Military history




The Accidental Rifle

So carry your rifle (they don’t give a damn),

just pray you won’t need it

while you’re in Vietnam.

—From the poem “Rifle, 5.56MM,XM16E1,” by First Lieutenant Larry Rottmann, U.S. Army, a public affairs officer in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968 who said the army forbade all discussion about malfunctioning American M-16s

THE MARINES OF HOTEL COMPANY’S FIRST PLATOON SPREAD OUT as they walked through the shin-high grass. They were gripped by unease. In front of them was their next destination: the village of Ap Sieu Quan, a narrow cluster of buildings surrounded by paddies and dikes just south of the demilitarized zone in the Quang Tri province of Vietnam. From out in the field, the village looked deserted in the rising late-morning heat. The Marines sensed menace awaiting. At least three North Vietnamese Army battalions had infiltrated the area, an agricultural belt in the coastal lowlands where the jungles and mountains drained into the South China Sea. Many of the NVA units were patrolling. Others were dug in and concealed. Hotel Company’s Second Platoon had been hit by a North Vietnamese unit in Ap Sieu Quan a short while before. Now the company was converging. The Marines were exposed as they moved. They saw the low-slung buildings ahead. The only approach passed over open ground. We’re walking across the savannah, Private First Class Alfred J. Nickelson thought, cradling his M-16 rifle and scanning as he kept pace. They can see us for miles.1

Hotel Company was one of the bloodied outfits in Second Battalion, Third Marine Regiment, which in 1967 served as a mobile reaction force for much of Vietnam. It was July 21. Early the previous morning, several CH-46 helicopters had landed a few miles to the northwest, left the company behind, and roared back into the air and banked toward the USS Tripoli, their ship, off the coast. The insertion had marked the opening of Operation Bear Chain, a mission to interdict their enemies’ food and ammunition caches along the road running from the Communist-controlled north toward Hue City, Da Nang, and Saigon. The navy and Marine Corps had given the battalion a label: Special Landing Force Bravo. In theory, the battalion resided on amphibious ships as a theater reserve. In practice, its units were constantly ashore, shuttled from fight to fight.2 Upon departing the ships, the Marines would remain in the bush for several days to several weeks, then return for a rest and refit, and quickly be sent to the next fight. This had been the rhythm for months. Mission by mission, firefight by firefight, booby trap by booby trap, mortar blast by mortar blast, the rhythm had exacted its toll. The battalion’s ranks had been thinned. The survivors were tired. Even after absorbing the replacements that showed up between operations, the platoons fought at one-half to two-thirds strength, including men who had been wounded but were judged fit enough to send back out.

For the United States military, which had defeated the Japanese army in the early 1940s and repelled communist divisions from South Korea a decade later, the enemy in Vietnam presented a confounding foe. The Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese regulars were marginally educated, lightly equipped, minimally trained. More than half of the NVA soldiers in late 1966 had six years or less of education, and three-quarters of them had less than eighteen months in their army.3 They were peasants, agrarian villagers indoctrinated in Marxist-Leninist ideology and fighting according to tactics articulated by Mao. Some of their deficiencies were striking. American intelligence officials marveled that few of them had undergone significant training with live ammunition before being sent on missions against South Vietnamese and American forces. Many captured enemy fighters said they fired their weapons for the first time only in combat.4 And yet by summer 1967, as Hotel Company rushed toward Ap Sieu Quan, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army were killing nearly eight hundred American servicemen each month.

One reason for their success was their weapons. Nikita S. Khrushchev was gone from the Kremlin, forced into retirement in a bloodless coup in 1964. But his practice of using arms transfers as a foreign-policy lever continued, and the People’s Republic of China had followed the Soviet example with haste. By late 1964 China had distributed huge quantities of its Kalashnikov assault riflesi in Southeast Asia. A large fraction of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army combatants now carried a new assault rifle. In some units the saturation rate was as high as 75 percent, and many soldiers had been given a basic load of 390 cartridges to go with their new gun.5 The majority of the combat fatalities among the United States forces were caused by small-arms fire.ii As the staccato din of the Kalashnikov was heard in battle each day, and American casualties mounted, the Eastern bloc assault rifle at last captured the Pentagon’s attention. Carried by proxies, the main rifle of an army whose nation lacked the technical sophistication to have its own modern gun works, it had become a marker of the Kremlin’s influence on how war was experienced by combatants of limited means. No young army or guerrilla force had ever gone to war with more rifle firepower, with more ability to fight a technically and materially superior foe in a straight-on infantry encounter. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army were beneficiaries of a new form of martial leveling. Indigenous forces had long faced outsiders backed by industrial economies and the guns they produced. The firepower disadvantages had been extreme. Armed with rapid-fire arms and ammunition stores the local men could not hope to match, conventional soldiers had maintained influence over distant lands with small expeditionary detachments. The AK-47 provided a complication: The locals could now fight like never before. The class of fighter that had stepped from the rubble in Budapest in ones and twos—the Kalashnikov-carrying guerrilla, a common man with portable and easy-to-use automatic arms—was now in the field by the tens of thousands.

On this day, before Second Platoon had moved ahead to sweep Ap Sieu Quan, Hotel Company had been told that the village had been cleared by an American unit the previous night. Until the platoon was ambushed near a church within the little village’s confines, the Marines were not expecting a fight. The North Vietnamese soldiers were dug in. The platoon could neither budge them nor get itself out. The company commander, Captain Richard O. Culver, Jr., directed Staff Sergeant Claude E. Elrod, First Platoon’s commander, to push off the NVA and retrieve the American casualties, weapons, and radios. The other platoons moved to close off the village.

As the distance shrank, Staff Sergeant Elrod moved near the front of his platoon, between his radio operator and a three-man M-60 machine-gun team. Sweat rolled down his light frame. Ordinarily a lieutenant would lead a rifle platoon, but the battalion was short of officers. Too many officers had been shot. The staff sergeant had joined the special landing force just after the battalion had participated in the fight for Hills 861 and 881, one of the bitterest battles in the war. Upon checking into Hotel Company, he learned that the executive officer, First Lieutenant David S. Hackett, a Princeton graduate, had been shot through the head and killed. The Second Platoon commander, Second Lieutenant Bruce E. Griesmer, had been wounded. A new officer, First Lieutenant Michael P. Chervenak, had arrived to take Lieutenant Hackett’s place. Officers were otherwise in short supply. Staff Sergeant Elrod was told he would lead First Platoon. That was two months ago. Already he had been wounded. He had been hit with shrapnel and a rifle bullet a few weeks before. The bullet had passed through his side without striking a vital organ or severing a major blood vessel. The shrapnel injuries had been light. Luck had kept him alive. The corpsmen on the USS Tripoli had removed his stitches the day before. Now he was in-country again, leading his platoon, heading toward another village on another operation in the kaleidoscope of action that defined the battalion’s tour of some of the worst of Vietnam.

Staff Sergeant Elrod was crossing the last dike before the village when a bullet smacked a bamboo branch near his head. He heard Kalashnikov rifles firing as he dropped. Down the Marines of First Platoon went, shouting, returning fire, dashing into motion in the pandemonium of initial contact. The staff sergeant ordered the machine-gun crew to set up and cover the squads in the field. He had already arranged for a three-man fire team to provide security around the gun, and he watched those men run into place as the M-60 opened fire. Good, he thought. The Marines were doing what they do. He shouted to his radio operator and told him to tell Captain Culver that the platoon was engaged.

There are moments in modern firefights when combat can become, in an instant, a lonely and isolating experience. Since late in World War I, after automatic weapons, artillery, and mortars had become prevalent in battle and tactics evolved to account for them, foot soldiers had learned to spread out, scattering the targets they presented and limiting the danger to the group of any one machine-gun burst or exploding shell. This dispersion reduced risks to units. In certain circumstances, it also served to increase the individual’s sense of disassociation. At these instants of scattering, each combatant’s surroundings could suddenly change. One moment the soldier was part of a group. The next, in the confusion of sudden battle as each man took steps to survive and fight back, he could find himself alone. A man’s world compressed to a small, frantic, and companionless space, punctuated by the disorienting roars and blasts of incoming and outgoing fire.

Private First Class Nickelson had entered one of these inner zones. A bullet had passed so close by that it seemed to clap beside his ear. More bullets thumped the soil around him. He pressed himself down, hiding in the grass, trying to make himself small. He felt utterly apart. For a few seconds, he had the selfish thought of a trapped man in what might be his last moment alive. All these guys out here in the field to shoot, he thought. Why are they trying to shoot only me? Then he collected himself. He knew that each man’s fate was tied to the platoon, and that the platoon survived only if it fought. He would fight. He lifted his head and saw a Vietnamese soldier in a tree line. He raised his M-16, lined up the rifle’s sights, and eased back on the trigger. He had set his M-16 selector switch on automatic. One round blasted out. Then nothing. His M-16 had jammed. “Oh, fuck,” he said.

At the village’s edge, Staff Sergeant Elrod estimated that he had met a North Vietnamese platoon. NVA platoons were often small, but their weapons could make them potent. The Marines of the 1940s and 1950s had faced human-wave attacks in Asia. This was something else. Two dozen of this new breed of combatant could stop two hundred. First Platoon’s Marines were scattered and flat to the ground. Bullets whipped around them. The staff sergeant needed firepower to match what was coming in. But something was wrong. The Marines assigned to protect the M-60 were not firing. They were crouched and madly working on their M-16s. He ran to one of them. The man’s rifle was jammed. The staff sergeant looked at the others. Their weapons were jammed, too. The United States Marine Corps, built around its riflemen, was in battle with rifles that did not work. The platoon was exposed, under fire, and many of its members were busy working on guns gone silent. The machine-gun team nearby was under intensive fire. The gunner, a corporal, was struck in the head. The assistant gunner took his place. He was hit, too. Adrenaline pulsed through the staff sergeant. He was slicked with sweat, furious, confused. He wanted to kill. Why wouldn’t his platoon’s automatic rifles work? He slipped behind the machine gun and started to fire. First Platoon was stuck.

Of the many enduring effects of the international distribution of the Kalashnikov assault rifle, its influence on the American military was among the least understood and most profound. The AK-47’s utility for guerrilla war, terror, and crime could have been readily foreseen. The bad choices it spurred in the United States military were not so predictable. Nor were their effects.

Throughout the 1950s, the United States had missed the significance of the spread of Soviet and Eastern bloc small arms. By the 1960s the institutional ignorance could no longer hold. Jolted alert by the communist assault rifle’s large-scale arrival in Vietnam, the Pentagon realized that in the matter of rifles it was outmatched. The American army abruptly selected the M-16 for general service in the war. Had the early M-16 been a reliable automatic rifle, this might have been a straightforward and simple development, a story as old as war. One side gets a new weapon, the other side matches it in kind. In this way, the war in Vietnam became the first large conflict in which both sides carried assault rifles—initially in small numbers but eventually as the predominant firearm. But the American adoption of assault rifles flowed from reaction rather than from foresight or planning, and it was painful and bungled. The early M-16 and its ammunition formed a combination not ready for war. They were a flawed pair emerging from a flawed development history. Prone to malfunction, they were forced into troops’ hands through a clash of wills and egos in Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara’s Pentagon. Instead of a thoughtful progression from prototype to general-issue arm, the M-16’s journey was marked by salesmanship, sham science, cover-ups, chicanery, incompetence, and no small amount of dishonesty by a gun manufacturer and senior American military officers. Its introduction to war was briefly heralded as a triumph of private industry and perceptive management, but swiftly became a monument to the hazards of hubris and the perils of rushing, and a study in military management gone awry.

The origins of the problems emerge in especially sharp relief when viewed in contrast to the Soviet Union’s much more successful rifle program. The AK-47 and AKM had resulted from methodical state-directed pursuits. The M-16 arrived in troops’ hands by another route. The American system was neither capitalist nor fully state-driven. It was a disharmonious hybrid. Long-standing arms-development practices had failed; what replaced them was worse. The infantry rifles carried to war by generations of American servicemen had largely been conceived within the army’s ordnance service, and then manufactured by private firms commissioned to mass-produce the patterns. The sprawling army ordnance community—known as the ordnance corps—was a network of arsenals, laboratories, and far-flung commands that together had evolved into an empire within the armed services, replete with its own biases and mores. Its powers were substantial, as was its reputation for insularity. Tended to by a mix of experts and bureaucrats, the ordnance corps exercised de facto veto power over arms designed by anyone else. If the community had been objective and fair-minded, this power might have been well used. But the corps’ talents had over the decades been undermined by dogmatism. In the years after World War II, those responsible for American small-arms development had shown little interest in the foreign concept of assault rifles, and they had not understood the significance of German and Russian developments in the field. The parochialism was so firmly established that it had earned a label with its own acronym, which described the ordnance corps’ attitude toward firearms created by outsiders. The acronym was NIH: Not Invented Here.

By the early 1960s, the army’s ordnance officials had lost the arms race of their lives. As a result, just when the American armed services grasped that they needed a smaller automatic rifle, there was nothing suitable in the government design pipeline. Instead, the Pentagon reached into private industry for the AR-15, as the precursor to the M-16 was called. This seemed sensible. The mighty industrial economy of the United States had helped carry the country to victory in World War II, and now its universities and factories were producing an ever-varying stream of consumer goods. This economic and intellectual muscle, seemingly tireless and nimble, was a bewitching force. Its slogans were seductive. It had become an article of political faith in Washington that the American businessman was the world’s most astute, and the American engineer the most innovative and sound. The evidence was all around. The United States churned out practical and coveted products like few other economies: televisions, phonographs, ovens, blenders, handbags, shoes, fishing reels, vacuum cleaners, and automobiles. If market forces could bring forth the Mustang and the Corvette, certainly they could produce a superior infantry rifle, too.

This might have been a valid conclusion, had American industry been involved in assault-rifle development in any robust sense. But when the Pentagon went seeking an assault rifle that could hold its own against the AK-47, it was working from a position far behind that of its enemies. It had spent twenty years misapprehending the shift in the evolution of automatic arms. Now it was in an inexorably escalating war with almost no choices from the private sector. McNamara’s Pentagon was right on one point. The M-14 was not the best all-purpose rifle for what war had become, especially in a tropical delta or jungle. To compete against guerrillas armed with Kalashnikovs, the United States needed more firepower than the M-14 provided, and in a lighter rifle. It needed, in short, more lethality per pound, more ability to lay down suppressive fire, and more ammunition per combat load. It needed a rifle with which its soldiers would be mobile, quick, and deadly. The AR-15 offered all of these features, at least on paper. But none of this necessarily meant that the AR-15 was the best choice as a replacement. The AR-15 was, rather, the most well-known—and hyped—of the very few products available. It rose to the generals’ attention through neither a meticulous development cycle nor an expansive market competition. It arrived by default. The supporters of the AR-15, and its salesmen, insisted that it was ready for war. It was not.

It had not yet proven its reliability in objective field tests.6 Questions of its performance dogged it. As it was handed out, modified and renamed the M-16,iii many troops were not trained on it or equipped with the necessary equipment to clean it. Its proponents in the Pentagon first believed the most optimistic forecasts about the M-16’s suitability for battle. Then they dismissed reports of problems when its performance did not match the hype. Moreover, the M-16’s ammunition was neither fully developed nor subject to strict technical standards. For all these reasons, the M-16 was not a ready equalizer. It was the accidental rifle, pushed into service by a confluence of historical forces that left the United States military in a rush and unwilling to explore a wider set of options or a more careful course. These were conditions for disaster, as the Marines of Second Battalion, Third Marines were finding out.

An account of the M-16’s ascension from California curio to the American military’s standard firearm could begin in many places, but the conditions that gave the process its velocity began with the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Kennedy brought with him Robert S. McNamara as secretary of defense. McNamara was a graduate of Harvard Business School, a former top executive at Ford, and a believer in an approach to decision-making called “systems analysis,” which had been conceived in the 1950s at the Rand Corporation. Systems analysis centered on intensive study of problems and options, with examinations of costs, benefits, and risks of potential decisions. Its introduction to the Pentagon, along with a cadre of McNamara’s disciples, who called themselves the whiz kids, was a frontal challenge to the military establishment. McNamara’s followers saw themselves as a rarefied pool of talent, and they merged their boss’s aggressive management style with a Kennedy mandate to look past contigencies for nuclear war and develop the doctrine, organization, and equipment for flexible responses to conflicts overseas. This meant limited war, which in the context of the Cold War further meant the ability to counter the Eastern bloc in proxy fights. Several of McNamara’s officials turned their attention to the question of the rifle.

The rifle conundrum was a significant one. America’s military machine had entered the nuclear age with an array of fearsome killing tools. The air force had supersonic jets and intercontinental missiles. The army was fielding a new line of battle tanks to enhance its armored divisions that had settled into Western Europe. The navy had launched a nuclear aircraft carrier that steamed under the power of nuclear reactors sealed within its hull. Yet when it came to the most basic tool of empire and of war—the infantry rifle—the American military had sputtered and stalled. The government had spent more than a decade bringing forward the M-14, only to discover in simulations and in Vietnam that soldiers equipped with M-14s were outmaneuvered and outshot by opponents with AK-47s.

The early 1960s were an unsettled time in American small-arms development. A pair of discordant ideas guided the army’s plans. On one hand was the M-14, a rifle firmly rooted in past designs. But the M-14—for that matter, any rifle—was both a nod to the army’s sense of what a rifle was supposed to be and regarded as the last of its kind, the end of the line. The army was developing what it called the Special Purpose Individual Weapon, or SPIW. As conceived, SPIW was to be the automatic dart gun for the Cold War, James Bond supplants Rifleman Dodd. It would fire bursts of needlelike flechettes from one barrel and grenades out another. By the early 1960s the project had met delays, and a variety of engineering problems was giving it the feel of unattainable whimsy. Its lightweight darts seemed less than ideal for punching through helmets, windshields, and armor plates. They struggled even to resist deflection in vegetation or heavy rain. The optimists who supported SPIW said a fully functional version might be ready in the mid-1960s and would replace rifles altogether. In the interim, troops would have their new M-14s. In the matter of shoulder-fired arms, the United States Army in the early McNamara era was very strange indeed. It simultaneously upheld old ideas about rifles and hitched its future to a fantastic dream. Somehow it had missed the weapon that was both feasible and the direction in which small-arms evolution had actually headed: the assault rifle.

