This article, “ArmaLite Turns 50: Golden Days At ArmaLite,” appeared originally in the December 2004 issue of American Rifleman. To subscribe to the magazine, visit the NRA membership page here and select American Rifleman as your member magazine.
Bringing Small Arms Into The Space Age
As detailed in The ArmaLite AR-10 by Maj. Sam Pikula, USAR, The Black Rifle by R. Blake Stevens and Edward C. Ezell and the company’s own official history available at armalite.com, the ArmaLite story starts with George Sullivan, patent counsel for Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. Visionary, firearm enthusiast and huckster all describe Sullivan. His job at Lockheed was crucial to subsequent events because it meant that Sullivan was aware of the latest technological breakthroughs and space-age materials at a time when the American small-arms industry was stagnated and relatively antiquated. Small arms were built only of steel and wood, and new products were simply derived from evolutionary changes to old ones.
While not a professional, Sullivan had a passion for small-arms design. Through contacts in the aviation industry, that passion eventually came to the attention of fellow firearm enthusiast Richard Boutelle, who happened to be president of Fairchild Aircraft. Boutelle was intrigued by Sullivan’s ideas and, in the early 1950s, provided funding for a foray into the business of designing small arms. Sullivan set up shop in Hollywood, Calif., in a small building affectionately referred to as “George’s Backyard Garage.” Initially, the hope was to create sporting arms for the commercial market using modern, high-tech materials. The first effort, for example, was a .308 Win.-cal., Mauser-style bolt-action with a foam-filled plastic stock and aluminum receiver and barrel with a thin steel liner. Very few examples of this rifle, variously called the AR-1 and “Parasniper,” were produced.
As envisioned by Sullivan, ArmaLite was not intended to be a firearm manufacturer; ArmaLite’s stock-in-trade was to be ideas. The company would use knowledge of materials and manufacturing techniques gleaned from the aircraft industry to create radical new designs. It would then build prototypes of those designs and market them to manufacturers who would produce them under license. Sullivan proposed that Fairchild purchase ArmaLite and make it a division of the company, and in that way inject additional capital into the venture. Boutelle agreed and, on October 1, 1954, ArmaLite became a division of Fairchild Aircraft.
A Change Of Direction
Shortly thereafter, ArmaLite was invited to submit a rifle for consideration by the Air Force for its new survival rifle. The firearm the company submitted, a .22 Hornet-cal. bolt-action takedown with a four-shot magazine, was dubbed the AR-5. The gun’s barrel could be detached from the action and stored in the plastic stock. With the buttcap then replaced, the 2 3⁄4-lb. gun could float. The Air Force adopted the gun as the MA-1, but never purchased it in quantity. Despite that, though, the interest shown by the military took ArmaLite in a whole new direction. From that moment on, the company would focus on military designs.
While testing an ArmaLite prototype at the Topanga Canyon Shooting Range in southern California, Sullivan met a gentleman who lived in nearby Los Angeles and made dental plates for a living. He was a former Marine who also happened to be an amateur firearm designer. In fact, he was testing one of his own designs that day. His name was Eugene Stoner. Shortly thereafter, Stoner found himself in the employ of ArmaLite as its chief design engineer.
While Sullivan had been the company’s visionary, day-to-day operations were run by Charles Dorchester, who served in numerous executive capacities, including president and eventually chairman of ArmaLite. While the company conceived and developed various designs, it was a semi-automatic rifle with an unusual locking action and unique gas system that would make Stoner—and ArmaLite—famous. It was called the AR-10 and was the focus of ArmaLite’s efforts from 1955 until 1959.
The AR-10 looked radically different from anything previously seen. It had an integral carry handle atop the receiver that contained the gun’s iron sights. The cocking lever was on top of the receiver and articulated in the opening of the handle. The fore-end was not wood, but fiberglass and, later, plastic, thanks to plastics engineer Tom Tellefson. Inside, it was just as radical with an eight-lug, rotary bolt locking not into the receiver, but into a steel barrel extension. That allowed the receiver to be made from lightweight, rustproof, forged aluminum rather than heavy, rust-prone steel.
The rotary bolt and barrel extension was borrowed from the Johnson rifle designed by Melvin M. Johnson. (Johnson was the East Coast military rifle consultant for ArmaLite and had a contentious relationship with the military dating back to his efforts to get the Johnson rifle adopted in place of the M1 Garand. Some speculate that his involvement with ArmaLite didn’t help the company’s chances with the military.) The lock-up may have been Johnson’s, but the gas system was Stoner’s.
