IMFDB Info: The History of M16s in Film and Television

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Note: This is a non-categorized page that I'm working on. please don't make changes. It's just a test page I'm using to collect relevant data for an FAQ page for IMFDB. This is a work in progess so if anyone sees goofs, don't touch it. I'm going to complete before publication.

There is a reason why I am making this page. Our very own M16 page is proof that there is tons of confusion regarding what kind of M16s are used in real life and what is used in movies. Too many users are posting what the gun is supposed to be in real life, but not the gun that was actually used. I have been researching this for months now. MPM2008


Contents

1959: Colt gets the license from Armalite

Colt Firearms acquired the license for the AR-10 and the AR-15 from Eugene Stoner's Armalite Co., and began building the AR-15 rifle for sale to both the U.S. Military, Foreign Armies and the civilian market. It was a 20 year patent. Their first rifle was the Colt AR-15, which had the slab side upper receiver, original rear sights, large receiver pin holes, slab side lower receiver (with no protective ribbing around the magazine release button). The first rifles to be adopted by the U.S. Military were the AR-15s for the U.S. Airforce.

1964: AR-15 / SP1 Rifle

The original M16 also known as the AR-15 Model SP1 - 5.56x45mm

Military usage: Thousands of full auto AR-15 rifles were shipped to Vietnam for USAF security forces (ground units designated to defend Air bases in South Vietnam). Also M16 rifles were shipped to ARVN forces for testing. The first pattern was called the Colt Model 601. A slightly different three pronged flash hider was designed and Colt called this rifle the Model 602, but except for the slight cosmetic changes in flash hider, the rifles are the same. Years later, when the Army formally adopted the A1 version, Colt still made this original version. Now that it had an official military designation "the M16", Colt renamed the same factory rifle the Model 604, just to mark the official military "M" designation.

A scene from the 1964 film Seven Days in May. Arguably the FIRST appearance of the original M16 (SP1) rifle with slab side upper and lower receiver in a Hollywood Film.

Movie Usage: Colt then prepared their semiautomatic only version of the AR15 rifle for sale to the general public. Colt initially was going to name the rifle "Commanche" but opted to go for the more generic AR-15 Model SP1 rifle (SP a shorthand for Sporting Purpose). Since one was able to legally convert semiautomatic rifles into full auto ones relatively easily via ATF form and Tax Stamp, many were converted to full auto and blank adapted for movie use. Unfortunately, there were not that many AR15s in movie inventory until the 1970s, since many films opted not to use the rifle.

1965: The XM16E1 Rifle

XM16E1 with 20 round magazine - 5.56x45mm. What distinguishes it from the M16A1 was the Three prong flash hider and hard chrome bolt carrier. This image is built from MoviePropMaster2008's images. It is also wrong, the XM16E1 did not have a rib around the magazine release button. That change was not seen until the A1.

Military usage: The U.S. Army had still not technically adopted the AR-15, since it saw some immediate design deficiencies that they wanted changed immediately. The Air Force, however, felt comfortable with the original design but was willing to test the new rifle. The U.S. Army requested an upgrade. They also requested a chromed bolt carrier for ease of cleaning (this action led to the disastrous urban myth that the M16 did not require cleaning, that and the fact that the rifles were not issued with cleaning kits, led to the deaths of many American soldiers until the Defense Department figured out the problem). They also asked for a forward assist button, to push the bolt forward when fouled. The Army ordered 85,000 XM16E1 rifles in Nov 1964 (they would not hit the battlefield until late 1965). The Air Force ordered 19,000, however the USAF would still use and keep the original AR-15 in inventory. The interim rifle was called the XM16E1 and is correct for any U.S. Army soldier between 1965-1968. In 1965, specifically all first shipments of the rifle were sent to special forces, Airborne or Air Mobile troops. All other infantry and non-infantry units received their rifles later, which is why photos still show the M14s in general use as late as 1967 in rear echelon forces.

Rule of thumb for HISTORICAL usage of the gun is:

  • Army Soldiers used the XM16E1 between 1965-1967/68.
  • U.S. Marines used the M14 until 1967 when doctrine forced them to stop using the 7.62x51mm rifles. Some Marines were issued XM16E1s prior to 1967 but the majority of them still used M14s.
  • U.S. Airforce used and continued to use the original M16 (SP1) throughout the war and even after the war.
  • U.S. Naval Forces used whatever the Marines were using at the time.

