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Colt 601: The AR-15 Becomes a Military Rifle


Hi guys, thanks for tuning in to another
video on ForgottenWeapons.com. I’m Ian McCollum, and I’m here today at Movie Armaments Group in Toronto where we are taking a look at the early development of the M16 rifle from the AR-15 rifles. Specifically we are looking at this through the ownership of Colt. So our story starts a bit earlier, in fact this actually starts with the ArmaLite AR-10, which we have an example of here. This is an early pattern of AR-10 and this was ArmaLite’s main product at this point. We’re talking the late 1950s, like 1958-59 here. This is what ArmaLite was really trying to sell. The Army was looking at testing small calibre, high velocity rifles, and Winchester had proposed one, in a .224 calibre. Someday we’ll get a chance to do a video on one of those. And ArmaLite decided to enter a scaled-down
version of the AR-10 into that trial, and it was the AR-15. Now the AR-15 that ArmaLite sent into that
trial has a lot of similarities to the AR-10 here. It had this trigger style of charging handle in the
carry handle, it had a one-piece tubular handguard. And these are a couple of the main elements that testing
in 1958 would come back and suggest should be changed, and those changes led to the first of the
rifles that we’re really looking at today. However at this point, of course the rifle is owned by ArmaLite,
ArmaLite is a division of the Fairchild Aircraft Company, and Fairchild is in serious financial trouble. Their rifle division is kind of small potatoes
on the side and the President, Richard Boutelle, was really taking a lot of heat from
his board over the amount of money that they had been dumping into this rifle
project that didn’t seem to be making progress. The United States military had rejected the AR-10
as a service rifle, so that wasn’t going to happen. And now … they have … a licensing arrangement with
AI in the Netherlands to actually produce the rifles, maybe that’ll make some money – maybe it won’t. The people running the company at Fairchild
really aren’t convinced that anything is coming here, and they want to cut strings and just be done with this rifle
thing. It’s not their core business and they don’t like it. So in 1959 they actually finalise an agreement to sell
the licensing rights to the AR-15 to the Colt company. Now Colt at this point is also … like teetering on the edge
of bankruptcy itself, but they get a pretty darn good deal. This … deal is brokered by a Baltimore
company called Cooper-Macdonald, and the result of the deal is that Cooper-
Macdonald gets paid a quarter million dollars for arranging it and they get a 1% royalty on AR-15 sales. Specifically actually sales of any rifle based on the AR-15 gas
system, so this this would apply to both the AR-10 and the AR-15. And remember this is before some of the major production of
AR-10s, like before the Portuguese contracts for the AR-10s. Anyway, that’s what Cooper-
Macdonald gets, and then Colt, Colt pays ArmaLite a whopping 75,000 dollars for the rights
to the AR gas system along with a 4.5% royalty on future sales, So with that deal struck and in hand ArmaLite
is pretty much out of the rifle business. Now they would go on to try and
come up with something else to sell and that would be the AR-180, or AR-18,
but that’s outside the scope of today’s video. Instead we’re going to be looking at
what Colt did once they had this guy. And of course, yeah, one of the things
they did was they made it green. So one of the first things that happened was a guy named Robert
Macdonald, or Bobby Macdonald, who was part of Cooper-Macdonalds who had arranged this sale to Colt and who
had a … financial interest in sales of the gun, he set off on basically an Asian tour
demonstrating ArmaLite rifles. He had an AR-10 and an AR-15
and he wanted to drum up interest. Of course they pretty much know the US
military’s not going to be buying the guns and they want to get military sales, that’s
why they’ve got this thing in the first place. And what Macdonald finds is that the
AR-15 is far more popular than the AR-10. Now he’s kind of a specialist in Asian countries and Asian
militaries at the time, and that’s why he went over there, but he’s demonstrating this to countries like
Malaysia, Burma, the Philippines, India, Thailand and all of these guys love the AR-15. In fact, they like
it so much that at one point while he’s in the Philippines he actually gives away all his remaining
7.62 NATO ammo, like 8,000 rounds of it, because he just doesn’t need it. No one
wants the AR-10. So he finishes this tour, he actually manages to make a couple of small sales to
Malaysia and India. Both buy a couple dozen rifles for testing. And he calls back up, or cables, Colt (of
course you know there’s no email, this is 1959), he mails Colt to see what they’re doing, and
Colt’s getting ready to tool up to make the AR-10. And Macdonald convinces them not to. In fact as a direct result
of talking to him they scrap their plans to tool up the AR-10. And instead they focus on the AR-15 because this is
the rifle that really has the future potential, he thinks. And of course he would turn out to be right. Now if you’re thinking about this
story, you’re probably still wondering how did Colt go from selling 25 rifles to India
to becoming the standard US military arm. The M14 is in production at this point,
literally it’s finally gotten into production. They’ve spent just an enormous amount
of money getting the M14 tooled up. There has been this protracted fight with NATO
about standardising on the 7.62 NATO cartridge. How does that all disintegrate and turn into an, “Oops, we decided we want a different cartridge
