It’s time to continue our series on the history of the M-16 and how it came to be. You see, the story of the M-16 is really the story of its accompanying cartridge, the 5.56×45 NATO. As always I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the excellent work of Daniel Watters and his 5.56 timeline hosted at Loose Rounds as an inspiration and source for this series.
We last left off from this tale in 1955, where Gerald Gustafson and William Davis had their funding cut off for any further research into small-caliber high-velocity (SCHV) cartridges. The Army Ordnance Board, responsible for developing new small arms, was well down the path to adopting the 7.62 NATO and M-14 rifle.
They didn’t want any more interference or distractions.
That might have been the end of the M-16 and the 5.56 cartridge if it weren’t for another group of officers and civilians with different priorities. But to understand this group, we need to set the clock back again to the early 20th Century.
The Infantry Board
Much of the history I’m about to relay comes from a research paper produced by the RAND Corporation think tank in 1979.
Thus far in this series, I’ve focused mainly on the work of Aberdeen, and it’s Ballistic Research Lab, the ORO, and the officers and engineers that comprised it. These agencies were responsible for the research and development of things. The Infantry Board, which was officially known as CONARC (Continental Army Command) No. 3 until 1957, was based at Fort Benning and had a different role.
You see, the Infantry Board’s job is advocating for the soldier. In this capacity, they lay out the requirements and priorities for the research arms to pursue. Nothing produced by Aberdeen or Natick or the other research centers is fielded until it’s approved by the Infantry Board.
That’s not to say this relationship was always smooth. Military politics being what it is, alliances would regularly form and pressure one group or another to drop their protests. One of the problems with the Infantry Board was that its members weren’t permanent. It was a duty station like any other, so an individuals tenure was usually no more than a couple years.
In contrast, the staff at the research labs were more or less permanent. If you’ve ever dealt with government employees, you’ll recognize what happens here. Entrenched management only has to “wait out” their opposition, and usually has far more opportunity to curry favor with senior staff.
The Set Up
Before we get to how the Infantry Board saved the small caliber high velocity program, let’s lay the groundwork.
The American military has always placed a rather high value on marksmanship relative to other nations. This worked in our favor during the 1800s, but things were starting to shift by WWI.
Whereas the previous hundred years of warfare saw 70% of all battlefield casualties caused by rifle fire, the percentage dropped to about 40-50% by WWI. The remainder of casualties stemmed from shrapnel and other newly-deployed battlefield implements.
A few notable examples like Belleau Wood notwithstanding, marksmanship as a skill was in decline. The sheer quantity of lead and shrapnel flying above the heads of soldiers during brutal trench warfare meant that there was far less time to acquire a proper sight picture to place an aimed shot at long range. As Norman Hitchman would later discuss in Project ALCLAD, the key risk factor for being hit was the time of exposure.
By WWII, the percentage of rifle kills dropped to just 25% in Europe and 33% in the Pacific.
These are the conditions you need to keep in mind as we reach 1946.
The 1946 Rifle Requirements Board
In 1946, the Army brought together a collection of officers to define the future direction of military doctrine and equipment based on prior experience. Among the requirements laid out was the goal of a new rifle.
…a new lightweight caliber .30 rifle of the following general military characteristics: 7-pound maximum weight; capable of selective semiautomatic and automatic fire; and ballistic performance approximately equivalent to that of the present standard rifle [the M-1 Garand].– War Department Equipment Board Report, 22 May 1946
This was a difficult task. Just twenty years earlier, the Army barely managed to get the M-1 Garand to work correctly.
The marksmanship side of the Army loved the power and range of the 30-06 they fought WWI with. The logisticians loved that the 30-06 could be used in both rifles and machine guns, so it simplified their supply chains. It made sense to everyone to want a rifle that could fire the 30-06 in semiautomatic mode.
The problem for John C. Garand in the 1920s was the recoil. The previous rifle board wanted a rifle lighter than the 1903 Springfield, yet fired the same cartridge at a faster rate.
Garand almost didn’t pull it off.
