Mark Westrom: The Interview

Westrom:  That’s right.  What we have in the current marketplace is a combination of prejudice and commercial hype.  Several years ago, I received a call from SOCOM.  SOCOM wanted to build the SCAR, and I agreed to participate.  During that period, the single-manager concept in the ordinance community was breaking down.  Under McNamara, the Secretary of Defense’s office discovered that the services were competing against each other.  Under procurement reforms, the single-manager concept was developed so that one defense agency would buy all the equipment for the U.S. military.  The Army was the single manager for conventional munitions and was tasked to buy the rifles for all of the armed services.

SOCOM isn’t covered under the original procurement reforms.  A few SOCOM guys declared that there was a crisis, and that they needed a new gun.  They wrote up a requirement for the SCAR.  At the time, I was told, “The gas tube has to go.”  There’s nothing wrong with the M16 gas tube.  There are substantial advantages to using a gas tube, but servicemen dislike the gas tube.

I spoke to SOCOM and was told the gas tube had to go.  I took my AR-180, went down to Orlando, and showed the concept.  Connecting rod?  I’ve got a connecting rod.  ArmaLite knows connecting rods.  ArmaLite sold the rights to the Stoner gas system to Colt, and soon realized the error in selling the AR-15 to Colt.  ArmaLite developed the AR-18 in response.  The connecting rod used in the AR-18 was adopted by ArmaLite in the ‘60s due to a patent issue, not because of any technical issue.  ArmaLite couldn’t use a gas tube in the AR-18; the system had been sold to Colt.  That’s where the connecting rod and the Tokarev-style gas cylinder came from.  The piston system wasn’t based on a technical advantage.  The development of the piston system was based upon a legal requirement.

I briefed the AR-180 piston system to SOCOM.  At the end of the presentation, I went home and looked at my AR-18 and my AR-15.  I concluded that that the gas tube was the superior system.  Under the requirements, I would not submit a “piston” system to the U.S. military, even though the prejudice is currently in favor of that system.  I will not provide a piston system to a solider or a Marine.  Commercial hype is fine in the commercial market.

I made the decision that I couldn’t support the AR-18 or the gas piston system requirement.  I withdrew my interest from the SCAR-L project.  Instead, I cooperated with other companies in the industry and coordinated a project to work on SCAR-H chambered in 7.62.

SADJWhat are your thoughts on the M4 carbine?   

Westrom:  I’m a little suspicious of the M4 carbine.  The M16 system was designed for a specific family of cartridges, a specific barrel length, a specific forward pressure and specific timing.  The rifle was designed as a system.  When you shorten the barrel, you destabilize the system.  The M16 rifles tend to be more reliable than the M4 carbine.  If the military believes that the advantage of a compact carbine is important enough to sacrifice a little bit of reliability, that’s fine by me.  That’s reasonable.  The M4 is a fine rifle when you take reasonable care of it – not white-glove care, just reasonable care – and you use good magazines.  That’s the biggest problem with the M4.

There are reports that some rifles did better than the M16 in testing.  I’ve seen the tests.  The tests confirmed that with reasonable maintenance, the M4 is reliable.  You can cherry pick from the results, but overall I saw nothing in the test results that indicated that the M4 should be replaced.

The latest tests pushed by Representative Coburn involved a dust test, with the unstated intent to replace the M16/M4 system.  A couple of issues arose there.  First, the dust chamber was so severe that under those conditions, the operator would be killed.  That wasn’t a realistic test.

Second, a virtually identical test was performed a couple of years prior to the dust test.  That test was known as the lubrication test.  The lubrication test was performed by unbiased parties.  If the test conditions are virtually identical, the results should be the same.  Instead, the results between the lubrication test and the dust test were different, and the M4 didn’t perform as well in the dust test.  That tells me that something changed in the testing protocol, and the test itself is suspect.  I suspect that the test used old M4 rifles or bad magazines, while the competing guns were hand picked.

None of the new firearms being proposed does what the M16 did in its day.  The M16 led to a new marksmanship doctrine and provided a substantially new combat capability.  The M16 provided an intense, close-in fighting capability. Merely changing from one compact system to another compact system doesn’t give you any fundamental change.  The weapons systems being considered only offer a suspect or theoretical difference in performance.  The reliability of the M16 when in good condition – cleaned and lubed – is so high, I don’t believe that it’s worth the money to change to a new weapons system.  You would have to see a substantial improvement in performance, and the performance with the M16 and M4 is very good.

SADJThe Army is proposing a solicitation for a new rifle, possibly in early 2010.  What are your thoughts on the solicitation? 