McNamara sensed at least this much. In October 1962, after his aides had examined the gun gap, he wrote a secret memorandum to Cyrus R. Vance, the secretary of the army. The memorandum was a marker of bureaucratic exasperation. “I have seen certain evidence,” he wrote:

... which appears to indicate that: 1. With the M-14 rifle in 1962, we are equipping our forces with a weapon definitely inferior in firepower and combat effectiveness to the assault rifle with which the Soviets have equipped their own and their satellite forces worldwide since 1950.

This was a painful declaration for the United States’ most senior military official at the height of the Cold War—a frank admission that the Soviet Union had leaped ahead of the United States in an important way. McNamara left no room for the army to equivocate. He knew that the army had rejected the AR-15 in tests. He also knew that the M-14, an army darling, was vulnerable to criticism. It had been created according to old ideas, after long delays and at steep cost overruns. It was heavy and long. Its ammunition was burdensome. It was difficult to manage on automatic fire, enough so that most M-14s issued to troops were configured to fire one round at a time.iv And tactically it felt obsolete. Tests at Fort Ord and at the Hunter Liggett Military Reservation in 1958 and 1959 had discovered that five to seven soldiers armed with AR-15s produced more firepower and were more dangerous than eleven soldiers provided with M-14s.7 Small automatic rifles with little recoil and lighter ammunition allowed soldiers to move and shoot more quickly and accurately and over a longer period of time.

The defense secretary’s disdain for the M-14 could hardly have been more bluntly expressed. As far as he could determine, he wrote, the AR-15 appeared “markedly superior to the M-14 in every respect of importance to military operations.” McNamara’s displeasure with the M-14 was well placed. But it led to narrow thinking—the M-14 is not the best rifle, therefore the AR-15 is. A more systematic view would have recognized that the AR-15 was not necessarily the best option. It was, by any reasonable assessment, only the beginning of an American effort to design an assault rifle. Rifle manufacturers in the United States had not yet invested heavily in developing small-caliber, lightweight assault rifles, judging correctly, at least in the short term, that there was no government customer for them. The AR-15 was not the product of full competition within its class. It was almost the only rifle of its sort. The industrial base had not been tapped.

But McNamara’s pan came with orders that pushed the Pentagon on its course. He asked the army to share with him its views on the “relative effectiveness” of three rifles: the AK-47, the AR-15, and the M-14. And if the M-14 was not the most effective of these three, he wanted to know what action the army recommended taking.8 The instructions were implicit and strong. Prove that the M-14 was superior to the AK-47 and the AR-15, or plan to make changes.

For those trying to sell the AR-15, McNamara’s Pentagon was the break they had gambled on. The new rifle had sprung from ArmaLite, a private concern in Southern California. In business terms, ArmaLite was an infant and an upstart, a company that began as a workshop in the Hollywood garage of George Sullivan, the patent counsel for Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. Sullivan was an aeronautical engineer fascinated with the possibilities of applying new materials to change the way rifles looked and felt,9 and he had collaborated with an inventor and arms salesman, Jacques Michault, to develop plans for rifles that departed sharply from existing designs in the West. In 1953, Sullivan met Paul S. Cleaveland, secretary of the Fairchild Engine & Airplane Corporation, at an aviation industry luncheon.10 The pair talked about lightweight firearms and new techniques that might be applied to manufacturing them. Cleaveland mentioned the conversation to Richard S. Boutelle, Fairchild’s president, who was an aviation-minded gun buff, too. Boutelle and Sullivan soon agreed to collaborate under Fairchild’s sponsorship, and the company was founded in 1954 as a small Fairchild division. From the beginning, ArmaLite had energy, optimism, and curious possibilities for sales. Boutelle was a glad-handing dreamer hooked up to the jet age. A former major in the Army Air Corps and a passionate big-game hunter, he carried himself as an engineering visionary and salesman, and brimmed with ideas for bold modern products that might make Fairchild a global powerhouse. Boutelle spoke of his intention to manufacture “a lightweight train, a gasoline-filled aerial tanker, even a mechanically operated wild-turkey call.” His core business was in aircraft. He hoped a Fair-child turboprop passenger plane—the F-27 Friendship—would unseat the DC-3 as the dominant civilian air frame of the time.11

Not long after forming, the company hired a former Marine with a background in aviation ordnance, Eugene Stoner, as its senior design engineer. ArmaLite’s tastes reflected those of its parent company. Stoner worked not with traditional steels and wooden stocks, but with aircraft-grade aluminum, new alloys, and plastics—materials that made firearm traditionalists cringe. Fortunately for ArmaLite, the Fairchild executives had a sales approach as novel as their weapons. Boutelle’s long-standing friendship with General Curtis LeMay of the air force gave ArmaLite unusual access to an alternative market inside the Pentagon. By 1956, the air force had taken an interest in the AR-5, a collapsible rifle that ArmaLite proposed for inclusion in survival kits for air crews. The rifle weighed two and a half pounds and could be disassembled and stored inside its own plastic stock. According to ArmaLite, it even floated. The AR-5 never entered mass production. But it made ArmaLite, a firm that emerged from almost nothing at all, a contender for contracts in a business in which new firms usually met closed doors.

Stoner kept working. By 1956, ArmaLite was showing the AR-10—an automatic rifle that fired the standard NATO cartridge but ditched traditional lines and dress. If the AK-47 was stolid and proletarian, the AR-10 had the sleek look of 1950s modernity itself. Its receiver was forged aluminum alloy. Its stock and hand guards were molded plastics. It had a large handle at the base of its barrel that let it be carried like a briefcase. And it weighed less than automatic rifles under the U.S. Army’s review. Like the AK-47, the AR-10 could be fired on automatic or on single-shot semiautomatic fire. Its self-loading features were made possible by putting to work the same excess energy harnessed in the Kalashnikov: It diverted gas from burning propellant through a port in the barrel and back toward the shooter, where its energy was used to keep the rifle moving through its firing cycle. But rather than drive a piston, the expanding gases were routed through a narrow metal tube that blasted gas directly against the housing that held the bolt. This energy was sufficient to drive the bolt carrier and bolt backward and clear the chamber of the freshly emptied cartridge case. A return spring slowed the rearward motion of the bolt, then reversed it and forced the entire assembly forward again.

A prototype AR-10 failed spectacularly when its barrel burst in army tests. The timing of ArmaLite’s offering was serendipitous nonetheless. An advanced prototype of the M-14, known as the T44, was on an inside track to become the military’s new standard rifle. But within the bureaucracy, an insurgency was afoot. Several senior officers believed that an automatic rifle based on a smaller-caliber cartridge brought more benefits than those offered by the T44. They were examining the possibility of taking the German and Soviet intermediate cartridges a step further, with an even smaller and lighter round that could be propelled at velocities previously unrealized in any standard arm. The concept was known as small-caliber, high-velocity, or SCHV. One of the idea’s supporters, General Willard G. Wyman of the Continental Army Command, observed an AR-10 demonstration. ArmaLite, if nothing else, had an innovator’s spirit. Wyman arranged a meeting with Stoner, at which he asked him to design a version of his AR-10 to handle a .22-caliber round. Stoner and ArmaLite agreed. This informal compact marked a turning point in American rifle design.

ArmaLite faced a significant technical hurdle. It was one thing to make a smaller rifle, and another to make a smaller rifle that would be accurate and deadly at great range. The United States Infantry Board, an organization responsible for testing new tactics and equipment, had initially accepted the notion that the rifle should be accurate out to three hundred yards. But the army set a more demanding standard: The miniaturized AR-10 was to be able to strike and penetrate a steel helmet at five hundred yards.12 This was an arbitrary requirement, more suited to presentations in conference rooms than related to the conditions of most warfighting. But ArmaLite had no choice. Stoner redesigned a .222 Remington round, a commercially available cartridge well suited for long-range varmint shooting. For a rifle round that would be fired at men, the .222 Remington was, in a word, tiny—at least by existing military standards in either the East or the West. It was 2.13 inches long and fired a bullet that weighed only fifty-five grains,13 roughly one-tenth of an ounce, which was less than half the mass of the Soviet bullet. Stoner altered the cartridge so it was slightly longer and could be filled with more powder. The result was a new round: the .223 (and later, the 5.56-millimeter round), the lightweight but high-powered ammunition for ArmaLite’s new project. The company dubbed its new weapon the AR-15.

The AR-15 looked like nothing else in military service anywhere. It had all of the nontraditional features of its bigger brother, the AR-10, including an aluminum receiver, hard plastic furniture, and the odd-looking carrying handle. But it was thirty-nine inches long. It weighed, when unloaded, only 6.35 pounds. Its appearance—small, dark, lean, and synthetically futuristic—stirred emotions. A rifle, after all, was supposed to look like a rifle. To its champions, the AR-15 was an embodiment of fresh thinking. Critics saw an ugly little toy. Wherever one stood, no one could deny the ballistics were intriguing. The .223’s larger load of propellant and the AR-15’s twenty-inch barrel worked together to move the tiny bullet along at ultrafast speeds—in excess of thirty-two hundred feet per second, almost three times the speed of sound. The initial AR-15 and its ammunition were in place. The first steps in an American shift in rifles for killing men had been made.

Now came the matter of selling it. But to whom? Outside of ordnance circles, several officers saw promise in the SCHV concept.14 But as a rifle that emerged from the private sector, and had such unusual characteristics, the AR-15 met predictable resistance in the army’s ordnance corps. The M-14 had been approved as the new standard rifle in 1957. The AR-15 arrived just as the army thought the conversation about rifles had closed. The idea of reconsidering the years of effort and enormous spending behind the M-14, and challenging the prevailing thinking with a high-concept minirifle, amounted to small-arms heresy. The entrenched interests offered ArmaLite little hope. The Fairchild Engine & Airplane Corporation, meanwhile, risked foundering. Its aircraft-marketing plans had not worked out. Nor had Boutelle’s other schemes. The company was starved for cash. On January 7, 1959, Fairchild transferred manufacturing rights for the AR-15 to Colt’s Firearms Division for $325,000 and a royalty-sharing guarantee with Stoner and Cooper-MacDonald, Inc., the independent arms-dealing firm that arranged the deal.15 From that point forward, the weapons were to be made in Hartford, Connecticut, by the descendant of the firm that had manufactured Gatling guns, and put the world on the path toward automatic arms.

With Colt’s, the sales push entered a new phase. Robert W. MacDonald, a principal at Cooper-MacDonald, was a graying curmudgeon given to hard-nosed deals. He had made a name for himself selling explosives in Asia.16 His firm had collected a neat $250,000 finder’s fee from the $325,000 ArmaLite-Colt’s licensing deal. But he stood to make more money—a lot more money—if Colt’s found customers for the AR-15.v First he faced an arms-trade policy hurdle. He could not sell the rifle to America’s potential enemies. And under mutual-aid provisions, he could sell it to Washington’s allies only if it was compatible with American arms. For the AR-15 to have international sales potential the rifle first had to be introduced, somehow, to American military use. MacDonald put his ample imagination to use, even as Colt’s pursued its own plans.

In summer 1960, Colt’s took the AR-15 on the road, including to police departments around the United States, where their sales team fired into a variety of objects (automobiles were a favorite) and engaged in almost giddy declarations of their rifle’s powers. “The penetrating effects of the .223 round are devastating from a practical standpoint,” one company summary read. “We are in a position to state that there is not a commercially manufactured automobile in this country that can withstand the penetrating effects of this weapon and cartridge.” The summary described the effects of roughly three hundred rounds fired into a 1951 Pontiac Catalina, which was shot in a demonstration for the Indiana State Police. The range was seventy-five yards.

The .223 cartridge will penetrate:

1. Bumper steel.

2. Frame steel.

3. Motor block (only enters, does not exit).

4. Both sides of car (broadside shot).

5. Trunk lid, back seat, front seat, dashboard, firewall and in some cases on into the radiator when fired from rear to front.

6. Wheel drums, coil springs and shock absorbers.

7. All glass (laminated shatterproof or tempered glass).

A few weeks later, Colt’s added a suggestive demonstration at a sales pitch to the police of Glastonbury, Connecticut. Its salesman put two large cans of water on the front seat of a 1955 Pontiac Tudor, paced off sixty yards, and opened up. The water cans were surrogates for a driver and passenger. Colt’s let everyone know just how poorly those would-be criminals in a getaway car had fared, and how well the bullets fired by the AR-15 had performed: “The bullet will still penetrate both sides of vehicle after passing through two 5 gallon cans of water placed in front seat of the automobile to simulate a body in the car. Both cans were ruptured and torn apart at the seams upon impact.” A single bullet fired by an AR-15, by the implicit wink in this kind of statement, was capable of a bad-guy-stopping twofer—it could pass through a door, then one man, and then another man and then out another door. Bonnie and Clyde would have no chance. The summary’s conclusions almost gasped. The AR-15, it read, “can be fired full automatic off the finger tips” and “can be fired off the stomach or chin or with one hand holding only the pistol stock. The recoil is so negligible as to be insignificant.” It added, “There is not a piece of metal or steel on a commercially manufactured automobile that cannot be penetrated by the .223 cartridge,” which will also “penetrate most commercially used building materials.”17

Such sales copy was straight from the days of the Auto-Ordnance Corporation and the Thompson gun, though it was targeted against law enforcement officers and not yet the general public. As this cocksure sense of the AR-15’s formidability was being assembled, the most successful demonstration of all was held. In mid-1960, while automobiles were being pierced, punctured, and shredded by Colt’s sales team, MacDonald arranged for General LeMay, then the air force’s vice chief of staff, to be invited to Boutelle’s sixtieth birthday party at Boutelle’s gentleman’s farm in Maryland. Much of the farm had been converted into recreational shooting ranges. General LeMay, like Boutelle, was a gun buff. The invitation was crafted to appeal. A sample AR-15, the new miracle gun, would be on hand for the general to fire. The party was held over the Fourth of July. The hosts set up three watermelons at ranges of 50 and 150 yards and invited the general to try his hand at shooting them. What followed was one of the odder moments in American arms-procurement history. Watermelons were bright and fleshy in ways that water cans were not, and when struck by the little rifle’s ultrafast bullets, the first two fruits exploded in vivid red splashes. General LeMay was so impressed that he spared the third melon; the party decided to eat it. No doubt this was great fun for the arms salesmen. It was also nonsense. But salesmanship was salesmanship. MacDonald understood that the air force had its own small-arms needs and wanted its own automatic rifle for defending air bases and strategic-missile sites. He also knew that General LeMay was unimpressed with the M-14. Colt’s, for the price of three watermelons and Independence Day cocktails, had a high-level convert.

MacDonald had cultivated the right man. The air force began putting the rifle to tests. In 1961, General LeMay became air force chief of staff. In May 1962, the air force entered a contract with Colt’s to buy eighty-five hundred rifles. This was a small order. But just like that, the AR-15 formally entered the American military arms system, via a side door. Colt’s automatic rifle was now a viable product for foreign and domestic sales.

McNamara did not share with Vance what had convinced him of the M-14’s definite inferiority to the AK-47 and AR-15. But the evidence circulating in the Pentagon in late 1962 was both theoretical and empirical. The theoretical side was strong. Charles J. Hitch, a former Rhodes scholar serving as comptroller for the Department of Defense, had recently completed an analysis of the American military’s rifle programs. In it, Hitch endorsed the idea of the lighter-weight automatic rifle with smaller ammunition. The study marked a provocative tweak of the old guard. It suggested that systems analysts might, after all, be able to see things the traditional military could not. With it, the Pentagon had at last formally seconded ideas accepted by the Wehrmacht and the Red Army during World War II. The United States military was catching up. The empirical side was weaker. Hitch was more than attuned to the assault-rifle concept. He was smitten by a product: the AR-15. Classified reports from Vietnam, where hundreds of these new rifles had undergone combat trials, were giving the AR-15 high marks and providing a surprise. Reports from the field claimed that when a bullet fired from the AR-15 struck a man, it inflicted devastating injuries.

The causes were apparently twofold. First, the metal jacket of early AR-15 bullets tended to shatter on impact, sending fragmentation slicing through victims.18 (In the army, this was variously seen as attractive and worrisome. In classified correspondence, some officers were thrilled by the perceived wounding characteristics, which one prominent army doctor described as “explosive effects.” Others wondered whether the .223 round might be illegal under international convention.)19 Second, the bullets often turned sideways inside a victim, a phenomenon known as yaw. In one respect, the effects of yaw somewhat resembled what could be seen on the surface of a lake when a speedboat turned sharply. In this case, the energy delivery manifested itself as a shock wave within a human body, which could create stretching or rupturing injury to tissue not directly in a bullet’s path. By turning, the bullet also crushed and cut more tissue as it passed through a victim, creating a larger wound channel.

The supposed effects of these phenomena on men were described in the first known battlefield trials of AR-15s, which had been coaxed to life in Asia via another of MacDonald’s sales masterstrokes. In 1961, MacDonald had made contact with the army’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, which had offices in Saigon and Bangkok. Among the officers eager to work with the new rifle was Lieutenant Colonel Richard R. Hallock, a paratrooper from World War II who was proud to be associated with the whiz-kid culture and was attracted to rifle development, though he had limited experience with ballistics, procurement, testing, or weapon design. He was, however, an able writer of memorandums. His office proposed a study. In December 1961, McNamara approved the purchase of one thousand AR-15s for American military advisers to distribute to Vietnamese government soldiers. The approval worked on two levels. It gave an outlet for McNamara’s interest in the new rifle and aligned with President Kennedy’s decision a month before to increase military aid flowing from Washington to South Vietnam. The United States was envisioning warfare with new roles for Special Forces and helicopter-borne battalions. Vietnam was becoming a showcase for this thinking. The futuristic AR-15 seemed a tantalizing fit. Enthusiasm for the rifle was running high enough that as the test was approved, President Kennedy’s military aide presented him with a sample AR-15 to look over in the Oval Office, and Kennedy was photographed playfully handling this peculiar little rifle, which was secretly being shipped to Vietnam.

