Made from steel, aluminum, and composite plastics, designed to provide the troops with a lighter rifle, produce a greater fire volume while being accurate at short distances— the M16 rifle. The Vietnam war soldiers’ verdict: it was a piece of trash.

Entrance to the Military Scene

1st Lieutenant Thomas K. Holland, Troop D, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, Vietnam.

In 1964, the M16 was introduced to the US military service members. A year later, these rifles were sent to the Vietnam War for the soldiers to use in jungle warfare. The M16 design could be traced back to the late 1950s when firearm designer Eugene Stoner completed his AR-15 rifle that used .22-caliber bullets.   A demonstration of its accuracy and lightweight caught the attention of the military. These smaller caliber bullets meant reduced recoil, and the soldiers could much more ammunition for the same weight in their packs. The round was supersonic out to 500 yards and could penetrate steel plating.  This AR-15 was said to be able to fire up to 800 rounds per minute in fully automatic mode. The design later became the standard model adapted in the M16 design.

The M16 Design

As mentioned earlier, M16 was made of composite plastics with smaller bullets, so the gun was light. That sounded like a good thing. However, soldiers were not confident that these bullets would be enough to stop or slow down enemies as they looked and felt like a toy. The gun was also endorsed as super-advanced that it would never jam or need to be cleaned, so they completely ditched the cleaning kit. That proved untrue as the rifle would jam frequently as casings failed to eject from the chamber after firing which pretty much required taking the rifle apart to fix.

Marine cleans his M-16 during the Battle of Hue.

Problems With It

“The shells ruptured in the chambers, and the only way to get the shell out was to put a cleaning rod in it. So you can imagine in a firefight trying to clean your weapon after two or three rounds. It was a nightmare for Marines at the time.” Jim Wodecki, a USMC Vietnam veteran, said in a LightningWar1941 video. He further said that they used to call it Mattel 16 (Mattel is a toy company) and that it was a “piece of garbage” for him at that time.

As written by Small Arms Review, “Sporadic reports early on of serious stoppages and gross malfunctions of the M16 rifle began flooding in by the end of ’65. The most common stoppage was failure to extract fired cartridge cases, typically caused by a heavily carbonized and rust-pitted chamber. News reporters picked up the alarm, and soon the American public became justifiably outraged over stories of GIs dying face down in the mud because of hopelessly jammed rifles.”

US Marine Corps (USMC) members from L Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, perform biathlon on the Camp Hansen ranges, firing a Colt 5.56mm M16A2 Assault Rifle.

The outrage resulted in the refinement of the M16, and so the improved version was called M16A1. Rather than the M-16 being a precision killing machine(as it is described by anti-gun advocates) a series of cost-cutting measures seriously compromised the rifle. Ammunition would corrode quickly in jungles of Southeast Asia, the magazine lip feed was too soft and would bend, causing feeding problems. The powder charge in the original rounds used extruded of “stick” shaped gunpowder grains but Dupont was unable to manufacture it in sufficient quantities.  As a result, the Army switched over to spherical or “ball” type powder(without telling anyone) with the result that it did not burn off as cleanly and fouled the gas tube and corroded the chamber and barrel. The Army failed to chrome plate the chamber and barrel causing premature wear and corrosion in the field.

The jamming issue was addressed through the addition of cleaning kits and a chrome barrel and chamber reduced the corrosion problems caused by the ball-type powder charge.  Other versions were later produced, too, like the M16A2 with a thicker barrel that resisted bursting under pressure or bending when hot.