. A commercial semiautomatic-only version, the AR180, was made in greater numbers than the AR18 but, once more did not live up to expectations. The revived AR180 is listed as a production item in the current ArmaLite catalog along with the M15 and AR10 series rifles.
M16 VS M14
The Air Force adopted the M16 first in 1963 and was followed by the Army when 85,000 rifles were ordered. Early Army rifles were issued to various special category troops initially in Vietnam. It was classified Standard A in 1965 and became the military’s issue service rifle.
It began to replace the M14 rifle which, while a perfectly good battle rifle, was considered by some to be outdated and in need of replacement. Some controversy followed the M16 program for a while. The rifle was plagued early on with problems in the field. The biggest problems seemed to stem from a change in the powder used in the ammunition which created very bad fouling in the gas tube. Coupled with the lack of a cleaning program, the fouling problem created jams; lots of them. The troops soon were berating the M16 and screaming for the return of the M14 which, if nothing else, was a reliable rifle. When the problem was discovered it was soon alleviated using the proper powder in the ammo and the institution of a cleaning program amongst the troops.
Some troops felt that the M14, while maybe heavier and more cumbersome than the M16, was also a better battle rifle. They pointed to the larger caliber and heavier bullet as proof. It was all for naught as the M14’s day was done and the M16 was here to stay. It’s interesting to note that despite the destruction of untold thousands of M14 rifles by the federal government over the years, it is still in use by our armed forces usually in a sniper or reserve capacity.
The M15A2 Service Rifle as currently manufactured by ArmaLite, is the subject rifle of this piece. The M15 as offered comes in five different models with four of them having a carbine version.
The models are comprised of the Service Rifle, Target, Special Purpose Rifle (SPR), National Match, and the SOF, or Special Operations Forces model: a carbine.
Barrels in the M15 lineup are listed as heavy, measuring .9 inches under the hand guards and are either stainless steel or chrome lined, chrome-molybdenum steel. Stainless is standard in the Match, SPR11 and Target models, while chrome-moly is standard in the Service, SPR and carbine models. In their “Eagle” line, barrels come standard in chrome-moly steel without the chrome lining.
Barrel twists offered are either 1:8 or 1:9 inches. Either will do very well depending on the particular weight of bullet that one wishes to shoot. If the shooter doesn’t intend to shoot bullets heavier than 69-grains, the 1:9 twist works quite well. If, on the other hand, one wants to shoot the really heavy stuff for long range shooting like that required for 600 to 1,000 yard competition with bullets of up to 80-grains or so, then the 1:8 twist is the ticket. The heavy bullets won’t stabilize as well in the slower 1:9 twist. The National Match version comes standard with the 1:8 twist.
All barrels are lapped; three times for the stainless barrels and twice for the chrome-moly. The chrome- moly barrels are chrome lined afterwards for maximum protection of the steel. Many military service rifles have their barrels and chambers chrome lined and that is often used as a reason for less than sterling accuracy. Lest one think that the chrome lining is a detriment to the accuracy potential of these rifles, it is not. The accuracy guarantee for the Service Rifle is listed as one and one half to two inches group size at 100 yards. Some military ball loads shoot like that in my rifle, some better. Handloads are another story entirely. The Match and Target versions are guaranteed to shoot one minute of angle, or MOA. Not having done a large amount of load development with this rifle, mostly because it wasn’t necessary, I’ve discovered that this rifle really likes Hornady’s 60-grain V-Max and Nosler’s 55-grain Ballistic-Tip. The single smallest ten shot group I’ve ever fired with any rifle was with this rifle. That group measured .670 inch for ten consecutive shots fired at 100 yards, handheld from sandbags. So much for the chrome-lining myth. While a group like that wont get a bench rester very excited, it is very good for a rack grade service rifle. Of course the group was fired using a scope. In this case a forty dollar scope mounted in a ten dollar mount on the carry handle.
