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Recap: Saga Of M16.... Dick Gaines
Sep 03, 2003 05:29 PDT
3 September 2003
MILINET: RECAP The Saga of the M16 in Vietnam (part 1 & 2)
Thank you all for a great discussion. Below you will find the ARTICLE
UNDER DISCUSSIONboth Part 1 & Part 2followed by the 10 GROUPS OF
RESPONSES. For those that did not participate this time around, I hope
you will join us soon, for the effectiveness of MILINET is in direct
proportion to you who contribute.
Anthony F. Milavic
Major USMC (Ret.)
==========ARTICLES UNDER DISCISSION=====
The Saga of the M16 in Vietnam
The Saga of the M16 in Vietnam (part 1)
by Dick Culver
The following story is one that I tell with some trepidation,
since my experience(s) with the "Matty Mattel Mouse Guns" were not
pleasant ones. In this time and place far separated from the grim
reality of kill or be killed, the bitter memories of the "little black
rifle that wouldnt shoot" have started blending into the mists of long
forgotten firefights. Some of the bitterness of those days of long ago
will no doubt color the story somewhat, but in order for the reader to
understand the story from the perspective of those of us who experienced
the frustration, this is probably unavoidable. There seemed to be a
callous disregard for the lives and well being of those individuals who
willingly fought and often died using a seriously flawed rifle. This is
their story then, for those who went in harm's way with the XM16E1, and
most of all, for those who didnt come back. May their sacrifices never
Like most things, the reality of being armed with an ineffective
weapon was of little import to those who were not risking their lives on
a daily basis. By the time the problem was finally fixed, many friends
and comrades had been awarded "the white cross", or in the verbiage of
the time, had "bought the farm". Many lives could have been saved if a
few individuals in decision making billets had possessed the intestinal
fortitude to correct the problem. ...And the problem was "correctable"
all that was necessary was the application of a bit of guts and common
sense. Aircraft that are suspected of being flawed are immediately
grounded until a problem has been corrected, or a fix has been found.
And so it was with the Marines CH-46 Helicopter during the same time
frame. The tail pylons started rather abruptly separating themselves
from the bird with catastrophic results. The CH-46 was was quite rightly
grounded and sent back to Okinawa until the problem was isolated and
fixed. For some unexplained reason the same rationale was not applied to
a rifle that was costing lives on a daily basis. Perhaps the "Wingies
Union" was stronger than the "Grunts Union" whatever the reason, dead
is dead, and the Grunts were not amused! Unfortunately, doing the "right
thing" would have cost individuals in positions of authority
considerable embarrassment something that no one was willing to risk.
The "air types" could blame Boeing, but many of the decisions concerning
the M16 were made within the "military industrial complex", making it
more difficult to pin Colt to the wall. Individuals within the Military
who had given their "yea verily" to the project would have found
themselves looking for another job.
Rather than bore you with cold statistics and hard facts to start,
I will tell the story as it happened and as I remember it. Making
allowances for the dimming of the memory after 32 years, the entire saga
still stands in my consciousness as if it happened only yesterday
things like that are hard to forget.
Our outfit, the Second Battalion, Third Marine Regiment, was
selected to assume the duty as one of the two Battalions filling the job
as the "Special Landing Force". This evolution consisted of a quick trip
out of Vietnam to the peacetime home of the 3rd Marine Division
(Okinawa), for a refurbishment of web gear, worn out equipment, and the
fleshing out of a casualty riddled Battalion with fresh replacements.
This slight respite from the "free fire zone" afforded new replacements
an opportunity to gain experience and training with their new
organization. The SLF was in fact a BLT (Battalion Landing Team) with
enough attachments to make it into a sort of "bobtailed Regiment". In
addition to the standard four line (infantry) companies, and an H&S
Company (Headquarters & Service), we also had attached: a Helicopter
Squadron, an Artillery Battery, a Recon Platoon, an Engineer Platoon,
Amtracs (Amphibious Tractors/Landing Vehicles) and various other
supporting elements. At that time, an (unreinforced) Infantry Battalion
(before being festooned with the above attachments) consisted of
approximately 1100 men. 1/3 (1st Bn., 3rd Marine Regiment) was to be
designated as SLF Alpha, and 2/3 was to make up SLF Bravo.
The SLFs job was to act as a sort of "Super Sparrow-hawk" (calvary
to the rescue stuff) to reinforce any organization actively engaged with
the enemy who wound up in a "feces sandwich"... when the brass sent in
the SLF, someone was already in big trouble! Knowing that you were
headed into a "hot LZ" (landing zone) on a rather repeated basis made
for a very exciting tour. The normal SLF tour of duty was usually
scheduled for a duration of 6 weeks. The outgoing SLF Battalion was then
returned to its parent Division (1st or 3rd), and a new Battalion took
over the rather thrilling duty as "The I Corps Fire Brigade". It was an
ingenious scheme, as it allowed the Marines to refurbish their
battalions occasionally, and allowed time (albeit relatively short), to
train new replacements out of the line of fire. Normally, the SLF tour
was anticipated by the selected Battalions with some enthusiasm, as it
was supposed to include one short R&R for the Battalion in Subic Bay,
prior to the SLFs reassignment to the RVN. Needless to say, no one in
2/3 ever saw Subic, except as a casualty. Murphy, always taking a hand
in things, stirred the pot in such a way that the refurbishment and
replacement of battalions on the SLF was curtailed after the vicious
"Hill Fights" around Khe Sanh in April of 67. 2/3 (and their sister
battalion, 1/3) had taken on the best that the NVA could throw at them
and whipped them hands down, but it was not without cost. Many a dead or
dying Marine was found with a cleaning rod shoved down the bore of the
little black rifle...
The constant pressure on I Corps starting that Spring left 2/3
manning the ramparts as one of the two SLFs for a period of nine months
(versus the normal 6 weeks)! When the smoke finally settled, 2/3 had
taken over 800 casualties and those who survived walked away with a sigh
of relief. By August of 67, my company (Hotel, 2/3) had only 5 Marines
without at least one Purple Heart, and I was not one of them.
Technically, the SLFs were supposed to return to the LPH (and other
supporting shipping) after a battle, lick their wounds, get cleaned up,
draw more ammunition and standby for the next mission.
By way of explanation to those who have not been in the Corps or
associated with the Navy, "LPH" stands for "Landing Platform -
Helicopter". The LPH is in fact nothing more than a small aircraft
carrier, primarily designed to launch helicopters for a Marine (or
perhaps Army) landing force. The supporting shipping usually consisted
of an LSD, ("Landing Ship - Dock" designed to launch Amphibian Tractors
for a seaborne surface assault), an LST ("Landing Ship - Tank", self
explanatory) and an APA (assault transport to house additional troops).
All together, they made up the seaborne vehicles for a rather formidable
Murphy again took a hand, and out of those fateful 9 months, we
spent approximately 12 days aboard our assigned shipping. The rest of
the time we got "chopped op-con" to one of the Infantry Regiments ashore
(transferred to, and under their operational control) - after all, we
were those "pogues" who lived aboard ship and had it easy, were we not?
Everyone figured that we were well rested and ready to go. The Regiments
ashore, of course, took full advantage of such obviously fresh troops,
and threw us into the very "choicest" assignments, to allow their units
a breather we were eventually referred to as the "day on - stay on
battalion", and brother, they werent kidding!
It was in the arena outlined above that I got my first introduction
to the XM16E1. When 2/3 arrived on Okinawa to refit and train for their
duties as SLF Bravo, they were already licking their wounds. The
Battalion had been ambushed on a march between two hill masses, losing
their Commanding Officer and Sergeant Major, along with numerous other
individuals. While they were hardly demoralized, they possessed a
particular affection for their CO and Sgt.Maj. and were chomping at the
bit to return to the RVN to avenge the Battalions losses. Shortly after
2/3s arrival on Okinawa, the Battalion learned that it was scheduled to
draw a new "experimental rifle"... the XM16E1. 2/3 dutifully turned in
their M14s to draw a curious little plastic thing that drew lots of
snickers and comments from the old timers (we still had a few WWII vets
in those days). The Battalion was given an orientation lecture in the
Camp Schwab Base Theater by some ordnance folks, sent to the range to
fire some sighting in rounds, and pronounced properly prepared for
combat... little did they know!
The Battalion was told that they would now be able to carry 400
rounds ashore on each operation, and were now armed with an accurate,
hard hitting rifle that would tear a mans arm off if you hit him. The
lecture was impressive. The interesting thing is that the Marines WANTED
to like the little rifle it was light, cute, and supposedly extremely
effective! Marines are always in favor of a weapon that will dismember
their enemy more efficiently and more effectively. The Marines of 2/3
left Okinawa READY to go try this "jack the giant killer" on the NVA or
Cong (they didnt care which, as long as it made a good fight!).
However, there were several flies in the ointment. First, they only had
one cleaning rod per rifle and no replacements sounds reasonable, but
events were to prove this assumption wrong. The second problem was that
ordnance had only enough magazines to issue three (3) per rifle, and
they were "twenty rounders". The thirty rounders in those days were only
being used by the Special Forces Robert "Strange" McNamara, (The
Secretary of Defense), had decreed that the 20 round magazines were more
cost effective than the 30 round magazines (this from the guy who was
responsible for marketing the Edsel!)! We were now armed with the latest
in weaponry, and able to carry 400 rounds ashore. Our confidence level
would probably have been considerably higher if we had been issued more
than three 20 round Magazines per gun. We were promised more of course,
and as it turned out, it became true, but only because we were able to
pick up those left behind by the casualties. The long and the short of
this lesson, however, was that they were trying to get the M16 into
action well before adequate supplies were available to support the
weapon, even if it had been functioning properly. Politics is indeed a
Ammunition was issued in "white" or "brown" twenty (20) round
boxes. Bandoleers with "clipped ammunition" in ten round "strippers" had
not yet made their way to South East Asia. While this would have been a
handicap under normal circumstances, it turned out to be a
"non-problem"... A full 50% of the rifles wouldnt shoot
semi-automatically! The unfortunate individuals armed with the
malfunctioning rifles couldnt shoot enough rounds to need more than the
initial three magazines at any rate! Three hundred and forty rounds in
20 round cardboard boxes were stowed in our packs, with the idea that
during a firefight, a man who had run dry, could roll over to his buddy
and take ammunition out of his pack and his buddy could do the same. As
it turned out, this rarely figured into the equation.
The first clue (for 2/3) that something was wrong came during the
battle of Hill 881 North... but all the Hill Fights at Khe Sanh in April
67 came up the same dead Marines with cleaning rods stuck down the
barrel of their M16s to punch out cartridge cases that refused to
extract. At first, we considered that the experiences encountered during
the Hill Fights might have constituted an isolated incident, but as
experience was to prove, alas, twas not so! The regulations of the time
required that all such malfunctions were to be documented, and reported
to Ordnance Maintenance/Division Ordnance. The 2nd Battalion, 3rd
Regiment of Marines must have filled a 6X6 truck with malfunction
reports attempting to stay within the administrative guidelines. We
submitted the required reports and waited we wanted the problem FIXED
NOW, and we were willing to play the ordnance paperwork game if that
was what it took to correct the situation!
Spring stretched into summer, and summer gave way to fall, with
reams of paperwork having being sent out to the Ordnance Maintenance
Folks on the "Rock" (Okinawa) and to the ordnance folks in Vietnam. We
outlined, in great detail, the failure of the much vaunted M16 to
perform as advertised... It simply wasnt working! It seemed that if
your rifle would shoot, it would shoot under almost all conditions (if
clean), but if it wouldnt, no amount of coaxing would help. All of the
M16s seemed to be extraordinarily sensitive to carbon build-up, even if
the rifle was one that would shoot when freshly cleaned. This meant that
in a long and heated firefight, it was possible to have a much larger
percentage of rifles "out of action" than the 50% that didn't want to
shoot at all. Something was seriously amiss! A rifle that refuses to
shoot during a firefight, is unsuitable as a combat implement. The NVA
was obviously not gonna' allow us a "time out" while we held a cleaning
session! My first clue to the solution to the problem came from talking
to the Battalion Armorer. He had an M16 that worked under almost all
conditions. I asked him what he had done to it, and he replied that he
had taken a 1⁄4" drill, attached a couple of sections of cleaning
rod to it, and put some "crocus cloth" through the slotted tip (like a
patch) and run it into the chamber and turned the drill motor on. He
"horsed" the drill a bit and apparently relieved the chamber dimensions
just enough to ensure positive functioning. This was a sort of precursor
to the "chrome plated chamber fix" that would be applied in days to
FSR (Force Service Regiment which also acts as a home for the
small arms repair folks), sent a trouble shooting team to visit us
aboard the LPH shortly after the "Hill Fights" to try and pin down the
problem. As soon as the ordnance team arrived, they made it clear that
THEY were already well informed (meaning theyd already made up their
minds) concerning our problem and had decided (without so much as a
question to us) that WE as a Battalion were responsible for a bad rap
being given to a marvelous little rifle! The lads in the rear had
decided that WE were simply not keeping our rifles clean, and if we
werent such inattentive and unmotivated "oafs" being led by
incompetents, we wouldnt have such a problem. Needless to say, the
hackles stood up on the back of our necks. "Them wuz fightin words!"
