Obituary: Eugene Stoner

Eugene Stoner first met his Russian opposite number, the arms designer Mikhail Kalashnikov, in 1990 at Dulles International Airport, Washington DC. They were both subjects of a video history programme sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution. Despite the language barrier, they appeared to know each other well. As taping for the project got under way, it became evident that the two designers had grown to know each other through their weapons.

Stoner and Kalashnikov spent over a week together answering questions and commenting on their designs and the sources of their creativity. It was surprising to see the similarities in their backgrounds. Neither men had gone to university, neither had formal education in his craft. (Stoner once said that, if he were hiring in today's labour market, he would not hire himself; to get a job designing small arms now requires a university degree.) Both by their successful manoeuvres had seen their designs triumph over bureaucratic roadblocks.

Eugene Stoner was one of the last of the independent small arms designers in the tradition of John Browning and John Garand. Soldiers today demand and now expect weapons that deliver greater firepower without increasing the weight of their kit. Stoner's M-16 assault rifle - standard issue in the United States armed forces since 1963 - pioneered the principle.

By the 1950s the US government had focused its attention on the possibilities of delivering greater lethality in a smaller package using a high velocity .22 calibre (5.56mm) weapon. The ultimate winner in a lengthy, and often controversial competition became the 5.56 x 45mm M-16.

The project began for Stoner in 1957 while he was working at the ArmaLite Division of Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation. His design stemmed from a combination of earlier technological developments. The rotary locking bolt now so closely associated with his designs was derived from the Johnson rifle developed and used during the Second World War. The difference, the genius, of Stoner's work lay in his ability to adapt and combine technologies to lead to something new and different. His design achieved the accuracy and lethality as well as controllable high rate of fire the military wanted.

The story of the programme is a lesson in bureaucratic influences on the procurement process. Tests were allegedly biased in favour of candidate weapons that government officials endorsed. With its plastic hand-guard and buttstock the AR-15, the predecessor to the M-16, did not look like a "real" rifle; some military leaders thought it looked like a toy. A combination of political considerations and reluctance on the part of certain military leaders to shift to the lighter round appeared to condemn the weapon's future.

ArmaLite sold its interest in the AR-15 to Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company, now Colt's Firearms Manufacturing Company Inc, in 1959. Colt's saw its own future in this futuristic-looking weapon; and Colt's people proved tougher than their opponents working in the arsenals and the US Army.

After years of testing through agencies outside the control of the US Army, and intervention from the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, and President Lyndon Johnson, the weapon was ultimately adopted in 1963 as the US became more heavily involved in the Vietnam conflict. Long-term consequences of its adoption included removing the government's dependence on its nearly 150-year-old arsenal system for small-arms research and development and production.

In 1968 McNamara closed the arsenals in part because of the controversies resulting from the M-16 programme. The amount of time it took from initiating the programme to adopting the final product led Stoner to comment that no one could expect to see adoption of two weapon systems in their lifetime.

It is often said in the industry that small arms now are designed by committee. But the design process will always need that one unique person, the imaginative individual with a new way of looking at a problem. Eugene Stoner was the man with the ideas who passed them on to the design committees. According to a long-time friend and colleague, Stoner was "the master of the obvious". "When he came up with an idea you would ask yourself, 'Why didn't I think of that?' But you didn't."

One of the particular qualities of Stoner among weapons designers was his ability to conceptualise how parts would have to be made if they were going to work. Another was his ability to interpret technologies from one calibre to another. The fact that he could design a whole range of weapons from 5.56mm assault rifles to medium-calibre crew-served weapons and 37mm cannons is just one indication of the diversity of his capabilities. That kind of breadth and depth is uncommon among small-arms designers. He also designed magazines and ammunition loaders, perhaps mundane from their outward appearance but an essential element of the combination of parts that make up an assault rifle as a weapon system.

Stoner was born in the midwestern United States in Gosport, Indiana, in 1922, to a middle-class family. They moved to California where he graduated from Long Beach Polytechnical High School. Without funds it was impossible to attend university. Vega Aircraft, the forerunner of what became Lockheed Airplane Company (now Lockheed Martin Corporation), hired Stoner just out of high school as a machinist. When the United States entered the Second World War he joined the Marine Corps, and fought in the South Pacific, Okinawa, the Philippines, and northern China.

As an armourer in the Marine Corps, he had his first experience of working with heavy-calibre automatic weapons. The early work experience and training during the war served him through his weapons designing career.

Stoner was a hard worker. His last products included a new high-accuracy, long-range 50-calibre sniper rifle which he was designing with C. Reed Knight of Knights Manufacturing Company. He joined the Florida-based company in part to pass on his experience to younger designers. One engineer, a recent university graduate working closely with him in his last year, said that small arms have long since reached their technological peak. "Stoner tried not to fall back on what had been done. He did not want to reinvent things. He always wanted to try a new way. He taught me to look at a design from every angle," he said.

A young enthusiast met Stoner - a member of the US Army Ordnance Corps' Ordnance Hall of Fame, the holder of over 100 patents in small arms, with weapons to his name that were standard issue in military inventories around the world - by chance at an industry exhibition in 1991. "We talked for two hours, and I learned a lot," he said.

"He opened my eyes about the [M-16] system itself: what he did to get the 20-inch barrel; why they changed to a 1-in-14 twist and then 1-in- 12 twist. But it was surprising. In whatever industry, someone in the public eye, a star, usually tells you to get away. He wasn't like that."

Stoner never lost his enthusiasm for guns and designing them. He saw chance meetings as opportunities; perhaps one of these new faces had a better idea. He was quite unassuming. It was said of him: "If you took someone into a room telling him that one of the world's foremost small arms designers is here, looking around the room, he would never pick out Gene Stoner as that person."

Eugene Morrison Stoner, small arms designer: born Gosport, Indiana 22 November 1922; twice married (one son, three daughters); died Palm City, Florida 24 April 1997.

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