Defense: Under Fire

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No one in Viet Nam doubts that the stubby, black-stocked M-16 is a dangerous weapon. Of late, however, newsmen, fighting men and Congressmen alike have suggested that the wicked little (7 lbs., 39 in.) automatic rifle can be as dangerous to friend as it is to foe. Though—at the urging of General William Westmoreland—it has become the standard weapon for U.S. combat troops in Viet Nam, its critics charge that the M-16 tends to jam during the intensive firing for which it was designed, leaving many an infantryman helpless in close-up combat.

The M-16 itself came under heavy fire at home after last month's battle for Hills 881 and 861 below the DMZ. "We left with 72 men in our platoon and came back with 19," wrote a Marine Corps rifleman to his family after the battle. "Believe it or not, you know what killed most of us? Our own rifle. Practically every one of our dead was found with his [M16] torn down next to him where he had been trying to fix it." TV newsmen, in particular, took up the cry that U.S. troops were being betrayed by their own weapons. Last week two congressional subcommittees were studying the "M16 controversy."

Though the M-16's predecessor rifle, the 11¼-lb. M-14, has a longer range and fires a heavier bullet, it cannot match the M-16's maximum sustained rate of fire (up to 200 rounds a minute v. 60 for the M-14). Many Marines—as well as the South Korean troops in Viet Nam—are still armed with the slower-firing M-14, and as a result the Pentagon has also been faulted for failure to supply all the M-16s that the Allies in Viet Nam demanded.

Fire Discipline. In the face-to-face warfare of Viet Nam, the rifleman needs more and faster lead than any soldier in history. To that end, the M-16 has proved itself the best weapon available. Firing a light, .223-caliber bullet, backed by a magnum charge of gunpowder, the M-16 allows a rifleman to pack ten times as much ammo as his World War II or Korean War predecessors. Even on automatic, the M-16 delivers deadly accuracy over the ranges (50 ft. or less) at which most Vietnamese fire fights take place. While the M-14 delivers relatively slow-moving bullets that drill cleanly through the body, the M-16 shoots a high-velocity slug that can pulverize enemy flesh on contact.

Like any automatic weapon, the M-16 requires assiduous cleaning and care to keep it from jamming. But not as much as the .30-caliber M-14. "I could troubleshoot an M-16 much faster than I could an M-14," says Lieut. Colonel Henry Miller, chief of Army heavy maintenance in Saigon. Many Marines in the battle above Khe Sanh had been issued their M-16s only a few days before the fight, and were probably unfamiliar with the weapon's demands: constant lubrication, thorough wire-brush reaming of the barrel to prevent leading, "fire discipline" that limits bursts to two or three rounds at a crack.

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