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America’s Rifle: The AR-15

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Commentary from Larry Vickers, C. Reed Knight Jr., and Dr. Earl Burress
Photos by James Rupley and Larry Vickers

The AR-15 has truly become “America's Rifle,” modern-day muskets that are integral to the fabric of life for American gun owners. Whether wielded by warfighters and law enforcement, or in the hands of civilians for home defense, hunting, competition, or target shooting, ARs are literally everywhere. It's reported that one of every four rifles made in the U.S. is an AR. And it's a uniquely American story — with ingenuity and innovation, missteps, continuous improvements and refinements, and its eventual ascendance to firearms behemoth.

Today, one might think of Hollywood, California, with some amount of disdain when it comes to firearms. But back in the late 1950s, Armalite's small workshop in that very town gave birth to the most adaptable and longest-lasting standard U.S. service rifle of all time. The AR-15 was based on Eugene Stoner's 7.62mm AR-10 design, utilizing the latest in materials as well as manufacturing processes. Precise manufacturing tolerances combined with steel, aluminum, and synthetic materials to create a weapon system that has become a model of modularity, versatility, and effectiveness.

After a rough start in service during the Vietnam War, the U.S. military officially adopted the AR-15 platform as the M16A1 service rifle by the end of the decade. Chambered in 5.56x45mm, it's a direct impingement gas-operated rifle. Both of these facts have generated a great deal of debate and Internet butt-hurt over the years, but the truth is that the AR platform is extremely effective and has been refined to a mirror finish. There are many very lethal 5.56mm rounds on the market now, and the modularity of the platform allows you to easily switch to many other alternative calibers. The direct impingement operating system can deliver great accuracy and shootability, but many short- and long-stroke gas piston systems and conversions are also available. The AR platform features largely unparalleled ergonomics, with well-positioned controls, conveniently configured sighting systems, amazing aftermarket triggers, and the ability to accommodate different types and sizes of shooters. And there's an enormous ecosystem of products and services supporting the huge installed base of AR-platform rifles in the U.S. and the world. ‘Merica, indeed.

Last year in Issue 22, we brought you a special look at some amazing 1911s courtesy of the Vickers Guide: 1911. If there's something even more closely associated with Larry Vickers than the 1911, it might just be the AR-15 platform. Vickers spent over two decades in special operations, including 15 years with Delta Force, deploying with different varieties of the AR platform. He's also renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge of firearms, gunsmithing, and firearms instruction.

Vickers Guide is back, with another beautiful coffee table book dedicated to the AR-15. With all the modern-day wonder guns, bristling with optics, accessories, and race parts, folks today might not be as familiar with early incarnations of the AR platform. So flip the page and enjoy some fascinating and historic rifles from the earliest days of the AR-15, with commentary from Vickers as well as industry experts C. Reed Knight Jr. of the Institute of Military Technology and Dr. Earl Burress of Tactical Applications Group. Please try not to drool on the magazine.


This is the first AR-15 ever made. We'll repeat that — this is the very first AR-15, ever. Patient zero. The granddaddy of them all. Built by Armalite before 1958, this is Experimental AR-15 Number 1, prior to Colt's involvement in the AR-15 program. On the orders of General Willard Wyman, Commanding General of the U.S. Continental Army Command, approximately 15 to 20 guns were built for initial testing.

The first AR-15 ever made. Behold its glory. Note the charging handle on the top of the upper receiver and non-adjustable rear sight.

The first AR-15 ever made. Behold its glory. Note the charging handle on the top of the upper receiver and non-adjustable rear sight.

Knight relates that the serial number, XAR1501, was derived from the following formula: eXperimentalAR15number01. Note that this particular rifle is missing the front sight and is equipped with a non-adjustable rear sight, as requested by General Wyman. The furniture was also painted with the same speckle paint used on the Armalite AR-10s.

If you look carefully at the left side of the rifle's magwell, you'll see something that's practically invisible to the naked eye in person. “AR-15 Exp. Prototype” is handwritten on the magwell. It all started here, folks.

