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Welcome to A Fine Blade!

This blog will focus one of my lifelong passions and one of man's most basic tools - the knife!

As time and events permit we'll tiptoe into other territory where we can use the knife as a metaphor in discussions about current events and have a little politically incorrect fun.

Because you see, knives rank just below guns as the most politically incorrect subject on the web today.

Guns & Knives = Bad. Gay Marriage & Recreational Drug Use = Good

We'll see if we can't have some fun with that.

So stay tuned, and welcome aboard!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The M-16, Part I

This is a blog post series I've been meaning to write for a long, long time.

For the past 14 years or so the AR-15, the civilian version of the M-16 rifle, has been all the rage among shooters. There are more manufacturers turning out their own versions of the AR-15 and variants than Carter's got little liver pills.


What drove the popularity of a once maligned rifle platform? Simple - the news images of America's sons and daughters carrying the M-16 and it's carbine variant the M-4 into battle across the Middle East. The M-4 in particular captured America's eye. While based on a 55 year old design, the M-4 got a cosmetic make-over that turned it downright sexy.  Colt sawed off the carrying handle to mount a wide range of optical sights, installed a collapsible stock, slapped on a fore grip that could take all manner of lights and lasers and suddenly the M-4 was the star of the show - literally. Thousands and thousands of photos and videos hit the internet showing America's Soldiers with the Colt M-4 hanging across their chest. America's fighting men and women never went anywhere without their M-4s. On battlefields in Iraq, Afghanistan and the other piss-holes we found ourselves killing terrorists in, the M-4 was the ubiquitous symbol of American military might. In perhaps its greatest starring role it was a Colt M-4, in the hands of a US Navy SEAL, that fired the double-tap that put out Osama bin Laden's lights.

A Colt M4 cabine in the hands of an American Soldier somewhere in Afghanistan.

What also spurred the popularity of the AR-15 platform was the 2008 presidential election and the ushering in of a blatantly anti-gun chief executive, who brought on-board an equally anti-gun administration and emboldened anti-gun forces in Congress and those working out of K Street in Washington DC. The American public realized long before the November 2008 election that Barack Obama would likely win the next election and that triggered a nation-wide firearm and ammo buying frenzy the likes of which had never been seen. 

The AR-15 had long been at the top of the 'hit list' maintained by numerous anti-gun groups simply because it looks scary. In fact, the AR-15 had been singled out by the Clinton administration back in 1995 when he got a law (with a 10 year sunset provision) through Congress that banned the sale of AR-15s that sported such deadly accouterments such as flash hiders and bayonet lugs. Clinton's ban was the triumph of political showmanship over substance. Even today the Clintonistas claim that the ban of cosmetic features made the world a safer place, while the FBI provides crime statistics for the 1995 - 2005 period that proves the banning of AR - style rifles had zero impact on crime anywhere in the US.

Yet the AR-15 is still a 55 year old design that has received relatively few updates since Eugene Stoner and ArmaLite introduced it to the world back in the mid-1950s. That alone is a testament to the soundness of the design. In the hands of the US military the rifle has gone through a few product improvement cycles starting with a critical upgrade right after it was first widely fielded in Vietnam in 1965. From that time most of the upgrades have focused on usability issues - better sights, improved stocks, different flash hider designs, heavier barrels designed to fire varying ammunition loads. However, the basic operating design - the direct gas impingement design developed by Eugene Stoner - remains essentially unchanged. It is this direct gas impingement system that generates the most discussion when talk starts up about the M-16's reliability.