...And we wuz peaceable folks (well sorta anyway)! To say that they had
misread the problem is an understatement!
Certainly from a personal standpoint, they were full of
"un-reprocessed prunes". My background in small arms went back as far as
my conscious memory, and when I "screwed up" with a firearm of any kind
as a kid, my Daddy left knots on my head and welts on my "stern-sheets"!
During this time frame, I had just finished firing on the USMC Rifle
Team (in 1965 this was now 1967) and to say that I had high standards
of weapons cleanliness for my rifle company is an extreme
understatement. If the rifles had been clean enough to eat off of before
the visit from the FSR clowns, rifle cleanliness moved up a notch to
"autoclaved" as a result of the insults they were bandying about! We
literally fired thousands of test rounds over the fantail (the stern) of
the LPH. Each of the issued rifles was fired, cleaned and then fired
again! ...Same story, about 50% of the rifles were reliable and 50% were
"non-shooters". We cleaned the rifles between strings of fire (and this
test was conducted in the more or less "sterile" conditions encountered
in a shipboard environment), with the same results! NOW we were getting
The malfunction reports continued to pour into the rear echelon
papermills without any tangible results. On one notable occasion, a
stalwart Marine crept around in a flanking movement on an enemy machine
gun position. He assumed a quick kneeling position to get a clear shot
over the sawgrass, and "did for" the hapless NVA gunner! His second shot
aimed for the assistant gunner never came, as his rifle jammed and the
assistant gunner avenged his dead comrade by splattering the Marines
gray matter all over the stock of the Matty Mattel Special. After the
fight, we sent his little black rifle to Division Intelligence with a
complete report on the events (without removing the brain matter from
the stock). We waited with baited breath for the response to this one,
but alas to no avail! Still no action! Normally aggressive Marines were
understandably getting a bit edgy about being assigned to listening
posts or outposts. Ambushes were, more likely than not, to result in
Marine casualties. We started stealing and or trading the cute little
black rifle for M14s. Many rear echelon troops (usually known as REMFs)
were more than willing to trade their old fashioned M14s for a little
lightweight rifle that was easy to carry, (the M16s in those days were
reserved for the frontline troops). Supply and demand prevailed, and
what we couldnt trade, we appropriated (a polite military term for
outright theft!). The Engineer troops assigned to us for support (mine
clearing, demolition, and setting up helicopter landing zones) were
still armed with the M14 (not being infantry). The Engineers became some
of the most popular troops in the Battalion and made up a substantial
part of our base of fire. I was always partial to Engineers anyway, and
these guys cemented our relations in a big time way good people those
Engineers and THEY were armed with a REAL rifle!
It finally became apparent that no one was gonna come to our
rescue! Our reports were falling on deaf ears, and our Battalion
Commander was more than a little annoyed. The bayonet had become more
popular than before and indeed enjoyed a resurgence of usefulness, until
in the throes of hand to hand combat one of the lads gave the enemy a
vertical butt stroke that resulted in his holding a "two part" Matty
Mattel... Captured AK 47s began to show up in increasing numbers, but
they were a double edged sword. The AK 47 had a rather distinctive sound
when fired, and would occasionally result in the Marine "wielding" the
foreign piece, receiving a bit of "friendly incoming"! This was in
addition to the fact that ammo re-supply for the AK was a problem. After
a fire fight, the battalion S-4 (supply & logistics) frowned on requests
for a couple of thousand rounds of 7.62 X 39...
Things were getting desperate... Our Commandant at the time,
General Wallace M. Green, when queried about the rumors filtering back
from the front-line troops, contacted the Marine Corps ordnance people
and asked them what the problem was. The Ordnance Brass "bleated" the
school solution and told the "Commandanche" that the problem stemmed
from poor weapons maintenance and a lack of leadership! The Commandant
then appeared on TV and announced to all the world that the only thing
wrong with the M16 was there werent enough of them! How RIGHT he was!
It took 20 rifles to get off 20 rounds! We were enraged! and we began
to plot! Never let it be said that the average Marine isn't cunning, if
not terribly intelligent.
This is probably a good place to describe the actual malfunction that
was prevalent with the "mouse gun" although there were variations the
problem was essentially as follows:
1.) The rifle would be loaded normally, i.e., a loaded magazine would be
inserted and the bolt would be allowed to go forward, causing a round to
2.) The trigger would allow the hammer to fall, with the rifle firing
the first round in the expected fashion. Then the problem began...
3.) The bolt would start to the rear, but the cartridge case would
remain in the chamber. There were two variations to this one, one in
which the extractor would "jump" the rim, and one where the extractor
would "tear through" the rim. Either version left the case in the
4.) The bolt would start forward stripping the next round from the top
of the magazine.
5.) Since the chamber was already occupied by the cartridge that had
just been fired, the newly fed round would shove the bullet tip firmly
into the stuck case effectively jamming the rifle.
6.) This "jam" could be cleared by:
a.) Removing the magazine from the rifle, pulling the bolt to the rear,
and locking it in this position by depressing the bolt catch.
b.) If the newly fed live round did not automatically fall free (it
often did), you had to shake the rifle to allow the round to fall free
of the magazine well.
c.) A cleaning rod was then inserted in the muzzle and the "stuck case"
was driven out of the chamber.
d.) The magazine was then reinserted and locked into the magazine well,
and the bolt allowed to go forward by depressing the bolt catch. The
bolt would again strip a round from the magazine and reload the chamber.
e.) This round could then be fired and the entire cycle started all over
Essentially we had been reduced to a "magazine fed, air cooled,
single shot, muzzle ejecting shoulder weapon" shooting an inferior
cartridge. How lucky can you get?
Mike Chervenak, my XO (executive officer) was a man of rare moral
fiber. Not only was Mike one hell of a good Marine, but he cared for and
about our Marines... and the M16 was continuing to get them killed. On
one of the very few days we spent aboard the LPH preparing for our next
thrilling adventure, Mike came to see me in my quarters.
"Skipper" said Mike, "what the heck are we gonna do about this
miserable little rifle?"
"Well Mike," I replied, "I guess were doing about all that can be
done Im about out of options! All we can hope for is that ordnancell
find a fix!"
Mike being smarter than the average bear, drug his toe in the dirt
and asked, "Skipper, do I have your permission to write a letter to my
"Well Mike," I said, "I cant tell you NOT to write such a letter,
its a free country!"
"Well Skipper," said Mike, "what would YOU do?"
Uh oh now Im trapped! "Well," I told him, "Id probably write a
letter to the Commandant!"
"But Skipper," Mike says, "you KNOW he wont ever get to see it!"
"Wrong," sez I, "all you have to do is put copy to: Senator
Zhlotz (or whoever) at the bottom of the letter, and military paranoia
will kick in! The staff will be afraid NOT to show it to him, lest he
get a call from an outraged Congressman!"
"Yeah," said Mike, "but Ill bet that nothing will be done about it
even if he DOES see it!" "Well, youre probably right," I tell him, "but
it might be worth a try!?"
Mike, somewhat discouraged at this point, allows as how itll
probably be more effective to send one to his Representative. I agree
without overtly suggesting that he do so. He turns to go, but just as he
reaches the Water Tight Door (WTD), he turns around with a slight grin
and says "Skipper, would YOU help me write it?"
Hummm... the rest is history. Mercifully we did a workmanlike job
on the letter, and simply explained the problem (much as above) and made
note that it took precious seconds to clear a jammed rifle that an
Infantryman doesn't have in a firefight. We were also careful not to
call names or point fingers, and thats all that saved us in the light
of things to come! Im not too sure who Mike sent the letter to, but a
copy of it WAS published in that "Communist Rag", The Washington Post!
Mike was on R&R when the thunder came rolling in. He received a
"person to person" phone call from "Wally" (Wallace M. Green, the
Commandant, who hangs his hat in Washington, D.C.) in Vietnam! Alas,
Mike was not there to take the call! The brass came to me of course,
asking where Mike had gone when he left on R&R. Since Mike had earned
his R&R in spades, and I didnt want to screw it up for him (knowing the
problem would still be there when he returned). I did the only honorable
thing I could and lied! Hee, hee, hee... Mike finished his R&R in good
order and without harassment.
When they discovered that I had aided and abetted Mike in his
endeavors, the feces struck the ventilation! That letter kicked off FIVE
simultaneous investigations; one from the Third Marine Division, one
from the 9th Amphibious Brigade, one from the 3rd Marine Regiment, one
from the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment (us) and last but not least
a Congressional Investigation led by a Congressman from Louisiana named
"Speedy O. Long" (yes, that was really his name!). During the
investigations, the Battalion hid me so far back in the "ding toolies"
that it was necessary to pipe in air and sunlight. Mike and I had become
the "pariahs" in the Marine Corps in general, and the 3rd Marine
Division in particular. However...
At long last people started doing something overt for a change. We
were pulling an operation down in the 1st Marine Division AO, south of
Da Nang (AO stands for "area of operations" the SLF was essentially a
"hired gun" and went wherever there was hate and discontent). The Corps
"flew-in" a C-130 with 400 brand new XM16E1 rifles along with a Marine
Warrant Officer considered to be an expert in the small arms ordnance
field. The ordnance Warrant was an old friend of mine who had been the
Marine Representative to Cadillac Gauge when they were building the
"Stoner 63" System. He had been a Staff Sergeant at the time and we used
to sit on my living room floor and disassemble the Stoner System over an
occasional beer (well, maybe several beers) when the Marine Corps was
running its Stoner tests in at Camp Lejeune. Now, I tell myself, well
get some results, Bob is a pretty savvy guy! ...Wrong again "gopher
breath"! Bob Baker (the Marine Warrant Officer), had suddenly and
inexplicably switched to (what we thought of as) the enemy camp!
In a private and rather heated conversation with Bob, he allowed as
how the problem was that we werent keeping them clean enough!
"BS." I said, "Bob, you know me better than that!"
"Nope," he said, "the M16s will work if theyre clean!"
Seeing that I had reached a dead end, it was time to try a
different approach. Another Captain/Company Commander and I (he having
just as much a case of the "$%#^" over the "16" as the rest of us)
watched as WO Baker utilized his $800 ultra powerful chamber scope to
examine the M16 rifle chambers of a line of troops brought in out of the
lines for evaluation of the condition of their rifles.
This marvelous chamber scope was supposedly powerful enough to make
any imperfections in the chamber look like the surface of the moon. The
first man stepped up to the front of the line and handed over his rifle.
Bob sticks the chamber scope in the chamber, shakes his head and throws
the old rifle in a pile that was to grow materially in the next couple
of hours. The Marine was then issued one of the new rifles brought in on
the C-130. Watching the lad with his "brandie, brand new" rifle stride
off. Bob Bogard (the other Company Commander) and I chased him down
(out of sight of course). We talked him out of his rifle, threw it into
the dirt, kicked a little over it, picked it up and dusted it carefully
off (to make it look like a "used" rifle). We then waited awhile until a
number of folks had gone through the line and "number 1s" face had
faded from WO Baker's recent memory. We put the trooper back in line and
hid and waited. When (Warrant Officer) Bob stuck his chamber scope into
the new rifle, he again shook his head and threw the new rifle on the
pile of discards! Gotcha! When we pointed out to Bob what wed done, he
went orbital (not a word to come into general use until 69 of course)!
