This second part, however, will outline my personal experience with the M-16 platform that constitutes more of a personal journey of realization and acceptance.
When I joined ROTC in 1974 I didn't like the M-16. I was a child of the 1950s and 60s. All of the adult males in my life - my father, my uncles, our neighbors, my Boy Scout leaders - all served in the US military during WWII or Korea and for them the M-1 Garand was the weapon of choice. Their experience deeply influenced me and I viewed the Garand (and the newer M-14) as the only acceptable choice for a Soldier. At the same time we were seeing the M-16 almost nightly on the evening news and in magazines like Time and Life. While the M-16 was cool looking I had the vague sense that it didn't offer enough 'punch' and that the Army and Marines were going to go back to the good old hard hitting M-14 once all this Vietnam silliness was over. I also remember hearing the reports about the unreliability of the M-16 and I'm sure that colored my perceptions.
|Real men carried big heavy rifles... or so I was told|
In ROTC all we used were M-14s. We learned to field strip them, clean them, maintain them and march with them. Our armory only had one or two M-16s for familiarization, and those got pulled out only for the cadets who were headed off to ROTC Summer Camp.
My first real introduction to the M-16 came in 1977 at ROTC Summer Camp at Fort Lewis. There wasn't an M-14 in sight. We were issued M-16's on day one and we lived with those rifles for the next six weeks. Our platoon sergeant, SFC Louis B. Pincock, hammered rifle cleaning and maintenance into us with a 5 lb sledge hammer. He was hell on any cadet with a dirty rifle. In part because that's just the way NCOs are, but also because, as a Vietnam vet with three combat tours, he understood firsthand the necessity of keeping your weapon clean.
Truth be told, we over-cleaned the damned things. It's what Soldiers do. Attention to detail, cleanliness, good order and discipline, all that stuff, A sparkling clean rifle goes right along with a sparkling clean latrine and a mirror polish on Corcoran jump boots. It makes a good NCO happy. But it's unnecessary (the sparkling clean rifle part - I'm all for sparkling clean latrines and a mirror polish on the toe caps of a pair of Corcoran jump boots is a thing to behold).
SFC Pincock also let us know that he thought the M-16 was a fine rifle for killing Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars. The Special Forces combat patch on his right shoulder clearly indicated that he'd spent a lot of time looking down the sights of an M-16 so his opinion carried a lot of weight with a bunch of no-nothing cadets.
In late 1979 I went on active duty. The very first M-16 I was issued, at Fort Bragg, was so old it was stamped 'Colt AR-15/XM-16E1'. It rattled like hell but shot just fine. On my first trip to the range with the rifle I shot Sharpshooter, and that's more a testament to the rifle's shooting ability than mine.
|No, not my rifle, but the one I was issued at Fort Bragg in|
1980 was marked the same way. And it was a fine shooter
Twenty three years later when I put in my retirement papers my assigned weapon was an M-16A2 manufactured by FN out of South Carolina. It too shot just fine. In the intervening years I carried dozens of M-16s (A1 and A2 models) in combat zones or places where the natives were pissed enough at us to start popping off rounds. I've also shot dozens more under range conditions and as a platoon leader and small unit commander in Germany, Fort Bragg, Panama and Fort Hood I've been responsible for the maintenance of over 100 more rifles in places like the jungles of Panama and the deserts of Kuwait.
I can count the number of malfunctions that were the fault of the rifle on the fingers of one hand, and have digits left over. In fact, I can only recall three issues that could be traced directly back to a mechanical problem with the rifle - one was a damaged gas tube, another was a bent barrel (yes, a bent barrel) and the last one was with a very early issue M-16 (by serial number) that, in the words of our armorer, was "just worn out and too tired to run".
All of the remaining reliability issues I experienced or observed were the fault of the magazines. Well into the mid-1980's the Army continued to issue 20 round magazines, many of which dated to the Vietnam era. Finding magazines with weak springs or damaged feed lips was common. If we had an issue on the range the standard practice was to just swap out magazines and the problem would go away. Later, when new production 30 round magazines were introduced the reliability issues all but disappeared.
|New production mil-spec 30 round magazines tend to cure most M-16|
reliability problems. But when they don't work any more don't try to fix them.
Toss them and get replacements!
I quickly developed a deep respect for the M-16 platform and that respect continues right up to this day.
Perhaps the real test is the question, "If you had to choose a rifle to carry into battle today would you unhesitatingly select the M-16?" My answer is an unflinching "Yes!"
Now let's consider another question: "Can the M-16 platform be improved?" Anyone who says "No" is a fool. The M-16 is a tool, a mechanical device, and like any mechanical device can be improved upon. As experience with any tool increases the user finds ways to make it more reliable. effective and easy to use. So it is with the M-16. Since the 1960s the M-16 has undergone a number of product improvements to increase reliability, shootability and service life; chrome lined barrel, better sights, different rifling twists, improved flash hider, improved stock and hand guards, reinforced lower receiver, and more. Perhaps the biggest improvement has been the successful shortening of the M-16 by Colt to produce the M-4 Carbine. Shortened versions of the M-16 had been tried since the rifle was first fielded in Vietnam, but reliability was always an issue. In the late 1980's Colt did extensive development and testing to produce the reliable and accurate M-4 Carbine. It was so successful that it became the rifle that has taken the US military through the Global War on Terror on battlefields across the globe.
|The M-4 Carbine kitted out with an Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight - a deadly combination|
While my personal experience is all with the full-sized M-16 I've had the chance to talk with perhaps a dozen Soldiers about their opinions of the M-4. One was an senior Engineer NCO with multiple deployments to Iraq, one was an SF Medic with multiple deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan the the Horn of Africa and the rest were Soldiers in Kuwait, fresh out of the fight in Iraq. To a man they either praised the M-4 or expressed grudging respect for it. The Engineer NCO in particular felt the M-4 was the best battle rifle he ever carried. He praised it as being, "very handy, easy to maneuver inside of vehicles, reliable and deadly accurate inside of 100 meters."
I tend to believe my own experience and that of people who have actually used the rifle in combat vs. those that glean all their expertise from the internet or other second hand sources. The M-16 and M-4 are two of the best battle rifles available today.
But is the M-16 the best? Are there better designs and better calibers that would make for a better battle rifle? Aaaah, that's a topic for another time!