Alas the problem grew worse.
The higher port pressure of the ball powder also increased the cyclic rate of fire of the M16 (already too high in my opinion – the ideal rate of fire for a full auto is normally 500 rds. per minute). These started out at about 775 rds. per min. and sometimes reached 900 rpm in extreme circumstances. This was to become abusive to the rifles in light of what followed.
The Chrome Plated Chamber and the Watermelon Seed:
OK, we will now leave the Army wrestling with the ball powder problem, and switch to the "quick fix" that was instituted as an interim solution to the criticism descending upon the military hierarchy. The first was the chrome plating of the chambers (and later the bore). It was reckoned that the chrome plating would reduce the coefficient of friction between the chamber and the cartridge case, resulting in easier extraction. Well, yes, and so it was; however, let’s analyze the side effects. Have you ever taken a "still slimy watermelon seed" and squeezed it between your fingers and watched it as it squirted out? I’m sure everyone has tried that one at least once unless you are a permanent resident of the South Pole. What was happening was that with the reduced coefficient of friction and the easier to clean, slicker (and of course tapered) chamber , the brass was extracting considerably easier and almost squirting (much like the watermelon seed) the case out and causing the bolt to come to the rear with greater velocity than normal. That coupled with the increased cyclic rate (compliments of the ball powder) caused the rearward traveling bolt to batter the receivers rather badly. Since the timing problem had not actually been solved, this meant that the brass was being extracted while the case was still at least partially obturated in the chamber. As long as nothing else went wrong, this didn’t seem to cause any catastrophic failure of the rifle, watermelon seeds notwithstanding.
Another Aspirin for a Brain Tumor:
Rather than "retime" the gas system, or switch to a more stable IMR powder, the Army chose to stick with ball powder, as literally millions of rounds were on hand and there was a shooting war in progress. Now that the stuck brass problem had lessened (but had not been totally been alleviated), the next bugaboo was the "receiver battering problem". That one was fixed with the usual "aspirin for a brain tumor" prescription! Colt and the Army simply went with a heavier buffer group to lessen the impact to the frames, leaving the cyclic rate of fire unacceptably high, but at least the rifles were shooting after a fashion. The military was breathing a sigh of relief to have the U.S. Congress off their posteriors, and the entire problem was swept under the rug and seemingly forgotten, by all except those of us who had been the guinea pigs on McNamara’s think tank solution to weapons procurement.
And Now, Slam Fires Too!
In the middle of all our malfunctions, we had another dangerous problem that reared its ugly head. In the middle of a pitched battle in June of 1967, my company had two M16s literally blow up during firing! I was already pulling my hair out, but this seemed to be the final straw. These two stalwart lads had been firing some of the few rifles that were at least marginally functional. In the middle of a string and within a couple of minutes of each other these two rifles literally exploded in the riflemen’s hands. Apparently, when the bolt closed, the rifle fired as in a "slam fire" scenario, and the rifles fired out of battery. This explosion blew off the carrying handle and most of the upper receiver. The remaining force blew down through the magazine well ( bulging the well on both sides), leaving the magazine tube in the well, but blowing all the rounds and the floor plate out the bottom of the rifle. The operators received scratches on the inside of their forearms from the rapidly exiting floorplates, but mercifully sustained no other visible injuries. In one of the two rifles, the bolt (sans carrier) was still dangling from the locking lugs with a blown case in the chamber. The second rifle was missing the case, the bolt and the bolt carrier. Both rifles were still rather comically held together by the hinge pin. If I had disliked the M16 prior to this, my dislike was rapidly ripening into an overt case of hate. To compound the problem, I had Dave Burrington from NBC News with the company covering the day’s rather thrilling events (Dave was a nice gentleman, and he and I got along very well, considering the circumstances). The other newsman tagging along was some roaring a++ hole from ABC News that I would have willingly "done for" if the opportunity had presented itself. My problem was that both of them had their cameramen trying desperately trying to get pictures of the destroyed rifles. This was prior to my crusading phase with the M16 and I was unfortunately able to keep them from taking any pictures. At that point in time I figured our dirty laundry should be cleaned up by the Marine Corps as opposed to a press that was openly hostile to what we considered our way of making a living. After all, we considered our mission was to keep the world safe for God, motherhood and the American Way. If I had only allowed those pictures to be taken, the whole M16 story might have turned out differently. The press might have caused the investigations to have been instituted by outraged congressmen, and Mike and I would not have had to write the "letter heard round the world" – ah well...