He accused us of not taking his efforts seriously, and trying to make
him look bad not hard to do at this point! While we had outraged the
brass, a seed of doubt had been planted, and it grew!
Back at the Command Post, a rather short civilian gentleman of
Asian extraction wearing a Colt Detective Special on his belt, strode
over to see me. I recognized him as a Mr. Ito, the Colt Representative
that had flown in with the 400 rifles.
"Howdy," he sez, "my name is Ito!"
"I know," I said, "and my name is Culver."
"Yes, I know," sez Ito, and at that point, I figured that my fanny
was truly gonna be grass. My instincts in this case were wrong.
Mr. Ito turned out to be a heck of a nice gentleman and told me all
sorts of revealing stories. Among other things, he told me that Colt had
offered to chrome plate the bores and chambers of the M16s for the sum
of $1.25 each, but that Robert "S" McNamara had vetoed it as being non
cost effective. Mr. Ito sent me a "care package" when I got home, guess
what it contained? A double handful of Colt M16 tie tacks. (1) Grrrrr...
Ultimately, Colt wound up chrome plating the chambers (and later
the bores) of the M16s, thus reducing the coefficient of friction
between the cartridge case (not necessarily a good thing, incidentally)
and the chamber. The bolt then began battering the frame from the
excessive velocity in its rearward movement, and they again gave the
"patient" with a brain tumor an aspirin tablet as a "fix" they simply
made the buffer group heavier! But the real story had yet to be told.
The story eventually leaked in bits and pieces but was never made public
in the headlines it deserved. The rifle was eventually fixed, but at
what a price... Much like the guy unjustly accused in print - when the
real culprit is found, the headlines dont shout out his innocence, a
retraction is usually printed in extra small type on the last page. The
guys who died for this folly can never be brought back, and the people
responsible who fought the problem by placing the blame where it
wouldnt get their fingers dirty came away clean.
Somewhat later, a new Battalion Commander, who hadnt fought with
us in the old days when the rifle was at its worst, inherited 2/3 in
time to preside over the ensuing hate and discontent. He called me in
during the ongoing investigations, and chided me about my stance on the
When I stood firm, he asked me, "Culver, just what would be YOUR
"Easy." I said, "its only been 9 months since we turned in our
M14s, all thats necessary is for us to draw the 14s again until
ordnance can work the bugs out of this little piece of #$@&!"
"Unfortunately," said the Colonel, "its not as simple as that!"
"Unfortunately," sez I, "its EXACTLY that simple! What you mean is
that its not politically that simple!"
I was dismissed without another word.
The aftermath? The rifle was eventually fixed of course, but at
great cost in life and suffering. Unfortunately, "fixing" the M16 left
us saddled with a service rifle that shoots a cartridge not powerful
enough to be used on anything larger than groundhogs according to most
state hunting laws. The latest version is almost as heavy as the M14
without any of the 14's redeeming features. In retrospect, the cost of
saving reputations and enhancing corporate well being was high... too
high. Mike and I both spent an extra year in grade and Mike decided not
to stay on in the Marine Corps even though he was a regular officer.
That was one of the larger tragedies, as Mike was one of the truly good
guys. Men of principle are more rare than the Hope Diamond in real life,
and he was one of those. After the decorations had settled on the scene
in SE Asia, they decided to keep me around and I was too stubborn to
quit. The Corps, with what can only be described as a rather macabre
sense of humor, sent me to Graduate School and made an Ordnance Engineer
out of my somewhat "frayed" fanny. Life is often rife with seemingly
contradictory incidents. Most of these give truth to the statement of
George Burns in the movie, "Oh God" where he describes God as a comedian
playing to an audience thats afraid to laugh! Amen...
In "Part II" Ill tell you what the problems REALLY were and why so
many were fighting to keep the lid on the situation. The real story is
not one to give you great confidence in our leadership or human nature.
War and politics truly make strange bedfellows!
(1) In all fairness to Mr. Ito, he also sent me a match barrel for my
.45 Government Model, and some great .45 Auto and Single Action Army tie
tacks. He also sent me a whole XM177E2, which was appropriated by the
Battalion Commander as his personal weapon (I had asked Mr. Ito if it
was possible to buy the short barrel group and a collapsible stock to
put on my M16 he sent the whole thing!). The last I heard, the rifle
had been passed down from Battalion Commander to Battalion Commander as
a sort of badge of office. I never felt any rancor in losing my prize, I
figure it went for a good cause. Mr. Ito was truly a jewel among men!
Copyright © 1998 1999 2000"Culver's Shooting Page", All rights reserved.
Windmill Enterprises Inc. Web Designed by Glo,
Last Up-dated on Tuesday, April 22, 2003 07:42:02 PM
The Saga of the M16 in Vietnam (Part II)
The Saga of the M16 in Vietnam (Part II) (3578 bytes)
By Dick Culver (895 bytes)
In Part I, I covered the saga of the M16 from a standpoint of
personal remembrances. The trials and tribulations of the average grunt
carrying "the little black rifle" in the field were especially
frustrating because we were swallowing the party line totally. As far as
I knew, my Corps had never lied to me before, and I could see no reason
why they would. As it turned out, they too were being lied to, but too
many in high places had put their "chop" on the "give us the M16 now"
requests. Human nature dictates that very few people in high places like
to back down, apparently even when lives are at stake (as long as it
isnt their life of course). Marines, too, tend to "link arms" and
assume a "well take care of our own" attitude and I assumed that this
was simply an extension of this prevalent attitude.
One statement by an outraged Colonel on the Division Staff finally
changed my mind on the "well bite the bullet and fix this thing
ourselves" attitude. When Mike was called up to the Division
Headquarters over the infamous letter published in The Washington Post,
this Colonel asked Mike, "Lieutenant, wheres your loyalty to the Marine
Corps?" (asked in a tone that indicated that the Colonel considered Mike
to be a disloyal SOB). Mike turned the tables and asked the Colonel if
they had lied to them in Basic School (the USMC Basic Officers Course)?
"What are you talking about?" asked the Colonel.
Mike replied, "we were told in Basic School that loyalty in the
Corps went down as well as up! Does this mean that loyalty is only to be
expected from the bottom up? The men of our company have been told from
Boot Camp that the Corps takes care its own, and thats what Im trying
to do. Ive followed all the rules and regulations concerning
malfunction reporting, with absolutely no results other than feedback
that indicated that I was lying in my reports. I only stepped out of
bounds when it became obvious that careers were more important than the
lives of our men. Obviously the average Marine is expendable if
political correctness appears to be at risk!"
The Colonel dropped the subject.
While I (mercifully) didnt get in on the above interview, the word
spread like wildfire on Mikes return. I took it rather personally when
it appeared that careers were more important than saving lives, and it
became a sort of self imposed holy cause on my part to get at the truth.
Some of the story below is a matter of personal opinion, and I have
tried to identify that portion rather than simply make my point(s) by
tall tales and innuendo.
All the above having been said, here are the distilled results of
what I found during the ensuing years. I have not attempted to make this
a textbook, but a "what went wrong and why" primer. If you want more
detailed information there are whole books out there on the subject.
Many of the below listed facts are drawn from available documentation,
and some are simply the result of personal experience. As I pointed out
in Part I, the Marine Corps, with a rather warped sense of humor, sent
me to graduate school to become an ordnance engineer. While a degree
doesnt necessarily make you an expert in anything (except on paper),
people tend to listen more readily when you wave a degree at them. One
of more interesting things about this one is that, having grown up
around weaponry all my life, I knew virtually everything about small
arms ordnance that I know now, before I went to school. I wrote an eight
page statement on the problems (or at least my observations on the
problems) with the M16 during the investigations of 1967, one copy of
which was sent back to the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade on Okinawa. A
friend of mine stationed at the Brigade Headquarters, was sitting in the
office when they read my statement. Since this individual was a long
time friend, he listened with more than average interest when they got
to mine. The Colonel reportedly read my contribution and tossed it in
the trash can with the comment, "just who in the hell does he think he
is? some kinda expert?" From the time I heard of that one, I swore
that I would find the truth, and here are the results of my efforts.
Unfortunately not everything is documentable, but the information fits
into the jigsaw puzzle rather well. Here we will deal with the problems
and misconceptions surrounding the M16 Rifle and attempt to show what
went wrong. The tale is rather twisted, but bear with me on this.
Background (The Armory System of Weapons Development):
You must understand that for many years there had been a faction of
the American Public that was not happy with our "Armory System" of
weapons selection. Rightly or wrongly, there had always been a feeling
from the American public that the "small time" arms designer could not
get a fair shake when it came to a new ordnance concept. The attitude
also prevailed that any rifle or rifle design submitted to the Army had
little or no chance of getting fairly evaluated, due to the "Not
Invented Here" attitude of Springfield Armory. Although probably not
true, that feeling was in the air when the M1 Rifle was selected as our
new service rifle. The M1 had a myriad of nickel-dime problems with the
first production models, such as the infamous 7th round stoppage, the
rear sight that refused to hold its elevation and other problems. Melvin
M. Johnson stepped in with his recoil operated rifle that tested very
well indeed against the Garand, but was "picked to pieces" on little
things, with the Army Ordnance folks pointing out the obvious
superiority of the M1. The Marines werent so sure. One contingent under
Capt. (later Brig. Gen.) George Van Orden, the founder of the Marine
Corps Ordnance School, were proponents of the Johnson Rifle, while the
test conducted by the Marines on the West Coast held the M1 to be the
best of the semi-autos, but chose to go with the M1903 over both of
While I think the Johnson was a fascinating rifle, Im personally
damn glad that they picked the Garand. The Armory system actually made
very few mistakes, but the public is a fickle mistress. I am reminded of
the apocryphal inventor (as an example) who always claims that HE had
the final answer to the "gasoline mileage" breakthrough, but the
Government (or, the big Oil Companies, or whoever) came along and bought
his patent (or paid him not to market the invention, etc.). At any rate,
you get the picture, every inventor is convinced that HE had the answer,
but no one would listen (or look, or whatever...). Im not saying that
some of this isnt true, but a large portion is pure hogwash.
The reason that many of the inventors were turned down by the lads
at Springfield Armory was that they (Springfield) had already tried many
of the ideas and found them wanting. There are very few "new" concepts
in weapons design, once you get past the basic operating systems
(manual, gas operated and recoil operated), although there are
variations of incorporating them in a design (the short stroke piston,
long versus short recoil, etc.). Most of these neophyte inventors wanted
the government to take their ideas and run with them (spending
Government money on R&D of course), and when the Government didnt bite,
the legend was perpetuated. Generally speaking, inventors who had
developed a working model of a new design were welcomed at the Armory,
and the weapon given a fair shake (John Garand falls roughly into that
category). If one of these inventors happened to be working for a large
corporation (such as Eugene Stoner and ArmaLite/Fairchild Aircraft),
things changed a bit. The large corporation(s) had enough money to
develop a new system on their own. Once major money was involved, (with
a certain amount of ego or true dedication to their new idea cranked
into the equation), the organization and/or the inventor tended to get
irate if the Government didnt jump on their new "gizmo" with both feet,
kiss them on both cheeks and ask them why they didnt come forward
sooner! When this didnt happen, the organization would often complain
to their local Congressman or Senator, claiming Armory favoritism. Such
things can tie things up in court or force the Government to try their
latest gadget by greasing the appropriate palms, appealing to
sympathetic Congressmen, or airing their grievances in a news hungry
press. Since many constituents had stock in such corporations and more
often than not distrusted the Government, political pressure was brought
to bear that would not have been possible in a government procurement
system; and therein lay the problem.
I am certainly not downplaying Eugene Stoners genius in the arms
designing field, but he was playing hardball in an arena with
considerably more interest in profit margins than operational
suitability. Eugene was indeed a talented gun designer, and perhaps
rivaled John Browning in some respects, but every time he came out with
a new design, Fairchild Aircraft would have more money invested in his
concepts, and of course THEY had stockholders. His initial efforts were
on the M16s big brother, the AR-10. The AR-10 was essentially the
little 16 with steroids. It did in fact use a man sized cartridge (the
7.62 NATO), but to put it politely, it was a "beast" to shoot (Ive
tried one)! It would supposedly float with about 1" of the buttstock
protruding from the water if thrown in a swimming pool (youll have to
take their word on that one, as I never tried it). The Government had
been experimenting with a smaller service round for some time along with
several other ideas such as the SPIW, and multiple projectile 7.62
rounds, but never with any real success. With the 5.56 (.223), they came
upon a saleable product.
