The introduction of the M16 as the standard infantry rifle for the US military was meant to be a revolution. After spending a few years with the bulky M14, the American soldiers would carry a new light rifle with a larger capacity magazine and lighter ammunition that was just as lethal.
Instead of making life easier for American troops, it threatened them almost from the start. The rifles were delivered to troops in Vietnam in 1965 without cleaning kits or manuals on how to clean them. Rifles would stop working amid the crossfire, spent cartridges did not extract automatically, and U.S. soldiers and Marines were found dead next to disassembled rifles.
It wasn’t just the rifle’s engineering that hampered its combat ability. The new 5.56 cartridge used a dirtier type of powder as the propellant. This made the weapon more likely to jam. American troops didn’t help much either; they believed the gun’s commercial information and believed the gun was self-cleaning.
In 1967, the M16A1 was introduced, and the latest version included a number of fixes intended to address issues seen by US troops in combat. A chrome bore was part of the new weapon to address corrosion and pulling issues. An improved pad has been added to reduce wear when firing in automatic.
Most importantly, the new M16A1 comes with a cleaning kit, lubricant, and an entertaining field manual, drawn by Will Eisner, the former Army cartoonist who designed the vehicle manuals during the Second. World War. It was called “The M-16A1 Rifle: Operation and Preventative Maintenance”, otherwise known as “Department of the Army Pamphlet 750-30”.
The first chapter is titled “How to Undress Your Baby” and features a female guide that looks like an actress who could have been taken from one of the teenage beach movies of the 50s and 60s, using the GI slang of the Vietnam. Another character is a women’s magazine named “Maggie” who teaches troops how to handle her, especially in the heat and humidity of the Vietnamese jungle. The other chapters include “Sweet-16” and “All the Way with Negligee”.
Eisner’s comic book was a masterpiece that American troops read and learned quickly. Common misconceptions about the rifle, as well as the mechanisms that most often saw dirt, debris, and damage (and therefore special cleaning), were discussed. The “Maggie” issues, corrosion caused by Vietnam’s humid climate that could cause guns to jam, was also addressed by the manual.
The comic was easy to read, entertaining, and – most importantly – a familiar take on American GIs in Vietnam. Many of them would have been familiar with “The Spirit,” a comic book about a masked, Batman-like vigilante that he created before the United States entered World War II.
In 1968, more American troops in Vietnam began to accept the use of the rifle as incidents of malfunction declined dramatically. The powder used in the 5.56 cartridge has been improved to reduce fouling to various parts of the weapon. By 1969, the M16A1 was fully accepted as a standard infantry weapon for the US military.
Reports even indicated that the M16A1 and its new configuration actually saved more lives in Vietnam than if the M14 had been the standard weapon.
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