As described in The Black Rifle:
“[S]toner’s gas system utilized a simple open pipe, a concept first used in the Swedish Ljungman Gevar 42 and the later French 1944 and 1949 MAS semi-automatic rifles. In these relatively rudimentary applications, the gas piston and spring of a conventional gas-impingement system were replaced by the jet of hot gas itself, which traveled back through the hollow gas tube and impinged directly onto the face of the bolt carrier. The kernel of genius in Stoner’s gas system was that the AR-10’s gas tube, running along the left side of the barrel under the handguard, fed the gas through aligned ports in the receiver and bolt carrier wall into a chamber formed between the tail of the bolt and the surrounding bolt carrier. This forced the bolt carrier back. After about 1/8” of movement, the port in the carrier no longer lined up with the port in the receiver, and the further flow of gas was cut off. The momentum already imparted was sufficient to keep the bolt carrier moving, which unlocked the bolt by rotating it with a connecting cam pin, thus beginning its rearward travel. With the gas cylinder at maximum size and the bullet long since out of the muzzle, what little pressure remained was exhausted as a weak ‘puff’ through slots in the right side of the bolt carrier.”
Battling The Big Boys
The gun was quickly entered into the ongoing service rifle competition then pitting the Springfield T44 against the T48, a version of the FN FAL. The AR-10 arrived on the scene too late and with too little development to best the other rifles in the trials and the contract was awarded to the T44, which was adopted by the military as the M14.
However, a handful of researchers at Aberdeen Ballistics Research Laboratories—among them American Rifleman Ballistics Editor William C. Davis—had come up with some pretty radical notions of their own. Despite years of insistence by Army brass on .30-cal. rifles for combat use, some ballisticians within the military had begun to explore the feasibility of lesser calibers. The Hall Study, conducted by Donald L. Hall, had concluded that, given a rifle and ammunition combination with a total weight of 15 lbs., a soldier armed with a small-caliber rifle could kill, on average, 2.5 times as many of the enemy as a soldier armed with an M1 rifle and ammunition.
This was followed shortly by The Hitchman Report prepared by Norman Hitchman. It determined that most soldiers do not engage the enemy until he has closed to 300 yds., and that hit potential was rather low until combatants had closed to 100 yds. Therefore, the accuracy and power of .30-cal. U.S. battle rifles—built to a 600-yd. standard—were excessive. Practically speaking, equal results could, in theory, be achieved with smaller, less powerful, less accurate and less costly arms. This led to the Small Caliber, High Velocity (SCHV) concept. In addition to maintaining practical effectiveness, a small cartridge would recoil less, be more controllable in fully automatic fire (a distinct problem encountered with the .308 Win.-cal. M14), could be carried in greater quantity by individual soldiers and would allow a lighter, handier rifle than a .30-cal. cartridge. ArmaLite was consequently asked to explore reducing the AR-10 to .22-caliber. The company agreed, though it continued to seek sales of its .30 cal. domestically and abroad.
When the military requested that ArmaLite investigate downsizing the AR-10 to accommodate a .22-cal. cartridge, it’s doubtful the company realized how significant the request was to prove. Modifying the .222 Rem. cartridge and freely building on the work done at Aberdeen, Stoner—no ballistician—created the round that eventually became known as the .223 Rem. (5.56 mm NATO). Meanwhile, Arma-Lite designers Robert Fremont and L. James Sullivan downsized the AR-10, not an easy task since it wasn’t a matter of a consistent ratio of reduction from the large gun to the small one.
Once completed, the new gun—referred to as the AR-15—was largely ignored by the military bureaucracy that had initiated its development. Factions within the military were still uncomfortable with SCHV, while some felt the military was too far along in its commitment to the new M14 service rifle to change at that point.
From Bad To Worse
In the meantime, things were going badly with the AR-10. It is important to remember that Armalite was conceived of as a design shop rather than a manufacturing entity. The company contracted with Artillerie-Inrichtingen, the Dutch arsenal, to build the rifle, hoping for sales to foreign militaries. However, the company had never had the funds to properly develop the gun completely. There were numerous bugs that had to be worked out of the design, bugs a larger company might have anticipated and dealt with easily. Moreover, manufacturing obstacles continually delayed production, frustrating ArmaLite executives. Further, with the exception of a contract with Sudan—which no one has ever mistaken for a world power—the rifles weren’t selling, even to the Dutch whose arsenal was building them.
Finally, with no future AR-10 sales on the horizon, the military’s interest in the SCHV concept apparently waning and Fairchild strapped for cash, ArmaLite chose to cut its losses and, in early 1959, licensed the rights to both the AR-10 and AR-15 designs to Colt’s Manufacturing for $75,000 and a 4.5 percent royalty.
