A blast from the military past: “The M16 is a good rifle”


I’m obliged to Matt Bracken for republishing an article from The American Rifleman magazine’s January 1969 issue.  The author of that article was a Captain in the US Army at the time.  He wrote it to try to counter the reams of negative publicity surrounding the then-relatively-new M16 rifle.  It holds a lot of historical interest.  Here are a few excerpts.

I have carried at different times 2 M16’s as well as 2 of the stubby little CAR-15‘s.  The CAR-15 is simply an M16 with a short carbine-length barrel and telescoping stock.  With these 4 arms I have never experienced a jam in 18 months of combat.  If given the same care as a .22 rimfire semi-automatic rifle, the M16 will not fail.

. . .

I have knocked out Communists at ranges from 50 ft. to 750 meters and have yet to use full-automatic fire … If a group of Uncle Ho’s “nephews” jump out of a clump of bamboo 10 ft. from you, go ahead and hose them with full-automatic fire, but if they are 100 feet or so away you can drop them quickly with aimed semi-automatic fire.  You will be surprised how fast the trigger finger can be wiggled under combat conditions!  In other than very close combat it is better to shoot straight than first.

. . .

Military regulations prohibit one from bringing personal arms to Vietnam, but do not prohibit telescope sights.  I brought over a 2x-7x variable sight with internal range finder and with mount for the Colt AR-15 commercial rifle.  This proved an ideal tool for the NCO or company grade officer as it eliminated the guesswork in range estimation.  Additionally this scope has greater magnification than the 6x binocular with less than half its weight.

I was told by so-called experts that the M16 rifle is not accurate beyond 350 meters.  But with my rifle fitted with bipod mount and scope sight and firing tracer ammunition, I can reach out and drop a walking enemy soldier at better than 700 meters range.  And I make no claim to being an outstanding shot.

. . .

It is difficult to concentrate 18 months of experience in one article, but I would like to emphasize that the M16 is a great combat arm.  True the ones they had 3 years ago were jam prone if not cleaned meticulously, but the improved M16A1 version now in use is tough and will take as much rough handling as either the M14 or the old M1.  My M16 has never let me down.

There’s more at the link.

I found the author’s comments interesting, because in the 1970’s South Africa tested a number of assault rifles chambered for the 5.56x45mm NATO cartridge.  Among them were several early-model M16’s, all of which failed miserably when subjected to African dust and dirt (not to mention the rainy season!).  Based on this article, I presume that those tested were the first models of that rifle that had proven problematic in Vietnam, rather than the more developed M16A1 that the author used.

Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating:  so the fact that the M16 and its M4-derivative carbine (in enhanced versions) remain the standard-issue US military rifles to this day, more than 50 years after that article was written, speaks for itself.  It’s also interesting that the US Army’s newly-selected 1x-6x optical sight for its rifles and carbines is strikingly similar, in terms of power, to the privately-owned 2x-7x scope the author took to Vietnam with him.  What’s old is new again?



  1. The history of which were reliable and which weren't is complicated. The very first adopted were great. The very first adopted as standard issue weapons were not. Then they fixed it and they were good again. I have to wonder if the ones tested in South Africa were old examples that had been shot to pieces. Or perhaps when they were tested they were well-lubricated and that caused the dust issues. Or perhaps it was an ammo issue. A lot of the early issues with the M16 were caused by ammo that was a bad match for the gas system. You've got me wondering.

  2. Springfield Armory (the government arsenal, not the commercial company) and Army Ordnance initially had a bad case of NIH (not invented here) when it came to the M-16. Some of their decisions might be seen as sabotaging a rifle they didn't want. It wasn't their beloved M-14 firing full-power rounds, which itself had a prolonged development period for what should've been a much shorter process, and amazingly still had a number of problems in the early M-14s that needed to be worked out. Beretta did a much quicker and arguably better job when they converted .30-06 M-1 Garands to 7.62x51mm BM-59s using 20-rd box magazines.

  3. I knew some guys that had been in Nam in the late 60's and non of them complained about the rifle. One I knew as Bummer was a LRP in an Army unit. He cut is trigger finger off so he would not be able to go back. they told him to use is second finger and was sent back anyway.

    If he did not complain about the rifle he carried I would not think anyone else would. I know is was very popular to denounce the Army/Matel/Rifle/Colt and all the "Establishment" by all the smarter people at the time.

    Not that they had any better ideas. Just more of "Don't"

    I do not thing the AR-15 and its brethren suffer from the same issues.

    Any way. So much for the rant.

  4. 1963 Basic training I was in the last cycle to train with the M-1. I loved it. Next phase and after deployment was with M-14s. It may be a fine weapon now but the early ones were crap. Dropped, they would break at the hand grip.

