Is there anything more patently patriotic than an Air Force flyover? Think about it. Whether at a big game or Fourth of July celebration, seeing jets scream across the sky in tight formation just gives me goosebumps.
So, I guess it’s apropos that the Air Force led the way towards adoption of the AR-15, M16, M4 and all the other variants. You see, back in 1954 one Eugene Stoner, chief engineer for Armalite, a division of Fairchild Engine and Aircraft Corporation, met George Sullivan, chief patent counsel for Lockheed Aircraft.
Sullivan in particular had this weird idea to use advanced plastics and aluminum alloys in weapons design. The two men shared much enthusiasm over the possibilities. Over the next two years, the Air Force tasked Armalite to develop a light and compact survival rifle that would float—that’s a handy feature when ejecting over water. This put some distinct objectives, and dollars, behind the idea of: “What can we do with plastics and alloys in firearms design?”
Anyway, this weapons work funded by the Air Force arguably shaped Armalite’s thinking when the Army began a search for a rifle to replace in the M1 Garand starting in 1955. While the AR-10 submitted by Armalite didn’t float, it used plastic and alloys like the Air Force AR-5 Survival Rifle, so it was 3 pounds lighter than competing entries. This allowed users to carry more critical supplies, like ammo and beef jerky.
Fast forward some years, and while the Army requested development of a lighter version of the AR-10, hence the AR-15, it was the Air Force that placed an early order for 8,500 of the rifles. The Air Force liked it, renamed their version to the M16 and standardized on the new rifle.
Not to be outdone, the Army placed an order for 85,000 of the new firearms. Thus began the transition to the M16 and its variants, arguably led by the guys and girls who do patriotic flyovers. What’s more American than that?
There are few absolutely unique innovations in small arms design, but the direct gas operation of the AR-15 was a clear differentiating point between America’s rifle and those fielded by the bad guys. And guess what happens when all those M16 and M4 carriers muster out and want to buy a civilian rifle? Just as with previous classics like the Springfield 1903, they’ll tend to opt for the familiar and buy an AR-15, which, as it turned out, was made available to civilians at the same time the U.S. military bought the internally very different M16—that too is historically in keeping with American firearms design.
Today, when push comes to shove, if something is going to be deemed “America’s Rifle,” there’d better be a lot of them. It is estimated there are now more than 16 million AR-15-type rifles in American civilian hands.
On a related note, America is all about freedom, including freedom of choice. Yes, the AR-15 is a rifle, but practically speaking, it’s a category. It’s a platform. It’s a universe of variants and compatible accessories. In a sense, it’s like a pickup truck—another uniquely American thing. Lots of companies make them, and even more companies make gear and accessories. That means that buyers have choice in exactly how their rifle will look and be equipped. Want a small one? No problem. Want a light one? Easy. Want one painted up with Hello Kitty graphics? I’m sadly confident someone has done it.