Saturday, September 28, 2013

Why the U.S. Military has never understood the Assault Rifle. Part IV

The M16A1.  The development of the M16A1 is too long to recount here. The basics of the story are the AR-15/M16 was privately developed by the original Armalite and sold to Colt.  The M16 favorably impressed the Air Force and the Army in early trials.  The disappointing handling and performance characteristics of the M14 in the jungle environment of Vietnam, as well as internal Department of Defense politics hastened the adoption of the M16A1.  The Marines, with very conservative views on long arms, were understandably skeptical about the M16A1. The M14 was a perfect fit with the Marines views on rifles. The M16A1 was too different and did not lend itself to match or known distance range firing at which the Marines were masters.  

In the urgency to deploy the weapon to Vietnam, several disastrous mistakes were made. The first mistake was a lack of training and understanding of the M16A1 and its usefulness as an assault rifle.  The second mistake was selling the rifle as self-cleaning and maintenance free.  The third mistake was not chrome lining the chamber and bore, this was later corrected. The fourth mistake was a change in powder which increased the carbon residue in the action of the rifle. 
 These mistakes led to a wave of criticism and even a Senate investigation.  The M16A1’s reputation was seriously damaged, even though these faults were quickly corrected.  The M16A1 may have been the best assault rifle in the world, but U.S. Soldiers and Marines never had real confidence it the rifle. 
 Negative impressions about the M16A1 were reinforced in the post-Vietnam period by several peacetime practices. First, the blank cartridges used in the rifle during training exercises created a mess in the chamber and action, this build up caused the weapon to jam. Second, the blank cartridges were not designed well and would hang up on the feed ramps, also causing a jam. Third, the weapon was usually poorly lubricated, many rifles were taken to the range dry and could occasionally jam. Fourth, Army and Marine policy required the weapon to be spotless for inspections and storage in the unit arms room. This high standard required many hours of weapons cleaning, which did not endear it to its users. All of these reasons helped grievously damage  the M16A1’s reputation among U.S. troops and the public. For the rest of its service life the M16A1 and the assault rifle concept was derided by rifle traditionalists in and out of the military.

The M16A1 was an excellent assault rifle, the ground breaking 5.56 NATO eventually became a world standard. Its performance was copied by the Soviets in their 5.45x39 cartridge. The M16A1 was accurate enough to hit man sized targets at 500 meters. Both the rifle and the ammunition were light weight and reduced the infantry soldier’s burden.

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