Eugene Stoner's creation of the AR-10 rifle led in turn to the development of the AR-15 and the eventual U.S. military adoption of the M16 rifle. SN 1036
The ArmaLite Division of Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation traces its origins to to the efforts of two men who sought to design a military-style rifle that represented a radical departure traditional from its predecessors. In the early 1950s, engineer/attorney George Sullivan teamed with inventor Jacques Michault to create prototype rifles that featured lightweight aluminum receivers, straight-line fiberglass stocks, high-line sights, and receiver-mounted carrying handles.
Sullivan later met with Richard S. Boutelle, president of Fairchild, and told him of his efforts. Boutelle was interested in this project, and as a result, ArmaLite was founded as a Fairchild subsidiary in 1954. Eugene Stoner, a former U.S. Marine and ordnance technician, became ArmaLite's chief engineer. Stoner, along with designer L. James Sullivan and supervisor Robert Fremont, were instrumental in determining the course and success of the company. ArmaLite's charter required it to develop and perfect prototype designs that would then be licensed to manufacturers for actual production. The company's first products, the AR-1 and AR-3, never entered production, but they did prove the feasibility of concepts that made use of modern designs and materials.
ArmaLite's first success came in 1957 with the design of the AR-5. This rifle was a bolt-action breakdown rifle chambered for the .22 Hornet cartridge and was intended for use as a survival arm by U.S. Air Force crews. The gun's barrel and receiver could be stored in its hollow fiberglass buttstock that, in addition to its ability to float, also provided a storage place for fish hooks, matches, and other supplies. The AR-5 was accepted for military use, but expected sales failed to materialize because the Air Force had already purchased a large inventory of Harrington & Richardson M4 and M6 survival guns. The AR-5's design became the basis of the civilian AR-7. The gun was chambered for the popular .22 long rifle cartridge and employed a semi-automatic blowback action rather than the bolt operation of its predecessor. ArmaLite briefly manufactured the AR-7 before selling production rights to Charter Arms Corporation.
This company manufactured the AR-7 until 1990, when Survival Arms, Inc. took over production under license from Charter Arms/Charco. Not all of ArmaLite's designs were rifles. The AR-9, which dates from 1955, was a semi-automatic shotgun that featured a polycarbonate stock and an anodized aluminum barrel and receiver. The AR-9 was not produced, but many of its features were incorporated into the AR-17 "Golden Gun", a two-cartridge gun that met with limited success. Other ArmaLite rifles were intended for use by military and police forces. The most famous of these are the AR-10 and AR-15 rifles. The AR-10's development dates to 1953, when inventor Melvin M. Johnson, Jr. was employed by the company as a consultant.
Prior to the Second World War, Johnson, a U.S. Marine Corps officer, invented a military rifle that later saw success with the Marines in the jungles of the Pacific. The Johnson semiautomatic rifle and the Johnson Light Machine Gun employed a cam-controlled rotary bolt, a feature that was incorporated into the AR-10. The AR-10 also used a simplified gas system that had been proven in the Swedish Ljungman Gevar 42 and French MAS rifles. One notable feature of the AR-10's design was its high stock, which channeled recoil forces backward rather than upward. This design, as well as the AR-10's effective titanium muzzle brake, made the rifle easy to control when fired in the fully-automatic mode.
Originally designed to chamber the .30-06 cartridge, this rifle was later modified to accept the 7.62mm NATO round. The AR-10 competed unsuccessfully in Ordnance trials against the Springfield M14 rifle, but the rifle found some success in overseas markets. Colt Industries was licensed to produce an improved AR-10 with various options and modifications, including light machine gun and sniper variants, but these too failed to generate large numbers of sales. This Colt/ArmaLite association foreshadowed a later and vastly more successful venture.
Between 1956 and 1959, ArmaLite engineers developed a scaled-down version of the AR-10, with many of the same features. Generally credited to Eugene Stoner, the new AR-15 actually incorporated design features that pre-dated Stoner's tenure with the company. This rifle used the same recoil and gas systems as its larger cousin, but its smaller size presented special challenges. The AR-15 chambered a specially-developed .222 Remington magnum caliber cartridge, which later became the now-standard .223 caliber/5.56mm NATO round. This cartridge produced higher gas pressures in its smaller chamber than did the larger 7.62mm round. In addition, the .223 had a flatter trajectory than the 7.62. ArmaLite engineers had to make provisions in their designs to accommodate both of these characteristics with modifications to the gas system and sights. In 1958, the AR-15 was tested by the Army as a possible replacement for the M14.
