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AK vs. M16 Through History


Sturgeon
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The subject of this initial post is going to be much more specific than the title, but since it will probably evolve into an broader debate anyway I figured I might as well roll with it.

 

Over the past few weeks, I've been watching the recent Burns' documentary on the Vietnam War. In it, I noticed something I had suspected for a long time: At the height of the M16's troubles in Vietnam, VC and NVA forces were primarily equipped with (probably Chinese) derivatives of the Type 3 milled AK-49. Almost all the images in the documentary up to 1969 of North Vietnamese forces that show enough detail to tell depict milled receivered guns with lightening cuts. Images from a quick GIS support this:

 

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Virtually all of these weapons are Type 3s, and it's very likely that the vast majority of them are Chinese Type 56s (which came in both removable, and fixed folding bayonet versions).

 

Interestingly, Type 1 AK-47s did actually see service in Vietnam as well - AFAIK the Chinese never made Type 1s, so this would necessarily have to be a Russian gun!

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OK, so what's the significance of all this? It's certainly no secret that the Type 3 AK was a prevalent rifle during this time period in Vietnam. Consider that, in contrast to the M16 of 1970, the M16 of 1968 and prior was a very troubled weapon. Bad ammunition, lack of chrome lining, and lack of support in the form of cleaning kits made the gun very difficult to use and keep clean. Due to teething troubles that had little to do with the design itself, the M16 failed right when soldiers and Marines needed the support of a reliable rifle most - in the brutal fighting of 1960s Vietnam. The rifle also had (minor) durability issues, on top of this. The lower receiver buffer tower was a weak point of the design, as were the handguards. The plastic bridges of the cooling vents at the top of the two piece handguards are in a number of photos shown to be broken off - not a good thing when it is these that are supposed to protect the rifle's gas tube from damage. There's little evidence to suggest that the durability problems were a significant issue (though they would be fixed in the A2 version of the 1980s), but on top of the functioning issues they must have given the US soldier or Marine of the time period a very negative impression of their weapon. This impression was only made worse by the ubiquity of the Type 3 AK among enemy troops.

In contrast to the M16, the Type 3 AK was a weapon with nearly 20 years development behind it. What teething troubles there were with the Kalashnikov's basic design (and there were some serious ones) had been winnowed out and patched over long since. Further, the Type 3 AK with its solid forged, milled receiver represents perhaps the most durable and long-lasting assault rifle ever developed. This was not on purpose, in fact the Soviets desired a rifle that would be almost disposable. The later AKM, which perfected the stamped sheet metal receiver the Russians truly desired, was lifed by its barrel. When the barrel was shot out, the rifles were intended to be discarded (a practice that continues today). American rifles - including the M16 - were designed to be rearsenaled and rebarreled time and time again, serving over many decades and tens of thousands of rounds, potentially. The Type 3 AK, which was designed as a production stopgap between the troublesome Type 1 of 1947-1951, and the AKM, used a heavy-duty receiver not due to Russian durability requirements, but their desire for expediency. A rifle with a milled receiver could enter production - albeit at greater cost per unit - much earlier, while Russian engineers perfected the stamped model. As a side effect, they produced a highly durable weapon, whose receiver could serve virtually indefinitely (as the Finns proved recently).

 

To US troops, this must have seemed like a huge slap in the face. Why did these rice farmers get a durable, reliable weapon, while Uncle Sam fielded the toylike "junk" M16 to his finest? On top of everything these troops were dealing with - body count quotas, vicious close-range ambushes, friendly fire, and all else, it's no surprise that the veterans who went through that feel very strongly about the M16. It didn't matter that the AK overall was a much less refined and effective weapon in theory than the M16, or that the M16 by 1970 was a quite mature and reliable weapon, the morale hit of having a rifle so inferior in reliability and durability gave the M16 a reputation in those early years that it has barely shaken even today. 

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In the document repository thread I found this paper, a Vietnam M16 Survey. It seems that most of the bugs were worked out by the time the M16A1 was rolled out, which was mass issued by '68. The original M16's worst days were in 66-67, where most of the complaints (legitimate) were made. Which was still a time it would be more common to find VC/NLF especially and NVA/PAVN too, armed primarily with either SKS or else French weapons dating back to Vietminh or WW2 era US military weapons given to ARVN and lost in battle, stolen, or sold on black market. 

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1 hour ago, Duncan said:

In the document repository thread I found this paper, a Vietnam M16 Survey. It seems that most of the bugs were worked out by the time the M16A1 was rolled out, which was mass issued by '68. The original M16's worst days were in 66-67, where most of the complaints (legitimate) were made. Which was still a time it would be more common to find VC/NLF especially and NVA/PAVN too, armed primarily with either SKS or else French weapons dating back to Vietminh or WW2 era US military weapons given to ARVN and lost in battle, stolen, or sold on black market. 

