AR-15/M16: The Rifle That Was Never Supposed to Be

Tlution of the M16 to the M16A1 is very evident when the rifles are compared side by side. The M16 (top) and the M16A1 (bottom). Note the addition of the forward bolt assist, magazine fence guard “BOSS” and the “birdcage” flash suppressor on the M16A1.

Tlution of the M16 to the M16A1 is very evident when the rifles are compared side by side. The M16 (top) and the M16A1 (bottom). Note the addition of the forward bolt assist, magazine fence guard “BOSS” and the “birdcage” flash suppressor on the M16A1.

This article is an excerpt from the Gun Digest Book of Classic Combat Rifles.

In September 1965, General Westmoreland ordered an additional 100,000 rifles and requested all U.S. ground forces in Vietnam be equipped with the new M16A1 rifles. Colt now signed an additional contract to deliver 25,000 rifles a month by December 1966. In 1968, GM Hydramatic Division and Harrington & Richardson were awarded second-source contracts from the Department of Defense.

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This article is an excerpt from the Gun Digest Book of Classic Combat Rifles. Click the cover to order this book and read more gun histories.

Letters from the field began reporting the rifles were malfunctioning at an alarming rate, with U.S. troops found dead next to jammed M16 rifles. Spent cartridge cases were becoming lodged in the chamber and the only way to remove them was to knock them out with a cleaning rod. Requests were made for Colt to send a representative to the field to solve this problem. This turn of events was highly publicized by the media.

A representative from Colt, Mr. Kanemitsu Ito, went to Vietnam and claimed to be shocked, having never seen equipment in such poor shape. He claimed to have looked down the barrel of one rifle and not seen ‘daylight’ due to severe rusting and pitting. Many of the troops he spoke to said they were never trained to maintain their rifle, that the rifle was “self-cleaning” and that they had not handled an M16/M16A1 rifle until they arrived “in-country.” Subsequently, Mr. Ito gave classes on maintenance all over South Vietnam.

The combat 5.56×45mm. The M193 Ball Cartridge (left), 55-grain full metal jacket boattall bullet. The M855/SS109 Ball Cartridge (right), 62-grain full metal Jacket boattall with a hardened steel penetrator core. Identified by the green tip.

The combat 5.56×45mm. The M193 Ball Cartridge (left), 55-grain full metal jacket boattall bullet. The M855/SS109 Ball Cartridge (right), 62-grain full metal Jacket boattall with a hardened steel penetrator core. Identified by the green tip.

Seeking an independent, unbiased report of the true field performance situation, the Ichord Congressional Subcommittee selected a retired officer, Colonel Crossman, as their representative and sent him to Vietnam. In the course of his investigation, he interviewed 250 soldiers and Marines throughout South Vietnam,  fully 50 percent of whom reported malfunctions with their M16/M16A1 rifles.

Of these malfunctions, 90 percent were failures to extract. Colonel Crossman found 22-caliber cleaning kits in short supply and concluded many of the problems were due to lack of maintenance and cleaning. He also felt there was room for improvement in the rifle. He concluded, “It was not possible to correlate ammunition make or type with malfunctions.” His findings report, dated June 16, 1967, included the statement that the rifle needed a complete overhaul in design and manufacture.

According to Gene Stoner, there were hardly any 22-caliber cleaning kits in Vietnam — and no instruction manuals. The “cleanup” began: The military developed bore and chamber cleaning brushes and began to distribute 22-caliber cleaning kits, firearm maintenance cards and instruction manuals, for the M16/M16A1 rifles.

From May 15th through August 22nd, 1967, the much-publicized Ichord Congressional Subcommittee (Honorable Richard Ichord, Chairman) investigated the history, development, testing, procurement and foreign sales of the M16 rifle. During the investigation, the subcommittee visited U.S. military training installations of all branches where the committee members interviewed hundreds of Vietnam returnees on their experiences with the M16/ M16A1 rifle.

They also visited South Vietnam to interview troops in combat zones. Several people were called to testify before the subcommittee. Two topics, not identified until after the subcommittee returned from Vietnam, were the propellant and high cyclic rate issues. The subcommittee would focus most of their attention on these two aspects.

4 thoughts on “AR-15/M16: The Rifle That Was Never Supposed to Be

  1. master gunny

    As the armorer for the 6th Engineer Bn I one had to use a hammer and screwdriver to force the bolt into full battery (with a round in the chamber!) in order to clear a malfunction. I was shocked because the weapons was not anywhere dirty enough to explain the severe malfunction. That same day I have another stoppage, same problem, but again the fowling was not that severe. I could go on and on with why I feel the weapon is a poor choice for an infantrymen but suffice to say that I will stick with my M1A and HK-91.

  2. master gunny

    Gents,
    With respects it’s obvious to me that you guys are too young to remember the controversy surrounding the introduction of the M-16. Not mentioned in yourt article were the constant complaints about the weapons, their unreliability, the congressional hearings on the malfunctions that that were literally getting our tropps killed in Vietnam. Numerous accounts of troops found dead in their fighting holes with their weapons diassembled were presented as evidence that the weapon was despised by the troops. Mothers would get urgent letters from their sons asking for cleaning gear and solvents because the weapons fouled so easily and severely. The forward assist, and chrome chamber were just a couple of the modifications necessary to solve some of the problems.

    More offensive to me was the remark that the M14 was prone to jams and problems and speaking from experience I can tell you that is exactly the opposite of the truth. The M14 was rock solid reliable, accurate, and robust. The M1-16 fragile, unreliable, ualofre

  3. tinock28

    I liked the article on the AR-15/M16 rifle very much, I remember an article back in 1956-57 in one of Gun Mag’s about the AR-10, I thougt at the time it was a good rifle.

    1. master gunny

      Read Colonel Moore’s book, “We were soldiers one and Young” to get a better understanding of how critical reliability is to a grunt. One passage, regarding Lt. Herricks surounded platoon, say it all. Troops fighting for their lives against overwhelming odds were forced to discard their weapons and pick up those of their wounded comrades in order to stay in the fight. Many times those weapons were also not functioning and so the troops had to rummage through the perimeter to find a working weapon. Trust me, that sucks

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