Movie Usage: Despite making a major change in the rifle, Colt (at the time the only manufacturer of Eugene Stoner's design) only sold the SP1 to the general public. Some models were made available to federal and local law enforcement, but these were not that common. The 'militarization' of America's police force (unlike now where there is a SWAT team in every department) had not occurred yet, and many Police and Sheriff departments did not use military weapons. The only M16/AR15 one would see in the movies is the SP1.

1966: XM177 First patterns - Colt Model 607 / 609 / 610

Colt Model 609 aka U.S. Army's XM177E1- 5.56mm. This submachine gun utilized the partial magazine fence, the tear drop forward assist, but kept the 10" barrel and Flash hider/Suppressor that did not have a grenade ring (a later feature on the E2 model).
Colt Model 610 aka The USAF GAU-5/A - 5.56mm. The USAF used the first pattern slab side carbine for many years, and was the reason why shows depicting the U.S. Airforce like Stargate: SG1 utilized modified Colt Sporter Carbine (as well as other manufacturer's carbines) to create XM177 style rifles.

Still utilizing the slab side upper receiver and bolt developed for the first M16, Colt introduced the Model 607 for field testing, known to the Army as the XM177. The 10" barrel created a huge sound and shockwave blast close to the shooter, so a combination flash hider and sound suppressor was developed for the rifle. Colt had created a series of short barreled prototypes but the DOD required that the blast from the short barrel be addressed. Like usual, the DOD immediately started complaining when the first prototypes were fielded. The 10" barrel was deemed too short for field combat use (though this was unfair since the DOD would constantly change their requirements, and Colt had fully intended for this short assault rifle to be a CQB weapon, not a main battle rifle), though the ballistics did fall off steeply from the longer barreled rifles. Eventually an quick update was made to the XM177, resulting in the XM177E1 (Colt Model 609).

Military Usage: Surprisingly enough there are not many XM177s/Colt 607s in the field. The first model (Colt Model 607) ran into problems that Colt quickly fixed with the E1 Variant (Colt Model 609). 1966 was a time of a lot of field R&D and a lot of battlefield changes were being made to soldier's issued weapons. Most of the combat photographs of Vietnam with soldiers holding the XM177 were the E1 variant. Later soldiers would get the E2 but there are not many existing combat photographs of that weapon in use.

Movie Usage: None. Colt never sold a civilian version of this weapon. The only time the general public would get anything close to an XM177 style weapon was after the release of the Colt Sporter I Carbine (1978) and then armorers commonly modified the weapon to resemble an XM177 style firearm. Sure, law enforcement and Title II dealers could get U.S. Property marked Full auto guns from Colt, but these were a hassle since the ATF declared the flash suppressor / noise moderator of the XM177 to be a 'silencer' and thus required a different set of paperwork in addition to the full auto weapons transfer. Also the baffles within the real XM177 flash suppressor/noise moderator would screw up reliable blank feeding and also kill nearly all movie 'flash' so the original weapon was not attractive for motion picture use.

1967: XM177 Third pattern - Colt Model 629 / 649

XM177E2 Carbine aka Colt Model 629 aka - 5.56x45mm. This was the last variant of the XM177 rifle used in the Vietnam War.

After feedback from the field, the Army decides to ask for a longer barreled XM177, so Colt lengthens the barrel from 10" to 11.5" and puts a stop ring behind the 'flash moderator' so that the M203 Grenade Launcher can be mounted. The longer barrel aids in accuracy and the noise blast from the round. This is the most commonly replicated version of the XM177 series gun in the airsoft world. 99% of XM177 airsoft rifles are the XM177-E2 Variant.

1967: The M16A1 Rifle and the renaming of the M16 Rifle

M16A1 with 30 Round magazine - 5.56x45mm

After some of the disastrous shortcomings of the M16 in battle, mostly due to the usage of the wrong ball powder by the Army for the 5.56mm ammunition and the myth that the gun did not required cleaning, the Army issued an upgrade to the rifle, officially called the M16A1. The Army wanted a birdcage flash hider (now known as the A1 flash hider) since they felt that the three pronged flash hider would catch on branches and bushes. The bolt carriers ceased to be chromed, however, the chambers and bores were chromed, the formula for the propellant was changed and cleaning kits were issued. Also the 'new' M16A1 had the following upgraded features: (a) The "A1" Birdcage Flash hider, (b) An upgraded buttstock, (c) A forward assist like the XM16E1, and finally (d) a raised rib around the magazine release button to keep it from dropping the magazine when brushing up against the soldier's gear. Colt's factory designation was Model 603. (Colt also created the Model 604 to officially renamed their M16 (slab sided version) which was still being used by the U.S. Air Force and other foreign clients as well as U.S. Law Enforcement, like the FBI.)

