Small Caliber Book Reviews: The Great Rifle Controversy

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As in all Small Caliber Book Reviews here at TFB, I will be covering the area of relevance and strengths and weaknesses of the book, as well as whether it is more introductory or advanced.

To write my ongoing series of posts on the Light Rifle, I first had to hit the books. One of the items on my reading list was Edward Clinton Ezell’s The Great Rifle Controversy; which chronicles the development of the modern infantry rifle from the end of World War Two until the 1980s, and the adoption of the 5.56mm round by NATO.

Ezell’s volume provides a “zoomed-out” picture of rifle development during this period. Unlike Steven’s book on the M14, Ezell’s volume is neither designed as a technical reference volume, nor is the information in it perfectly accurate. However, Ezell provides a perspective that ties the events from 1945-1984 together into the bigger picture, including both political and personal detail that is absent from more technical works. This is the book’s biggest strength, and I would recommend readers who are interested in the subject as a whole begin with this book and move on to books such as The Black Rifle and US Rifle M14.

Ezell is clear, too, about his view of modern infantry weapons development. He urges the immediate discard of the older, conservative system of small arms development and the adoption of a structure that will ensure continual improvement:

As an historian, I am concerned that historians of the future will judge the small caliber research and development activities of the last decades of this century as harshly as we judge the final decades of the nineteenth century. We look back on those years as a period of technological stagnancy in which product-improvement was favored over the adoption of new designs. Many new ideas were examined, but for financial and technological reasons few were adopted. The Ordnance Department prided itself in the fact that thirteen of the sixty-eight parts used in the 1873 and later-model trapdoor Springfield rifles were hold-overs from the Model 1855 muzzle-loading rifle. This may have contributed to production efficiency, but it did little to encourage the adoption of new designs. The small arms community must break out of our traditional patterns of thought and behavior and act boldly on carefully analyzed and intelligently presented programs for small caliber research and development. If they can break from the past and move effectively into the future, subsequent generations of infantrymen may praise this community for its activities. If they continue business as usual, those same infantrymen – or at least those who survive – may well have reason to curse them.

It’s not hard to image that, were Ezell alive today, he would look upon the current M4A1 rifle with considerable regret, as his time promised the development of much more sophisticated systems, such as those demonstrated in the Advanced Combat Rifle program. Though at times my writing seems conservative in this regard, I do feel the same way; I simply do not see current competitor rifles as providing a measurable advance over the AR-15 family.

The Great Rifle Controversy is unfortunately now out of print. It can be purchased secondhand, though the going rate is currently over $160. I would recommend those interested in reading the book shop around; from time to time copies sell for a lot less.



Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He can be reached via email at nathaniel.f@staff.thefirearmblog.com.


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  • Lance

    I know you hate M-14s get over it. Nathaniel F!

    • Esh325

      and the M4 is the greatest most best rifle in the world everything else sucks 🙂

      • Kivaari

        There aren’t many better.

      • Lance

        No its better than your crappy scar Scar lover!

        • MR

          You mean the AR180 Mark II? AR180 Mark II lover!

          • MR

            Ah, crap, I forgot to leave out the punctuation! Crap, did it again! scar Scar lover!

        • buzzman1

          I rather like my SCAR. I like it even better with the new trigger. Stock FN trigger suck.

      • nadnerbus

        I know that was tongue in cheek, but some people do think like that, whether it is the FAL, G3, M14, whatever.

        Nevermind that they were more or less obsolete when they were adopted. Kind of like having the greatest muzzle loader ever made as your standard infantry small arm when the enclosed cartridge was available. It’s cool and all, but time technology and events passed it by.

        The AK47 was cutting edge, as was the VZ58. The rest of the world just took a long time to catch up.

        • iksnilol

          Was cutting edge? Weak capitalist pig of dog say that GLORIOUS АВТОМАТ КАЛАШНИКОВ was cutting edge!?

          Meant as tongue in cheek but still, the AK is far from outdated.

          • buzzman1

            Thats like saying the T-54/55/62 tanks are not outdated because they are still in use.
            The AK design is still useable but don’t forget that the AK’s you get in the US are better than the ones in use today around the World. Hasnt been that long ago Russia finally started chroming the barrels,

          • iksnilol

            I just don’t see the big whoop. I mean, it has 30 rounds, is select fire, has detachable magazine and has decent accuracy. + it can accept accessories. The same as any assault rifle. Sure, newer rifles might be more comfortable or lighter but at the end of the day they do the same thing. And they do it efficently. I don’t like the AR but there is a reason it hasn’t been changed out.

            Look, we gun people, we might care. But your run of the mill soldier doesn’t. For him or her it is important that the thing works well and has those things I mentioned earlier.

