Mysteries of Costa Mesa: Armalite and the Creator of the M16, a Walking Tour

Reenacting the real thing from Oliver Stone's Platoon
For reasons not entirely clear, Orange County isn't out loud and proud when it comes to its connection to one of the most famous battle implements of all time. In my efforts to discover the one-time Costa Mesa location of ArmaLite, developer of the M16, I was met with blank stares and shoulder shrugs from gun shop employees working no more than four blocks from the former site.

Since the Vietnam conflict, variants of the M16 have been standard issue for U.S. soldiers and Marines serving on far-flung killing fields including Iraq and Afghanistan. But many OC residents would likely be surprised to know the automatic rifle, with its instantly recognizable silhouette, has deep roots locally.

Disclaimer: The Weekly is well aware of the criticisms regarding the reliability of the M16, especially in comparison to its Communist counterpart, the AK-47. For a discussion of the finer points of these iconic weapons, we direct you to your local gun shop, or perhaps a beer hall.

Now based in Geneseo Illinois, ArmaLite sprung from the loins the Fairchild Engine and Aircraft Company, which operated a small machine shop in Santa Monica back in 1954. A team of tinkerers working under Costa Mesa resident and General Manager of Research Charles H. Dorchester, developed an assault rifle they designated the AR-15. Dorchester would eventually serve as company president.

Lightweight, with weather-resistant aluminum receiver and synthetic grips and stock, the weapon fired a 5.56 mm round capable of inflicting some of the gnarliest bullet wounds known to man.

The tinkerer largely responsible for the finished product, (or most likely to get the credit in casual conversation) was Chief Engineer Eugene Stoner, a former Marine and WWII vet, who records indicate, owned a small one-story home just east of the 55 freeway in Costa Mesa (and later in Newport Beach).

Brandon Ferguson
Phonebook listings indicate ArmaLite Chief Engineer Eugene Stoner lived at these homes in Costa Mesa and Newport Beach
Unfortunately for ArmaLite, which was struggling financially, the company jumped the gun in 1959 and licensed the AR-15 to Colt. It was a complete blunder in light of the brewing shit storm in southeast Asia. Long story short: Colt bought the golden goose, won a lucrative military contract, the rifle was designated the M16, and the rest is history. 

Perhaps ArmaLite can count its blessings. Ever hear the story about the Winchester mansion?

But the company wasn't licked. According a 2010 historical review supplied to the Weekly by the fine folks at ArmaLite, company tinkerers set to work on a "rifle capable of displacing the AR-15 in the hands of the Army." It was known as the AR-18 and would be produced at a Costa Mesa factory located at 118 E. 16th St.

Brandon Ferguson
Rumors swirl about an underground firing range in the old ArmaLite building
Visiting this small stretch of asphalt near the old Tower Records, surrounded by cinder-block buildings, chain link fences and razor wire, it's hard to imagine much has changed in the past 50 years. The building is now inhabited by Southern Auto Body. Employees there and down the street at Turbo Ted's auto share rumors of underground rooms, long ago filled with cement, possibly used to test the weaponry. But in lieu of hard evidence, these stories remain unfounded. I ask one guy if he's come across any spent shell casings, he laughs and shakes his head.

In mid-1968, pilot production of the AR-18 began. Between July 1969 and June 1972 the company says 1,171 AR-18's and 4,018 semi automatic models designated AR-180 were produced at the Costa Mesa factory. Though the Army re-evaluated the weapon, a contract didn't follow. "By the end of 1969," reads ArmaLite's story, "the Army had already standardized the M-16, and the AR-18 was unable to replace it."

Meanwhile Chief Engineer Eugene Stoner made the move a few blocks northwest to a plant operated by Cadillac-Gage located at 1886 N. Whittier Ave. There, he designed a modular assault rifle known as the Stoner 63 which saw limited use by Navy Seals and other special forces in Vietnam. Today, Ayres Self Storage inhabits a lot at 1880 near Whittier Elementary School. 1886 appears to have been wiped off the map. 

Rumor has it that by the 1980's, most Stoner 63s were destroyed, leaving only precious dozens in existence. Do I smell an episode of Storage Wars? No. Probably not.

Brandon Ferguson
Stoners beware, this place could pack heat.
Despite the setbacks of its past, ArmaLite continues to operate today manufacturing several weapons for the commercial and law enforcement markets including the AR-24 nine-millimeter pistol and the AR-30 bolt-action rifle. Though efforts were made to obtain photos of the old facility at 16th St., neither the company, U.S. Army Ordnance Museum, nor former ArmaLite engineer Jim Sullivan (who declined to be interviewed for this piece) were able to dig any up. 

Should any of our readers locate images from the era, feel free to "fire" up the scanner, and "shoot" us some copies...

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