“I want my—I want my—I want my M16!”
Okay, the British rockers Dire Straits were not singing about my favorite black gun, but they could have been, because, since the rise of the modern combat rifle with the U.S. Army’s adoption of Eugene Stoner’s ArmaLite AR-pattern rifle in the 1960s, it has become the most modified, enhanced, vilified and flat-out desired rifle in world history.
The magazine-fed battle rifle had been kicking around since the early 20th century, and development really kicked up in the 1940s with Germany’s MP44 (the direct progenitor of today’s Heckler & Koch roller-blocked rifles) and Russia’s AK-47, but those were foreign rifles. It was during the conflict in Southeast Asia that the U.S. military finally embraced the concept of a lightweight rifle that fired a lightweight, high-velocity round as a battle rifle. While combat rifles had historically been made of steel and wood, the new black rifle designs allowed the use of light materials, like aircraft-quality aluminum for the receivers, with steel relegated to fire control group internals and barrels. The poster boy for this modern battle rifle was the one that began replacing the M14 in 1962—the Colt M16.
Let’s look at that 1960s-era issue M16 so we can see just how far it’s come. The M16A1 featured an aluminum upper receiver with a molded-in carry handle that housed the rear sight. The forend was a two-piece plastic triangular affair with a hollow, plastic buttstock and pistol grip. It weighed 6 pounds when loaded, was fed by a 20-round box magazine and the barrel had both a prong flash suppressor and a 1-in-14-inch twist bore—which wasn’t enough to stabilize the 55-grain ball ammunition it was issued.
Almost immediately, improvements were heaped onto the M16 platform. It got a chrome-lined barrel, making it less likely to corrode in the damp jungles of Southeast Asia, with a faster twist rate. A variant short barrel, the XM177E2, was coupled with a collapsible stock. A “forward assist” was added on the ejection port side of the receiver that could be slammed by the heel of your palm to make sure the bolt was fully seated in the chamber. The prong flash suppressor that caught on foliage was replaced with one that resembled a birdcage. A round, ribbed handguard replaced the triangular one. The Colt rifle, now known as the M16A2, was beginning to rock.
Once the M16 and its semi-automatic civilian brother, the Colt AR-15, had gotten traction with American gun owners, there was nowhere to go but up. Every mother’s son wanted one, and every accessory and optic manufacturer wanted to make products for it. The ultimate sign of success of our home-grown black gun? Today, with the exception of England and France with their military bullpups, most of the major gun manufacturers of Europe, including HK, Sig Sauer and FN, are all making variants of “our” AR rifle.