Much is said of the supposed unreliability of rifles in the AR-15 family. For those who know the rifle only from articles posted to the internet, it's obvious that the weapon is a massive failure. It's fragile, jams constantly, "shits where it eats", and chokes up completely when exposed to any sort of extreme environment.
Well, that's what I believed once, anyway. The reality of the matter is that the AR-15 is a tremendously well designed, mature, and very reliable family of weapons. My first exposure to how very wrong I was about the AR-15 came when, frustrated by substandard alternatives, I broke down and bought the closest thing to a military M4 I could get - a Colt 6920, which I named "Incitatus" as a jab at Colt's logo, its high price ($1400 at the time), and what I felt must surely be my own growing insanity.
I shot the weapon and kept shooting it. From the beginning I fired imported Russian steel cased ammunition through it almost exclusively, almost begging it to choke, so that I would be proven right once and for all. I kept pushing it further, firing it in more and more testing conditions, in sub-zero temperatures, covered in dirt, through wind and rain and through some very nasty dust storms in New Mexico. I almost never cleaned it, and it usually saw at least a thousand rounds from the last time before I lubed it. It didn't matter. Nothing stopped it. In the span of about a year, I fired nearly 5,000 rounds of (mostly) steel-cased ammunition through the rifle, and once it failed to lock back on an empty magzine. I never had another malfunction of any kind.
After all this, my old opinions of the rifle were thoroughly destroyed. So, this was the rifle the troops were using. It was a damned good one. It was almost freakishly light in comparison to its stablemates, extremely reliable, and accurate enough for me to pluck the highest score three times in a row at Appleseed events.
I stretched its legs, too. Far from the Internet wisdom that says the AR-15 is "only a 300 yard weapon", I consistently made hits with that same crappy Russian ammo out to 400, 600, and finally 900 yards before it began to struggle. What was all this I heard about the M4 being unsuitable for the fighting in Afghanistan? With the TA01NSN ACOG I'd bought a couple years earlier secondhand, Incitatus had very long legs, indeed.
Later, upon hearing me gush a bit over my rifle, a classmate of mine who had served with the Army in Iraq and had a bad experience with the M16, challenged me to a bet: I would choose the worst of his bringback magazines, and try to fire a full 30 rounds through my Colt. If it didn't malfunction, he'd buy me a pack of beer. We chose a particularly nasty example that had bent feed lips, was more of a parallelogram than a box, and had broken all the welds along the spine and been re-welded - poorly. It was time for a range trip.
Out to the wooded foothills of Colorado, we went. After a long dirt trail, barely traversed by my friend's '86 silver Toyota Camry, we stopped, and broke out our rifles and handguns, and began shooting. I gave my friends a background on the bet, and my girlfriend fired up my handheld Casio camera to record proof.
The rifle and magazine ran like a champ... Through a total of about 150 rounds, in fact. By the end of the range day, I never got the magazine to cause the rifle to malfunction.
I've read a lot of forum posts, blog posts, and magazine articles that bash the AR-15. For a while, I was convinced they all couldn't be wrong. I've since learned, not only how reliable an AR-15 can be even through neglect and tough conditions, but also not to jump to conclusions based only on an opinion I read somewhere.
Having said that, I'll leave you with a few blog posts and online articles that buck this trend, and talk about the virtues of the AR-15:
A blog post by Andrew Touhy on how cleaning your AR-15 is a waste of time.
An article by Mike Pannone on the reliability of the AR-15 platform, the "shits where it eats" myth, and problems with maintenance in the service.
Weaponsman weighs in on Congressional criticism of the M4.
A report on early M16 reliability in Vietnam, from Weaponsman.
Weaponsman on why the SCAR-L was not adopted.
The forward assist on the M16/M4 is useless, says Weaponsman.
M16 improvements from 1968, from Weaponsman.
M4 improvements, from Weaponsman.
US small arms reliability, from Weaponsman.