The Highly Successful M16 Rifle Suffered from a Terrible Reputation When It Was First Introduced in Vietnam
The Highly Successful M16 Rifle Suffered from a Terrible Reputation When It Was First Introduced in Vietnam

The Highly Successful M16 Rifle Suffered from a Terrible Reputation When It Was First Introduced in Vietnam

Khalid Elhassan - December 13, 2018

The Highly Successful M16 Rifle Suffered from a Terrible Reputation When It Was First Introduced in Vietnam
A US Marine cleaning his M16 in Vietnam. Wikimedia

Drawbacks of the M16 in Vietnam

The M16 was ordered into production in March of 1964, and by the end of that year, the first models had been shipped to Vietnam and distributed to front line troops. The new rifles were widely panned. While the M16’s lighter weight when compared to its predecessor was a huge advantage, many troops reported that the new rifle was prone to jamming, especially at the most inopportune moment, when firing at the enemy – which, all things considered, is as inopportune as a moment can get.

Before long, dramatic tales were making the rounds, of entire patrols wiped out, their bodies discovered next to their jammed rifles, their dead hands clutching cleaning rods, testimony to their last harrowing moments on earth, spent in feverish attempts at clearing stuck cartridges. Whether such tales were actually true or were greatly exaggerated over dramatizations, it was clear that the new rifles had some problems, chief among them that they were prone to jamming. At least more prone to jamming than were their predecessors.

M16s were – and their progeny to this day still are – meant to be well maintained and cared for. Unlike AK-47s, which use a piston to extract empty rounds and chamber new ones, M16s run on a direct gas impingement system. When an M16 is fired, some of the expanding gas from the exploding cartridge goes into a small hole drilled into the barrel. From there, the gas is redirected via a tube back to the firing chamber. There, it hits (impinges) the bolt, forcing it back, extracting the now empty cartridge and chambering a new round.

The Highly Successful M16 Rifle Suffered from a Terrible Reputation When It Was First Introduced in Vietnam
Gas piston, such as that used by an AK-47 (top), and direct gas impingement, such as that of the M16 (bottom). Quora

A drawback of the direct gas impingement system is that, by blowing fired cartridges’ gas directly into the firing chamber, it also blows those cartridges’ residue in there as well, fouling the chamber. Hence, the need for frequent cleaning. The M16 was designed to fire a cartridge that used a specific powder to minimize that problem, but when the US Army discovered that the special powder could not be readily mass produced in 1964, it replaced it with an alternate that produced significantly more fouling.

The Army then made the problem worse by billing the M16 as a self cleaning rifle, when no such weapon has ever existed, nor likely ever will. The military then further exacerbated the problem by failing to issue the troops with cleaning kits, or to instruct them on how to go about cleaning their new rifles. On top of that, the firing chambers lacked chrome plating, leading to increased corrosion. When the inevitable jamming resulted, the original M16s lacked a forward assist – a device to manually push the bolt fully forward if it failed to do so on its own. It was a perfect storm of screwups.

The Highly Successful M16 Rifle Suffered from a Terrible Reputation When It Was First Introduced in Vietnam
Maintenance comic issued to US troops, instructing them what to do if their M16s jammed. Pew Pew Tactical

Fixes and Aftermath

The growing intensity of the war in Vietnam was accompanied by a growth in the notoriety of the M16 as an unreliable weapon. The first step in addressing the problem was to walk back the claims that the M16 did not need cleaning, let alone the bonkers notion that it was a self cleaning rifle. Along with cleaning kits, which were belatedly issued to the troops, training manuals were hurriedly printed and distributed, instructing users on how to go about cleaning, maintaining, and troubleshooting problems with their M16s.

Design defects with the rifle and its ammunition were also addressed. Cartridges using cleaner firing powder – for which the M16 had been designed in the first place – replaced the dirtier ones that had been initially issued to the troops. The rifle itself was redesigned, resulting in an improved model, the M16A1, whose firing chamber was coated with chrome, drastically cutting down on the corrosion problems of the original version. The redesigned rifle also featured a forward assist, allowing troops to manually tap the bolt forward when necessary.

Between the new emphasis on training and instructing the troops on the proper cleaning and maintenance of their rifles, the cleaner firing cartridges, and the redesigned M16A1, the problems plaguing the original M16 were largely gone by 1968. For many front line combat troops, being in Vietnam might have still sucked, but being stuck in a war with an unreliable rifle was no longer among the reasons that made Vietnam an especially unpleasant experience.

The M16 is a great rifle in the hands of professionals who are trained to maintain and get the most out of it. It is not as forgiving a weapon as the AK-47, but for those who know how to take care of it, the M16 is a significantly better and higher performing firearm than its Russian counterpart. Unlike the AK-47, the M16 is not a rifle well suited for irregulars, peasant insurgents, and poorly trained guerrillas. It can not be buried in a swamp, then taken out and be expected to fire without mishap. M16 users are expected to maintain their weapon by cleaning and inspecting it on a daily basis, which makes it a, literally, higher maintenance weapon than the AK.

The Highly Successful M16 Rifle Suffered from a Terrible Reputation When It Was First Introduced in Vietnam
Progression of improved M16s, from top: M16A1, M16A2, M4, and M16A4. Wikimedia

However, that higher maintenance is counterbalanced by higher performance. Professional soldiers – and the American military establishment is as highly professional a military organization as exists anywhere – are trained to maintain and clean their weapons as a matter of daily routine. It is not an onerous chore, but simply part of the job for professionals. In exchange, they can expect – and have gotten for decades now – higher performance from their M16 rifle family than their opponents who wield the AK-47 and its derivatives.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

American Rifleman – US M16: A Half Century of America’s Combat Rifle

Gunivore – History of the M16 Rifle

Pew Pew Tactical – A (Not So) Brief History of the M16

National Interest, The, October 1st, 2018 – Did the M16 Rifle Totally Fail During the Vietnam War?

Small Arms Review – The M16 in Vietnam

Wikipedia – M16 Rifle

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