The M15 series rifles are really not much different than anybody else’s AR type rifles except perhaps in cosmetic details. AR rifles have been in production for around 40 years now and most of the bugs have been worked out of the design by now. Most anybody’s AR should be accurate and reliable.
Nevertheless, one ArmaLite feature not found on many other ARs is the adjustable front sight base. They use machine screws instead of pins to secure the base to the barrel. By this method, it is possible to rotate the base left or right to help zero the front sight to maximize windage adjustment with the rear sight. Some have opined that this leads to the potential of a loosening front sight base. This is certainly possible, but has not been a problem thus far with this rifle. The front sight itself is the typical A2 style post which is height adjustable by means of rotating the post’s base either with a bullet tip or a tool just for this purpose.
Of the metallic sight models ArmaLite offers, the A2 type is standard. The A2 system was adopted by the military around twenty years ago or so and offers easier and greater adjustment. Other models use the flat top or Picatinny base for Weaver style rings, which results in a lower mounting of the scope. A scope can be mounted to the carry handle of course, but it places it so high that it is hard to get a good view in the scope. Thus, some form of comb raiser must be utilized. There are several models available for varying cost. Any should work about equal. Of course with the flat top model one can mount a removable carry handle as easily as a scope. This might be the best of both worlds.
The M15A2 Service Rifle I purchased is the basic model. As such, it comes with a single-stage trigger that worked OK, but I later replace it with one of ArmLite’s own two-stage match triggers. This trigger is more in keeping with the nature of the rifle, and more like what I’m used to when firing a military type rifle.
Stocks can be had in standard black or green or, as an extra cost option, camouflage. The contrast between the all black metal and the green furniture is very attractive.
The rifle I bought came with a ten round magazine as required by the now expired magazine ban. New rifles will no doubt ship with a twenty round magazine. The magazine supplied is steel, which according to some, can be problematic. However, I have had no trouble so far and in fact ordered a couple more.
The pistol grip is standard A2 style with the open bottom and the little gap between the grip and trigger guard.
All M15 receivers are forged high-tensile 7075 T-6 aluminum with a hard coat anodize finish for both upper and lower. Some makers offer a cast lower receiver as a lower cost option. They work fine but are usually considered less desirable than forged.
ArmaLite offers barrels either with or without a “recoil check” on the end. The check does a good job of reducing the already light recoil of the .223 but the tradeoff, as with all “brakes,” is increased muzzle blast.
All other features are pretty much standard A2 meaning the rifle sports the round hand guards, shell deflector, the “fence” around the magazine release button, forward assist, and the A2 rear sight which uses an L-flip peep with a .043inch aperture for a finer sight picture, and a larger .050 inch peep for close range work.
.223 Remington/5.56 NATO
The cartridge in question began life according to most sources as a developmental round to go with the Stoner design AR15, later M16 rifle. This was in the late 1950s. According to Frank Barnes in “Cartridges of the World”, the round may actually have been the brainchild of one Robert Hutton, a writer on the staff of Guns and Ammo magazine. As the story is told, he was helping the Army make the .222 Remington Magnum a better fit for the AR and the result was the .223 Remington. Whichever story is most true, the Army, after the Air Force, adopted the cartridge around 1964-65, again depending on sources, as the 5.56 NATO for the M16 rifle as made at the time by Colt. The original loading was designated the M193 Ball cartridge and was loaded with a 55-grain FMJ bullet at around 3,200 feet per second.
One month before the U.S. Army adopted the round, Remington embraced it as their own and called it the .223 Remington. It was, after all, based on two earlier Remington rounds, the .222 and .222 Remington Magnum.
History would seem to indicate that whenever a military round is adopted as a sporting round, the commercial version will be quite successful, witness this round as well as the .308Win./7.62 NATO and the .30-06.
