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[ Home > International Historic Films Complete Online Catalog > Historical Essays/Reviews > Historical Essays by Blaine Taylor > * A Weapon Of The Vietnam War - And Still In Use - The M-16, At The Apex Of Controversy ]


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A Weapon Of The Vietnam War—And Still In Use—The M-16, At The Apex Of Controversy

by Blaine Taylor

Photo: M-16 held aloft to signal Bell Huey helicopter landing.
Inset: The author standing sentry duty outside brigade headquarters, 1967


Two photo captions in Volume Two of The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War edited by Spencer C. Tucker seem to hit the nail on the head. The first reads, "(Sgt. David) Weiner is carrying an M-14, an earlier rifle that many considered superior to the Vietnam-era M-16." The second states, "Combat experiences in Vietnam spurred a rapid evolution of US infantry rifles. As US involvement in Vietnam escalated, the American military adopted the M-16 as its standard infantry firearm."

Rarely do I offer outright opinions in my articles, but I will present one here. Having taken both my Basic Training and my later Advanced Infantry Training with the M-14 rifle, and later served in South Vietnam with the US Army 199th Light Infantry Brigade armed with the M-16 (which I had also fired in training), I consider the M-14 a far better, more reliable and accurate weapon than its successor.

The latter's plastic parts and puny assembly always reminded me of what we derisively called "A Mattel toy." Having been involved in local, state and national politics since the war, I am further convinced that, as the American government had so much money invested in the success of the M-16 project, we couldn't-and still won't---admit to ourselves that we were wrong where it was concerned. Simply put, we made a mistake.

At the time---1966-67---I felt that the weapon had been developed to pour out a more rapid rate of fire at an enemy that was at increasingly closer quarters; too, it was lighter, and thus easier to carry in terms of overall weight and more rounds that were thus able to be carried as well.

Having said this, do I still think the M-14 was better, and would I want it instead of the M-16 if I ever had to go to war again ? Absolutely, no question, and the main reasons are simply these, at least for me: if I could see the target, I could hit it, and it didn't jam while firing. It may have been heavier, with less rounds, but with it in my hands I felt that I had a real weapon, not a toy.

In the course of my research for this piece, I have discovered anew that I wasn't alone in these feelings.

Notes writer Jeff Kinnard, "Replaced in the Air Force and the Army with the M-16 and the M-16A1, the M-14 continued service with a number of Marine Corps units. "In the late 1950s, Eugene Stoner and the Armalite Corporation developed a new weapon, the AR-15 rifle. After obtaining manufacturing rights from Armalite, Colt's Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company began producing it for the US government in the early 1960s. Adopted as the 5.56mm rifle M-16, the new weapon exhibited a number of advanced innovations, including an improved gas system and reduced weight and caliber.

"The M-16 had originally been developed for air base security and not as a infantry weapon. Consequently, when first introduced into the field in Vietnam, it evidenced a number of shortcomings. Its susceptibility to jamming under adverse conditions earned the M-16 rifle the mistrust of the troops in the field.

"Modifications to the cartridge and to the weapon itself, as well as improved training, resulted in a greatly improved rifle, which was then redesignated the M-16A1. Advantages of the M-16A1 include its light weight-reducing fatigue among the troops carrying it-and the reduced cartridge size, permitting larger quantities of ammunition to be carried in the field."

There was more, however, as noted in William Beecher's article in The New York Times on May 20, 1967 entitled Marines' Chief Defends the M-16 Rifle. A young Marine from New Jersey who was anonymous gave the first public indication that something was, indeed, seriously wrong with this new wonder weapon that was designed to fight the Viet Cong guerillas to a standstill.

"Do you know what killed most of us? Our own rifles... the M-16. Practically everyone of our dead (in a recent battle) had his rifle torn down next to him where he had been trying to fix it."

In the June 1981 edition of The Atlantic Monthly magazine, writer James Fallows added more fuel to the controversy with his piece M-16: A Bureaucratic Horror Story. Stated author Bonar Menninger in his 1992 work Mortal Error: The Shot That Killed JFK, "Fallows quoted another soldier's letter in his Atlantic Monthly article. According to a Marine officer from Wisconsin, the M-16 jammed at critical times in battle. Frequently, the officer reported, as many as half the rifles in his unit failed to work in battle. This led to several instances in which Marines were killed within a dozen feet of the enemy because their M-16s wouldn't work."

