Gun Trouble

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

As an artillery commander in Vietnam, Bob Scales ran into some gun trouble:

In June of 1969, in the mountains of South Vietnam, the battery I commanded at Firebase Berchtesgaden had spent the day firing artillery in support of infantry forces dug into “Hamburger Hill.” Every person and object in the unit was coated with reddish-brown clay blown upward by rotor wash from Chinook helicopters delivering ammunition. By evening, we were sleeping beside our M16 rifles. I was too inexperienced — or perhaps too lazy — to demand that my soldiers take a moment to clean their guns, even though we had heard disturbing rumors about the consequences of shooting a dirty M16.

At 3 o’clock in the morning, the enemy struck. They were armed with the amazingly reliable and rugged Soviet AK?47, and after climbing up our hill for hours dragging their guns through the mud, they had no problems unleashing devastating automatic fire. Not so my men. To this day, I am haunted by the sight of three of my dead soldiers lying atop rifles broken open in a frantic attempt to clear jams.

He’s definitely haunted:

With a few modifications, the weapon that killed my soldiers almost 50 years ago is killing our soldiers today in Afghanistan. General Ripley’s ghost is with us still. During my 35 years in the Army, it became clear to me that from Gettysburg to Hamburger Hill to the streets of Baghdad, the American penchant for arming troops with lousy rifles has been responsible for a staggering number of unnecessary deaths.

That strikes me as ludicrous — and odd, given that he seems to understand that the problem was quickly fixed:

The “militarized” adaptation of the AR-15 was the M16. Militarization—more than 100 proposed alterations to supposedly make the rifle combat-ready—ruined the first batch to arrive at the front lines, and the cost in dead soldiers was horrific. A propellant ordered by the Army left a powder residue that clogged the rifle. Finely machined parts made the M16 a “maintenance queen” that required constant cleaning in the moisture, dust, and mud of Vietnam. In time, the Army improved the weapon—but not before many U.S. troops died.

Scales asserts that the next-generation rifle should be modular, higher-caliber, suppressed, and electronically sighted. That’s all reasonable, but his claim that the M4 is getting soldiers killed is rather over the top. Weapons Man especially takes issue with the big lie that the M4 got troops killed at Wanat, in Afghanistan:

The hardest thing to manage in the design of automatic weapons is waste heat. Cyclic rate is something that can be used for a short period, at a cost to the durability of the weapon. The men at the COPs around Wanat were left hanging for very long periods, with no meaningful air or indirect fire support, and had been given so little training in automatic fire that they didn’t know they were hazarding their weapons. There is no weapon on Earth that will hold up to firing thousands of rounds on cyclic rate without a barrel change or water cooling.. But we’ll go into that in Part 2. For now, let’s just see who it was that a failed M4 “killed.”

But when we explore the AARs and historical reports, asking, “Who exactly was killed by his weapon at Wanat?” we have a hard time putting a name to this blood libel.


  1. Rollory says:

    I don’t understand this talk of “next generation” rifles. What’s wrong with just issuing AK-47s? What do they not do that is necessary?

  2. Isegoria says:

    The AK is not a very good rifle. In practical-shooting competitions, everyone uses an AR of some kind.

    The AK’s advantages are that it’s cheap and easy to manufacture with Soviet-style industry, and it’s low maintenance. (With good maintenance, an AR is quite reliable.)

  3. Toddy Cat says:

    I don’t know anything about M-16 vs AK vs M14, but I do know that if it’s printed in the Atlantic magazine, and it concerns the topic of defense, it’s suspect. James Fallows and his fellow “defense reformers” just can’t admit that, despite having some good points back in the 1970′s with regard to military procurement, they were, overall, wrong. Yeah, they were right about the A-10, and they are probably right about the F-35, but being right about something once every decade ain’t good enough.

  4. And they were only kind of right about the A-10. I love it, it has great panache, and it’s very powerful, but it’s not really the right plane for the air-to-ground environment that’s developed since the end of Vietnam, where it’s pretty much suicide for a ground-attack aircraft to get as close to the ground as the Thunderbolt needs to for a gun run.

    That’s part of the reason we spent as much money as we did to develop precision guided weapons, so that aircraft could do the ground-attack role from comfortably out of the range of radar-guided guns and MANPADS.

    Note that the above only applies against someone who actually has those things, but that such air defenses are now possessed by even some third-world countries.

  5. Toddy Cat says:

    Yes, sometimes our weapons are overly complicated, and we certainly pay too much for them, and using prototyping more would help us avoid some costly mistakes, but a lot of the “defense reform” crowd has jumped the shark. A few years ago, defense reformer Pierre Sprey wrote that modern U.S. Fighter aircraft were inferior to the Korean War era F-86. That’s flat-out nuts, I’ve never heard a single pilot agree with him.

  6. Space Nookie says:

    If you are talking about Comparing the Effectiveness of Air-to-Air Fighters: F-86 to F-18, it is a good read, a 1982 document, and he makes a good case.

    On the AK question, I always found it odd that the Pentagon decided to equip the Iraqi National Army and Afghan National Army with AKs.

  7. Toddy Cat says:

    No doubt that the F-86 was a great fighter, but I’d be willing to bet that if you asked a combat pilot which he would rather fly against a modern Russian fighter, or the latest Mirage, he’d choose the F-18. As for the AKs, for all I know, they actually are better than M-16s; I’ve never fired either one. I’m sure that ease of maintainability for relatively untrained and uneducated troops has something to do with it.

  8. Steve Johnson says:

    Space Nookie, that document is really interesting, and as a side note there’s a tie in to the Grossman series:

    “Of all 800 F-86 pilots who flew more than 25 counter-air missions in Korea, about 4.8% accounted for 48.2% of the kills, a number typical of most air-to-air wars.”

  9. Steve Johnson says:

    Another tie in:

    “As shown in the last chapter, the dominant fact of air combat is that roughly 80% of all fighter victims in war are shot down unaware of their attacker — and this appears to be at least as true of combat with radar-equipped Mach 2 fighters as with 90 knot biplanes. Stated another way, 80% of fighters shot down had no opportunity to use their maneuvering performance, their fire control or their weapons, no matter how superb these may have been technically.”

  10. Rollory says:

    “4.8% accounted for 48.2% of the kills”

    I play the starfighter PVP minigame in the Star Wars MMO. This seems about typical for scoreboard results at the end of any match that actually involves good pilots. It’s not because the bad pilots are avoiding trying to shoot the other guys down, it’s because they don’t know what the hell they’re doing (and don’t seem capable of learning).

  11. Steve Johnson says:

    Agreed, Rollory. I was trying to demonstrate the absurdity of Grossman’s claim by showing that the pattern he noticed is also present in a context where there is zero doubt that 100% of the men are trying to kill the enemy. Were those pilots missing a killing inhibitor or were they simply better combat pilots? I think it’s pretty clear and the analogy is instructive.

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