Comparative discussion of the M-16 Rifle
When I first arrived at 2nd CAG HQ I was issued a battered, old XM-16E1 that — to my disgust — had rust pits in the bore. It also had the old-style, three-pronged flash suppressor — useful for cutting the wires on cases of C-rations.
My second M-16
I turned in the XM-16E1 a month or two later when I briefly became a machine-gunner. After a week or so I passed the M-60 to a trained gunner and drew a newer M-16A1 that was mine until I rotated back to the World. My second M-16 had the new type flash suppressor, closed on the end.
After months in my hands, across my lap, or immediately beside me, that second M-16 came to feel like an extension of my arm. Its angles and surfaces became as familiar as those of my own face. I used it to save lives and take lives. Years after leaving Vietnam, I still sometimes reached for my M-16 at odd hours in the night.
The M-16 was controversial when adopted by the U.S. military in the early 1960s, just as the Vietnam war was heating up. The new rifle required more care and maintenance than the tolerant old M-14 it replaced. There were stories of soliders and Marines killed because their M-16s jammed in combat. Modifications were made to improve the rifle’s reliability, but in 1970 the “word” was the M-16 still had to be coddled.I babied my M-16s, cleaning them every day, whether or not they had been fired. I tested the action after every cleaning. I was careful to keep the muzzle clear and the dust cover closed. I inspected, disassembled and cleaned my magazines every few weeks, and replaced my ammo often. I always double-checked to make sure a round was seated in the chamber and the bolt fully closed. I practiced switching my rifle from “Safe” to “Semi” to “Auto,” sometimes working on my speed, other times trying to make the switch silently.
It amazed me that a few CAP Marines trusted our Vietnamese interpreter, Balls, to clean their rifle for them. I liked Balls, and he probably cleaned more M-16s than most Marines, but there are some things you should do yourself. Letting someone else maintain your weapon is like going scuba diving and trusting someone else to fill your air tank.
Neither of my M-16s ever jammed despite firing thousands of rounds under all (tropical) conditions. I considered the little black rifle nearly perfect for the kind of paddy and treeline fighting we did.
Comfortable with the M-14
When I entered the Marine Corps on July 7, 1969, recruits were still being trained with the 7.62 mm (.30 caliber) M-14 rifle. Although it was long (44 inches) and heavy (12 pounds), it was mechanically simple and easy to maintain. I became intimately familiar with the M-14 and learned to shoot it with accuracy and confidence on the range. It was a great rifle for shooting stationary targets in daylight at 500 meters.
But after boot camp I went to Echo Company, Infantry Training Regiment at Camp Pendleton, where we were issued M-16s. We had classes on the M-16 and fired it a few times at ITR. We fired it more during Advanced Infantry Training, but I didn’t get comfortable with the new rifle until I had carried it several weeks in Vietnam.
In fact, I lobbied for permission to trade my M-16 for an M-14. Early in my tour there was a Marine nicknamed “Arkansas” in CAP 2-7-4 who carried an M-14. CAP 4 once got into a firefight only 150 yards or so from CAP 2. You could hear the slow BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM of “Arkansas” shooting his semi-auto M-14 amidst the CRACKACKACKACKACK of the fully automatic M-16s carried by the other Marines in the fight. Mike Kubina eventually talked me out of getting an M-14, but I never developed any faith in the M-16’s accuracy beyond 100 meters.
Luckily, I almost never had to fire my M-16 at a distant target. At CAP 2-7-2, nearly all our enemy contacts occurred at night. That meant we rarely saw the enemy at any great distance, and close-in fighting was the rule. Firefights with a dozen or more combatants often took place in areas no bigger than a football field. I remember at least one firefight that could have been held on a tennis court. Luckily, there was plenty of cover. But you couldn’t even see your sights, so aiming was a matter of trying to point the whole rifle in the right direction.