Lieutenant Colonel Hallock and the agency dubbed their test Project AGILE—“a comprehensive field evaluation” of the AR-15 under combat conditions. The name in itself might have been a warning that this was not to be real science. Throughout much of 1962, Vietnamese units carried the new American assault rifles into combat. Excited vignettes trickled back. In May, Colonel Cao Van Vien, commander of the Vietnamese Airborne Brigade, reported that his soldiers had shot two Viet Cong guerrillas with their experimental weapons. One guerrilla had been hit in the wrist. The bullet severed the man’s hand, which remained behind when he escaped. This was not necessarily revelatory. The typical Vietnamese fighter weighed about ninety pounds. Any number of military cartridges might shatter the lower forearm of a ninety-pound man upon smacking the radius and ulna squarely. And a data sample of one injury was not grounds for extrapolation. But context was absent from the report, which emphasized gruesome wounds with descriptive glee. “An AR-15 bullet pierced the head of a VC from the nape of his neck to his forehead,” the report said of the injury to the second guerrilla. “The hole in the nape of the neck was about bullet size. However, it came out his face and took off almost half of it. The face was unidentifiable. Firing range: from 50 to 70 meters.”20 This injury was easier to grasp, if only because it was familiar. Autopsy reports and medical literature had long shown that human heads shatter when penetrated by military rifle bullets. The description, in other words, should have been unremarkable. But the macabre cheerleading leaking from the field evaluation was a mere hint of what lay ahead.

The secret report of Project AGILE, submitted in August 1962, was short on dispassionate observation but long on product boosterism. Like the Vietnamese colonel, Lieutenant Colonel Hallock and his team gushed with satisfaction. “On 13 April, 62, a Special Forces team made a raid on a small village,” their report noted. “In the raid, seven VC were killed. Two were killed by AR-15 fire. Range was 50 meters. One man was hit in the head; it looked like it exploded. A second man was hit in the chest; his back was one big hole.” A Ranger unit detailed similar effects on five guerrillas ambushed on June 9. Ranges were thirty to one hundred yards. The inventory was chilling:

Back wound, which caused thoracic cavity to explode. 2. Stomach wound, which caused the abdominal cavity to explode. 3. Buttock wound, which destroyed all of the tissue of both buttocks. 4. Chest wound from right to left, destroyed the thoracic cavity. 5. Heel wound, the projectile entered the bottom of the right foot causing the leg to split from the foot to the hip.

The report claimed that in another firefight a Vietnamese Ranger fired a three-round burst into a guerrilla fifteen meters away and both decapitated the man and severed his right arm. In order to accept these descriptions at face value, one would have to believe that in a small sampling of injuries the AR-15 had caused two traumatic amputations—a type of injury rarely observed from rifle bullets. But such coolheaded skepticism did not work its way into the report. A sales pitch was gathering momentum: The AR-15 was the most lethal rifle the world had known. The Project AGILE report did not stop there. It listed advantages beyond the AR-15’s capacity for producing theatrically grotesque wounds. The new rifle was small, light, and easy to handle. The authors claimed it required very little maintenance. Its reliability was unsurpassed. They recorded only one shortcoming: A plastic handgrip along one rifle’s barrel had cracked. This they explained away with laconic bemusement, observing that the break occurred while moving a stubborn prisoner, and “the soldier concerned had placed the handguard against a VC head with considerable force.” MacDonald’s Saigon pitch proved to be another salesmanship triumph. The report, from its title to its conclusions, could not have read better for Colt’s had MacDonald dictated it himself. Its claims exceeded even the contents of AR-15 sales brochures.21

Cyrus Vance had little to do but follow his boss’s orders. He passed McNamara’s instructions to General Earle Wheeler, the Army’s chief of staff, who ordered tests to determine the “relative effectiveness” of the AK-47, the AR-15, and the M-14. Here began the next strange chapter in the M-16’s march out of obscurity. Evaluators have many ways to measure a rifle’s utility for war. There are tests for accuracy, reliability, and durability. There are means to assess ergonomics. How the rifle performs tactically—the number of shots, hits, and near misses fired by soldiers as they attack and defend in controlled simulations—can form another set of useful measures. At General Wheeler’s instruction, evaluators at American commands around the world were put to work to rank the three rifles along these lines. This was a sensible idea. It was also a flawed plan. General Wheeler wanted answers by November 30—a deadline almost certainly too tight for findings that would be meaningful, much less conclusive. But President Kennedy and Secretary McNamara wanted answers. The Pentagon was galloping headlong. The army’s internal correspondence was frantic. “Initiation of testing will not await submittal or approval of final detailed plans,” one of the instructions read. “Representation at tests will be kept to a minimum. . . . Tests should not be influenced or delayed by the requirements for observers.”22

To see how this kind of haste could lead to poor judgment and shoddy science, one need look no further than the army’s attempt to measure the three weapons’ lethality. The tests sought to answer a seemingly simple question. What happened when a bullet fired from each rifle actually hit a human being? Implicit in the work was the related question: Which weapon would most surely cause incapacitation, the state in which a wounded enemy combatant would no longer be able to fight? Answering such questions was the realm of a sometimes-scientific field known, in what could seem a double entendre, as “terminal ballistics.” The practitioners of this now secretive art were the professional descendants of Louis A. La Garde, the turn-of-the-century surgeon who had fired into cadavers and livestock to explore the means by which bullets tore through skin, bones, and flesh. In the United States, many of them worked at the army’s Biophysics Division at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, where General Wheeler’s project became a major undertaking. More than 90 percent of the division’s staff participated, overtime pay was freed up, and to meet the tight deadline many people worked nights, weekends, and on holidays. The division chose four methods to evaluate the rifles.23 Its staff would measure the velocity of the bullets at the muzzle and at various points downrange. They would fire into blocks of a special gelatin designed to simulate human tissue. They would fire into live castrated male Texas Angora goats, which were the laboratory’s preferred animals for experimentation, and in ready supply. And in tests that would later cause their study nearly to disappear from government records, they would fire into amputated human legs and decapitated human heads.

Organizing a supply of legs and heads presented problems. In 1902, then-Major La Garde could make arrangements at a private medical college and shoot dangling corpses on the university grounds. Such options were not available in 1962, at least not on short notice. But the men who led the study—Arthur J. Dziemian and Alfred G. Olivier, who later would be expert witnesses before the Warren Commission’s investigation into the assassination of President Kennedy—had tools at their disposal that were unavailable to La Garde. First, they could shield their work from public review. The Cold War’s atmosphere of secrecy allowed a cone of silence to be lowered. Dziemian and Olivier needed only to claim that shooting human legs and heads was a matter of national security, and warn everyone involved that disclosing the strange doings of the Biophysics Division was punishable under counterespionage law. This ensured that the work would be classified, and remain classified, and that whatever the scientists did would barely be known. Second, the United States was now a global superpower with deep resources and long reach. For a project with the interest of the president and the secretary of defense, the ballisticians could make cadaver-procuring arrangements that had been impossible in La Garde’s day. And so it came to pass that in order to satisfy McNamara’s curiosity for a comparison, for the 1962 lethality tests a batch of human heads were made available via shipment from India. Neither the laboratory’s classified report nor the limited correspondence about the tests that survived disclosed precisely how the army procured them. Nor did the authors say how they disposed of the human remains after subjecting them to gunfire. All that survived was a 286-page record of the tests and the testers’ conclusions, along with telltale signs of the army’s embarrassment about the entire But if the record did not illuminate all of the details, it did illuminate something else. It showed just how bizarre, and off track, the American reaction to the AK-47 had become.

The tests opened at 9:30 A.M. on October 26 at one of the proving ground’s outdoor ranges. It began with live goats. The morning was chilly and overcast. The goats, which weighed between 62 and 145 pounds, had been sheared and secured inside holding racks. They were oriented at right angles to the gunners, each goat so his right side presented itself as a target. The gunners sat at a shooting table, leaned forward, looked through telescopic scopes, and fired. Thirty goats were shot that day. Goat No. 12658, an eighty-pound billy, was first. After each goat was struck, the testers released the wounded animal from the rack for the next research step: “observation of the clinical response of the animal to the trauma.” This included measurements of the volume of blood lost (in milliliters); the “time to permanent collapse” (in seconds); the “direction of fall” (vertical, from the rifle, toward the rifle); and survival time, which was determined by counting the elapsed seconds from the impact of a bullet with a goat until the “cessation of heartbeats.” (The goats that did not die quickly, and seemed destined to live beyond a few hours, were “sacrificed by electrocution.”) To ensure nothing was missed, a 16-millimeter Dynafax motion-picture camera recorded each billy’s fate, and the carcasses were examined by necropsy. Goat No. 12658 was hit with a bullet from an AR-15 at a distance of either twenty-five or one hundred meters, depending on which chart in the report is to be believed. He had a quick end. The bullet passed through the animal’s liver, at least one lung, and the gastrointestinal tract. Permanent collapse came forty-four seconds later, when the billy fell toward the rifle. His heart ceased beating within five minutes. In the course of the study, 166 goats were shot in all, at ranges of twenty-five to five hundred meters.

The leg tests began on October 29, when gunners fired into human limbs that had been amputated from cadavers, frozen, and then thawed for testing day. The gunners shot from a distance of fifty meters, aiming for thighs, calves, and feet. On November 3, the gunners turned their attention to the processed heads from India. For these tests, the skulls were, according to Dziemian and Olivier, “unbleached and undefatted.” To ready them, each was encased in ballistic gelatin, which allowed tissue gaps inside the cranium to fill with fake tissue and form what the authors called a “pseudobrain.” The gelatin outside was sculpted close, to create “about the same resistance to penetration by the bullets as would the scalp and soft tissues of the face and head.” The Biophysics Division’s scientists switched on their motion-picture camera and the gunners began their work, firing from ranges of fifty and one hundred meters. In every case at both distances, the impact of a military rifle bullet with a human head created what Dziemian and Olivier called “explosive hydrodynamic effects.” The heads ruptured and the fragments scattered, due in large part to the shock wave traveling through the pseudotissue within the cranium, which could not contain it. This should have been predictable. La Garde, in a summary of his own work and case studies of others, had published a voluminous work in 1916 that detailed what he called the “explosive effects” to the human head when solidly struck by modern rifle bullets. His case studies included victims of battlefield injuries, a barracks suicide, and a prisoner who attempted to flee from a guard, who shot him high on the back of the head. Ample data had accumulated in the decades since, including studies of cranial injuries to Allied soldiers in World War II. Put simply, by 1962 it was well-known in the ballistics and medical communities that human heads broke apart when struck by military rifle bullets at the ranges in question in these tests. Nevertheless, the heads were shot, twenty-three with pseudobrains and four without.

Then things got interesting, to the point of forensic absurdity. After the heads were broken, Dziemian and Olivier and their scientists attempted to differentiate the damage. A simple matrix was established. At a range of fifty meters, the M-14 and the AR-15 both caused more cranial damage than the AK-47. At a range of one hundred meters, the AR-15 caused more damage than either the AK-47 or the M-14, which were roughly equal to each other. Presented this way in the narrative portion of the Biophysics Division’s secret report, the information appeared methodically observed. The pictures published in the appendixes exposed the rankings as near meaningless. Some of the images showed cranial fragments arranged for assessment and display. Others, time-sequenced photographs excerpted from the thousands taken by the motion-picture camera, documented in slow motion the effect of a bullet penetrating and passing through a human head. The results, in practical terms, were identical. Each and every head containing a pseudobrain flew apart. Government scientists might care to count pieces and decide which rifle was more lethal, as if such measurements were revelatory. Soldiers would have better sense. Heads were heads, not ammunition cans, watermelons, cubes of gelatin, or blocks of pine. When attached to living men they contained brains. The shooting tests had established, unsurprisingly, that bullets fired from some military rifles caused human heads to fragment into more pieces than bullets fired from other rifles. But what exactly did this mean for either a rifleman or his victim? There is, after all, but one degree of death.

If General Wheeler wanted to know about the relative effectiveness of the rifles under review, this was not a measure. The lethality tests, in the end, offered little of obvious value. Every human bone struck by a rifle bullet had broken, every gelatin-filled cranium had shattered. The relative differences in damages were academic. And yet the test results still might have had a use in restoring a more realistic conversation about the AR-15. Dziemian and Olivier’s final report subtly but clearly revealed that the army’s terminal-ballistics experts were suspicious of the Project AGILE findings. “More shots were made with the AR-15 on legs than with the other bullets,” it noted, “because of the rather startling results from limb wounds in combat described in the A.R.P.A. report.”24 The Biophysics Division’s gunners shot legs at various orientations, with standard bullets and with bullets that had their tips trimmed off. No matter what they did, they were unable to reproduce the effects that the participants in Project AGILE claimed to have seen. At Aberdeen Proving Ground, the traumatic amputations simply did not occur. This result, coupled with the observation that all heads shattered when struck by any of the bullets, might have been a basis for the Pentagon to question the objectivity and methods of Lieutenant Colonel Hallock’s team. But instead of having such a practical value, the lethality tests underlined other things: the risks of secrecy and the deep dysfunctions in McNamara’s supposedly highly functional systems-analysis approach. There was no peer review of this kind of hushed work, and events that followed ensured that almost no one would ever find out about it.25

The deadline for an initial report was November 30,26 seven weeks after Secretary McNamara raised the issue of American rifle choices with Secretary Vance. An understandable curiosity rose through the Pentagon. The possibility that scientists might tell soldiers which new American rifle was more dangerous was intriguing. Lethality data for the AK-47, a Soviet weapon the United States was beginning to face, added spice. But rather than allow a wider set of minds to examine the study and glean what they might from it—in other words, rather than being systematic—the army restricted its circulation reflexively and fiercely. Sometimes supervisors have to be wary of what they ask for, especially in institutions that mix secrecy, cash, and guns. Away from the Biophysics Division, where shooting body parts had become part of the job, the realization that federal employees were performing gunfire tests on human heads was at once unsavory and politically risky. Someone, it seemed, felt that this was something the United States did not want to get caught doing. In spring 1963, the staff of Charles Hitch, the Pentagon’s comptroller, asked the army chief of staff’s office for two copies of the lethality report. Worry and embarrassment crept in. The cover-up began. In a memorandum stamped SECRET the army chief of staff ordered Lieutenant General R. W. Colglazier, Jr., the deputy chief of staff for logistics, not to share the report, even with Hitch’s office, “in view of the sensitivity and potential sensationalism with the use of human cadavers from India.”27 General Colglazier sought help from Vance. “Although this is not the first use of elements of the human cadaver for this purpose, I consider such use to be extremely sensitive,” he wrote, in another secret memorandum, adding that the army would like Vance to ask Hitch to withdraw the request in “recognition of the potential sensationalism which could arise from public disclosure of this information.”28 The results of the lethality study remained hidden for forty-six years. And at the most important time, during the early and mid-1960s, the Project AGILE report, with its suspicious observations and false conclusions, remained uncontested.29 The AR-15 continued its rise, boosted by a reputation for lethality and reliability that it did not deserve.

General Wheeler’s larger set of worldwide tests also failed to provide a fully useful or enduring evaluation. This was in part because of the undue rush, but there were darker subcurrents, too. The study collapsed under the weight of allegations of bias and a climate of mutual recriminations between various camps. Proponents of the AR-15 accused the army and its evaluators of efforts at sabotage. The acidic climate prompted Vance to order an investigation by the army’s inspector general, which found that at least part of the testing, a tactical assessment at Fort Benning, had been rigged against the AR-15. The results tainted the entire effort and provided the AR-15’s backers with another argument they would use well: that their weapon was never treated fairly. Absent anything definitive to say, General Wheeler chose the safest path available. On January 14, 1963, based on the results of the worldwide tests, he delivered his recommendations. The army was most clear on one point—the pitfalls of the Soviet assault rifle. In his summary, General Wheeler dismissed the value of the AK-47, calling it “optimized for the submachine gun role” and declaring its “overall inferiority” to both the M-14 and M-16. Thus ending discussion about that, the general assessed the American arms. Being politically astute, he found merits in each. Both weapons, according to the army’s assessment, had superior accuracy as well as acceptable durability, ease of maintenance, and other desirable characteristics. But the AR-15 had a consequential fault. The evaluation unequivocally rated it unsatisfactory in the important category of reliability. This was because, General Wheeler wrote, stoppages during firing were “so troublesome that soldiers might well lose confidence in the weapon.” The general added that the army was optimistic that the deficiencies “can be readily corrected,” though he was silent on what these corrections might be.30

Given the ferocity building in the argument over which rifle was best, General Wheeler was careful not to offend any camp too greatly. He seemed eager to step aside and let the defense secretary choose the next steps. The defense secretary, after all, was the one pushing the question. General Wheeler offered three recommendations: continue with the M-14 program, terminate the M-14 program and adopt the AR-15 as the new standard arm, or defer a drastic step and mollify all camps via what he called Option C. In this option, the army would buy AR-15s for helicopter-borne, airborne, and Special Forces soldiers and reduce its M-14 purchases accordingly. It would decide later which weapon would be the American shoulder-fired arm of the future: the AR-15, the M-14, or the SPIW, if the SPIW ever became feasible. Predictably, McNamara leaned toward Option C.

