"In Vietnam," Salisbury adds, "where you have a lot of heat, a lot of humidity, you go out and you are exhausted within the first hour of moving around the countryside, and I'm telling you, you feel every ounce you carry. So the weight of the weapon and ammunition really matters. Just talking about it makes me remember how goddamn exhausted you'd get on patrols in that terrible place."
According to James Montes, range master at American Shooting Center in Kearny Mesa, "Most of the warfare that is happening today is in suburban environments. Gone is the day of trench warfare like in World War II and World War I. You are not having to pick guys off at 500 yards."
That's a good thing, Salisbury says. "The old M-14 had a max effective range of 500 yards," he explains. "Well, the manufacturers and the Army touted the M-16 as having a max effective range of 500 yards because they wanted to divert any complaints about replacing the M-14 with a weapon that didn't have the same max effective range. But, in my experience, the max effective range is only 300 yards. In fact, when I was in with the SEALs, we were told, 'Max effective range of this weapon is 300 yards.' "
Salisbury adds, "Given the terrain and climate and situations that I was in [in Vietnam] -- our firefights were very close-range -- I was satisfied with the M-4 and the M-16 firing the .223 round. But there was a terrible flaw in the M-16. When you fired a lot of rounds through it, I'm talking about hundreds and hundreds of rounds, without breaking it down and cleaning it, it would get a carbon buildup in the chamber. This carbon buildup would prevent the round from being seated in the barrel. Then it would misfire, and you had a stoppage. This first became a serious problem in Vietnam in a place called Hill 881. It was a Marine fight against NVA [North Vietnamese army], and it lasted two or three days. They did not have time to break down the weapons and clean them, and so they had a lot of stoppages, and Marines were killed because they couldn't fire their M-16s. Now, after 881, the Department of Defense launched this big investigation, which I became involved in peripherally. I was working with SEALs down in a place where we were going out for a couple of days at a time in small groups, 6 to 12 men. We never got in a firefight that lasted more than half an hour. Well, this general comes down, he and some civilians who are going around the country to every service that uses the M-16, asking what our experiences have been with the rifle. It was part of the investigation of what happened at Hill 881. They come to me and the general asks, 'Can we see your M-16?' I said sure and I brought the M-16 out, and of course it is beautiful because when we came out of the bush after our two-day mission, we cleaned that son of a bitch and hosed it down with WD-40. Well, this general takes a look, and he says, 'See, look at this. If you maintain a weapon like this, you're not going to have any misfires.' I remember thinking, 'What the fuck are you talking about? We fire maybe 200 rounds through it and that's it, then we are back here cleaning it. Those poor old Marines up there are just firing hundreds of rounds through it, and they can't clean it and they get the stoppages.'
"That problem was supposedly fixed," Salisbury continues, "but I've talked to SEALs who have been in Afghanistan, and they're still saying, 'You gotta keep that son of a bitch clean or it will misfire.' That's why a lot of those SEALs prefer the AK-47 over the M-4 in Afghanistan and, in fact, they were grabbing AKs whenever they could find them."
"The AK-47 is a .30 caliber, or 7.62-millimeter, weapon," Kuyper explains, "so it has more knockdown power. But it is a shorter round so that it's lighter weight and so the soldier can carry more ammo. An AK might be effective out to about 300 yards, but it's a highly inaccurate weapon."
But Salisbury says the Russian-made rifle's reliability makes it a top-choice combat weapon. "SEALs do have AKs as part of their arsenal, and some SEALs prefer the AK because, first of all, it is more reliable. That M-4 and M-16, they were having trouble with that son of a bitch in Afghanistan just like they were having trouble in Vietnam. It is a weapon that has got to be kept clean. And then with all of that blowing sand, they're having a terrible time keeping it clean. SEALs I've talked to tell me they would bag it, as they say. They would keep it in a parachute bag when they were in Camp Rhino, for example. But the AK-47 is a lot tougher to jam up with sand than the M-4. I remember in Vietnam some guys valued the AK-47. I didn't, because it was so hot and humid and the AK was too goddamn heavy. Of course, the NVA carried the AK."
Montes recognizes the logistic value of carrying a lighter weapon and lighter bullets. "You want to lighten the soldier's load," he says, "because they are carrying a lot more stuff, not just rifles out in the field. Your rifle does you no good if you have no water. Your rifle does you no good if you don't have food, or if you don't have your medical pack. It is only one tool in an arsenal of things that you'll need to have."
Still, he admits that if he were in Afghanistan, "I would take the weight. I would much rather have a 7.62 bullet. The 5.56 [millimeter] round is an excellent cartridge, but having that 7.62 gives you more confidence. Maybe it is more psychological than actual physics, but I would have more confidence in the 7.62."