Eugene Stoner, firearms engineer extraordinaire, standing next to a display of some of his designs

Stoner specifically selected the gas impingement system with the goal of keeping the rifle as light as possible while still maintaining a high level of reliability. In more traditional full auto and semi-auto rifle designs a small amount of gas pressure is bled off behind the bullet as it travels down the barrel. This gas is routed through a small hole in the barrel into a chamber where the rapidly expanding gas pushes against a piston. This piston pushes against an operating rod that is attached to the rifle's bolt. The gas pressure against the piston/operating rod assembly is enough to force the rifle's bolt to move rearward, unlocking it from the receiver and extracting and ejecting the spent casing.  A large recoil spring captures and reverses the bolt's rearward movement, forcing it forward to strip a fresh round of ammunition from a magazine or clip, pushing the round into the rifle's chamber and locking the bolt closed. The rifle is ready to fire again. If you close your eyes and try to visualize the mechanics of what I just described you understand two things - the piston/operating rod combination adds weight to the rifle, and when the operating rod is moving under recoil there's a lot of moving mass right beside or below the barrel, negatively impacting accuracy.

The genius of Eugene Stoner's design is that he eliminated the gas piston/operating rod assembly and brought the gas pressure directly back to the bolt assembly. The M-16 design has a small gas tube that runs along the top of the barrel from the bleed hole near the muzzle and directly to the bolt carrier assembly. The gas comes straight back through the gas tube and pushes against the gas key which is part of the bolt carrier. This rearward movement unlocks the bolt and extracts and ejects the spent casing. Another example of Stoner's genius is that he put all critical recoil components - the barrel and chamber, bolt and bolt carrier and recoil spring and buffer - in a straight line. This means all recoil forces are aligned, greatly reducing the impact any moving parts may have on overall accuracy. The M-16 design has a lot of inherent accuracy.


The AR-15/M-16 direct gas impingement system

So if the design is so good why all the criticism? For a couple of reasons.

First, there's no wood or heavy steel in the rifle's design. You have to keep in mind that when this rifle was introduced to the US Army back in the early 1960's the venerable M-1 Garand and its replacement the M-14 were the Infantryman's weapon of choice. The M-1 had, quite literally, won the war. During WWII the M-1 put an unprecedented amount of firepower into the hands of American servicemen on battlefields around the globe. It was a much loved and respected rifle, A lot of American GIs made it home from the war because the firepower the M-1 provided gave them a decided advantage over their German or Japanese adversaries using 19th Century designed bolt action rifles. In the minds of  America's military leaders and millions of veterans a real battle rifle was made of American wood and ordnance steel.

Next, the M-1 fired a 'manly' cartridge, the .30-06 round. Now, the .30-06 is a very good rifle round. It has a flat trajectory and a lot of knock-down and killing power well out beyond 500 yards. But studies during WWII showed that the average Infantryman didn't try to engage targets much beyond 300 yards - that job was left to the heavy machine guns and artillery. The .30-06 is also a large and heavy round and has one heck of a kick. In the late 1950's and early 1960's there was a lot of discussion about the lethality of large rifle bullets like the .30-06 as compared to smaller fast moving bullets if used within the 300 yard engagement limit. Research showed that out to 300 yards smaller diameter, fast moving and slightly unstable bullets were just as effective at killing lightly clothed enemy soldiers as the larger and heavier .30-06 bullet. But the US Army Ordnance Corps and the Springfield Armory were not swayed by these test results. In a nod to modern ballistics developments and NATO pressure they downsized the .30-06 to develop the 7.62 mm round (.308 caliber) for use in the new M-14 rifle. Still it was a minor give as the new round essentially duplicated the ballistics of the venerable .30-06. In their collective minds only a powerful 30 caliber bullet could meet the individual Infantryman's needs.

By comparison the AR-15 fired a 5.56 mm (22 caliber) round that started life as the 222 Remington - a fast moving, flat shooting commercial cartridge designed for hunting small game.  Eugene Stoner redesigned the round and gave it a 55 grain bullet. He gave the AR-15's barrel a 1:12 rifling twist, just barely enough stabilize the bullet out to 300 yards. Because the bullet was flying on the very edge of stability this meant that when it hit a soft target like a human body the bullet tumbled around inside the body. This is what made the 5.65 round so lethal - more lethal in fact than the heavier hitting 30 caliber rounds that tended to just pass right through the body while doing minimal tissue damage.

