In January, the South Vietnamese army, equipped with M-14s, was defeated at Ap Bac by Vietcong carrying AKs. The reports of this automatic weapon’s devastating effects worried U.S. commanders. It was becoming clear that an automatic weapon was crucial for winning in Vietnam because of a new pattern of warfare starting to emerge. Confrontations often consisted of what were termed “meeting engagements,” in which jungle patrols from both sides found themselves unexpectedly face-to-face, and the side that could pump out the most rounds in the shortest amount of time won the skirmish. The M-14 was no match for the AK in these close-quarter encounters.
Again, U.S. military planners were caught unprepared for a different kind of warfare that took place in dense jungles against an enemy that you could not track in advance. Superior airpower was often ineffective, so battles would come down to the infantryman carrying the best weapon for the environment. The United States lagged.
On November 2, 1963, South Vietnamese generals assassinated President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother and advisor, Ngo Dinh Nhu. Diem was a heavy-handed dictator whose regime so enraged the majority Buddhist population that monks set themselves on fire in the street to protest their oppression. The Kennedy administration expressed shock at the public immolations and dismay at the assassinations, but did nothing to discourage the generals’ actions. At the time of Diem’s death, the United States had about sixteen thousand advisors in South Vietnam. Now, with Diem gone, and American casualties beginning to mount, the nation was getting sucked into a larger combat role as the South Vietnamese government foundered and a string of corrupt generals ruled the country.
Only three weeks after Diem’s death, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson soon escalated his predecessor’s policies. In August 1964, Pentagon officials said that U.S. warships had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin by North Vietnamese patrol boats. These attacks prompted Congress to give President Johnson a free hand in Vietnam, through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. This incident was later revealed to be a fabrication of the administration. No matter. The war was now in full swing and Special Forces, CIA operatives, and other elite units received the AR-15 to help counterbalance the AK.
Still, most U.S. forces were issued the M-14, and General William Westmoreland, who took command in Vietnam in June 1964, replacing General Paul Harkins, held a meeting of his commanders in Saigon in November 1965 to discuss how poorly the weapons fared against the AK. Congressional hearings held years later noted that GIs were buying black-market AR-15s for $600, compared to a list price of $100.
Back home, more testing of the M-16 continued, but McNamara was in a rush and so was Westmoreland. More than a hundred thousand M-16s were ordered by summer 1966. By October, however, some unexpected reports came in.
M-16s were jamming in combat.
American soldiers were found dead with their rifles in mid-breakdown. They were trying to undo the cause of the misfire while under attack.
Morale plunged as many soldiers felt they could not trust their weapon. Some anecdotal reports indicated that as many as half of M-16s were prone to jamming, but this number was probably too high. The real number was irrelevant, because soldiers never knew if their own weapon would perform as expected, and so every rifle was suspect. As the Vietcong learned of these problems, they were less in awe of the weapon. The sight of the “black rifle,” as the Vietcong had dubbed it in the early days, was now less threatening, and it empowered them. Reports indicated that Vietcong stripped dead GIs of their AR-15s and other equipment but were purposely leaving behind the M-16s.
Although the army tried to minimize the public relations fall-out, reports reached Congress through the parents of men serving in Vietnam as well as from soldiers themselves who felt they had been betrayed. Small-town newspapers ran letters from local soldiers about the failing new rifle. National media also covered the story. Soldiers and their parents inundated congressional representatives with letters and phone calls, and they wanted answers. With more and more Americans uneasy about the nation’s growing role in Vietnam, Congress began an investigation in May 1967. Under Democrat Richard Ichord from Missouri, a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee shed public light for the first time on the inner workings of the Ordnance Department and its archaic method of developing small arms.
The subcommittee called hundreds of witnesses, including Macdonald, Stoner, and other representatives of Colt, who testified about their shabby treatment by the army. Military personnel described how the Ordnance Department tested rifles, although many stated they did not recall the fine technical details of the M-16 program. One of the most dramatic moments in the hearings came when a letter from a soldier was entered into the record. This poignant letter read in part, “Before we left Okinawa, we were all issued this new rifle, the M-16. Practically every one of our dead was found with his rifle torn down next to him where he had been trying to fix it.”