Enter the Air Force:
While initially, the U.S. Army wasnt buying, the Air Force thought
it would be a marvelous replacement for the aging .30 Carbine. Over many
objections, the Air Force (with the support of General Curtis LeMay)
finally obtained permission to buy a number of the little AR-15s as an
airfield perimeter defense weapon. This was probably a task worthy of
the "mouse gun", but would hardly qualify the weapon as a suitable rifle
for the front line Infantryman.
Comparative Cartridge Ballistics:
In order to appreciate what the infantryman was giving up with the
5.56 mm, it is necessary to look at the specifications of the two
cartridges and compare them to other rivals of the time AND compare
the results with the pipsqueak .22 Long Rifle:
7.62 NATO (M14 & M60 Machine-gun):
Bullet Weight = 150 grains
Nominal Muzzle Velocity = approximately 2700 fps.
Muzzle Energy = 2427 ft. Lbs.
Muzzle Energy at 500 yds. = 1576 ft. lbs.
5.56 NATO (XM16E1):
Bullet Weight = 55 grains
Nominal Muzzle Velocity = approximately 3185 fps
Muzzle Energy = 1239 ft. lbs.
Muzzle Energy at 500 yds. = 252 ft. lbs.
.22 Long Rifle (Generic .22 Rifle):
Bullet Weight = 40 grains
Nominal Muzzle Velocity = 1335 fps. (high velocity ctg.)
Muzzle Energy = 158 ft. lbs
Muzzle Energy at 500 yds. = ?
7.62 X 39 (AK-47):
Bullet Weight = 125 grains
Nominal Muzzle Velocity = 2400 fps.
Muzzle Energy = 1598 ft. lbs.
Muzzle Energy at 500 yds. = 414 ft. lbs.
Bullet Weight = 110 grains
Nominal Muzzle Velocity = approximately 2000 fps.
Muzzle Energy = 976 ft. lbs.
Muzzle Energy at 500 yds. = 182 ft. lbs.
If you will notice, these figures list the velocity and energy both
at the muzzle and for the maximum effective range of U.S. (shoulder)
Small Arms, (generally figured to be approximately 500 yards or 460
meters). The proponents of the AR-15/M16 attempted to change the maximum
effective range of the U.S. Service Rifle to 300 yds. as a more
realistic figure. What they were really saying, was that the 500 yd.
figure made the AR-15 look bad in comparison to the M-14, but the Army
decided to stand fast. The 500 yd. figure had been taken from the combat
experience(s) of a number of wars. Experience and first hand observation
are hard to refute, unless of course, the figures of a conceived
scenario better suit your purposes... and not all wars can be guaranteed
to be fought in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Even for the
mathematically challenged, it should be obvious to the most casual
observer that the 5.56mm isnt in the same league as the 7.62mm NATO.
If you compare the muzzle energy of the .22 LR to the terminal
energy of the 5.56mm NATO at 500 yds., you will find a difference of
only 94 ft. lbs. Not exactly what I would consider a definitive
difference. Sure we are talking muzzle energy compared to the residual
energy at 500 yards, but the 5.56mm was (is) touted to have a maximum
effective of 500 yards. Dream on! Accuracy, interestingly enough, has
never been the problem. No one has ever complained about the accuracy of
the "Mouse Gun" (after the change from a 1-14 barrel twist to a 1-12.
Initially at least, the problem was the reliability of the issued
weapon. Quite frankly, in 1967 I used to dream of a Marine Rifle Company
armed with M1903 Springfields! I would have laid money that such an
outfit could have taken Hanoi if given the mission. Nay, twas not
accuracy that was the problem...
At that same 500 yards, there is a difference of 1324 ft. lbs. of
energy remaining for the 7.62mm in excess of the energy of the 5.56 mm.
The 5.56 is down to a puny 252 ft. lbs. versus 1576 ft. lbs. for the
7.62 mm. Only the .30 Carbine is outclassed by the 5.56 mm at 500 yards,
and it (the .30 Carbine) was designed as a replacement for the pistol
cartridge. No one in their wildest imagination would place the .30
Carbines effective range in excess of 300 yards. Yet even at that range
the Carbine still retains 273 ft. lbs. of energy which exceeds the 5.56
mms remaining energy at its advertised maximum effective range by 21
ft.lbs. Folks, something is wrong here! To the best of my knowledge,
there is not a single state in the United States that will allow the
5.56mm NATO round to be used as a hunting cartridge for a deer sized
animal (a good sized deer will go up to 150+ pounds, or roughly human
sized). Why in their remotest dreams the military feels that a cartridge
that is acknowledged to be suitable only for varmints is a viable
anti-personnel round, is beyond my comprehension.
Penetration was not the long suit of the 5.56mm either. The common
"Grunt" soon became aware that the "mousegun round" often ricocheted off
of bamboo thickets, and had little effect on earthwork emplacements. The
U.S. Ordnance manuals list the penetration of the .30-'06 as M2 ball as
36" of oak at 200 yds. Since the ballistics of the ball 7.62mm round are
essentially the same, I can only assume that the 7.62 will do the same
although I have never tried this personally. I DO know that a .30-'06 AP
round will punch a power transmission pole at 200 yards like Swiss
Cheese. I've been waiting for some bad guy to hide behind a telephone
pole for years! The initial demonstrating teams for the 5.56mm loved to
show the effect of the "mouse gun round" on a concrete block wall at 25
yards when the rifle was fired in the full automatic mode. The effect
was truly awesome! I asked the demonstrating ordnance folks to try the
same stunt at 200 yards. They grinned and said that such a demonstration
would not give the desired impression of power. In other words they had
the demonstrations rigged in favor of the 5.56mm! I wonder how many feet
of oak the 5.56mm will penetrate at 200 yds?
The rather miserable penetrating power of the mouse gun was proven
to me in spades during a rifle requalification firing session on Okinawa
in 1973. CWO-4 Marine Gunner Dave Luke (a former U.S. Service Rifle
Champion) was supervising the butt detail. The rifle range at Camp
Hansen is built between two mountains along the long axis of what can
only be termed a wind tunnel. The wind on the Rock would often come
whistling down that cut in the mountains giving a headwind of 25 mph. So
it was on the day in question. The Marine Corps, being frugal, does not
use fresh targets for each day's firing, reserving the virgin targets
for qualification day (usually Friday). As a result, we used multiple
target faces (repair centers) on our targets during our practice
sessions, held to the target with a rather disgusting paste of roughly
the same consistency of flour and water. This stuff dries hard, and
after several days, the thickness of repair centers becomes relatively
thick. Since this was a Wednesday, we had a fair thickness of repair
centers on the targets. I was stationed on the firing line when I got a
call from Gunner Luke in the butts.
"Hey Major" said the Gunner, "I've got something down here you need to
"What's that Gunner," I replied.
"Major, we've got bullets sticking in the target faces!" said Luke.
"The hell you say Gunner?" sez I, "wait one, I'll be right there!"
I called a cease fire and headed for the butts in the safety
vehicle. When I got there I could hardly believe my eyes! Sure enough,
there were a number of projectiles that hadn't completely penetrated the
multiple target faces at 500 yards. For a moment, I considered that the
Gunner might just be pulling my chain, and inserting spent projectiles
in the bullet holes for a joke. Two things changed my mind. First, while
Dave Luke has a sense of humor, it doesn't run to things like that, and
secondly all the projectiles stuck in the target faces showed no
evidence of having struck anything more solid than a thick piece of
paper. Not only that, but Dave was a professional range officer and we
were conducting practice for a Battalion requalification program. Any
undue delays would have reflected unfavorably on Dave's ability and he
was not one to have allowed anything to interfere with his duties unless
he considered it extremely important.
While I had never been a proponent of the mouse gun's, even I would
not have thought that the M16 was this underpowered! You can now
understand why I am somewhat skeptical of the claims of an 800 yard
maximum range for the new M16A2. An additional 8 grains of bullet weight
is incapable of making a major difference in penetration, and at 800
yards - ? Right, and my name's Mickey Mouse! No wonder the folks
developing the M16 wanted the maximum effective range reset to 300
The "Meat Ax" Effect:
Yes you say, but what about that fantastic "meat ax" effect that
the 5.56mm round has on flesh? Wont the 5.56 mm tear a mans arm or
head off if it hits him? In a word, no! This is a myth that has been
perpetuated since the AR-15/M16s earliest days, and here is as good a
place as any to lay this claim to rest! The original .223/5.56mm was
derived from the little .222 Remington or at best the .223 Remington
Magnum Cartridges. Now the .222 Remington and .222 Remington Magnum
originally used a 40 or 45 grain bullet and a 1-14 barrel twist.
Ballistic engineers found that 55 grain bullet pushed the stability of
the 1-14 twist to the absolute limit in terms of stability. The initial
rounds loaded for the 5.56mm were marginally ballistically stable, and
tended to tumble if anything got in its way.
This was apparently especially true of flesh. A 55 grain bullet
striking flesh when only stabilized with a 1-14 twist, tumbled with
devastating results, but it had a problem it was only marginally
accurate. Now its possible to have a bullet that is known to tumble,
but if it wont reliably hit the target at the maximum effective range
you are in big trouble. After the initial test results (including some
in Southeast Asia) were in, it was apparent that this WAS an effective
round (assuming that a tumbling bullet was employed)! However, it also
became obvious that this rifle wasnt exactly a "tack driver" in terms
of accuracy. Air Force cold weather tests in January 1963 showed
definite "bullet wobble" around the projectiles rotational axis causing
unacceptable accuracy. As any good ordnance folks would do, they
tightened the twist to 1-12 and the accuracy improved. The order to
change the barrel twist was signed by Robert S. McNamara on the 26th of
July 1963. The accuracy immediately improved, but the "magic bullet"
quit tumbling! All of a sudden, we had a reasonably accurate round with
a bullet that was essentially ineffective in terms of cleaving flesh
with the much vaunted "meat ax effect". The round was now reasonably
accurate, but much underpowered for its designed maximum effective range
of 500 yds.
The Demise of Springfield Armory:
Unfortunately for the America, one lone solitary event was to doom
the Armory system of weapons procurement. Robert McNamara had come to
power with JFK in 1961. McNamara made no secret of the fact that he
considered the Armory system to be wasteful and hidebound. He made a
clean sweep of the former Pentagon ordnance experts and replaced them
with Ph.D.s and private sector cronies, most of who had no clue as to
the difference between a muzzle and a trigger. Many of these gentlemen
were former members of the Rand Corporation "Think Tank". My experience
with such "experts" has never been one to give me a warm fuzzy feeling
as to their real world expertise. Robert McNamara made no bones about
his disapproval of Springfield Armory, and would have liked nothing
better than to close it down. The only thing saving Springfield was the
fact that it resided squarely in President Kennedys home state of
Massachusetts, and was essentially under his protection much as was the
Boston Navy Yard. One fateful day in November 1963 changed all that, and
from that moment on, Springfield Armory was living on borrowed time.
The (deliberate?) Perpetuation of a Misconception:
Following the official change of barrel twist rate, a bit of
disinformation (perhaps better classified as marginal dishonesty) kicked
in! The individuals attempting to sell the 5.56mm as the new service
cartridge had lost one of their major selling points! We were now armed
with a weapon that would poke knitting needle sized holes in the enemy,
but without the so-called "devastating effect" of the bullets fired in
the 1-14 tubes. Since the individuals in love with the mouse gun concept
were in the "selling" mode, they were somewhat reluctant to inform the
powers-that-be (and the American Public) that we were no longer dealing
with a "devastating" round. This is of course understandable considering
human nature, but still a bit "iffy" in terms of honest evaluation of
the effectiveness of the prospective cartridge for our primary "go to
Unfortunately, a sizeable portion of the American Public still
believes in the "meat ax" effect of the M16. As a quick anecdotal story,
while I was in the early throes of learning to live with the little
black rifle, I went to our Battalion surgeons, and hospital corpsmen
with a question.
"Had they seen anything during their treatment of wounds that would
indicate that the 5.56mm hit harder than any other round?"
