Could Government Arsenals Build America’s Small Arms?

Could Government Arsenals Build America’s Small Arms?


There are many political and legal challenges facing America’s small arms industry. Their future could be in jeopardy should highly restrictive legislation be enacted. Since the early days of American independence, firearms used to supply her armies have come from private industries and government arsenals. If private industries were to suddenly disappear, it would be incumbent upon the arsenals to supply the military’s firearms. Springfield Armory and Harper’s Ferry Arsenal were both originally purposed by President George Washington to build the military’s small arms. These arsenals developed the expertise and acquired equipment for the job. Both have been closed for many years. Today, Rock Island Arsenal has limited small arms manufacturing capability and would be the obvious successor should there be no private industries to rely on.

What could we expect if government arsenals became the sole source for military and law enforcement firearms? A glimpse into the past may provide useful insight into what might lie ahead.

Commercial sales are largely responsible for the $42.3 billion dollar annual revenue of America’s privately owned small arms industry where more than 288,000 workers are employed. The small arms industry is currently a flourishing business because it is located in one of the few remaining countries with free access to firearms. The firearm is the single tangible item the U.S. Constitution grants to its citizens the right of ownership. Besides commercial sales, many of the small arms manufacturers compete for government and law enforcement contracts. Those contracts alone would not be sufficient for long-term sustainment if commercial sales vanished.

Challenges to Private Small Arms Industry

In 1999, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) initiated lawsuits against almost 100 small arms manufacturers.

The stated purpose of the lawsuits was not to win, but in the words of NAACP President, Kweisi Mfume, these lawsuits were “… an effort to break the backs of those who help perpetuate this over saturation of weapons in our communities.” The lawsuit labored on for 9 years driving the legal fees for small arms manufacturers’ defense to more than 10 million dollars. The firewalls held, and none of the manufacturers closed. Sadly, the NAACP paid legal fees too—money going to lawyers that might have been better spent advancing lives of the people they claim to represent.

With such heavy reliance by the military on small arms production by private industry, one might expect strong support for the industry. Sadly, it is not always the case. Upon his retirement in 2010, General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of our forces in Afghanistan, questioned the need for civilians to have military style assault rifles. His message was heralded by the anti-gun media. Recently, retired general Stephen Xenakis met with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss gun control. General Xenakis suggested that members of the military could help the White House move forward with its gun control agenda. Military helping government control guns—isn’t that called a police state? Surely these two will give their plan a more innocuous sounding name?

On the political scene, the small arms industry has few friends, with one very important exception. It’s an association founded in 1878 by two American military officers. Frustrated by the poor marksmanship of new recruits who offered little experience in firearms handling, the two officers founded the National Rifle Association (NRA). Its purpose was to “study rifle shooting on a scientific basis” with a heavy emphasis placed on firearms safety. Today the NRA has a huge membership and continues to provide technical information and safety training. At the same time, the NRA provides responses to newly proposed restrictions on firearm ownership, which have been mostly effective thus far.

Small Arms from the Arsenal System

After his election, President John F. Kennedy made good on his campaign promise to clean up longstanding inefficiencies in military spending. To that end, in 1961 he appointed Robert McNamara as Secretary of Defense. Kennedy’s choice was not without good reason.

McNamara was an industrial genius who pulled the Ford Motor Company up from its failing posture and turned it into a highly profitable and motivated company. As Secretary of Defense, McNamara brought in experienced industrialists, nicknamed “Whiz Kids,” to get their help in modernizing and streamlining the Department of Defense. McNamara placed heavy scrutiny on the operation at Springfield Armory where he uncovered widespread mismanagement, inefficiency and waste. Bloated with excess personnel, Springfield even had its own marketing organization with the purpose of selling guns to itself.

During McNamara’s tenure, Springfield Armory was to develop the next service rifle. The new rifle, designed to fire the new 7.62 mm NATO cartridge, was designated M14. Manufacturing was originally planned for the Arsenal, but small arms industry leaders applied pressure to have the manufacturing released for competitive procurement. It was not at all uncommon for private industries to compete for any new service rifle. The M14 was facing stiff competition from the FAL, a very fine rifle designed by Fabrique National who was and is a longstanding private industry from Belgium.

The basic design of the M14 was sound, but the management at Springfield paid little attention to program needs during the competition. They continually introduced little-tested prototype hardware designed to address any problems uncovered in testing. Many of these hurry-up fixes failed and as a result, the M14 was falling behind in the competition. What’s worse, Springfield management didn’t even know it. When they brought in an outsider, Ltc. Roy Rayle, to head up the R&D department, they briefed him on the project and assured him the M14 was running smoothly and on target to beat out the FAL. Two days later Rayle learned the M14 had been performing so poorly for so long, it was destined to failure. Using his engineering skills and leadership ability, Ltc. Rayle rescued the M14 from defeat and eventually beat out the FAL.