It turns out that the slam fire problem, while relatively rare, was well known within the Army Ordnance circles. Rare? ...and I had two within five minutes of each other? Damn, someone was trying to tell me something. The slam fire problem stemmed from soft primers, dirty chambers and a floating firing pin. Obviously a cartridge stripped off the top of a magazine and driven into a dirty chamber (perhaps slightly smaller than usual?) might well refuse to completely seat. If the bolt was slamming forward with fair velocity, and stopped abruptly with the case almost (but not quite) seated, just short of the locking lugs performing their magic, the weigh of a firing pin continuing to move forward (as in Newton's Laws of Physics) might well make contact with a sensitive primer causing the cartridge to fire with the bolt unlocked!
After much study, the Army Ordnance folks recommended a much harder primer, but none of the ammunition companies would bid on such ammunition as they felt that it would cause more failures to fire than it did slamfires. Many fixes were tried including a spring loaded firing pin (versus the floating one), but Colt finally came up with a simple fix that solved the problem. A lighter firing pin solved the problem and the slam fires went away.
Rifles Issued With Known Problems?
While I have checked the ordnance reports of the time, most of the problems that have been discussed were known and supposedly fixed before our Battalion even drew our brand new XM16E1s in April of 1967. Even though many of the problems and the fixes were supposedly known, our rifles still had unplated chambers (actually the chrome plated chamber wasn’t approve until the end of May 1967), light buffer groups and heavy firing pins – hell, I don’t know, maybe the Navy Medical folks needed the practice, or it was cheaper to write off the older models in combat than recall them for an upgrade. I have the definite feeling that many of the histories were written after the fact and the dates filled in to put those at fault in the clear for posterity to read and judge. Perhaps I judge too harshly, but those were brutal times, and I was young and idealistic – and my bubble had been forever burst.
One final story and I will conclude this rather rambling discourse. This one is an attempt to explain the 50% of the rifles that functioned reasonably reliably and the 50% that refused to do so. I must interject that the 50% figure I am using is strictly subjective. When we fired these rifles, we made the observation that approximately half of the darned things seemed to shoot and half didn't. Not knowing that we should have kept exact figures for later analysis, we were simply making informed observations. Please keep this in mind during the following discussion.
There were many (unsubstantiated) stories floating around that there was a slight difference in chamber dimension between the ArmaLite chambers and the Colt chambers. While it was reputed to be very minimal, and under ideal circumstances the commercial or military ammunition would work satisfactorily in both guns, under less than ideal circumstance things went to hell in a handbasket. It was rumored that the Colt chambers were ever so slightly tighter than the ArmaLite chambers (a matter of a ten thousandth or so). That would have been no problem in a commercial rifle, but here the work was moved to Colt and they were having labor problems and union shops are notorious for work just good enough to get by. The Colt Union Shop problems were such that a two month strike took place in 1967 over the report that the Army was looking for other (additional) manufacturers to supply M16 rifles to the military.
It was also reported that the quality control at Colt was not as stringent as that at ArmaLite. Don’t forget, they (ArmaLite) were trying to sell a new product over the objection of the Ordnance Corps, and by the time Colt came along the fight had been largely won. Assuming the quality control was slightly looser at Colt, let's take a quick look at the classic "Bell Shaped Curve" (assuming a normal statistical distribution) used in statistical analysis. The "+ side" of the curve would show that at least ½ of the chambers would have been tending toward the maximum allowable chamber dimension (statistically), thus giving no problem. The other ½ (the "- side") would have been closer to the minimum allowable (Colt) dimension. Unfortunately under this premise, the minimum allowable Colt chamber would have been smaller than the minimum allowable ArmaLite chamber.