I received a negative answer, but they promised to start
investigating more closely. A daily check during periods of intense
combat always turned up the same answer. None of the devastating effects
described by the M16s most ardent proponents, were being encountered by
our medical folks. We were not privy to the above technical information
in the Spring and Summer of 1967, of course. Having been told of the
rifles extreme effectiveness before the Battalion left Okinawa to
assume the duty as SLF Bravo, I was beginning to have personal doubts
about the Brass evaluation of Colts latest toy.
Quick Fixes by the Troops:
I could have lived without being armed with a "meat ax", but I as a
professional infantryman was loath to have a rifle that would not
repeatedly "go bang" when called upon to do so. We tried everything we
could think of to remedy the problem. We were keeping our rifles as
clean as any man could whose life depends upon such cleanliness.
Still... there was a nagging doubt. After all, the ordnance folks were
Marines, and surely they wouldnt lie to their brothers would they?! As
a result, we tried different lubes that wouldnt pick up dirt, and even
tried washing the rifles in gasoline pilfered from the motor transport
types. A favorite of the time was some stuff called "Dri-Slide" (Ill
have to take a hit on spelling here, as I remember it being a
proprietary one). Dri-Slide contained a highly volatile carrier with
something akin to powdered graphite that would deposit a "non-sticky"
lubricant on the metal when the carrier evaporated. The U.S. Mail was
burdened with many cans of Dri-Slide being sent from home to the Marines
in Northern I Corps.
Anything greasy seemed to pick up powder residue and acted as a
carrier of the stuff to ensure that the abrasive residue was distributed
in a fashion reminiscent of lapping compound. This was obviously bad
"ju-ju" to a rifle that already seemed to be more than slightly
susceptible to dirty powder and the residue of battle. Immediate
temporary fixes amounted to such things as having your cleaning rod
assembled and taped to the side of the rifle, much in the style of the
Civil War musket. By making a couple of loops with ordnance tape (also
know to the airborne troops as "riggers tape") with a piece put inside
the loop to prevent the sticky side from impeding the rapid withdrawal
of the "ramrod", your makeshift ejector was more easily accessed for
immediate use. Unfortunately this was a double-edged sword. When a man
was wounded and medivaced, the cleaning rod was often lost in an attempt
to evac the Marines rifle and his personal gear with him.
Under ordinary circumstances, this wouldnt have constituted a
problem, but dont forget, we were issued one cleaning rod per rifle and
there were no replacements available. As a result, many of the rifles
issued to new replacements (taken from our wounded) were issued without
cleaning rods, but, with the instructions to "use your buddys." Most of
the individuals that were medivaced were wounded due to the fact that
their rifles malfunctioned; thus the rifles that were reissued, were
those that were most susceptible to jamming and needed a cleaning rod to
be used as an ejector (as opposed to a cleaning device). An already bad
problem was being compounded.
An Analysis by the Bad Guys:
During my latter days with 2/3 I served as the Battalion
Intelligence Officer. One of the reports that came in was an intercepted
message from the Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communists). The VC were not as
well equipped as the NVA (the North Vietnamese Army - the regular
Vietnamese Army people who operated primarily in the North just south of
We as Marines, usually policed all (or as much as we could find) of
our equipment left on the battle field by our wounded. Most of course,
was sent to the rear with the wounded man, but there would occasionally
be items on the battle field by the departing units. The VC used this
recovered equipment to equip there own rather meager supplies as would
any good guerilla force. The intercepted document reinforced this
practice, exhorting the VC troops to police the battle fields for usable
equipment. This document however, had one telling exception to the rule.
It stated that all equipment was to be picked up with the exception of
"the little black rifle" which is useless to our cause!
I knew exactly what they were talking about!
Enter Ball Powder:
Had we but known, the problem was not simply dirty powder or a lack
of regular and conscientious cleaning by the operator, but was due in
fact to the burning rate(s) and burning temperature of the powder
coupled with varying gas port pressures depending on the powder. It
seems that the AR-15/M16 was developed and tested with extruded IMR
(Improved Military Rifle) powder. This powder is relatively clean
burning, but has a relatively high pressure peak during its initial
ignition. Remington had been using some stuff called IMR-4475 that
worked extremely well, but wasnt terribly consistent from lot to lot.
Remington had solved the problem by using selected lots of the powder to
obtain the desired burning rates and functioning in the M16. In fact the
entire testing had been accomplished by using such ammunition. The
double based powder (so called because it used both nitroglycerine and
nitrocellulose in its manufacture) burned hotter than ball powder due to
the nitroglycerine content, and the chamber pressures tended to be a bit
higher than with say, ball powder. Because of the quality control
problems with the double-based extruded IMR powder that had been used by
Remington, all manufacturers of the 5.56mm cartridge preferred to use a
less finicky ball powder. The argument was essentially that ball powder
burned cooler, thus giving less barrel/throat erosion, and had a lower
peak pressure, and would stay well within the pressure limits prescribed
for the cartridge. The requirement for using only selected lots of IMR
powder having been circumvented, not to mention the great amount of ball
powder on hand, the problem seemingly had been solved. In May of 1964,
the authorization to use "alternative propellants" was signed without
conducting any sustained additional functioning tests. Even Gene Stoner
himself issued a warning against such a procedure, but to no avail, and
unfortunately there were several unsuspected flies in the ointment, much
as Stoner had predicted.
The first and perhaps most important one was that they had not
bothered to check the "port pressure" of the alternative powders. While
it was true that the ball powders did have a lower "peak" pressure, they
also had a higher port pressure. Lets start this discussion from a
simple but accurate premise. All gas-operated mechanisms must be timed.
This seemingly simple truism can be applied to automobiles as well as
rifles. If there are moving parts involved that are influenced by gas
pressure, it is necessary for all of these parts to arrive at their
appointed location as designed, and to arrive at the proper time. Since
the ball powder had a higher port pressure than the IMR-4475, the gas
being vented through the gas tube was under greater pressure as the
projectile passed the gas port than would have been the case with the
IMR powder. Since the gas was under greater pressure, it should not come
as any great surprise that the gas was traveling down the gas tube more
rapidly than was normal during its designed functioning cycle. This
meant that the gas reached the "gas key" on top of the bolt earlier in
the functioning cycle than usual. It did, in fact, arrive while the
cartridge case was still firmly "obturated" to the chamber walls by the
pressure of the gasses caused by the ignition of the cartridge.
By way of explanation, "obturation" is a physical process that
takes advantage of the elasticity of the brass cartridge case and causes
it to expand and conform to the exact shape of the chamber walls. The
brass even sticks little fingers into minor (often invisible)
irregularities in the chamber, thus sealing the chamber effectively and
keeping gas from being blown back into the face of the operator. In of
itself, obturation is a very good thing. The problem here, however, is
that the gas reaching the bolt was arriving before the case obturation
had subsided and the residual chamber pressure would not allow the brass
to be easily broken loose from its hold on the chamber walls, extracted
and ejected. The high port pressure and resulting delayed duration of
case obturation often, if not usually, caused the extractor to either
"jump the case rim" or pull through it, causing the case to remain in
This "stuck case" problem was compounded by the fact that the ball
powders being used by Remington (CR8136), Olin and Federal (WC846) were
much dirtier burning powders than IMR-4475, and tended to "dirty" the
rifle chamber area much quicker than the earlier powder. The dirt that
deposited itself in the chamber and feeding areas of the rifle added to
the extraction problems dirty chambers tend to resist extraction to a
much greater extent than clean chambers by increasing the coefficient of
friction between the case and the chamber walls, thus making the
cartridge case more reluctant to leave the chamber. Even dirty chambers
can be kept clean with constant care, but unfortunately the dirty powder
was aided and abetted by a calcium carbonate deterrent coating applied
to the powder that addled to the fouling problem. Alas the problem grew
The higher port pressure of the ball powder also increased the
cyclic rate of fire of the M16 (already too high in my opinion the
ideal rate of fire for a full auto is normally 500 rds. per minute).
These started out at about 775 rds. per min. and sometimes reached 900
rpm in extreme circumstances. This was to become abusive to the rifles
in light of what followed.
The Chrome Plated Chamber and the Watermelon Seed:
OK, we will now leave the Army wrestling with the ball powder
problem, and switch to the "quick fix" that was instituted as an interim
solution to the criticism descending upon the military hierarchy. The
first was the chrome plating of the chambers (and later the bore). It
was reckoned that the chrome plating would reduce the coefficient of
friction between the chamber and the cartridge case, resulting in easier
extraction. Well, yes, and so it was; however, lets analyze the side
effects. Have you ever taken a "still slimy watermelon seed" and
squeezed it between your fingers and watched it as it squirted out? Im
sure everyone has tried that one at least once unless you are a
permanent resident of the South Pole. What was happening was that with
the reduced coefficient of friction and the easier to clean, slicker
(and of course tapered) chamber , the brass was extracting considerably
easier and almost squirting (much like the watermelon seed) the case out
and causing the bolt to come to the rear with greater velocity than
normal. That coupled with the increased cyclic rate (compliments of the
ball powder) caused the rearward traveling bolt to batter the receivers
rather badly. Since the timing problem had not actually been solved,
this meant that the brass was being extracted while the case was still
at least partially obturated in the chamber. As long as nothing else
went wrong, this didnt seem to cause any catastrophic failure of the
rifle, watermelon seeds notwithstanding.
Another Aspirin for a Brain Tumor:
Rather than "retime" the gas system, or switch to a more stable IMR
powder, the Army chose to stick with ball powder, as literally millions
of rounds were on hand and there was a shooting war in progress. Now
that the stuck brass problem had lessened (but had not been totally been
alleviated), the next bugaboo was the "receiver battering problem". That
one was fixed with the usual "aspirin for a brain tumor" prescription!
Colt and the Army simply went with a heavier buffer group to lessen the
impact to the frames, leaving the cyclic rate of fire unacceptably high,
but at least the rifles were shooting after a fashion. The military was
breathing a sigh of relief to have the U.S. Congress off their
posteriors, and the entire problem was swept under the rug and seemingly
forgotten, by all except those of us who had been the guinea pigs on
McNamaras think tank solution to weapons procurement.
And Now, Slam Fires Too!
In the middle of all our malfunctions, we had another dangerous
problem that reared its ugly head. In the middle of a pitched battle in
June of 1967, my company had two M16s literally blow up during firing! I
was already pulling my hair out, but this seemed to be the final straw.
These two stalwart lads had been firing some of the few rifles that were
at least marginally functional. In the middle of a string and within a
couple of minutes of each other these two rifles literally exploded in
the riflemens hands. Apparently, when the bolt closed, the rifle fired
as in a "slam fire" scenario, and the rifles fired out of battery. This
explosion blew off the carrying handle and most of the upper receiver.
The remaining force blew down through the magazine well ( bulging the
well on both sides), leaving the magazine tube in the well, but blowing
all the rounds and the floor plate out the bottom of the rifle. The
operators received scratches on the inside of their forearms from the
rapidly exiting floorplates, but mercifully sustained no other visible
injuries. In one of the two rifles, the bolt (sans carrier) was still
dangling from the locking lugs with a blown case in the chamber. The
second rifle was missing the case, the bolt and the bolt carrier. Both
rifles were still rather comically held together by the hinge pin. If I
had disliked the M16 prior to this, my dislike was rapidly ripening into
an overt case of hate. To compound the problem, I had Dave Burrington
from NBC News with the company covering the days rather thrilling
events (Dave was a nice gentleman, and he and I got along very well,
considering the circumstances). The other newsman tagging along was some
roaring a++ hole from ABC News that I would have willingly "done for" if
the opportunity had presented itself. My problem was that both of them
had their cameramen trying desperately trying to get pictures of the
destroyed rifles. This was prior to my crusading phase with the M16 and
I was unfortunately able to keep them from taking any pictures. At that
point in time I figured our dirty laundry should be cleaned up by the
Marine Corps as opposed to a press that was openly hostile to what we
considered our way of making a living. After all, we considered our
mission was to keep the world safe for God, motherhood and the American
Way. If I had only allowed those pictures to be taken, the whole M16
story might have turned out differently. The press might have caused the
investigations to have been instituted by outraged congressmen, and Mike
and I would not have had to write the "letter heard round the world"
It turns out that the slam fire problem, while relatively rare, was
well known within the Army Ordnance circles. Rare? ...and I had two
within five minutes of each other? Damn, someone was trying to tell me
something. The slam fire problem stemmed from soft primers, dirty
chambers and a floating firing pin. Obviously a cartridge stripped off
the top of a magazine and driven into a dirty chamber (perhaps slightly
smaller than usual?) might well refuse to completely seat. If the bolt
was slamming forward with fair velocity, and stopped abruptly with the
case almost (but not quite) seated, just short of the locking lugs
performing their magic, the weigh of a firing pin continuing to move
forward (as in Newton's Laws of Physics) might well make contact with a
sensitive primer causing the cartridge to fire with the bolt unlocked!
