Modern Sporting Rifle: Company Roots & Early Attitudes

Aeronautics Company Roots

The true story behind the invention of this class of firearms is very American.

The AR-15, and its offspring the M16, got their start in an American aeronautics company. Some smart engineers wanted to use new materials and technology to make guns for the public. Soon after World War II one of the most remarkable conversations in the history of the American gun is said to have taken place when an aeronautical engineer named George Sullivan spoke with a Brussels-based arms dealer named Jacques Michault.

Michault entertained Sullivan with stories about the Germans making lighter guns faster from stamped parts. This made Sullivan realize that guns could benefit from the aviation industry’s use of new materials and manufacturing techniques. Sullivan understood that guns were still largely stuck in the nineteenth century—they still had heavy wood stocks and blocky, machined steel parts. He saw a huge opportunity.

A few years later, in 1953, Sullivan convinced the Fairchild Engine and Aircraft Corporation to create a new division that would invent gun designs by utilizing new materials and manufacturing processes then being perfected for airplanes.[1] Sullivan met Paul S. Cleveland, Fairchild’s Corporate Secretary, at a meeting of an aircraft industry committee and discussed using new materials to bring guns up to date. Cleveland took this idea to Richard S. Boutelle, Fairchild’s president and a long-time gun enthusiast. Boutelle loved the idea and hired Sullivan to create an arm of the company that would develop space-age small arms.

Sullivan named the Fairchild subsidiary “ArmaLite.” The division became known as “George’s Backyard Garage” and was located in Hollywood, California.[2]

The idea was that Sullivan would create gun prototypes by utilizing lightweight, modern alloys and plastics the company would then license to firearms manufacturers. The initial plan was to produce sporting firearms for the commercial market. They hoped that some of the concepts would eventually be used by the military. But shortly after Fairchild established its ArmaLite division, ArmaLite was invited to submit a rifle to the U.S. Air Force as a replacement for the then-standard survival rifle. ArmaLite submitted the AR-5, a .22 Hornet survival rifle that they said “floated” for Air Force evaluation. The AR-5 was adopted and designated the MA-1 Survival Rifle, but few were made as the gun fell out of favor.

The initial success with the AR-5 led Fairchild to reverse strategy and focus on the military market. The decision to forgo the average consumer for the military would turn out to be a great miscalculation. But at the time Fairchild was flush with revenue from other parts of its vast business. For a while this enabled Sullivan to experiment freely without worrying about making a profit.

As he developed new gun designs, Sullivan would bring his experimental firearms to the Topanga Canyon Shooting Range for testing. This led to the next fortuitous meeting that would change the future of the gun. At the range Sullivan happened to see Eugene Stoner, a former U.S. Marine who had served in Aviation Ordnance during WWII, shooting what looked to be a homemade rifle. Stoner was then a design engineer making dental plates. Sullivan and Stoner started talking. Before long Stoner joined Sullivan’s team as chief engineer for ArmaLite.[3]

For the next five years almost all ArmaLite’s activity was focused on developing military firearms. Stoner had been working on small arms independently since WWII. Stoner’s patents would form the basis of much of ArmaLite’s work. From the beginning, another man, Charles Dorchester, directed and coordinated all development programs, first as general manager of the ArmaLite Division of Fairchild, later as president of ArmaLite, Inc. The combined efforts of these three individuals quickly resulted in revolutionary changes in combat weapon concepts.

Modern Sporting Rifle - Shooting

Army Skeptical at First

In 1955 ArmaLite submitted a gun design, the AR-10, devised by Stoner but based on Sullivan’s concepts using anodized aluminum, a plastic butt stock and other materials, to the U.S. Army. The Army was then searching for a new service rifle. The AR-10 looked cosmetically like what would later be the AR-15 and then the M16, but the AR-10 used the larger 7.62 mm chambering, a .30-caliber cartridge used by NATO. The chambering wasn’t novel, but the AR-10 was a modern rifle, a new rifle for an age with molded plastic cups, dashboards and toothbrushes. It was a modular looking rifle with a carry handle on top that utilized space-age materials. The AR-10 might have looked awkward at first, but it lightly fit into a person’s shoulder and pointed well. It also weighed 7.25 pound without a magazine—about two pounds lighter than the M14 with which it was competing.

The Army, however, was skeptical. Time magazine profiled the AR-10 and called it a new “aluminum rifle” produced “at no cost to the taxpayer” and said the rifle “gave promise of being superior.”[4] At the time the Springfield Armory was still making guns for the U.S. military, as it had since George Washington founded it.

Civilian gun designers had always collaborated with the Armory and often pushed new designs into the hands of soldiers and citizens alike, but if this rifle was accepted it could mean the end to the Armory, as the Armory was counting on making the M14 and didn’t have the know-how to make plastic stocks and rifles with anodized aluminum parts. Some of the U.S. Army’s leadership were also reportedly turned off by ArmaLite’s media blitz.[5]

The AR-10 didn’t win a military contract for these and other reasons; however, in 1955, U.S. Army Colonel Henry Neilsen and General Willard Wyman got together and discussed the possibility of the AR-10 being chambered in a lighter caliber to truly make it a rifle for the future. Both were intrigued with the potential of this new rifle design. So intrigued that in 1956 both Neilsen and Wyman visited Stoner at ArmaLite to discuss the idea of chambering the AR-10 in a cartridge that would shoot a .22-caliber, 55-grain bullet at 3,250 feet per second at the muzzle.[6]

Stoner went to work and soon developed the AR-15, a lighter, 5.56 mm version of the AR-10. More military trials came as Wyman found ways to give the AR-15 a chance to win a military contract in 1957. Meanwhile, the Secretary of the U.S. Army, Wilbur Brucker, announced the adoption of the M14 as the new service rifle. The M14 had gone through years of manufacturing delays and bureaucratic problems, but was finally ready for full production. Meanwhile, both Wyman and Neilsen, ArmaLite’s biggest fans, retired in 1958. As more tests took place the AR-15 seemed to have come along too soon and too late for the U.S. military.

 


[1] “A Historical Review of Armalite,” January 2010. (http://www.armalite.com/images/Library/History.pdf)
[2] Alexander Rose, American Rifle: A Biography, Delacorte Press, 2008.
[3] D.T. McElrath, “Golden Days at ArmaLite,” American Rifleman, December 2004.
[4] “The Aluminum Rifle,” Time, December 3, 1956.
[5] T.L. McNaugher, The M16 Controversies: Military Organizations and Weapons Acquisition, New York, Praeger, 1984.
[6] Alexander Rose, American Rifle, Delacorte Press, 2008.