Rule of thumb for HISTORICAL usage of the gun is:

  • All branches of services now used the M16A1 rifle.

Movie Usage: Colt never made an A1 version commercially available to the general public. The SP1 model would continue to be the civilian AR15 until 1983 when the Colt Sporter II came out. In the 1970s, surplus M16 Barreled upper receivers began to appear on the civilian market. Colt also sold the barreled upper receivers as 'barreled upper receiver Colt Model #R603" as replacement parts for law enforcement and these barreled uppers were made available by gun distributors. Some distributors put out a hybrid AR15, built from the SP1 rifle and the new A1 barreled upper receivers, however the rifles still had the slab sided lower (without the rib around the magazine release button). However, it is not known how many of these hybrid rifles made it into movie armories in the 1970s, since there were more armories than there are today (and many of those armories are long gone). When listing M16A1s as appearing in any movie prior to 1981, one must carefully see if the lower receiver has the tell tale ribbing of the true A1 lower receiver. All Colt guns in civilian hands at this time were the slab sided rifles. The only real M16A1s in movie armories were Law Enforcement Sales Models, which could be acquired if the Armory had a Title II sales or Manufacturing License with ATF.

1968: DOD Manuals of the M16A1 used the wrong picture

The official field manuals for the upgraded M16A1 are released in August 1968, however, the photographs in the DOD publications of the weapons and the soldiers demonstrating rifle drills, are all of the older XM16E1 rifle. This causes a bit of confusion amongst soldiers, vets and gun owners as to which gun is which.

Official photograph of the "M16A1" from the DOD Manuals from 1968. Note how the rifle is the XM16E1 (which was widely issued at that point), not the M16A1.

1969: The Army ditches the XM148 and introduces the M203 for the M16

Prior to 1969, the U.S. Army dallied with the concept of an Underslung 40mm grenade launcher (to replace the M79 stand alone grenade launcher) with many field tests of the XM148 system (which was somewhat similar to the M203 system we all know). The U.S. Army officially adopted the M203 launcher in late 1969 (usually it takes about one year for a weapons system that is officially adopted to get from the factory to the front line troops). By 1970, combat photographs of U.S. Soldiers are seen with the then new M203 launchers attached to their M16A1 rifles. One of the first combat photographs is of tunnel rats displaying a cache of weapons discovered in Cu Chi in the Summer of 1970. One of the soldiers in the back is standing with an M203 attached to his rifle, one of the very first documented war time photographs of the M203 in use.

M16A1 5.56x45mm with M203 grenade launcher and quadrant sight - 40mm

1977: Colt releases their Colt Sporter I Carbine

Colt released their Sporter Carbine which was a lightweight 16" rifle loosely based on their XM177 design. The Colt number was Model #R6001. The manufacture date of the Sporter I Carbine was 1977-1985 and it stayed pretty much unchanged during that entire run. In the last two years of manufacture, starting at serial number #212,000 Colt started packaging the Sporter I Carbine with the finger stepped A2 style pistol grip. Note that the Sporter I Carbine has a flat slab side upper receiver and the slab sided lower receiver, just like the original SP1 rifles.

Colt Sporter I Carbine (1977-1985) - 5.56x45mm. Colt's public offering of a lightweight carbine based on the AR-15 Platform. This rifle has been erroneously called "the M16 Shorty" for years by Law Enforcement and Firearms "authors". The "M16 Shorty" or "Shorty Carbine" have never been authorized or used names for the rifle by Colt or the Government.

1978: Colt upgrades their SP1 AR15 Rifle

Colt 'updates' the SP1 rifle from the version sold in the 1960s-early 1970s. The Three prong flash hider is no longer standard. The SP1 now has the M16A1 Birdcage style flash hider and the A1 style buttstock. The 'Colt' grey finish is now less green/yellow in hue and is a more straight grey.

1980: Colt's patents expire

Military usage: The M16A1 is still the standard main battle rifle of the U.S. Armed forces and its' supplied allies. Around 1980 the Army started looking at a new 5.56mm bullet. This would result in the replacement of the older M193 round with the newer NATO SS109/M855 round. This would result in a change in barrel twist (and then back again). This information is only relevant to our purposes in that the change in barrel twist to accommodate the heavier rounds delayed the debut or mass orders of later M16 variants.

