Wednesday, October 26, 2011

M-16, or 'The Little Black Rifle That Wouldn’t Shoot'

In Vietnam GI’s (VGI) first issue of January ’68, Editor Jeff Sharlet ran a front page story under a bold, large cap title calling attention to problems with the M-16 rifle. What was this about?

For those of us who soldiered in the Cold War ‘50s, the trusty M-1 was the standard US infantry rifle of the day. A long, heavy semi-automatic rifle which took an 8-round clip, the M-1 had carried us to victory in Europe and the Pacific in WWII. By the end of the ‘50s however, it had been superseded by the new M-14, also a big rifle, but a fully automatic one, which carried a 20-round box clip, used a heavier more powerful bullet, and maintained a much faster rate of fire at a longer range. It seemed like the Army and Marines had their new battlefield weapon for the long term.

Then came Vietnam. Not the big frontal war on the plains of Europe the Pentagon strategists and weapons designers had planned for, but small unit, close-up warfare in an unforgiving jungle terrain favoring the enemy’s hit & run guerrilla tactics. For American military personnel advising the South Vietnamese Army in the early ‘60s, it soon became apparent that the long (nearly 4 ft) and heavy M-14 was no match in combat for the Soviet-style AK-47 assault rifle carried by the Viet Cong (VC) and troops of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).

As US involvement in what became its Vietnam quagmire deepened, the Pentagon in haste accelerated the development, testing, and deployment of a new basic firearm, a prototype of the M-16, called the AR-15 assault rifle. Standard procedure of seeking competitive designs and bids for a new weapon was ignored, and instead Colt, armorer to the cowboy era, which had acquired the rights to the future M-16 as a lightweight weapon with a black plastic stock, got the nod. In Secretary of Defense McNamara’s rush to deploy the rifle once the US escalated in spring ’65, unresolved flaws in the weapon, familiar to the manufacturer, were disregarded as M-16’s were shipped to the combat zone.

M-16 rifle

In one of the early skirmishes with the VC during spring ’65, an airborne unit suffered “many casualties” when a number of M-16’s jammed. Later the same outfit would report that a number of rifles had blown up, killing one GI in the process. Yet in its first major battle in November ’65, the new rifle was given unqualified good marks by the field commander in spite of the fact that the M-16 had only been issued to his troops 10 days in advance with little time for familiarization on the weapon. Did the new rifle really perform well, or was the colonel just practicing good military politics for the M-16’s debut? The occasion was the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, which pitted the NVA against the new US 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) in heavily forested jungle terrain of South Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Leading the way were elements of the 7th Cavalry Regt, on its first outing since Custer, which was nearly wiped out after unwittingly stumbling into an ambush in an the area where three battle-hardened NVA regiments were bivouacked.

Only through the extraordinary valor of the American GIs backed by massive firepower and air support did the unit survive the hellish four days of the battle, albeit with very heavy casualties. However, the NVA losses were greater, leading US HQ Saigon and Washington to begin the Vietnam spin game, depicting the outcome as a great victory. Simultaneously, Ho Chi Minh and his generals studied the results and also declared victory. In reality, the fighting on the ground, often hand to hand, was closer to a draw.

♫The eastern world, it is exploding
Violence flarin', bullets loadin'…*

The conversion from the M-14 to its successor M-16 continued through ’66 as the number of US forces in Vietnam rapidly increased. Sporadic, scattered reports of the M-16 jamming in combat situations were duly filed, but generally ignored by the command structure. However, by early ’67, the problem, which had become the cause of casualties as GIs and Marines found themselves in deadly firefights with malfunctioning weapons, could no longer be ignored. Grunts were writing home about the jams, sending letters to hometown papers.

By then Colt was well aware, to put it euphemistically, of customer dissatisfaction among ground troops, but treated the matter as a confidential company issue which they hoped to resolve by re-engineering the M-16. The Pentagon, or at least parts of it, was also now aware that the rifle was costing US lives, but in classic CYA decided to classify the reports and restrict circulation to a Need to Know basis, lest the occupants at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue learn the seriousness of the matter.

