The Black Rifle: The Film Career Of The AR-15
As the Black Rifle gained success and popularity in service, so did its demand for use in movies and television.
Try this one on for size: The AR-type rifle has been in front-line U.S. military service since 1962, not only longer than any other one rifle design, but longer than the 45 year span that our soldiers were armed with metallic cartridge repeating bolt-action rifles, and longer than the 52 years the .30-06 Springfield was our standard infantry cartridge. For 53 years, the M16 and its family tree has not only been the symbol of American military power, but also a dominant influence in American civilian use as well. Accounting for up to 1 in 4 of all new rifles sold in the U.S.A., the AR family is truly America’s Rifle, at home and abroad, and on screen, as the gun’s futuristic looks and real-world ubiquity guaranteed a starring role in television and movies. As the Black Rifle gained success and popularity in service, so did its demand for use in movies and television.
(Note that for brevity, in this article we will be collectively referring to the 5.56 NATO family as AR-15s, and the 7.62 NATO branch as AR-10s, and the entire family as ARs.)
America’s Rifle begins its story in 1954 when a young engineer named Eugene Stoner took a job at aerospace manufacturer Fairchild-Republic’s small-arms division, Armalite. What we now call the AR-10 emerged a few years later and was submitted to the U.S. Army to compete against the M-14 and FN-FAL to be the Army’s next main infantry rifle. While not successful (and the results of this competition continue to be hotly debated to this day), the AR-10 was shopped around the globe and landed a few export contracts to foreign armies.
The AR-10 was introduced to movie audiences with a bit part in 1963’s James Bond film From Russia With Love, the follow-up to the previous year’s Dr No. Sudanese configuration AR-10s are visible at SPECTRE’s training camp and rifle range.
Fellow Armalite engineer Jim Sullivan led the effort to shrink the AR-10 down around the newly developed .223 Remington as a part of the U.S. Army’s experiments with small caliber fully automatic firing infantry rifles, with the baby AR-10 designated the AR-15. At this point, Fairchild-Republic grew impatient with its small-arms division not turning a profit and sold the whole mess to Colt for a pittance. Soon after, Colt demonstrated the AR-15 to U.S. Air Force General Curtis LeMay at a legendary cookout in which LeMay committed to the design after witnessing the rifle’s terminal ballistics on a watermelon. Replacing the hodgepodge of rifles, submachine guns and other small-arms used by USAF base security details, the huge buy gave the AR-15 instant credibility and soon it was in use by all branches of the military in various forms.
The AR-15 was designated the M16 by the USAF in 1962, and made its movie debut two years later in the 1964 political thriller, Seven Days in May. Set in the near future of 1970, the M16 is portrayed as the standard infantry rifle of the U.S. Army and features prominently in several scenes.
That movie was actually three years behind, as a redesigned M16 was adopted by the U.S. Army as the XM16E1 in 1965 and put into widespread front line infantry service in the growing Vietnam War. Teething issues introduced by both Colt and the U.S. Army bureaucracy led to a reputation of unreliability that the AR to this day has trouble distancing itself from.
The XM16E1 landed a starring role in John Wayne’s 1968 Vietnam War movie, The Green Berets. Produced with close cooperation with the U.S. Army, the movie was Wayne’s retort to the anti-war Left of the day and was critically pilloried on release. Fortunately, movie audiences are frequently smarter than the critics and the movie was a box office success, and holds up well today as a unique period piece chock full of period correct weapons, uniforms, tactics, and jargon.
Two years after the XM16E1’s troubled debut, an improved model was standardized as the M16A1 and fulfilled the promise of its predecessors as a lightweight, user friendly, reliable carbine. By 1970, all regular U.S. Army units had converted from the short lived M14 to the M16A1.
Colt took these improvements and rolled them into their civilian AR-15 offering, calling it the Sporter-1, soon abbreviated to the SP-1. A heavy marketing campaign sold the rifle to hunters, competitive shooters, and security firms. The close resemblance to the military’s M16A1 made the SP-1 an instant favorite of prop departments and a star, appearing on television in NBC’s 1968-1975 police procedural ADAM-12 and in theaters in John Carpenter’s 1976 Assault On Precinct 13.
AR carbines with shorter barrels and collapsible stocks were in service almost from inception, but took a few years to make their way to the theater, with Colt 653 carbines making an appearance in 1981’s Enter The Ninja and an XM177, complete with the long flash moderator, shows up in The Final Option in 1982.
In 1982, the U.S. Marines led a project to improve the long range performance of the M16A1 and soon the M16A2 was in service, featuring a heavier barrel with a faster 1:7 twist, more precise sights, a three-round burst cam, and round handguards. Also adopted by the U.S. Army, the “A2” showed up on TV in the 1988 In The Line of Duty: The FBI Murders, a retelling of the infamous 1986 FBI Miami shootout. The A2 also played a central role in 1996’s Gulf War drama, Courage Under Fire as Meg Ryan’s rifle.
One of the biggest reasons for the AR’s long history success is that unlike other contemporary military rifles, it enjoyed a great deal of popularity among civilian competitive shooters and development benefited from their experimentation and experience. This showed up in 1989 as Colt introduced the Model 6700, essentially an A2 with the carry handle replaced by a strip of 1913 Picatinny rail for the mounting of optics and accessories. This innovation was rapidly adopted by the U.S. Army who standardized a flat-top A2 as the M16A4 in 1990.
Similarly, the 1994 M4 Carbine project benefited from private sector development and the resulting design with a 14.5-inch barrel, flat-top upper, and telescoping stock replaced a veritable menagerie of short barreled ARs in military service. Movie viewers didn’t have to wait long to see the new gun, as the action in 1997’s Harrison Ford flick Air Force One featured the M4 (complete with C-More red-dot sights) extensively.