Westrom:  The political snarl has become so deep that the Army is soliciting a new carbine to take a look at everything available.  The solicitation is being stimulated by commercial and political pressures, and I doubt if we’ll see anything new.  It’ll be too expensive.  I’m going to make a prediction.  The prediction is that while one rifle or another may have a feature that is liked, in the end a few minor changes will be made to the M16 and M4 system, and that’ll be as far as it goes.

There’s another issue too – the ammunition.  There’s no magic bullet.  The 6.8mm bullet is heavier, so you can’t carry as much.  That means something.  The 6.8mm recoils a little bit more, so it takes a little more time to come back on target.  But the big thing is for a Geneva-compliant bullet, the difference in lethality is unproven.  The lethality of Geneva-compliant 7.62mm ammunition is not horribly greater than that of Geneva-compliant 5.56mm ammunition.

We see similar issue with hunters.  There are hunters who love the 6 millimeter cartridge and insist that it’s the best in the world.  There are others who insist on the 7mm cartridge.  There are others who insist on the 6.5mm cartridge.  There’s no silver bullet.  The main issue is shot placement.  The cost of switching from one cartridge to another by the U.S. military will be huge.  Personally, I don’t believe that a switch to a different cartridge, without a corresponding switch in doctrine will result in a substantial improvement in performance.

SADJWhat do you predict if a new assault weapons ban is enacted?  Where do you see the industry going?  

Westrom:  The industry will always build rifles as interesting and sexy as the law allows.  If semiautomatics aren’t allowed, the industry might go back to straight-pulls.  Before the semiautomatic rifle, the straight-pull was the hot military rifle.  The industry will build exotic-looking firearms, like our AR-30.  Some people find it sinister-looking.  It’s built that way to be extremely resistant to climate influences, a very tough gun.  It’s something people think of as a hostile-looking gun, but some people are attracted to those rugged looks.

I think a lot of the little garage shops, the boutique manufacturers, will cease operation.  They were formed in anticipation of this panic, and they’ll go away.  ArmaLite has maintained our R&D process to make sure that we’ll survive any political changes.  We’ve got new stuff on the books or on the drawing boards now.  We’re also continuing to make some changes in our semiautomatic rifles.

This is a very historic period in regulation.  I think a more significant threat comes from registration and licensing.  The U.S. Supreme Court has said that reasonable restrictions to firearm ownership are acceptable.  The Court talks about training, but in context, the Court is referring to licensing.  A huge percentage of the U.S. population already lives under registration and licensing that is not reasonable – Chicago, New York, San Francisco all have firearm laws that are not reasonable.  The discussions will be over what restrictions are reasonable.  I think the argument will be over reasonable restrictions.

We’re also facing influence of the United Nations, via the UN Arms Trade Treaty.  I’ve been to Geneva twice to try and influence the process.  We’ve been to the UN in New York.  A basic arms trade treaty, if it’s done right, basically brings the world into agreement with the U.S. procedures already in place.  But there are non-governmental organizations that want to add provisions against private firearm ownership onto an arms trade treaty.

There’s a second effort to create a UN standard for firearms.  A standard is different than a treaty.  Treaties generally require unanimity in the UN.  In order go into effect for the U.S. it requires a heavy vote in Congress.  A standard doesn’t require that.  With a standard, a few UN organizations write up the requirement, agree to the terms, and terms become a UN standard.

A standard can then become influential in legislative battles later; there’s a lot of pressure from anti-gun Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to make the proposed UN standard governing firearms a very harsh program.  The Defense Small Arms Committee attends UN meetings to provide technical expertise and advice to organizations that are very inexperienced in technical issues on small arms.

There are many NGOs that want to pass standards or treaties but have no concept of the implications of their proposals.  There was a government official who made a very interesting statement at the last meeting in Geneva.  He said, “There are different philosophies concerning small arms around the world.  In many nations, the right to small arms belongs exclusively to the government, which may allow individuals to share in it.  There are other societies in which the right to keep and bear arms rests with the individual and may be limited by government.”  The Government official used that term – “the right to keep and bear arms.”  Those two philosophies have to be fit into whatever proposed language is proposed, and it’s a very hard task.

Most Americans don’t realize what a device our revolution was.  It came at the height of the enlightenment, and it really does pose power in the people, the Jeffersonian concept of firearms being a way of protecting from government excess.  Even Hubert Humphrey was strong supporter of this concept.  That’s entirely foreign in most of the world.  If you’ve got a dictatorial regime, the last thing the regime wants is a resident public that could resist.

SADJVery few countries have a similar system or similar availability.  

Westrom:  Almost none.

SADJThank you very much for taking the time to discuss ArmaLite and your involvement and the development of small arms.  I appreciate your talking about the issues.  

Westrom:  My pleasure.

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