Common use and the 223
A lot of folks feel that the .223/5.56 cartridge only became a thing in consumer gun culture in 2004, the year the Federal Assault Weapon Ban expired and the masses who had been forbidden from picking up such “evil black rifles” surged forward and purchased something like 20 million of them since then.
The thing is, the round and the rifles had been popular long before that moment. In fact, they have been on the consumer market since 1963– now some 60 years ago.
First developed from a commercially available sporting cartridge, the .223 Remington and its 5.56 NATO cousin, along with the guns that use them, are among the most popular in circulation.
The story began in 1950 with the rimless, bottlenecked .222 Remington, an accurate and flat-shooting varmint and target cartridge that “Big Green” introduced with a companion Model 722 bolt-action rifle chambered for the new round. That well-loved and still viable round by May 1957 had been tweaked to become what was dubbed the .222 Remington Special and was soon tapped by upstart rifle maker ArmaLite for its prototype new AR-15 rifle – with the “AR” standing for the first two letters in the company’s name.
The lightweight carbine was based on Eugene Stoner’s AR-10 of the same manufacturer.
In March 1958, ArmaLite submitted 10 new AR-15s chambered in .222 Special to Fort Benning for the Infantry Board field trials, but the Army wasn’t enamored with the gun.
Soon the company sold the rights to the handy little carbine to Colt, which started making the guns in late 1959, with small orders filled with Malaysia and India.
The first consumer review hit the stands in the October 1959 “Guns” magazine, with the testers using ArmaLite AR-15 Serial No. 000001, chambered in .222 Rem Spl. During roughly the same timeline, the .222 Rem Spl became known as the .223 Remington, to avoid confusion.
Then, at a now-famous Fourth of July party in 1960, General Curtis LeMay, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, was given a chance to zap watermelons with a new-made Colt AR-15 and soon recommended that the service purchase enough of the new guns to replace aging WWII-era M2 Carbines used by the Air Force’s Security Police. In December 1961, the first contract for 1,000 guns was issued by the Pentagon, and just two years later, the Army was onboard for adopting the rifle in select-fire format, dubbed the XM16E1 and then later the M16.
By 1963, Colt was advertising the AR-15 Sporter, later dubbed the Model R6000 SP1 Sporter Rifle, to the consumer market.
In 1969, only a few years after the SP1 was introduced, ArmaLite was selling a completely different semi-auto AR chambered in .223 – Eugene Stoner’s AR-180– to get around Colt’s patents. Already the AR-15 was getting competition.
Besides the SP1 and AR180 semi-autos, in 1973 – just a decade after the first .223 sporters hit the consumer market –Ruger introduced the Mini-14. Styled on the M14 but downsized to use the smaller .223 round, one of the Ruger’s rifle’s chief engineers was L. James Sullivan, a man who had done lots of work on the AR-15 previously.
In the early 1970s, if you were looking for a .223 sporter, you could get a side-folding ArmaLite AR-180 for $294, a Colt SP1 for $252, or a Ruger Mini-14 for $200, as seen in this vintage Shooter’s Bible.