This is Part 1 of a recurring segment where we talk about how and why old technology and designs from 100+ year old firearms are used in the firearms of today.
“Everything that can be invented has been.” -Charles H. Duell, 1899
Also the former CEO of Xerox about ten minutes before their stock tanked.
This phrase is possibly the most intellectually toxic and detrimental combination you can get in just seven words. It implies that there is no room for improvement, it suggests that there is no benefit in trying to create new things, and it was completely false when it was first spoken…or was it?
Since 1899, we have seen computers, aircraft, space ships, cell phones, digital networking and reality TV shows change the world for better or for worse, but these can be argued not as inventions, but innovations on existing technology. The Binary coding language was developed in the 1600’s, airplanes were based on DaVinci’s drawings of gliders but with an engine attached, spacecraft are innovations of ancient chinese weaponry, and reality TV is just an adaptation of small-town gossip.
The machine gun, the Gatling gun, electricity and welding, smokeless powder, vehicles and other things that we think are relatively modern were all devised in the 1800’s, so the quote definitely has some merit.
One place where old firearms technology has been resurrected is in the AR15, and its origins go back to World War I. The AR15 was developed in the late 1950’s and has spent the last 60+ years becoming the most popular rifle in the United States. With this came aftermarket support that included new stocks, grips, handguards, muzzle devices and even new gas systems and barrel designs. One of these items that seems to be steadily gaining popularity is the .22 caliber conversion kit.
These conversion kits require only 2 “parts” to be changed out to function - the bolt group and the magazine. They use the same barrel, receivers and everything else required for the AR15 and allow the rifle to fire .22LR rounds. The biggest benefits to this are the lower cost per round (it takes approximately 600 rounds of .22LR to “break even” on the cost of the conversion), lower noise, recoil, power and range, and you can have a fun “plinking” and small-game rifle without having to go out and buy an entire other rifle.
These conversion kits are “drop-in” assemblies that literally take less than 1 minute to install. To do this, take a .223 Remington / 5.56x45mm chambered AR15 and make sure it’s empty by dropping the magazine, pulling the bolt back, and inspecting the action and the chamber to ensure there are no live rounds or spent cases in the rifle. Let the bolt ride forward and make sure the safety is on.
Next, pull the rear takedown pin and remove the bolt carrier group, then set the BCG off to the side. Pick up the .22LR conversion bolt and slide it into your upper receiver with the pointy end going into your chamber, then put your upper and lower back together and push the rear takedown pin back into position. It’s that simple. Once you’re at the range, use the .22LR caliber magazines that are designed to work with your new bolt.
This conversion kit works due to a number of design features. At the business end, the new chamber is made of a stainless steel adapter that provides a proper .22LR chamber that fills in the empty space of the 5.56 chamber. There is an approximate 1” gap that the bullet needs to pass through before it engages the rifling of the barrel. At that point, the .22LR round, which has an identical diameter to the 5.56 rounds, is given the spin it needs to gain proper accuracy. The bolt behind the round operates on a direct-blowback mechanism and is the right length to be properly struck by the hammer and has the right mass to properly cycle.
When these conversion kits first hit the market, many people were astonished. After all, this definitely seemed like a new invention to most people. There was, however, a number of people that drew a connection to another caliber conversion, and this one came from the Great War and was invented by one of history’s lesser-known gun designers, John D. Pedersen.
Pedersen was born in May of 1881 and worked very closely with John Moses Browning on a number of projects including the Ithaca 37. His career started before WWI and continued past WWII and included many bids for high-profile government contracts including the ones that ended with the government choosing the M1911, the M1 Garand, the M1 Carbine, and a handful of others. He was highly regarded as an arms designer by all of his peers. Browning, when asked who the best gun designer was, was quoted without hesitation saying, “John Pedersen. He’s the greatest gun designer in the world.” Unfortunately for Pedersen, the majority of his designs were either too costly or they weren’t ready in time. In fact, his submission for the M1 rifle left him tied for first place against John Garand’s rifle during the trials at Aberdeen. The military was actually looking to adopt the Pedersen rifle before the War Department decided to stick with .30-06 instead of using the new .276 Pedersen caliber. In that event, Garand suspected the War Department would do just that, so he produced a .30-06 version which was ready for testing as soon as the change was made public, thus leading Garand to win the M1 contest. Pedersen’s design career has been described by Browning as, “the classic ‘a day late and a dollar short’.”
Pedersen’s most notable and most commonly referenced design is known simply as the “Pedersen Device”. Simply, it’s a bolt conversion not unlike the one shown above, except this one was designed for use in the Springfield M1903 rifle.
The Pedersen Device worked by replacing the bolt assembly in an M1903 with one that would convert the bolt action rifle into a semi-automatic pistol caliber carbine. Re-chambering the heavy-hitting .30-06 caliber rifle to the smaller .30-18 Auto (7.65x20mm Longue) cartridge was no easy feat, though, as some gun designers went mad trying to solve the challenge. Pedersen eventually came up with a design that succeeded in converting the rifle into a semi-automatic, and it was immediately put into production.
The Pedersen Device is a direct-blowback operated drop-in bolt conversion that feeds from a 40-round detachable box magazine. The magazine itself was made of stamped steel and sat at an upward angle from the bolt allowing gravity to assist in feeding while still letting the soldier use the rifle’s iron sights. This conversion allowed soldiers to increase their volumes of fire when attacking enemy trenches or defending against waves of enemy forces, albeit with a less powerful bullet. A hole’s a hole.
The Pedersen Device was a technological marvel at the time, and approximately 65,000 units were produced along with 1.6 million magazines and almost one billion rounds of ammo. Today, only a few of these bolts still exist. The fact is they weren’t known for their reliability, and after the end of WWI, the War Department declared them obselete and ordered them to be destroyed. They were all tossed into a fire except for the few that went to museums or went “missing” before they were destroyed.
Thanks to the modularity of the AR15 and Armalite’s decision to use the same tooling used to cut barrel blanks for .22LR firearms, the legacy of the Pederson Device can live on!
In our next installment, we will be looking at some of the components and accessories that have been developed for the AR15 to allow normal users to maintain compliance with changing gun laws. Be sure to follow us on social media by clicking on the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram icons at the top of the page!