'If you think the M16 is bad in the jungle, you should see it with sand in it," said my friend Samir. The topic under discussion was why he carried an AK47. He was showing his new one, a Czech model, of which he was very proud. Samir was a press officer with the Lebanese forces militia in Beirut. The year was 1981. The LF were young guys from Christian neighborhoods who had volunteered to fight, because if they didn't their homes would be overrun, their families killed, sisters raped first. I'm not kidding about this or exaggerating.
But the point is they bought their own weapons, and they almost invariably bought AK47s. I didn't bother to ask why. My own AR15, the precursor of the M16, had jammed on me twice in combat, both times on the first round of the second magazine, in the rain. The first time it wasn't much of a problem. We were ambushing the "other guys," and my troops had the situation well in hand. Also, I was distracted by gastroenteritis, which, two days later, put me in the hospital with vomiting, diarrhea, and a temperature that crested at 106°. Such is the resilience of youth that I parachuted back into my camp three days after that. But I digress.
The second time we were counterattacking an ambush. That time I got shot twice, in the right shoulder, and the, ahem, groin.
That sort of experience lingers in the memory.
The standard U.S. Army rifle before the M16, the M14, was not well suited to a jungle war such as Vietnam. The weapon was simply a full auto version of the WWII M1 Garand. It was heavy, and the ammo was heavy. For airborne troops, the selector switch rod was light and thin, easily bent or broken on jumps. The Army really needed something better.
The AR15 seemed to be the answer. On Okinawa we used to put on a terrific demonstration of this revolutionary, science-fiction-looking killer black rifle. Two 20-gallon cans of water would be set up downrange. Two shooters would come out, one with a WWII carbine and the other with an AR15. The guy with the carbine knelt and squeezed off a round. This put two little holes in either side of the can, through which two streams of water flowed. Then the guy with the AR15 would fire one round into his can. An even smaller hole appeared on the near side, and the back was blown completely out, the can having spun 20 feet away.
This was because the AR15s boat-tail round tumbled when it hit something soft, like a bucket of water or a person. Pretty much everybody who was hit by that AR15 round died. Since lightly wounded enemy can still shoot back, we all thought this was a splendid feature.
In Vietnam, in March of 1964, my first AR15 came in a box from Colt Firearms in Hartford, Connecticut, with an instruction booklet, not an Army manual. The booklet said that the AR15 was machined to very close tolerances and not to oil it. When I read that I felt very much like an old-time Catholic being told that from now on the liturgy would be in English.
But it was good advice.
The AR15 was machined to such close tolerances that just a little carbon on the bolt was enough to jam it, especially if it was wet. Can you say "rainy season," boys and girls?
When I returned to Vietnam in 1967, the M16 had been adopted. There were two major changes from the AR15. The first was that the flash suppressor, a three-pronged thingy that caught on each and every vine it came near, had been changed to a sort of cylindrical cage. The second was a bolt-assist mechanism on the receiver, with which one could quickly remedy the kind of malfunction I'd had, a failure to feed. The way the AR15 was designed, with this jam, you couldn't open the rifle to repair it. The bolt assist corrected that, seated the round, and the weapon would fire.
Unfortunately, the first M16 was prone to another type of malfunction, which the bolt assist did not correct. Actually, it was not the weapon that caused it, but the ammo. The specs for M16 ammo called for a lighter powder mixture than that which had been standard for the M14. The manufacturers had tons of the old powder, on which they were about to lose millions. So, without telling anyone, they used the old M14 powder.
Frequently it burst the cartridge, which jammed the weapon so badly that the only way to fix it was to push a cleaning rod down the bore, hard, to remove the cartridge. If the cartridge came apart, and some brass was stuck in the barrel, you were screwed.
None of this was anticipated, and the Army only issued one cleaning rod per 11-man squad.
My friend Rick Rescorla (who saved 2700 lives on 9/11 but lost his own) fought in the Ia Drang and said that during an enemy attack half his men were firing and the other half were down in the hole trying to fix their weapons. Neat way to cut your force in half, through no fault of the enemy.
"Ah, well," say the ordnance types, "all new systems have bugs. They're all fixed now. Get over it."
There are about two panels' worth of guys on the Vietnam Memorial wall who will never "get over it."
The way the M16 was developed was a crime, specifically manslaughter. So far as I know, no one was punished, no one was charged, no one had their government contract revoked.
This is another reason why the sons of congressmen should not be given draft exemptions.
A funny e-mail list circulating is called the Rules of Combat. One of the rules is, "Always remember that your gear was made by the lowest bidder."
In a larger frame, what we've been talking about here is the research-and-development process, which I maintain emphasizes fancy and complicated over clear and simple, to the detriment of our GIs. Gene Stoner, who invented the M16, is a maverick genius. But Mikhail Kalashnikov, who invented the AK47, was a master sergeant in the Soviet army. Master sergeants tend to be practical people.