Monday, June 10, 2024

Firearm Factory of the Month: ArmaLite

Before we start I will apologize in advance for leaving out some details, in doing my research I found more info than I could possibly fit into one article, so I shortened much of it.

The story of Armalite starts with its parent company: Fairchild Engine and Aircraft Company.

Fairchild began operations in 1924, when the aviation industry was still young. Fairchild became famous for a couple of innovations including the first fully enclosed cockpit and the first hydraulic operated retractable landing gear.

By the end of WWII nearly every part of an aircraft was made with high strength aluminum. This is important to the story as the guns made by their subsidiary, ArmaLite, used aluminum as a means of reducing weight. 

Anyone who served in WWII would tell you how heavy the average grunt's load out was. The guns and ammunition were very heavy, and a lot of people were looking for ways to correct that.

Eugene Stoner went to work for Vega Aircraft Company (the forerunner to the Lockheed Martin Co) in 1939. During the war he served in the Marine Corps in the Pacific theater. After the war he worked for a machine shop, eventually becoming a design engineer.

During the year 1947 Stoner along with Charles Dorchester began developing a lightweight sniper rifle for the US Military. Originally designed after a Remington 722, they switched to a Mauser style action. The unique thing about the rifle was the barrel was made of aluminum with a thin rifled steel liner. The stock was made of foam filled fiberglass, keeping the weight under 5lbs.

The rifle was submitted to the Springfield Armory for consideration. 

In 1954 Fairchild Aircraft purchased the design, formed a new subsidiary, named ArmaLite and lured Eugene Stoner away from Whittaker Aircraft to be ArmaLite's head designer.

Armalite leased or purchased or leased a small machine shop in Hollywood California on Santa Monica Blvd. They had 9 employees.

At this time, it was believed that any rifle adopted by the US Military would be produced by Springfield Armory as that had been the tradition (spare for the World Wars) since 1777. 

The AR-1 Parasniper rifle gave way to a new idea, a survival rifle that could be used by aircraft crew members in the event they are shot down behind enemy lines or in an area where they may need to fight off wild animals. In addition, the entire gun would float, in the "unlikely event of a water landing".

This bolt action rifle, chambered in .22 Hornet, would have a takedown feature in which the action and barrel could fit inside the reinforced, foam filled bakelight stock. Called the AR-5 it was adopted by the US Air Force as the MA-1 Survival Rifle. 

The AR-5's design gave way to an improved version, chambered in .22 LR and semi-automatic action, this rifle was called the AR-7 Explorer and was (and still is) popular with the civilian market. This was ArmaLite's first civilian production gun.

During all this time Stoner had been working on a semi-auto rifle design, he called the M8. While it looked nothing like the later versions, it did have the rotating bolt and direct gas impingement system that are still used today. Rather than go through the entire history of his most iconic design, we will give you the cliff notes.

The AR-10 was developed from the M8, chambered in 308 Winchester the gun was considered by the US Military.

In 1956 the US Ordnance Corps made ArmaLite an offer for the rights to the AR-10.

Long story short, in an effort to reduce ammo weight and possible gain an advantage over the enemy, the US Military decided to go with a smaller cartridge, the .222 Remington which became the .223 Remington and eventually the 5.56mm NATO round. The rifle was also evolved into the AR-15.

The many trials and efforts resulted in the adoption of the AR-15 as the US Rifle M16, which was a bit of a failure at first.

In 1959 ArmaLite moved to an actual production factory in Costa Mesa, California, around this same time ArmaLite licensed the rights to produce the AR10 & AR15 to Colt.

In 1962 Fairchild sold it's interests in ArmaLite.

By the 1970s all design work at ArmaLite had come to a stop and the company sold in 1983 to the Elisco Tool Company out of the Philippines. 

The M16 evolved into the M16A1, then came the M4 and other developments, but perhaps the most important milestone was in 1989 when the 1st semi-automatic only versions of the AR-15 became available to the public.

While adoption was slow due to its high cost, but advancements in CNC technology took off in the mid 90's. Then came the 1994  Assault Weapons Ban, for 10 years no new civilian AR-15s were sold.

Upon expiration of the law, massive demand and lower prices  helped skyrocket the sales of the AR-15. Today nearly all gun shops have an AR-15 on the shelf for sale.

Along with the popularity came more innovations. Free-floating handguards, new stocks, polymer magazines, grips, triggers and every accessory you can imagine.

In 1996 after passing through a series of owners, the company name was relaunched and in 2013 it was purchased by Strategic Armory Corp. A company already in the firearms business.

What Remains:

Eugene Stoner passed away on April 24, 1997 at the age of 74.

Both the ArmaLite and Stoner names are still being used to sell AR-15s and products related to the iconic rifle.

The AR-15 has become the number one selling sporting rifle in America with more than 23 million of the rifles in civilian hands.

The machine shop at 6567 Santa Monica Blvd is gone, it is now an animal hospital, it is the U-shaped building in the middle of the picture below.

The ArmaLite factory building at 118 East 16th Street in Costa Mesa, still stands. It is the L-shaped building below


ArmaLite AR-1 ParaSniper - Firearm Wiki: The Internet Gun Encyclopedia

Armalite Rifle History - Wideners Shooting, Hunting & Gun Blog

The AR-10 Story | An Official Journal Of The NRA (

Local origin of the AR-15 rifle | Helytimes (

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