The high volume of close-in automatic weapons fire guaranteed that most firefights were brief. Usually the enemy broke contact and fled after a minute or two, yielding to our superior numbers, firepower and supporting arms. Charlie knew he would be in a world of shit if he was still in the neighborhood when artillery flares began arriving overhead, turning night into day.
I came to appreciate the M-16’s light weight, easy handling and high rate of fire, compared with the M-14. I typically carried 22 magazines loaded with 440 rounds — weighing only 15.4 pounds. The same amount of M-14 ammo would have weighed much more and the M-14 itself was four pounds heavier. I carried the PRC-25 for several months in CAP 2-7-2, operating the radio handset with one hand and my rifle with the other. That feat would have been nearly impossible with an M-14. And the recoil of an M-16 was a minor nuisance compared with the shoulder-bruising kick of an M-14.
Compared with the AK-47
I also found the M-16 superior to the AK-47 except the “AyKay” had a 30-round magazine while the “16” magazine held only 20. The extra 10 rounds gave a small advantage in firepower, especially in the crucial beginning seconds of a firefight. It took less than three seconds to empty a 20-round magazine on automatic fire. Careful attention was needed to make sure you weren’t caught with an empty rifle at an awkward moment. A 30-round magazine was available for the M-16, but the Marine Corps didn’t issue them. The only 30-round magazines I saw were carried by Army troops.We used various techniques to help manage our ammo supply. We got pretty good at estimating how many rounds we had fired and how many were left in the magazine. Some loaded their magazines with a tracer every third or fifth round. Others loaded three tracers at the bottom of each magazine. A burst of tracers meant the well was dry. I also practiced changing magazines until I could do it quickly and without fumbling.
Under normal (low-threat) circumstances I preferred carrying the M-16 by the handgrip in my right hand, with the rifle hanging straight down. That kept my left hand free, and I’m tall enough that the muzzle cleared the ground by three or four inches while I walked. From that position I could swing my rifle into the firing position in less than a second. I carried the M-16 across my chest at “port arms” when enemy contact seemed imminent. Unlike many, I did not use the well-known “jungle sling.” I discarded the web sling issued with the rifle and taped down the front sling swivel to keep it from rattling.
I’ve heard a lot of talk through the years about how the M-16 was especially deadly because its bullets “tumbled” end over end — tearing large, uneven holes in human targets. I have heard veterans say — and even read in books and magazine articles — that M-16 rounds began tumbling as soon as they left the muzzle. I believe that’s bullshit, spread by ignorance or a desire to sound “salty.”
An M-16 bullet comes out of the muzzle in the usual way, spinning at a blurring speed around its central axis because of the rifling in the barrel. If not deflected, it would strike the target point-on. Like any other bullet, the M-16 round could begin tumbling if it struck something solid enough to deflect its flight. Because the M-16 bullet was relatively light — 55 grains — it may have been more easily deflected than the 175-grain bullet fired by the M-14 and the M-60. It’s possible that just striking the human body could cause an M-16 bullet to tumble.
Of course, the M-16 bullet also travels faster than the M-14 bullet — 3,250 feet per second versus 2,800 fps. That extra speed (inertia) should have made the M-16 round more stable.
When I rotated back to the World in January, 1971, recruits were STILL being trained with the M-14 in boot camp. I know because I became a rifle coach at Edson Range, Camp Pendleton, Calif. I qualified again with the M-14 in Marksmanship Instructors School and my work days were spent training recruits on the M-14 and the M1911A1 pistol.
I don’t know what the problem was, but I think it’s pathetic the Marine Corps was still training recruits with the M-14, then sending them into combat with the M-16.
According to the “Guidebook for Marines,” 11th Revised Edition
July 1, 1967
|Rifle weight (no magazine)
|Firing weight (with magazine)
|Full magazine (20 rounds)
|Rifle length (with flash suppressor)
|Maximum rate of fire (semi-auto)
|Maximum rate of fire (automatic)
|Maximum effective range
Posted in November, 1998