Maryland – -(AmmoLand.com)- Were it not for the military's adoption of the AR15 as the M16, the gun designed by Eugene Stoner may have just been a footnote in American arms development. As is often the case, civilian interest in arms is driven by what the military is using. On July 4, 1960, when Air Force General Curtis LeMay attended a BBQ at a farm in Maryland owned by Dick Boutelle, President of Armalite Division, Fairchild Hiller Corporation, he unknowingly set in motion the steps necessary for the AR15 to become widely regarded as “America's Rifle.”
LeMay was a seasoned veteran of World War II and still holds the distinction of being the youngest four-star general in American history, having earned the fourth star in 1951 at the age of 44. At the time of the BBQ in 1960, he was the Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, making him one of the event's most esteemed guests.
Like all good Independence Day celebrations, the BBQ attendees enjoyed some trigger time with a variety of firearms. Most notable among them was Colt Armalite AR15 Model 01, serial number 000106.
Watermelons were placed down range and General LeMay was given the opportunity to shoot this new rifle at the delicious targets out to, at least, 100 yards. After the general had destroyed the melons with ease, it was brought to his attention that there was one melon remaining.
When asked if the final target should be placed down range, LeMay declined. Instead, he offered an alternate plan: “Let's eat the son of a bitch!”
To say that the general was pleased with the rifle's performance would be an understatement. General LeMay knew that the military was looking for a new rifle to replace the heavy M1 Garand and M14 rifles, but without reducing firepower to the level of the M1 carbine.
After the target practice (and impromptu military trial) concluded, it became clear to the general that the Colt Armalite AR15 rifle may be just the gun they were looking for. As the men stood on the farm eating the final watermelon, talks turned to the possibility of a government contract. Because LeMay was so impressed with the rifle, he placed an order for 8,500 units to be delivered by Colt to the Air Force.
Of course, nothing involving the government is ever easy, quick, or efficient. As such, it would take a number of years before the rifles that LeMay ordered would actually be delivered. Issues related to powder charges in the cartridges, a lack of soldier training with the weapon, and the failure to issue cleaning tools with the gun gave it a rocky start.
Now, with the benefit of 59 years' worth of hindsight, one can easily draw a (relatively) straight line from Air Force General Curtis LeMay's watermelon shoot in 1960 to the M4 rifles currently fielded by countless American soldiers overseas, as well as the AR15 rifles in equally as many American homes.
Interesting gun collector tidbit: The rifle used in LeMay's demonstration was sold by James D. Julia Auctions in September 2011 for $103,500 – shattering the pre-auction estimate of $40,000-$60,000.
About Logan Metesh
Logan Metesh is a historian with a focus on firearms history and development. He runs High Caliber History LLC and has more than a decade of experience working for the Smithsonian Institution, the National Park Service, and the NRA Museums. His ability to present history and research in an engaging manner has made him a sought after consultant, writer, and museum professional. The ease with which he can recall obscure historical facts and figures makes him very good at Jeopardy!, but exceptionally bad at geometry.