However, the inevitable constituents’ letters began reaching Congress, and a special House investigative subcommittee was created in May ’67 led by Congressman Ichord of Missouri. Officers and NCO’s had tried to signal superiors through channels, but consistently ran into the standard command response, i.e., the M-16 was a fine rifle; the fault lay with troops not cleaning their weapons properly. Finally, out of concern for his men and in disregard for his career, a Marine junior officer made an end run around the brass, sending a well-documented letter simultaneously to the Washington Post, Senator Robert Kennedy, Congressman Ichord, and his local paper. He revealed that after one engagement, no fewer than 40 of his men reported rifle malfunctions to him, effectively blowing the lid off the Pentagon’s cover-up.

The word was out, the military had sent men into battle with an unproven rifle, and many troops had been found dead next to their stripped down M-16’s. The weapons had fatally jammed, leaving them defenseless against determined adversaries. As one night patrol leader radioed, “out of hand grenades, all weapons jammed.” When a relief column reached the position the next morning, all were dead.

As VGI reported to its GI and Marine readers in the first issue, the sources of the M-16’s problems were well known, both to Colt’s engineers and to the Pentagon’s ordnance brass. The M-16 had originally been issued to the combat infantry as a weapon which required little maintenance, one that could fire longer without cleaning than any other rifle in existence. As a result, minimal and inadequate cleaning materials were provided to the troops. Notwithstanding US technological hubris, the weapon frequently jammed due to incompatible ammo at an exceptionally high rate of fire which left a residue, fouling the firing chamber – even after a thorough cleaning.

As VGI wrote, once “the fat was in the fire” in Washington, the military began ordering necessary design changes, including replacement of the ammo and the use of chrome in the firing chamber, barrel, and bolt, of the new model M-16, making it less susceptible to corrosion and jamming. However during ‘67, US troop levels in Vietnam were approaching half a million. Replacing or refitting hundreds of thousands of M-16s in the midst of hard and constant fighting would be neither quick nor easy.

Meanwhile the Congressional committee and the general public were treated to tragic stories of men’s lives lost in vain due to the M-16’s journey through the military bureaucracy “marked by salesmanship, sham science, cover-ups, chicanery, incompetence, and no small amount of dishonesty by a gun manufacturer and senior American military officers.”** Time quoted a wounded Marine’s letter home recounting the disaster which had befallen his unit in battle during late spring ’67:
We left with 72 men in our platoon and came back with 19. … I
just caught a little shrapnel. I wish I could say the same for all my
buddies. … believe it or not, you know what killed most of us? Our
own rifle … the M-16. Practically every one of our dead was found
with his rifle torn down next to him where he had been trying to
fix it. ***
Inevitably, once the press got hold of the story, comparisons were made to the enemy’s weapon of choice – the Soviet designed Kalashnikov, aka the AK-47. Heavier with a slower rate of fire than the M-16 (when it fired), the AK-47 was a sturdy, durable rifle with a large banana clip, a weapon which rarely misfired or jammed, ideally suited to Third World battlefield conditions. In contrast, GIs and Marines, stuck with an unreliable weapon, nicknamed their M-16’s the ‘Mattel Toy, or the ‘Little Black Rifle That Wouldn’t Shoot’.

NVA soldier with AK-47, Battle of Hue, ‘68

A Marine platoon Sgt, whose unit had been plagued by jammed M-16s in the heat of firefights during spring ‘68, picked up an AK-47 he found on the battlefield. A senior officer, spotting him in base camp with the rifle slung across his back, challenged him, “Gunny, why the hell are you carrying that?” The Gunnery Sgt replied, “Because it works”**** – Sir.

In late ’67, the Congressional subcommittee had issued its sharply worded report that the M-16’s malfunctions were “serious and excessive,” and the Army and the Marine Corps had been negligent. Too late though for a number of guys whose names would later go up on the wall of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.

*Eve of Destruction by P.F. Sloan, 1965
**C.J. Chivers, The Gun (2010)
***Time, June 9, 1967
****Esquire, October 27, 2010


  1. One of my first field encounters with US Marines was near the Cua Viet River, the day after a unit had been over-run. A young staff sgt, was yelling about the M-16s jamming and how they had to try to find AK-47s if they were to survive. This was in 1968.

  2. A footnote to your piece on the M16: I was trained exclusively on the M14. When I arrived in Vietnam I was handed an M16 - a gun which I had never seen.


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