IN THIS scholarly book, Edward Clinton Ezell narrates in great detail the history of the military rifle with which American ground combat soldiers are equipped. Although he touches upon earlier models, such as the famous M1917 30-caliber bolt-action rifle of World War I fame, his primary effort involves John C. Garand's World War II M1 rifle and its descendants, the follow-on M14, and various categories of the M16 rifle with which the preponderance of our troops are armed today.

Ezell's book embraces the highly technical subject of small-arms development and production over the past 50 years. It merits close examination by those persons, in industry or government, whose job it is to develop, produce and issue equipment for the nation's military. In this area, Ezell pulls no punches. He therefore performs a major public service. His careful and painstaking research details the stumbling blocks that frequently inhibit effective and timely military equipment research and development. These obstacles include (but are not necessarily limited to) political, industrial and administrative rivalries, lack of communication, and the inertia caused, in the main, by overadherence to tradition. All these conditions have adversely affected the Army's combat effectiveness through the years.

While Ezell confines his discussion to the rifle, similar frustrations characterized the development of radios, tanks, aircraft, and most of the equipment provided to the American fighting man.

The principal characters in Ezell's well-illustrated and documented volume are John C. Garand, of M1 rifle fame, and Eugene M. Stoner, designer of the AR15 (later called the M16) which entered the inventory during the early days of active American participation in the Vietnam War. By far the most interesting portions of the story relate to the development of M16, a weapon that immediately became controversial when presented as the alternative to the M14. In fact, the M16's performance is amply depicted in the official records. Malfunctions did occur and were duly reported. These circumstances led to a series of congressional and Pentagon inquiries into the M16's combat effectiveness and reliability.

THE M16's DEFICIENCIES undoubtedly existed. But my own feelings are not quite so damning. The soldier who employed his weapon against a crafty and dedicated enemy -- the actual front-line fighting man -- solved the problem. He was acutely aware of the requirement for careful cleaning and maintenance. His life and the reputation and survival of his unit depended on these actions. On the other hand, support personnel located to the rear of the front-line soldier did experience malfunctions since these more fortunate souls did not have to rely on the M16 on a daily basis.

I am mindful of my 1968 conversation with Spec. 4 John Rodriguez, a member of a rifle company of the 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division. When I asked this soldier about reported M16 malfunctions, he simply answered, "Colonel, I've got no problem. If you take care of it, it will take care of you. I clean it before I do anything for myself. This includes eating!"

In my own experience, during 33 months in Vietnam, the discovery of a nonfunctional M16 in a combat unit was, quite happily, an isolated incident.

The Viet Cong counterpart of the M16 rifle was the Soviet-produced Automat Kalashnikov, better known as the AK47. This was a genuine assault rifle which permitted the bearer to deliver a large volume of fire in a few seconds. Although Ezell writes that certain tests were performed in order to compare the relative merits of the two weapons, he does not address the results of the evaluations in sufficient detail. The reasons for this omission are not entirely clear. Perhaps the test results are not available or were inconclusive. Nevertheless, this is one shortcoming in an otherwise fine book.

In his closing chapters, Ezell -- who is a curator of military history at the Smithsonian -- addresses the many challenges of standardizing small-arms equipment among the national armies of the NATO alliance. His discussion is informative and timely, showing the many complexities in the "interoperability" of arms and ammunition between sovereign nation charged with the common defense of Western Europe. Again, the all-too- familiar stumbling blocks in procurement are treated in detail.

For those who concern themselves with arms production, this book approaches the "must" category. For a layperson, the preponderance of its pages can be passed up. Its primary value lies in its discussion of the several hindrances to the military equipment development process. Here there is a valid message which may apply to any weapons system coming on line. In this context, careful examination of Ezell's The Great Rifle Controversy by responsible persons in both government and industry may act to improve and shorten the development process. If this happens, the noble characters who may find themselves on some future battlefield will possibly be able to enjoy the most precious of all gifts on this planet -- survival.

As the author repeatedly points out, America owes that opportunity to her ground combat soldiers.