Although it is widely regarded as a milestone in the history of bad ideas, the licensing agreement with Colt’s was not irrational given what was known at the time. Colt’s—itself near bankruptcy—was taking a gamble. Fortunately, that company’s luck was much better than ArmaLite’s. Its luck came in two forms: rising tensions in Vietnam, and the person of Robert W. “Bobby” MacDonald.
When the U.S. decided to intervene in Southeast Asia, it helped set the stage for the ultimate triumph of the AR-15. The election of John F. Kennedy and the appointment of Robert S. McNamara as Secretary of Defense meant that change had come to arms procurement. With McNamara’s “Whiz Kids” steeped in no tradition save arrogance, the traditional channels of trial, development and adoption could be breached. That is just what happened when Colt representatives took the AR-15 to Indochina.
The American government had decided that, despite the focus on strategic nuclear weapons, small arms for fighting limited wars against insurgents were needed and had been neglected. Developing and securing such weapons was to be the mandate of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). These weapons were not to be carried by U.S. personnel, per se, but were to arm U.S.-backed foreign nationals. It was the result of such a program, specifically Project AGILE, that brought Colt’s representatives, including MacDonald and now Stoner, to the Far East to demonstrate the AR-10 and AR-15. The smaller arm was a tremendous hit with the diminutive foreign troops. The gun and its shooting characteristics appealed to those of smaller stature far more than did the AR-10 or any other .30-cal. battle rifle. Moreover, the AR-15 had virtually no competition from like-chambered combat rifles—there were none. MacDonald promptly informed Colt’s to focus on the AR-15 rather than the AR-10 and to gear up for the Asian market.
Stateside, MacDonald was no less effective. At Boutelle’s birthday party in Maryland, MacDonald handed Air Force General Curtis LeMay an AR-15 and let him shoot a couple of watermelons with devastating effect. The result was two exploded melons and LeMay’s quick request that AR-15s be purchased to replace M1 Carbines for Air Force personnel responsible for the security of Strategic Air Command bases.
In Vietnam, the role of the “black gun” continued to expand. Although it was supposed to be issued only to foreign troops, U.S. personnel gradually began carrying the new rifle, too. Obviously, this made logistic sense since they were traveling with AR-15-equipped ARVN soldiers. But also, American personnel noted that the light, fast-handling gun was better suited to jungle warfare than any other battle rifle-caliber longarm available. At first it was issued only to specialized personnel, but soon became a general-issue arm. ArmaLite could only watch in bitter astonishment as the AR-15 became the standard-issue U.S. service rifle, supplanting the bulky M14.
There were, of course, problems with the AR-15 (which was subsequently given the military designation M16). Many of those problems were directly attributable to how the arm was adopted—without adequate testing of the gun nor training for the soldiers. However, with the wherewithal that comes from having enormous government contracts, Colt’s, with Stoner as a consultant, was eventually able correct serious problems, especially the extraction and jamming issues that plagued the early guns and were only discovered after the rifles were widely issued.
After having reduced the AR-10 to produce the AR-15, ArmaLite reversed course and took what had been learned from the AR-15 and scaled it up to create a new, improved AR-10 called the AR-10A. The future, however, was clearly with the .223-Rem.-chambered rifle, and it appeared that the age of the AR-10 would never come.
The Dream Winds Down
Boutelle was eventually relieved of his position with Fairchild. George Sullivan, the ArmaLite muse, landed more softly: He had never left his position with Lockheed.
Recognizing that the .223 Rem. was the hot ticket, ArmaLite was faced with the problem that the AR-15 patents now belonged to Colt’s. The company then created a “poor man’s .223” called the AR-18. It was to be a low-cost .223 rifle made from stampings rather than forgings and having a different gas system than the AR-15. It would allow less-wealthy countries to equip their militaries with a .223 Rem.-cal. rifle.
However, despite two decades of effort, the company’s luck ran true to form and sales of the AR-18 were very limited. In the end, ArmaLite was sold to Elisco Tool Manufacturing Company, a Philippine concern whose U.S. component folded with the overthrow of Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos.
Restoring The Dream
In January of 1994, Mark Westrom, a former Army Ordnance officer and civilian employee of the Weapons Systems Management Directorate of the Army’s Armament Materiel and Chemical Command (AMCCOM) purchased Eagle Arms, a small company that made AR-15-type rifles and parts following the expiration of Stoner’s patents. A business associate of Eagle Arms, Dr. John Williams, had worked for ArmaLite in his youth and introduced Westrom to former ArmaLite Production Manager John McGerty who, in turn, introduced Westrom to John Ugarte. Ugarte had been the last president of record at ArmaLite and had retained the rights to the trademark; Westrom promptly purchased those rights. Thus was the ArmaLite marque reborn.