M16 Woes in Vietnam,
Invented by Eugene Stone in 1959, the M16 series and it’s variants serve as the bread and butter infantry weapon of the US Military. Adopted in 1964, it was meant as a replacement of the M14 battle rifle. It had several advantages over the older M14. With its polymer furniture it was much lighter. It fired a much smaller caliber cartridge (5.56 NATO whereas the M14 was 7.62 NATO) allowing the soldier to carry more ammunition. It had a lighter recoil, was easier to control firing in fully automatic mode, was exceptional accurate, had a very high muzzle velocity (3,000+ feet per second) and had good range.
Initial trial runs with special forces and American advisers in Vietnam showed that the M16 preformed well. However, once the M16 was commonly issued to common grunts, serious problems began to emerge. The new rifle gained a reputation for being completely unreliable, and horror stories spread of dead American soldiers being found with jammed rifles or rifles being dismantled in the process of clearing the jam. The most common malfunction was the failure to extract, where the empty casing would remain jammed within the action after firing. Other malfunctions including slam firing, light striking, and excessive wear and breakages of parts.
Due to reports of its unreliability, a Congressional investigation chaired by Rep. Richard Ichord was conducted in 1967 to identify and solve the problem. The investigation found that the M16 in it’s current usage had a malfunction rate of around 2 per 1,000 rounds. During the investigation, a Marine rifleman testified,
We left with 72 men in our platoon and came back with 19, Believe it or not, you know what killed most of us? Our own rifle. Practically every one of our dead was found with his (M16) torn down next to him where he had been trying to fix it.
The Ichord Committee found several problems with the new M16. At the time US Military small arms had a chrome plated bore to protect it from corrosion, fouling, dirt, mud, and moisture. Chrome plating was a lesson learned in World War II and Korea, and by 1957 was standard military ordnance protocol. However, it was decided not to chrome the M16, the decision made by none other than the staff of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who micromanaged M16 development and the Vietnam War in general. They reasoned that because the original Stoner design lacked a chromed barrel, it was not necessary.
Originally the M16 was tested using 5.56 NATO cartridges with DuPont IMR8208M stick gunpowder. To increase production of ammunition, Olin Mathieson WC846 ball powder was used instead. This gunpowder caused more residue and fowling, which increased chances of a malfunction.
By far the biggest issue was the erroneous belief that the M16 was a “self cleaning” rifle which did not require regular cleaning and maintenance. This myth was perpetration by the manufacturer, Colt, by Robert McNamara, and the military. Soldiers were even told that cleaning was unnecessary. Cleaning kits were not issued as the military actually had no cleaning kits for 5.56 caliber. Some veteran soldiers who saw through the bullshit used .22 caliber cleaning kits commonly used for small game civilian hunting rifles. It is my personal belief that the military and administration didn’t necessarily believe the M16 was such a wonder rifle, but were simply negligent, rolling the dice and hoping that nothing bad would happen due to the lack of cleaning kits.
The results of the Ichord Committee brought about several changes. First, several improvements were made to the M16, resulting in the M16A1. The M16A1 featured a chromed bore and chamber, as well as a forward assist to aid the user in clearing a jam. More importantly, appropriate cleaning kits were issued, and soldiers were trained in how to properly maintain their rifles. Special comic books were even printed making the process easy to understand.
As a result, the incidence of malfunctions dropped dramatically, and the M16 earned a reputation as a reliable weapon. A survey conducted by the military in 1968 found that 85% of combat troops preferred the M16 over the M14. The rest is military history.