Book Review: The Great Rifle Controversy

Here’s a question: considering that by 1945 John Garand had developed working prototypes of the T20 rifle (basically an M1 with a select-fire trigger mechanism and a 20-round box magazine), why did it take the Army until 1957 to actually adopt the M14 (basically an M1 with a select-fire trigger mechanism and a 20-round box magazine)?

Garand T20E2 rifle
Garand T20E2 rifle

Really, does it take 12 years to modify it with a slightly different gas system (which had also already been more or less developed for another experimental M1 variant)? And after all that time, why would manufacture be laden with problems? Wasn’t the whole point that the M14 was just a tweaking of the M1 that could be made using existing tooling and expertise?

The answer to these questions shouldn’t really be a surprise, is it comes under the general heading of how a government bureaucracy can completely screw up even the simplest project through sporadic funding, contradictory and changing design requirements, ignorance, and politically-motivated self-sabotage. Edward Ezell’s book The Great Rifle Controversy is a really interesting read on this subject, starting with the initial adoption of the M1 (which nearly didn’t happen, thanks to cartridge-choice disagreements) and proceeding through the M14 development and adoption and into the M16. It is a repeating story of some brilliant and well-intentioned engineers trying to negotiate a minefield of politics, international diplomacy, traditionalism, and seemingly random obstacles to bring their ideas to fruition.

This is not a book written for the New York Times best-seller list, it is intended for folks who already have a decent understanding of firearms. If you have an M1, M1A, or AR-15 and have any interest in how they managed to survive through to military adoption, it’s a great book for you. Ezell gives a very good explanation of the circumstances and parallel projects surrounding each of these weapons, which must be recognized before one can really understand the history of the final product of the process. These generally-forgotten side projects include subjects like:

  • Development and subsequent abandonment of the .276 Pedersen cartridge
  • Post-WWII development of Earle Harvey’s T25 rifle
  • NATO standardization efforts in the 1950s, involving the EM2, FAL, and M14
  • Small-arms stagnation in the Korean War
  • The SALVO studies questioning the actual effectiveness of individual marksmanship
  • The SPIW program to replace the M14 with a flechette rifle
  • Air Force and ARPA use of the AR-15 in Vietnam

And really a whole lot more. For most readers, this book will illuminate vast fields of the behind-the-scenes history of the most iconic US rifles. Even folks with substantial firearms knowledge and expertise will find things they had not realized, and answers to nagging questions.

Ezell is a perfect person to explain these recurring stories, as former supervisor at the Smithsonian Institute and Curator of the National Firearms Collection. He wrote this work back in 1984, as an expansion of his PhD thesis on the subject (a doctorate in the history of gun design; that’s our kind of people!), and went on to produce several more outstanding volumes on the AK and AR as well as a modern revised edition of Small Arms of the World until his death in 1993. Despite the amount of information contained here, Ezell’s writing is clear and readable. Unfortunately, The Great Rifle Controversy is no longer in print, and the least painful price I can find for it is just under $100 on Amazon. It might well be worth that to a few folks, but for the rest of us I suggest grabbing a copy on inter-library loan: WorldCat says there are 157 libraries in the US that own it.  You can also keep an eye out for it at gun shows – that’s how we got our copy for $8.