There was a considerable push from another well-known small arms engineer, John Pedersen, to reduce the caliber to a .276 cartridge that recoiled less. This slightly less powerful cartridge would reduce shooter fatigue and increase marksmanship. At least that was the theory, but people were listening.
The Army actually accepted the new design until Douglas MacArthur overruled them. The 30-06 remained the primary service cartridge, and John Garand just had to figure it out. Obviously, he did and the Army loved him and the M1 Rifle.
The Lightweight Rifle Conundrum
It was the 1946 rifle requirements that drove Col. Studler of the Army Ordnance Board to push for the T-25 rifle and accompanying experimental T-65 cartridge.
I mentioned those two items in the post on Gustafson and Davis.
The T-65 cartridge used the
The T-25 rifle, designed by Harvey Earle, weighed a scant 7 pounds. The problem with such a light rifle firing a full power cartridge was that it became nigh uncontrollable at high rates of fire. This was the same problem that Garand had in the 1920s, but
While the T-25 went through its initial tests, the Army tasked Springfield Armory with developing a product-improved M1 Garand that would fire the new T-65 cartridge. This project started in 1949, with the test rifle designated as the T-44.
The Trials of the 1950s
This is where things really picked up.
I previously mentioned that there were competing agencies and priorities within the Army. The Ordnance Department at Aberdeen was responsible for research and development of small arms.
Back to Ballistics
By 1952, a few things happened. Demonstrations of the T-25 Rifle and the new T-65 cartridge revealed what everyone should have known would happen: the rifle was uncontrollable.
Following WWII, the British Army undertook its own studies similar to the work Hall and Hitchman’s. They came to similar conclusions: the ideal range of rifle employment was far less than previously thought and a smaller caliber would offer many benefits to marksmanship and weight, yet retain sufficient ballistic power.
If you haven’t read them, check out the articles on D.L. Hall’s ballistic research and Norman Hitchman’s report on an ideal infantry rifle. These reports were instrumental to what comes later in the 1950s.
While the US Army was busy trying to hide the small caliber studies and stick to the tried-and-true .30, the British embraced the research. Their answer was to develop an intermediate-powered .276 cartridge, officially named the .280 British, similar to what John Pedersen proposed
By 1948, the T-65 and Britain’s new .276 cartridge were the two final entries into what would become the standard NATO rifle cartridge.
The first official trial happened in 1950. The Aberdeen brought a T-25 rifle chambered with the T-65. The T-44 from Springfield wasn’t ready yet.
The British brought their own EM-2, a bullpup configuration, and a FAL. Both rifles were chambered in the .276 cartridge.
This test was the demise of the T-25 rifle. The Infantry Board saw how uncontrollable it was, and noticed much much better shooters performed with the .280 British rifles. They realized that they would never be able to meet their requirements of a lightweight rifle firing the T-65.
Following the test, the Infantry Board temporarily sought to standardize on the British .280 cartridge but were overruled by senior Army staff. Instead, the US exerted pressure on the British to standardize on the larger T-65. To keep progress moving forward, the Infantry Board was pressured to relent on the 7-pound weight requirement for the new rifle.
The next round of tests happened in 1952, with the T-44 competing against the T48. But something curious happened in this second round. Gerald Gustafson and William Davis also showed up with their modified .22 rifle for the demonstration.
That same year, Hall and Gustafson’s reports entered the record. The entrenched leadership at the research labs were vested in the new T-44 Rifle and T-65 cartridge. They put all of their emphasis on it.
The Infantry Board, being comprised of a rotating staff, was indecisive. Nobody stayed on it long enough to really put their foot down and make demands.
But the memory of the little .22 remained.
Gustafson and Davis had their funding cut for any further research into high velocity .22 cartridges in 1954. The ORO moved on into project SALVO and was getting more interested in flechette rounds for the SPIW program rather than high velocity .22 rounds.
The T-44 seemed to be the heir apparent for the new generation of rifle.
