The M16/AR-15 rifle’s introduction to formal competition started at the Small Arms Firing School (SAFS) at Camp Perry in 1967. While the previous year’s SAFS allowed for merely familiarization fire, the 1967 SAFS actually provided two training matches. At the time, the rifle was considered more of a novelty than a serious competitor. However, the M16A1 was just adopted as the US Army’s standard rifle for all units outside of NATO. Given that the National Matches were meant to promote marksmanship with the nation’s issue rifles and handguns, it would be hard to justify not allowing the M16 or the civilian AR-15 SP1 to participate. However, the Small Arms Firing School would disappear for the next several years after the Department of the Army withdrew its financial support for the National Matches in 1968.
The first serious attempt to promote the use of the M16/AR-15 in competition came in January 1971 when General Ralph E. Haines, Jr., the Commanding General of CONARC, ordered all major commands to provide at least one M16A1 rifle team for participation in the US Army championships. The Department of the Army’s National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice (NBPRP) soon followed by adding the M16 and AR-15 to the list of firearms permitted in competition. The NBPRP hoped that the use of the rifle in Board-sponsored matches would provide valuable information about the rifle’s accuracy potential and its viability in competition. In response, the individual services’ rifle teams began to experiment with developing match-grade M16 rifles and ammunition.
Despite these efforts, only a mere nine shooters fielded M16 rifles in the National Trophy Individual Match at Camp Perry in 1971. The US Navy also fielded a team in the National Team Trophy competition. The general opinion was that the rifle performed well on the short-range targets and during rapid-fire stages. However, the 5.56mm cartridge was considered to be severely handicapped at 600 yards, in contrast to the legacy Cal. .30 M72 Match and 7.62mm M118 Match loadings.
The NRA High Power Rifle Committee joined in during 1974 by removing their caliber restriction, now allowing the AR-15 and M16 rifles to be fired as an NRA “Match Rifle.” While the High Power committee initially refused to authorize its use as a “Service Rifle,” the NRA Board of Directors ultimately approved the M16 and its commercial equivalent for use in the Service Rifle category as long as the rifle was modified to be incapable of full-automatic fire without replacing or altering parts.
In 1975, the NBPRP restricted all external modifications, including the sights. The only consolation was that they introduced a separate short-range course of fire. The NRA followed suit with their Service Rifle rules. The Infantry Trophy Match was revived at Camp Perry in 1976. It is notable that this was the first year that 5.56mm ammunition was issued for the match.
However, the further development of AR-15/M16-based Match Rifles was left in the hands of civilian enthusiasts for many years. NRA American Rifleman contributing editor C.E. Harris published several articles on the topic, sharing the lessons learned by the service teams. As early as 1977, Colorado gunsmith Mark Chanlynn began offering AR-15 Match Rifle conversion services for civilian competitors.
Interest in the Service Rifle category was renewed with the US Marine Corps’ adoption of the M16A2. While not specifically designed for match use, it obviously possessed more match-friendly features than the legacy M16A1. Gunsmith Bill Wylde reportedly developed his alternative to the 5.56mm NATO chamber in 1984. Another early civilian innovator was Kim Neubert, credited with one of the first “Service Rifle”-legal free-float tube designs that still allowed for the installation of the standard GI handguards. Lee Mosher of Insight Shooting Systems, Inc. initially only wanted to make an accurate varmint rifle out of the AR-15. However, his customers quickly picked up on the utility of his optic-ready, match-grade AR-15 conversions.
In 1992, US Army Marksmanship Unit commander Col. Lory M. “Mac” Johnson made the fateful decision that the AMU’s continued match use of modified M14 rifles and M1911A1 pistols was archaic as neither was the Army’s current issue weapon. Johnson insisted that match-grade M16A2 rifles and M9 pistols be developed for the AMU’s use in competition. The AMU began fielding its M16A2 NM rifles in 1993. At the time, these rifles were foisted upon the junior members of the Service Rifle team, while the experienced members kept their M14 NM. However, the performance of the M16A2 NM shooters at Camp Perry was eye-opening. The AMU Service Rifle team subsequently split the rifle assignments evenly across their shooters’ experience levels. At the 1994 Camp Perry matches, AMU shooter SFC Kenneth V. Gill won the Service Rifle Championship with his M16A2 NM. The AMU would go on to prove that this was not a fluke result. The M14 NM rifle’s reign in Service Rifle competition was coming to an end.