Not long after the competition was over, the Army began clamoring for their weapons. Private industry was ready to go, but Springfield offered no solicitation. The reason was simple. Springfield did not prepare the engineering drawings in a timely manner, and there would be no competition until drawings were released. Ltc. Rayle had been transferred to his next assignment, and without his leadership skills, the program languished. Finally, a solicitation was released with hurried-up drawings. Private industry struggled with them but eventually used their own expertise to work through the issues and produce guns.

Cartoon Style Manual for M73 (U.S. Army)

Springfield Armory becomes Springfield Operation

After seven years, McNamara could stand the inefficiencies of the Springfield Armory no longer. The time had come to put an end to this self-licking ice cream cone. In late 1968, he ordered Springfield Armory to close. America’s small arms would now be built by private industry.

At the time of Springfield’s demise, I was working for the General Electric Armament Systems Department in Burlington, Vermont. GE was competing for single-barrel cannons, and I was an engineer assigned to work on those programs. So where do you suppose I found myself working in January 1969? It was the Springfield Operation of the General Electric Company. GE had hired many of the Springfield employees who worked on the two machine guns in current production. The two guns, M85 and M219, were not having any obvious production problems, so GE took over both machine gun contracts. The same people would be making the same guns on the same production lines with no reported issues. GE saw it as a sound investment and a sure money-maker.

The .50 caliber M85 machine gun and the M219 (formerly designated M73) were arguably two of the worst small arms to ever be fielded by US forces. The least worst was the M85. It was designed by private industry, but Springfield took over control of the design and the drawings. Parts could be built to these drawings, and some combinations would result in working machine guns. Others would not. Just as soon as GE took over the production line M85’s would not pass the acceptance tests.

The M219 (M73) was designed totally at Springfield and built there as well. Its design years were marked by ever-changing project leaders who took the design in convoluted directions and never gave their design changes a thorough testing. The original M73 weapon was so unreliable, extensive modifications had to be made by Springfield. So different was the new design, a second type classification was required with the newer version being designated M219. Under GE’s responsibility, the M219 production line faltered as well. During the final acceptance tests, guns would either run too fast or too slow. Too fast and the fired cases were either lost by the grippers holding them or torn apart by the ejectors. Firing too slow caused the gun to come to a grinding halt.

As part of GE’s engineering task force, our job was to figure out why the guns wouldn’t pass acceptance tests. Considering they had passed every month previous, there was obviously something very wrong, and it was left to us to figure it out. Since the gun had already been accepted and type classified, we couldn’t change anything. It was our worst nightmare. We went through the design drawings and compared them to manufactured parts. Parts met drawing requirements. We looked at the test stands and the ammunition for any anomalies. Nothing! We even asked the former Springfield employees what was different now than then? After all, they had been producing both guns month after month with no reported problems. Responses varied and delivered with some hesitation and were of little use in solving any of the problems. We never felt we were hearing the full story. The more we stirred the worse it smelled.

Unable to successfully produce the M85 and M219, General Electric accepted its losses and closed the Springfield Operation. The two production lines were transferred to Rock Island Arsenal where production continued since both of these guns were needed to arm the new M60 main battle tank. How production fared at Rock Island is not known, but we did hear about these two guns again. They were used by the Israelis during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Reviews on the M85 were not great, but the M219 performed so miserably the Israelis wanted their money back, and who could blame them? Politicians demanded to know how the leader of the free world could develop such awful products. The U.S. Congress mandated a world-wide competition for a better weapon, and the FN Belgian MAG 58 (U.S. M240) was selected.

A System That Works

Our small arms industry supplies weapons to the military and law enforcement using a time-proven system. The military and arsenals develop specifications for weapons they want to procure. These specifications are outlined in a solicitation to industry and released for competitive procurement. Contract award does not necessarily go to the lowest bidder; rather, it’s the company who can show they are providing the best value for the amount they quote. After production starts, each monthly delivery is monitored by U.S. Government inspectors to assure quality and consistency. The arsenal system carefully monitors the technical data package reserving the right to approve or disapprove any changes suggested by the contractor. It’s a system of checks and balances to assure the warfighter is armed with the best possible small arms. Sure, an arsenal system could be put in to supply our nation’s small arms, but experience has shown it might come at a cost.