The M-16 Rifle

by Richard Dieterle

Future generations will have trouble appreciating how strange and radical the M-16 rifle was to those of us who first used it. In basic training we used the M-14 rifle, which was a conventional weapon with a wooden stock. In contrast the M-16 presented an otherworldly appearance, a "Buck Rodgers" gun, molded largely out of black plastic. Apart from lacking a wooden stock, it had a number of other bizarre features. Instead of a bolt that was operated from the side, it had a kind of catch mechanism in the back that was grasped by the "baseball" fingers. When pulled back, it caused the bolt to slide out of the chamber. In addition, it had a thumb knob on the right side for quietly easing a round into the chamber. The M-16 also had a rubber pad at the end of the stock to cushion the blow of its recoil. The rifle had a kick, but little momentum, since its plastic design made it extremely light weight. It fired 5.63 caliber ammunition, which was about the size of a .22 round, but it was a longer bullet with an extraordinary muzzle velocity. The M-16 had a handle molded right above the chamber, and in the groove of the handle was a circular eyepiece, with a sight mounted on an elevated triangle atop the barrel of the rifle. When we fired it in training it was pretty clear that it was not a marksman's rifle, and it had the added problem, often advertized as a virtue, of its rounds tumbling after they travelled a couple of hundred yards.

It was generally believed that the tumbling of the M-16 round made it more lethal. It was suggested that upon impact such a round would break up like a "dum-dum" bullet, its fragments tearing up flesh in several directions simultaneously. Even at close quarters the round had the reputation of ricocheting within a body, since it was so light that it generally did not embed in the bone, but bounced off it. The bodies in the trench of our Dec. 7, 1967 firefight, so some suggested, were internally cut up in this way. However, these soldiers were shot at close range by automatic bursts from more than one rifle, so they looked as bad as might be expected under those circumstances. In September, 1967, one NVA was shot at point-blank range by Gunzaules. A tank later blew up the underground cellar beneath the floorboards where this enemy soldier had been when Gunzaules had shot him, so that his body flew through the air and landed nude on a pile of debris. As a result, the entrance and exit wounds were clearly visible. The entrance wound looked like a cigarette burn; the exit hole was bigger, but not much more so. It was as if the bullet had not been impeded by anything. He had been shot in a downward direction straight through the heart, but it appeared to me as if the bullet went right through the scapula. In any case, I cannot recollect someone being shot in the trunk of the body with an M-16 and surviving. Some of this can be attributed to the close quarter nature of the gunfire, which was often on automatic so that the victim was struck almost instantaneously by more than one round; but the nature of the round which it fired no doubt contributed to its reputation as an unusually lethal weapon.

The M-16 fired so rapidly on automatic that it was actually classified as a gun. The drill sargeants seemed slightly annoyed to loose their precious distinction between a rifle and a gun, but they were forced by the facts to concede to us the right to refer to it by that term of anathema. The term "gun" was reserved for machine guns and artillery pieces as a rule. Someone who forgot the distinction was given another to observe: he was ordered to hold his own exposed member in one hand and his rifle in the other and recite ad nauseam,

this is my rifle, this is my gun;
this is for killing, this is for fun.

There were two types of clips (ammo cartridges) that could be inserted into the rifle: the 30 round "banana clip," and the standard 20 round clip. In Vietnam, during my tour of duty, the "banana clip" was not standard, and was so rare as to be a great curiosity when we saw someone from another unit with one. The standard clip was suppose to take 20 rounds, but in fact it was a dangerous practice to load it to this capacity. The smart thing to do was to put in only 18 rounds, otherwise the first round would be so tight in the clip that when the bolt of the rifle slid foreward, it would not have the force to move the round into the chamber where it could be fired. As a result, puting in a 20 round clip could cause the weapon to jam.

Jamming was a serious problem with the original M-16's that were issued to us from the beginning of their use in the war. When a round was locked into the chamber to be fired, the bolt would capture the brass part of the round with a tip that had a shallow cylindrical recess in it that coincided with the brass cartridge. Around this recess were arrayed a set of spokes exactly like those on mechanical wheels. The chamber's entrance had a slot of the same shape, so that the spokes of the bolts would pass through it with little space to spare. As the bolt seated, the spokes would rotate, locking the bolt and its round into the chamber. The problem was that the chamber of the weapon would become coated with the waste carbon that built up from the constant explosion of gunpowder. As a consequence, the sticky carbon deposit caused the bolt to stick in the chamber. Thus the gun jammed. The solution was to make a wider, chromium coated chamber, but until this innovation was instituted, the M-16 remained a seriously inadequate weapon. That we were having trouble with it was hotly contested back in the World, where it was suggested that we were simply not cleaning our weapons properly. Originally, the weapon was designed, so they said, to be cleaned in a stream or even a mud puddle! Yet during a "mad minute" on LZ Geronimo in July 1967, half our M-16's failed, despite the fact that we spent most of the day field stripping our guns and cleaning them with gasoline. When I returned from the hospital on July 5, 1967, I discovered that my company had been involved in a firefight the last three days prior. Most of the weapons that had come back from those killed in action either had a ramrod jammed down the barrel, or a piece of brass caught in the chamber. While they had been trying to get the brass out, they had been hit by enemy fire and killed. In practice, the veteran knew to use his "bug juice" to lubricate the chamber and prevent the insidious effects of carbon build-up. Bug juice was an insect repellant which contained, so it seemed, some amount of alchohol as well as greasy chemicals. We used to put the small, soft plastic jars of bug juice into the chemoflage cloth over our helmets, where it was of ready access. In action, we would grab the bottle out of our helmet and pull back the bolt, squeezing a couple of squirts into the chamber. We continued this practice even after the new improved M-16's arrived, as the latter were not absolutely perfect in this respect either.