ArmaLite, originally the ArmaLite Division of the Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation, is a small arms manufacturing company. Products include the M16 and M4 rifles.
Founded largely through the efforts of Fairchild employee George Sullivan, ArmaLite's first success came shortly after it with the introduction of the AR-5, a survival rifle chambered for the .22 Hornet cartridge. The AR-5 was adopted by the U.S. Air Force as the MA-1 Survival Rifle.
A civilian survival weapon, the AR-7, was chambered in .22 Long Rifle. The semi-automatic AR-7 was noteworthy in that it could be disassembled, and the components stored in the buttstock. Primarily made of alloys, the AR-7 would float, whether assembled or stored, because of the design of the buttstock, which was filled with plastic foam. The AR-7 and derivative models have been produced by several companies since introduction in the late 1950s, currently by Henry Repeating Arms, of Brooklyn, NY, and the rifle is still popular today.
In 1954 Eugene Stoner became Chief Engineer at ArmaLite. Stoner was a Marine in World War II and an expert with small arms. His design for the AR-10 battle rifle was entered into the U.S. Army trials in 1955 as a possible replacement to the venerable yet outdated M1 Garand. It met stiff competition as it was pitted against the Springfield Armory T-44, an updated M1 Garand design that became the M14, and the T-48, a modified version of the famous Belgian FN FAL rifle. The AR-10 lost the trials to the T-44, in part because of overly conservative views held by Ordnance Department officials, and in part because it had not yet emerged from the prototype stage, while both the T-44 and the T-48 had a considerably longer weapons development period. The T-48 (FN FAL) also lost, leading some to suspect that Army Ordnance had selected the T-44 ahead of time.
The famous AR-15 rifle was developed as a subcaliber version of the AR-10 and intended as a replacement for the .30-caliber M1 Carbine, then used by officers, aircrews, vehicle crews and others for whom the full-power rifle was not appropriate. Both designs were licensed to Colt in early 1959. (For more information on the AR-15 see the M16 article.)
With both the AR-10 and AR-15 designs sold to Colt, ArmaLite was left without a viable product. In 1961 Fairchild was undergoing financial troubles, and the original principals of ArmaLite acquired ArmaLite from Fairchild, including rights and title to all ArmaLite designs except the AR-10 and AR-15, which had previously been licensed to Colt Firearms.
The organization continued from this time on as ArmaLite, Inc., with substantially the same nucleus of key personnel. From the latter part of 1962 until near the end of 1971 the major portion of the ArmaLite development programs were funded by Capital Southwest Corporation of Dallas, Texas. In November 1971 Charles Dorchester, Chairman, and Richard Klotzly, President, acquired the majority common stock position in ArmaLite held by Capital Southwest Corporation.
It was obvious from Army purchases of the AR-15 that Fairchild had erred in selling the AR-15 in 1959. To recover from that error, ArmaLite set about to develop a new rifle that wouldn’t violate the Stoner gas system patents, which now belonged to Colt’s. The result was the AR-18, which began development in 1963. The combat effectiveness of the .223 caliber cartridge was now well proven. ArmaLite hoped to build a new rifle capable of displacing the AR- 15 in the hands of the Army. The AR-18 combined the lessons of the AR-15 and the AR-16 in a rifle capable of competing for the many expected contracts for new rifles.
So, in 1963, development began on the AR-18 assault rifle, an "improved" AR-15 with a new gas system that did not violate the Colt held patents. The AR-18 did not gain any military support. The AR-18 is best described as a sheet metal AR-15, with a different gas system. It was to prove the main focus of ArmaLite’s efforts for the next two decades.
ArmaLite arranged exhaustive tests by the H.P. White laboratory of Belair, Maryland, to verify their claims for the AR-18 with the hope of attaining DOD and State Department endorsement of the rifle toward filling the void existing for a modern combat rifle for friends and allies around the world.
The Army conducted tests of ten prototype rifles at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland, and at Ft. Benning, Georgia, during 1964. The rifle was considered as “having military potential.” The Army requested an additional 29 rifles in 1964 for further testing. These 29 rifles, with a detailed operator’s manual, were produced on a toolroom basis in a four-month period in compliance with the government contract. The tests were conducted as part of the Army’s Small Arms Weapons System (SAWS) tests. Not surprisingly, the early rifles needed further development. With the military market going nowhere fast, sales were shifted to the commercial market. A commercial, semiautomatic-only version of the AR-18 was produced as the AR-180.
In 1967 production of the AR-18 was started at the Howa Machinery Company of Nagoya, Japan. For Japanese political reasons the Howa rifles were allowed to be sold only to non-combatant nations, and even then only to non-Asian nations. During the Vietnam War, the AR-18 could not even be exported to the United States. Howa produced 3,927 AR-180s between October 1970 and February 1974.
In mid-1968 ArmaLite set up pilot production in its Costa Mesa plant. ArmaLite produced 1,171 AR-18s and 4,018 AR-180s at its Costa Mesa plant between July 1969 and June 1972. The Japanese government subsequently eased it restrictions and allowed the commercial, semi-automatic AR-180 to be exported to the U.S., and by the late 1970s U.S. production halted.
As a result of continued ArmaLite effort, the Army was directed to re-evaluate the AR-18 during at the end of 1969. It was too late. By the end of 1969 the Army had already standardized the M-16, and the AR-18 was unable to displace it. Further efforts focused on overseas and commercial domestic sales.