Original twist rates were 1:12 in the AR and sometimes as slow as 1:14 in some rifles. Today the standard twist seems to be 1:12 in bolt action rifles and anywhere from 1:7 to 1:10 in AR rifles, with 1:9 probably the most common. There are some custom barrels with a 1:6.5 twist. Some time ago it was discovered that when using soft point bullets with 1:7 twist at high velocity, some bullets actually came apart before reaching the target because of excessive rotational velocity due to the quick twist. With the proper bullet, velocity and twist, this should not be a problem.
Shooting the M15A2 Service Rifle
Most of my load development has been done with a scope mounted in a simple mount that screws into the carry handle as it was designed for. I then use a comb raiser to get my eye in line with the scope.
I have been buying Black Hills “blue box” ammunition primarily for the excellent Lake City brass that it is loaded with. Most any commercial brass should work fine of course, but good results have been achieved with the Lake City brand. I also have a small supply of Winchester “white box” ball ammo on hand as well as some PMP ball from South Africa. Recently, I also acquired a supply of Federal ball 55-grain FMJ loads using LC brass that shoots quite well for mil-spec.
Handloading for the .223 is of course as easy as any bottleneck cartridge as long as the correct components are assembled in a reasonably careful fashion. The ten shot group mentioned earlier was fired with a load consisting of 26-grains of Hodgdons Varget powder, Lake City brass of 90s vintage, either CCI400 small rifle primers or some new Russian primers that seem to show great potential. Overall length was 2.25 inches. The bullet used was the Hornady 60-grain V-Max. Good groups with this bullet have also been achieved using Reloder 15 and IMR 4895. There is any number of suitable components to make accurate, functional loads for the AR, and the shooter would do well to experiment with them. Powders in the medium burn rate range are most suitable in the AR as is the case with many self-loaders, due to a need for the correct pressure curve to operate the action properly and not damage the rifle’s components. I use standard RCBS dies with the exception of the small base sizing die used to ensure smooth and trouble-free chambering.
Take Down and Cleaning
The ArmaLite M15A2 takes down for cleaning like any other AR type rifle. Pushing the rear take-down pin through the lower receiver will allow the upper receiver to hinge open to allow removal of the bolt carrier group and charging handle. One of the great things about this design is that it allows the weapon to be cleaned from the breech. Earlier service rifles like the M1 Garand and the M14 and even the M1 Carbine all have closed receivers and must be cleaned from the muzzle, which risks damaging the critical crown area with the cleaning rod.
Detail stripping of the bolt for cleaning may not be necessary after every shoot unless using dirty ammo or firing many rounds downrange. One other part of the system that requires at least periodical cleaning is the gas tube. Long gas tube cleaners that resemble pipe cleaners can be acquired from MidwayUSA and other suppliers just for this purpose. Just keep in mind that a dirty gas tube can affect function of the rifle.
The AR rifle design has been with us now for roughly 40 years giving it the distinction of being our country’s longest serving issue service rifle. It has acquitted itself in battle from Vietnam to the current wars going on in Afghanistan and Iraq.
For the shooter of competitive matches, the AR15/M16 dominates the Service Rifle category, which was for years the domain of the M1A/M14 rifles. In its early years on the match scene, it struggled until it could get a long, heavy bullet down to the 600 yard target in small groups. As another writer once put it, it went from being “the rifle you couldn’t win with, to the rifle you can’t win without.”
The AR rifles, beyond being a serious competition and service rifle, are just plain fun to own and shoot. Light recoil and inherent accuracy make for a fun day shooting whether at bulls eye targets or plinking at rocks and cans at long distance. Ammunition is in abundance and often inexpensive. The quality of both ammo and guns continues to improve.
This design has another advantage not present in others. That is the ability to exchange uppers. The AR, having both an upper and lower receiver, can have its upper easily removed and replaced with another, that is perhaps more suitable for a different task. Even calibers can be changed in some cases.
Whether on the battlefield or the shooting range, the AR15/M16 is America’s premier Service Rifle.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V8N5 (February 2005)|