After much study, the Army Ordnance folks recommended a much harder
primer, but none of the ammunition companies would bid on such
ammunition as they felt that it would cause more failures to fire than
it did slamfires. Many fixes were tried including a spring loaded firing
pin (versus the floating one), but Colt finally came up with a simple
fix that solved the problem. A lighter firing pin solved the problem
and the slam fires went away.
Rifles Issued With Known Problems?
While I have checked the ordnance reports of the time, most of the
problems that have been discussed were known and supposedly fixed before
our Battalion even drew our brand new XM16E1s in April of 1967. Even
though many of the problems and the fixes were supposedly known, our
rifles still had unplated chambers (actually the chrome plated chamber
wasnt approve until the end of May 1967), light buffer groups and heavy
firing pins hell, I dont know, maybe the Navy Medical folks needed
the practice, or it was cheaper to write off the older models in combat
than recall them for an upgrade. I have the definite feeling that many
of the histories were written after the fact and the dates filled in to
put those at fault in the clear for posterity to read and judge. Perhaps
I judge too harshly, but those were brutal times, and I was young and
idealistic and my bubble had been forever burst.
One final story and I will conclude this rather rambling discourse.
This one is an attempt to explain the 50% of the rifles that functioned
reasonably reliably and the 50% that refused to do so. I must interject
that the 50% figure I am using is strictly subjective. When we fired
these rifles, we made the observation that approximately half of the
darned things seemed to shoot and half didn't. Not knowing that we
should have kept exact figures for later analysis, we were simply making
informed observations. Please keep this in mind during the following
There were many (unsubstantiated) stories floating around that
there was a slight difference in chamber dimension between the ArmaLite
chambers and the Colt chambers. While it was reputed to be very minimal,
and under ideal circumstances the commercial or military ammunition
would work satisfactorily in both guns, under less than ideal
circumstance things went to hell in a handbasket. It was rumored that
the Colt chambers were ever so slightly tighter than the ArmaLite
chambers (a matter of a ten thousandth or so). That would have been no
problem in a commercial rifle, but here the work was moved to Colt and
they were having labor problems and union shops are notorious for work
just good enough to get by. The Colt Union Shop problems were such that
a two month strike took place in 1967 over the report that the Army was
looking for other (additional) manufacturers to supply M16 rifles to the
It was also reported that the quality control at Colt was not as
stringent as that at ArmaLite. Dont forget, they (ArmaLite) were trying
to sell a new product over the objection of the Ordnance Corps, and by
the time Colt came along the fight had been largely won. Assuming the
quality control was slightly looser at Colt, let's take a quick look at
the classic "Bell Shaped Curve" (assuming a normal statistical
distribution) used in statistical analysis. The "+ side" of the curve
would show that at least 1⁄2 of the chambers would have been
tending toward the maximum allowable chamber dimension (statistically),
thus giving no problem. The other 1⁄2 (the "- side") would have
been closer to the minimum allowable (Colt) dimension. Unfortunately
under this premise, the minimum allowable Colt chamber would have been
smaller than the minimum allowable ArmaLite chamber.
One of these "small (Colt) chambers" coupled with the lack of a
"retimed gas system" and the admitted powder residue problem caused by
the use of ball powder, could explain the mysterious (perceived) 50%
jamming problem often present even when the rifles were freshly cleaned.
The ball powder would have rapidly fowled the chambers. Thus a cartridge
case designed for the slightly larger ArmaLite chamber (with tighter
quality control) being forced into a minimum Colt chamber, coupled with
higher port pressure and dirty powder, would have strenuously resisted
extraction. It is not my intention to accuse Colt of deliberately
manufacturing rifles that wouldn't fire. If the IMR Rifle Powder had
been retained, there would probably have been no problem. If, however,
we combine the smaller allowable (minimum) chamber with a dirty powder,
we have the formula for a military disaster.
The scenario would go roughly like this. A cartridge case would be
stuffed into a "small chamber" (dirtied with a residue known to result
from the ball powder combustion). During the firing cycle, the primer
would ignite the powder and launch the projectile down the bore. The
resulting chamber pressure would "obturate" the cartridge case to the
chamber walls. Since the "gas port pressure" is higher with the ball
powder than the IMR, the bolt would start to the rear under the pressure
channeled through the gas tube and attempt to initiate the unlocking and
extraction portion of the operating cycle too soon. An attempt to
extract a cartridge case still plastered to the chamber walls by
residual pressure, and further resisting such actions due to the
increased coefficient of friction resulting from the powder residue in
the chamber would often cause the extractor to either pull through or
jump the case rim, leaving the case in the chamber. If the "small
chamber" premise IS true, it would go a long way toward explaining the
"unexplainable problem". I suppose we will never know for sure, but it
makes sense in light of what we know today.
A retired Colonel (an Army ammunition expert) told me a story in
1974 that boggles the imagination. This gentleman told me that he was
sent to open up the production of 5.56mm NATO ammunition at the Twin
Cities ammunition plant in the early 1960s. He asked his boss (unnamed)
for the specifications of the 5.56mm cartridge dimensions. He was
supposedly told that they didnt have the dimensions and he would have
to get them on his own (youve gotta be kidding!). He told me that he
went on an "M16 Rifle safari" to obtain a statistical sample of M16s for
making "chamber casts" to discern the correct cartridge dimensions.
After a concerted search in such places as Ft. Leavenworth, Ft. Cambell
and Ft. Knox, Kentucky, he came up with 17 rifles, all early products of
ArmaLite. He took the necessary chamber casts and came up with the
cartridge specifications (which may of course have been ever so slightly
larger than the later Colt chamber dimensions). While this sounds a bit
far out to me, I am in no position to cast stones. Many of the
machinations concerning the saga of the M16 are a bit "far out", even
though they are verifiably true. If (and this is a BIG if) the tale IS
true, such an unlikely story would add credence to the "small chamber"
idea. On the other hand, the Colonel had no reason to lie, he wasnt
aware of my background or previous experiences and we weren't engaged in
a "can you top this" sea story session...
The Demise of Ordnance Expertise Within the Army:
In retrospect, the M16 was the result of an open bid system
overriding the expertise of an experienced ordnance corps. While we
often get better products in a totally free market economy, this
procurement system assumes a level of ordnance expertise not normally
within the grasp of an inventor and his backers "force feeding" a new
weapons system on the military to satisfy the desires and egos of
civilian inventors. The Army Ordnance system was not loath to contact
talented civilian inventors for their expertise in term of new weaponry,
but with the M16 it was a case of the Industrial Complex (of the
"Military Industrial Complex" fame) telling the military what it
needed and then forcing them to buy it. The Armory system had worked,
and worked well, and we are still smarting from the lack of the
expertise that Robert McNamara eliminated along with Springfield Armory
using his "bottom line procurement procedures".
The Army isnt always blameless either, as evidenced by their
efforts to produce a rifle for all seasons that resulted in giving the
M14 an undeserved bad rap. The effort to produce a rifle that would
replace both the M1 and the BAR was doomed to failure from the start. I
personally feel that the M14 was the finest battle rifle ever adopted by
the United States, but conversely, it came very close to being the most
unsatisfactory squad automatic weapon we have ever adopted when employed
in the full automatic mode. The full automatic feature and the M14 did
not get along well together. It was simply too light to do the job. If
we had discarded the full automatic feature of the M14 and subtituted
the M60 machine gun for the BAR to maintain commonality of ammunition,
we would have truly had a Marine Rifle squad of awesome capability!
This would not have been the ultimate solution, as the M60 exceeded the
reasonable weight of a "squad automatic", but it would have been a fix
we could have lived with while a new squad automatic was being
Attempting to have one rifle do everything well is just as
unrealistic as having one aircraft that fills every need for our air
arm. The F111 was one attempt to do this, and ultimately it failed in
its task. It did a couple of things very well indeed, but most aviators
will tell you that it is far better to have a really good fighter
aircraft, another designed primarily for air superiority, and an attack
plane to support the troops on the ground. A bomber very rarely can fill
in satisfactorily as a fighter, but still they try. And so it is with
the service rifle. Even though the M16 was equipped with a full
automatic switch, it made an absolutely horrible squad automatic weapon.
Had I had my way, I would have had a talented welder put a bead of
heli-arc on the M16 frame rendering it incapable of full automatic fire.
Most of today's military experts seem to have forgotten that there is a
vast difference between "fire power" and "volume of fire". Someone
should hold classes! Ultimately, the services did adopt the FN (M249)
version of the SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon), and it seems to be a fine
little gun, although it still shoots an anti-groundhog projectile.
Tactical Considerations and the "All Around Rifle":
In our enthusiasm to come up with the perfect rife, ordnance seems
to occasionally forget that a certain amount of cohesiveness of the
rifle squad is/was based upon the teamwork necessary to keep the squad
automatic rifle in action at least that has always been the case in
the Marines. Early in WWII we traded our old eight-man squad for a
13-man squad composed of three "four man" fire teams and a squad leader.
Each fire team had one BAR (a total of 3 per squad) and each fire teams
job was to keep the BAR in action. This accounted for the cohesiveness
in the fire team I spoke of above, and gave each fire team member a
reason for existence. In the old days, we (as troops) were cautioned
that (in combat) if there were only three men left in a squad, all three
had better be carrying a BAR. The M14 with its selector switch and bipod
did away with all that, as now all the rifles looked the same. The heat
of the jungle caused the ever weight conscious Marine to leave the bipod
in the rear to cut down on his load. Since every M14 was easily
converted to full auto, most were. At this point, the fire team members
no longer felt the necessity of covering and supporting the automatic
rifleman, since all the rifles now looked and functioned alike; tactics
went to hell in a handbasket.
The M16 simply perpetuated the mistakes of the past, except that it
was now worse. Now every gun had a "go faster switch" and fire
discipline became a thing of the past. I still remember the TV coverage
of the battle of Hue with the rifleman sticking his M16 over the parapet
by the pistol grip and firing a full magazine without the slightest idea
of what he was shooting at. What a waste! Tactics were going the way of
the "Do-Do Bird" and everyone was marveling at the number of rounds that
the average rifleman was able to fire against our enemy(s), although I
began to suspect that our real enemy resided in the Defense Department
in the name of Robert McNamara, and leadership in the Military by
individuals who hadn't seen combat since the charge up San Juan Hill.
Silk Purses and Sows Ears:
In the retrospect of 32 years, I sometimes despair. In 1977 when I
was stationed at MTU (Marksmanship Training Unit) Quantico, Virginia,
one of our former shooters (Maj. Bruce Wincensen) was transferred in the
normal course of assignments to the Ordnance Section of the Marine Corps
Development Board, and was assigned to the project of coming up with a
product improved M16. Bruce did a rather workmanlike job on the project,
and when the smoke settled we had the M16A2. While the M16A2 is
undeniably an improvement over its predecessors, we are still stuck with
a rifle that doesnt qualify as a deer sized hunting rifle in but one or
two uninformed states.
As a matter of personal harassment, I used to call Bruce
occasionally and ask him how he was coming along with rearranging the
deck chairs on the Titanic his answer was usually unprintable. The
bullet weight has been increased to 63 grains, and its accuracy (most
especially in the match versions) is superb. The M16A2 (in a
match-conditioned version) is now often beating the M14 in match
competition, but then the accuracy of the M16 has never been my bone of
contention. The barrel weight had been increased and the barrel twist
tightened to 1-7 to accommodate the heavier bullet. The maximum
effective range of the M16 is now said to be 800 meters (someone is
smoking something not authorized by the UCMJ). However the M16A2 now
weighs in at a hefty 7.9 lbs., just short of the M14s 9.3 lbs. (a
difference of a mere 1.4 lbs. but still delivering a projectile with the
punch of an anti-varmint device). I hasten to add that the normally
quoted weight for the M14 was 8.7 lbs, versus the above quoted 9.3. I
was simply giving those who would dig out the maximum quoted weight the
benefit of the doubt. At 8.7 lbs. the weight differential is just over
3/4th of a lb. heavier than the M16. Obviously, the lightweight rifle
had become anything but! The addition of a mere eight grains to the
bullet weight (a grain is 1/7000th of a pound) does not fill me with a
great deal of confidence or fill me with thoughts of increased
lethality. A mouse(gun) is a mouse(gun) is a mouse(gun)...