Frustrated with running the M4 and even shorter barreled Mk18 suppressed, SOCOM began experimenting with piston-driven AR designs, eventually culminating in the Heckler & Koch HK416, which combined an AR-18 style operating rod system from the Heckler & Koch G36, a railed handguard system and a flat top receiver. Adopted by Delta Force and the Navy SEALs in 2004, the HK416 bowed in on the silver screen in 2008 in Hancock, and 2009 in GI JOE: The Rise of Cobra. But even greater fame came in 2011 during Operation Neptune Spear when the HK416 became the gun that killed Osama Bin Laden.
The AR market in the years since the sunsetting of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban has been a bewildering cornucopia of new designs, accessories, and ideas, to the point where a today, a plain AR-15 without a flashlight, rail system, optic, and lasers is conspicuously out of place at both the firing line and on screen. This trend seems likely to continue, as a fully accessorized rifle becomes screenwriter shorthand for “weapons expert”. In the future, we will likely see prop guns with slim, KeyMod, and Magpul M-Lok handguards replace currently ubiquitous quad-rail systems. We’re also seeing a dramatic improvement in filmed weapons handling and tactics, as our citizen soldiers come home from our wars abroad and hire out their knowledge. Also welcome is ever better and more faithful sound production. Gone are the days of howling ricochets and simultaneous gunshot and impact sounds, and even suppressed rifles are sounding more true to life as exemplified in 2013’s Lone Survivor.
There’s a lovely little scene in Donald P. Bellisario’s decade long U.S. Navy legal drama television show J.A.G. where a crime family boss orders a sit-down with a Navy officer and a CIA agent, and divests them of their sidearms. He regards the Walther PPK of the CIA man and the Beretta M9 of the sailor, and remarks: “This is the gun of a spy. This is the gun of a soldier.” The AR has earned a level of universality that will ensure its appearances on both battlefields and movie sets for as long as we have wars fought by men, but I think the AR’s movie career is about more than mere ubiquity. Much as the PPK has become known as the gun of a spy, and the Kalashnikov –fairly or unfairly — the rifle of the terrorist, the AR will forever be the Gun of Heroes.
Top Five AR Movie Scenes
5: Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow’s 2012 dramatization of the CIA’s hunt for Osama Bin Laden has been criticized for taking certain liberties with the process of finding the 9/11 mastermind, but there’s no question the climax of the movie featuring the U.S. Navy SEAL raid on the Abbottabad compound was not only a faithful recreation of the actual raid, but one of the most thrilling cinematic creations in recent history. The slow, methodical clearing of the buildings heavily features the Heckler & Koch HK416, fully decked out with suppressors, lasers and EOTech sights. While the killing of Bin Laden didn’t instantly end our Long War, perhaps some measure of justice can be taken from the fact that the last thing he saw in this world was an American aiming an AR at his face.
4: Proof Of Life
It’s a long, slow build to the action in Taylor Hackford’s 2000 kidnap-and-ransom thriller, but when Russell Crowe and David Caruso kick off the firefight in the thick jungle mountains of Colombia, the audience is treated to one of the best small-unit set pieces put to film. Armed with plain-jane M4A1 carbines and supported by a heavy dose of M249 machine gun fury, our heroes deftly use superior tactics, communication and skill to complete their mission against a superior force.
Black Hawk Down
Ridley Scott’s 2001 retelling of the disastrous 1993 Battle of Mogadishu is of course wall-to-wall M16s of all sizes and flavors, but the heart and soul of the movie is embodied in the Colt 733 carbine of Delta Master Sergeant Gary Gordon (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Sporting an Aimpoint M2 in a carry-handle mount, a suppressor, weaponlight and all painted up in perfectly distressed field expedient spray paint camo, the prop gun is instantly recognizable as the weapon of an expert, and serves him faithfully in his last stand against the Somali militia horde.
Of course we’re going to discuss that scene again, the breathtaking, flawlessly shot running shootout between the LAPD’s Robbery Homicide squad and an elite team of ruthless criminals trying for one last heist. Michael Mann’s 1995 film threw down the gauntlet and redefined “gun movie” on the strength of this scene that features crooks Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and
Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer) expertly wielding Colt 733 carbines as they throw down massive volumes of fire at the responding police. Featuring cover and suppressive fire, coordinated movement and reloads (including a fantastic reflexive reload from an open bolt by Kilmer), Heat remains a reference in shooter — and AR-15 — cinema.
Movie audiences were introduced to the M16A1 with underslung M203 40mm grenade launcher in Brian De Palma’s 1983 crime-action flick, as Tony Montana (Al Pacino) makes his bravado filled last stand on the balcony of his cocaine financed mansion. Confronted by overwhelming opposition from rival drug gangs, Montana is determined not to go out alone and arms himself with the aforementioned rifle and grenade launcher, complete with dual jungle-taped 30 round magazines. The climactic shootout not only features multiple reloads, malfunctions (as Montana tries to insert a fresh magazine backwards), and one-handed manipulations, but absolutely hands down the ballsiest one-liner ever delivered on film. If you’ve never handled your AR while muttering “Say hello to my little friend!”, frankly, I can’t relate to you as a person.
Honorable Mention: The Blues Brothers
Having failed in her repeated assassination attempts, including rockets and explosives, The Mystery Woman (Carrie Fisher) finally confronts Jake and Elwood Blues in a sewer outside the Palace Hotel with a Colt SP-1 in her hands. However, she misses every shot of every burst from her rifle, and is overcome by Jake’s charms (and excuses) allowing the brothers to escape. Perhaps love does conquer all.
By Peter Barrett. Originally published in the July 2015 issue of GunUp the Magazine.