The AR-15 is well known for being a firearm tinkerer’s dream — so much so that it’s often called the “Lego Gun”. Given the ease with which you can swap out the various components of the upper receiver and attach new accessories, comparisons to those incredibly variable toy building blocks seem rather appropriate.
Interestingly enough, those little plastic blocks aren’t the only children’s toys that have come up in conversation alongside the AR-15. There is also a pervasive myth that toy manufacturer Mattel, famous for children’s toys such as Barbie and Hot Wheels, was responsible for manufacturing the military’s version of the AR-15 during the Vietnam War. But is there any truth to that myth?
A Different Era
The M16, the military equivalent to the AR-15, became the U.S. Army’s standard rifle in the 1960s, so it saw a rapid upswing in production and use during the Vietnam War, replacing the M14. It was generally well-received, at least at first. The M16 had the benefit of being lighter and smaller than its predecessor, meaning troops could carry it longer distances and shift to a ready position more expediently. In situations where the difference between life or death could come down to who was able to ready themselves a fraction of a second quicker than the other guy, a rifle that was smaller, lighter and almost as potent as the M14 was incredibly valuable.
That initially bright outlook dimmed a bit after many troops reported ongoing issues with jamming and misfires. Colt Firearms Corporation bought the rights to the AR-15 in 1959 (the same year Barbie was first introduced to the American public. We’ll come back to this in a minute; it’s important). They hoped to solve the problems that were caused by these weapon jams and misfires that started to occur all too often, especially when soldiers could not regularly clean and maintain their M16s. Given the levels of dust, dirt, and mud the troops encountered in Vietnam jungles, keeping their firearms pristinely clean was next to impossible. One of the most common issues was a “failure to extract.” A bullet would be fired, but the casing would be trapped in the chamber and have to be popped out with a rod shoved down the barrel. This type of misfire effectively set troops back about 100 years in terms of firearm technology because the jams turned some of these M16 into single-shot rifles.
A Widespread Myth Stemming From… Complaints?
Plenty of complaints arose after the widespread jamming and misfire issues, and understandably so. Discontent regarding the flaws of the M16 led to plenty of complaints, many of which centered on the changes made to the standard-issue firearm. Before the M16, troops were used to heavy wood for much of a firearm’s makeup. The plastic components of the M16 made it much lighter and better suited to wet environments such as jungles, but it also gave the troops a focus for their complaints — especially with the Mattel logo embossed into the hand grip.
Yes, you read that right. Mattel was, in fact, making components for the M16 at the time of the Vietnam War. By this time, Barbie was becoming a widely-known household name in the toy world, which meant Mattel was also gaining major attention as a toy company. It stands to reason that troops would notice when their firearms were branded with the same logo as children’s toys. When their guns started having problems, Mattel took a lot of that flack because the forend grip was branded with their name. After all, who wants a firearm made like a toy?
So, the Myth Is True?
The myth about Mattel helping to make M16s is true, but saying that Mattel manufactured M16s is a bit misleading because they never actually manufactured the firearm itself. They just made one of the plastic components on the gun. It was a patriotic way for the toy makers to support our troops, and provided a low-cost addition to the firearm. While the M16’s handgrip was imprinted with Mattel’s logo, as soon as they started gaining notoriety for their involvement in the M16’s manufacture, Mattel stopped embossing their logo on the grips. While the grips no longer bore the Mattel logo, that didn’t mean they had stopped making the part. They continued to do so and simply stopped adding their logo. But at that point, the damage was done and that one little detail gave rise to an ongoing myth. Soldiers joking about how their guns felt like toys and the ill-timed release of Mattel’s toy M16, the M16 Marauder, fueled these myths that live on to this day.
These days it’s much more common, and even expected, to have firearm components that are made from durable plastics rather than wood. They generally keep longer, and are less susceptible to the elements, and are lighter than their wooden counterparts, not to mention cheaper to produce. For a sturdy, lightweight forend grip that doesn’t slip around, don’t trust Mattel. Trust Rail Scales for our specialized handguard rails and forend grip options designed to increase control without adding bulk to the front of your AR. Shop online today!