            + I am not in the US. The AKM I use, was sent as aid from the Soviet Union to Eastern Germany. So it puts a bit doubt to your “Russians recently started chroming barrels” thing (it has a chromed barrel in case you didn’t understand). The problem with AKs “around the world” is that they are older than their users and haven’t been maintained. Barrels do get eventually shot and worn out. This applies to all weapons.

          • Scott P

            “The AK design is still usable but don’t forget that the AK’s you get in the US are better than the ones in use today around the World.”

            Really? Are you kidding me?

            Guess you never heard of Century, I.O. Inc., Waffen Werks, Interarms, Black Horse Arsenal, Iron Clad Armory, Lancaster, TGI, Ohio Rapid Fire, Hesse/Vulcan/Blackthorne, RWC (yes the ex-importer and now new “Kalashnikov USA”), and other smaller, unknown outfits who put out crap or closed up shop being scumbag crooks whom did their best to destroy the reputation of the AK.

            The only good American AK’s are the one’s imported from overseas or parts kit builds from a small group of qualified smiths who actually care about the design to put in the effort to build them together the first time.

            Also you are making an apples to oranges comparison of a civilian rifle in the states barely shot at all by most users being practically new rifles to war rifles used by barely-literate guerillas/conscripts who don’t know what end the bullet comes out of let alone how to maintain a rifle properly. They are not “gun-people” and could not care less about the AK only what is available which happens to be the AK being the cheapest of what is available on the black market.

            Russia started chroming their barrels in the 50’s so if you think 60 years ago is “recent” then I do not know what to tell you especially when the AR did not have their barrels chromed at the start either. Chrome-lining barrels only became viable in the 50’s which would give the Russians a head-start in that regard compared to the rest of the world..

        • James

          The FAL was hardly obsolete when it was adopted, as I think can easily be shown by the yeoman service it gave to the ANZACs in Vietnam, the Brits in the Falklands, or the Rhodies in, well, Rhodesia.What most certainly was obsolete in terms of an infantryman’s rifle was the 7.62x51mm round that the FAL was forced into. While you can, with merit, critique some of the technical aspects of its construction, particularly a heavy, expensive receiver and crap in the way of optics; in the early 50’s when it first came about, had it kept .280 British or something similar, it would’ve been top of the line. Politics made it obsolete, not the design.

          Just my $7.62 as a FALnatic.

          • nadnerbus

            I agree about the design. But it was adopted as 7.62, so that is its history. Not the fault of the designers, but it was still a battle rifle when the assault rifle has passed battle rifles by.

    • nadnerbus

      A) He didn’t say anything about your precious M14 in this post

      B) Is your mom an M14 or something? Why does it bother you so much when people discuss its weaknesses?

      • Lance

        Its just some cant stand it that the FAL lost and they repeat and reapat there cry. Nathaniel F is one of them who cant just accept history.

        • And what does this comment have to do with the post?

        • No, man, when trolling folks you have to find their pressure points and exploit them. Just making up random nonsense won’t work.

          • THULE_NORD

            Thank you. If you don’t have technical facts, stop talking.

          • nadnerbus

            Also, if one can’t use basic grammar, punctuation, and spelling, they should probably stop talking as well. Though that has never stopped Lance, god bless him.

    • Phil White

      And I really like my M1A’s but it doesn’t bother me if Nathaniel or anyone else doesn’t care for the M1A/M14. I don’t think Nathaniel hates the M14.

  • MPWS

    This is one of the books-classics.
    None of this kind is being written any longer. Their interpretations are being recycled in new and sometimes perhaps dubious ways. In any case, good you bring awareness of it up.

    • Kivaari

      There is no fool like one who loans a book. I loaned mine to a fireman nearly 30 years ago, and I have never seen it since. I recommend Ezell’s “The AK47 Story” as well. Almost all the books about the AK use information mined from his book. Duncan Long in particular re-used Ezell’s book, but did a sloppy job of it.

  • ghost

    The M-14 was what we were issued, that is what we used. Later we were issued the M-16, that is what we used. After all these years, now as a civilian, I would like to have the M-14 back. Does not make it a better rifle, just one I like. (no use for one really, or the money to buy one anyway). Rifles are like anything else, gonna use what works till something better comes along. Strangely enough the higher up the ladder the people are that make decisions, the less infantry friendly they are.

    • john4637

      I agree, all a matter of comfort and perceived reliability. I for one fell in love with the M-1 Garand that I was issued to me at Parris Island and to this day can still remember it’s serial number.