and this small lightweight, you know, 6 pound rifle.” Well, it actually started with the Air Force. So Richard Boutelle, who was president of
Fairchild, was good buddies with Curtis LeMay, who happened to be Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and had a
long and illustrious career in World War Two with the Air Force. LeMay was having a birthday party and set up a bunch
of shooting to do, and Boutelle talked to him about “Hey, we got this cool new rifle.” And he ended up
agreeing to take a look at this rifle at his birthday party. So Bobby Macdonald … the sales rep here who’d brokered
the deal between Colt and ArmaLite, he shows up at LeMay’s birthday with an AR-15. And they set out some
watermelons and they blow up a couple of watermelons with it. And LeMay is extremely impressed. This is a
very handy rifle, it’s lightweight, it’s easy shooting. … Of course because it has early, you know, 55 grain tumbling
ammunition it makes a gigantic mess out of the watermelons. This isn’t really indicative of what it would
do to people, but doesn’t matter, it’s … you know the same way that people love
watching watermelons blow up on YouTube today is exactly what LeMay did. He looked
at it and went, “Ah, that’s pretty cool.” So. And as it happened the Air Force was
an independent entity from the Army. And at this point the Air Force doesn’t really
have infantry, but it does have security troops for guarding air bases and missile
installations and all this sort of stuff. And at this point these guys are all armed with
M2 carbines. Well, the M2 carbine has been … taken out of front-line service
by the Army in favour of the M14. That’s one of the things the M14 is supposed
to do is replace a bunch of these guns. So there aren’t really good stockpiles of
spare parts in the Army for the M2 carbine, and the Air Force is figuring well
it’s going to need to do something, and LeMay figures the AR-15 is an excellent
replacement for all of his guy’s M2 carbines. And this ends up being the little wedge through which Colt is
able to work its way into the entire US military establishment. As a result of this demo LeMay
requests a formal test by the US military, and that request is what forces Aberdeen Proving
Grounds to actually do a formal assessment of this rifle. They had previously rejected it on the basis
that the Army wasn’t looking for this gun, so they don’t want to bother testing it. Well once LeMay
requests it for the Air Force, now it has to be done. And it’s … that series of testing that would
reveal how good of a rifle this really was. In July of 1960 LeMay formally recommended
the AR-15 for use by the Air Force and requested purchase of a whole bunch of them. This request would get delayed or rejected twice before
on the third time it was finally approved in mid-1962. And by that point it was actually approved
as part of a larger requisition of AR-15s so that a bunch of them could be sent to Vietnam. Because
that’s the second key in what got the AR-15 adopted by the US. Robert McNamara, brought in by President Kennedy,
was not a big fan of the US Ordnance Department. He saw them basically as a bunch of entrenched bureaucrats,
old traditionalist stuff, they didn’t know what they were doing, they didn’t understand how to properly and efficiently
run the military. And so his guys could do a lot better. In fact, he would end up shutting down the
Ordnance Department and gutting it completely. As part of that they started
looking at what rifle can we give to … … What sort of arms are we providing to our
allies in South Vietnam as military assistance? And well the answer was M1 Garands and BARs
and Thompson submachine guns and Grease Guns. Mostly big, heavy, hard-hitting rifles that for smaller,
shorter Asian soldiers were actually not convenient, not the best thing to put out there. And the
ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, decided that it wanted to experiment
with AR-15s in Southeast Asia. And so this led to what was called Project
Agile, which was … a field testing regime of new arms with South Vietnamese troops
under US advisement in South Vietnam. And that would result in a lot of AR-15s being shipped
over there to an extremely enthusiastic response. So moving forward slightly, by 1963 the M14
… program is officially and conclusively terminated. The Army doesn’t have enough of them and the plan is by
1965 Project SPIW, the Special Purpose Infantry Weapon, will have created on timetable (because we’ve
written it out in the schedule, therefore it will happen…), SPIW will have created basically
a super wonder weapon that will double the hit probability of
all previously existing infantry rifles. It will have grenade launchers. It will have burst firing. It will
have flechettes. It will be fantastic. It’ll solve all our problems. And the Army could just like get by with whatever for
the two years until this … fancy new rifle came on-line. By the way, the fancy new rifle would never come on-line. We’ll do some coverage of some of the
SPIW prototypes later on. They were highly optimistic, and none of them really came
close to being suitable for large-scale use. In the meantime we need some more rifles. And this wedge that the AR-15 has opened
in the US military gets pried open a little more, and the US Army agrees to purchase a batch of 85,000
AR-15/M16 rifles under the guise that this is a one-time thing. Like, all we need is enough guns to tide us
over between the end of M14 production (the premature end, before enough of
them are produced to fully equip the Army), and the beginning of when we’ve got this SPIW rifle. Now from there the story becomes kind of obvious.
