*America’s Little Black Rifle*
America’s first official military ‘rifle’ was the Brown Bess musket, a .75 smoothbored, flintlock behemoth. It was unwieldy, inaccurate, yet managed to serve its purpose during the American Revolution. It was followed by numerous ‘improved’ rifles, the caliber of which dropped to .69, and finally to .58 during the American Civil War.
Each successive war seemed to bring about a change to a smaller caliber as the amount of ammunition fired by individual soldiers increased. The years after the Civil War saw the US military adopt the .30-40 Krag, over the fierce objections of many older war veterans. Spain’s very successful use of the 7MM Mauser round, coupled with the equally brilliant Mauser rifle, helped spell the demise of large bore rifles in the US arsenal.
WWI and WWII saw the US military standardize on the .30 Gov’t, commonly referred to as the .30-06. It was chambered in the 1903 series of rifles as well as the M1 Garand. The .30 was to be the US standard for the first half of this past century, first as the .30 Gov’t, then as the 7.62 NATO, or as often referred to, the .308 Winchester.
Prior to the conclusion of WWII, military planners were already fast at work on the next designs for America’s new battle rifle. The M14, with its 7.62 NATO round, was merely a ‘stop gap’ measure, and saw a very short-lived military service life as a general issue infantry weapon. What the engineers had in mind was something ‘better’. That something was the AR15, commonly referred to by its military designation, the M16.
The M16 was the brainchild of Eugene Stoner. His brilliant mind gave birth to what has become one of the most successful and long-lived infantry weapons in US history. He designed and supervised its development while he was employed by Armalite, a division of Fairfield Engine Company, during the 1950s. The M16 was a gas-operated rifle, utilizing a rotating bolt and a stock designed to minimize recoil.
The new M16 fired a 5.56 round, also known as the .223 Remington. This round had been developed from work done with the .222 Remington Magnum round. It utilized a 55-grain FMJ projectile, fired at a nominal velocity of 3200 feet per second from a 20-inch barrel. The small caliber and high velocity, when coupled with a slow 1/14” twist, resulted in devastating wound potential.
Mr. Stoner was intent on seeing his new creation in the hands of US servicemen, and vigorously marketed it to the Pentagon. The first branch to show interest was the US Air Force, adopting it as the M16. They viewed it as a pilot survival weapon, rather than a general issue weapon. However, once the Air Force adopted it, the other branches of the military lined up, albeit reluctantly. The US Marines were not very eager to relinquish their beloved M14s, however.
Once adopted by the US Army and the US Marine Corp, the AR15 wore the designation M16A1. It differed from the US Air Force version, in that it possessed a forward assist. This device was intended to help a soldier chamber a round in a dirty weapon. While its intentions were good, it usually resulted in a hard jammed weapon.
Volumes have been written about the M16’s early ‘failures’. However, its failures were not due to mechanics, but rather to a lack of knowledge by its operators. When first fielded, the M16 was touted as being a rifle that a soldier didn’t have to clean. In fact, the first M16s delivered to US troops came sans cleaning kits. A little known place called Vietnam would quickly dispel that myth.
The M16’s failures in Vietnam are legendary and resulted in a series of congressional hearings. These hearings found that a combination of powder change in the ammunition shipped to Vietnam, and a lack of proper cleaning was at the root of the failures. Once this information was found and acted upon, the M16 became a very reliable service weapon. Its light weight, low recoil and lightweight ammunition were welcomed by soldiers used to humping the heavy and antiquated M14 through the hot, damp jungles of Southeast Asia. It also became a much sought after trophy for the Viet Cong. Rewards of upwards of $1000 were offered to any Viet Cong soldier turning in a working example.
Lessons learned in Viet Nam saw to the development of an improved M16A1, known as the M16A2. It featured improved sights, a more robust stock, a 1/7” twist (later changed to 1/9”), a reinforced receiver and the introduction of a 3-shot burst feature. This later feature was intended to replace the full-auto setting found on earlier M16s and M16A1s. It was discovered in Viet Nam that most soldiers were not trained in the proper use of fire control. Instead of addressing the training problem, it was decided to limit the individual soldier’s ability to lay down suppressive fire. This was accomplished by replacing the M16A1’s full-auto capability with a 3-shot burst feature.
Operation Desert Storm was the proving ground for the M16A2. Most, if not all, of the worries of the M16A2 being incompatible with a sandy desert environment were for naught. All indications are that the M16A2 performed very well. Much better, in fact, than many of its rivals.
The M16 series of weapons has continued to evolve over the past 4 decades. A soldier issued an M16 in the early stages of Vietnam would be at home with today’s newest version, the M4 Carbine.
The M4 is an attempt to standardize, among the various branches of the
military, on one personal individual weapon. But, that is another story….
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