“Hollywood” AR-10 Serial Number 1003

Five original prototypes of the Armalite AR-10 were built, with serial numbers 1001 through 1005. The one shown here is the third, serial number 1003. The serial numbers for these initial guns were derived as follows: ar10number03. So number 1003 here is the third rifle built, not the 1,003rd.

Knight explains that they were all hand-built in Armalite's workshop in Hollywood, California, thus earning the moniker, “Hollywood AR-10s,” and differentiating them from AR-10s later manufactured in other locations such as the Netherlands.

One of the five original AR-10 prototypes. It was built in Armalite's workshop in Hollywood, California.

One of the five original AR-10 prototypes. It was built in Armalite's workshop in Hollywood, California.

All five prototypes were inscribed with the large “ARMALITE” marking on the left side of the receiver. They were all used for demonstrations and originally had aluminum composite barrels. Serial number 1001 was sold to Sam Cummings at Interarms and remains with only minor modifications to its original configuration. Serial number 1002 was used in the Springfield Armory testing performed in 1957 and sports Mathewson's replacement barrel. Serial number 1003, shown here, was at Fairchild (Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation, the parent company of Armalite) and is virtually unaltered. Serial number 1004 was also tested at Springfield, fired extensively at the same time as number 1002, and later had the upper receiver replaced with a quick-change heavy barrel. 1005 was retrieved out of Europe, received additional modifications, and was the test rifle for the Dutch to build their original guns. These five guns were the very first batch of prototype hand-built guns with the unique-looking front sight tower.

Colt ACR

In the latter half of the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Defense funded the Advanced Combat Rifle program to develop a successor to the M16 platform. A primary objective of the program was to improve the hit probability of the average U.S. soldier employing the weapon, as compared to M16 variants in use at the time. Colt was one of six companies selected to participate, and the Colt ACR shown here (in its more rare carbine-length form) was their entry.

The Colt ACR experimented with a number of ergonomic changes to the M16 and is closely associated with the development of so-called “duplex” ammunition — a single cartridge containing two nested bullets, which would both be discharged down the barrel of the rifle with a single trigger pull and single recoil impulse, with the intent of increasing hit probability.

Vickers explains that the Colt ACR ultimately demonstrated that duplex ammunition fired from an M16 is nearly worthless due to unacceptable accuracy at reasonable combat distances. The effort to stabilize two relatively lightweight projectiles, each under 40 grains, out of a barrel designed to fire much heavier projectiles like the 62-grain M855 and 64-grain M856 tracer proved hopeless without a change of the barrel twist rate.


A rare carbine-length Colt ACR, with enhanced buttstock and shotgun-style sighting plane. Pictured to the right is a cutaway of the unique but ill-fated duplex ammunition.

A rare carbine-length Colt ACR, with enhanced buttstock and shotgun-style sighting plane. Pictured to the right is a cutaway of the unique but ill-fated duplex ammunition.

Additionally, the shotgun-style sighting plane on top of the handguards also wasn't sufficiently effective, with any such advantages as a rapid sighting system being completely outclassed by developments in red-dot optics to come later. As a point of comparison, Vickers himself used an Aimpoint 2000 optic on his Colt Model 723 during Operation Just Cause in December 1989 — the same time period that Colt and the U.S. Army were testing the ACR.

The program was eventually terminated in 1990, with none of the unique entrants progressing further. Vickers notes one particularly useful realization from the program — that an enhanced multi-position retractable buttstock would be advantageous. Indeed, the ACR-style buttstock lives on through a variety of manufacturers such as Lewis Machine & Tool, Knight's Armament Company, and B5. Alas, beyond that the Colt ACR has been relegated to history, with none of its other distinctive features making it past the developmental stage.

Son Tay Colt GAU-5A/A Reproduction

The Son Tay raid, code-named Operation Ivory Coast, was a groundbreaking American special operations mission conducted to rescue U.S. prisoners of war at the Son Tay camp on the night of November 21, 1970.

