The M-16 has a little known story behind it.
The AR-15 is America’s rifle.
Worldwide it is the most produced rifle in .223 and second only to the AK-47 in total production of all rifles made after World War 2. Yet for all of its popularity today, America’s rifle failed America’s soldiers in Vietnam. The recipe for disaster had many parts and more than one cook had a hand in fouling the stew. This is the tragic story of the early days of the world’s finest battle rifle.
In 1959, America chose the M-14 to be our main battle rifle. It would prove to be the shortest-lived rifle to ever serve in that role. Heavy and uncontrollable when fired on full auto, compared to the Soviet’s AK-47, the M-14 was obsolete at birth. America needed a rifle to match her Space Age dreams. Not surprisingly it was a subsidiary of an aerospace company that delivered that dream. Armalite’s business was developing small arms that could then be sold to manufacturers. Armalite employee, Eugene Stoner was given the canvas to create a masterpiece, and from his fertile mind came the rifle of the future.
The advantages of the M-16 over every other rifle on paper were stunning. The magnitude of the change encompassed by Stoner’s design was the perfect complement to “Space Age” technology. This gun was light, accurate, and had virtually no recoil. Any soldier with a little training could put every round into a suitcase at 100 yards in under 2 seconds. The ammo was lighter, cheaper, and deadly. Early reports of wounds on enemy soldiers were so gruesome that they remained classified until the 80s. Bullets would enter the body and pinball around inside doing horrific damage. So impressed by the M-16s issued to the ARVN troops, Green Berets demanded to be issued the weapons in 1962. The jump from the M-14 to the M-16 was equivalent to switching from prop planes to jets. The design was sold to Colt and adopted by the US Military in 1964. Optimism surrounding the gun was very high. That should have been the first warning sign.
It is at this point in the story that things go awry. Anyone who works in manufacturing understands that modifications after testing negate all previous testing. This simple rule was forgotten by Colt and the military. First, they changed the ammunition profile. The powder used in testing was abandoned in favor of the standard military ball powder. This powder burns longer, was dirtier, and drove the cyclic rate of full-auto from 600 rounds a minute to an uncontrollable 1000 rounds per minute. Colt also changed the barrel twist rate to give the bullet better spin and flight control. This improved accuracy, but robbed the little bullet of its signature deadly tumble. Colt then added a forward assist that the Generals insisted was needed despite Stoner’s objections. Stoner was working for Colt as a consultant at this time but Colt never consulted with him about the changes. By the time the changes were presented to Stoner, his objections were moot in the face of a fiat accompli. All of this would likely have been enough to take the shine off Stoner’s penny, but that was only half of the story.
Young soldiers training at Fort Bennings were given M-14 rifles. It was the M-14 they learned to clean blindfolded. It was the M-14 they qualified with. It was the M-14 that alighted on their shoulder like a guardian angel. Soldiers left Fort Benning in love with their M-14 as they had been trained to be. For many this would be the only Woodstock they would ever know. Landing in Vietnam they were handed an M-16. The results were bitterly tragic.
Troops were not given proper cleaning kits or training on maintenance. Many troopers did not even concern themselves with cleaning as scuttlebutt had it the M-16 was self-cleaning. Poorly trained troops with untested weapons. The guns rusted; seized up and stove-piped, but all of this was annoyance compared to a “stuck round.” When a fired round failed to eject the bolt would slam the next round into the spent shell driving it into the chamber. Rifles whose chambers had been compromised due to corrosion could also allow the casing to expand making the problem far worse. To clear this problem a cleaning rod needed to be slammed down the barrel; if you were lucky enough to have one. Viet Cong witnessing troopers running a rod down the barrel of their guns must have thought the Americans were using muzzleloaders.
The first reaction to the rifle’s poor performance was to blame the soldiers. The Green Berets and ARVN soldiers didn’t have these issues; so, the assumption was it was the GI’s fault. Officers in the field would have had no way of knowing about Colt’s modifications and thus the logical failure point would seem to be the shooter. Gut-wrenching letters are written in the jungle finally made their way to the desks of congressmen who had to answer to Gold Star families as to why their sons were left defenseless. The Soldier blaming stopped; troops got better training. That didn’t stop the problems. Many wanted to dump the design, yet the M-16 remained our battle rifle and it would have to face the growing pains in combat. The weapon was quickly improved; training was done, and the function of the M-16 was acceptable by 1969. For many American troops, however, the love affair was over. Soldiers betrayed by a faulty weapon often can never trust the weapon again. Getting betrayed by your rifle in combat is like getting bitten by your own dog. The effect on troop morale was catastrophic.
Bitterness against the M-16 lasted for decades. One common myth about the M-16 is that the M stood for Matell: the maker of cheap plastic toys. That was so prevalent that in 1985 when I was handed my own M-16 at Fort Bennings I heard guys talking about how the gun was made in the same factory as Barbie.
While stories of the AR’s failures gathered; the charms of the AK-47 became more and more touted. The un-jammable Kalashnikov has been held aloft by rebels and the vicious dictatorships they would create as the ultimate battle rifle. When compared to the M-16, the AK is heavy, slow, inaccurate, and difficult to reload; but it is trustworthy. When stacked against reliability, in a fight, nothing else matters.
Every gun company in the world knows that you sell to the military so civilians will buy your product. Colt was founded on that very principle. While available for civilian purchase and pushed by colt as a hunting rifle the weapon was widely panned by the public for decades. As the war crawled to a close Colt found itself with dwindling sales. Their neglect of the consumer market would prove disastrous. In 1984 they would lose the Military pistol contract to the Beretta. In 2013 they lost the rifle contract. Decades of ignoring their civilian customers left Colt with very little to fall back on. The only people buying Colts were buying the historic name; and little else. The company of the peacemaker, the Walker, the hallowed 1911, and Python were now known for high prices and poor quality. Bankruptcy finally shuttered her doors. Think about that! It was Colt Patterson that allowed Texans to fight the Comanches on even terms in the 1840s. The Colt Navy was used by every lawman, desperado, and adventure worldwide. The gun of choice for two of the greatest duelists that ever lived, Wild Bill Hickock and Sir Richard Francis Burton. The Peacemaker, the gun of every western hero. Colt 1911, the gun of every American War hero. Colt then became the revolver police trusted the most. Colt is the gun my father carried and his father before him. Colt, the most Iconic Firearm was brought low. In 2021 CZ took over Colt. An innovative company with a history of fixing broken companies and returning them to greatness (see Dan Wesson), it is possible that we still might see the rampant pony dancing in the sun once again.
Today’s AR-15s answer the promise of Stoner’s design. It is a credit to the brilliance of the design that it was able to overcome over a decade of bad PR. When Stoner’s patent expired others stepped up to manufacture the weapons. The beautiful simplicity of the design made production easy. DIY gun enthusiasts could build their own. Despite being banned for nearly 10 years the design wouldn’t die. Today the AR platform remains America’s favorite rifle. Light, versatile, and easy to shoot, the AR Platform is a legend. No other weapon on the market is as popular, has more customizable features, and at a price point that has helped put some 20 million of Stoner’s rifles into the hands of hunters, athletes, defenders, and professionals.
Check out the “Eyewitness History” podcast HERE with Vietnam veteran, Bill Taylor, who discusses what he did when his M-16 wouldn’t work in combat!
Special thanks to Guest Contributor Mike Reilly. Mr. Reilly is a graduate of the University of Chicago and has degrees in History and Economics. He has been a professional in the Firearms history for over 25 years.
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