The AR-15 was designed by Eugene Stoner while he was working for ArmaLite Rifles in the 1950s. It was a downsized version of the AR-10 and used plastic and aluminum for key parts to reduce its overall weight. It was meant to be a light and handy rifle. But is it a carbine?
The AR-15 is a carbine. Despite the fact that the US Military classifies the similar M16 as a rifle since it mounts to the shoulder, the AR-15 fits the exact definition of a carbine. A carbine is a type of rifle that is lighter and easier to handle than other traditional options.
While less powerful than other options, it was a better fit for both military combatants and civilian gun owners when compared to full-power rifles. It’s lighter, easier for small-framed people to handle, and less expensive to shoot.
What is a Carbine?
A carbine is a rifle and is usually chambered in a small rifle caliber. They have been embraced by the world’s militaries and in turn heavily influenced by them. In the past, they were primarily issued to support troops and combatants who operated in and around motor vehicles.
In terms of size and weight, they are smaller and lighter than standard rifles but bigger and more powerful than submachine guns. For the most part, they are chambered in an “intermediate cartridge” of reduced bullet diameter but still capable of high velocities.
This gave them the advantage of much more range than pistol-caliber submachine guns, making them useful as general-purpose firearms. When shot, both guns recoil about the same, but the carbine is deadlier at all distances.
The US Air Force was the first service to give the AR-15 a serious look, but the others were quick to realize a carbine could be a general issue weapon.
The AR-15 was a Game Changer
The full-size M14, chambered in 7.62x51mm and commonly referred to as a “Main Battle Rifle” was a poor fit for the jungles of Southeast Asia. It used over-powered ammunition for close-range engagements and wasn’t controllable in full-auto.
The M1 Carbine, a holdover from World War II, was smaller and lighter but also underpowered. It shot a lightweight .30 caliber bullet only at about 2000 fps. Neither rifles were what the military needed.
The AR-15 was only slightly heavier than the M1 Carbine but significantly more capable. Chambered in the 5.56x45mm when adopted by the US military and branded as the M16, it was capable of engaging targets out to several hundred yards.
Also, because it shot a very small bullet, the recoil was controllable in both semi-automatic and fully automatic fire.
While more than one variant existed, the mass-issued M16 had a lightweight 20″ barrel and used a 20-round magazine. Later the 30-round model became standard. The ammunition also weighed about half as much when compared to the 7.62x51mm. That meant a soldier could carry twice as much without additional burden.
M4 Carbine: Smaller and Lighter Still
Flash forward to 1993 and the armed services were issuing the M16A2. It wasn’t as light as the original and ironically had the extra weight added to the worst possible spot. By making the last few inches of the barrel heavier, it made the gun nose-heavy without adding anything to its function. It also had a longer buttstock by about an inch.
After the Battle of Mogadishu, the US military was once again interested in reducing the size and weight of their issued rifle. The M4 was designed with a 14.5″ barrel and a telescoping stock. Some design changes were made but many of the individual parts are interchangeable between the M16 and M4.
The shorter barrel though was not ideal at projecting the 5.56mm bullets to velocities where they could fragment on impact. The military has addressed this issue in recent years with updated bullet designs loaded into their ammunition. For private gun owners, this has always been a non-issue.
The telescoping stock was a significant step forward from the large A2 buttstock. With the use of body armor, the length of pull of the M16A2 became excessive even for grown men. For the smaller-framed men and women serving our country, it led to poor shooting habits just to look down the sights.
The stock could also be completely collapsed for very good maneuverability indoors.
When the civilian version was brought to market it used a 16″ barrel to comply with federal firearms law. Eventually, the gas port was move 1.5″ forward on the barrel to mimic the dwell time found on the M16 and M4.
This is known as mid-length gas and dwell time is how long the bullet remains in the barrel after it has passed the gas port. Some M4s still use the original gas system but mid-length has become very popular.
Conclusion: The AR-15 is a Carbine, and a Very Good One
The AR-15 checks all the boxes of what a carbine is. Don’t get distracted by the many names given to AR-pattern rifles in general. Assault rifle, modern sporting rifle, and black rifle are all politically rooted terms meant to sway public opinion one way or the other.
At its heart, the AR-15 wants to be a handy, lightweight rifle with a thin profiled barrel. It has found a place in the military, law enforcement, and civilian market. If you haven’t shot one but are interested in becoming a gun owner, it is an excellent first choice.