Gun designer Eugene Morrison Stoner (1922-1997) hit a perfect bull's eye with his AR-15/M-16 design, but he didn't immediately get there the first time out. In fact, during his career, Stoner had a few minor successes and even a few misses before the Army adopted the AR-15 to replace the M-14.
He worked for ArmaLite, where he designed the rejected AR-10 before perfecting the AR-15, and briefly was employed at Colt after the industry giant bought the rights to his design. While working at Colt he conceived an idea for a weapon platform that would feature a common receiver yet modular design that would allow it to be transformed to meet the specific need of the solider.
Stoner convinced U.S. military contractor Cadillac Gage to fund the project, and along with two of his former ArmaLite assistants, James Sullivan and Robert Fremont, began working on the Stoner Model 69W – but it eventually became more commonly known as the Stoner 63.
The modular design was innovative – perhaps even too innovative as it was meant to transform from rifle to carbine to machine gun by swapping out parts. It could fire from a rear-loading magazine as a rifle/carbine or light machine gun with a top loading magazine or even via a belt as a squad automatic weapon. In total there were about 15 sub-assemblies that included barrels, feed units, trigger units and sights – and this allowed it to be built up for a specific role.
The weapon caught the attention of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which purchased 25 prototypes; while the Marine Corps Landing Force Development Center at Quantico, Virginia also opted to test it in its light machine gun role. In the end, two versions were produced, an early version with the charging handle on the right side and the safety/fire selector combined into a single control that was located on the left side of the trigger unit; and a modified Stoner 63A that had the charging handle attached to the gas piston rod, while the safety was made as a separate lever at the front of the trigger guard and the fire mode selector on the side.
Some 4,000 of the two main versions were produced and the Stoner 63 even saw some use in Vietnam as well as in the invasion of Grenada. It was well-liked by the SEALs and other units though it was never widely adopted – there were reports that it was too unreliable for general issues and required far too much training.
Today the Stoner 63 is both a nearly forgotten weapon and yet is one that nearly every little boy (or in some cases little girls) who grew up playing with plastic "army men" have seen. The little machine gunner with the oversize bipod isn't using a Bren Gun, a Madsen or Japanese Type 99 – he's armed with the Stoner 63A in its light machine configuration!
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.