Now came the matter of readying the AR-15 for service. In early March, the Army Materiel Command formally opened an AR-15 development program, with an office at Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois headed by Lieutenant Colonel Harold W. Yount. This was not to be a normal program, and Colonel Yount’s managerial control was titular. A special committee with oversight duties was formed. The committee included representatives from all the services but also put the program under the defense secretary’s control: Two of McNamara aides were given seats on it, along with veto power over all its decisions.31 This gave the AR-15 a high priority. It also left the program vulnerable to political interference on technical matters and introduced fresh tensions between the defense secretary’s office and the ordnance service. McNamara had already expressed his dissatisfaction with the army’s weapons experts, and the inspector general’s investigation of the handling of the worldwide tests only added to the feelings of distrust. The defense secretary wanted to put his stamp on the AR-15 program and place it under his protection. But the top-heavy assignment of political appointees to the committee risked alienating or even removing people with weapons expertise from participation in the AR-15’s development. McNamara’s whiz kids were smart. But they had almost no experience in either war or weaponry, and were not necessarily an able substitute for those whose careers had been a study of ordnance and guns. One of the government’s ballistic experts was appalled at their role. “Their qualifications,” he said, “consisted of, and apparently were limited to, advanced academic degrees, supreme confidence in their own intellectual superiority, virtually absolute authority as designated representatives of OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense], and a degree of arrogance such as I have never seen before or since.”32

Firearms and their ammunition form a system. While that system can seem exceedingly simple compared to a fighter jet or a tank, it often is not simple at all. Automatic firearms and cartridges work together in complex ways, and changes to either a weapon or a cartridge can create pervasive disharmonies that can be difficult to pinpoint; ghosts can readily inhabit these machines, and they do. The services and the committee, working through both the government’s arsenal and Colt’s, proceeded to make changes to the AR-15 and the .223 round—more than one hundred in all. Many changes were minor and arcane. Others, including a change to the rifling in the AR-15’s barrel and the addition of a device that could push the bolt forward manually, were significant and consumed months of infighting and interservice positioning. Throughout it all, as the members maneuvered and quarreled, the committee missed a basic step—ensuring that the rifle was resistant to corrosion. Previous generations of American military rifles had been plated with chromium within their chambers and barrels, which protected these areas from pitting and rust. The AR-15 was not. Colt’s, and by some accounts Stoner, insisted that the barrel was made of a superior alloy, moly-vanadium, and would stand up to the elements without further protective steps. This was not the case. But the program rolled on, its momentum assured. In December 1963, the Pentagon purchased 104,000 M-16s—85,000 for the army and 19,000 for the air force, calling the procurement “a one-time buy.” The rifle was renamed the M-16. Option C had been exercised.

If the 1963 purchase was meant to settle questions about which troops would carry which weapon, it failed. Instead, the M-16’s anointment as an official American infantry arm made it influential in an unexpected way. The Marine Corps, long skeptical of Colt’s offering, took note of the new flexibility in American rifle selection and proposed yet another path. The Corps had never been enamored of the AR-15. It accepted the merits of the assault-rifle idea, but for logistical reasons the Marines wanted an assault rifle and a machine gun to have the same caliber. Another new weapon caught its eye. After ArmaLite had sold the rights for the AR-15, Eugene Stoner, the inventor, had moved to another firm, Cadillac Gage. There Stoner designed a modular system of barrels, sights, and trigger assemblies that could be mixed and matched around a single receiver to create either a light machine gun or an assault rifle. In 1964 General Wallace M. Greene, Jr., the Corps’ commandant, began lobbying the army to consider this new weapon, the Stoner 63. General Harold K. Johnson, who had replaced General Wheeler as army chief of staff, ordered a fresh round of tests. McNamara had opened discussions he had not anticipated. The American rifle program, once staid and organized, had become fully disordered. The army had developed one weapon, the M-14, and lobbied for its approval and survival. The air force had snubbed its sister service and adopted the AR-15, which was now called the M-16. McNamara had begun to push the M-16 into select units’ hands. And the Marine Corps was campaigning for the Stoner 63. Just about everything had happened except what should have happened: an objective and open competition for assault-rifle design, with multiple submissions and a careful evaluation, which is what the Soviet Union had organized two decades before.

It is worth a pause to consider the significance of the step not taken. After Charles Hitch endorsed the assault-rifle concept, the United States military could have decided what it wanted an assault rifle to be and to do. This would have been a matter of conceiving and publishing proposed specifications for caliber, muzzle velocity, weight, accuracy, and any number of other characteristics. These specifications could then have been provided to both the government’s designers and private industry—to Ruger, to Colt’s, to Remington, to Winchester, to Browning, to Cadillac Gage, and to any other interested participants—with a deadline for design submission. In doing so, several things would have been achieved. McNamara’s suspicion of the ordnance corps would have been placated. The intellectual capital of the private sector would have been notified and invited to compete. And when the deadline for submissions rolled around, the Pentagon would have had a range of competing designs from which to select the basis for developing an assault rifle.

Instead, it had argument, which now took the shape of an evaluation of firearms from a tiny field: the M-14, which the Pentagon had already acknowledged was not quite right, and two weapons—the M-16 and Stoner 63—that had been designed by the same man. No matter how well this evaluation would be conducted, the United States’ rifle selection process looked less like deliberation than lunging. The new round of tests, called Small Arms Weapons Systems, or SAWS, tried to be everything that General Wheeler’s worldwide tests had failed to be: thorough, objective, methodical. It did manage to serve a useful purpose. As the evaluators bore down on the many aspects of performance for the small assortment of rifles under consideration, they found something that McNamara’s committee had missed: The M-16 was given to malfunctions.

One decision can affect another in unforeseen ways, and as the evaluators worked they came to realize that a decision made arbitrarily several years before—to have the rifle be accurate and powerful out to five hundred yards—was producing troubling side effects. Achieving that kind of ballistic performance required the bullet to travel at a very high velocity. But how much velocity was enough? Stoner’s early AR-15 had fired a round with a propellant powder known as IMR 4475. In late 1963, the army allowed a different powder, WC 846, to be used. This powder, known as ball powder because of the shape of its propellant’s pellets, appeared to offer advantages. It lowered the pressure in the chamber and it increased the bullet’s muzzle velocity. But it came with worrisome traits. It burned dirtier than the IMR powder, and it increased the rate at which the rifle fired. Both of these side effects were potentially harmful. Unlike what happened in the AK-47, in the M-16 the gas of the burning propellant did not push a piston. It vented into the bolt carrier, part of the operating system of the rifle. This exposed the important moving parts of the rifle to more heat and fouling. And dirtier powder meant more fouling still. Moreover, the increase in the cyclic rate increased the rate of jamming and the wear on the weapons’ parts—two consequences that could make the rifle both less reliable and less durable than it otherwise might be. This is exactly what the SAWS test uncovered. By 1965 some of the classified results of the SAWS test were circulating through the army’s upper reaches, and the evaluators had concluded that with ammunition packed with ball propellant, the rifle had become six times more likely to misfeed, and was prone as well to more fouling.33 Perhaps it was time to tap the brakes. But the war would not allow that. The American involvement in Vietnam was accelerating. In February 1965, the Viet Cong had attacked the Pleiku air base, killing eight American soldiers. President Lyndon B. Johnson escalated, authorizing the bombing of North Vietnam. The war was gathering momentum. New weapons were wanted. Slowing the M-16’s manufacture and distribution—no matter the unsettling results percolating from the tests—was not considered. In the rush, those who could have exercised prudence had become impervious to the signs.

In 1965, while the SAWS test was still under way, the M-16 received its decisive boost. One of the American helicopter-borne units that had received M-16s, the First Battalion of the Seventh Cavalry, was placed by helicopters into the path of three NVA regiments that were trying to drive from the Cambodian border and split Vietnam in two. For six days, the outnumbered American soldiers faced communist forces in what General William C. Westmoreland, the commander of American forces in Vietnam, described as “fighting as fierce as any ever experienced by American troops.” After the battle, General Westmoreland attended a briefing by the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Harold G. Moore, Jr., who, according to Westmoreland, lifted an M-16 rifle and said, “Brave soldiers and the M-16 brought this victory.” General Westmoreland had worried through much of 1965 over the small-arms advantage enjoyed by communist fighters with AK-47s. General Wheeler’s insistence on the Soviet assault rifle’s “overall inferiority” was not quite true after all. The view might have looked that way from Washington when the army’s design corps was under criticism, but the American commander on the ground was feeling outgunned. The M-16, it seemed to him, promised to be the equalizer.

Moore and many of his soldiers told me that the M-16 was the best individual weapon ever made, clearly the American answer to the enemy’s AK-47. Most American units at the time were equipped with the older M-14 rifle, which was semiautomatic and too heavy for the jungle. Convinced that Moore and his men knew what they were talking about, I asked Secretary McNamara as a matter of urgency to equip all American forces with the M-16 and then also to equip the ARVNvii with it.…

. . . The ARVN thus long fought at a serious disadvantage against the enemy’s automatic AK-47, armed as they were with World War II’s semiautomatic M-1, whose kick when firing appeared to rock the small Vietnamese soldiers back on their heels. Armed with a light carbine, little more than a pea shooter when compared with the AK-47, the South Vietnamese militia were at an even worse disadvantage.34

General Westmoreland’s passion for Colt’s automatic rifle would remain publicly unshaken throughout his life. But his description of the battle obscured a fuller view of what Colonel Moore’s soldiers had experienced. Moore’s own book, published years later, described several instances of M-16s jamming and failing in the fight. General Westmoreland also skipped details of the means by which the M-16 unseated the M-14 and finally became the American military’s primary arm. James B. Hall, a sales manager at Colt’s, described a more cunning process. By late 1965, Colt’s had almost filled the 1963 order for 104,000 rifles and had no other significant contracts on its books. General Westmoreland wanted more M-16s but was getting little support from the Pentagon. McNamara and General Johnson had already exercised Option C. Their keenness for the M-16 did not yet extend to making it the standard American arm, especially with the prospects for SPIW unresolved, and because introducing the M-16 to general issue would disrupt the hard-won small-arms standardization within NATO. Officials from Colt’s, meanwhile, were working their contacts on Capitol Hill, trying to enlist congressional help.

General Westmoreland’s frustration and Colt’s sales push worked in concert in October 1965, when Hall sent a letter to a brigadier general he knew who managed logistics in Vietnam. Hall informed the general that “effective the following January [Colt’s] would stop producing rifles for the Army and he was fighting a war without any support.” If this was meant to be incendiary, it had its desired effect. The brigadier passed the letter to General Westmoreland, who called Senator Richard B. Russell, Jr., Democrat of Georgia. Russell, an ally of President Johnson and one of the deans of the hill, was touring Vietnam at the time as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Russell called McNamara on December 7 and issued a naked political threat: “Buy 100,000 rifles today, or I’m releasing the story to the press.” Hall was summoned that day to Rock Island Arsenal to sign a contract.35 Colt’s position and profits were preserved. General Westmoreland would get his guns. For those who think that the United States chose its primary infantry rifle through orderly deliberation, or that systems analysis led to organized decision-making, the episode showed how things actually worked. This was how troops in Vietnam would receive their weapons, including the unready M-16s soon to be put into the hands of Hotel Company, Second Battalion, Third Marines.

After all these years of dysfunction, scandal was not far off. But first came celebration. At Colt’s Firearms Division in Hartford, General Westmoreland’s end run meant salvation. In 1963, Colt’s had posted a million-dollar loss. It had hired and trained new workers and lured managers from other firms, staking its future, even its survival, on a gun without a market.36 Floated by the Pentagon’s order, the company entered a boom. The return on the AR-15 investment was at hand. When Colt’s bought the manufacturing rights from Fairchild in 1959, it had gambled on a concept more than a product. ArmaLite’s rifle had been rejected by the Pentagon. It had no powerful backers in the army or the Marine Corps. No domestic orders were expected. The nation was at peace. Almost seven years later, with the signing of the contract in December 1965, Colt’s effectively became the sole-source provider of a weapon demanded by the army for an expanding war. The M-16, once roundly rejected, stood the chance of becoming the United States military’s primary firearm, which would mean the allies would be seeking a new class of assault rifles, too. The company grew. Between May 1966 and April 1967, as rifle production jumped at the Hartford plant, Colt’s military division hired 510 new employees.

Excitement surrounds a winner, and Colt’s was suddenly a winner. The accompanying promotional push was striking, both for Colt’s good luck and for the degree to which the gun press helped the company along. As part of the public-relations effort, William J. Curran, Colt’s advertising and public-relations manager, succeeded in publishing a story under his byline in Shooting Times, naturally touting the M-16.37 Gun companies and gun magazines have long had relationships beyond cozy. And now, when gun journalism was needed, Shooting Times failed. The magazine promoted the rifle further with a follow-up the next month. The second article detailed how Colt’s provided the editors an M-16 for test-firing. The editors avoided putting the gun through what they called a “torture test,” and were principally interested in its accuracy, its ease of use, and its bullets’ penetration of various items the authors judged common to the battlefield, including bunkers and steel plates. But a funny thing happened on the way to plinking the selected targets. Of the first 450 rounds fired, the brand-new M-16 malfunctioned eleven times. Might not this have been the story? Not in Shooting Times. The writer, Major George Nonte, passed off the poor performance as related to one bad gun and not indicative of M-16s as a class. It was, Nonte wrote, “only logical to assume that any deficiencies such as those noted would be corrected (or the gun would be rejected) in the course of final inspection.” He continued: “Before any single gun is actually accepted by Army resident inspectors and delivered to the military establishment, it must pass extensive firing tests.”38 This was not quite so. In fact, each rifle at Colt’s factory had to fire only thirty-three rounds to pass its acceptance test, and the army would later admit that in order to ensure a high acceptance rate, the acceptance test was skewed in Colt’s favor. Colt’s was allowed to conduct the tests with ammunition containing IMR powder—not the ball powder the rifles would fire in Vietnam, which was known to cause a higher rate of malfunctions.39

The stories went to print even as the army conducted a survey of the small-arms use of 121 soldiers on infantry, cavalry, or airborne duty in Vietnam. Almost 90 percent were carrying M-16s. The results both confirmed the nature of ground fighting in the war and suggested that the M-16 was not ready for the job at hand. Eighty percent of the participants said they normally fired at enemy combatants within two hundred yards, and 95 percent said the enemy was within three hundred yards. Seventy-nine percent said that most or some of the time they fired at night, when more than half never saw the opposing soldiers clearly. Moreover, 95 percent of the combat veterans said that when they did see Viet Cong and NVA soldiers, the enemy was either running, prone, or in some sort of hiding.40 What all of this meant was that one touted feature of the M-16—an ability to strike and penetrate steel helmets at five hundred yards—was almost irrelevant in jungle war. This was a dispiriting finding, given that the desire for this long-range performance had led the army to accept a propellant that made the rifle less reliable. And the soldiers’ narrative comments hinted at burgeoning problems. Some soldiers liked the M-16. But many others said that while it was a good rifle when it worked, it jammed. Ominously, several soldiers pleaded for cleaning equipment.41

The National Rifle Association also was ready to give the rifle a boost, and prepared an article for the American Rifleman that praised the M-16. The article, published several months later, asserted that the rifle “bears up well under harsh field conditions” and that “dust, dirt, and rain do not make the M-16A1 less functional provided minimal care is exercised.” As with the stoppages mentioned casually in Shooting Times, the NRA’s article carried a strong whiff of the malfunctions plaguing the rifle. It mentioned problems with dirty chambers, extraction, and jamming, but only briefly. The American Rifleman concluded, without offering evidence, that the rifle “is proving itself in Vietnam.”42 The gun press, with access to arms and arms companies that the traditional media could not match, was missing the biggest small-arms story of the war. The troops would have to find out the truth themselves. They would get that chance.

In summer 1966 as General Westmoreland’s M-16s were arriving in Vietnam, soldiers receiving the new weapons were finding them hard to clean, fussy, and prone to untimely stoppages. The scale of the problems was severe enough that in fall 1966 the army requested help, and teams of technicians from the Army Weapons Command and Colt’s were dispatched to investigate. In meetings with several combat units, the inspectors from Colt’s discovered that “weapons were in an unbelievable condition of rust, filth, and lack of repair.” They also noted that the troops had received insufficient marksmanship training, and “there was a shortage of technical manuals, there was a shortage of cleaning equipment, there was a shortage of repair parts, and there was a shortage of officers and NCOs who knew anything about the maintenance of the rifle.”

The fielding of the M-16 had stumbled badly. In a flash, a disturbing reputation had taken shape. When M-16s worked, they were excellent. But with unsettling frequency, after a bullet was fired, the empty cartridge case would not extract. It remained stuck in the chamber. The process of firing—not only on automatic, but at all—abruptly ceased. Making matters worse, sometimes the bottom of a spent cartridge case was torn away, which made it exceptionally difficult to remove the remainder manually. This was in some ways a familiar story. M-16s and their ammunition created jams as surely as Gatling and Gardner guns had early in their long period of manufacture. Moreover, as these problems were being reported, the weapons, billed as being assembled from modern components that gave the rifle an unsurpassed durability, were literally rotting in the troops’ hands. Another group of Colt’s specialists traveled to Rock Island Arsenal to inspect rifles returned from Vietnam. Robert D. Fremont, a former ArmaLite employee who had joined Colt’s, reported to Hartford that “the exteriors of most weapons were corroded and the bores and chambers almost universally fouled and dirty, showing evidence of real neglect.” Fremont suspected maintenance was a problem, because soldiers either had not been issued proper cleaning equipment or had not been trained. But he sensed as well that perhaps the M-16s were not yet suited for combat duty. There was too much rust and corrosion. He recommended “an investigation as to the possible use of stainless steel for barrels or chrome plating the chambers and bores of the AR-15 weapons in order to combat corrosion and neglect.” Fremont reached a conclusion that the army’s leadership and the president of Colt’s Firearms Division, Paul A. Benke, would not utter in public. “Colt’s weapons,” he wrote, “are sadly lacking in corrosion resistance.”43

It was a damning statement, though the public—and the troops— would not hear it. For the manufacturer of a weapon distributed by the United States for jungle war, it must have been surprising. The M-16 was nearly ten years old, and the manufacturing steps necessary to ensure corrosion resistance were no secret. But the army and Colt’s had neglected to follow them. At the same time, an army review team was finding that the army had issued new weapons but not the necessary cleaning gear to go with them.viii Lieutenant Colonel Herbert P. Underwood, visiting Vietnam from Rock Island, watched the troops make do. His letter back to Colonel Yount detailed a supply failure. It also revealed his own uncertainty about the army’s state of knowledge of the weapons it was handing out.

