24 Nov 12

In the 1950s, the US Army’s rifle was the venerable gas-piston M14, the generational successor to the famous M1 Garand of WWII and Korea fame. The M14 was heavy and long, at least by today’s standards, but, like its two previous antecedents, it was a real rifleman’s fighting tool. Firing the 7.62×51 round (308 Win), it was, and is, a genuine 500m weapon with enormous penetrative power. It handily shoots through car parts and most building materials. It is a formidable military rifle, even today, and is, in fact, still in commercial production.

The sleek, and equally esteemed, European FAL, also in 7.62×51 caliber, had come close to superceding the M1, but the nod ultimately went to the M14, and the Ordnance Corps never looked back.

Both rifles, with their long range and great power, enfranchised infantryman, encouraging individual initiative and confidence, providing each Soldier and Marine with enormous individual capability. Unhappily, these were qualities disdained and distrusted by bureaucracy-oriented generals, and politicians, since before the Civil War!

Newly elected President JFK, in an effort to reshape the Army into his vision of a more mobile, flexible, adaptable fighting force, suitable to the new “Cold War” period of history the world was just entering, appointed Robert McNamara Secretary of Defense. McNamara was an arrogant Harvard Business School graduate (a redundancy!) and Ford executive. Having never himself worn his country’s uniform during any kind of actual fighting, much less fired a shot in anger, in customary cocksure fashion, McNamara more or less instantly became a self-declared small-arms expert, along with his overconfident gaggle of “whiz-kids.”

Replacing the M14 became McNamara’s chosen method of commemorating his entry into national politics. He decided, based on superficial understanding of the subject, that the M14 represented “old technology.” He needed a glamorous, galvanic replacement, and the new AR15, a product of aircraft-industry engineers, came along at just the right time!

Eugene Stoner’s AR15 had started as the AR10, in 7.62×51 caliber. But, with its redesign in 5.56×45 caliber (223 Rem, an outgrowth of the 222 Rem varment cartridge), it was short and light, and its profile was new, fresh, exciting, and bore scant resemblance to anything before it. It fit perfectly into McNamara’s wet dream! It was a light, high-capacity, short-range rifle, with limited power, providing infantrymen with limited capability. Degrading infantrymen’s individual capability had been a long-time, albeit unspoken, goal of many top-level generals and politicians alike. They reflected the identical thinking of those who, during the Revolutionary War, loved muskets, but hated rifles!

And, as expected, there was much institutional push-back! The Ordnance Corps contemptuously regarded the AR as an “… ugly little toy,” and the 5.56×45 cartridge as fatally lacking in penetration and range, much the same criticism it continues to receive today! Many in the Ordnance Corps jealously enjoyed the capability and initiative-encouraging qualities of the M14. They fervently believed individual American infantrymen could be taught to use, to their ultimate advantage, every bit of capability inherent in the 7.62×51 cartridge. McNamara and his ilk didn’t!

Enter Colt’s sales team. The AR’s cash-strapped producer, California-based and aircraft-oriented, Armalite, sold the AR to Colt. And, Colt’s prestigious team of salesmen went right to work! They tried to interest police departments in the rifle by conducting live-fire demonstrations around the country, shooting cars, water jugs, et al. Ridiculous, indeed comical, claims were made for the new rifle and cartridge. For example, the rifle was described as “self-cleaning,” so user-level maintenance was unnecessary! The little, 55gr bullet was said to easily penetrate “common building materials” (they must have meant plywood!). Sales people euphemistically excuse such blatant lies by referring to them as innocent “puffery.”

But, the really cathartic event took place, oddly enough, at a 4th of July (1960) dinner-party at the fashionable MD farm of Richard Boutelle, president of aircraft-manufacturer, Fairchild. Then Air Force Vice-Chief of Staff, and WWII hero, General Curtis LeMay was one of the honored guests. A copy of the new AR15 just happened to be there, and the General was invited to use it to shoot fat watermelons, which had been conspicuously set up for the demonstration.

At fifty meters, the good General could hardly miss, and the resultant spectacular shower of red and green watermelon pieces instantly made the desired impression! Less than a year later, now newly-promoted General LeMay ordered 8,500 copies of the AR, along with ammunition needed to feed them. In classic bureaucratic fashion, worrisome limitations of the rifle and cartridge were ignored, covered-up, and eventually swept aside. The AR had successfully snuck into the System, and quickly gained a sufficient bureaucratic foothold that McNamara, seizing the opportunity, was able to fast-track it and, virtually overnight, forcibly foist it, without adequate testing, upon everyone.

That lack of adequate testing lead directly to the deaths of Marines and Soldiers alike several years later in Vietnam. Initial issued copies of the AR, and first lots of ammunition, exhibited functional problems (problems that would have easily been discovered and corrected during testing), the result of which were bullet-riddled bodies of more than one American Serviceman discovered, clutching in death, his non-functioning AR! It took decades for the AR to shed that reputation. In fact, those inexcusable deaths have not been forgotten, nor forgiven, even to this day!

Atta-boys at the Pentagon, in an effort to make themselves look good to those up the food-chain, as noted above, bought the promotional line that the AR was “self-cleaning,” so no cleaning gear was issued! By the time I got there (1968), most of those initial difficulties had been corrected, after hard lessons noted above, and the ARs we used ran well. By that time, we had lubricants and cleaning gear for them and used it religiously!

Today, fifty-plus years later, Eugene Stoner’s ingenious “pressurized receiver” system, while far from perfect, runs well, at least when reasonably maintained and well lubricated. Conversely, the 5.56×45 cartridge, despite numerous revisions, still lacks range and penetration, and always will.

So, of the three candidates of the day, M14, FAL, and AR, the AR was the unlikely winner. Are trivial “watermelon demonstrations” the typical method by which great nations make important decisions affecting generations to come? More often than not, the answer is “yes!” Ambitious, arrogant, willful men and women, in national politics, constantly seek the means necessary to make things go their way, unfailingly for all the wrong reasons!

In Stalin’s, Hitler’s, Mussolini’s, and Ho Chi Minh’s case, all with never the slightest thought for the real people harmed in the process. In this civilization, we at least make a pretense of concern for human cost, but, as we see, it is, indeed, still mostly pretense!