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Book Review: The Armalite AR-10 The World’s Finest Battle Rifle

The Armalite AR-10: The World's Finest Battle RifleOne of the topics that has been (somewhat oddly) lacking a detailed and well-researched history is the Armalite AR-10. There was a book written by a Major Pikula many years ago, but it is really hard to find (I’ve seen it referenced, but never found a copy myself). There is the Collector Grade book on the AR-15 (The Black Rifle), but it has only a scant dozen pages on the AR-10. What we have really needed is for someone to do the research and tell the full story of the Armalite patriarch, the AR-10 – and now Joseph Putnam Evans has.

The Armalite AR-10: the World’s Finest Battle Rifle was just recently released by Collector Grade, a publisher whose name should be well-known to any arms historian or collector. Personally, I will buy and Collector Grade book sight unseen, because of their outstanding work in the past, and Evans’ volume is no disappointment. At 389 pages copiously illustrated in color, this is right in the middle of length for its type of book. I am very happy to note that it includes an index – the publisher’s apparent distaste for that tool being one of my few complaints with books from Collector Grade.

Anyway, I should be discussing the work itself, not the publisher. What Evans has done is compile a thorough and detailed history of Armalite’s work in the United States and abroad. The book begins with brothers-in-law George Sullivan and Charles Dorchester developing their “Para-Sniper”bolt action rifle and its ideas for super lightweight firearms. At the same time, Eugene Stoner was independently developing his own rifles, and the book explains the paths of both sets of projects and their ultimately serendipitous meeting at the Topanga Canyon Shooting Range.

Descriptions and histories of all the early Armalite project guns follows, including the Para-Sniper as AR-1, Stoner’s .30-06 hunting rifle M7 as the AR-3, the AR-5 Air Force survival rifle,the semiauto shotgun that was the AR-9, and others. The one that really took off, of course, was the AR-10, with a combination of a rotating bolt inspired by Melvin Johnson (whose involvement is detailed) and Stoner’s innovative idea of combining elements of a direct impingement system with a gas piston built into the bolt carrier itself. At this point we reach one of the most interesting parts of the story, to me. Between the initial prototypes and the models ultimately adopted by several militaries there was a winding path of development and change. The rifle’s original raison d’etre was a combination of very effective recoil moderation allowing controllable fire from a very light rifle. The original military prototype was a scant 7 pounds loaded – a weight considered impossible by the Ordnance Department, and yet here Armalite had done it. It was a combination of titanium, aluminum, and (against Stoner’s advice) a composite barrel that made this possible, and it was quite the eye-opener to Ordnance officers.

As always happens, of course, the design became heavier and more robust as it would its way through the testing process. I will leave the sordid detail of its US defeat to Evans, as this takes a substantial portion of the book to explain in proper detail. Ultimately, Armalite would set its sights on Holland and the Dutch firm of Artillerie Inrichtingen to produce its rifle for worldwide adoption. Enter small arms legend Sam Cummings as sales agent, and we have a fascinating story of phone calls to Castro, German WWI lances for the Sudanese Camel Corps, and much more. With each different contract came a slightly different set of customer requirements, and this led to a confusing profusion of different models and details. Evans does an excellent job of identifying, describing, and putting in context each of these different types.

The closing chapters of the book look at a number of examples of notable individual combat use of various AR-10s in conflicts around the world, from Angola and Mozambique to Cuba. Finally, the different semiauto receivers made for collectors over the decades here in the US are each briefly discussed, as are the modern iterations of the rifle, from Knight’s Armament and the new Armalite company.

Overall, Evans has presented a detailed but well-written history of the AR-10 covering all of its major developmental pathways. Even the most knowledgeable collectors will find details within that they did not previously know, and for the great majority of us the book will be massively educational. My only real critique would be that Evans is a bit heavy-handed on his praise of the rifle, especially in the early sections. He is clearly a loving fan of the gun, and it is this passion for the subject that I am sure motivated him to do the research necessary to produce this work. If he fails to always hide that passion behind dry language, I can’t really object too strenuously.

List price for The Armalite AR-10: the World’s Finest Battle Rifle is $79.95, and it can be purchased through Collector Grade directly or via Amazon. It is in print for the time being, but like all Collector Grade books (and all good juicy firearms books in general) it will eventually sell out and become both difficult and expensive to find. I would definitely recommend that anyone interested do themselves a favor and pick up a copy now, while it’s easy. This is definitely a book that has earned its place in your library.



Disassembly Photos: Bendix-Hyde 2nd Model Carbine

This is a second pattern Bendix-Hyde carbine, made for the M1 Carbine trials. The first Bendix-Hyde had a number of features that Ordnance requested be changed (including a pistol grip), and this was the modified version submitted for the second round of tests. It lost out to the Winchester design, of course, which became the M1 Carbine.

Bendix-Hyde 2nd Model disassembled

Bendix-Hyde 2nd Model disassembled

I had a chance to take one apart at RIA, so I made sure to get a photo or two (click to enlarge):

2-Gun Action Challenge Match: US WWI Infantry (M1917 & M1911)

In this month’s 2-Gun match, I am competing as a WWI US infantryman, with an M1917 Eddystone rifle and an M1911 pistol (both are genuine WWI-era originals). I am also using a reproduction US 1917 uniform from Mike’s Militaria. It’s a fantastic quality reproduction, made from the same patterns and materials as the originals, and custom tailored to fit. If you are looking for truly excellent reenactment gear, definitely check them out!

Ultimately I placed 50 out of 60 shooters – not bad for shooting against almost exclusively semiauto rifles! The more I shoot the M1917 rifle, the more I like it – although heavy, it is excellent in every other way. The 1911 is an iconic pistol, but does leave something to be desired. The hammer bite left my hand bloody, but it did get the job done.