SPIW fell apart completely, went nowhere. And the AR-15 now, “Ah well look, now we’ve got them. We’ve
got tens of thousands of ARs. The guys in Vietnam love them.
[Note that this is before the malfunction scandal that would come later in Vietnam.]
They’re light, they’re handy.” You know, at this point it becomes
the obvious choice for the new standard Army rifle. So, let’s go ahead now and take a look at
the first couple of iterations of the AR-15, because what we’ve got here, this green furniture
guy, this is a Colt Model 601, or Model 01. It’s the very first … model that Colt produced. They’re extremely rare, only 300 of these were made
in the first place, and it’s got some really cool features that would be very quickly changed on the early XM16 rifles. Alright, so what is this green thing here? Well hey, it’s
the ’60s: pastel colors are super-cool, they’re totally in. At any rate technically what we have here is a Colt Model 601. … Basically this is Colt’s version of the AR-15 before
it achieved any US military contracts, any sales. So this pre-dates the M16, and that green furniture was there
because they thought it would be a better marketing thing. Markings on the side here, we have Colt Patent
Firearm Manufacturing Company, Hartford, of course. By this time we have the standard selector
settings that we would be used to here. This is something that was changed … like 1959, right in between
ArmaLite and Colt, or right at the end of ArmaLite having the rifles. Originally, it actually had safe in the top, auto in
front, and semi in back, but that’s gone by now. Here are our magazine well markings, there’s obviously
the Colt prancing pony. And note that this is made by Colt but it still has an ArmaLite name on it, because they
were licensing this. They were paying royalties to ArmaLite. And it’s still patent pending at this point. Calibre is
.223, and this is a Model 01, serial number 1694. The first 300 of these were made in December of ’59. Another thousand or two would follow after that
before they actually got into US military sales. At this point the magazine for the
gun has been changed to aluminium. This is another one of the changes that
occurred right before ArmaLite sold out to Colt. They had originally a 25 round straight magazine, and they went to an aluminium waffle
pattern magazine to make it stronger, and reduced the capacity to 20 to make it
more reliable and to make it lower to the ground. 30 round magazines wouldn’t
come until well into the Vietnam War. We’ve got the same sort of markings
here on the floor plate of the magazine with made by Colt but also with ArmaLite’s
trademark on there and calibre .223. So we’ll go over all of these features compared
to how they were altered for the Army contracts, but just to point out: smooth-sided receiver,
we have the triangular charging handle, we have no deflector or forward assist, the handguards
are of course green, they’re a two piece handguard, we have this open 3 prong flash hider, adjustable front sight, bayonet lug. Everything else here is pretty much
what you would expect for an early M16. Now the first big military order comes in November of 1963. And that’s going to be 85,000 rifles for the Army and
the Marine Corps and another 19,000 for the Air Force. Now there had been a lot of negotiating,
debating, fighting back and forth about different features on the rifle
and testing and all sorts of stuff. And the Army finally put its foot down on one
particular change, and that is the forward assist here. So what we have here is one of the Air Force
rifles. This would be designated the M16. This is one of the Army rifles which would be
designated the XM16E1, and that had a forward assist. We’re all used to the forward assist today because
it’s become a totally standard feature on the AR-15, but until the Army insisted on it here in ’63, it didn’t exist. When they did insist on it they actually took some
time to try and figure out the best way to do it. What the Army wanted was some sort of bolt closure device,
they wanted to be able to physically push the bolt forward. When the FAL had been in testing this
was actually one of the complaints about it, was it didn’t have any way to push the bolt forward. So Gene Stoner, Eugene Stoner I should say, was
not a big fan of this. In fact, I can quote from him his response was to say, quote, “In my opinion in all the development, and I tested this
weapon in India and Europe and all over the United States, I was on many testing programs, I never saw
an instance where it would have done any good under sand and mud and every
type of firing condition in the world. I was always afraid of the bolt closure device myself
because when you get a cartridge that won’t seat in a rifle and you deliberately drive it into the chamber
usually you’re buying yourself more trouble. The thing that I always thought of was
immediate action to get that cartridge out and to find out what the trouble
was rather than jam it in and fire it.” So the Air Force was quite happy not having a forward assist,
but the Army insisted and thus we got the forward assist. Note that this one has the early teardrop shape to it.