The 5.56 mm round (right) compared to the 7.62 mm round.
The 5.56 round actually produces more tissue damage within
normal engagement ranges

So along comes this futuristic rifle made of aluminum and plastic, with just a bit of steel. Even worse, it fires a puny little cartridge that started life as something designed for shooting varmints. The small arms policy makers in the Army Ordnance Corps were having none of it. However, the Ordnance boys didn't count on four factors: General Curtis LeMay, Vietnam, The US Army Special Forces and Robert McNamara.

General LeMay was Chief of Staff of the Air Force in the early 1960's. He was also a gun nut, One of the problems he faced was a lack of small arms for his base defense forces. His Airmen didn't need big, heavy M-1s or M-14s, they needed lighter, smaller rifles. The stock of M-1 Carbines the Air Force was currently using was rapidly wearing out and LeMay needed something new. He was introduced to the AR-15 by Colt Firearms (which had purchased the manufacturing rights to the AR-15 from Armalite) and immediately fell in love with the rifle. LeMay was not the least bit put off by the materials used in the AR-15. Hell, he had fleets supersonic nuclear bombers made of the same stuff, and they performed just fine. In his mind there was no reason a perfectly good rifle couldn't be made of aluminum and plastic. LeMay put in an order for several thousand AR-15's. Congress quickly squashed the order, but LeMay and the Air Force remained convinced that this newfangled rifle was just what they needed and kept up pressure to have it adopted.

At the same time Vietnam was heating up. President Eisenhower got us involved and JFK expanded that involvement. Reports coming back from advisers clearly indicated that the big, heavy M-1 Garand was too much rifle for the small, wiry South Vietnamese soldiers. The M-1 Carbine was extremely popular but it was increasingly hard to get reliable stocks of the rifles and the cartridge it fired, the .30 Carbine, was underpowered. Small lots of the M-16 made their way to Vietnam for testing and the rifle got rave reviews from both the advisers and the South Vietnamese army. It was the right rifle firing the right cartridge for the type of war that was being fought.

The US Army Special Forces got involved in early testing and evaluation of the AR-15, including the advisory role discussed above. From the beginning they loved the rifle. It provided just the right combination of light weight and firepower they badly needed in places like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Before long the green beret and the M-16 rifle became the universal symbols of the US Army Special Forces Soldier. As JFK's administration expanded the Special Forces role in Vietnam the AR-15 became more ubiquitous in press photos and news footage. The AR-15 became the rifle the 'cool guys' in tiger stripe camouflage and boonie hats were using to kill the godless commies all over Southeast Asia.

"Bronze Bruce" (or as we used to call him, the 'gay beret').
This statue stood for decades outside the US Army Special Forces Museum on Ardennes Road on Fort Bragg.
Originally dedicated in 1968 as a memorial to all US Special Forces Soldiers,
the statue reinforces the image of the M-16 as the indispensable tool of the freedom fighter

But until Robert McNamara got involved the AR-15 program was moving forward in fits and starts. McNamara was Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He was one of the 'wiz kids' Kennedy brought on board to help modernize government operations. McNamara had served in the Army Air Corps during WWII as a program analyst, helping develop the statistical models that gauged the effectiveness of various bombing and air logistics operations. After the war he was hired to turn the Ford Motor Company around and soon found himself in charge of the whole enterprise. Kennedy hired him away from Ford and made him Secretary of Defense with orders to modernize the DoD's development and procurement processes. The AR-15 program quickly caught his eye as an example of all that was wrong with weapons development in the Army. Field commanders in Vietnam were begging for the new AR-15 rifle, but Army Ordnance was pushing back claiming the AR-15 wasn't ready and wasn't what they really needed. McNamara stepped in and directly ordered the Chief of Staff of the Army to get the standardized version of the AR-15, designated the M-16, out to the field without further delay.