Mercifully, the Marines were able to take the objectionable full
automatic switch off of the M16 and substitute a three shot burst
control switch. Many individuals in high positions were in love with
the full automatic feature of the M16 (or any service rifle), and the 3
shot burst was simply included as a "sop" in the redesign of the M16 for
those too ignorant to have a grasp of good infantry tactics.
While there is a place for a lightweight full automatic in the
infantry TE (table of equipment), it is more properly included as a
submachine gun. The current M4 Submachine-gun, (a variation of the
M16A2), works very well and lends itself very nicely use in close
combat and for the clearing of houses and buildings in a built up area.
In my opinion, the three shot burst control on the service rifle,
means that a pull of the trigger by a "panicked or inexperienced troop"
will only result in two wasted rounds instead of 29! Some so-called
experts have said that S.L.A. Marshall (S.L.A. indicating General
Marshall's initials) claimed that the addition of a full auto switch
resulted in more individuals firing their rifles in combat. If this is
so, it is a sorry indictment of our military leadership. While some
individuals have questioned S.L.A. Marshall's findings in recent times,
there are still those who place a great amount of credence in his
A properly indoctrinated combat soldier will not only fire his
rifle but he will also get hits on target. The problem is not with
weaponry, but with leadership!
The ultimate adoption of the M16 essentially reduced the effective
range of the Marine Rifle squad from 500 yards to an optimistic 300, but
no one in a position to do anything about it will admit it! A Marine Lt.
Col. in the intelligence field was assigned to attend the Annual G2's
Conference in 1982 held at Headquarters Marine Corps. He told me the
following story in confidence, so I will omit his name for obvious
reasons. He stated that a high point of the conference was a brief
address by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, at that time General
Robert H. Barrow. General Barrow closed the conference with a comment
about the new M16A2 Rifle the Corps was adopting. He told them about
the developmental work that Maj. Wincensen and the Development Board had
done on the rifle and added;
"If I learn of ANY officer or Staff NCO criticizing the new M16, that
Marine can tattoo his rank insignia on his collar bone (an exact quote).
He'll never be promoted as long as I'M the Commandant!
Some things never change...
Valhalla and Beyond:
In Norse mythology, fallen heroes were welcomed to Valhalla as a
reward for valorous conduct. Those of us in the profession of arms often
speak of this, the warriors' final resting-place, where no one grows
old, and honor is held in high esteem. If there is an all-knowing and
all-wise God, as there must surely be, we will someday meet our comrades
in arms at the gates of Valhalla, and shake the hands of our friends
only hope that we will be as worthy of entrance as those who secured
their place defending a cause in which they believed, using a rifle that
was not worthy of their bravery and sacrifice.
...And may the Marine Corps always be guided by the words of Marine
Maj. Gen. Rupertus in The Riflemans Creed (included in all the rifle
qualification score books in the Marine Corps):
"My rifle and myself know that what counts in this war is not the rounds
we fire, the noise of our burst, not the smoke we make. We know that it
is the hits that count. We will hit..."
I can only add Amen...
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And a Post Script:
While my story has been mainly about Marines since they are my people
and I know them best, I am also painfully aware that many of our Army
brothers went through the same frustrating ordeals that were experienced
by the Marines in Northern I Corps. To those fine gentlemen, my hat's
off to you and for those who gave their lives in the performance of
their duties. You have my everlasting admiration and my thanks. The
following parody in the style of Robert Service is dedicated to you as
Hotel Company (3864 bytes)
There were strange things done under the jungle sun
By the men with the "Matty Mattel",
The jungle trails have their secret tales,
Of men whove had a glimpse of Hell.
There were memories clear of loved ones dear,
Who resided on Stateside sod,
By the sweating veterans of jungle fights,
As they cleared their jams with a rod.
These were the Marines of the Infantry line
Who offered the country their souls.
Of men who tried and fought and died
And here their story is told.
Twas a different time and men of a different breed.
Their storys of danger in a different clime,
Of jungle fights where they fought and died,
With a plastic toy and a cleaning rod...
-- for McNamaras bottom line!
With apologies to Robert Service
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The Saga of the M16 in Vietnam (part 1.)
Copyright © 1998 "Culver's Shooting Page", All rights reserved.
Windmill Enterprises Inc. Web Designed by Glo,
Last Up-dated on Tuesday, April 22, 2003 07:42:02 PM
MILINET: Resps (3) "The Saga of the M16 in Vietnam--Dick Culver"
Posted - 08/17/2003 : 12:32:41 PM Show Profile Email Poster Send
a Yahoo! Message Reply with Quote
thank you for the read,that has got to be the best article on the
that I have ever read,
When I went into boot,we were issued the M-1 Garand,and I loved it,but
prior to the rifle range,we were reissued the M-14,I really loved it,and
did everything I needed,this was in 62, at 29 Palms I was on the Marine
Corps Rifle Team,as Coach,during this time we had an open invatation to
one,to come out and shoot against us,any rifle,any sights,even
our M-14s with peep sights,at the 1000 ys range,our four man team
out shot the civs,
when shipped to Nam in 65,we still had our M-14s,(side note,we hit the
without weapons issue,we were the first of the big buildup,and I was in
2nd boat ashore,we got hit on the docks,lost 4 Marines,before we got off
docks) after being there a few months,command came out and offered to
exchange our M-14s for the mouse guns,it was our choice,I knew of no one
that accepted that exchange,and later heard the horror stories of the
mal-functions,and the deaths,and that those that had the mouse guns were
throwing them away,and grabbing the AKs and SKs from the field
I kept my M-14 the whole time I was there,and in 1980,bought my own
Springfield rifle,and it still outshoots any other,as long as I do my
Again Dick,thanks for the great read,I am copying this for my personnel
"We will always remember. We will always be proud. We will always be
prepared, so we may always be free." Deo Vindice
R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GySgt USMC (Ret.)
Who is the CEO of Colt these days?
It is my impression that a retired Marine general occupies a senior
position on the Colt's staff.
I am not sure if he is the CEO.
=============2nd GROUP OF RESPONSES=====
MILINET: 2nd Resp "The Saga of the M16 in Vietnam--Dick Culver"
Colts CEO is retired LtGen William Keys, USMC a highly decorated Marine
officer, Navy Cross from Vietnam, who also commanded 2nd MarDiv with
distinction in Desert Storm. He is an outstanding man of character and
integrity who has done much to bring Colt back from serious problems.
Now if he could sell something built around say the 7.62 Nato we would
put him up for canonization. PatG
=============3red GROUP OF RESPONSES====
MILINET: 3rd Resp "The Saga of the M16 in Vietnam--Dick Culver"
My question concerning the CEO of Colt was designed to
highlight the complexities associated with the yesterday, today and
tomorrow of small arms in the Marine Corps. How can the paradigm be
shifted from the little bullet to a more effective round when the CEO of
Colt has the access and stature that he possesses unless he believes
that a shift is warranted? Was it an accident that Colt hired the
General as its CEO?
==========4th GROUP OF RESPONSES=====
MILINET: 4th Resp "The Saga of the M16 in Vietnam--Dick Culver"
I think some of these folks don't understand the motivation behind the
current "Military Industrial Complex". The CEO of Colt was chosen
is connected, connections translate to contracts, contracts translate to
bottom line. Most companies dealing with the government on military
contracts like to hire connected upper grade officers for that very
Once their in you can forget about what he or she should know and
reality, that is, their mission is improving the bottom line, this may
to an improvement in a given item or it may not also. In today's
quagmire, the government is their own worst enemy, we as contractors are
held in most cases to producing the product as called for in the
Never mind the contracting organization in a lot of cases doesn't really
know what they want, or had very little if any input from the
warfighter/enduser. Any attempt by either side to change the scope
especially in a large production contract is not viewed by the bean
(on either side) as something you want to do. The rule is , "just build
it will get fixed later (maybe) out of someone else's budget. Folks need
realize that warfighter needs have taken a second or third tier seat to
"well we only have x amount of dollars, how can we get something and get
close to what they need" never mind the final outcome for the soldier in
I'll have to admit, I was not an officer when I was in the Air Force
the Vietnam era, but I can't understand how things can go on as they
be without somebody in uniform standing up and saying enough is enough.
We need to wake up and smell the coffee folks and realize the issue
addressed in these articles while addressing specifically the M-16,
to a much larger problem that some day (God forbid) is going to get a
of folks killed.
L. W. Sykes
===========5th GROUP OF RESPONSES==
MILINET: 5th Resps (3) "The Saga of the M16 in Vietnam--Dick Culver"
This folk understands very well. Paradigm paralysis regarding
the current round will continue to exist until a revolutionary can
achieve a shift to a more effective munition.
Anthony, I just returned from a trip to Washington dealing with
variations of some of the exact issues that are at the core of the
outrageous experience of the M-16 saga. Regretably, they are still
very much with us.
I think the buck starts and stops with the military services. Israeli
business associates, all combat veterans of many fights, shared with me
their experience with the introduction of the M-16 in the mid-seventies.
Initially they had similar problems. In their case, they found out the
trick was to put a few drops of oil in the gas ports and the gun worked
fine. What blows their mind about the American system is why the
services do not insist on the contractors meeting the agreed upon specs
in the first place or you simply do not adopt the system until the specs
are met, period. Why should it be necessary to know some "secret trick"
to make a rifle function out of the box? It should be just like the AK,
no matter what you do to it, it works always and everywhere, including
out of the box! (The dumbest damn general in the Pentagon and even
Robert McNamara should have figured out once that captured N. Vietnamese
message was translated, that we were in deep trouble with the M-16 when
Mr. Charles didn't want it! )
By contrast, the IDF exercises tight control over the design,
development and acquisition process and the military is the last word on
whether it is go or no go on weapons systems. As in any contentious
democracy, defense contractors, tech weenies, bean counters and
politicians all get to play, but in the Israeli context, "the fighters"
as they are referred to, are the last word.
And so it should be in our system. It has astounded and distressed me
for years that senior military officers I have known with the most
distinguished combat records who would expose themselves to shot and
shell and the gates of hell to save one of their troops, seem to be
totally oblivious to the implications of their actions in weapons
development and procurement to the survival of MANY of their troops in a
future combat action. This M-16 tragedy and the some of the revelations
connected with the development of the MV-22 are stark illustrations of
this pathology at work.
Character and integrity are qualities that are not only needed on the
battlefield when lives are at stake, they are also THE indespesible
elements in the Pentagon and in the development of our weapons systems.
The development of modern weapons systems must be based on the creative
interaction of the defense industry and the services. The reason many
military officers go to work for defense contractors is not just for the
money, but because most of them like to believe and hope they can
continue to make an important contribution to the development of future
war fighting systems for which their experience is relevant. But in the
end, some general or service secretary may have to tell his old boss or
former comrade in arms, "your trash is not hacking the program, and if
you don't fix it, you and company X are out of here." Easier said than
done say you, in our consolidating defense structure where there may not
in fact, be an alternative to the guy who has the contract. So you
don't get off his chest until he does it right and if you can't get him
to fix it, you go to DoD, the congress, the public, his stockholders or
whoever you have to go to but you do not let the SOB deliver you a piece
of trash that will kill one of our troops on a future
battlefield--whatever it takes.
On the Colt situation, I have to add a disclaimer. Gen. Keys is an old
friend for whom I have the highest regard both personal and professional
as a warrior and gentlemen of the highest standards of integrity. I
have not spoken with or seen him in the several years since he assumed
the leadership at Colt. From independent assessments, he has played the
key role in revitalizing the company and keeping it afloat and
competitive after some difficult years.