One of these "small (Colt) chambers" coupled with the lack of a "retimed gas system" and the admitted powder residue problem caused by the use of ball powder, could explain the mysterious (perceived) 50% jamming problem often present even when the rifles were freshly cleaned. The ball powder would have rapidly fowled the chambers. Thus a cartridge case designed for the slightly larger ArmaLite chamber (with tighter quality control) being forced into a minimum Colt chamber, coupled with higher port pressure and dirty powder, would have strenuously resisted extraction. It is not my intention to accuse Colt of deliberately manufacturing rifles that wouldn't fire. If the IMR Rifle Powder had been retained, there would probably have been no problem. If, however, we combine the smaller allowable (minimum) chamber with a dirty powder, we have the formula for a military disaster.
The scenario would go roughly like this. A cartridge case would be stuffed into a "small chamber" (dirtied with a residue known to result from the ball powder combustion). During the firing cycle, the primer would ignite the powder and launch the projectile down the bore. The resulting chamber pressure would "obturate" the cartridge case to the chamber walls. Since the "gas port pressure" is higher with the ball powder than the IMR, the bolt would start to the rear under the pressure channeled through the gas tube and attempt to initiate the unlocking and extraction portion of the operating cycle too soon. An attempt to extract a cartridge case still plastered to the chamber walls by residual pressure, and further resisting such actions due to the increased coefficient of friction resulting from the powder residue in the chamber would often cause the extractor to either pull through or jump the case rim, leaving the case in the chamber. If the "small chamber" premise IS true, it would go a long way toward explaining the "unexplainable problem". I suppose we will never know for sure, but it makes sense in light of what we know today.
A retired Colonel (an Army ammunition expert) told me a story in 1974 that boggles the imagination. This gentleman told me that he was sent to open up the production of 5.56mm NATO ammunition at the Twin Cities ammunition plant in the early 1960s. He asked his boss (unnamed) for the specifications of the 5.56mm cartridge dimensions. He was supposedly told that they didn’t have the dimensions and he would have to get them on his own (you’ve gotta’ be kidding!). He told me that he went on an "M16 Rifle safari" to obtain a statistical sample of M16s for making "chamber casts" to discern the correct cartridge dimensions. After a concerted search in such places as Ft. Leavenworth, Ft. Cambell and Ft. Knox, Kentucky, he came up with 17 rifles, all early products of ArmaLite. He took the necessary chamber casts and came up with the cartridge specifications (which may of course have been ever so slightly larger than the later Colt chamber dimensions). While this sounds a bit far out to me, I am in no position to cast stones. Many of the machinations concerning the saga of the M16 are a bit "far out", even though they are verifiably true. If (and this is a BIG if) the tale IS true, such an unlikely story would add credence to the "small chamber" idea. On the other hand, the Colonel had no reason to lie, he wasn’t aware of my background or previous experiences and we weren't engaged in a "can you top this" sea story session...
The Demise of Ordnance Expertise Within the Army:
In retrospect, the M16 was the result of an open bid system overriding the expertise of an experienced ordnance corps. While we often get better products in a totally free market economy, this procurement system assumes a level of ordnance expertise not normally within the grasp of an inventor and his backers "force feeding" a new weapons system on the military to satisfy the desires and egos of civilian inventors. The Army Ordnance system was not loath to contact talented civilian inventors for their expertise in term of new weaponry, but with the M16 it was a case of the Industrial Complex (of the "Military – Industrial Complex" fame) telling the military what it needed and then forcing them to buy it. The Armory system had worked, and worked well, and we are still smarting from the lack of the expertise that Robert McNamara eliminated along with Springfield Armory using his "bottom line procurement procedures".