That is until a confluence of leadership changes happened. Colonel Henry Neilson, an outspoken advocate of SCHV, takes command of the Infantry Board. Neilson has access to all of the papers and experimental results carried out over the years and sincerely believes the SCHV concept offers a legitimate path forward.
Another round of tests happens, this time including Eugene Stoner’s innovative AR-10 rifle chambered with the T-65 cartridge. It’s a hit, right up until a catastrophi failure due to experimental composites used in the barrel.
At the end of the year, General Willard G. Wyman, commander of CONARC, finds a copy of Gustafson and Davis’s denied funding request. Colonel Neilson, who probably discretely provided the documentation, urges Wyman to approve another round of experiments based on the funding request’s
He does, using CONARC funding and not Ordnance Department funding. In truth, the Ordnance Department had shortchanged and undercut research into SCHV from the beginning.
Much of the research by ORO and BRL undermined the T-44 program from the outset. The Infantry Board, and
Several things happen in rapid succession that send tremors through the arms design world.
In January, Abderdeen’s BRL reprints Robert Kent’s 1930 report that more or less started this whole ordeal.
In March, Donald H. Hall, who wrote the BRL’s 1951 report expanding on Ket’s work, published a new study. This one demonstrates that a bullet that upsets early after impact and tumbles will result in greater kill probability.
Later in the Spring, the Infantry Board recognizes hesitation at senior levels to approve a rifle with a maximum range of 300 yards, no matter what the scientists say. To compromise, they alter their rifle requirements for the SCHV program:
- An effective range of 500 yards
- Weighs 6 lbs
- Fires a .22 caliber projectile
- Penetrates a steel helmet at 500 yards
The Infantry Board brings back Armalite’s Eugene Stoner, designer of the AR-10 that impressed the board in 1956. They show him the ballistic research and ask him to scale the rifle down for an experimental .22 cartridge.
Unfortunately, things get dicey by May. The Army officially type designates the T-44 rifle and T-65 cartridge, dubbing them the M-14 and 7.62 NATO. Just days later, Stoner demonstrates the AR-15 to General Wyman.
But time is running out. Organizational momentum is against the Infantry Board’s pet project.
General Maxwell Taylor, Chief of Staff of the Army is a fan of the M-14.
He is ready to sign the request for congressional approval to equip the Army with the new rifle. But General Wyman, suitably impressed with what he’s seen of the AR-15 implores him to wait until all the evidence is in.
All throughout the year, the Infantry Board ran the AR-15 through tests. Many of which were possibly sabotaged by other elements of the army. Yet, it outperformed the M-14 in nearly every way inside of 500 yards. This was inconvenient for the Army staff.
You see, the Ordnance Department had more or less ordained the M-14 since 1952. It pushed the standardized 7.62 NATO on our allies, and did everything it could to ensure that all roads led to the M-14.
The End of the Road…or Was It?
The interdepartmental rivalry between the Infantry Board and the Ordnance Department quickly grew out of hand. Word of the all the SCHV research the BRL and ORO did over the decade began to spread, and difficult questions were being asked.
The Ordnance Department tried to deflect by committing to the SCHV program in the form of the ORO’s flechette system, called the Special Purpose Individual Weapon (SPIW). The Infantry Board wanted to fully develop the AR-15.
General Maxwell Taylor had finally had enough. In February of 1959, he terminated further purchase of AR-15 rifles and directed the labs to focus on development of the SPIW as an eventual replacement to the M-14.
The Army, Navy, and Marine Corps fell in line and placed their orders for the M-14. The promise of the Infantry Board’s AR-15 was dead.
Except for the Air Force, that is. The USAF, having no real need of front line battle rifles like the M-1 and M-14, equipped it’s security forces with the M2 .30 cal carbine. By 1959, these weapons were old and in dire need of replacement.
Stay tuned for what happens next.
Matt is the primary author and owner of The Everyday Marksman. He’s former military officer turned professional tech sector trainer. He’s a lifelong learner, passionate outdoorsman, and steadfast supporter of firearms culture.
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