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The Armalite Rifle in Irish Republican History

Updated on August 17, 2019
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The author is a QUB Political Science honours graduate, a political analyst and has written on a variety of related issues.

The Armalite and Armed Propaganda

Armalite and ballot box strategy.
Armalite and ballot box strategy.

A New Weapon

The Armalite rifle, a civilian version of the then US military's general issue M16 assault rifle, became synonymous with Irish Republicanism from 1970 onwards. Prior to the introduction of the AR15 Armalite rifle into the IRA's arsenal of weapons, the Thompson Sub-Machine Gun, had been the weapon most closely associated with the Irish Republican guerrilla fighter. Irish Republican Ballads have been written about the Armalite and it has appeared in artwork as an image of resistance. It was famously incorporated into the Provisional Republican Movement's twin-track 'Armalite and ballot box' strategy, courtesy of a phrase coined by leading Republican, Danny Morrison.

Prior to the arrival of the Armalite AR-15 in the 1970s, Irish Republicans were increasingly out-gunned by their opponents in the British Army and the RUC. Irish Republicans were relying on old weapons, such as the Thompson Sub-machine gun, which was cumbersome, used heavy .45 ACP rounds, was fairly inaccurate and difficult to control on select fire. Their aging stock of American Garand M1 rifles and old Lee Enfield .303 rifles were proving to be fairly ill-suited for modern urban guerrilla warfare. Prior to the introduction of the Ar-15, M1 Carbines were arguably the IRA rifle best suited to the urban theatre of war they increasingly found themselves fighting in.

Crown Forces

British Army soldier with an FN 'SLR' rifle
British Army soldier with an FN 'SLR' rifle
RUC member armed with a Heckler & Koch MP5
RUC member armed with a Heckler & Koch MP5

The Irish Republican guerrillas heavily armed opposition in the British Army, in the 1970s, were using the L1A1 Self Loading Rifle (SLR), based on the Belgian FN, as their general issue rifle. British regiments also used Sterling L2A3 Sub-machine gun (until it's phasing out in 1988), also Light Machine Guns, such as the Bren and General Purpose machine gun (Gimpy) and sniper rifles based on the Lee Enfield, often referred to as the 'Jungle Carbine'.

The many undercover or Special forces regiments, such as the MRF and SAS who were engaging the IRA in the early 1970s were using a variety of weapons, including pump-action combat shotguns, Ingram Sub-machine pistols, Sterling submachine guns, and by the late 1970s, were armed with many variants of the AR-15 itself. Their allies in the RUC were also armed with Sterling SMGs. The RUC's principle long arms in the pre-Troubles and very early 1970s were Lee Enfield Rifles, which were quickly replaced by variants of the M1 Carbine and by the 1980s, Ruger Mini 14 carbines, later followed by a variety of Heckler and Koch made weapons.

Urban Warfare

IRA volunteer with AR15 in West Belfast
IRA volunteer with AR15 in West Belfast

The Armalite comes to Belfast

The late Brendan Hughes is credited with introducing the Armalite rifle into Irish Republican arsenals. According to his memoirs, published in the book Voices From The Grave, Hughes saw a brochure for the Armalite and instantly recognized that it would be a weapon ideally suited to the urban guerrilla warfare that the IRA found themselves fighting in 1970's Belfast especially. According to the late Brendan Hughes:

"It must have been late 1970, a seaman came off the QE2 with this booklet. It was about this weapon called the Armalite - the AR-15. It folded, it could be dumped in water, and we were fascinated by this weapon. The Ar-15 came in first and then the AR-18, the 18 had the folding butt. We all fell in love with this weapon."

Moloney, E. (2011). Voices from the grave. London: Faber and Faber.

Hughes reportedly traveled to the USA, ironically on the orders of Belfast Brigade Officer Commanding, Gerry Adams, to specifically acquire AR15s from Noraid supporters, circumventing the usual weapons procurement procedures which were controlled by the Dublin centered GHQ. According to Hughes, Dublin based GHQ figures had still been requesting aging battle rifles such as the Garand M1 and it's smaller 'cousin' the M1 Carbine, contrary to Belfast's requirements. The late Joe Cahill had even sent word to Noraid in the USA that Hughes was to be sent home but he remained adamant that he was not returning, without first acquiring Ar-15s.

The first batch of AR-15s, around twenty-seven of them, acquired legitimately in the USA from licensed gun-shops, arrived back in Belfast via Southampton docks, courtesy of the QE2. As Brendan Hughes recalled,

"The Armalites made all the difference, not just in the Lower Falls, but in Belfast, and I loved them. I loved the Armalite. They were so compact, so easy to fire, so easy to maintain, not like the old rifles like the Garand, the .303 - they had to be oiled all the time. Armalites were much easier to handle."

By the end of the 1970s, the Armalite had become the Irish Republican weapon of choice. Graffiti appeared on gable walls of working-class Republican ghettos proclaiming, with some justification:

"God created the Irish. The Armalite made us equal!"

It is easy to see how well suited to urban guerrilla warfare and popular the various Ar-15 models became with Irish Republicans. The Armalite weighed as little as 5lbs but had a cyclic rate of up to 800 rounds per minute, had a muzzle velocity of 3,200 ft/second and an effective range of 600 yards. There was little training or maintenance required with the Armalite, making it the perfect urban guerrilla weapon, which could be readily concealed by virtue of a collapsible butt and a barrel length of fewer than 15 inches in some models.

Brendan Hughes with Gerry Adams in Long Kesh prison camp.
Brendan Hughes with Gerry Adams in Long Kesh prison camp.

The AK overtakes the Armalite

By the late 1980s, Kalashnikov assault rifle variants, with their distinctive banana magazine more or less overtook the Armalite as the weapon most closely associated with Irish Republican guerrillas. This was no doubt due to the large stocks of Kalashnikov type rifles arriving in Ireland courtesy of the late Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi, which made the AK a near de facto Provisional IRA standard issue rifle. The Kalashnikov also had a worldwide mystique as the weapon of choice for Leftist guerrilla armies, combined with it's Eastern Bloc lineage.

Increasingly, Irish Republican propaganda footage featured armed volunteers brandishing AK47 type rifles and the Kalashnikov arguably replaced the Armalite as a symbol of resistance, especially on political wall murals in Republican areas. It is debatable whether the Kalashnikov type rifles were a better weapon compared to the Armalite, but what is beyond debate is that there certainly appeared to be a lot more of them.

In conclusion, the Armalite rifle played a significant role in Irish Republican resistance, propaganda and folklore. No other symbolism, apart from perhaps the Phoenix, was so closely associated with the nascent 1970's Provisional IRA, as the Armalite rifle. A Technological Determinist approach could very well argue that the Armalite played its part in shaping and perhaps even prolonging the early guerrilla conflict in the north of Ireland. However, it is without a doubt that the Armalite rifle was a formidable weapon in the hands of Irish Republican activists and was the perfect implement in the close quarters, largely urban guerrilla warfare of the 1970s and beyond.

Irish National Liberation Army volunteer armed with an AK type rifle in West Belfast.
Irish National Liberation Army volunteer armed with an AK type rifle in West Belfast.
Irish Republican Army volunteer armed with an AK type rifle in North Belfast.
Irish Republican Army volunteer armed with an AK type rifle in North Belfast.

'My Little Armalite' Irish Republican Song

© 2019 Liam A Ryan


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