Mark Westrom, owner of ArmaLite, Inc. and President of the DSAAC (Defense Small Arms Advisory Council), sat down with Small Arms Defense Journal to discuss his background, his involvement with the AR-15 rifle, and current developments within the industry.
SADJ: How you got started in shooting?
Westrom: My father was a master gunsmith, so from my youngest days I’ve been around firearms and technology. I bought my first pistol at the age of 16. It was a Ruger Mark I .22 caliber pistol. I had a nice little coin collection, but there was a fellow at the coin show with this pistol, so I became a pistol shooter.
SADJ: You traded your coin collection?
Westrom: Yeah. We both got good deals on that. In those days, I would drive up to the Ankeny, Iowa Police Department and they would allow me to sign out the key to their police pistol range. I’d drive out to the pistol range, and I would put up targets and I would shoot and, by accident, I put myself through a good training program.
SADJ: Did you have formal training?
Westrom: I had a little training at Boy Scout camp, under the tutelage of a Marine Corps NCO, and a little training from my father. I graduated high school enrolled at Iowa State University, joined ROTC, and started competitive shooting on the university pistol team, which was sponsored by the ROTC. I was already a pretty sharp pistol shooter.
I was commissioned in 1973 into the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps, and in 1976 was picked up by the All-Army Pistol Team. I shot with All-Army for a number of years. In the ordnance world, I was a rare creature; I was an armament maintenance officer. They don’t even have that specialty anymore.
SADJ: What were you shooting at the time?
Westrom: M14s. After leaving the Army, I entered Civil Service, and the Army Reserve. At the time, I switched to shooting rifles competitively. While shooting in the Reserves, it became apparent that it was time to switch to an M16 Match rifle.
I started an ad hoc, unfunded program at Rock Island to develop a rifle that could be used as a National Match gun, or as a designated marksman’s rifle. In those days, there was huge resistance to the M16 rifle. I did not think the M16 could compete with an M14 in service rifle competition, but I thought we needed try it.
In 1994, I was offered the chance to buy ArmaLite. I bought the company and I carried my ordnance project into the company. That became the basis of our National Match M16 rifle. Basically, all of the other modifications on the market are because of the things we did at that time – the two-phase trigger, the free-floating barrel, and the Match sights.
Eventually the Army Marksmanship Unit picked up on what the Army Reserve Rifle Team was trying to do. They carried the rifles forward into stunning victories from 1994 through 1997. We got a head start on the other services.
SADJ: The other services were still using M14s.
Westrom: Yeah, the other services were still using M14s. Now, if you want to win the national matches, you don’t shoot an M14. You’re at a disadvantage with an M14.
SADJ: You bought ArmaLite in 1994. Tell me about that experience.
Westrom: When I bought the company in January, 1994, there were 6 employees. We were under threat of an assault weapons ban. I bought the company, and in September 1994 the assault weapons ban was enacted. How’s that for bad timing? (laughs)
The assault weapons ban turned into a great opportunity. Once I took over, we went to work on building a strong development program. There were times that we went to the SHOT Show with more new models than anybody else at the show. After starting out with the AR-15, I brought the AR-10 back. After the AR-10, I went on to the AR-50, ArmaLite’s second bolt-action rifle.
The AR-50 was inspired by things that my wife Judy and I saw at the SHOT Show. The V-block bedding and the receiver, mounting the receiver in the stock, use of the metallic stock – those were all suggested by things we saw at SHOT, although nobody was doing those things. The muzzle brake came later. I first sketched the AR-50 out on the back of a napkin. And with only two real changes, that’s what went into production.
SADJ: Who was making .50 caliber rifles at the time?
Westrom: Barrett; and a couple other companies were making .50 caliber rifles. They were very inexpensive firearms. To a degree, you still see the same tradition in the .50 caliber market. Manufacturers are making very simple guns. We went with an expensive design with a powerful receiver. The receiver was designed to accept the 12.7×109 cartridge, the standard Soviet Bloc cartridge so that we could pursue overseas sales.
After the AR-50, we brought the AR-180 back, and then later we scaled the AR-50 down into the AR-30. We have a heavy emphasis on product line expansion of our guns. ArmaLite’s focus and reputation has always been on new product developments and advanced armament concepts. Everything ArmaLite did was advanced in its day – the AR-5, the AR-7, AR-10, the AR-15, AR-17, and the AR-18. They all were all groundbreaking projects.
Brands are both powerful tools and powerful limitations; you have to live up to your brand.
SADJ: Where do you see the market headed in the future?
Westrom: Right now, the firearms market is similar to the computer industry 20 years ago, where you had local computer shops that would build up computers out of a standard palette of parts. Most of the outfits making semiautomatic firearms today don’t actually make the parts. They buy parts and assemble rifles.
One of the advantages of doing your own technical work and your own manufacturing is the development of technical experience that you can’t when assembling a rifle from parts. It’s intensely important. If you stop and think about it, you never know when your rifle design is fully finished: if you aren’t doing the engineering, you never know what the design really entails. That’s proven to be a substantial technical advantage to us.
SADJ: What are your thoughts on the current M4 controversy?
Westrom: The criticism of the M16 family of rifles comes from basically two places. One, it comes from commercial guys who bad-mouth the weapon so that they can sell their product. The other comes from weak maintenance – things as simple as bad magazines. Virtually all of the problems with M16 rifle malfunctions could be solved by throwing away bad magazines.
When I was assigned to Rock Island, I hated the M16. And I had a lot of time on my hands, so I initiated a study of the M16. I had access to the technical library at Rock Island, and researched deeply into historical documents that hadn’t been accessed since the 1960s.
Eventually, I threw up my arms and had to admit that I understood the concept. The concept ensures reliability, supportability, and cost. It’s a logical choice. Despite my initial prejudice, I came over to the M16, came over to the dark side. One of the things that bothered me with the M16 was that gas tube.
I’ve since realized that the gas tube is a brilliant piece of engineering. People talk about going to a piston gun. The M16 is a piston gun. The piston on an M16 is in the bolt carrier, but the M16 system is still a piston gun. The gas tube system keeps recoil forces in a straight line. The M16 gas tube system does not have an issue with moving masses that arise when using a connecting rod or a piston. The gas tube system is a brilliant design, but I didn’t like the dust, dirt, and carbon that was deposited in the receiver.
The carbon in the receiver – that bothered me. I took two M16 rifles that were properly cleaned and lubricated. Over two days, we conducted heavy firing of these two rifles, with no cleaning, and no lubrication. The rifles fired at 2,000 rounds per rifle with no malfunctions. I couldn’t argue with the results.
The problem with the Army is that they have a white-glove mentality, and they want their rifles clean. It’s easy to tell when the rifle is absolutely clean. It’s hard to tell when the rifle is clean enough. That white-glove mentality is a powerful influence within the U.S. armed forces. Soldiers don’t realize that wiping down and lubing the rifle components is enough on an M16. Instead, they overdo it.
What’s the purpose of the gas tube? To get the bolt carrier moving. What’s the purpose of the piston?
SADJ: To get the bolt carrier moving.
Westrom: How does the bolt, or any other part, know how it got moving?
SADJ: It doesn’t. It has a force applied to it.