The AR-18 suffered similar results in the United Kingdom a well. The Ministry of Defense first evaluated the AR-18 in March 1966. It was found to be attractive in terms of its lightweight and ease of manufacture. It suffered, in the eyes of the British, from lack of gas adjustment and the lack of a buffer system. Automatic accuracy was considered somewhat inferior, and it was considered unsatisfactory in mud and “drag sand” conditions. The rifle was modified with reinforcement of the hinge area of the lower receiver, addition of an ejection port cover and an improved muzzle brake/flash suppressor and re-tested in August 1966. The strengthening was appreciated, but the sand and mud test results were largely unchanged, and the lack of a buffer continued to be criticized. A Howa version was evaluated by MOD in January 1969. While it again failed the mud test, most criticism concerned minor physical characteristics that could be readily resolved.
In fairness to the AR-18, the MOD evaluations are somewhat suspect. The Royal Small Arms Factory could hardly be considered objective evaluators. The relationship between Sterling and RSAF was rocky at best, with RSAF benefiting from government preference and a willingness to appropriate the work of others.
Even as ArmaLite marketed the new small caliber rifle, FN and HK were selling more traditional 7.62mm rifles around the world. Colt was selling AR-15s. The AR-18 remained somewhat prone to breakage, and never enjoyed the success ArmaLite expected. It is most famous for being adopted by the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland, who dubbed the rifle "The Widowmaker".
In 1973 the Japanese government halted all exports of AR-18 and AR-180 rifles. The Japanese tight restrictions on export of the AR-18 and AR-180 forced ArmaLite to move the production machinery to a new licensed producer. In 1974 Sterling Armament Company of Dagenham, England, was licensed to produce ArmaLite’s rifles. It took 15 months to complete setup and begin production. ArmaLite imported the Sterling rifles into the U.S., and Sterling and ArmaLite both tried to market the rifles around the world. Sterling manufactured 12,362 AR-180s between the 1975 and 1983, when ArmaLite and Sterling were both sold. 10,946 AR-180s were exported to the United States.
The AR-18, however, has proven to be another seminal weapon from ArmaLite. The AR-18 mechanism did serve as the basis for the current British small arms family, the SA80, which came from the XL65 which is essentially an AR-18 in bullpup configuration. Other designs, such as the Singapore SAR-80 and German G36, are based upon the AR-18. However, the AR-18 itself remains an unfinished work.
In order to concentrate full effort on the military sales program, ArmaLite elected to discontinue its other commercial firearm activities. In mid 1973 ArmaLite sold the AR-7 rifle to Charter Arms.
With the foundering of the AR-18, ArmaLite’s owners elected to sell the company. In 1983 ArmaLite was sold to Elisco Tool Manufacturing Company, of the Philippines.
The short-lived third phase of ArmaLite’s history began with Elisco Tool Manufacturing’s 1983 purchase of ArmaLite. The new ArmaLite operation was headed by an Englishman hired to serve as interim President, Mr. Bruce Swain. Mr. John Ugarte later replaced Swain. ArmaLite continued to market existing rifles and parts manufactured by Sterling under the leadership of the new vice-president of Marketing, Mr. Joe Armstrong.
Elisco Tool had successfully produced the M16A1 for the Philippine armed forces and police. Difficulties with Colt over M16 licensing prompted Elisco to seek another 5.56mm rifle, and the AR-18 was the only real contender. Inventory, tooling, and machinery were therefore dispatched from Sterling’s plant to the Philippines. The process fell apart not in the U.S. market, but because of political events in the Philippines themselves. In short, Ferdinand Marcos was overturned and went into exile. The political and economic links of the government were dramatically shifted, and Elisco was unable to carry out the AR-18 production. The U.S. arm of the operation was closed in 1987.
Independent of ArmaLite, Karl Lewis and Jim Glazier formed a company named Eagle Arms in Coal Valley Illinois in 1986. Lewis had manufactured a wide variety of both commercial and military parts for M-16 rifles, and Eagle Arms assumed the increasingly distracting retail business from Lewis’ company, Lewis Machine and Tool (LMT). Eagle Arms initially marketed M16 and AR-15 type rifle parts. The early Stoner patents had expired, and Eagle was able to build both parts and complete rifles. In 1989 Eagle commenced production of complete rifles, with LMT serving as the major supplier.
In January 1994 Mr. Mark Westrom purchased the company. Westrom was a former Army Ordnance Officer and a civilian employee of the Weapons Systems Management Directorate of the Army’s Armament Materiel and Chemical Command (AMCCOM) at nearby Rock Island Arsenal.
After the purchase, he continued producing Eagle Arms EA -15 rifles. Plans were made to add a line of telescopic sights to the product line. Westrom’s background in military Service Rifle competition produced a focus on high grade target rifles even before the AR-15/M-16 rifles came to dominate American Service Rifle competition in the mid-90s.
In November 1994 Westrom decided to initiate the design of a .308 caliber AR-10 type rifle, to be called the “M-10” in line with Eagle’s production of .223 caliber “M-15” rifles. Work on the project began in November 1994. The bulk of the engineering work was contracted out to LMT, with an experienced Quality Assurance expert, Mr. David Dorbeck, doing the bulk of the work.
By coincidence, the president of the company manufacturing telescopic sights for Eagle, Dr. John Williams, had worked for ArmaLite in his youth. He introduced Westrom to the former Production Manager for ArmaLite, Mr. John McGerty. McGerty led Westrom to John Ugarte, the most recent President of ArmaLite.
Ugarte had retained rights to the ArmaLite trademark. In early 1995 Westrom purchased those rights, and production of ArmaLite rifles resumed in Geneseo, Illinois. The corporation was reorganized as ArmaLite, with Eagle Arms converted to a division of ArmaLite.
Today, ArmaLite produces a number of AR-15 and AR-10 based rifles, as well as .50 BMG rifles (the AR-50). Armalite has also announced that they are introducing a handgun line including the AR-24 and AR-26
As of September 2007, ArmaLite has begun an exploratory campaign to find interest in making original pattern AR-10 lowers for Hollywood, Portuguese, and Dutch parts kits.