Airing out history Part 1
Comparing time, technology and the M1 vs. the M16
By Dennis Adler
The real world of firearms and the world of airguns are overlapping more and more these days, and comparisons cannot help but be made between CO2 powered arms and their contemporary centerfire counterparts. We also know that historic firearms have been recreated to match their vintage centerfire predecessors, like the Broomhandle Mauser and WWII-era Colt Model 1911A1. This particular comparison has, in fact, been made many times in the world of centerfire arms, pitting the legendary American light rifle of WWII, Korea and Vietnam, against its successor, the M16/AR-15.
The transition from the M1 Carbine and M14 to the M16, took place during the Vietnam War, so the M1 was in the fight as well. Along with variations of the M16, like the M14 Carbine (same military nomenclature as the Garand-based M14 that preceded it), these modern guns have been compared in numerous articles and videos to the WWII M1 Carbine and later M14. Now, with the introduction of the Springfield Armory CO2 version of the M1, the wood-stocked .177 caliber semiautomatic light rifle allows that same comparison to be drawn with M16/AR-15-style CO2 models. History repeats itself in many ways.
In my recent review of the Air Venturi Springfield Armory M1 Carbine, I went into the development of the design during the 1940s, and also touched on the select-fire version and later M14. The origins of the M16/AR-15 and its variations actually overlap the M1 and M14, and that story sets the stage for comparing the CO2 versions for the very first time.
The Evolutionary Road
The M16 had its roots in the ground before the Vietnam War, back in 1954, when the M1 was still in use. An engineer named Eugene Stoner was working for the newly formed ArmaLite Company (a division of the Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corp.) on the development of the 7.62 mm AR-10 rifle.
ArmaLite had been organized specifically to bring the latest in lightweight aviation construction techniques to firearms design. Thus the receiver of the AR-10 was made of forged and milled aluminum, instead of steel, pioneering a technology that is commonly used today in the firearms and airgun industry. The AR’s barrel was attached to the alloy receiver by a separate, hardened steel extension to which the bolt locked. This allowed a lightweight aluminum receiver to be used while still maintaining a steel-on-steel lockup. The rifle functioned by using high-pressure combustion gases from the fired cartridge to cycle the action, only unlike conventional blowback actions, the AR employed a piston design. If that sounds like a variation on Carbine Williams’ design for the M1, you’re not mistaken.
In place of a conventional wooden stock, the AR used a lightweight glass-reinforced plastic shell over a rigid foam plastic core. The sum result of aluminum and plastic was a rifle that was considerably lighter than any then in use. The physical layout of the AR-10 was also different. Previous rifle designs placed the sights directly on the barrel. This often led to soldiers having a difficult time reacquiring the sights during rapid fire. Stoner adopted a solution previously employed on the Johnson light machine gun; he located the barrel in line with the stock and raised the sights. The front was a tall post and the rear built into a carrying handle over the receiver. This was to become the original combination that would evolve into the AR-15/M16 in 1958.
Colt Gets the AR-15
The AR-10 for all of its virtues was not adopted by the U.S. military, which went with the more conventional M14 in 1959. In an attempt to recoup some of its investment capital, Fairchild decided to sell the ArmaLite design and in December the Colt’s Patent Firearms Mfg. Co. acquired the production and marketing rights to the AR-10 and smaller AR-15, which was chambered for a new cartridge that Stoner had been involved in developing, the .223 Remington (5.56mm), soon to become one of the most important rifle cartridges of the 20th century.
The start of the Vietnam War created a demand for a new rifle that was better suited to the type of combat being waged in Southeast Asia. The M14 was too heavy and too large. The M1, also still in use, was equally outdated, and in 1962 Colt succeeded where ArmaLite had failed, by convincing the DoD to test a fully automatic version of the AR-15, designated AR-16. An enthusiastic report led to more studies from the Department of Defense and the Department of the Army. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara was equally impressed and ordered 85,000 M16s (the military designation for the AR-16) for the Army, along with another 19,000 for the Air Force at the behest of General Curtis LeMay.
The AR-16 was not as ideally suited to jungle warfare as everyone had first hoped and it took several years to sort out problems with malfunctions, jams, and issues with ammunition, the primary reason for the aforementioned failures. The M16 needed specific types of gunpowder in making .223 ammunition in order for the gas-operated system to function properly; powder and primers that didn’t burn as cleanly led to fouling and corrosion of the piston and other internal parts compounded by the high humidity in Southeast Asia. The old M1 didn’t suffer as much from these environmental issues and the .30 caliber ammunition had been proven in every environment during WWII and Korea. The M16 required frequent field stripping and cleaning, leaving many infantrymen essentially unarmed in the middle of a battle with a malfunctioning rifle. An AR that wouldn’t shoot wasn’t much good and changes had to be made. Once the M16 was modified (chrome lined barrels, among other improvements), becoming the M16A1 and later M16A2 and M16A3, the AR platform proved its worth and has continued to do so in both the military and civilian market for more than 50 years.
The later M4 carbine variation designed by Colt’s, was adopted by the U.S. Army in 1994 and still remains a primary weapon for special operations along with similar designs from Sig Sauer, H&K and FN. The M4 and its variants are also known as the flat top because the design does not use the AR-15 handle; the M4 has a short 14-1/2 inch barrel, and four-position telescoping shoulder stock that can be collapsed for close quarter battle situations. Because of this feature, versions of the M4 are also carried by special law enforcement units and S.W.A.T. teams. The M4 is available in a semi-automatic civilian Sporter model to compliment the AR-15 Target Rifles.
For the comparison we will be doing this week in CO2, I am going with one of the latest AR platform air rifle models, the Crosman DPMS Panther SBR, which you could not own in a centerfire version as a civilian without a Class III license since it is a select-fire, short barrel rifle (SBR). Pitting the modern DPMS against the WWII era M1 Carbine is about as far across the spectrum as possible in both the worlds of centerfire arms and blowback action CO2 rifles, and yet they still have so much in common. As the late William B. Ruger, Sr. once told me, you can redesign a gun as many times as you like, but they all start with the same basic premise. Even in CO2.