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The US Air Force: Savior of the M-16

I know I’m a little biased here, but the Air Force is pretty darn cool. It’s not just about the fast planes, missiles, and big bombs, though. Today I’m thanking the Air Force because they are the ones who brought us the M-16.

That doesn’t make any sense, right? When we last talked about the history of the M-16 and the small caliber high velocity (SCHV) program, the Army had just killed it. After almost a decade of research and development resulting in the AR-15 rifle, and rounds of testing that even demonstrated the AR-15 was a more effective combat weapon, the political forces in the Army wanted none of it.

Once again, I want to acknowledge the work of Daniel Watters and his 5.56 timeline hosted over at Loose Rounds. He provided the meat, I’m just spinning a story.

At this point in history, the fight over a new rifle is political. The ordnance department wanted the M-14 as early as 1954 because it was a product improvement on the beloved M1 Garand. Senior staff, who fought with the M1 in “their day” were inclined to go with it for the same reason.

The only group left cheering for the new rifle that science built was the Infantry Board out of Fort Benning. But it wasn’t enough.

In 1958, the Army’s Chief of Staff halted all funding into the AR-15. The M-14 would be the front life rifle, with continued research into project SALVO as a future development.

That was the end, at least for a while.


A lot of people don’t realize that Armalite was not a weapons manufacturer. The organization, formed in 1954 as a division of Fairchild Engine and Aircraft corporation, operated out of a small machine shop in Hollywood, California.

Armalite, first and foremost, was a design house for developing new and innovative weapons. The chief engineer, a Marine WWII veteran named Eugene Stoner, designed the rifles. The plan was to license these designs to other manufacturers who could mass produce them under contracts and make Armalite money through the licensing.

By the late 1950s, most attention was on the AR-15 and its big brother, the AR-10. However, with the Army’s decision in 1958, the future seemed rather bleak.

Looking for a chance to make money, a marketing & investment firm called Cooper-Macdonald saw an opportunity and connected Armalite with Colt Firearms.

If the US Army wouldn’t buy the rifles, they thought, then maybe somebody else would.

The target audience was Southeast Asia, but the problem was simple: the US wouldn’t authorize the sale of weapons to countries receiving US military assistance unless the weapons were type-designated by the US government.

In other words, Colt and Armalite couldn’t sell the AR-15 unless it was actually adopted by the US military first.

The US Air Force

Ahhh, the good old Air Force. My alma mater.

general curtis lemay
General Curtis LeMay

Curtis LeMay is a bit of a legend in the Air Force, especially within the nuclear world. During WWII, he was responsible for the planning and execution of the Tokyo firebombing campaign. He was a staunch advocate for nuclear weapons, both bombers and missile-based alike. The hard-nosed leader founded Strategic Air Command and ruled it with an iron fist prior to ascending further up the ranks.

If you’ve ever seen Dr. Strangelove, you might remember General Ripper, the source of the movie’s crisis. Ripper’s mistrust of civilian leadership, and willingness to engage in nuclear combat was similar to Curtis LeMay’s own distaste for letting politicians run a war. In fact, there was an intentional likeness in the film between Ripper and LeMay, right down to chewing on cigars.

As far as casualties were concerned I think there were more casualties in the first attack on Tokyo with incendiaries than there were with the first use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The fact that it’s done instantaneously, maybe that’s more humane than incendiary attacks, if you can call any war act humane. I don’t, particularly, so to me there wasn’t much difference.

A weapon is a weapon and it really doesn’t make much difference how you kill a man. If you have to kill him, well, that’s the evil to start with and how you do it becomes pretty secondary. I think your choice should be which weapon is the most efficient and most likely to get the whole mess over with as early as possible.

– Curtis LeMay, The World at War: the Landmark Oral History from the Classic TV Series, p. 574

By 1960, General LeMay was the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force. He had a long-standing relationship with the president of Fairchild Aircraft, Richard Boutelle. The two even went on a Safari together in 1957, an event documented by Life Magazine.

Throughout all of the back and forth within the Army, the Air Force’s base security forces were using WWII-era M2 carbines. These weapons were in dire need of replacement, and the Air Force had not settled on the M-14.