The Army isn’t always blameless either, as evidenced by their efforts to produce a rifle for all seasons that resulted in giving the M14 an undeserved bad rap. The effort to produce a rifle that would replace both the M1 and the BAR was doomed to failure from the start. I personally feel that the M14 was the finest battle rifle ever adopted by the United States, but conversely, it came very close to being the most unsatisfactory squad automatic weapon we have ever adopted when employed in the full automatic mode. The full automatic feature and the M14 did not get along well together. It was simply too light to do the job. If we had discarded the full automatic feature of the M14 and subtituted the M60 machine gun for the BAR to maintain commonality of ammunition, we would have truly had a Marine Rifle squad of awesome capability! This would not have been the ultimate solution, as the M60 exceeded the reasonable weight of a "squad automatic", but it would have been a fix we could have lived with while a new squad automatic was being developed,
Attempting to have one rifle do everything well is just as unrealistic as having one aircraft that fills every need for our air arm. The F111 was one attempt to do this, and ultimately it failed in its task. It did a couple of things very well indeed, but most aviators will tell you that it is far better to have a really good fighter aircraft, another designed primarily for air superiority, and an attack plane to support the troops on the ground. A bomber very rarely can fill in satisfactorily as a fighter, but still they try. And so it is with the service rifle. Even though the M16 was equipped with a full automatic switch, it made an absolutely horrible squad automatic weapon. Had I had my way, I would have had a talented welder put a bead of heli-arc on the M16 frame rendering it incapable of full automatic fire. Most of today's military experts seem to have forgotten that there is a vast difference between "fire power" and "volume of fire". Someone should hold classes! Ultimately, the services did adopt the FN (M249) version of the SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon), and it seems to be a fine little gun, although it still shoots an anti-groundhog projectile.
Tactical Considerations and the "All Around Rifle":
In our enthusiasm to come up with the perfect rife, ordnance seems to occasionally forget that a certain amount of cohesiveness of the rifle squad is/was based upon the teamwork necessary to keep the squad automatic rifle in action – at least that has always been the case in the Marines. Early in WWII we traded our old eight-man squad for a 13-man squad composed of three "four man" fire teams and a squad leader. Each fire team had one BAR (a total of 3 per squad) and each fire team’s job was to keep the BAR in action. This accounted for the cohesiveness in the fire team I spoke of above, and gave each fire team member a reason for existence. In the old days, we (as troops) were cautioned that (in combat) if there were only three men left in a squad, all three had better be carrying a BAR. The M14 with its selector switch and bipod did away with all that, as now all the rifles looked the same. The heat of the jungle caused the ever weight conscious Marine to leave the bipod in the rear to cut down on his load. Since every M14 was easily converted to full auto, most were. At this point, the fire team members no longer felt the necessity of covering and supporting the automatic rifleman, since all the rifles now looked and functioned alike; tactics went to hell in a handbasket.
The M16 simply perpetuated the mistakes of the past, except that it was now worse. Now every gun had a "go faster switch" and fire discipline became a thing of the past. I still remember the TV coverage of the battle of Hue with the rifleman sticking his M16 over the parapet by the pistol grip and firing a full magazine without the slightest idea of what he was shooting at. What a waste! Tactics were going the way of the "Do-Do Bird" and everyone was marveling at the number of rounds that the average rifleman was able to fire against our enemy(s), although I began to suspect that our real enemy resided in the Defense Department in the name of Robert McNamara, and leadership in the Military by individuals who hadn't seen combat since the charge up San Juan Hill.
Silk Purses and Sow’s Ears:
In the retrospect of 32 years, I sometimes despair. In 1977 when I was stationed at MTU (Marksmanship Training Unit) Quantico, Virginia, one of our former shooters (Maj. Bruce Wincensen) was transferred in the normal course of assignments to the Ordnance Section of the Marine Corps Development Board, and was assigned to the project of coming up with a product improved M16. Bruce did a rather workmanlike job on the project, and when the smoke settled we had the M16A2. While the M16A2 is undeniably an improvement over its predecessors, we are still stuck with a rifle that doesn’t qualify as a deer sized hunting rifle in but one or two uninformed states.