Dr. Burress explains: 65 American prisoners were believed to be held at the Son Tay camp, located 21 miles from the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. During the operation, a team of 56 Army personnel were inserted by helicopter and assaulted the camp. In just 29 minutes, the assault team secured the objective, cleared the prison facility, determined that there were no American prisoners present, and completed an extraction of all U.S. personnel. Though they encountered heavy resistance, no Americans were killed, whereas the North Vietnamese forces suffered an estimated 40 killed-in-action. Although considered an intelligence failure since the American prisoners had already been moved out of the camp, the raid was an operational and tactical success. Moreover, it had a strategic impact on the Vietnam War, demonstrating America's will and capability to conduct a deep strike into North Vietnam.

During the operation, American forces primarily used two versions of the GAU-5 (the Air Force designation for the Colt XM177), many of which were equipped with a Normark Singlepoint Occluded Eye Gunsight (OEG) scope. It's believed that Air Force GAU-5s were selected in lieu of Army XM177s because the mission was rehearsed near Eglin Air Force Base, Florida; thus, it may have been easier to procure Air Force weapons through the local logistics system. Though today these weapons would be considered carbines, during this period the GAU-5 and XM177 family were classified as submachine guns. The 10-inch barreled GAU-5A carbine was assembled using partial fence lowers, and the 11.5-inch barreled GAU-5A/A was constructed using full fence lowers. The lower was fitted with a slick side upper devoid of a forward assist, a barrel with a 1 in 12-inch twist rate, an XM177 moderator, and an aluminum buttstock on a two-position buffer tube.

This is a reproduction of the Colt GAU-5A/A carbine used in Operation Ivory Coast, the Son Tay raid.

This is a reproduction of the Colt GAU-5A/A carbine used in Operation Ivory Coast, the Son Tay raid.

During the mission rehearsal period between September and November 1970, the rifles were fitted with OEG red-dot optics to improve the nighttime capabilities of the ground assault force. This model Singlepoint scope (as pictured) presented the shooter with a closed black tube punctured by a 16 MOA pinhole, illuminated by a red fiber optic filament, which appeared to the shooter as a single red-dot. The weapon was aimed using the shooter's binocular vision to superimpose the red-dot, viewed by the shooter's dominant eye, over the target as viewed by the shooter's non-dominant eye. The Singlepoint was attached to the upper receiver's carrying handle using a mount that incorporated steel strap retention bands, similar to those used on the German WWII G43 ZF4 scope mount — reportedly reinforced with black electrical tape. The Son Tay Raid was the first documented example of a U.S. SOF team using a red-dot type optic in combat.

The reproduction of the Colt GAU-5A/A used in 1970 shown on the preceding page was constructed using an early 1970s upper, a barrel and lower from a mid-1990s Colt R6520, and a solid replica flash suppressor serving as a substitute for an XM177 moderator. A genuine moderator is classified as a sound suppressor/silencer by the BATFE, despite its minimal sound reduction. The replica flash suppressor is constructed to appear to be fitted with a grenade ring, designed to be used as a mount for the experimental XM148 40mm Grenade Launcher. The barrel length is a bit longer than 11.5 inches to achieve a 16.1-inch overall length with the moderator permanently attached, avoiding classification as a short-barreled rifle.

Colt AR-15 (Model 601) Serial Number 000112

This Model 601, serial number 000112, features absolutely beautiful, unpainted bakelite furniture. This is very unusual, and the fact that this rifle is the 14th Colt AR-15 Model 601 ever made just adds to the appeal. When it comes to aesthetics, Vickers considers this rifle to be at the top of the list for ARs.

This Model 601 may be one of the prettiest AR-15s ever made.

This Model 601 may be one of the prettiest AR-15s ever made.

The scope attached to this rifle is very rare in the U.S.; it's an adaptation of the same Delft scope used on the Dutch-built AR-10s. Different versions of this optic were also used on the unique Dutch variant of the FN FAL, which served as the standard service rifle in the Netherlands throughout most of the Cold War, before being replaced by Diemaco-made AR-style rifles.



Presented in a collectible 13×11-inch coffee table format, Vickers Guide: AR-15 (Volume 1) features over 70 rifles, including some of the rarest and most historically unique rifles in the AR family. Options will include a Standard Edition ($95), a signed Signature Edition ($125), and a Limited Edition Premium Version ($250), limited to just 250 copies.

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