The first generation M16 wasn’t a popular weapon when it first came out in 1966 during the Vietnam War. It jammed and malfunctioned extensively. While its predecessor, the heavier M14, fired a 7.62mm round, the M16 shot the 5.56mm. Soldiers and marines thought that the 5.56mm could not penetrate the dense jungle foliage and that it didn’t have the stopping power the M14 had.
M16: Many Jams During Vietnam
The M16 was lighter with less recoil. It also had fewer parts and components and was easier to disassemble and clean. But there was that reliability issue. The spent cartridge did not eject well and became stuck in the middle of combat, necessitating a “clearing” process that could be slow and cumbersome. Nobody wanted to have that happen during a firefight. The Army even conducted a survey in 1967 asking 1,585 soldiers about their experiences with the M16, and a whopping 80 percent endured a malfunction or what the Army called a “failure to extract.”
Congress Gets Involved
Soldiers wrote home about the M16 problems and the family members notified Congress. This resulted in a subcommittee investigation about the M16. The legislators determined that the Army needed to provide all troops with a clearing rod to dislodge jammed casings and to ensure the weapon was cleaned daily. The humidity of the jungle was not good for the M16, so it needed regular maintenance, even though some troops were getting into multi-day battles and didn’t have the time to administer a proper cleaning when it was badly needed.
It’s Still Happened
Later the M16 was used in the First Gulf War during Operation Desert Storm, and there were complaints that dust from the desert was creating malfunctions again. The answer was to require more maintenance and cleaning.
Why Did We Use the 5.56mm Round?
I was always taught by my drill sergeants that the 5.56mm NATO round was designed for fighting the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries which were expected to attack in hordes and mass assaults. The thinking went that the 5.56mm would tumble when entering the body and damage more tissue before it exited – leaving more serious wounds. Then the wounded soldier would need to be administered to on the battlefield. This would ideally require enemy troops to disengage from the fight while they evaluated the casualty and performed first aid. Wounding was seen as a good thing to even the disparity in troop numbers between the Americans and the Communists.
Still Lacked Stopping Power
Stopping power was still a problem for those who used various M16 variants such as the M16A2 which could fire in three-round bursts and the M16A3 that had fully automatic mode. Soldiers still complained about the lack of heft in the round.
I Preferred the M16
My experience with the M16A2 and A3 was a good one. I preferred it over the M4 because I like the longer range and the higher muzzle velocity of the M16. The M4 was too short for someone like me with longer arms. I spent five years in the Army and only remember having one malfunction with the M16A2 or A3 from 1999 to 2001. I then switched over to the M4 right before 9/11.
Fix It With SPORTS
That M16 jam was in training, and I just simply ejected the spent casing after a few moments. But we were definitely trained on how to deal with M16 malfunctions through a technique called “SPORTS.” This acronym stands for Slap upward on the magazine, Pull the charging handle all the way back, Observe the ejection of the cartridge and check the chamber, Release the charging handle, Tap the forward assist, and finally Shoot. That’s the long version, usually you could skip some of these steps and fix the jam quickly.
Marines Used the M16 for a Longer Duration
The Marine Corps used the M16A4 during the Second Gulf War especially during the early days from 2003 until 2005 before they went to the M4 later. The M16A4 has a rail system that allowed for an optic for better accuracy. But the marines quickly learned that they preferred a shorter barrel for clearing rooms and the collapsible stock of the M4.
I like the M16A3 and A4 because that is the weapon that I first trained on. I knew I could hit targets with the iron sights. I still have good memories of it. I even nicknamed it “Lucille” after B.B. King’s guitar. Most soldiers and marines now prefer the M4 and would never return to the M16. But the M16 deserves an important chapter in the history of the U.S. military.
Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.