As a matter of personal harassment, I used to call Bruce occasionally and ask him how he was coming along with rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic – his answer was usually unprintable. The bullet weight has been increased to 63 grains, and its accuracy (most especially in the match versions) is superb. The M16A2 (in a match-conditioned version) is now often beating the M14 in match competition, but then the accuracy of the M16 has never been my bone of contention. The barrel weight had been increased and the barrel twist tightened to 1-7 to accommodate the heavier bullet. The maximum effective range of the M16 is now said to be 800 meters (someone is smoking something not authorized by the UCMJ). However the M16A2 now weighs in at a hefty 7.9 lbs., just short of the M14’s 9.3 lbs. (a difference of a mere 1.4 lbs. but still delivering a projectile with the punch of an anti-varmint device). I hasten to add that the normally quoted weight for the M14 was 8.7 lbs, versus the above quoted 9.3. I was simply giving those who would dig out the maximum quoted weight the benefit of the doubt. At 8.7 lbs. the weight differential is just over 3/4th of a lb. heavier than the M16. Obviously, the lightweight rifle had become anything but! The addition of a mere eight grains to the bullet weight (a grain is 1/7000th of a pound) does not fill me with a great deal of confidence or fill me with thoughts of increased lethality. A mouse(gun) is a mouse(gun) is a mouse(gun)...
Mercifully, the Marines were able to take the objectionable full automatic switch off of the M16 and substitute a three shot burst control switch. Many individuals in high positions were in love with the full automatic feature of the M16 (or any service rifle), and the 3 shot burst was simply included as a "sop" in the redesign of the M16 for those too ignorant to have a grasp of good infantry tactics.
While there is a place for a lightweight full automatic in the infantry TE (table of equipment), it is more properly included as a submachine gun. The current M4 Submachine-gun, (a variation of the M16A2), works very well and lends itself very nicely use in close combat and for the clearing of houses and buildings in a built up area.
In my opinion, the three shot burst control on the service rifle, means that a pull of the trigger by a "panicked or inexperienced troop" will only result in two wasted rounds instead of 29! Some so-called experts have said that S.L.A. Marshall (S.L.A. indicating General Marshall's initials) claimed that the addition of a full auto switch resulted in more individuals firing their rifles in combat. If this is so, it is a sorry indictment of our military leadership. While some individuals have questioned S.L.A. Marshall's findings in recent times, there are still those who place a great amount of credence in his observations.
A properly indoctrinated combat soldier will not only fire his rifle but he will also get hits on target. The problem is not with weaponry, but with leadership!
The ultimate adoption of the M16 essentially reduced the effective range of the Marine Rifle squad from 500 yards to an optimistic 300, but no one in a position to do anything about it will admit it! A Marine Lt. Col. in the intelligence field was assigned to attend the Annual G2's Conference in 1982 held at Headquarters Marine Corps. He told me the following story in confidence, so I will omit his name for obvious reasons. He stated that a high point of the conference was a brief address by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, at that time General Robert H. Barrow. General Barrow closed the conference with a comment about the new M16A2 Rifle the Corps was adopting. He told them about the developmental work that Maj. Wincensen and the Development Board had done on the rifle and added;
"If I learn of ANY officer or Staff NCO criticizing the new M16, that Marine can tattoo his rank insignia on his collar bone (an exact quote). He'll never be promoted as long as I'M the Commandant!
Some things never change...
Valhalla and Beyond:
In Norse mythology, fallen heroes were welcomed to Valhalla as a reward for valorous conduct. Those of us in the profession of arms often speak of this, the warriors' final resting-place, where no one grows old, and honor is held in high esteem. If there is an all-knowing and all-wise God, as there must surely be, we will someday meet our comrades in arms at the gates of Valhalla, and shake the hands of our friends… I only hope that we will be as worthy of entrance as those who secured their place defending a cause in which they believed, using a rifle that was not worthy of their bravery and sacrifice.
...And may the Marine Corps always be guided by the words of Marine Maj. Gen. Rupertus’ in The Rifleman’s Creed (included in all the rifle qualification score books in the Marine Corps):
"My rifle and myself know that what counts in this war is not the rounds we fire, the noise of our burst, not the smoke we make. We know that it is the hits that count. We will hit..."
I can only add Amen...