The Weekly Standard
Annie, Get Which Gun?
The M-16 versus AK-47 debate rages on.
Experts step in to set the record straight.
by Bo Crader
MY RECENT ARTICLE comparing the AK-47 to the M-16 has elicited a substantial number of personal anecdotes, expert opinions, and gun-nut testimonials. Readers seem split when it comes to which assault rifle they prefer. One Vietnam vet suggests he's been spoiled by the M-16 and finds the AK-47 "unpleasantly sloppy to shoot," while an Army captain says the "M-16 is the biggest piece of junk ever foisted on the American soldier." One 26-year military policeman would "rather carry a good AK-47 than an M-16 any day of the week," while an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel writes that he would "take the M-16, hands down."
So, which is the superior infantry rifle? I've sorted through reader mail, read countless government reports, and traded war stories with a couple of old grunts in an attempt to clear up some disputes and answer the question once and for all.
One writer, an Army attorney and critic of the M-16, argues that only Annie Oakley could engage targets at 500 yards with an M-16. Not quite: Marine recruits at Parris Island train with the M-16 by firing on human-sized targets at 500 yards. The range advantage afforded by the M-16 is ideal for troops on the defensive with large, open killing zones. "In the mountains and the sparse open terrain that covers much of Afghanistan," writes Terry Gander in the upcoming edition of Jane's Infantry Weapons, "extended effective ranges are almost certain to be demonstrated as more important" than any other consideration.
At the same time, Frank Hanner, director of the National Infantry Museum at Fort Benning, Georgia, suggests the value of the M-16's half-kilometer range might be overrated. "Most combat generally takes place between 100 and 400 meters," Hanner reports. "Unless you're in the mountains," he suggests, "the M-16's additional range doesn't pay off."
Other writers took issue with the M-16's stopping power, many citing an episode in Mark Bowden's "Black Hawk Down" as evidence that the M-16 is, in fact, a pea-shooter. "Black Hawk Down" recounts the story of American troops in Somalia in 1993 surrounded by a numerically-superior force of AK-47-wielding guerrillas. Sergeant First Class Paul Howe, armed with the CAR-15, a 5.56mm infantry rifle similar to the M-16, notes that a number of Somalis, after being hit center mass, simply got back up to continue fighting. "It was like sticking somebody with an ice pick," Howe said. "The bullet made a small, clean hole, and unless it happened to hit the heart or spine, it wasn't enough to stop a man in his tracks."
This nightmarish situation--hitting the enemy dead center only to have him get back up--is explained largely by Howe's ammunition, according to William Atwater, director of the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum and a technical adviser to Bowden on "Black Hawk Down." The ammunition used by Howe has a "green-tipped tungsten carbide penetrator," Atwater explains. These specialized rounds are "heavier than normal rounds, much more stable, and designed for penetrating steel helmets or going through flak jackets at 500 yards." Alan Killinger, a museum specialist also at the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum, elaborates in grim detail: Standard M-16 ammunition "enters the body and stands up, turns on its side, rips through flesh and organs," and tears a gaping exit wound. Green-tipped rounds, because they have a more stable flight, generally won't tumble inside the body at distances of less than 300 yards.
Even with the green-tipped rounds, Atwater argues the stopping power of the M-16 should be more than adequate. "Many of the Somalis were hopped up on drugs" and didn't immediately succumb to their wounds, Atwater continues. "But they eventually went down--we're talking about getting up and taking a couple steps--before they died from internal bleeding."
Another common complaint about the M-16 is its reliability. A reader "who's had to hump everything from the M-16 to the M-203 to the M-60" notes the weapon's "low reliability" and says that "the advantages of an M-16 are moot if it stops firing because it's dusty or muddy." Another soldier calls the M-16 "a finicky weapon [that] hates the dirt and must be treated with care." Quite true. The small tolerances that give the M-16 its range, accuracy, low recoil, and handy ergonomics also tend to clog with dirt and mud. Referring to the M-16's notorious reliability problems in Vietnam, Atwater explains that "the M-16 was deployed without proper testing. Troops were given low-grade ammunition [that] fouled the chamber and firing mechanism." Moreover, the M-16 was "rumored to be self-cleaning . . . troops didn't have cleaning gear or proper instruction in maintenance."
Since Vietnam, however, new versions of both the M-16 and its ammunition have been introduced that have corrected such mechanical problems. "I don't know of any problems now," Atwater explains. Heasley insists "the M-16's reliability is as good as the soldier who takes care of it."
It does sound like an annoyance. "In Afghanistan, Marines clean their M-16s three times a day because the dust is so fine," Killinger says. Almost in the same breath, however, he adds that with the latest M-16s, weapon maintenance is "not that big of a deal. If you keep your weapon clean it will work for you."
Did American troops in Vietnam prefer the Soviet-made AK-47s to their own recently-issued M-16s, as I wrote? A number of readers say such stories are urban--er, tropical--legends. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Sterling Price says "the Vietnam example of ditching M-16s for AK-47s" was "true. . . [but] temporary" once early problems with the weapon were resolved. Another reader, Gary Owen, says such weapon-swapping would be suicidal in the field: Because the two weapons make distinctive sounds, "shooting an AK-47 might draw fire from [U.S.] troops." Another Vietnam veteran concurs: "If you were in a firefight in the bush and heard an AK go off nearby, you shot at that position."
"By 1969 or 1970," Atwater adds, "shooting an AK-47 [in a firefight] was disobeying a direct order and grounds for court-martial." So it is safe to say that regardless of the M-16's initial performance any rifle-swapping was short-lived, so to speak.
So, which is the superior weapon for the lance corporal fire-rushing Tora Bora?
Eugene Stoner, designer of the M-16, reportedly admitted to Mikhail Kalashnikov, namesake of the AK-47, that "your gun is more reliable than mine. It's simpler." Was Stoner throwing in the towel? Maybe. But he might have just felt sorry for the poor Russian. After a reported 40 to 50 million AK-47s were produced and distributed worldwide, all he saw was a modest government pension and a 150,000 ruble (read: paltry) award, while Stoner went on to become a multi-millionaire. Kalashnikov certainly had reason to be bitter.
Heasley's verdict: "In my opinion the M-16 in the hands of a well trained soldier is a more effective weapon than the AK-47, which is designed for the less sophisticated 'soldier.' "
"The M-16 is a super-accurate rifle," explains Steve Shriner, a spokesman for Soldier of Fortune magazine. "It's a superior weapon for sighting and accuracy. [It] dominates firefights, but, in combat, it's six one way and half a dozen the other." Point well taken. Choosing a weapon is a luxury few can afford when Charlie's gotten through the wire or Osama bin Laden's head pops into your field of fire.
Bo Crader is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard and a noncommissioned officer in the Marine reserve.