Cooper-Macdonald saw an opportunity and suggested that an AR-15 make an appearance at Richard Boutelle’s birthday party in 1960, to which Curtis LeMay was scheduled to attend. After shooting at some watermelons out to 150 yards, General LeMay was impressed enough to take up the cause.

The Second Rifle Controversy

The Air Force wanting the AR-15 presented a problem.

You see, at this point in history, the Army was solely responsible for rifle procurement across all services. In order for the Air Force to get the new rifle, the Army would have to justify why they rejected it in the first place.

The Army resisted, but it wasn’t going to hold for long. It’s one thing for Army brass to tell their own junior-ranking officers to keep quiet. It’s entirely another to try and silence Curtis LeMay, who reported to none of them and was legendary for his demanding personality.

LeMay wanted his rifle.

The argument eventually ended up in front of President John F. Kennedy in 1961, who finally told LeMay to stop bothering the Army.

But by that point, it was too late. Word had gotten out about the little rifle the Army tried to hide. The research leading to its development gained the attention of academics within the JFK administration, including Robert S. McNamara, who directed the Department of Defense’s advanced research projects agency (ARPA) to look into it earlier in 1961.

ARPA originally bought a handful of AR-15’s and sent them to South Vietnam for evaluation. Shortly after, they requested another 1,000.

Reports from the field were exceptional. The South Vietnamese troops and the American military advisors are thrilled at the capabilities of the little plastic rifle.

Vietnam Testing

South Vietnamese troops and American military advisor

The ARPA results decidedly favor the AR-15 as a combat rifle. Its light weight combined with effective ballistics is a key factor for the Vietnam battlefield and the “small-statured” combatants.

All the evidence is in place to continue the fight.

Early in 1962, McNamara established a new structure for the Army’s procurement system and dissolved the Ordnance Board along with other political animals occupying the top ranks. Later that year, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) sponsors another independent study directly analyzing the performance of AR-15 and M-14 rifles.

Seeing all of this activity, Curtis LeMay (now Chief of Staff) once again asks for his AR-15’s, and this time gets approval.

In the summer of 1962, the group of OSD analysts released their findings, known as the Hitch Report. They flatly state that the AR-15 is superior to the M-14 in every way. In the study, the M-14 failed to outperform even the AK-47.

The War Rages On

The story goes on, of course. The Army was not happy about their pet rifle receiving so much negative press. It’s only 1962, after all, and the M16 wouldn’t be fully adopted until later in 1963.

So what happened in the intervening year? Well, that’s a doozy, so stay tuned for next time.

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Matt is the primary author and owner of The Everyday Marksman. He's a former military officer turned professional tech sector trainer. He's a lifelong learner, passionate outdoorsman, and steadfast supporter of firearms culture.

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Matthew Limas
Matthew Limas

Love the history, wish this was taught in school. Please keep it coming. I may not post every time, but I read all your stuff. I appreciate you , sir. Yourself and Greg Ellifritz are my favorite firearms lifestyle writers. Your articles on marksmanship are just what I needed to make sense of all this, zero, sighting in and why, stuff. I am just a civilian and I needed to learn all of this. Just know as your researching and writing, people appreciate it.


The sheer amount of “I like this one, stop bothering me!” that went on is both fascinating and slightly depressing.

Replying to  The Marksman

I do something of a similar nature with local municipalities. Specs for projects are more than written with a solution in mind. They are written by the manufacturers and given to reps to give to engineers, ver batim, with the sole purpose of writing their competitors out of the bidding process. It’s pretty eye opening the first time you see it.


I’m sure the tests were rigged, so the AR beat the M14 “in every way”, but for fighting in SE Asia, the AR did win out.


So I carried an M16A2 in the 82nd in the ’90s, and liked it. But that was after decades of development. If I were in Nam in, say, ’67, I might be a little pissed that some POG USAF guy forced this rifle down my neck just because he liked it. Especially hearing vets talking about platoons getting ambushed and having about two working rifles. Not trying to hate too much, but that thing wasn’t ready then, clearly. The story is fascinating, keep up the good work.

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