What happened to the M16 in Vietnam? How about asking the guy who designed it?

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You can find all manner of misinformation on the internet, but you can also find the truth. The problem is that the latter isn’t always as interesting as the former, but not in this case!
The M16 is now the longest-serving general-issue small arm in the United States military. Hard to believe? It was first adopted in 1962, and because of continual upgrades and improvements continues to be relevant even 53 years later. That’s remarkable, if you think about it!

The M16 was not (and still is not) without its detractors, of course. The gun was initially derided for its plastic furniture, which in today’s world is a little hard to imagine, and there were even persistent rumors that the guns were actually being made by Mattel (the toy company.) That was false, but the rumor helped fuel the distrust of what was, at the time, the most innovative military rifle in the world.

What wasn’t a rumor were the gun’s initial issues with reliability. Over the years legions of barbershop, coffee shop, and internet commandoes have opined on the reasons for the failures and kept alive the memory of those failures. Today there are still people who will tell you that they’ll never own a “Mattel gun” because they’re “unreliable”.

Most of the issues were due to our own military, who resisted the newfangled contraption and seemingly did everything in their power to sabotage the rifle. I’ve talked to soldiers and Marines who were issued the guns in the early days and who were told that they were ‘self cleaning’, thus they didn’t need to clean them! That wasn’t true, of course, and one Marine who was in Recon during the Vietnam war told me his commander ordered the troops to clean their M16 just as they did their previous M14 rifles. As he put it, their rifles ran perfectly while the soldiers they ran into complained constantly about theirs. He attributed the rifle’s success to Marine discipline, which is exactly what I’d expect a Marine to say!

The Pentagon also ordered a change in the powder used for the then-new 5.56 ammunition, and some have argued that the new powder attracted moisture which rusted the non-chrome-lined barrels. The ammunition was certainly an issue, but that wasn’t why: the powder change resulted in a big difference in gas pressure for which the M16 wasn’t designed which was the issue.

There were other problems, of course, some of which we know of and some which we haven’t — until now. I mention this because of a video that InRangeTV just released: an interview with L. James Sullivan, the co-designer of the original Armalite AR-15. Unfortunately full30.com doesn’t allow embedding, so you’ll have to click this link to watch the video (and I highly recommend you do so!)

This video is fascinating. Case in point: the original rifle was, as Sullivan says, right on the edge of reliability with the original ammunition. The powder change made a huge spike in gas port pressure, on the order of 10,000 psi, which changed the rate of fire from the designed 750 rounds per minute to 900 rounds! As he points out, you’d think the military would have noted that fact and thought “hmmm, something might be wrong here”, but apparently no one did.

I also found it interesting that, according to him, the military routinely tested every lot of 7.62 powder for gas port pressure, but didn’t bother with the 5.56mm ammo used in the M16. We all know what happens if you stray outside of loading recommendations for the M1 Garand or the M1A1 (the civilian version of the M14): bent operating rods. The military knew that as well, which is why they tested for pressure problems. Why didn’t they do so for the M16? Good question.

As Sullivan says, “the gun today is still not perfect”, which is why his company is working on engineering changes to make the AR-15/M16 into the rifle he and Eugene Stoner envisioned back in the late 1950s. If you haven’t seen the first interview that Ian McCollum did with Mr. Sullivan, be sure to check it out — it includes footage of Ian shooting an “improved” full-auto AR-15 from Sullivan’s shop!

-=[ Grant Cunningham ]=-


About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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