    We had a company commander for awhile that allowed, even encouraged those of us so inclined, to take our issued rifles to a local range on Sundays. We had to buy our own ammo. While I never, repeat never, had a jamb with my M-1, I never, repeat never put more than two mags through my M-14 without a jamb.

    A few of my fellow soldiers and I had such little faith in our M-14s, we bought .308 bolt actions via our Rod and Gun Club. This included our company armorer.

  5. @Scott Slack: The South African test examples, IIRC, were M16A1's, but they had been to Vietnam. I can't say how hard-used they were there, but some former Marines who were then serving with the South African Defence Force said they were in good condition. I suspect it was African dust and dirt that did them in – it's a whole new ball game.

    That reminds me of a tale of woe from BMW South Africa, way back in the late 1970's or early 1980's. I'll write about it on the blog tomorrow. It illustrates the "power" (?) of African dust like few other episodes.


  6. Hey Peter;

    I was trained with the M16A1 and then the M16A2, I never had a problem with the rifle, sure there were people that complained about the rifle, but they were blaming the rifle for their own inadequacies, I was the unit armorer and I would have "Joe Snuffie" say that "My rifle sucks, I can't qualify, it is a piece of shit since Vietnam, Wah, Wah." I would take the same rifle, shoot 6 rounds through it that you could put a quarter on the grouping, then hand the rifle back and say "Bullshit", you suck, because you forgot the fundamentals of marksmanship and take the easy way out and blame the rifle.", I trust the M16 platform, and would take it to war again.

  7. I recall stories from friends who were early users of the M-16 that many of the problems were a result of the Arsenal using salvaged ball powder instead of the extruded rod powder that the system was designed for, causing excessive fouling in the gas system and chamber, combined with a cleaning / lube instruction based on the cleaner burning rod powder.
    The articles' mention of 700 meter shots with the 55 grain bullet? Maybe. Under perfect conditions.
    In the late 70s our civilian club shot against the Miss NG rifle team, who were prepping for the National Matches at Camp Perry, our .30 Garands and M-1As / club M-14s against their M-16s, and while they ate us up at 200 and 300 yards, my partner took 17 rounds to get on to a 36" bullseye target at 600 yards.
    We did have a flukey 6 O'clock 10+ MPH wind, and a powerline clearcut crossing the range at the 300 yard line 🙂 but …
    John in Indy

  8. @Peter I will concede that the possibility of unnaturally fine dust had not occurred to me. The world gets weirder every day.

  9. For what it is worth, it has been about 30 years since I used an M16. A grain of sand, a dust bunny, a day of the week ending in the letter "Y" and the M16 would jam. The Marines are switching to the M27 / HK416 all to the better. It was not the equipment that made the US military great, it was TRADOC. That we stuck with the M16 as long as we did is a failure of command. You can survive a few deficiencies. Until it jams.

  10. I had some trouble with the M16 in the early 80's but I think it was because we did a lot of training with the Miles Laser Tag system. We fired a lot of blanks and the powder really couldn't leave the muzzle well. It required constant cleaning.

  11. The Saga of the M16 in Viet Nam – by Dick Culver
    … but all the Hill Fights at Khe Sanh in April ’67 came up the same – dead Marines with
    cleaning rods stuck down the barrel of their M16s to punch out cartridge cases that refused to
    extract. … My first clue to the solution to
    the problem came from talking to the Battalion Armorer. He had an M16 that worked under
    almost all conditions. I asked him what he had done to it, and he replied that he had taken a
    ÂĽ" drill, attached a couple of sections of cleaning rod to it, and put some "crocus cloth"
    through the slotted tip (like a patch) and run it into the chamber and turned the drill motor on.
    He "horsed" the drill a bit and apparently relieved the chamber dimensions just enough to
    ensure positive functioning.

    Indian Fights and Fighters: The Soldier and the Sioux by Cyrus Townsend Brady
    Custer attacked the Indians, and they fought him until all the white men were killed. … The carbines of the troopers did not work well. When they became clogged and dirty from rapid firing, the ejectors would not throw out the shells, and the men frequently had to stop and pick out the shells with a knife. The chambers of the carbines at that time were cylindrical, and the easily accumulated dirt on the cartridges clogged them so that the ejectors would not work properly. The chambers were afterward made conical, with good results.
    “Their guns wouldn’t shoot but once—the thing wouldn’t throw out the empty cartridge shells. (In this he was historically correct, as dozens of guns were picked up on the battle-field by General Gibbon’s command two days after with the shells still sticking in them, showing that the ejector wouldn’t work.) When we found they could not shoot we saved our bullets by knocking the long swords over with our war clubs—it was just like killing sheep” – Chief Rain-In-The-Face

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