The 173rd uses some field expedience, primarily for cleaning the chamber and the bore of the weapons. They either use a piece of commo wire, a shoe lace or a nylon cord which they carry with them. They take a 30 caliber patch cut it in half, fold it once and loop the string or what ever it is to the center of this patch. Then using oil they pull it through the bore of the weapon starting from the chamber. As they do this, they clean both the chamber and the bore and then dry it off. They also put a little bit of oil on it. I have not been able to find anyone that does not put a little bit of oil in the chamber of the weapon to prevent it from corroding. I try to discourage it, however I am not completely convinced myself that if you leave the chamber completely dry you won’t have a problem resulting from corrosion, even if you cleaned your weapon every day.44

No one, it seemed, was quite sure what to do with this new rifle, not even the officers issuing it. Lieutenant Colonel Underwood had other problems to report. “The 173rd Airborne Brigade tells me that they have had at least 10 weapons, if not more, to blow up in the same manner as the exhibits that we had sent to us,” he wrote. In at least one of these cases, the American soldier firing it was killed.45 The problems were multiplying. Of 2,000 M-16s tested at the Twenty-fifth Infantry Division, 384 malfunctioned.46 One company, B Company of the Twenty-sixth Infantry, made a list of malfunctions that read like a roll call: 527042 Gorton, 54 rounds fired, 2 failed to extract; 701693 Mason, 2 rounds fired, round stuck in chamber, 60 rounds fired, 1 failed to extract; 531240 Coolet, 60 rounds fired, 1 failure to extract, 1 failure to feed, 40 rounds fired, 1 failure to chamber; and on it went, man by man.47

Three weeks later, David Behrendt, a Colt’s engineer temporarily assigned to Vietnam, mailed two audiotapes back to Colt’s officials in Hartford. Behrendt groused that while from the air Vietnam was beautiful, “when you get down on the ground and walk around, it’s something else, kind of cruddy. I told Jim I’ll be glad to see a blonde again. Everything around here is black hair and slanty eyes.” Behrendt had better reasons to feel indisposed. Many M-16s were jamming, and almost all were corroded. Working alongside soldiers at American bases and outposts, Behrendt restored most rifles to working order after cleaning them and replacing parts. But it was not a good sign that a corporate engineer with a bag of parts was required to keep a new rifle in service. Combat equipment was supposed to be more hardy than that. Behrendt noted, too, that the ball powder was making the M-16 run fast. Engineers at Colt’s had been working on a replacement part—a buffer inside the return spring—that would slow the weapons down. But none were yet in Vietnam. Speaking into a tape recorder halfway around the world, he urged action.

All the rifles have an extremely high rate of fire which isn’t helping us in the least bit. You better get that new buffer over here right pronto to stop some of this malfunction. It sure will help. Finishes have been wearing off many of the weapons and I’ve actually seen holes eaten right through into the charging handle area and along the lower receiver area, underneath the dust cover. You can see right into the magazine. Carrying handles are pretty well eaten up on many of the weapons. Rust is covering quite a few of them.48

Behrendt’s second tape detailed similar problems: “oily chambers, dirty chambers, dirty ammo, corroded ammo, or bent magazines, lips in particular.” One infantry company had a 30 percent failure rate, Behrendt said. The problems did not recur on the next operation, after the company commander emphasized rifle cleaning. This was typical of the mixed reports making their way back to the States. There were many problems, though it was also possible to find troops who liked the M-16. But Behrendt put the positive comments in perspective. “This was the only unit that has been completely satisfied with the rifles,” he said. The experiences elsewhere were disquieting. “We took three rifles to the range,” he said. “This was with another unit. The rifles were pulled from their storage area and the condition they were in was the way they would be taken to an operation with the magazines they were going to use. On the three rifles tryed [sic], two of them failed to extract on the first round fired. One rifle fired 63 rounds before it failed to extract.” Behrendt cleaned the rifles, replaced the extractor springs on one of them, and repeated the test the next day. With new ammunition, they worked well. With older ammunition, the jamming began on the fourth round fired. Behrendt said the platoon sergeants who watched the test were convinced the rifles could work. He was not sure they would be able to convince their men. And once again it was not a good sign that a Colt’s engineer had to work on rifles one day for the rifles to function the next. He also had more bad news.

I collected as many carriers and bolts as I could. Most of them are pretty much destroyed or battered up. I don’t know why this is occurring. The men say they just fire and it happens. I’m sending a couple of barrels back with Jim for further investigation, I cleaned these barrels, chamber area especially as best I could, took them to the range and we still had the same fail to extract problem.49

Colt’s data was accumulating. Another of its representatives in Vietnam, J. B. Hall, summed up the situation. Hall had met officers who fought during Operation Attleboro, one of the largest battles to date. The operation had been a startling experience for American troops. They faced heavy Viet Cong automatic-rifle fire from the dense vegetation. And their M-16s jammed. “There is no question that soldiers in Vietnam are losing confidence in the M-16 rifle,” Hall wrote. “It is imperative that we take all steps possible to correct the situation.” Hall’s report was the most urgent, and it included a list: plate the bore and chamber with chromium, install heavier buffers, correct the corrosion problems on receivers and barrels, and find a way to cover the magazines when not being fired. On an internal Colt’s channel, Hall offered a candid recommendation: “a crash program to provide a better weapon.” Like Fremont, he also framed the problem in a way that the army and Colt’s would never publicly dare. “While it is very true that there is a lack of rifle discipline by commanders, the statement that the M-14 fires with dirty ammunition while the M-16 doesn’t, is a hard argument to counter.”50 This was exactly the case: When the same GIs in the same climates and conditions carried M-14s they had no problems like they did with their M-16s. Did not this suggest that the source of the problem was not the troops, but the rifles?

A little more than two weeks later, in early November 1966, the latest news of the M-16’s poor performance in Vietnam reached top channels in the army. Colonel Yount visited the Pentagon to brief now-Colonel Hallock. Colonel Hallock’s interest in the M-16 was zealous and personal. He had been an early supporter of the rifle, and a supervisor of Project AGILE more than four years before. The meeting marked a potentially agonizing moment. The SAWS test had zeroed in on problems with misfeeds and fouling related to ball powder. The new weighted buffer had been identified as a fix for at least part of the problem. But the buffer was available only for newly manufactured weapons at Colt’s factory—not for the scores of thousands of rifles already in Vietnam. The weapon Colonel Hallock had advocated was failing, and as near as he could tell, the failures were getting American soldiers killed. What to do? Colonel Hallock filed a classified memorandum for the record based on his meeting. It left no doubt that the army had long understood the scope and nature of the M-16’s problems, had done little to resolve them, and still was moving slowly to help soldiers with malfunctioning weapons in Vietnam. Colonel Hallock described his conversation with Colonel Yount.

I asked if he had a plan to retrofit the weapons in the field with this buffer and he said he did not. First production of the new buffer, he said, would be in January and they would go on new weapons. He said that if the buffers were sent to the field for the old weapons they would not be available to go on the new weapons that also are going to the field. I asked if he had plans to get a special priority to increase the production rate and speed up availability of the buffer and he apparently did not. I also asked about clearing up the fouling caused by ball powder. He did not say that anything definitive had been done to correct the problem.

I asked him if there were any reports yet from Vietnam indicating the occurrence, in fact, of the excessive malfunctions that one would expect to be occurring in the field as a result of breakages and malfunctions induced by excessive cyclic rate and the malfunctions induced by fouling, complicated by difficult cleaning conditions in jungle war and normal poor distribution of cleaning equipment. He said there were some, but didn’t elaborate at this time.

Far from the war, the two colonels discussed a list of factors compounding the rifle’s poor performance—lackluster weapons-cleaning habits, shortages of cleaning equipment, insufficient training, and a host of jerry-rigged practices by soldiers, including soaking ammunition with oil. This was not how the M-16’s introduction as the primary firearm in Vietnam was supposed to go. And Colonel Yount’s inaction was not how military officers were expected to carry out their duties. Colonel Hallock wanted the problems remedied. But his bureaucratic instincts interfered. He was equally interested in restricting who knew of the problems. There was a scandal to contain, even if it meant limiting the number of technicians working to fix the malfunctions. Colonel Hallock all but grilled Colonel Yount, and impressed upon him the need to keep the problems quiet.

I said, as I have on several other occasions during the last year, that this situation was potentially explosive with the Congress, within Defense, in the Army, and with the public, and that the malfunctions alone could be expecting to be causing loss of soldiers [sic] lives, even though the data showed the XM16E1 to be more effective than other rifles even with the malfunctions. Also, that if there were excessive malfunction rates, the troops would lose confidence in their weapon, even though the causes were not due to weapon design, and that it was a serious thing for the troops to lose confidence in their weapon. I urged again that highest priority be given to correct this situation and also that he consider the security aspect of the information in technical and other channels.51

Colonel Hallock stamped his memorandum SECRET HOLD CLOSE repeatedly, and sent it to Dr. Jacob Stockfisch, codirector of the Force Planning and Analysis Office, urging that the gloomy information be provided to the army chief of staff. (Stockfisch’s office reported both to the secretary of the army and the army chief of staff; it was a strong proponent of the M-16.) Read against what was happening in Vietnam, and as more rifles known to be unreliable were being manufactured and issued to men headed to combat, the correspondence was chilling. The military had the option of delaying the issue of the M-16 until its shortcomings were worked out, and to allow troops to carry weapons that worked. But this would have meant admitting to a mistake and sounding an alarm. It would have required an officer to display courage. Instead, corporate instincts and self-protection had trumped integrity and good sense. After returning to his office at the Rock Island Arsenal, Colonel Yount made a change. As of November 29, his weekly “significant action report” as head of the office managing the M-16 carried a new line: “The report must not be reproduced, filed or referenced in any official correspondence.” Colonel Yount added that only he and two other people were allowed to keep file copies of his reports. “All other copies,” he wrote, “will be destroyed within 10 days of receipt.”52 At a time when the M-16 program desperately needed candor, attention, and more resources, and when commanders and troops in the field should have been informed of the problems emerging in Vietnam, another cover-up had begun.

It is easy, based on the existing records, to see Colonel Yount and Colonel Hallock as bureaucratic villains; certainly they acted against the interests of the troops in Vietnam. Their careerist behavior was of a familiar species, and ugly, even unconscionable, when revealed. If some of the men who had been in fighting in which M-16s had failed could have read what Colonel Hallock wrote, they would have demanded investigations. Rage was high enough in Vietnam that no small number of grunts would have wanted to do worse. Combat is an intensely personal experience, and it was especially so in the close-quarters savagery of Vietnam. Troops needed to have faith not just in their rifles, as Colonel Hallock suggested, but in their officers. And it was difficult to imagine an officer who believed men were dying because their rifles were failing but wanted to restrict who knew about the causes, or even that this was the case.

But these two colonels were hardly alone. They were part of a procurement and advocacy phenomenon that had slipped from control. Since early 1963, McNamara’s office had pushed the M-16 along without check. Colonel Yount managed the program, but he did not provide its direction or have control over many of its decisions. With General Westmoreland calling for more rifles, all involved in the rifle program faced internal pressure to keep M-16s flowing off the assembly lines and into Vietnam. And yet it was a fateful moment to choose to play along quietly. It was in many ways a last chance. Effective November 4, the army had decided to adopt the M-16 as its standard rifle. Step by step, decision by decision, without clear signs of institutional intent, the watermelon shoot on Boutelle’s farm and the untrustworthy Project AGILE report had led to policy. The M-16, a rifle with a flawed development history, was to replace the M-14, even though the army knew the powder-rifle mismatch was causing high M-16 malfunction rates, and before a technical solution had been put into place. The decision was made as reports were streaming back from Vietnam that the rifles were jamming, apparently for many different reasons, and that the rifles bound for jungle duty were “sadly lacking in corrosion resistance.” As for the M-16’s documented reliability problems, in a secret memorandum on November 7, General Johnson noted that “correction of deficiencies should be accomplished in a manner that does not delay new or on-going production. Priority will be given to eliminating any weapons malfunction problems in the field.”53 In other words, M-16s were to be rushed to Vietnam. The army would fix them later, if and when fixes could be found.

So the policy was set, and the people who knew most intimately of the problems were keeping mum. The questions now were of consequences. How bad would the problems in the field be? How would the army and Marine Corps react if the problems turned out to be worse than what was known? And what would the troops, who wanted to believe in their officers and their war, think when their new rifles suddenly went quiet in a fight?

Answers quickly appeared. In early February 1967, the armorers for Second Battalion, Ninth Marines, stationed near the coast at Phu Bai, Vietnam, grew concerned about the new rifles in the battalion’s custody. The Marine Corps was beginning to receive its share of M-16s. Though this battalion’s rifles had been used just four times, and only for training, they were already pitted. The armorers reported their concerns and offered other observations as well. The weapons rusted easily; a recessed area on the bolt was difficult to clean; during firing, the trigger pin and hammer pin “tended to work their way out of the receiver.” The armorers also wrote that “we experienced more than a normal amount of ruptured cartridges.”54 The mix of rapid corrosion and cleaning difficulties were an ill-boding combination for a rifle issued for fighting in rain forests and rice paddies. The Marine supply officers seemed alarmed. “This rifle is currently being utilized by units engaged in active combat,” they wrote to the Rock Island Arsenal. “Therefore, an expeditious evaluation is requested.”55 The complaint reached the office of Colonel Yount. Before an army technician was able to examine the weapons, supervisors at the arsenal ordered him to hand out new maintenance instructions that were to be “taken by the user to correct reported problem.”

The technician visited the battalion a month later. He confirmed the corroded condition of the M-16s. And he did as he was told. In his report back to the United States, he noted that he had furnished the Marines with the new literature and “intensive training on proper cleaning of weapons is planned.” His report struck the official tone. It blamed the Marines for not keeping their weapons ready. There was no mention of what was known in the Pentagon and at Colt’s: the tendency of the rifles to corrode, the need for a new buffer, the problems with failure to extract. Headquarters had spoken. Though the army knew the M-16 had technical problems that needed technical solutions, combat units were blamed for their rifle’s worrisome traits. The troops entered the monsoon season of 1967 with rifles prone to fail, and a bureaucracy ready to scold them when they did.

The decisions to blame the infantry, and to keep the problems out of public discourse while issuing more rifles, were untenable. By early 1967, the sense that something was awry had reached Washington. Angry troops were sending home letters. Journalists were hearing complaints. Reports of the AK-47’s reliability were also providing an obvious contrast. The Washington Daily News posed the question. How did the world’s wealthiest nation lag behind communist countries in its most basic fighting tool?

In the past two years, with amazing competence and thoroness [sic], the communists have replaced their earlier inferior weapons with the rapid firing AK-47 automatic assault rifle of Soviet design and Red Chinese manufacture. . . . The AK-47 is the regular weapon for North Vietnam’s army and main force Viet Cong troops. It is as good as the new M-16 rifle U.S. troops use. It is less liable to jam and therefore, in the opinion of some experts, may even be better. Man for man, the regular communist soldier is a firepower match for his American adversary—and is far more powerful than his South Vietnamese foe. . . . Why is it that North Vietnam, with aid from its Chinese ally, could foresee the need and meet it, despite all sorts of obstacles? Why is it that the U.S., with its $25 billion to $30 billion yearly war budget, superlative defense plants, and reputed logistic superiority could not keep pace?56

No one in the United States government could adequately answer that question. The chosen line—with roots reaching through General Wheeler’s memorandum to the first 1956 technical intelligence tests—was to denigrate the AK-47 as a primitive but functional submachine gun and insist that American weapons were in another category altogether. That answer could not stand, not as long as the M-16 kept failing in fight after fight, and not while General Westmoreland was demanding more guns to improve his soldiers’ odds. So why was the AK-47 operating smoothly in Vietnam while the M-16 failed? When pressed on this, the United States military eventually floated another answer: Kalashnikov rifles had been in factory production for more than fifteen years, and these years of product improvement gave them a temporary advantage over the M-16, which had entered mass production only in 1964. There was at least a kernel of truth in this. Teams of Soviet engineers had in fact worked out many of the AK-47’s design kinks. Weak or unsatisfactory parts from the original design—the return spring, the hammer—had been identified and upgraded, sometimes multiple times. Several poor design ideas, including the receiver, had been reworked entirely. The AK-47 had been a conceptually sound weapon from the beginning. In the mid-1960s it was mature.

But the performance difference between the M-16 and AK-47 had more complicated origins than the weapons’ relative ages. The two weapons were designed in fundamentally different ways and their differences in lineage left the M-16 lacking in reliability for reasons that no manufacturing tweaks or upgrades could entirely fix. The AK-47’s main operating system had been conceived to have a loose fit and massive parts, and the resulting excess energy available in each firing cycle made it resistant to jamming. The stroke of its operating system also exceeded the distance necessary to eject a spent cartridge and feed a new one by a full 50 percent. This meant that if the system did grow sluggish and unable to move back and forth along its entire course, the motion produced would still likely be sufficient to keep the rifle clearing, feeding, and firing in a fight. Herein was a deceptive quality of the rifle: While it was externally a crude-looking weapon, at least to those who believed a rifle was supposed to have a walnut stock, no tool marks, and a high degree of polish, it was thoroughly engineered—not for aesthetics, but for reliability. The Soviet Union and China also devoted the kind of attention to the rifle’s manufacture that further contributed to smooth operation. Two steps in this respect were essential. Its bore and chamber were chromed, and it was coated with an excellent protective finish. The weapon’s workhorse operating system became more durable and reliable when manufactured to such standards and with such care. Taken together, the engineering and manufacturing choices in the Kalashnikov line—signs that the communist world’s arms-manufacturing skills were higher than its critics in the West could appreciate—enabled the Type 56 rifles handed out for jungle duty in Vietnam to resist rust and corrosion, even in the monsoon season, and even with limited cleaning. The weapons looked primitive. Looks were deceiving. The rifle had been made to be a peasant’s gun, and it worked exceptionally well in many conditions in which peasants fight.

The M-16 was the manifestation of a different set of design ideas. Its parts were made to be a snug fit, almost in the manner of a manually operated bolt-action rifle. The tight fit helped make the M-16 more accurate than the Kalashnikov, all the way out to the theoretically impressive five hundred yards. It also seemed to make it undependable. Dust, dirt, sand, rust, carbon buildup—all these things could slow or obstruct the movement of an M-16’s bolt. Further, in the quest to keep down the weapon’s weight, the main moving parts of its operating system had been made light. This added to the problems with reliability. The M-16 was easy to carry, aim, and shoot. But the small mass of its bolt gave its operation little excess potential energy; coupled with the tight fit, this was a design recipe for stoppages in harsh environments, especially if the weapons were pitted or corroding. If this were not enough, certain manufacturing standards at Colt’s through 1967 were also behind those in the Soviet Union and China. Colt’s, the sole-source provider of the M-16, neither chromed the rifles’ chambers or bores nor applied an adequate protective finish to the weapons—a pair of oversights that made the rifle prone to corrosion in Vietnam.