Continues Menninger, "The Army responded to the criticisms by claiming soldiers weren't cleaning the weapons properly, but a Congressional investigation headed by Congressman Richard Ichord of Missouri soon found otherwise. Testifying before Ichord's Committee in the fall of 1967, representatives of the Ordnance Corps could offer no plausible justification for changing the powder" (more on this later.)

"To those who understood what had happened, people like Stoner and (William) Mullen, it was clear the Army's actions had been primarily designed to discredit the weapon that had so thoroughly outperformed the M-14.

"Ichord's Committee issued a scathing report outlining the Army's malfeasance. According to the Committee, the Army system of procuring new weapons 'has built-in confusion, possibly to prevent pinpointing responsibility.' The report charged that the decision to continue using the Olin powder, even after Stoner had warned against it, 'bordered on criminal negligence.'

"But no one went to jail, and even though the AR-15 was eventually modified to accommodate the Olin powder and the jamming problems were partially corrected, the Army never went back to the original DuPont powder that had helped make the gun(sic) such a smashing success.

"Nor were the changes the Army arbitrarily ordered in the rifling ever corrected. Consequently, the AR-15 lost forever the remarkable combination of performance and reliability that had so marked its dazzling debut.

"Years later, Mullen could hardly speak about all that had happened in connection with the AR-15 without raw emotion boiling forth. 'When I write my book, I'll have to do it on asbestos paper,' he said, 'because my words will burn.'"

The story of how the M-16 came into existence is an interesting saga. It had grown out of America's experiences in the Korean War, where the Army infantry and Marines had been armed with the standard World War II-issue Garand rifle that fired a clip of eight shots that required the trigger to be depressed for each shot to be fired.

After the Red Chinese intervention in November 1950 in Korea, it was found that some of the enemy infantrymen were armed with the superior Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle that would appear again during the later Vietnam War. Merely by holding down the trigger, the AK-47 could fire sustained bursts of fire for a "hose effect" of firepower that had been available before only with machine guns, or submachine guns that fired a pistol round a little over 100 yards.

Asserts Menninger, "Mikhail Kalashnikov... was able to incorporate in his weapon the best features of both the traditional infantry rifle and the machine gun: the AK-47 was easy to fire, its clip could hold up to 30 rounds, the bullet would shoot a considerable distance with great accuracy and penetrating power and, most important, the weapon could do it all with lethal automatic capability...

"American troops on the ground were quick to grasp the disparity between their own weapons and those of the Chinese... American GIs who came in contact with the AK-47 grew to loathe and respect the enemy's abundant firepower and the weapon that made it possible;" the same would prove to be as true in Vietnam a generation later.

"The Army decided in the mid-1950s to begin development of a new rifle that would incorporate the primary features of the AK-47, notably its full-auto capability and its ability to penetrate at great distance." The result was the M-14 rifle, but there was soon criticism of it that led to the creation of the M-16 to succeed it.

"The studies also revealed that if fired at extremely high velocity, smaller bullets had the additional advantage of being considerably more lethal than larger ones. This paradox was due to the fact that smaller bullets were inherently less stable than larger rounds and thus were inclined to rupture and release all their energy immediately upon striking human flesh. The tumbling, exploding disintegration of the smaller bullet transferred the energy instantly through the semi-liquid tissue of the human body.

"The result was a wound channel much larger and more destructive than that caused by a heavier bullet. Because of its greater weight and stability, a larger caliber round often passed cleanly through the human body---leaving only small entrance and exit holes in its wake."

Despite this, though, the US Army preferred to retain in usage the heavier .30 caliber round in the M-14, mainly because it was the same then used in the standard infantry machine gun. It was then being used not only across-the-board within the US Armed Forces, but also by America's North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Allies as well, a fight that had been bitterly won in the wake of World War II. A changeover to the M-16 would also mean that the Europeans and not the Pentagon had been right on that score.

