Book Review: Random Shots – Episodes in the Life of a Weapons Developer

Random Shots by Roy RayleI first ran across Roy Rayle’s autobiographical account of his time as administrator of the Springfield Armory R&D Division while I was researching development of the M14 rifle. Rayle was a young mechanical engineer working at Aberdeen Proving Grounds as an ROTC 2nd Lt when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, and served abroad in Europe and Africa through the war. Afterwards he received a Master’s degree from MIT in mechanical engineering and worked in Army Ordnance for several years developing artillery ammunition (including the 280mm atomic shells). In 1953, in the midst of the ongoing effort to replace the M1 Garand, he was assigned to oversee R&D at Springfield. During his administration, the Armory worked on the T44/M14, the M60 machine gun, the M61 20mm Vulcan cannon, the M83/M219 and M85 tank machine guns, and more.

Random Shots has 170 pages of material, approximately half of which is dedicated to the development of the M14. Rayle was heavily involved in this, and his account makes for very interesting reading. The writing is definitely that of an engineer rather than a Literature major, which makes it dreadful for someone not interested in the subject, but simultaneously wonderfully descriptive for someone who really wants to know what the symptoms and solutions for various technical problems were. The story, as Rayle experienced it, begins basically after the peak of the T25/T47 program, when the rifle trials had come down to the T44 (modified M1) and the FAL, both in the T65 (7.62 NATO) cartridge. Rayle describes in detail the preparations for arctic testing of the rifles, and the subsequent flurry of work done by the Armory when the results gave the T44 the potential to actually win, instead of simply being a yardstick for the FAL to be measured against.

The account doesn’t show the big picture of what was happening nearly as well as Edward Ezell’s Great Rifle Controversy, because it is told from a single participant’s perspective. It does provide a lot of interesting detail and anecdote, though, and makes an excellent companion to the other material on this subject.

In the second half of the book, Rayle covers a number of other programs with short (5-15 page) chapters. These include:

  • M60 – from its starting point, the German FG-42
  • M79 grenade launcher – initially a testing rig and then backup to a developmental semiauto 40mm launcher
  • M73/M219 and M85 tank machine guns – possibly the worst US adopted machine guns
  • .50-cal spotting rifles and their associated recoilless rifles
  • Developing the armaments for the gunship AC130s as a civilian after Army retirement

He also has a number of short but neat “random gun stories”, including work on Browning .50-cal aircraft guns, ammo mishandling, and diagnosing dud bomb fuses in Normandy.

For those who are interested in becoming (or already are) weapons designers, Rayle included four highly technical appendices:

  • Comparison of forces in gas piston versus gas expansion systems (ie, M1 vs M14)
  • Barrel strength and design, including composite steel/aluminum barrels
  • Calculation of recoil travel (including bolt weight, spring force, etc) for automatic weapons
  • A 1950 analysis of the primer-activated firearm action (ie, how the original M1 design worked) done by German small arms engineer Dr. Karl Maier (who developed the roller-delayed blowback system during WWII)

Happily, Random Shots: Episodes in the Life of a Weapons Developer was reprinted just last year (it was first published in 1996) and is nice and cheap on Amazon. For folks who want a more detailed preview, the entirety of the work is available through Google Books (the page count is different from my print copy because of different text size).