By spring 1967, the problems had become so widely known that Congress took an interest. On May 3, 1967, Representative L. Mendel Rivers, Democrat of South Carolina and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, appointed Representative Richard H. Ichord, Democrat of Missouri, as head of a special subcommittee to examine “the development, production, distribution and sale of M-16 rifles.”57 Ichord steered wide of the question of which weapon was better—the M-14 or the M-16—for Vietnam or elsewhere. He left such questions to soldiers.58 If the military wanted the M-16, so be it. He wanted to know why the M-16 was malfunctioning at an unacceptably high rate.

The appointment of the subcommittee coincided with a fresh round of malfunctions of M-16s issued to the Marines, including those issued to Hotel Company, Second Battalion, Third Marines. Its experience was instructive. In February, the battalion had been given its share of M-16s during a refit period on Okinawa. The rifles had initially been popular. The troops grasped the advantages of a lightweight automatic rifle with little recoil. They knew they could now carry more rounds into each firefight. They were satisfied with how the rifles, fresh from crates, handled on firing ranges. There was concern about a shortage of cleaning gear, but otherwise everything seemed in order. The Marines were pleased. A few weeks later, Hotel Company returned to Vietnam. On a sweep of the countryside on April 26, a few M-16s jammed. But the fighting was not intensive and the operation was not stalled. The problem was attributed to unfamiliarity with the rifle, perhaps combined with inadequate cleaning, though the Marines who were cleaning the weapons thought this was not the case.59

Then came the shock. On April 27, the battalion was preparing for combat against dug-in NVA units on Hills 861 and 881 near Khe Sanh. It spent much of the day watching artillery and air strikes pounding suspected NVA positions on the high ground. On April 29, the company moved toward Hill 881 North, and that night, after recovering the remains of a missing Marine, it spent the night in the bush on the approach to the southeast of Hill 881 North. On April 30, the company moved out on foot again, jumping into an attack at first light with Second and Third platoons abreast of each other and moving forward in a battle formation known as “on line.” In Third Platoon, as Second Lieutenant Thomas R. Givvin, the platoon commander, walked uphill he found at least five M-16s with cleaning rods forced down their barrels resting on the ground.60 These were the discards of Marines who had fought on the hill several days before. Hotel Company moved through tall elephant grass and was ambushed at a distance of about fifty meters by the North Vietnamese Army.

The ambush turned swiftly into a brutal close-quarters fight. Rifle by rifle, several of the Marines’ new M-16s jammed.61 The malfunctions had consistency, and most common was a failure to extract. To resume firing the troops needed to thread together several sections of narrow metal pipe, the military’s standard-issue rifle-cleaning rods, and plunge the rod down the barrel from the muzzle to try to knock the spent shell case free. It was a movement akin to what Revolutionary War soldiers had had to do to reload muskets nearly two hundred years before. Only then could a grunt with a stopped rifle force out the empty cartridge case and load for another try. “Punching a bore,” as this clearing action was called, was a tedious exercise on a rifle range. It was especially difficult to do when the spent cartridge case was torn. In battle it left riflemen unable to defend themselves and the men on their left and right, and was cause for fury and frustration. After conferring by radio with the battalion commander, Captain Raymond C. Madonna, Hotel Company’s commander in spring 1967, ordered Hotel Company to fall back so they could call in air strikes and artillery fire. The two sides had been too close for the Marines to mass supporting fire without endangering themselves. The company relied on its own 60-millimeter mortars and 3.5-millimeter rockets for fire support. Hotel Company suffered eight dead Marines and one dead corpsman that day. Forty-three others were wounded.

On May 3, the remnants of Hotel Company and part of Foxtrot Company were ordered to help Echo Company, which had been pinned down in front of a network of NVA bunkers on Hill 881 North. Foxtrot Company would approach from the southeast. Hotel Company would envelop around Echo Company and attack from the north; the plan was to get behind the NVA bunker line and strike the enemy’s rear. Captain Madonna and his Marines stepped off at dawn and began a long flanking movement on foot down a ravine and then through the triple-canopy jungle; they moved for as long as nine hours to get behind the NVA.

Hotel Company had only one platoon—First Platoon—that was still at fighting strength. As the sweat-soaked Marines at last moved near the enemy bunkers, and were preparing to rush, the captain gave an order over the radio to his platoon commander, Second Lieutenant Ord Elliott: Fix bayonets. He was effectively telling men to prepare to fight to the death, hand to hand. The order was superfluous. Lieutenant Elliot had come to the same decision himself. He had already told the men to ready their knives. With bayonets affixed, the officers thought, the Marines whose M-16s failed might slash or stab their way through the bunkers.62 It was 1967, the age of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the B-52 Stratofortress, and the submarine-launched Polaris ballistic missile. A Marine Corps platoon and company commander were preparing their men for an attack in which they would wield their rifles like lances, swords, and spears. And that was Captain Madonna’s assessment of Colt’s assault rifle, circa 1967. “It was a pretty good bayonet holder,” he said. “I knew those weapons were failing. I didn’t know what the rate was, but I knew I couldn’t rely on them anymore.”

First Platoon had entered a gully where the elephant grass was tall and the air was silent; not even a bird could be heard. The fighting erupted as the platoon moved through the low ground, with North Vietnamese soldiers firing through dense vegetation, concealed in bunkers and spider holes. Under fire, the platoon’s First Squad moved against one of the bunkers, with the leader of First Fire Team, Corporal Cornelio Ybarra Jr., crawling forward with a hand grenade. He tossed the grenade inside. There was a tremendous blast. Corporal Ybarra, known to his friends as Y, stood and headed for the next bunker. A close-quarters battle raged along the line, but each man was limited in what he could see by the heavy bush, and by the thick bursts of bullets cracking by. Luckily, the fire team was not spread too widely. One of its members, Private First Class Roy W. DeMille, was struggling with a jammed M-16. The team’s grenadier gave him a .45-caliber pistol, so he would have a weapon that might work. DeMille was still trying to revive his rifle when he saw a bloody NVA soldier stagger out of the shattered bunker with a Kalashnikov. DeMille was helpless, holding a jammed M-16. He was about, it seemed, to die.

“Y!” DeMille yelled to his team leader. “A gook!”

Corporal Ybarra turned and reacted instinctively. His magazine had seventeen rounds. His M-16 was set on automatic. He fired at close-range until the clip was empty, killing the dazed Vietnamese man.

Fortunately for Private First Class DeMille, whose M-16 had failed, Corporal Ybarra’s had not.63

The Hill Fights claimed more lives than any Marine action yet in the war. More than 150 Marines were killed. Several hundred more were wounded. Many elements of Marine firepower had worked together as two battalions had claimed the high ground. Attack aircraft, artillery, and mortars had pounded the North Vietnamese positions. The most basic piece of equipment had failed. By May 5, the jamming had been widespread enough that sadly surreal scenes unfolded at one helicopter landing zone on Hill 881 North, where wounded Marines, who had been hit in a mortar bombardment, were waiting to be evacuated. Marines who had not been wounded wandered among the casualties, asking their bloodied colleagues if their rifles had worked. When they found a wounded Marine whose rifle had performed well, they asked to trade and exchanged a faulty M-16 for the M-16 that had reliably fired. Other Marines had also found that three pins near the trigger assembly had a tendency to work loose and slip out, rendering the rifles useless.64 Over several days, the Marines’ initial satisfaction with their M-16s had turned to astonishment, then disgust. Emotions were further inflamed by a sense among troops that the Pentagon had failed to provide them with enough cleaning rods, as the army technical team had found when they visited Vietnam six months before.65 One survivor vented to the Asbury Park Evening Press:

Believe it or not, you know what killed most of us? Our own rifle. Before we left Okinawa, we were all issued the new rifle, the M-16. Practically everyone of our dead was found with his rifle tore down next to him where he had been trying to fix it.66

Back in Washington, the Marine Corps pushed back. It denied that the problems were extensive and insisted that the M-16 was reliable and that statements from Marines who said otherwise were exaggerated. There were, as is often the case, grains of truth in the official statements, just as there were errors and exaggerations in some of the troops’ accounts. In the Hill Fights rifles failed; by most accounts, many rifles. But the claim that “practically everyone of our dead was found with his rifle tore down next to him” was overstatement, at least battalionwide. By seizing on such statements and becoming argumentative, the officers in Washington missed the substantial truth: M-16s were failing at an alarming rate, the failures put lives at risk, and the grunts had lost faith in their rifles and in some cases in their chain of command. The officers had entered an argument they could not win. This was in part because by this time, the congressional subcommittee was gathering its own information, which pointed to widespread malfunctions and a pattern of false official statements by generals who were trying to convince inquirers that all was well. In May, Ralph Marshall, a lawyer working for the subcommittee, visited the Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Illinois to interview wounded GIs. Marshall found twenty-two Marines who had fought with M-16s in Vietnam. Eleven had experienced jamming. Some of their accounts were jarring. “In a squad of 14 all rifles jammed—in another patrol 9 jammed,” he wrote. “Several of the marines had requested the return of their M-14 rifles in place of the newly issued M-16 because they had lost confidence in the M-16.”67

Marshall’s findings were a drop in a cascade. In letters home and interviews with reporters in the war zone, soldiers and Marines told of weapons failing while troops were under enemy fire. One Marine lance corporal noted that “every private through sergeant that uses the rifle will tell you that it will jam about once every 2 magazines if it is on full-automatic and about once every 3 or 4 magazines on semi-automatic.” How this translated into combat was captured in the last minutes in the life of Lance Corporal David C. Borey, a Marine from Massachusetts assigned to Bravo Company, First Battalion, First Marine Regiment. A fellow Marine mailed a letter home describing the skirmish, which erupted after his unit had been airlifted outside Da Nang and was caught in the open crossing a rice paddy the next day. “This is how it happened,” he wrote:

Like you said, Dad, we are all complaining about the M-16. When it works you can’t beat it but it jams so goddamn easy. The only cover we had was a 5'' dike to hide behind. There was a steady flow of lead going back and forth and we were jaming [sic] left and right. And when they jam the only thing you can do is poke a cleaning rod down the bore and punch out the empty shell. Borey had the only cleaning rod in our group and he was running up and down the line punching out the bores. I knew he was going to get it and I think he did too. A man needed the cleaning rod and Dave jumped up and started running towards him. As soon as he got up he was hit in the foot. He was about 10 feet in front of me and he called to me and said—Hey Bert I’m hit. He couldn’t stay where he was—bullets were hitting the dirt all around him. He had to get back to the dike. I told him to get up and run and I’d shoot grazing fire into the tree line where the VC were. I got three magazines and fired 60 rounds to cover him but as he was running a goddamn VC bullet hit in the back.68

The wall of silence had broken. One incident after another eroded public confidence. Senator Peter H. Dominick, a Republican from Colorado, visited Vietnam in May 1967 at roughly the same time that Lance Corporal Borey was shot. Dominick inquired about the M-16. He was told it was a good weapon and was invited to test fire a sample rifle himself. Someone produced an M-16 and handed it to the senator, who tried to fire it. It jammed.69 In June, members of Ichord’s panel held their own test fire with an M-16 provided by Colt’s. If any one M-16 might have been expected to perform flawlessly, this should have been it: the test rifle a manufacturer facing congressional investigation presented as a sample to Congress. The subcommittee’s rifle jammed several times. No one needed to be told what this might mean in combat. But another GI crystallized for the congressmen a particular species of nightmare:

The other night we got a radio message from one of our night ambushes. . . . The last words they said were, “out of hand grenades, all weapons jammed.” The next morning when they got to them, their hands were all skinned up and cut and their stocks on their rifles were all broken from using them as clubs.

As the battlefield accounts piled up, the M-16’s reputation sank so low that even troops waiting to ship to Vietnam worried about carrying it. “I was horrified at the stories of whole units being pushed back because of the inability of the M-16 to sustain a heavy rate of automatic fire without a malfunction,” wrote a navy lieutenant undergoing training in California. “It is terrifying and the stories and the opinions of the Marines regarding it have been ruthlessly suppressed. . . . I witnessed on the firing range malfunction after malfunction.” A sergeant on predeployment leave wrote Ichord to ask whether he should seek alternative arrangements to fight. “Are we, the troops en route to SE Asia, supposed to arm ourselves with a backup weapon, which is widely done, or can we bet our lives on our M-16?” he wrote. “If you, in your capacity can answer the questions as expeditiously as possible I would certainly appreciate it very much—so would my wife.”70

Colt’s and the army agreed to change after change. The plastic stock would be thickened so it would be less likely to crack. The chamber would be chrome-plated, and then the barrel would be, too. The heavier buffer would be added, to reduce the rate of fire caused by ball powder. The gas tube would be made of stainless steel to resist corrosion. The anodizing on aluminum parts would be upgraded. A better phosphate coating would be applied to the weapon to resist rust.71 Some of the steps were part of the normal debugging of a rifle. What made them remarkable was that they were being recommended for a rifle that had already been distributed for combat as the primary weapon for tens of thousands of American servicemen. The army and Colt’s had effectively put a prototype into mass production, and were fine-tuning it as it failed in the troops’ hands. Rifles shipped to Vietnam by late 1967 included some of these features, as one by one the changes were worked into the assembly lines in Hartford. But many changes identified as necessary in 1966 would wait until late 1968 to be incorporated on rifles being sent to the war. The improvements did no good for the thousands of troops carrying rifles issued until that time. Among the men on the line, their fates linked to rifles issued prematurely, anger boiled.72

Out in the field beside Ap Sieu Quan, Private First Class Nickelson worked on his jammed rifle. He had given away his position by firing. Bullets raked the grass nearby. He was terrified and enraged. He reached for a grenade, pulled the pin, and threw it as far as he could toward the trees; he hoped its blast would divert the attention of the enemy soldiers. After the explosion, he removed his rifle’s magazine and pulled back on the charging handle to look inside the chamber. The empty cartridge was stuck there. He cursed again and reached for his cleaning rod, which he kept taped to the rifle. Around him was chaos. First Platoon was pinned down. Nickelson pushed the rod down the muzzle and knocked the empty cartridge case clear. He returned the magazine to its place and chambered a second round. Again he looked up to fire, and spotted the North Vietnamese soldier in the tree line. The man was on his stomach, prone and firing out at the platoon. Nickelson aimed his M-16 and eased back on the trigger again; firing on automatic, he hoped to hit the man multiple times. The first bullet hit the soldier in the left leg. He watched him roll out of sight into the bushes.

But Nickelson could not finish him. His rifle had jammed again. He reached for another grenade.

Up and down the scattered platoon the Marines’ rifles were not working. A few Marines had defied the Marine Corps’ orders and managed to acquire M-14s. These men were able to provide a degree of protection for the rest, but could not produce the volume of fire needed to push off the NVA. Staff Sergeant Elrod radioed the company commander and told him that his platoon had casualties and was stopped. He asked for an air strike on the village. The Marines of First Platoon backed away, putting distance between them and Ap Sieu Quan. Perhaps twenty NVA soldiers with automatic Kalashnikovs had turned back a Marine Corps rifle company. Two helicopters tried to land, one to carry off wounded Marines and another to drop off more ammunition. Both faced fire from the village and from among the vegetation. As they alighted, rocket-propelled grenades flashed out of the tree line and exploded in the landing zone. One helicopter was damaged. The pilots lurched their airframes back into the air and veered off, rotors thumping. The platoon pulled back farther. Two more helicopters arrived and hovered above the grass, noses high, while their crews dumped supplies off the back ramps. This was war in the assault-rifle era; the NVA volume of rifle fire was intensive enough that the company needed heavy fire support. After the helicopters were gone, Hotel Company escalated, with mortars, artillery, and the air strike that Elrod had asked for. Explosions flashed in the village and heaved rubble into the air. Ap Sieu Quan fell silent. The NVA soldiers slipped away.

Hotel Company stood. It had suffered miserably. Five Marines were dead, thirty were wounded.73 Private First Class Nickelson had survived. He rose to his feet but left his jammed rifle in the dirt. He had arrived in Vietnam a month before. Until that day, he had never handled this kind of rifle. In the United States, the Marine Corps had trained him on an M-14. In his one previous firefight, his M-16 had jammed, too—after firing a single round. He had been in two firefights against NVA soldiers with automatic rifles, and he had managed to fire only three rounds back. What good was a rifle that did not work? Nickelson was new to war. He was no fool. He understood this was not right. A rifle that failed in battle was worse than useless. It was detestable. As far as he was concerned it was a discard. Upon arriving in Vietnam and before being assigned to the battalion, Nickelson had bought a .38 revolver from a soldier who was rotating home. He would carry that until the Marine Corps could give him a rifle he could trust.

An officer ordered him to pick up his M-16. Nickelson was incredulous.

Fuck you,” he said.

An argument broke out at the edge of the smoking village. Nickelson refused to carry a rifle that did not work. Other Marines intervened. Hotel Company had enough problems. A compromise was reached—he would carry an M79 grenade launcher. Someone produced his new weapon. The Marine who had carried it had been shot; it was available for anyone else’s use. Nickelson slung it and walked into Ap Sieu Quan. The village had been partially rubbled. Shattered ceramic roofing tiles littered the ground. Blood-splattered trails showed where the North Vietnamese soldiers had dragged their dead away. A few chickens wandered the scene, the only remaining inhabitants. The Marines caught them, lit a fire from bits of rubble, and began to cook their birds. Nickelson settled into his new weapon. He would never carry an M-16 again.

By the time helicopters flew back to the USS Tripoli on July 26, the mood in Hotel Company was dark. The company’s executive officer, Lieutenant Chervenak, had queried each platoon in Ap Sieu Quan and learned that forty rifles had jammed during the battle. Forty rifles. Roughly a quarter of the company had been under fire and unable to fight back. The officers in other companies in Second Battalion, Third Marines told him of similar problems in their own firefights during Operation Bear Chain.