The subcommittee visited Vietnam to interview soldiers firsthand. They heard stories about how men routinely took AKs off of enemy dead and used them instead of their M-16s. This practice had became so commonplace that soldiers in the field officially were banned from using AKs, because those rifles’ distinctive sound attracted friendly fire. In the heat of a close-quarters jungle firefight, American soldiers had little to go on to identify enemy positions other than the sound of their weapons. The other reason the AK was banned was that carrying it further stigmatized the M-16. In defiance, many soldiers still carried AKs. Indeed, special covert units of the military and CIA were sanctioned to carry AKs on their secret missions because of the weapon’s reliability.
In his best-selling book Steel My Soldiers’ Hearts, Colonel David H. Hackworth told the story of bulldozers during a base construction project uncovering a buried Vietcong soldier and his AK. Hackworth yanked the weapon out of the mud and pulled back the bolt. “Watch this,” he said. “I’ll show you how a real infantry weapon works.” With that he fired off thirty rounds as if the rifle had been cleaned that morning instead of being buried for a year. “This was the kind of weapon our soldiers needed and deserved, not the M-16 that had to be hospital cleaned or it would jam,” he wrote.
The Ichord hearings continued through the summer. In October 1967 the Special Subcommittee on the M-16 Rifle Program issued a six-hundred-page report highly critical of the Ordnance Department in general and its handling of the development of the M-16 program in particular.
The culprit, it turns out, wasn’t the gun but the ammunition, and it was the result of a bad decision by Ordnance. The report concluded that the M-16s jammed because the Ordnance Department insisted on changing the cartridge propellant from extruded or stick-type powder to ball-type powder, which tended to leave a residue in the rifle after repeated firing. Although both powders are made of the same components, stick powders are shaped like tiny cylinders, extruded, and cut to length. Ball powders are extremely small spheres of propellant. One major difference is that stick powders rely primarily on the grain size and surface area to control the burn rate. Ball powders rely more on a slow-burning covering and need a hotter primer to ignite.
Stoner specified that stick powder be used in his weapon, and it is not fully understood why Ordnance insisted on changing his recommendation. The subcommittee noted that the army had a cozy relationship with Olin Mathieson, the ball-powder manufacturer, which may have influenced the decision to change powders. The subcommittee also noted that because of the powder change, mechanical modifications had to be made to the M-16, and these last-minute changes may also have hurt its performance.
These revelations finally killed the Springfield Armory. After almost two hundred years of operation, it was closed by McNamara at year’s end.
The M-16 controversy was not over, however. Although Congress cited the change in powder as the reason for jamming, not everyone was satisfied. Some ballistics experts contended that the jamming was due to barrel corrosion from humid jungle conditions. This may well have been true, and would have indicted the Ordnance Department even more, because it understood the detrimental affects of barrel corrosion on M1 rifles from fighting in the Pacific during World War II. Ordnance knew that the cure was to chrome-plate the barrel, standard procedure for the AK.
Another contributing factor to jamming was that the army did not issue gun cleaning kits to troops, which gave the impression that the weapon never needed cleaning. Why the kits were not issued also was never made clear. Only speculation exists. One explanation was that McNamara’s Whiz Kids wanted to save money; another is that the Ordnance Department wanted the M-16 to fail; other speculation hinged on an overconfidence in the weapon itself.
Perhaps all three reasons played a role, but the reputation of the M-16 was irrevocably sullied. Even after these issues were addressed and the M-16 proved itself a formidable weapon, it was too late. Its main rival the AK was perceived by many as the world’s best infantry weapon, and the one that could beat the West’s best offering. It was low-tech Soviet style versus high-tech U.S. style, and the Communists won the war of perception, especially among third world nations whose leaders were carefully watching the conflict.
By 1973, the U.S. presence in Vietnam was winding down, with soldiers officially withdrawing in March after reaching a peak of 535,000 in 1966. Without a decisive Western victory, U.S. combatants left Southeast Asia, including Cambodia and Laos. Vietnam fell to North Vietnamese troops in 1975 as the last Americans and many Vietnamese evacuated the country. Stunning television shots of desperate people clinging to helicopters taking off from Saigon building roofs only served to raise the stock of Communist fighters and their AKs.
To this day, one of the most contentious arguments in military circles is, “Which is the better weapon, the M-16 or the AK?” The argument will never be resolved, and it is moot. The AK’s reputation as the underdog’s weapon was born in the rice paddies of Vietnam, given a boost by an unwitting U.S. military.
The lesson of Vietnam is that determined soldiers with simple, reliable arms can beat a well-trained military force despite its sophisticated weapons, like the M-16. In the years that followed the Vietnam War, the larger-than-life AK spread around the globe, giving power and prestige to ad hoc armies, thugs, and terrorists who would change the face of the world forever.