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Early Testing of AR-15 Performance in Combat

Have you ever dug around the Defense Technical Information Center? It’s a treasure trove of declassified documents that can help you gain a better understanding of the past. This week, I’d like to share one of my favorites about the AR-15 performance testing in combat conditions.

The M-16 is one of the most tested rifles in history. The concept that eventually led to its development, known as “Small Caliber High Velocity,” started as early as the late 1800s. One of the driving ideas was that a smaller and lighter bullet moving at higher velocity would be as damaging as a full power rifle cartridge at standard combat ranges.

Keep in mind, the .30 caliber class cartridge had been standard in the US military since the Krag rifle. The 30-06 saw service in WWI, WWII, and Korea prior to the AR-15. It was a known and trusted cartridge capable of use out to 1000 yards and beyond with iron sights. Studies undertaken after WWII showed that most combat happened within 100 yards. Past 300 yards, getting shot was essentially as random as artillery or grenade blasts.

Enter the new kid

The small caliber high velocity round performed well at those combat ranges. It allowed the user to quickly and accurately make hits within that envelope, without the punishing recoil of larger calibers.

In 1959, the Army published a study titled RIFLE SQUAD ARMED WITH A LIGHTWEIGHT HIGH-VELOCITY RIFLE comparing the combat effectiveness of the new lighter rifle against the accepted M-14 with its full power 7.62 cartridge. In short, the AR-15 won. Users were very pleased with its light weight, accurate fire, and ease of use.

Combine those factors with the fact that a soldier could carry double the ammunition load for the same weight, and it was a winning mix.

The full study is about 120 pages, but I highly suggest it. Here is the abstract to get you going.

The Lightweight High-Velocity Rifle Experiment tested the performance of various-sized squads firing the M-14 rifle, caliber .30 (NATO), the Winchester lightweight rifle, caliber .224, and the Armalite lightweight rifle, caliber .222. The objectives were to determine the most effective squad size, the most desirable rifle system, the best fire technique to be used, and the optimum combination of these factors. Over 500 firing runs were made on attack and defense ranges. Fire techniques studied included all automatic, all semi-automatic, and selected combinations of automatic and semi-automatic fire. Results of the experiment indicated that a five to seven man squad equipped with a lIghtweight high-velocity rifle would have a greater target hit potential than an eleven-man squad armed with the M-14 rifle. In this analysis, the lethality of the individual rounds was assumed to be the same for the M-14 and the lightweight rifles.


The study includes the Armalite AR-15, but also something called the Winchester Lightweight Rifle. If you’ve never come across it, it was the “also ran” of the battle to replace the M-14. The Winchester Lightweight Military Rifle looks like a scaled down M-14. It weighed less than 5 lbs, which was great. But it ultimately lost to the AR-15 due to reliability concerns.

Ruger released the Mini-14 about 10 years later.

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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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I had never heard of the Winchester Lightweight Rifle. A quick google image search shows an M1-looking gun of that name in the Springfield Armory Museum website. There is a quick rundown of the gun’s history, with an interesting note at the bottom: Winchester asked to be dropped from the competition and chose not to further develop the gun. The reason given was that it would be too expensive to compete with the AR-15 (which makes sense), but it makes the minder wonder what could have been…

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