The Army Ordnance managers still got their digs in by altering the ballistic requirements for the rifle's 5.56 round so that it shot 'dirtier' (left more fouling powder residue in the rifle) and then failing to issue cleaning kits with the rifles. Eugene Stoner had once claimed that the rifle was 'almost self-cleaning', but that claim was based on a very specific rifle powder type and charge combination developed by Stoner himself. In an example of institutional petulance with a strong hint of criminal intent, Army Ordnance leadership decided to take Stoner at his word and shipped thousands of M-16's and the wrong type of ammunition to Vietnam. What happened were incidents that mar the rifle's reputation to this day - in combat the M-16's fouled and stopped working. Without cleaning kits the Soldiers had no options and many died surrounded by jammed rifles.

News of the rifle's failure was splashed across America's newpapers and TV news reports. Congress ordered an immediate investigation and the ammunition and lack of cleaning equipment were quickly identified as the main culprits. The report also recommended applying a chrome plating to the chamber and bore of the rifle barrels to reduce the likelihood of casings getting stuck in the chamber and to reduce rusting. Once these changes were put in place the rifle went from being a jam-prone piece of junk to a highly reliable, accurate and extremely effective battle rifle.

McNamara would later get his revenge by shutting down the Springfield Armory, home of many of the top Ordnance personnel that had stonewalled the M-16's development and fielding.

The M-16 became the Army's standard service rifle in 1967. Fourty seven years later it is still America's standard service rifle, and has seen reliable and effective service in at least eight wars or armed conflicts (Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Desert Storm, Mogadishu, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and perhaps half a dozen other piss holes we found ourselves killing bad guys in). The rifle is well respected by most of those who have actually carried it and used it in sustained ground combat.

But it still can't get an even break!

The internet is rife with stories of failures of the M-16 and M-4. You'd swear from reading these 'reports' that we lost about a battalion's worth of Soldiers every day in Iraq and Afghanistan because of the alleged failures of the M-16 or M-4 design.

Bullshit.

Even General Robert Scales wrote an article for The Atlantic back in January 2014 that seemed to crucify the rifle (even though Scales admits that his initial exposure to the M-16's 'failures' was more related to his own leadership failure to make sure his Soldiers cleaned their weapons). Kyle Mizokami at the War Is Boring blog did a pretty good take down of Scales' criticisms.

Other 'experts' keep comparing the M-16 to the Russian AK-47 and other AK-series rifles.  Because (they claim) you can fill an AK-47 with thick mud and it'll still operate that makes it sooooo much better than the M-16. While I'll admit that the AK can be more reliable, it's also inherently inaccurate and ergonomics are lousy.  Here's a hint - the Russians (and before them the Soviets) don't teach rifle marksmanship. Why bother when you can't hit a damned thing with an AK out beyond 100 yards. The Russians teach 'suppressive fire' - using the AK as a bullet hose to force the enemy to keep his head down and, if fortune smiles, perhaps get a hit or two. Yes there are countries that have adopted the AK design and modified it for their own purposes. The Finnish Valmet and Israeli Galil rifles copied the AK gas piston system and both are very good rifles, but the re-design and improved production processes didn't really yield a rifle that was more reliable AND more accurate than the M-16. Plus they weigh a lot more than an equivalent sized M-16 or M-4.

The other reason the AK-47 is so reliable is because it was designed with sloppy tolerances. Why? Because the Russians (and those they sell the rifle to) never clean them. Ever seen a Russian issue cleaning kit for an AK? Naaa, me either. Maintenance on an AK normally consists of dipping it in a tank of diesel fuel to loosen the crud, then pouring half a quart of motor oil into the receiver to lube it. The point here is that the AK is designed for a peasant society that will receive a minimal amount of firearms training and who's vocabulary has no equivalent for the terms 'accuracy' and 'precision'.

For the American Soldier steeped in the lore of the skilled rifleman and highly trained in the concepts of marksmanship, fire discipline and weapons maintenance an accurate and deadly rifle like the M-16 is a much more effective tool.

Before closing this segment of the discussion of the M-16 let me recommend a great video on the history of the M-16, part of the History Channel's 'Tales Of The Gun' series.



- Brian

(PS - stay tuned for Part II)

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