It’s hard to believe the AR almost didn’t see the light of day. But Colt’s Manufacturing Company, either by luck or marketing savvy, transformed the AR-15 into one of the most reliable and longest-fielded combat rifles in U.S. military history. Colt has been the U.S. military’s sole manufacturer of the AR since the M16 was first deployed in the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Since then, the M16 has gone through several evolutions, with the M16A4 being the fourth generation of the series. The M4 Carbine, a shortened version of the M16 that employs a 14.5-inch barrel, is probably the most-fielded variant among military and law enforcement personnel. Designed for use in tight quarters, like the confines of a vehicle, the M4 is more maneuverable than the longer M16 variants.
Colt’s commercial rifles for sporting use run the gamut from civilian versions of the M4, to hunting variants in camo finishes, to tricked-out rifles for 3-Gun and match competition. Colt recently upped its game with a modular AR that’s capable of changing calibers, from .308 to .223, through the use of proprietary monolithic uppers.
During a recent tour of Colt’s facility in Hartford, Connecticut, I observed traditional, old-school machining alongside high-tech, cutting-edge robotics. Of course, Colt manufactures a range of firearms, from traditional Single Action Army revolvers and 1911 pistols to advanced AR-15 rifles. The CNC machines bridge the gap between the old tooling used to do specialized machining on Single Action Army revolvers and the fast-moving robotic arms that machine metal chips from aluminum forgings to create monolithic upper receivers.
Colt was there when the U.S. military wrote the mil-spec on AR rifles. Parts go through an extensive testing process to ensure that the rifles on the front lines will perform in any environment they face. Part of the government’s approval process involves arbitrarily choosing a number of weapons, completely stripping them down, mixing up the parts and reassembling the rifles. If they function, the lot is accepted. Colt applies its mil-spec experience and know-how to commercial versions as well, offering civilian-ready AR-15s that can be categorized into three variant types: personal defense, hunting and competition.