Nylon changed the look, feel of guns

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Gayle S. Putrich Doug Wicklund, senior curator for the National Rifle Association's National Firearms Museums, with a Remington Nylon 66 that is part of the museum's collection.

FAIRFAX, VA. — It’s been 75 years since nylon was introduced to the world by chemical giant DuPont Co. and 55 years since the Remington Arms Co. took that polymer to a new level with the world’s first mass-produced rifle made from a stock material other than wood — the Remington Nylon 66.

It’s fondly remembered by shooting sport enthusiasts and some even say it may be time for ground-breaking gun to make a comeback.

In the 1950s, Remington found itself without a low-cost, entry-level .22 caliber rifle on the market. Since a rifle broken down to its most basic parts is just a stock, a barrel and a receiver, the ballistics engineers at Remington turned to the chemical engineers at DuPont to come up with a polymer that could replace both the wooden stock and the receiver.

The constraints given to DuPont’s development department were that the material had to be capable of forming any shape desired; have a high tensile-impact, flexural strength and abrasion resistance; it must have high resistance to heat distortion as well as resistance to cold temperatures; be impervious to solvents, oils, mild acids, alkalis, fungus, rodents and insects; be lightweight; hold permanent color; and be self-lubricating and dimensionally stable.

A tall order, especially for the times — but one DuPont was able to fill within four months, coming back to Remington with Nylon Zytel-101.

“They found out that the stock could be made out of nylon, that the receiver could be made out of nylon. Really, the one big component that couldn’t be made out of nylon was the barrel,” said Doug Wicklund, senior curator for the National Rifle Association’s National Firearms Museums. “But Remington made millions and millions of barrels, and they figured they could kind of amortize the cost of the barrel among their other products. And they were right. They turned out more than a million Nylon 66-pattern rifles from 1959 to 1989.”

The rifle consists of two hollow injection molded nylon halves fused together. It could be assembled with very little hand-fitting, another major manufacturing cost-saver in a pre-automation plastics processing world. The center section is covered with formed steel, which Wicklund points out offers the appearance of a more conventional gun with a steel receiver but doesn’t actually serve any real firing function. Details that appear grooved into the barrel and etched into the grip and sides were actually in-mold designs.

“They put some custom features on it that, if this were a wood stock gun, you’d be looking at three times the price [at the time],” he said. “It was a great chance for them to put in custom features that could be molded into the stock. They didn’t have to do anything else but injection mold it. It was fast, it was cheap, but it looked great.”

The Nylon 66 was available as a semi-automatic model as well as the less popular bolt-and-lever actions. The striker and bolt are steel, running in grooves in the self-lubricating nylon receiver, but even the trigger guard and the trigger itself are plastic.

When seen beside its Remington wood stock cousins of the same era, the family resemblance in line and detailing is obvious, but the Nylon 66 evokes an undeniable Atomic Age shiny sleekness you really can’t resist touching.

“What Remington was selling was a unique item. And so they did some unique things with it. They went with things that would set the gun apart,” Wicklund said. “They gave it stylistic grace, streamlining. They made a very attractive looking rifle.”

The overall weight of the gun was a big selling factor, too: just over 4 pounds unloaded.

“Imagine having a light gun you could take out for plinking — you know, informal target shooting — and also hunting. You didn’t have to lug it around,” Wicklund said, breaking into a nostalgic smile. “I had one and that was the thing I remember the most about it: It almost floated in your hands it was so light. And it shot very well, very reliable. And I never had a jam with it. I also never cleaned it.”

The owners’ manual specifically said not to clean it, he said, “because the nylon receiver, the rails inside of it and also the other components were self-lubricating. It was a material that had some unique characteristics.

“It was very flexible — as a matter of fact, if you were shooting the gun, if you leaned up against a wall or set it on top of a rock, the stock was flexible enough that it would deflect to a certain degree,” he said. “It was very resistant to weather, you could shoot it under almost any temperature condition. In fact, the nylon material only started to melt at around 238° Celsius. Part of the unique thing was that if you removed the source of flame, the material doesn’t keep burning.”

Thoroughly tested

Gayle S. Putrich The nylon stock of the Remington Nylon 66.

Once the design was finalized, Remington proceeded to put the rifle through the most exhaustive field-test program for any new gun to date. From 1955 to 1958, the company’s archives document thousands upon thousands of rounds fired as well as the torture some sales reps put their sample guns through, including intentionally running one over with the family station wagon, fully submerging the loaded rifle in a lake and dropping it from a second-story window onto the sidewalk.

But even with its exemplary pre-market performance, Remington was concerned the buying public would think of the Nylon 66 as a toy or “just plastic.”

“It was a big gamble for them because they were going to make a very lightweight and very dependable product and it was something no one else had done,” Wicklund said. “Nothing like that had ever been tried before, Remington was very nervous.”

When the Nylon 66 “Gun of Tomorrow” was introduced in January 1959 for $49.95, it was backed by a massive advertising blitz. Highlighting consistent performance in adverse conditions, Remington ads of the day claim hunters in Alaska, fishermen in the Caribbean, trappers “from the Hudson Bay to the Everglades,” could depend on the Nylon 66. “We guarantee that this stock will not warp, crack, chip, fade or peel for the life of the rifle, or we will replace it free,” Remington promised.

Remington needn’t have worried: the Nylon 66 was a roaring success, selling more than 1 million units from its introduction until it was discontinued in 1989.

Early sales were buoyed in part by the accessibility of the .22 rimfire round.

“This was in the heyday of .22 ammunition,” Wicklund said. Kmart, hardware stores, even gas stations were selling ammunition.

“With an inexpensive rifle to shoot inexpensive ammunition, you could shoot a lot of it,” he said.

The Nylon 66 and its extensive use of polymers was an industry game changer.

“The Nylon 66 is one of those pivotal guns that lead to many others,” he said. “When you think about what that gun led to — the Glock polymer pistol is a direct descendant of what Remington started with Nylon 66.”

So why end production on such an innovative and successful rifle?

“It was one of those things where the company was trying many other different things at the same time. Diversification, they changed ownership, there was a lot going on,” Wicklund said. “They were also seeing competition from other designs. Many, many companies now produce what is basically a copy of the design, both in this country and abroad.”

But a little nostalgia goes a long way. Because of its low price and light weight — both made possible by plastics — the Nylon 66 is fondly remembered as a great first rifle. Today it is sought after from dealers, often at 10 times its original price.

“We’re getting a whole new generation interested in a nylon gun, a polymer stock rifle,” Wicklund said. “It’s a chance to go back to what America was like in the 1950s and 1960s, it’s a chance maybe to regain a little bit of ones’ childhood and to enjoy one of America’s greatest past times — shooting. Now you don’t have to do with a polymer gun, but to do it with all the attributes of a Nylon 66, that’s just icing on the cake.”