Although the new rifle performed well, the Army would go no farther than to suggest the need to develop a reliable light-weight rifle like the AR-15 as an eventual replacement for larger infantry arms. Several design changes came out of these tests, including the addition of a stronger barrel with a two-piece handguard, relocation of the cocking lever from under the top carry handle to the rear of the receiver, modification of the "safe" switch, reduction of magazine capacity from 25 to 20 rounds, and an increasing of receiver and magazine clearances and feed ramp modification for better reliability under combat conditions. Convinced that the military would not adopt the AR-15 and faced with financial problems, ArmaLite sold the production rights for the rifle to Colt Industries in 1959. With the help of Eugene Stoner, Colt began aggressive marketing of the AR-15 to nations throughout Asia, and these efforts met with immediate success.
Unfortunately, U.S. aid to these nations required them to purchase firearms that were compatible with those used by U.S. forces. Fairchild president Richard Boutelle enjoyed a close personal friendship with U.S. Air Force general Curtis LeMay, and as a result of an impromptu demonstration during a skeet shooting session, LeMay became interested in testing the AR-15 for possible use by Air Force security personnel. Testing at both Lackland Air Force Base and at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Grounds showed the AR-15 to be a formidable infantry arm.
Army special unit field tests in Vietnam confirmed this finding, and in 1962, Congress approved an initial purchase of 8,500 AR-15s. The AR-15 still faced challenges from Army brass and from ammunition and maintenance-related "bugs" that were later worked out, but the "black rifle" went on to prove itself in Southeast Asia and in other conflicts around the world. The AR-15, later designated the M16, has seen additional modifications and variations over its nearly forty year lifespan, and is currently produced both by Colt and by various licensed companies around the world. Several million AR-15/M16s have been produced.
This rifle's success has spurred the development of both clones and other small caliber/high velocity combat arms. In addition to its widespread acceptance among the world's military forces, the AR-15 is also a favorite with both law enforcement agencies and with competitive shooters. ArmaLite was purchased by a Philippine conglomerate, but the company name and trademarks were in turn purchased by Eagle Arms, Inc. of Geneseo, Illinois.
In an era of hard-hitting, post-World War II battle rifles, Eugene Stoner's innovative design led the way into the modern age of small arms.
Eugene Stoner, newly hired chief engineer for the California-based ArmaLite Corporation, began working on an interesting prototype battle rifle in 1955 incorporating a number of features inspired by Melvin Johnson's remarkable light machine guns.
External similarities to the Johnson Light Machine Gun included straight-line layout, pistol grip, detachable box magazine and high-mounted sights. Inside, at the heart of the weapon, was Johnson's patented eight-lug rotary bolt, allowing strong positive locking into a barrel extension.
Stoner leaped over two centuries of firearms tradition by putting this bolt system inside a relatively weak but very light and inexpensive aluminum alloy receiver. Further weight savings over traditional autoloading designs were realized in fiberglass-reinforced plastic furniture and Stoner's patented update development of a direct gas system.
By early 1957, three successive prototypes had been built, tested, and improved upon to the point where serious efforts could be made to find a production facility to handle quantity manufacture. ArmaLite/Fairchild partner Richard Boutelle used his inside track with the Dutch to cut a deal with the government-owned firm of Artillerie-Inrichtingen, which reportedly, invested the equivalent 2.5 million U.S. dollars into state-of-the-art machinery and tooling.
Unfortunately, all was not well over in Holland where delays were soon being experienced because of conversion from inches to millimeters, modifications resulting from field trials, and a bit more than usual debugging of the production process. Because of this, several large orders were lost to the excellent Belgian-designed FAL.
Seemingly undaunted, Stoner kept up ArmaLite's commitment to the project by fabricating an AR-10 family of weapons utilizing a common core of parts and assemblies to the greatest practical extent. These included a shortened carbine, a sniper rifle, a belt-fed light machine gun, and a heavy-barreled squad automatic weapon.
In spite of many impressive demonstrations worldwide, the radical new AR-10 rifle just didn't sell. The final blow for Artillerie-Inrichtingen came when even the Dutch Army rejected it, joining the parade of most other European nations who were fielding the FAL.
Here Comes Colt
In 1959, ArmaLite revoked the Dutch license and awarded it to the famous American gunmaker Colt. This arrangement proved mutually beneficial in that the stodgy and financially troubled Colt got a exciting new product while ArmaLite was now associated with an American-based company having a long and well- established reputation for sporting, police and military guns.
What followed for the AR-15 is a colorful story that should be well known to military rifle enthusiasts. The ArmaLite/Colt rifle, ultimately chambered in .223 has confounded most of its critics to become, as the M16A1 series, the standard issue assault rifle for the U.S. Armed Forces and a host of allied nations. There is every indication that this will remain true well into the 21st century.
