By Al Paulson
When America’s premier small arms designer, Gene Stoner, turned 70, I was privileged to join a very small group of family and friends from his days at ArmaLite for the celebration. Stoner revolutionized military small arms with his AR-10 and AR-15 rifles, which were manufactured with materials and fabrication techniques he had used for years as a design engineer in the aircraft industry. Those who knew and worked with Gene Stoner admired his genius. But they admired the man himself more. For above all, Gene Stoner was a gracious and soft-spoken gentleman whose humility, understated humor, unswerving honesty and utter dependability made him a man among men.
Stoner’s career started out as a hobby, which received a substantial technical boost from his work as a Marine armorer in the Philippines, Okinawa and China during World War II. Corporal Stoner got the opportunity to experiment with different machineguns and even build a few prototypes. Stoner’s revolutionary approach to fabrication techniques, and the use of novel materials like aluminum and plastic, can be traced to his work in the aircraft industry, which began before the war. After mustering out of the Marines, Stoner returned to work in the aircraft industry. The company where he worked had a nice machine shop, so Stoner began to build prototype firearms.
One day in 1954, Stoner was out shooting several prototypes at a local range and accidently met George Sullivan, who had just convinced the president of Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation—Richard Boutelle—into establishing a small arms division. Sullivan was quite impressed with Stoner’s straight-line stock, rotary bolt, light-weight aluminum receivers, and his ideas on mechanisms for automatic weapons. Stoner liked Sullivan’s ideas on the concept of foam-filled plastic stocks. Sullivan asked Stoner if wanted to be the chief designer for the new Fairchild company, which would be called ArmaLite.
Stoner accepted the offer and brought his prototypes along. A prototype that Stoner had built back in 1949 quickly evolved into the AR-10. Soon the handful of young visionaries at ArmaLite would stun small arms designers and military men with revolutionary designs that were unprecedented and proved to be ahead of their time.
The legacy left by Stoner’s seven years at ArmaLite is considerable. The M16 rifle embodies much of this legacy. It incorporates Stoner’s trademark, the eight-lug rotary bolt, as well Stoner’s revolutionary gas-operated bolt and bolt carrier assembly. It features a lightweight receiver made from an aluminum, which left many so-called experts in military small arms thunderstruck when it was introduced. The straight-line stock and synthetic (instead of wood) furniture combined to make the ArmaLite weapons to look “too Buck Rogers” for many in the military to take the ArmaLite weapons seriously. Now the many innovations introduced by ArmaLite are commonplace.
While the M1903 Springfield rifle was in service longer than the M16 has been to date, the best features of the M16 have been much more influential, inspiring the design of numerous small arms and even automatic cannons. The M16 has earned its place as one of the best and most influential military rifles of the 20th century.
Nevertheless, Stoner’s most influential contribution was probably the .223 Remington cartridge, which evolved out of Stoner’s experimental .222 Special.
While the Germans developed the first intermediate cartridges (such as the 7.92x33mm Infantrie Kurz Patrone) and the first true assault rifle (the Sturmgewehr 44), Gene Stoner took this concept to its logical conclusion in terms of maximizing cartridge and weapon performance while minimizing weight. Even the highly successful intermediate cartridge used in Kalashnikov weapons (the 7.62x39mm M43) was abandoned for a new .22 caliber centerfire cartridge (the 5.45x39mm M74) that was inspired by the success of the .223 Remington.
Stoner’s work at ArmaLite proved the viability and virtues of the .22 centerfire infantry rifle. His subsequent work at Cadillac Gage would prove the viability and virtues of the .22 centerfire light machinegun. U.S. Navy SEALs used the Stoner 63 LMG with such devastating effectiveness against the Viet Cong in VC strongholds and rear areas, that the Viet Cong labeled the SEALs “devils with green faces.”
It can be argued that Stoner’s .223 Remington was the greatest innovation in military rifle cartridges since the French introduced the first high velocity, small bore smokeless cartridge in 1886 (the 8x50R Lebel), some two years before the German Infantry Commission at Spandau Arsenal introduced the 7.92x57mm Mauser cartridge.
