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

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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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costa mesa dj
costa mesa dj

Interesting. I guess good marketing beats good invention every time.

John_in_VA
John_in_VA

The Armalite company in Geneseo, Illinois is the former Eagle Arms.  It's only connection to the Armalite company of Costa Mesa, is that they purchased the rights to the name.  The current Armalite company manufactures AR-15-style rifles, as well as a new modified iteration of the AR-180, called the AR-180B.  Historical Note:  The original Armalite AR-180's were manufactured by three different physical manufacturers, Armalite in Costa Mesa, Sterling in Britain, and Howa in Japan.

Gobabber
Gobabber

T. Jefferson Parker uses the Armalite company and buildings in some of his recent work. The Charlie Hood books specifically.

mitch young
mitch young

Armalite has always been a sort of romantic name to me, conjuring up both the IRA and the SAS, men in balaclavas, that sort of thing. Had no clue they had OC roots -- in fact for the longest time I thought it was a British weapon.

Aside from the controversy over the effect of M16 bullets, which I would think would be less heinous than the 7.62 AK round's wounds, I think this was a pretty good story. Might even bear some of Klavito's marks, like the old telephone book research. I'll give credit where credit is due.

NewsDog
NewsDog

The AR-180 chambered in .308 was the IRA's weapon of preference for years as many a British 1st Para soldier can attest.    

John_in_VA
John_in_VA

 Wrong.  The AR-18/180 was chambered in 5.56x45 NATO (aka .223 Rem) and NOT 7.62x51 NATO (aka .308 Win).  The AR-10 was chambered in 7.62 NATO.   AR-18/180 rifles were manufactured under contract, for Armalite, by Sterling in Britain.  British police (not the military) fielded AR-18/180's for use by special weapon squads, and by the Royal Ulster Constabulary.  The AR-180's used by the PIRA were primarily from a large shipment procured by PIRA/Sinn Fein/NORAID supporters in the US.  British Paras of the time would have been primarily armed with the L1A1 (British version of the FAL) and Sterling sub-machine guns.

909Jeff
909Jeff

"weapon fired a 5.56 mm round capable of inflicting some of the gnarliest bullet wounds known to man."

Sorry Brandon but the 5.56mm ball round is full metal jacketed to enter and exit cleanly and actually is designed to increase the likelihood of injury.  As it on average takes 2 people to tend to a wounded soldier effectively taking 3 people out of the battle. It is forbidden to alter ammo in any way including cross hatching which would cause a mushroom effect.  Its also a .223 which is only slightly larger in diameter than a .22 and its a high powered round which assists in allowing it to pass through quickly with less internal damage than rounds of a much larger caliber.  

You want to see gnarly... see what a vehicle mounted Browning M2 can do... Even a thompson which was used militarily through 1972, fired  .45 Auto rounds... Much more devastating.

Bferguson
Bferguson

Thanks for reading Jeff. Your ignorant comments as always are amusing. Forensic investigators I consulted have used words like "liquefaction" to describe the uniquely devastating effects caused by this weapon.

NotSoProudAmerican
NotSoProudAmerican

 Well Bferguson...I think you need to come up with some more..and BETTER Forensic investigators in your next article.  Better yet...speak to soldiers with boots on the ground.  Not some jackass behind a desk with a degree in Forensics.  Maybe try someone a little more familiar with BALLISTICS?

John_in_Va
John_in_Va

 The terminal ballistic effects of the 5.56 NATO round vary with the distance from rifle to target.  Less than 200 yards, the bullet tends to pass through human tissue with little expansion, creating a through-and-through wound.  The shock-wave behind the slug creates a rather large temporary wound cavity. At distances beyond 200 yards, the bullet tends to yaw when striking a target, especially when fired from the early M-16 rifles made with relatively slow twist rifling 1-turn-in-12-inches, vice the current standard for the M-4/M-16, 1-turn-in-7-inches.

909Jeff
909Jeff

Well Brandon that's because your research is as intellectually dishonest as your writing... 

Its a bit odd that you dont cite your research in the body of the story but wait until you're challenged to supposedly have interviewed experts.  

I can find a scientist that will tell me the world is flat... Doesn't make it so.  

Of course you couldn't be bothered to ask someone who has fired the weapon in combat...  or someone who was inadvertently been shot by one... Like a guy who I served with who got hit in the leg and it was a clean through... The entry and exit approx the same size.

Or you could have interviewed a weapons expert from the Army's war college who would have verified what I said.  (If they would have even talked to you)

But I get your agenda, your one of those people who over cite the 1st amendment and Ignore the 2nd.. But hey, we were all idealistic at one point. 

Hey whatever happened to the Slide Bar being responsible for the call that got Kelly Thomas Killed?  Let me guess, thats sooo last week? Or wait... you got un-black listed so its all good now?  Or you have the attention span of a 5 year old with ADD? 

gustavoarellano
gustavoarellano

Brandon broke the story; months later, everyone else caught up. What else do you want?

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