Vintage Saturday: Flammenwerfer

German troops demonstrating use of a WWI flamethrower

German troops demonstrating use of a WWI flamethrower

Note how this, like many early flamethrowers, was a two-man affair. One carried the tanks and the other aimed and fired the projector.

New Video Series from the Pattern Room

Nope, it’s not mine (although I do look forward to visiting the NFC again in the future) – my friend Vic has started a video channel looking at some of the guns in the monumental National Firearms Centre (aka, the Pattern Room) collection. for his first video (with a low-quality backup camera, due to some equipment problems) he and NFC Curator Jonathan Ferguson discuss the early British selfloaders – the EM-1, EM-2, and .280 caliber FAL. I am looking forward to seeing this channel continue and grow!

RIA: Pattern 1913 Enfield Trials Rifle

One of the lessons learned by the British military in the aftermath of the Boer War was that modern Mauser rifles were superior to their Lee-action rifles and carbines. In response, British ordnance began experimenting with a Mauser-pattern rifle, ultimately finalized as the Pattern 1913. This rifle would also leave behind the obsolescent .303 rimmed cartridge, in favor of a new rimless .276 Enfield round.

The Pattern 13 rifle itself was excellent – it balanced and handled well, it had very good sights, and a smooth and fast bolt throw. However, the .276 Enfield cartridge was really more potent than it needed to be, and caused problems. The cartridge threw a 165 grain bullet at just under 2800fps, pretty close to the ballistics of today’s 7mm Remington Magnum. Loaded with Cordite propellent, this led to excessive barrel wear and unpleasant recoil, along with some parts breakage. However, as final testing was being done in the first half of 1914, the Great War broke out.

At this point, plans for using a new cartridge were abandoned. The rifle itself was redesigned in the .303 cartridge, to be manufactured in large numbers by American firms under contract. It would also be refitted for the .30-06 cartridge and used in large numbers by the American armed forces as the M1917 Enfield rifle. According to General Julian Hatcher (who ought to know), it was the best rifle of the First World War.

RIA: Walther/Heinemann Toggle Lock Sporting Rifle

In 1928 and 1929, the Swiss Rheinmetall company produced about 50 examples of a toggle-locked rifle designed by Karl Heinemann. It was tested by the United States among other countries, but never found military acceptance. This particular example is a Heinemann rifle in sporting pattern, made by the Walther company. I do not know the details of Heinemann’s move from Rheinmetall to Walther, but I would guess it had to do with his early rifles’ lack of military success.

Mechanically, the gun is quite unusual and interesting, with a toggle-locked bolt and a Bang-type muzzle cup. Gas is captured in this cup when the rifle is fired, and that pressure pulls the muzzle cup forward. An operating rod runs from the muzzle back to a cam which cracks the bolt toggle open when it is pulled forward, thus unlocking the action.

RIA: Thompson T2 Submachine Gun Prototype

The T2 submachine gun was Auto-Ordnance’s entry into the ongoing competition to replace the classic Thompson submachine gun with something more economical to produce. It was a closed-bolt, select-fire design using a progressive trigger and a tubular receiver, along with stand Thompson gun magazines. Examples were made in both 9mm and .45 ACP, but it was the .45 version that the US military tested. Ultimately is was rejected in favor of the Inland/Hyde M2 submachine gun (which looks rather similar to it) – which was in turn quickly replaced by the much simpler M3 “Grease Gun” that would truly replace the Thompson in US military hands.

RIA: Japanese Army Pedersen Copy Trials Rifle

The Japanese military was interested in finding a new self-loading rifle to adopt in the 1930s. The development project began with a request to retired General Kijiro Nambu who designed a gas-operate,d rotating bolt rifle but could not bring it up to the standards demanded by the military and opted to abandon the project in favor of a new light machine gun (which would become the Type 96 Nambu). Two major commercial firms entered the fray, Nippon Special Steel with a gas-operated and toggle-locked rifle and Tokyo Gas & Electric with a copy of the Czech ZH29 rifle. In 1933 the Army itself decided to jump in as well, developing a delayed blowback Pedersen copy at the Koishikawa Arsenal.

The Army rifle was pretty good, but apparently never overcame extraction problems which would appear when the rifle became hot from sustained fire. When John Pedersen had demonstrated his rifle in Japan, it seems he did not mention the necessity for lubricated ammunition and this trick was not figured out by Koishikawa personnel. The Army liked the mechanical simplicity of the delayed blowback system (which required no gas ports, pistons, tubes, or anything else), and opted to fit the rifles with 10-round rotary magazines.

After the final set of trials in 1937, the whole semiautomatic rifle program was dropped, as the escalating war in China shifted priorities to producing a large number of less expensive and readily available Arisaka bolt actions.

RIA: Extra-Fancy 20-Shot Pinfire Revolver

The pinfire cartridge was a popular development in Europe in the mid-1800s that never saw much exposure in the United States. A huge variety of pinfire revolvers were made by a myriad of large and small shops, with Liege Belgium being one of the biggest manufacturing centers.

Guns ranged from tiny folding-trigger 5mm models to massive 12mm weapons, with capacities from 5 to 20 shots. This particular one is both mechanically and visually interesting. It is a twin-barrel example, with a 20-round cylinder using chamber in two concentric rings. The inner ring of ten rounds are fired from the lower barrel and the outer ring of 10 rounds are shot through the top barrel. As one cocks and fires, the gun automatically alternates between the two. It is a clever way to get a large capacity without the cylinder become too ridiculously huge. Visually, of course, this revolver is pretty arresting, with its complete coverage of decorative gold embellishing and fancy case.