Lieutenant Chervenak, lean and athletic, had taken a roundabout route to the infantry. Raised in west central Pennsylvania, he had been the quarterback of his high school football team, and then attended Pennsylvania State University on a military scholarship. After he completed the basic infantry course required of all Marine officers, the Corps assigned him to naval flight school in Pensacola, Florida. He hoped to fly jets. It was not to be. The Marine Corps needed more pilots for helicopters than for jets. He was assigned to the helicopter course. An assignment to flight school was coveted, one of the professional plums for a young military officer in the United States. When Lieutenant Chervenak learned he would not fly jets, he immediately did something officers in good standing at flight school rarely do. He quit. He asked for orders to the infantry. Soon he was en route to Vietnam.74

In May 1967, he arrived in Okinawa as one of the replacements assigned to restore the battalion to fighting strength after the fights for Hills 861 and 881. For the first time he saw an M-16. He started hearing the harrowing accounts. He also discovered that troops were buying M-14s from rear-echelon and aviation units that still carried them. Lieutenant Chervenak was new to the unit; he reserved judgment until he could see M-16s in action himself. But he sensed something was deeply wrong. The Marine Corps was organized around its rifles. The rifleman was at the center of its identity, training, and lore. And Marines were trying to get their rifles on a black market?

The Corps’ reaction similarly stumped him. The Marine Corps had not been interested in the M-16 throughout the early 1960s.75 But once the Pentagon took its decision, the Corps’ generals adopted the Beltway stance. A din of complaints about M-16 jamming had risen from the ranks. The generals’ replies mixed paternalistic denials that the M-16 was failing with strong defenses of the weapon’s merits. The senior officers followed the army’s pattern: They blamed the troops for the weapons’ problems. At a press conference in Da Nang just after the battles for Hills 861 and 881, one highly decorated commander, Lieutenant General Lewis W. Walt of the Third Marine Amphibious Force, delivered a classic performance of an officer who has lost touch with his men. First he declared that the Marines in his command were “100 percent sold” on the M-16. Most of those who had relied on the weapon in battle, he added, “have nothing but praise for it.” This can be read only as a lie. General Walt pressed on. He put blame for malfunctions squarely upon individual Marines and their officers and noncommissioned officers, saying they either had not adequately maintained their rifles or had tried to force too many rounds into their magazines. This was a slap at the men at war. In a booming slip of the tongue, General Walt added that “rumors” of unsatisfactory M-16 performance were started “by a very, very small majority.”76 Not long after the press conference, General Walt was reassigned to Washington and elevated to the post of the Corps’ assistant commandant. In July, the commandant of the Marine Corps, General Greene, repeated General Walt’s position, calling the M-16 “ideally suited” for the jungle warfare of Vietnam. The brass had set a tone. With the generals standing behind the M-16, complaints had little chance of finding a supporting audience. The young Marines in Vietnam were on their own.

The brass’s position was reflected down the chain of command and in the army, too. One officer responsible for the Twenty-fifth Infantry Division’s public statements described an official prohibition against mentioning M-16 malfunctions. This was a subject not to be broached in any army comments or in conversations with journalists, along with other topics officially deemed too unsettling for the public’s ears: “the defeat of U.S. units,” “B-52 and other bombing errors,” “female VC,” “very young VC,” and the “use of flamethrowers, hand-held or track-mounted.”

MACV31 told all information officers prior to my arrival that the M16 was not a topic for discussion. Newsmen were not to question soldiers about the weapon. No stories about the rifle jamming or malfunctioning were to be written.

This was done despite the fact that many GIs hated the M16, felt they couldn’t trust it. And until an order stopped the procedure, carried their own weapons instead: carbines, 45 caliber grease guns, rifles sent from home, captured AK47s, et cetera.

At the same time the Army launched an all out propaganda campaign to make GIs in Vietnam more confident in the weapon they basically mistrusted. Special classes on the weapon were held in the units, new cleaning procedures were instigated, new lubricating materials were introduced. . . . A whole new campaign was initiated to instill in the American soldier the utmost confidence in a weapon that he didn’t like.77

The Marines in General Walt’s small majority, meanwhile, suffered on. They knew the truth was being suppressed. After being brought back to fighting strength in May, Second Battalion, Third Marines embarked on ships and sailed again toward Vietnam. While en route, the officers organized their own tests. The enlisted Marines cleaned their weapons repeatedly over several days. The fire team leaders and squad leaders looked over each rifle. On the ship’s flight deck, platoon sergeants and platoon commanders inspected the rifles again. Each was parade-ground clean. Then the company commander and either the battalion commander or battalion executive officer repeated the step. At last the Marines were allowed to fire their M-16s off their ship’s fantail. As many as 40 percent of the rifles jammed.78

Back on board the USS Tripoli after Hotel Company had suffered thirty-five casualties at Ap Sieu Quan, Lieutenant Chervenak seethed. He cleaned up and visited the stateroom where Captain Culver was bunking. The two officers talked about the M-16s’ malfunctions. Lieutenant Chervenak asked for advice. What would Captain Culver think if he wrote a letter to newspapers and to Congress detailing the company’s experiences? The Marine Corps was not helping its Marines. The truth about the M-16 needed to be told, somehow, if the problem was ever to be fixed. Captain Culver, a former enlisted man, was the son of a Marine. His father had enlisted in 1918 at the age of fifteen. Raised on Marine Corps bases and now commanding a company at war, he was more than reluctant to speak outside the chain of command. It was an agonizing thought. But Captain Culver knew Lieutenant Chervenak was right. Writing a letter, he told his executive officer, was a good idea.

Lieutenant Chervenak found a typewriter in the chaplain’s stateroom. The captain and he composed a draft. When they finished, he climbed belowdecks to the enlisted quarters, and asked Staff Sergeant Elrod to read it.

I am a Marine First Lieutenant and have been serving in a rifle company in Vietnam since the 15th of May. Ever since my arrival, immediately following the battle of hill 881, one controversy has loomed above all others—that of the M-16 rifle.

I feel that is my duty and responsibility to report the truth about this rifle as I have seen it. My conscience will not let me rest any longer.

The idea of a lightweight automatic weapon is a fine idea and I do not categorically reject the M-16 rifle as being useless. I do believe, however, that there is a basic mechanical deficiency within the weapon which causes a failure to extract. This failure to extract a spent casing from the chamber allows another round to be fed in behind the unextracted casing causing the rifle to jam. When this occurs, a cleaning and rod and precious seconds are needed to clear the weapon. A marine in a firefight does not have those precious seconds.

We are constantly told that improper cleaning and unfamiliarity with the weapon cause any malfunction which may occur. Any rifle that requires cleaning to the degree they speak of has no place as a combat weapon. I believe that the cold, hard facts about the M-16 are clouded over by a fabrication of the truth for political and financial considerations. I have seen too many marines hiding behind a paddy dike trying to clear their rifle to accept those explanations any longer.

Our battalion has test fired these rifles on numerous occasions, aboard the ship and in the field, to try to find a solution to this problem. All rifles were cleaned and inspected prior to these tests. Having supervised several of these tests, I will swear to the fact that at least 25 to 40% of the rifles malfunctioned at least once under these optimum conditions.

During a recent fight on the 21st of July, no fewer than 40 men in my company reported to me that their rifles had malfunctioned because of failure to extract. Because of these inoperative rifles we were severely hampered in our efforts to extract a platoon which had been pinned down. Lack of sufficient firepower also caused us great difficulty in getting our casualties out. Having 40 rifles malfunction in any rifle company is a serious matter, and in an understrengthened company such as ours, the gravity of the situation is greatly increased. This problem is increasing in its seriousness and I know that is a major morale problem in the company. Unfortunately, all our complaints and the results of our tests never seem to reach willing ears.

I do not mean for this letter to slap at my battalion, the Marine Corps, the Colt Manufacturing Company, the Defense Department or anyone else concerned.

It is written out of concern for the safety of the men in my company and of the great morale problem that the M-16 causes. I will stand and stake my reputation on the fact that we have had men wounded and perhaps killed because of inoperative rifles. The men in my company have absolutely no confidence in the weapon they carry, and yet, they will be asked to go on another operation in the very near future carrying this very same weapon. Word will come down from higher up, however, stating that no one will take a negative attitude about the M-16, nor will they speak of the weapon in a derogatory manner to any newsman.

I can only hope that men such as yourself, who are in a position to do something, WILL do something. The search for the truth is paramount in all of us and I ask you to look into this problem and search for the truth there. I will stand behind every word that I have written. I think that this problem has been overlooked too long and too many attempts have been made to gloss over a situation that endangers the lives of men.79

Staff Sergeant Elrod finished the letter. He had served ten years in the Marine Corps. He had seen lieutenants come and go, and had a strong sense of how the officer ranks worked. Loyalty, by his reading of the inside game, meant working hard and shutting up. He handed the letter back to his executive officer. He liked it very much. “Hey, sir?” he said. “You’re not planning to make the Marine Corps a career, are you?”

On July 27, Lieutenant Chervenak mailed four copies of the letter. He sent one to the Barnesboro Star, his hometown newspaper in Pennsylvania. He mailed another to the Washington Post. The last two went to Senator Robert F. Kennedy and Representative Ichord. On all four he signed his name officially: First Lieutenant Michael P. Chervenak, executive officer, H Company, Second Battalion, Third Marines.80

In all of the available records surrounding the bloody introduction of the M-16 to American military service, this stands as one of the few brave and candidly honest acts. The officers behind Project AGILE had produced a report no follow-up studies could support. General Johnson had quietly ordered the rifle into service knowing that it was unreliable. Colonel Hallock and Colonel Yount had enforced a hush about the M-16’s many performance problems, even while agreeing that the weapons’ failures were getting American soldiers killed. Officials at Colt’s were insisting in public that the weapon worked well while they reviewed internal reports that said it did not. It fell to a twenty-three-year-old Marine lieutenant, his unit thinned by casualties while their rifles jammed, to stake his name on the truth.

That summer, when the Marines of Second Battalion, Third Marines returned to the bush, fewer of them carried the M-16. They defied policy and tried all manner of schemes to acquire M-14s, or anything else. Private First Class Nickelson continued to carry his grenade launcher and his .38. Few wanted an M-16; a rumor even circulated that the rifles were not made by Colt’s but by Mattel, the manufacturer of plastic toys. For those who could not find an alternative weapon, the problems persisted. Private First Class Thomas C. Tomakowski, a radio operator in Hotel Company, was in a firefight and his M-16 froze, leaving him with only his wits with which to fight. A wounded North Vietnamese soldier surrendered to him.81 Tomakowski pointed his jammed rifle at the prisoner and pretended all was fine, hoping the man would not change his mind. In Foxtrot Company, Second Lieutenant Charles Woodard, a platoon commander, carried an AK-47 on a mission, having made his own judgment about the relative effectiveness of the rifles available in Vietnam, no matter what the generals said.82

And during the heat of 1967, another officer, Second Lieutenant Charles P. Chritton, also of Foxtrot Company, began to have a recurring dream, which flowed from one of his own worst episodes. On June 28, one of his Marines had been killed while on a flanking move against a group of Viet Cong guerrillas on a ridge. A pair of Marines had swung far to the left during the firefight. They dashed through vegetation and surprised the guerrillas at close range. But as the Marine opened fire his M-16 seized up. One round did not extract and the rifle tried to feed a round in behind it, leaving the Marine with a jam that would take many seconds, even minutes, to clear. He was helpless. The Viet Cong turned and killed him. After recovering the Marine’s body and the jammed rifle, Lieutenant Chritton allowed his fury to guide him. He and other Marines carried the dead Marine and his rifle to the battalion command post and entered the tent to confront the battalion commander with the facts. The commander and the executive officer pulled the lieutenant aside, away from the Marine’s corpse. The executive officer produced a camera, placed the jammed rifle on a table, and made a series of photographs. “We’ll take care of this,” the commander told him. But nothing had come of it, and soon Lieutenant Chritton’s dream started to follow him through his nights. In it, he was home in the United States, and he had kidnapped the president of Colt’s and forced him to admit that Colt’s was knowingly selling bad rifles to the government. Lieutenant Chritton was hardly the irrational sort. He certainly was no criminal. He left the Marine Corps and went on to a long civilian career as a lawyer. The dream stayed with him for his remaining months in Vietnam, and it visited him intermittently after he returned home to the United States.

Back in Washington, Representative Ichord’s subcommittee ground toward its conclusion. The army had stonewalled the congressmen in many ways as they held hearings and lobbed correspondence back and forth with the Pentagon. Important witnesses were never produced. (Colonel Hallock, the supervisor of Project AGILE who later proposed and enforced a cover-up, avoided scrutiny. On May 31, as complaints from Vietnam reached high pitch, he retired.)83 Many witnesses who did appear seemed to have been selected because they were not inclined to help understand the problems. The army produced a small stream of officers who insisted that the M-16 was excellent and dependable; those who had had the bad experiences under fire were kept away. Colonel Yount, who had been relieved of his duties by the army, did testify, but largely downplayed the scale of the problems and tried to assure the panel that solutions were well in place. The subcommittee emanated disgust. The congressmen understood viscerally that the M-16’s performance in Vietnam was much worse than the army acknowledged, and that the army had not remedied the weapon’s many early problems. On October 19 they published a scalding report. The report declared that the M-16’s malfunctions were “serious and excessive” and labeled the army and Marine Corps negligent for failing to provide adequate cleaning gear and weapons-cleaning instruction. It scolded the army for not properly notifying the Marine Corps of the documented problems with the M-16 while encouraging the Marines to carry it, too. On one matter, the report accused the army of criminal negligence: the agreement between Rock Island Arsenal and Colt’s to use cartridges packed with IMR powder for acceptance testing at the factory, knowing that the weapons would fire cartridges containing ball powder in Vietnam.84 Representative William G. Bray, a Republican from Indiana and a subcommittee member, called the collusion “one of the most incredible and inexcusable exercises in duplicity I have ever seen.”85

Ichord’s subcommittee did not get everything right. Its emphasis on the IMR–ball powder controversy implicitly missed other causes of jamming, including problems related to corrosion. It attached little importance to chroming the bore and chamber. It did not examine the question of whether the ammunition cases were manufactured to a satisfactory standard, and whether their alloy was soft and prone to expansion and lodging snugly in the chamber when fired. But teasing out precise causes was difficult, especially in a short period of time and with the army unhelpful.ixThe report did succeed in capturing the broader institutional failure: The M-16 had been developed and distributed through a weak and troubled system, a system in which officers and officials alike neglected basic duties.

The existing command structure was either inadequate or inoperative. The division of responsibility makes it almost impossible to pinpoint responsibility when mistakes are made. There is substantial evidence of lack of activity on the part of responsible officials of highest authority even when the problems of the M-16 and its ammunition came to their attention. It appears that under the present system problems are too slowly recognized and reactions to problems are even slower.

Twelve days after the release of Ichord’s report, on October 29, the Washington Post, the newspaper of the nation’s political class, published Lieutenant Chervenak’s letter.86 His words had an instant effect. The Marine Corps opened an investigation—not into the causes of the rifle’s failures or the slow reaction by the chain of command to troops’ complaints, but into the officer who dared to write to the Washington Post. General Greene personally called the battalion, looking for Lieutenant Chervenak. By chance the lieutenant was on a rest period in Japan. The brass could not find him. An investigating officer was assigned and canvassed Marines in the battalion, taking sworn statements. He could establish no real wrongdoing. Telling the truth was not legally forbidden, it was just discouraged to tell the truth this way. The offense was a matter of protocol, not of law. When Lieutenant Chervenak returned, the battalion executive officer presented him a letter of reprimand for failure to follow proper channels.87 Lieutenant Chervenak was unmoved. He listened politely. When the major handed the letter to him he did not bother to read it. He was not by nature a troublemaker. But he knew that given the same circumstances, he would do the same thing again.

The letter’s effects did not stop there. In the unwritten rules of the Beltway, the publication of Lieutenant Chervenak’s claims in the Washington Post gave them a heft that dozens of other claims did not have.88 The Marine Corps began facing facts it had ignored. On December 3, a pair of representatives from Colt’s and the Marine Corps caught up with the battalion at a base outside Da Nang. They had been ordered to follow up on the lieutenant’s allegations. Marines gathered in the theater for a presentation, at which the Marine Corps representative, a warrant officer, opened with the familiar lines. He told his audience that the M-16 was a good rifle and if it was failing it was because they were not cleaning it adequately. The Marines shouted and jeered. A near riot ensued. The battalion commander demanded order and quiet. The representative from Colt’s, Kanemitsu Ito, was so shaken he dared not take notes.

The warrant officer and Ito held their own technical inspection, and Marines filed by to show them their rifles. Ito was a war veteran himself, and a former test officer in the army’s ordnance service. He was small, lean, and muscular, a fastidious forty-seven-year-old man with a record of bravery who had roamed Vietnam for his employer, trying to understand why Colt’s rifles had performed so badly since at least 1966. He was conscientious to an almost excruciating degree. As the Marines filed past to show him rifles that had failed them, he worried that the troops might label him a profiteer as he and the warrant officer condemned pitted rifles. After all, he thought, every rifle to be replaced might be seen as another sale for Colt’s. He decided to let the warrant officer do most of the talking. Quietly, out of the center of attention, he watched. That night, emotionally and physically exhausted, Ito typed a letter and sent it back to Colt’s. He had important news to share. What Lieutenant Chervenak had written to the Washington Post was not quite right. Matters were actually much worse.

I walked into a den of angry, feroucious [sic] lions when I visited the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Marines. It was really a touchy situation. I would never ask anyone else to be in the situation I was in. The officers and a great majority of the men hated the M-16A1 rifles. They had a right to hate it. The chambers of the rifles were so badly pitted that the only thing they could use the rifles were for a club.89

The examination of 445 rifles found that many had “chambers that looked like the surface of the moon”; 286 rifles were immediately condemned as unfit for combat use. Ito understood how serious this was. He sought as much information as he could get. He looked for Lieutenant Chervenak, but by then the lieutenant had been reassigned out of Hotel Company, and Ito could not find him. Ito read a copy of the battalion’s investigation and discovered it contained ninety-six sworn statements from Marines who agreed with the lieutenant’s letter. If this were not enough, in Hotel Company, where Lieutenant Chervenak had written of 40 jammed rifles, his letter was more than vindicated: 67 of the company’s 85 rifles were so pitted that the warrant officer and Ito replaced them on the spot. And the charge that Marines had not been cleaning their rifles could find no traction here. The company commander during Operation Bear Chain, Captain Culver, had been a member of the Marine Corps’ Rifle Team—a bunch of crack shots. Captain Culver was almost religious about forcing his Marines to clean their weapons. To him, any suggestion otherwise was a personal insult. (“To say that I had high standards of weapons cleanliness was an extreme understatement,” he said.)90 He warned the warrant officer not to blame the Marines again. They were the victims, the captain thought, not the culprits.

