James Montes, holding .223 and .308 caliber bullets. "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."
Beginning with Vietnam, American soldiers and Marines have carried the M-16 rifle. And the virtues and vices of the black rifle have been argued by military men and gun enthusiasts ever since. The central issue in the argument is the .223 caliber, or 5.66-millimeter bullet, fired by the M-16. "Before Vietnam," explains Jason Kuyper, manager of Southern California Guns in La Mesa, "the military used a heavier-caliber weapon. It was a .30 caliber, and now it's basically a .22 caliber. There's a significant difference in both the size of the bullet and the energy it delivers."
The size of the bullet fired by a gun is denoted either in caliber rating or in millimeters. A .22 caliber round is 22 hundredths of an inch in diameter. A gun firing that size bullet will commonly be called a "22." A 9-millimeter handgun fires a bullet 9 millimeters in diameter. In the interest of uniformity, militaries in NATO countries officially use the metric rating. But in the United States, gun owners usually speak in terms of caliber. Hence, in the case of the M-16 service rifle, its round is known both by its caliber, .223, and its metric size, 5.56 millimeters.
"Guys that are from the younger [military] generation," Kuyper says, "and raised on the newer generation weapons, they don't have a problem with the M-16 and the .223 round. But you have the guys who are a little bit older, and they were around when the heavier-caliber weapons were issued, guys who were in the military in the early '60s and WWII vets and Korean War vets. Those old-school guys think that the new stuff is junk, and they call it a 'mouse gun.' "
Kuyper chuckles, "Well, in general, .22 caliber weapons are used for varmint hunting -- prairie dogs and gophers and that kind of stuff."
What about hunting something the size of a human?
"It depends," Kuyper answers. "There is kind of a dividing line right at that size game. Game similar in size to a human would be deer and people have different opinions on what you can hunt deer with. Some people use a .22 caliber to hunt deer, though people generally will use a .30 caliber because of the stopping power of the larger round. They know that the .30 caliber will kill the deer in one shot, and they don't want to see the animal suffer. You don't want to wound game and let it run off and lose it. And in dangerous game, you don't want to shoot it and have it turn around and attack you."
Former Navy SEAL Bill Salisbury fought in Vietnam with the M-16 and a shortened, or carbine, version thereof known then as the Car-15, now as the M-4. A freelance journalist with close ties to the SEAL community, Salisbury thinks a soldier who had grown up hunting human-sized game with .30 caliber bullets and varmints with .22s would feel uneasy, carrying a .223 caliber weapon into combat. "It would look like a toy to him," Salisbury says, "until he saw what could happen with that .223 round. First of all, it is not a .22, it is a .223. And it has got a little more powder in the jacket, too, so it's coming out with more velocity than what you shoot squirrels with. And, because of the way it was designed, it has a stopping quality of its own."
Salisbury explains, "The scientists who developed the [.223] round designed the bullet to be unstable, which meant it was not unstable in flight, but when it struck something it immediately became unstable. So instead of blowing a big hole through somebody, like in the Dick Tracy comics, it started to tumble and tear."
"In World War II and Korea," Kuyper says, "the theory was using one large-caliber bullet to kill one person. In Vietnam, the combat theory shifted to thinking you are more effective if you don't kill the guy. You are more effective if you wound him because then it takes three other guys to carry him off the battlefield and you now have taken out four soldiers instead of one. The high-velocity small projectile [.223] round is less lethal, but it causes a very messy wound because it bounces around inside of you and makes a big mess."
That theory, Salisbury says, was at least partially proved in Vietnam. "I saw a person who was hit in the buttocks with a .223. It was the only round in her yet she was dead within 30 minutes. We tried our best to save her, but what happened was that round, when it entered her buttocks, began to tear and tumble and it went up through her intestines and her stomach and God knows where else, and that is what killed her."
Yet the theory proved to have flaws as well. "The trade-off for the stopping power," Salisbury explains, "was going to be this tumbling effect. But that tumbling effect was also a drawback because anything that round hit on its way to the target would cause it to go unstable and go off course. With the M-14, which was the service rifle we had before the M-16, the 7.62 [millimeter] round, that round would go through a small tree branch and continue on its way. But the instability that was built into the 5.56 so that you'd get this horrendous effect when it hit the target, that same instability would cause it to fly off course if it hit something like foliage or small tree limbs between you and the target."
Kuyper points out that the maiming effect of the .223 round fired from the M-16 is only half of the combat theory. The other half has to do with weight. "One individual soldier can carry almost 400 rounds of the .223 into combat," he explains. "Previously, soldiers were issued 200 rounds of the .30 caliber and it was extremely heavy. You couldn't load up with that stuff because it was a bigger, heavier bullet and you couldn't carry all that weight."
"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."
Kuyper disagrees. "I think the newer generation weapon is great," he says. "I think the M-16 with the .223 caliber is superior to go into combat with, because you are carrying almost twice as many rounds. And the last thing that I want to do is run out of ammo."
"Well, if I were in Afghanistan," Salisbury concludes, "I'd rather have an AK, for the extra stopping power of the 7.62 round, but mainly for the reliability. With all the blowing sand and dirt over there, I'd want a weapon that I could rely on. And I believe that the AK-47 is simply more reliable."