Movie Usage: Colt's 20 year patent on the Armalite design expires in late 1979. Colt tries to sue to extend, primarily against Springfield Armory and Rock Island Armory for selling their own versions of the M16s to the Costa Rican military, but Colt is denied. The flood gates are open. The 1980s see the emergence of AR15 building companies like Bushmaster, DPMS, Eagle Arms, Pac West, Olympic Arms, Santa Clara Arms, Rock River Arms, to name a few who build AR15 lower receivers or full rifles. These 'clone' guns are actual true M16A1 style lowers in that they externally have the correct raised ribbing around the magazine release button, a feature that Colt never put on their civilian rifles. Since these guns were also cheaper than Colt, their numbers exploded. Remember that Colt never made a true M16A1 style rifle for sale to the general public. And the 'clone' AR15 makers never made slab sided rifles. So all Slab sided rifles are Colt. All correct A1 style rifles are probably going to be some other's manufacturer's gun. One of the first 'clones' was of the M16A1 by Bushmaster. It was called the Centurion 15 Sporter.

1982:Development of the M16A2

Military Usage: The Military wanted to develop an upgrade or replacement of the M16A1 rifle. Colt developed the AR-15 A2 variant as a result. The Heavy Barreled variant had been in development for a long time. Colt had made HBAR models during the Vietnam war, but none were ever adopted nor fielded. The U.S. Marines were pushing for a rifle that better suited their marksmanship tradition and the sights on the M16A1 were limited. However, there continued to be meddling and last minute design request by the Dept. of Defense.

Movie Usage: Even though clones of the M16A1 that were closer to the military model than Colt (remember Colt still insisted on continuing the slab sided lower receiver of the SP1) were available through standard chains of commerce, the vast majority of the movie M16s were still the Colt AR15 SP1 rifles since so many were already in inventory. There were commercial copies of the then new A2 style handguards (which were not quite right, see Billy's M16 in Predator) which were available via mail order or gunshows. Armorers were aware of the new developments being that the search for a new rifle was heavily reported in wide spread publications like Newsweek and Time Magazine.

1983: The M16A2 is official but has no takers

The Department of Defense approves the new rifle - the M16A2, however it is not adopted immediately by any major branch of the United States Armed Forces. This all happened right before the build up and execution of Operation Urgent Fury aka "The Invasion of Grenada" (as depicted in the film Heartbreak Ridge). The replacement of existing stocks of M16A1 rifles was not a priority just prior to a large military operation. In October of 1983, U.S. Army Soldiers and Marines hit the beaches of Grenada with M16A1 rifles. The M16A2 rifle would have to wait.

M16A2 Rifle - 5.56x45mm. Select Fire rifle (Safe/Semi/3 round Burst Only).

1984: The Marines finally get their M16A2 rifles

1984: Colt releases the AR-15A2

Just like the military A2 rifles, Colt releases the AR-15A2 (#R6500) an SP1 slab sided lower receiver mated to an A2 upper receiver, however, the barrel is only heavy outside of the fore grips. The barrel inside is the standard A1 (for mounting the M203 grenade launcher). The military made the visible length of barrel heavy purportedly because some soldiers were using their M16 barrels as crowbars and were thus bending the lighter weight A1 barrels. This heavy/light barreled AR-15 lasted between 1984-1988.

1985: Colt releases the Sporter II Carbine & the 9mm Carbine

Colt Sporter II Carbine with 20 round magazine - 5.56x45mm. Colt model #R-6420. Colt still insisted on using the SP1 style lower receiver so any rifle that looks like this but has the ribbing around the magazine release button is not a Colt rifle. Variants of this rifle have both the round and tear drop forward assist buttons, however, most of the early years of production had the tear drop button, like this rifle in the photo.
Colt Sporter II Carbine with 30 round magazine - 5.56x45mm. This is the exact same rifle as above except with a 30 round magazine instead of a 20 round magazine.
Colt 9mm Carbine aka (AR-15A2 Sporter II carbine in 9mm) also officially known as the Colt Model R6450 - 9x19mm. This variant was built between 1986-1987.

1986: The Army relents and accepts the M16A2 rifle

1986: Colt releases the AR-15A2 HBAR

Colt AR-15A2 HBAR, the A2 version of the AR15 Civilian Rifle - 5.56x45mm. This is the first time Colt actually put the familiar raised rib around the Magazine release button. Previous to this model, Colt had the flat slab sided lower receiver. The only other 'correct' lower receivers were made by other manufacturers.

1990: Colt changes names to Sporter/ Sporter-Match / and remove all their bayonet lugs



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