With unfiltered information about the M-16 now reaching General Greene, the commandant reversed himself. Ito could feel the tension. “Phone calls and secret messages were flying all over the Marine Corps area,” he wrote. The Corps had decided to replace all of its M-16s. Rifles in the Corps’ possession in Okinawa were “to be air lifted ASAP” to replace the rifles in Marines’ hands in Vietnam, Ito reported. The Corps also put in a request to Colt’s for twenty thousand rifles with chromed chambers. Ito saw the problems for what they were. His correspondence to Colt’s did nothing to sugarcoat them. But he was in a difficult position. Colt’s had wanted him to distribute surveys about the rifle. A lockdown was in place.

The questionnaires are out of the question. The M-16 rifle is a very hot topic over here. They don’t want any names or units put on paper. I have been asked not to put anything down on paper. Unit COs [commanding officers] and staff officers forbid the use of the questionnaires. I go into the field armed (would you believe) with an M-16 rifle, when I can get one. Everything that I inspect and see, I must keep in my head until I can get to a place to write it down.91

Ito’s letters suggest that he was a man of conscience. He had been telling his bosses at Colt’s in clear terms for more than a year that the M-16 had real problems, and now he knew that these problems were worse than what the military or Colt’s had ever publicly said. He had fought in Korea and been awarded a Silver Star. He was a professional engineer who had worked closely on the M-16, including working on ways to prevent malfunctioning. (At Colt’s, between trips to Vietnam, he had designed a gauge to measure the dimension of a magazine to ensure it would feed the M-16 optimally and reduce the incidence of jamming.)92 He understood the anger of men who could not trust their rifles. A few days after meeting the Marines, he forced himself to confront the failures more personally. He visited the hospitals, to see men who thought that Colt’s and the Pentagon had let them down at the most important moments of their lives. He wrote back to the States, hinting at his pain.

Every time I think that I am tired, I do these things. As I said I have a lot of guts. I wished that others had the guts to look at things I see or ask questions. Some had reasons to hate me yet they like me because I am helping—a few don’t really know. I don’t know what to say to them—there are people with no arms, legs, faces and the rest. These are some of the places I go to find the information I need. I go every place, but I sure wouldn’t ask anyone else to do it.…

. . . It is difficult working 18–20 hours a day—7 days a week. Any time I am tired I go back to the 24th, 93rd Evac or the 3rd Field Hospitals.93

Ito returned to the United States for Christmas and re-entered the delicate game of pretending things were better than they were. This remained Colt’s posture. Even as late as summer 1967, while complaints of jamming rose to a roar, Colt’s executives had been briefing journalists as if nothing were wrong. They told the executive editor of Popular Mechanics that they had received “no official complaints from their customer—the Department of Defense.”94 On December 28, Ito and Paul Benke, Colt’s president, met at the Pentagon with officers from around the services involved in the M-16 program. Ito’s presentation was direct: The new buffers were reaching many units, but severe problems persisted. About 70 percent of the rifles in the Marines’ possession, he said, “should be condemned due to pitted chambers.” More than one-fourth of the M-16 magazines in Vietnam should be condemned. He said he had seen several units that were still short of cleaning gear. He further noted that the army had no formal system for reporting M-16 malfunctions. This point raised a searing question. Now, two years after the problems had been identified, did the army’s data, and its statements about the rates of failure, reflect anything like the truth?x

In the end, Kanemitsu Ito was a midlevel engineer. He could describe what he had seen. He could share what he knew. But Benke, the man who ran Colt’s Firearms Division, would get the last word. Benke interjected. He told the military officers present that “the observations were based on very brief contact, hearsay, and single pieces of evidence, and that final conclusions would require added review and investigation.”95 By this time, Benke had been receiving frank, descriptive accounts of M-16 failures from his teams in Vietnam for more than a year. The accounts had come from multiple engineers—from Fremont, Hall, Behrendt, and others—and from multiple trips. Each of his company sources had relayed the remarks and experiences of many soldiers. Ito was neither treading new ground nor trafficking in rumor. He was sharing carefully observed details consistent with what others had seen and said. In November 1966, Benke had received a memo from another Colt’s engineer, which summarized “discussions with one brigade commander, four battalion commanders and many other field and company grade officers.” The memo specified “changes and things which should be expedited,” including chrome-plating the bore and chamber, installing new buffers, and applying a better protective finish. More than a year had passed. Thousands of troops in Vietnam still had rifles without these improvements. They continued to suffer malfunctions. Colt’s position, at the late date of December 1967, was now a matter of record: The reports of problems, even when supported by his own engineer fresh from Vietnam, were “hearsay.”

More than forty years later, Paul Benke disagreed with any reading of the record that suggests that Colt’s was not forthright and conscientious, or sold the Pentagon rifles unfit for combat duty in Vietnam. The M-16 rifle program suffered from problems, he said, but these problems were related to interservice rivalries, inadequate troop training, and bureaucratic opposition to the rifle within military circles. The problems with the rifle’s reputation were exacerbated, he said, by the fact that he was opposed to the American involvement in Vietnam.

As for design or manufacturing shortcomings, he said: “We did have some problems, including the corrosion of the aluminum receiver. The measure of them was not so much to cause a Congressional investigation.” He also said the path the rifle took from the ArmaLite prototypes to the rifles issued in Vietnam was such that it was not exhaustively tested by the Army’s ordnance corps, in part because the ordnance community resisted the rifle in both concept and particulars. “The M-16 never went through the testing process that other rifles had undergone,” he said. “Had it gone through the normal cycle of introduction, it probably would have been a different rifle.” As for the complaints by troops in Vietnam, like those of Hotel Company, Second Battalion, Third Marines, he said, “I think many of the tales have been exaggerated. We took them all seriously, but—” and he spoke about the political quarrels the company faced in Washington. When provided a copy of Ito’s correspondence and of the memorandum of record from the meeting he attended with Ito in the Pentagon in December 1967, he said, “We never ever ever tried to hide anything.” Their only concern, he said, was that soldiers have the best possible rifle.96

Several weeks after Benke and Ito appeared at the Pentagon, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army launched the Tet Offensive, striking scores of American and South Vietnamese positions across the country simultaneously. Tens of thousands of communist fighters had coordinated an action. In the matter of a rifle, the defending American troops, after several years in Vietnam, still did not have a fully reliable firepower match. Matters were more dire for the Americans’ Vietnamese allies, who often were armed with surplus weapons from World War II. One of the senior South Vietnamese officers, Lieutenant General Dong Van Khuyen, lamented his soldiers’ predicament against the better-armed foe. “During the enemy Tet offensive of 1968 the crisp, rattling sounds of the AK-47s echoing in Saigon and some other cities,” he said, “seemed to make a mockery of the weaker, single shots of Garands and carbines fired by stupefied friendly troops.”97 With Tet, the war had changed. The American and South Vietnamese forces were not defeated in the field, and the South Vietnamese government did not fall, as the architects of the communist offensive had hoped. But the communists’ ability to mass and fight shocked Washington, which had never expected the war to be this hard, or its foes this capable.

By late in 1968, the M-16 was performing better than it had, but it was far from good enough, and it was late. Survey teams were finding a higher level of satisfaction with the M-16. New troops arriving in Vietnam had been trained on the rifle, cleaning gear was available, and the rifles now had chromium-plated bores and the new buffer. The worst problems were past. But throughout the year, more problems were still reported—not at the rate of 1966 and 1967, but alarming nonetheless. A battalion in the 199th Infantry Brigade had seventeen rifles blow up on an operation conducted in muddy terrain and wet weather, and apparently water or mud had clogged the barrels.98 The rifle, for all of its modifications, struggled to function when exposed to the worst sorts of field conditions. In Hotel Company of Second Battalion, Third Marines, Corporal Jack Beavers was in a battle in Quang Tri province on July 7, 1968. The NVA were firing artillery at the Marines, and as the corporal crouched and crawled to stay alive, his M-16 became coated with sand. Later, as his platoon assaulted across a rice paddy toward a village, the rifle jammed. So did the M-16s of other Marines around him. As Marines dropped, felled by NVA fire, he picked up their M-16s, only to have those rifles jam, too. Corporal Beavers went through three or four M-16s before the fighting stopped.99 Seven Marines in Hotel Company died that day, including his best friend, Lance Corporal Gerald L. Baldwin, who was shot several times.

In autumn 1968, Ito was back in Vietnam, where he and another Colt’s field representative toured military units around Saigon. They found that many magazines did not seat well on the weapons, which caused M-16s to fail to feed when fired on automatic. They found problems with the selector switch, which was often difficult to turn. And, even after all of the changes, they found that “quite a few rifles are rusting or corroding,” especially around the selector switch. In a tape sent back to Colt’s offices, Ito said that “damaged or poor functioning parts were noted in rifles which were only in use for two months maximum.”100

The Pentagon eventually accepted that M-16s would jam at higher rates than it or its soldiers would have liked. One investigation early in the year found that during a seven-hour firefight near Chu Lai, Company D of the Fifth Battalion, Seventh Cavalry suffered many jammed weapons, and some were so severe that by the end of the firefight, of the sixty-five or seventy M-16s fired, “twelve were out of action.” The Pentagon noted that “this was directly related to the inordinate amount of sand which was built up in the weapons during the rapid movement through the dikes and rice fields.” “From past observations and tests,” the official assessment continued, “it is known that small arms have difficulty in functioning satisfactorily in a severe sand environment.”101

Such was the state of resignation. The M-16, which at the start of the war had been a symbol of innovation and technical promise, had become instead a symbol of the mix-ups of war, and of a dishonest Pentagon and a manufacturer with which it worked. As public opinion on the war shifted, America’s undependable rifle became another element of disaffection, a symbol of failure for a military that had won World War II and for a nation that believed its industry was among the best in the world. It was a demoralizing comedown, as one embittered officer wrote:

The M-16 sure is a marvelous gun,

and in a god-awful war

it provides some keen fun.

The bullet it fires appears too small to harm

but it makes a big hole

and can tear off an arm.

Single shot, semi, or full automatic,

a real awesome weapon,

’tho in performance sporadic.

But listen to Ichord and forget that stuck bolt,

for you aren’t as important

as a kickback from Colt.

So carry your rifle (they don’t give a damn),

just pray you won’t need it

while you’re in Vietnam.

The M-16 is issue, though we all feel trapped.

More GIs would protest,

but somehow they got zapped.102

*   *   *

Several months after the fight for Ap Sieu Quan, Staff Sergeant Elrod was reassigned from Hotel Company’s First Platoon to become the battalion’s intelligence chief, and was meritoriously promoted, to the rank of gunnery sergeant. The battalion continued to operate against the NVA in the provinces just south of North Vietnam. Throughout this time, he refused to carry an M-16. He had seen too many M-16s jam in too many fights, and lost too many Marines. After the battalion’s rifles were replaced in December 1967, the newer rifles performed better, but many Marines still had problems, and the rifles with chromed chambers would not be available for months. The M-16 remained a bitter subject.

One day in spring 1968, after a skirmish in a gully near Khe Sanh, Gunnery Sergeant Elrod found an AK-47 beside a dead North Vietnamese soldier. The rifle was in excellent condition. He claimed it as his own, along with several magazines. This was not a trophy. It was a tool. Now he had an assault rifle he could depend on. The AK-47 did not solve all his problems. It solved one problem but replaced it with another. There was a special danger related to carrying the enemy’s weapon: The M-16 and the AK-47 have distinctly different sounds, and whenever Gunnery Sergeant Elrod fired his new weapon, he risked drawing fire from other Marines. He considered this less of a risk than carrying a rifle that might not fire at all.

A few weeks later, Gunnery Sergeant Elrod was walking across a forward operating base near Khe Sanh with his AK-47 slung across his back. A lieutenant colonel stopped him.

“Gunny, why the hell are you carrying that?” he asked.

“Because it works,” Gunnery Sergeant Elrod replied.

“It’s going to get you killed,” the colonel said.

Gunnery Sergeant Elrod knew something about how Marines were getting killed. In his experience, this was not one of the ways.

“Sir,” he said. “My Marines know what my weapon sounds like. And it works.

And that was the basic position from which any discussion about automatic rifles began and ended. It was well and good to design a rifle that fired bullets at tremendous velocity, or could achieve exceptional accuracy over substantial range. Soldiers would welcome a rifle that was especially lethal, just as they would praise a rifle that managed to be lightweight, or sturdy, or had recoil so slight that it almost could not be perceived. But none of these traits meant much if the rifle could not be relied upon to fire when a Marine pulled its trigger. If a rifle could not be trusted, its other characteristics were moot. Being a bayonet holder was not enough.

Gunnery Sergeant Elrod kept his AK-47 that day, and he carried it for several more months. He set it aside only when he rotated back to the United States.

i The Type 56 assault rifle, the clone of the AK.47 made in Mao’fs China since the Soviet army passed the technical specifications to the People’fs Liberation Army in the mid-1950s.

ii The available data, compiled in the database of the Wound Data and Munitions Effectiveness Team, or WDMET, showed that 51 percent of American combat fatalities in Vietnam during the period under study were caused by small arms, 36 percent by fragmentation munitions, and 11 percent by mines and booby traps. From Ronald F. Bellamy and Russ Zajtchuk, Textbook of Military Medicine. Part I. Warfare, Weaponry and the Casualty. Conventional Warfare: Ballistic, Blast and Burn Injuries, Chapter 2, Assessing the Effectiveness of Conventional Weapons (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Surgeon General, 1989), p. 65.

iii The new name brought the rifle into line with the military’s standard designations. M stood for model; thus the M1903 springfield, the M1 Garand, the M.14, etc.

iv A lock was installed on most M.14s to prevent them from being used on automatic fire. In every ten-man rifle squad in the army in the early 1960s, two men were given the M.14 capable of automatic fire, known as the M.14E2; this version was equipped with a bipod and other features that drove up its weight.

v Under the license sale arrangement, MacDonald would receive a cut of both Fairchild’fs and Colt’fs future receipts. This included a 1 percent commission from Colt’fs for the selling price of every rifle sold, and 10 percent of Fairchild royalties, some of which were calculated on a sliding scale. For sales to military customers, the combined formula guaranteed him 1.225 percent. These were considerable incentives for MacDonald to try to have the AR.15 adopted by the American military. (For a detailed review of the license deal, see ’How a Lone Inventor’fs Idea Took Fire,’h Business Week, July 6, 1968.)

vi The embarrassment had grounds beyond the origins of the cadavers used. The twenty-seven severed heads were ultimately subjected to tests of little apparent value. And there are hints in the report of a lapse of scientific judgment that cast doubts on the value of the entire study. According to the report, Dziemian and Olivier used AR-15 ammunition different from the ammunition the American military used in Vietnam. Throughout the war, American troops would use a metal-jacketed round, just as the military had been using in other cartridges throughout the century. But in the Biophysics Division’s test in 1962, the cartridges were described by Dziemian and Olivier as propelling ’bullets with a lead core and no metal jackets.’h These rounds could be expected to create wounds of a much different nature from those made by military ammunition, and their use in the tests risked undermining judgment about the relative lethality of the tested weapons. But there is a hurdle to knowing with certainty what really occurred: the secrecy and cover-up of the work. Was the reference a clerical error? The photographs of the ammunition released to the author by the United States government were low-quality digital scans and provided no help in determining the bullets’ composition. Ultimately, it is not possible to tell from the records released to date. The study’fs final report did have other clerical errors, so it remains possible that this, too, was a clerical error. This was one of the pitfalls of secret tests, which were subject neither to peer review nor to public scrutiny. Both research lapses and editorial lapses could pass, and did pass, unchallenged.

vii Army of the Republic of Vietnam, which fought with American forces against the North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong guerrillas (author’s note).

viii The old cleaning gear was of little use. The M-14 had a bore diameter of 7.62 millimeters; the M-16 had a diameter of 5.56 millimeters. The cleaning rod used to push a patch through an M-14 barrel was too thick to pass through the newer rifle’fs barrel.

ix What really caused the jamming? Ichord emphasized ball powder, a factor that a subsequent writer, James Fallows, endorsed. Thomas L. McNaugher, in his rigorous 1984 study, The M16 Controversies: Military Organizations and Weapons Acquisition, emphasized maintenance and noted that by 1970 the rifle was widely considered reliable. The most likely cause for most of the reported problems, based on the records now available, and the accounts of veterans, would seem to be corrosion in the rifles’f chambers. This was caused in some cases by cleaning habits in the wet climate of Vietnam, but from a manufacturing perspective was related more strongly to the failure of the army and Colt’fs to chrome-plate the chambers of all M.16s leaving Hartford until late in 1968. Another likely factor contributing to the failures to extract, though as far as is publicly known the army never conducted extensive tests of the cartridge cases from 1966 to 1968, was that the ammunition cases were too soft and expanded under the pressures of firing, lodging into pitting and tool marks in the chamber. The rifle’fs inherently poor resistance to corrosion and insufficient ammunition standards likely combined to create the most intractable jams. Rifle cleaning habits were in all likelihood much less of a factor, considering that the same troops, when using M-14s in the same environments, reported few reliability problems. By 1970, when McNaugher noted that the M-16s in Vietnam were performing reliably, the many manufacturing changes meant that in many ways the troops were carrying a different rifle than what had been issued in 1966 and 1967.

x The United States Army in the Republic of Vietnam would not require soldiers to report M-16 malfunctions officially until spring 1968, making the military’s data throughout the worst period of M.16 malfunctions, in 1966 and 1967, of dubious value.

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