As for the AR-10, somewhere between 5,000 to 6,000 production copies of all models were made at Artillerie-Inrichtingen. Amid some dark speculation about the CIA buying up a bunch for various spooky programs, ArmaLite's openly confirmed large deliveries were only to Guatemala, Sudan and Portugal, totaling about 3,000.
In the early 1980s the American firm Paragon Sales and Service of Romeoville, Ill., bought from Artillerie-Inrichtingen a quantity of original selective-fire AR-10 rifles and spare parts sets. Some 200 parts sets were assembled on Telko Inc.'s new machined-aluminum semiauto receivers for sale to the general public as the "XM-10." These were quickly snapped up despite a $1,200 price tag.
Field Test Notes
The AR-l0's sights are tried-and-true aperture rear and post front, protected against damage by the sides of the forged aluminum carrying handle and milled steel "ears" on the front riser assembly. They are easily and quickly adjusted for windage and elevation with the two large knurled drums located on the carrying handle/sight rail.
The distinctive stamped waffle-pattern aluminum magazines are quite flimsy and so light it is reported that empty ones have a tendency to remain in place even after the mag release is depressed. Also, the feed lips are notorious for sustaining terminal damage in even moderately rough handling.
The magazine release button is easily reached with the index finger of the right hand even while maintaining a good hold on the pistol grip. However, the button is exposed in a vulnerable position above the surrounding receiver. This can easily mean inadvertent loss of a full mag when energetically carrying out any variety of military duties.
The selector switch is well located just above the pistol grip on the left side of the lower receiver and can be operated by a thumb without having to release the gripping hand.
Cocking the AR-10 takes a bit of getting used to. While most shooters are accustomed to grabbing a side-mounted cocking handle (like the M2 carbine's) or even drawing back on the little charging handle on the M16, the experience of inserting a knuckle into the AR-l0's carrying handle slot is a bit awkward at first. To compound the problem, the charging handle -- looking for all the world like an extremely disoriented trigger -- has to be pressed downward a bit to unlock before it can be drawn rearward.
The trigger pull on factory built AR-l0s has been described as "marginal to poor." For anyone who is not an accomplished target shooter, the gun's trigger release will be entirely satisfactory as military rifles go.
The AR-10, like the Belgian FAL and the German G-3, has a couple of virtues that are immediately apparent on firing. Their straight-line buttstock, pistol grip, and high sights all contribute to fast, instinctive handling and little barrel movement on firing.
The optional heavier plastic composition foregrip with sheet metal extender and light folding bipod make the gun about 2.5 lbs. heavier than a standard rifle, putting weight a bit forward of the regular balance point to minimize climb in rapid fire from a number of unsupported positions.
The AR-10 really shines when the bipod legs are dropped into the dirt and firing begins from the prone supported position. The rifle stayed right on target shot after shot. Even on full auto, it behaved well as long as a tight hold was maintained in the classic auto rifle manner; right hand on the pistol grip, left on the comb of the buttstock, and cheek pressed tightly against that hand.
Goad News and Bad News
The AR-10 fires from a closed bolt (when the trigger is pulled, the bolt is already fully forward and a round is locked in the chamber), which is good for accuracy. However, this system is prone to overheating and "cook-off" when fired full-auto for even a relatively short duration.
Unlike the Soviet AK-47 and the German G-3, the AR-10 is provided with a bolt hold-open device that keeps the action open after the last round in the mag is fired. This is quite useful in operation as the locked open bolt instantly signals the gunner that it is time to insert a fresh mag. A potentially fatal second or two is also saved in not having to cycle the operating handle -- just hit the bolt release and the rifle is ready to shoot again.
With one notable exception, field stripping and maintenance are fast and easy thanks to the simplicity of the parts and the hinged receiver that allows instant access and easy reach into remote corners. No special tools are required for pushing through the takedown pins. These stay locked to the receiver so you don't have to paw around in the dirt or snow to recover them.
All this having been said, there is perhaps no one who has ever gotten an AR-10's or M16's chamber extension area, forward of the bolt locking lugs, properly cleaned and decarbonized without going through extraordinary contortions accompanied by foul cursing.
Despite these misgivings, the ArmaLite AR-10 is an extremely interesting and innovative main battle rifle that is arguably as effective and capable as most of its better-known counterparts worldwide. Think about what might have happened had it not been for administrative and technical problems surrounding startup production in Holland. It is not unreasonable to speculate that Stoner's AR-10 could well have taken a place among the "Big Four" military rifles of the early Cold War period; FAL, CETME/G3, M14, and AK-47.
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