  • Kivaari

    The book is a great read. It does set the M14philes into anger, as it does expose how bad it was. It tells why McNamara stopped acquisition of more, as they could not deliver a reliable and consistent product. It also explains why the M16 had early issues that were not a fault of the design, but the Army’s desire to resist the adoption. When you read the way the M16 was tested in Alaska, and how replacing sight tower pins with common nails, you will see why it had trouble. Then the expose’ of the Vietnam troubles with a unit that couldn’t even change the oil in the trucks and APCs. The M16 is a great rifle, better today than at any time. Until there is a new development in ammunition, the M4 is here, and is a great weapon.

  • Marc

    The LSAT carbine deserves consideration as the next leap in firearms development.

    • hikerguy

      I really think part of the service’s unwillingness to adopt a a new carbine is waiting to see how the LSAT works out. We shall see.

    • I think polymer cases are clearly one way forward. My reservations about LSAT is that they’re chasing a configuration – telescoping ammunition – that has never and probably will never work very well.

      The latest lots of LSAT ammunition are not even telescoped, adding support to this view.

      Without telescoping the ammunition, are there such benefits to the LSAT configuration anymore? I don’t really think so.

      • LCON

        Really I see LSAT as technologies to be integrated into the next generation of small arms. The actual Test models will only show what is there. Additionally We have still yet to see a Working LSAT carbine, all the Working LSAT models seen thus far are LMG’s there is word on a Carbine but If there is one it’s in a very early development cycle.

        Even if it were ready for issue when/if the Army decided to move to adoption they would have to open up the contract for competition so venders like KAC, Daniel Defence, Remington, Desert Tech, Barrett rifles, HK, FN, Sig, Colt, SRM, LWRCI, Smith and Wesson, Crye precision, IWI USA and all the rest new and old can offer there interpretation, And through them likely US allies to sample the systems so France, the UK, Germany, Japan, Israel and others can decide on whether they to want the new round and weapon.
        The final call As Nathaniel states is the Ammo.
        If LSAT Cased telescoped or Caseless Telescoped is elected by the Army for implementation that will drive a major shift in the US military’s small arms. from magazines to gas system from Carbines to LMG’s to potentially all the way up it would be a massive rewrite of the Armory catalog.
        Even the NATO compliance would be tossed as there would be no way a LSAT round world operate a NATO spec weapon. I mean if the US went that route they might as well drop 5.56 all together adopt 6.8 or 6.5 or 5.7 or 4.6 or whatever flavor is most palatable.

        But if the Army instead re cased conventional rounds in polymer making a M855A2 then they might as well just tweak the M4A1++ adding things like power rails and Tracing point optics and whatever else is in vogue.

  • Zebra Dun

    Use it till it’s gone, I recall being issued two canteens upon arrival at CLNC, one was a used green plastic one made in 1965 the other brand new in a plastic bag made of what looked like stainless steel metal with a ridge around the center made in 1944. I was told I had to turn in the green one but I could keep the metal one, I still have it and drink from it for my prescribed two quarts a day of water.
    The 782 gear was retread from WW2/Korea some were canvas and some were light nylon called the Vietnam style all were WW2 pattern.
    The M-16 magazine pouches were made to fit an M-14 and could hold two M-16 mags.
    The magazines were twenty round models and I was told do not load more than eighteen rounds in one or it would jam, which it did if you did.
    The M-16 were old, bleached white by use and battered.
    I recalled the M-14 rifles of boot camp with nostalgia.
    I like and M-16, tolerate an AK-47 but I loved my M-14.
    I would not feel less well armed with any of them.

  • tony

    I read this book in my school library about 20 years ago
    Great book, the last chapter is on the M16A2, about the time the book was written in the early 80s

    • buzzman1

      Tony,
      Ever read the history of the A2 development? It was a Marine Corps program and the army screwed it up.

  • Kivaari

    I’d like to know what the “score” is. How many nations use each caliber and what rifle as of today. We know there are millions of AKs, ARs and a few bullpups in use. 30 years ago I had a rather complete inventory of rifles and pistols in use. Even 30 years ago the 5.56mm was a strong world wide contender. It must be even more so today. The 7.62x39mm is a fun round to use, but most people should know it really has serious faults regarding range and rifles it is fired in.
    Any clues?

  • Avid Fan

    I’m beginning to think I need serious mental help. Professional help. Every time I read something new here about the AR/M4+++/5.56/.223 family and how this or that improvement is going to make it X percent better or whatever, I feel palpably, physically, violently ill.
    I’ve written and deleted a weeks worth of articles. Where do I start. Where do I stop. Do I attack the rifle. Do I attack the cartridge. Do I attack the people that promote and defend both.
    After some reflection, I find it really doesn’t matter. All I can say is yes, we need a better rifle. Yes, we need a better cartridge.

    • Always true; where are they?

      • Avid Fan

        Well they won’t find them in the accessory department.