 

The M16 timeline is a bit rougher than that. The A1 isn't really a discrete variant, it's more or less just the name for the standardized Army variant, and rifles marked as such were rolled out beginning in 1967, like you said. However, The M16A1 got continually improved all the way through 1968, especially after the Ichord Hearings in mid-1967. The document you linked is Appendix 7 of the Ichord report, here's a not-so-great copy of the whole report. You can find better versions of all the appendices, and the report itself if I recall, on DTIC.

 

The M16A1 doesn't completely shake out until the end of the 1960s; for example, McNamara was still issuing directives and changes for the rifle and ammo just before he left the SecDef position in 1968. That same year, updated and improved drafts of the M16A1 rifle and ammo TDP were still being issued. @D.E. Watters excellent timeline of events helps us track this with more clarity.

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1 hour ago, That_Baka said:

I do wonder if Bulkin TKB-415 would be adopted instead would Kovrov firearm spread out in world as much as AK?

 

The Bulkin was not as good in my estimation (it is broadly similar in most quantifiable characteristics, but lacks virtually all the refinement Kalashnikov borrowed from the M1 Garand), but yes I think it would be just as widespread had the Soviet Union committed to it. The real question is whether some other rifle would have won the 1957 trials had the Bulkin been the incumbent. I don't think the TKB-517 was ever destined to be the victor there, but perhaps another design could have been.

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The history of the sheer volumes of stupid involved in the fielding of the '16, will take a long time to wash away the still greater volumes of stupid surrounding the piece itself.  ("Shits where it eats", "Made by Mattel", etc).

 

It's not hard to find someone more than willing to tell you how fantabulous their (flavor of the week pew-pew shooter) is versus the "junky" M-16, but are unable to describe how the gas system functions.

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Just now, Walter_Sobchak said:

I wonder what the ARVN troops thought about being given M1 carbines while their opponent had AKs.  Of course, given the ARVN combat record, perhaps it didn't really matter.

 

That was at a time when they were getting WW2 and Korean War hand me downs as the US was shifting to new infantry weapons. They also got Garands, but being little guys, not weighing all that much, they didn't like the 10 lb rifle that kicked like a mule, instead preferring lightweight selected fire M2 Carbines with 30 round magazines with little recoil. As the war progressed, they got M16s too.

 

While AKs were found early in the war they really weren't heavily issued, especially to the VC, who ARVN largely dealt with, while US forces, especially in I Corps region, were largely tasked with dealing with NVA incursions, who were better armed and had more tangible supply lines to feed their select fire weapons (where VC, having a harder time infiltrating and hiding stocked caches further from the border and Ho Chi Minh, had less reliable sources of ammunition and thus had to be more thrifty with their use). 

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Yeah, early on both the ARVN and VC were primarily armed with US and French surplus, with commie weapons leaking in increasingly as time went on.

 

Interestingly, long after many other WWII-era weapons vanish from period footage and photos, the BAR still makes regular appearances with VC troops all the way through the end of the 1960s.

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27 minutes ago, Walter_Sobchak said:

Did the SKS start to trickle into VC hands prior to the AK, or were they supplied in parallel?

 

It arrived a little earlier, but they absolutely were supplied in parallel through the late 1960s. I own an SKS that was probably a Vietnam vet, which was made in 1967.

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43 minutes ago, Sturgeon said:

Yeah, early on both the ARVN and VC were primarily armed with US and French surplus, with commie weapons leaking in increasingly as time went on.

 

Interestingly, long after many other WWII-era weapons vanish from period footage and photos, the BAR still makes regular appearances with VC troops all the way through the end of the 1960s.

You saw a lot of Japanese arms for a time as well, supplied via China. 

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On 5/23/2018 at 4:52 PM, Sturgeon said:

 

 The document you linked is Appendix 7 of the Ichord report, here's a not-so-great copy of the whole report. You can find better versions of all the appendices, and the report itself if I recall, on DTIC.

@D.E. Watters


FWIW:  The former document was part of the 12 volume report assembled by the US Army in response to the Ichord Subcommittee's report.  I linked all 12 volumes here.

http://sturgeonshouse.ipbhost.com/topic/104-documents-repository-small-arms/?page=3&tab=comments#comment-129310

Ichord Subcommittee Hearings Transcript

https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uiug.30112109164266

Ichord Subcommittee Report

https://hdl.handle.net/2027/umn.31951p00793094y

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  • 6 months later...

Regarding the M16A1, let's not forget that for all the good qualities of that weapon its durability really was insufficient. When watching documentaries on the Vietnam War, I try to keep an eye out for any missing ventilation "teeth" at the top of the handguard, or for other damage. Both the stocks and the handguards of guns of the A1 and earlier models were, while not fragile, still much easier to break than preferable.

 

The worst example I've ever seen has to be this screenshot Miles posted recently, though:

XyYjZvO.jpg

 

From 5:42 in this video:
 

 

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