M-16 Rifle

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The M-16 rifle is one of the most famous weapons of recent history and has been seen in countless Hollywood war films. It is, in many respects an icon of American culture. In 1948 the U.S. Army established the Operations Research Office (ORO) to analytically study a number of problems associated with ground weapons in the nuclear era. One of ORO's early projects was ALCLAD, a search for better infantry body armour. During this search, the ORO discovered just how little was known about how individuals were wounded in combat. To answer this, the department started to analyse data from over 3 million hits with data from WWI, WWII and the Korean war. They discovered that “aimed” fire had little impact on casualty figures and that most infantry combat was at close range, less than 100 meters. The ORO came to the conclusion that the US army needed an infantry weapon with a low recoil that fired a small number of rounds, and in 1957 development was put to tender with Winchester and Armalite being asked to design weapons that could penetrate both sides of a standard Army issue helmet at 500 meters, would have a magazine of 20 rounds, would be able to fire on automatic and semi automatic and would weight not much more than 6lbs. Several weapons were put forward for trials and a number of studies conducted by the Operations Research Office at Johns Hopkins University, supported by several contractors. They chose the Armalite AR-15 as the best small calibre weapon and it was adopted as the M16.

In December of 1959, Colt acquired manufacturing and marketing rights to the AR-15. In 1962 Colt was able to get the Department of Defence’s Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) to test 1,000 weapons in its Vietnam-oriented Project Agile. An enthusiastic report led to more studies from the Department of Defence and the Department of the Army, and despite strong Army opposition, Defence Secretary McNamara ordered 85,000 M16s for Vietnam, and 19,000 for the Air Force. The early versions of the weapon had reliability problems many saw the Army’s M-14 as a better weapon but the M-16 proved to be more suited to the hot conditions of Vietnam than the heavier M-14. Despite this, the bad press continued. In a strong parallel to the early history of the modern British SA-80, the M-16 had been issued without proper cleaning kit and training and had to be kept much cleaner than earlier weapons or it could jam. Several newspapers ran reports criticising the weapon.

Congressional investigations lead to the development of the M-16A1, which introduced a chrome-plated chamber to prevent rust, better powder and a 30 round magazine. 1978 saw the weapon undergo a weapon improvement program and the M-16A2 was brought into service. Several improvements lead to greater accuracy and the fully automatic setting was replaced with a more controlled 3 shot burst setting. In 1994 the US Army adopted its second carbine of the 20th century the M4 based on the M-16. M-16 based carbines had been used before but only but very small select units, with the end of the cold war and an increase in the demand for covert operations and Special Forces the demand for such weapons increased. It uses a 14.5" barrel, and a four-position telescoping stock while maintaining the ability to mount an M203 grenade launcher, it measures less than 30 inches, and weights just over 5 1/2 pounds, with an effective range of 600 meters. The M4 is available with 3-shot bursts (M4) as well as full-auto capabilities (M4A1). The M-16 has been a very successful family of weapons and has had a very long service having now served the US military in one form or another for over 40 years. It is now coming to the end of its service life with moves already in place to design its replacement. Such a weapon will have a tough act to follow, seeking to replace one of the world’s most successful weapon systems and an icon of American history.

How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, Tristan (12 December 2005) M-16 Rifle, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapon_m16riflel.html

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