Stoner also designed a number of other innovative firearms while at ArmaLite, including the AR-5 bolt action .22 Hornet survival rifle (which was accepted by the U.S. Air Force as the MA-1); the AR-7 Explorer .22 rimfire rifle, autoloading shotguns featuring aluminum receivers and barrels (the AR-9 and AR-17); and the AR-16, which was an economical 7.62 NATO rifle designed so countries without the technology for producing the aluminum forgings necessary for the AR-10 could still produce a quality select-fire weapon in country.
After Stoner left ArmaLite, Arthur Miller would take over as ArmaLite’s chief engineer and redesign the AR-16 for the .223 caliber (5.56×45 mm) cartridge. The smaller select-fire rifle was produced in several countries as the AR-18, and the semiautomatic civilian version was produced as the AR-180.
While most weapons cognoscenti know about the Stoner 62, 63 and 63A family of weapons Stoner designed for Cadillac Gage after he left ArmaLite in 1961, relatively few people are aware that Stoner designed automatic cannons, miniature submachine guns, advanced light and heavy machineguns, the advanced concept FARC-2 Future Assault Rifle, exotic munitions, high performance boats, and the SR-25 semiautomatic sniper rifle over the subsequent decades for companies like TRW, Ares, and Knight Armament. That body of work earned Gene Stoner more that 100 patents. Stoner continued to push the edge of the envelope when he and Reed Knight co-designed pistol that was marmarketed as the Colt 2000. (I personally prefer their original versions to Colt’s interpretation of their design, but that’s another story.)
Gene Stoner continued to work as an active designer well into the 1990s, piloting his R22 Beta helicopter from his home in Florida for his frequent commutes to Knight Armament. He would also to pilot a Falcon jet for longer business trips.
Stoner’s friend and colleague, C. Reed Knight, Jr., thought that the occasion of Gene’s 70th birthday was the perfect excuse for a reunion of all the surviving members of the ArmaLite family in 1992, as well as other people who played key roles in the success of the AR-10 and AR-15 worldwide. People arrived from throughout the United States and Europe. Some of these folks hadn’t seen each other for 30 years, and it proved to be a lively reunion. Family and close friends joined this two-day celebration, which culminated with a dinner and reminiscences and birthday cake.
While the reunion conjured up a lot of old memories and created many new ones for all of the participants, my own favorite memory of Gene Stoner was an engineering meeting held some weeks earlier concerning the final design and debugging process for the SR-25 rifle. The meeting included a half-dozen formidable engineers then working at Knight’s Armament Company, who were stumped by a minor problem that could seriously delay production. Reed Knight graciously allowed me to join the meeting as an observer. Gene Stoner came in and listened to the various problems, and solved them in the time it took to finish my Dr Pepper. Gene Stoner was a true genius at small-arms design and he will be missed by the industry and by those who knew him.
I don’t know from where a new generation of designers will come, at least in the United States. After Gene lectured hundreds of engineering students specializing in small-arms design in China, a young student asked him to recommend the best university in the United States for his graduate studies. The young man was miffed and refused to believe Gene’s reply that there was not a single school in the entire country offering such training.
We have the remarkably innovative tradition that designers of military and law-enforcement technologies are self taught. Yet these designers do not suddenly appear out of some mysterious primordial ooze. They evolve from tinkers, gunsmiths and sport shooters who gradually develop and hone their skills designing products for the civilian marketplace. The recent trend in U.S. legislation restricting the civilian ownership of newly manufactured machine guns, scary-looking rifles, large-capacity handguns and even some classes of shotguns has been a catastrophic development for the long-term national security. High-dollar, high-tech strategic systems are well and good, but military success for defense or offense will always boil down to individuals taking and holding ground with small arms. Eliminating a category of technology within the civilian marketplace eliminates the school of hard knocks that would otherwise have educated a potential designer of technology that would serve the national interest in terms of military and law-enforcement small-arms technology. Without the background and experience of sport shooting and developing innovative technologies to solve problems for civilian shooters, it is most unlikely that true geniuses like John M. Browning, Eugene Stoner, Gale McMillan and C. Reed Knight would ever have made their important contributions of innovative technology for the national defense. This important lesson from history seems to be lost upon the body politic.
Thus the passing of Gene Stoner represents more than the loss of a gracious and soft-spoken gentleman of the old school; it represents the end of an era in small-arms design. I miss the good old days.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V1N4 (January 1998)|