Meanwhile, Armalite's Eugene Stoner had designed the AR-10, a lightweight 7.62mm (.30-caliber) rifle that had impressed Army Gen. William Wyman, who asked Stoner to develop a fully-automatic capability and smaller caliber AR-19 version-and the latter agreed. In six months, the AR-15 was born with a .223 round.

States Menninger, "This particular .22 bullet was propelled by a huge charge of powder that sent it flying at 3,200 feet per second---three times as fast as a standard .22 round and 400 feet per second faster than the M-14, and it could fire fully automatic."

It was at this point that an endorsement for the prototype came from an unexpected source: President John F. Kennedy, who reasoned that both the crossbow from the Middle Ages and the lighter M-16 rifle would be easier for the slightly-built South Vietnamese Army troops to fire over the heavier, more cumbersome M-14, as noted in John F. Kennedy: Commander-in-Chief by his former White House Press Secretary and later US Senator from California Pierre Salinger.

It is an extreme irony of history that the rifle that fired the fatal bullet from behind that killed President Kennedy may have been from a Colt-made AR-15 rifle carried by a Secret Service agent in the backup vehicle at Dallas called The Queen Mary behind the President's own Lincoln Continental. According to the late Baltimore gunsmith Howard C.H. Donahue, the agent was trying to return the fire of Lee Harvey Oswald (a former Marine) when he fell backward in the car; the rifle went off and killed President Kennedy instead with the fatal head shot.

In a further irony, the current writer in 1990 was slated to be Mr. Donahue's ghostwriter for the book Mortal Error, but backed out at least due to prior writing commitments; enter writer Menninger, with this writer mentioned in the final book's index, as well as in the text.

Note authors Tim Page and John Pimlott in their work Nam: The Vietnam Experience, 1965-75, "The AR-15 went into production in 1959. It was bought first by the US Air Force, and later by the Army to replace the heavy and awkward M-14. It was renamed the M-16. Soon after this, production was switched to the Colt Firearms Corporation. Colt supplied the Army with 85,000 M-16s in 1963 and a further 200,000 over the next three years.

"The M-16 possessed a rapid rate of fire, and a high muzzle velocity. This meant that in a close-range firefight the bullets would hit their target at supersonic speed and turn internal organs into a bloody mush. It also possessed an'in line' recoil feature which reduced the tendency of the barrel to jar sideways or climb upwards when firing on automatic. The compact nature of the M-16 made it an easy weapon to carry into combat.

"However, in spite of these advantages," they continue, "there were major testing problems... Firstly, the spring in the magazine was weak and filling it with the capacity 30 rounds could lead to a jam. Troops soon learned by experience that loading only 27 or 28 bullets into the magazine rather than filling it helped solve that.

"The big problem, however, lay with the gun's firing mechanism. To keep the gun (sic) light, the M-16 was designed with neither a piston nor a bolt handle. Instead, the hammer was operated by gas pressure. This meant that the gun---especially the chamber and gas tubes---had to be kept very clean.

"The mud and dust of Vietnam's battlefields made this task difficult enough. To make matters worse, the slow-burning ball powder ammunition was notorious for leaving calcium carbonate deposits in the gas tube. When this happened, the gun jammed instantly, often in the middle of a firefight.

"Since the M-16 did not possess a bolt handle, it was almost impossible to clear the barrel in combat---especially as many soldiers were not issued with proper cleaning kits. The only way the gun could be unjammed was by ramming a cleaning rod," they assert.

"This unreliability assumed almost legendary proportions, caused a Congressional inquiry and cost many lives before the problem was finally solved with an easy-to-clean chrome chamber and issuing troops with cleaning kits.

"With the problems ironed out, the M-16 proved itself to be a reliable and hard-hitting weapon. Indeed, over four million have been produced... and the M-16 is now in such widespread use with so many of the Western armed services that it could almost be described as NATO's equivalent of the Kalashnikov."

Ⓒ 2017 International Historic Films, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


* A Weapon Of The Vietnam War - And Still In Use - The M-16, At The Apex Of Controversy


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