After a particularly bloody battle near Khe Sanh during the Vietnam War, a member of Hotel Company, Second Battalion, Third Marines wrote back to a newspaper in Asbury Park, N. J., that, “Practically every one of our dead was found with his rifle tore down next to him where he had been trying to fix it.”

The rifle he referred to was an initial version of the first U. S. assault rifle, the M-16. The gun had serious reliability problems that were eventually resolved, but at the cost of American lives. The sad saga of the M-16’s development is chronicled by N. Y. Times writer and former Marine infantry captain C.J. Chivers in a book called The Gun. “Instead of a thoughtful progression from prototype to general-issue arm, the M-16’s journey was marked by salesmanship, sham science, cover-ups, chicanery, incompetence, and no small amount of dishonesty by a gun manufacturer and senior American military officers,” says Chivers.

What never happened in the case of the M-16 was a formal issuing of specifications for caliber, muzzle velocity, accuracy, and so forth, to see what gun makers could come up with. Instead, the government quickly settled on three candidate designs, two of which were from the same designer. And none of these was ready for prime time. The rifles ultimately issued to troops tended to jam and corrode badly. As Chivers puts it, “The weapons, billed as being assembled from modern components that gave the rifle an unsurpassed durability, were literally rotting in the troops’ hands.”

Nor was the M-16’s ammunition fully developed. Often when a bullet fired, the empty cartridge case would stick in the chamber. And sometimes the bottom of the spent cartridge case would tear away. The process of getting the remaining pieces out of the rifle was complicated. It was not a task you’d want to undertake while being shot at.

Horror stories abounded about the early guns. In a letter now on file at the National Archives, an engineer dispatched to Vietnam by the rifle manufacturer says the Twenty-fifth Infantry Division had tested 2,000 M-16s and found 384 of them malfunctioned. The 173rd Airborne Brigade had 10 M-16s that literally blew up when fired. In at least one case, the explosion killed an American GI.

That brings us to the present day, when the U. S. military is getting ready to hold a design competition open to companies that make carbines. The point is to find an improved design that could potentially replace the M4 rifle now widely used by U. S. troops.

There is a lot of skepticism in the arms community about whether or not this competition will take a sincere look at innovative concepts. But give the military brass credit for having at least one good idea: After all, it was a design competition in the 1940s that gave rise to the AK-47 assault rifle. A Soviet team headed by Mikhail T. Kalashnikov beat out 15 other entrants in a contest run by the USSR’s Main Artillery Dept. The resulting weapons proved to be so rugged and reliable that versions of them produced in the 1950s are still carried by armies today.

It is impossible to review the passage penned by that U. S. Marine so long ago without developing a sense of outrage. Even if the Army’s upcoming carbine competition is flawed, it is worthwhile if it helps prevent a situation where troops are compelled to complain to a newspaper about the rifle they carry.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

© 2011 Penton Media, Inc.