Print - The Gun - Esquire
In the mid-1950s, the Kremlin had provided Mao's arms engineers with the technical specifications for its new assault rifle, the AK-47. China had set up assembly lines to make its own version — the Type 56 — and by 1964 had distributed huge quantities of these weapons in Southeast Asia. The weapons were in some ways the ultimate compromise firearm: Shorter and lighter than traditional rifles but larger than submachine guns, they could be fired either automatically or a single shot at a time. Their smaller, intermediate-power cartridges allowed soldiers and guerrillas to carry more ammunition into battle than before, and reduced the costs and burdens of resupply. All this and they were an eminently well designed tool — reliable, durable, resistant to corrosion, and with moderate recoil and a design so simple that their basics could be mastered in a matter of hours. A large fraction of the Vietcong and North Vietnamese army combatants now carried these new assault rifles as their primary weapons. 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. Vietnam was this new breed of rifleman's war: The majority of American combat fatalities, statistics would show, were caused by small-arms fire. This was new. For the first time, local fighters were a technological match against the well-equipped expeditionary forces of an empire. The battlefield had been leveled. Stalin's rifle, once a hushed secret, had broken out. It was changing the experience of small-unit war.
Then came reaction. Since the AK-47, or Kalashnikov, had first surfaced, the American military had dismissed it as cheap and ineffective. But as this new weapon's cracking bursts were heard in battle each day, the Eastern bloc's assault rifle at last captured the Pentagon's attention. It marked the Kremlin's influence on how war was experienced by combatants of limited means — 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, and these men were outgunning American troops. To close the gun gap, the Pentagon rushed the M16 into service.
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Throughout the 1950s, the United States had missed the significance of the spread of Eastern-bloc small arms. Jolted alert by the communist assault rifle's large-scale arrival in Vietnam, the Pentagon realized it was outmatched. The Army abruptly selected the M16 for general service in the war. Had the early M16 been reliable, 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, 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. Today the M16 is a quintessential American arm, the longest-serving standard infantry rifle in GI history, and a weapon familiar to millions of soldiers who have carried it and who have strong feelings about it, good or bad. The early M16 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 Robert McNamara's Pentagon. Instead of a thoughtful progression from prototype to general-issue arm, the M16's journey was marked by salesmanship, sham science, cover-ups, chicanery, incompetence, and no small amount of dishonesty by a manufacturer and senior military officers. Its introduction to war was briefly heralded as a triumph of private industry and perceptive management. It swiftly became a monument to the hazards of hubris and the perils of rushing, a study in military management gone awry.
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