There is no doubt in my mind, that if the Army or Marine Corps
leadership told him they needed a 4.5mm or a 7.62 mm he would do his
damndest to make it the best rifle ever made--out of the box. The US
ground force war fighting leadership needs to look at the history of the
performance of the .223 round and decide the question of its continuing
adequacy and if they think its not adequate, they need to tell Gen. Keys
and his prospective competitors what the hell they want and tell them to
compete and build it. There is also no doubt in my mind that a 7.62
NATO version of an impoved combat rifle could be designed, developed and
deployed in less than two years, in any rational defense system. It
remains to be seen if Mr. Rumsfeld can shake enough trees in the system
to enable that to happen in our defense establishment.
Let us not lose sight of the fact that this is not rocket science. This
is after all, the country that made the KY and PA rifles, the '03 and
the M-! so I remain an eternal optimist that we will figure out how to
make the best combat rifle yet. SF PatG
Good work RJI, you pushed the button to highlight the complexities
associated with the yesterday, today and tomorrow of small arms in the
Marine Corps. Mr. Sykes sees a problem; no one in the contracting
quagmire is overly concerned about the trooper in the field, what with
all the bean counting going on, and possibly because they themselves are
not at the time or never will be in harms way.
Success in the Pea Shooter problem will require not just the facts,
which are plentiful, but also some heavyweight influence in the
Political or Military Industrial Complex. Someone needs to call in some
old high-level markers.
Semper The Next Move,
==========6th GROUP OF RESPONSES=====
MILINET: 6th Resp "The Saga of the M16 in Vietnam--Dick Culver"
Dear Fellow Patriots:
In no way did I intend to insinuate that the officer at the point of the
Colt discussion was anything less than a "warrior and gentleman" and a
businessman. What I am saying from experience watching it for thirty
years, is that once immersed in the civilian corporate world, the rules
change and the goals are different. It has been my experience that most
the high ranking ex-military officer types end up in a PR or marketing
due to their personal contacts inside and not as the leader of the
The Colt situation is an exception. In this position, unless they are of
very strong character and secure with their place in life they will
to the pressure of "so in so, you need to tighten your a-- up, your
receipts are not what you predicted in your forecast and you are not
your numbers". This will lead generally to one of two things, if the
individual is very strong, he may resist overstating the capabilities of
widget and suffer the consequences, however, the most common result is
individual is not that strong and will take the party line and do what
is needed to meet his forecast goals. That's just the way it is, I am
saying it is good or bad, just the way it is.
As stated by RJI and PatG, somebody in uniform must have the courage and
strength to push for a good set of requirements taking all end users
account. By doing this and having reasonable enforcement of the
contract (as the man said, I am not acccepting it until it meets the
requirements) things could be improved. The key to this is having a very
good set of requirements that have been developed and refined and really
represent what is required. This is not the case today, requirements
over time as the contract unfolds, as requirements change, schedules
cost escalate and at some point the order is given to "Nail it" we can't
stand the pain anymore and a product is placed in the inventory that
minimally meets the stated requirements.
You know, a point was made a few responses ago about the loss of the
Armories, this was in my opinion, the single biggest event that has led
down the path where we are today in military small arms development.
isn't anyone addressing the current needs of the foot soldier except
can be done by the battalion or company level armorers. (may have the
wrong?) The sustaining effort provided by the armories to refine
weapons (such as was done with the Garand) is not happening. It now
contracting vehicle of some kind to get this kind of effort to take
So much for rambling, I don't expect it to change anytime soon.
L. W. Sykes
============7th GROUP OF RESPONSES====
MILINET: 7th Resp (3) "The Saga of the M16 in Vietnam--Dick Culver"
Sykes frustration with the system is thinking in partially, the right
direction. We are getting short on institutionalized concern for the
soldier. In my view, the Army has been headed down since Gen. Max
Thurman departed. The Army stopped training developers for budgetary
reasons. Lets not for get a few serious things about the M16 debacle.
1. The Army approved using IMR powder at the civilian contractors for
their acceptance testing....when the rifle was being sent to SEA for
soldiers to use with BALL powder. Making that decision places the
military officers approving that decision culpable for the jamming
problems. They made that bewildering decision because the M16 as
reconfigured with BALL powder would not pass acceptance tests defined at
that point in time. Many felt, at the time, the army decision to allow
IMR for acceptance testing rather than the powder used in new combat
ammo was a cover their ass reaction, because they were the same army
people who had approved the production of BALL ammo for combat. Those
army people allowed production lot acceptance testing to continue and
shipments to the field to continue.
2. The army Springfield Armory tried to sell the M14 long after SECDEF
said go for the M16. The M14 had an automatic feature that was too much
for anyone to hold. The army had pushed the forward assist; the change
in rifling and the use of BALL powder. The change in twist from 1/14 to
1/12 came about due to flight characteristics in Alaska. That change did
alter the terminal effects for shorter, jungle ranges. Instead of
screwing around with the features of the M16, things may have turned out
far better had the army clowns had kept their mouths shut and followed
After my last note, I was calibrating my commentary with one of the more
knowledgeable practitioners of procurement in the Pentagon who added an
important element that I missed into the equation. The Goldwater
Nichols law in addition to establishing jointness, joint tours etc., as
the current operational mantra also has a good deal to say about defense
acquistion and there have been some unintended consequences. It set
requirements as to the background officers must have before they can "do
procurement" including ten years experience in positions directly
related to the acquisition process. That provision along with others in
that legislation, have had the effect of further removing weapons
procurement from the warrior class to a new breed of procurement persons
who in the opinion of my source, have become increasingly "process
As you will immediately recognize, to try and manage a career pattern so
an officer can get operational experience, joint staff time, command
and oh by the way, ten years in acquistion related billets may in theory
be possible, but extremely difficult in practise. The net result is the
system is creating acquistion mavens in large part decoupled from the
war fighting and operational and training experience. And when you are
decoupled from operational reallities you get weapons systems that have
lots of attractive bells and whistles that are nightmares for the
operators and also take forever to get deployed. And there is always
another new and exciting system just around the corner that will make
everything before it obsolete, if we can only get it built.
When I commanded an infantry bn we used to joke about how when we fired
our TOWs in training it was the equivalent of firing a Volkswagon down
range with each shot. If we were lucky, we had enough for each gunner
to shoot one a year. I watched a film segment from Iraq of one of our
Marines firing Javelins live and in color, with his fellow Marines
cheering him on. He missed with the first one and got "exhorted" by his
pals "to get with it" and then hit the target with the second one.
Since that Javelin now must cost close to the price of a Lexus, I will
bet that missile that Marine fired was very likely the first live one he
ever had his hands on. There was also a screwup with the software in
the TOWIIs which had to be fixed in combat after our guys kept missing
tanks. Multiply these incidents by many more complex systems like fire
control in tanks and armored vehicles, where you may have several
variants in the same units, you begin to see the nightmares the
procurement process has created for the guys on the ground who have to
keep all that complicated stuff operating in an environment like Iraq
and who have to train the troops to use it. And you think the rifle is
Anthony, that last story you ran on our guys using AKs because they
can't get enough M-16s in their new peacekeeping role was a real flash
and maybe an opportunity. It occured to me that since most of our guys
in Iraq are newbys in the war fighting game and have never had the
opportunity to experience that AK up front and personal and how robust
and reliable it really is we may now begin to get some up to date
feedback on the inadequacies of the .223. In both recent wars in the
ME, crew served weapons have played a predominent role and the grunts
will not have had the concentrated experience of the day to day, close
combat that you experienced in Vietnam where the rifles and the bullets
often were the only game in the ville. I think that's one reason we
have not been getting more feedback on the stopping power issue. SF
well if the biggest change in military procurement was the loss of
armories, the second biggest change was the government terrorizing and
harassing the living crap out of firearms developers through storm
tactics against the license holders with the use of the thugs from ATF
It is know in developmental circles that you gotta kiss some serious ass
get a developmental weapon off the ground, let alone procure the
to test it before you were able to take it to Springfield Armory.
Many a good idea was flushed down the tubes when the 10K dollar license
all the paper work for doing research was put in front of good people
wanting to make a weapon better.
It just burns me when I see a Belgian made machine gun in the hands of a
Marine, why couldn't we come up with something like that (answer is we
could, reason is our governnment, the thuggish regulatory part) won't
=========8th GROUP OF RESPONSWES======
MILINET: 8th Resps (3) "The Saga of the M16 in Vietnam--Dick Culver"
Some of your readers contemplate opening the Federal Armories for
development of small arms for the military. But before they move on this
subject I suggest they read: Misfire : The History of How America's
Small Arms Have Failed Our Military, by William H. Hallahan
This book is hard to come by now but it may be available in some
libraries and second hand book stores. In my opinion, he nails it and
describes the horrors and fiascoes with the Armory back to the
Revolutionary War. The section on the Civil War is especially
interesting to me in that he provides some technical reasons why the
South lost at Gettysburg. (Sharps rifles vs muzzle loaders and use of
Spencer repeaters at crucial stages of the battle)
The last portion of the book has some great detail on the development of
the M-16 and he describes in tear invoking prose the bureaucratic games
played at the time between OSD (McNamara and company) and the Army
One Google search produced this:
An eye opening book for military folks interested in small arms; it's
well worth the money you pay for it.
Colonel USMC (Retired)
What with all the erudite commentary on the subject, I'm a little loath
to comment on one insignificant point, but I will anyway.
I once fired my M-14 at a 55 gallon drum at about 200 meters with the
selector on automatic. While in the prone position and by wrapping the
sling around my leading hand near the swivel and pulling the muzzle
toward the ground, I had very little lift of the muzzle when firing a
three to four round burst. The hits on the drum could be covered with
my two spread hands and showed the results of rounds that struck with an
apparent upward rise to the right.
In Vietnam, I never had the need to warrant the use of my M-14 in the
It has long been held that the muzzle of automatic weapons rise to the
right in firing as a function of recoil. This is a MYTH; the muzzle of
no weapon rises to the right as a function of recoil. The muzzle rise is
a result of the affect of recoil on the shooter's body! Let me explain.
The burning and expansion of the cartridge's gasses cause the projectile
to go forward with an equal reaction directly to the rear. In the
offhand/upright shooting position, most shooters tightly hold their
weapon with the base-plate against the right shoulder or tightly pressed
against their right side by the right elbow/arm creating a 90 degree
body/rifle angle; the recoil of the weapon has, therefor two effects on
1) the recoil drives the right shoulder/right side of the body to the
rear, causing the shooter's body to twist to the right-rear thereby
moving the muzzle to the shooter's right.
2) the recoil also drives the upper body to the rear causing the muzzle
A WWII U. S. Army Field Manual on shooting automatic weapons--the
Thompson and BAR were exemplified in the Manual--brought this out and
recommended that the shooter not hold the weapon rigidly during
automatic fire. Rather, keep the palm open under the front hand-guard
and hold the butt-stock between the right arm and right side without a
lot of pressure--do not place the butt-plate against the body. This
position permits the weapon to recoil on a natural horizontal plane
without any affecting the shooter's body position and/or the muzzle of
the weapon. In 1959, I demonstrated this with a Thompson submachine gun.
I fired a full magazine in one burst at a target 50 feet away while
holding the weapon with only my right hand--elbow bent--and resting the
magazine on a stand. All rounds landed on a standard pistol silhouette
target. The weapon's magazine merely chattered on the stand and moved
slightly to the rear during the firing.
Again, the trick is not to fight the weapon but to hold it loosely and
not permit the recoil to affect your body position.
Anthony F. Milavic
Major USMC (Ret.)
===========9th GROUP OF RESPONSES====
MILINET: 9th Resp "The Saga of the M16 in Vietnam--Dick Culver"
An interesting comment by Jeff Cooper in the October Guns & Ammo
"The Marines are hunting around for a new service pistol, and one pilot
model we have seen differs from the piece I am carrying on my
belt-primarily in the presence of a frame rail forward on which to mount
a night light. John Browning's wonderful design has lasted almost a full
century without serious competition. The great 1911 .45 was a very
nearly perfect artifact from the day of its birth, and this may be
unique in the entire history of technology."
Can this hunt be true? Col Cooper is connected.
============10th GROUP OF RESPONSES===
MILINET: 10th Resp "The Saga of the M16 in Vietnam--Dick Culver"
Col Cooper's grandson is also a Marine.
=======END OF DISCUSSION===========
R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GySgt USMC (Ret.)
Gunny G's Old Salt Marines Tavern
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