This would later be replaced by a round button. So the forward assist is the thing that would
distinguish the Air Force rifles from the Army ones. And of course the Army rifle pattern would
become far more prolific in the long term. However, there were 10 or 11 other changes
that were made between this very early Colt commercial rifle and the first
military pattern. So let’s go through those. The first one, which you can obviously see here, is a change
in colour from green to just straight black … for the furniture. There was a change to the charging handle shape. On
the 601 here you can see that we have a relatively small little triangular charging handle, not a whole lot
of space to grip on it there. And so that would be redesigned as the standard pattern that we know to this day,
which has much bigger finger grasping sections on it. Not exactly the world’s most substantial change, but the sling swivels
were rubber coated. The original 601s are just plain bare metal. The bolt release lever was redesigned. So this is the 601, that has just this really small
little area here to manually lock the bolt open. That was changed to add this larger button to
make it easier to manually lock the bolt open. The profile of the flash hider was changed
from the 601 here to the early M16 here. Still an open flash hider, the birdcage would
come later, but they did change the profile there. The front receiver connecting pin was changed. So
on the original 601s it’s a little bit different shape, and it’s not retained. So when you take it out,
it just comes out as a separate stand-alone pin. On the M16 they changed the profile
a bit, and this is now a retained pin. So it’s got a little detent in it, and when you pull it out it
stays connected to the receiver so that it can’t be lost. The receiver design changed a little bit. You’ll notice
on the 601 here this is a completely flat sided receiver and it leaves the magazine
release button totally exposed here. And it should be fairly obvious that
this would become a problem, that this was liable to being bumped
and unintentionally dropping magazines. On the military contract they started to remediate that by
adding this extended section up here on the top of the receiver. So also a slight change, there was a centre hole in
the magazine release button before and now it’s solid. This by the way in collector parlance
today is called a “partial fence” receiver. And lastly they were having some troubles
occasionally with slam fires in the 601. So this is a 601 firing pin here, and in the military
pattern they decided to reduce the mass of the firing pin so it would have less inertia
when you dropped the bolt home, and they solved the slam fire problem in the process. And you can
see they took a bunch of material out, so this is the M16 firing pin. Here is our 601 bolt carrier group disassembled. Note that of course it doesn’t have the serrations
in the side because it doesn’t have a forward assist. We’ve got the larger firing pin. I think it’s interesting
to note that they weren’t using cotter pins at this point, they had actually a machined pin here.
This one’s gotten a little squished at the end, but this took the place of the cotter
pin in here holding the firing pin in place. And the whole thing is hard
chromed for better reliability. And lastly, at the time of this contract the very familiar pattern
magazine replaced the original waffle pattern magazines. Lastly, just because it’s here and they’re so
really quite rare, I want to show you guys this is the original Colt commercial bayonet. Remember, of course, they were marketing the 601 as a
military rifle overseas and so of course it needs a bayonet. So this is obviously styled after
the standard US military bayonet. It attaches the same way, couple of spring
clamps back there, but it has a green handle and it has Colt and ArmaLite markings on the blade. Really cool, these are quite scarce to find. So I’d like to give a big thanks to Movie
Armaments Group for giving me the opportunity to take a look at not just their Colt 601 here, but also
the other very early Colt M16s that you saw in this video. Those are not exactly growing on trees any more, so it’s
awesome to be able to see them all together in one place here. Obviously this is hardly the end
of the story for the AR-15/M16. There are … subjects for so many other
videos on this topic about this rifle’s development, and we’ll touch on those later on as the opportunities arise.
Things like the early ammunition controversies and issues, taking a look at some of the very first ArmaLite
guns that were basically scaled down from the AR-10, and then of course looking at how this rifle would
go on to be changed and adopted by the US military. Well, changed by the US military. So there’s a lot more to cover still.
Hopefully you guys enjoyed this video, and thanks for watching.

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