History of the U.S. Military Rifles - CHK-SHIELD | Outdoor Army - Tactical Gear Shop

History of the U.S. Military Rifles

History of the U.S. Military Rifles

Throughout past blog posts we recapped the history of the helmet, going through its transformation from a standard piece of equipment to an essential item of safety gear. We’ve also recapped the evolution of US Military’s uniform. Where we listed out the transformation from basic clothing pieces to systems that help keep soldiers in communication, protected from the environment, and able to carry out their required duties.

In today’s blog post we’re following suit with the theme of evolution, but this time focusing in on the rifle. So, if you’ve ever wondered how the rifle came to be what it is today, or the standard gun that soldiers started with decades ago, then just keep on reading.

The Original Rifle

Before diving into the history of the rifle, it’s important to note that soldiers did not start out with this piece of equipment and as excellent marksman. In fact, the original form of warfare started out with iron swords and spearpoints, but as we can all imagine, that was neither efficient nor possible to continue on with. This was also back in ancient times when battle was a little more intimate and soldiers wore heavy steel armour.

Soldiers fighting in the older days with steel armour and swords

As the years progressed and the technology became more advanced, soldiers were armed with repeaters and revolvers. While this was a step up from iron swords, it still wasn’t incredibly feasible, as the distance between the soldiers could only be so far for one to take his or her shot.

Hence, we now see why there was a need for a rifle, among other forms of guns and weapons, to be developed. So, now that we’re caught up to speed, let’s look back at the first rifle that American soldiers started with.


Known as the Pennsylvania or Kentucky Rifle, American soldiers were first armed with a long rifle that helped the nation gain its independence from Britain. Ironically, this musket that was used, which was referred to as the Brown Bess, was common in colonies at the time. So, while the American’s were using it to gain their independence, British soldiers were using a similar rifle to stand their ground. This rifle was used from 1722 to 1838, and the Brown Bess was more of a smoothbore flintlock however it had no rifling.

Flintlock rifle - first rifle to be used by the military

These initial long guns were designed and made in Europe and could be used to shoot about 270 years. However, the caliber projectile was quite small, in and between .32 to .45 calibers, shot out from of course, a very long barrel.

So why the name Flintlock? Well, a piece of flint was in the vice-like jaws of the long rifle, that was held in place by a screw that was wrapped in felt, as a way to keep it from cracking under the pressure from a shot.

Up close look at how the flint in a flintlock rifle starts the rifle

This created an interesting effect as when the trigger was pulled, the flint would strike and generate a spark that ignited the powder, which would then fire the weapon. The shot was then all made possible because of the flint on the long rifle.

Speaking of evolution, the process of shooting this rifle was less than ideal. Given that rifles can shoot multiple rounds nowadays, it’s funny to note that every time this rifle was to be used or loaded, powder has to be poured into the flash pan and the barrel before it could be “cooked” and then fired. One could imagine how difficult this would be on the battlefield. Definitely less than ideal.

Caplock Rifles

Eventually, over time, soldiers and the Military noticed that there were better systems and technology that could be used to combat their rivals. This is where the Caplock rifle came into play, leaving the Flintlocks behind.

Caplocks differed from the Flintlocks in the sense that in order to start the main “charge” of the rifle, a percussion cap (which is essentially the primer for the gin) would be stuck by a hammer, igniting the main charge. This took away the process of needing to add powder into the flash pan, making the process easier and creating an advantage for those on the battlefield.

Up close look at the next big military rifle; the caplock rifle

While Caplocks is the category of rifles that were created, examples of these types of weapons include the Springfield Rifle Musket or the Springfield Model 1861, which is a .58 caliber Minie ball rifled muzzleloader. This gun could reach an opponent about 500 years away, which is double what the Flintlock could reach.

By the end of the civil war, over 1.5 million Springfield Rifle Muskets had been produced. Moving forward, American soldiers or rather, the American Military used guns such as Breechloaders, Bolt Guns, the Springfield M1903 which was used after the Spanish American War in 1898, the M1 Garand and the M1 Carbine. Which then brings us to…

The M14

The M14 was created with the idea of replacing the M1 Garand and it was issued to soldiers in the military from 1959 until 1964. Though it was very comparable to the M1 Garand, it had a big advantage in some respects. It fired in full auto, fired the .308 Win or the 7.62 x 51mm NATO, and was seen to have a very accurate semi-auto fire.

Solider holding the M14 rifle while in combat

Though it was a step up from the last, the M14 was quickly replaced by the M16 in the Vietnam War. But that wasn’t the end of it. The M14 was used as a special-purpose long-range rifle and later on, in the 1970’s it was converted by the Army to a M21 sniper rifle, which remained in use until the Army took over the M24 SWS in 1988.

The M16

This then leads us to cover the M16. This was issued to troops based on the design by Eugene Stoner’s AR-15 and included modern materials for the first time, such as aluminum and polymers. It opted for smaller, faster projectiles and had a greater ammo capacity instead of longer-range, harder hitting battle calibers. Therefore, soldiers had to reload fewer times and were able to consistently fire during combat. A huge change from the model before and especially compared to the first rifle which needed powder every time it was loaded.

However, even improvements experience some difficulties and setbacks and the M16 had just that. Most of the issues were ammo related leading to a lot of jams. Unfortunately, these issues lead to a lot of hatred for the rifle and its development, especially since it led to a great deal of US casualties.

M16 rifle causing casualties in war; photo of two soldiers carrying a wounded soldier

Many of you may know that today, the M16 has been improved to become the M16A1. This version of the rifle is a huge improvement from the past version, and now has a forward assist, which was designed to help seat a round while the soldier was reloading. Any design flaws that were included in the M16A1 were there resolved in the M16A2.

M4 Carbine

From the M16 came the M4 Carbine which is a carbine version of the previous rifle that includes a collapsible stock and is shorter in length. This rifle was developed from a variety of shortened M16A1-style carbines and was officially adopted in 1994, replacing the M3 submachine gun, the Beretta M9 pistol and the M16A2 (only for some troops however).

This rifle has been heavily relied on in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the compact, smaller size of it has proven to be extremely advantageous.

Military soldier shooting a M4 carbine rifle

Currently, the Marine Corps and the US Army are both in process of phasing out their use of the M16 models and are adding in the M4s instead, as their standard service weapons.

In Conclusion…

Standard changes in rifles or weapons year over year may not seem advantageous or like such a big improvement, however, when you look back at the evolution as a whole, it is incredible to see just how much ground the military has been able to cover. From rifles that were inefficient and took too much time to reload to weapons that proved unreliable, it is crazy to believe the available rifles that are used in today’s time.

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