5.56 Timeline

Eldest Son

Below is a lengthy excerpt taken from an article in a 2008 issue of American Rifleman written by Maj. John Plaster. It gives some pretty good details about the covert ammunition sabotage/boobytrap campaign used by SOG during the Vietnam War. Related pictures of SOG personnel added by me.

During the Vietnam War, the Studies And Observations Group (SOG) created an ingenious top-secret program called Project Eldest Son to wreak general mayhem and cause the Viet Cong and NVA to doubt the safety of their guns and ammunition.

The genesis of Eldest Son was the fertile mind of SOG’s commander, 1966-68, Colonel John K. Singlaub, a World War II veteran of covert actions with the Office of Strategic Services. “I was frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t airlift the ammunition we were discovering on the [Ho Chi Minh] Trail” in Laos, Singlaub explained. It was not unusual for SOG’s small recon teams – composed of two or three American Green Berets and four to six native soldiers – to find tons of ammunition in enemy base camps and caches along the Laotian highway system. But SOG teams lacked the manpower to secure the sites or carry the ordnance away. Further, it could not be burned up, and demolition would only scatter small-arms ammunition, not destroy it. “Initially I thought of just boobytrapping it so that when they’d pick up a case it would blow up,” Singlaub recalled. Then it hit him – boobytrap the ammunition itself!

Though obscure, this trick was not new. In the 1930s, to combat rebellious tribesmen in northwest India’s Waziristan – the same lawless region where Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists hide today – the British army planted sabotaged .303 rifle ammunition. Even before that, during the Second Metabele War (1896-97) in today’s Zimbabwe, British scouts (led by the American adventurer Frederick Russell Burnham) had slipped explosive- packed rifle cartridges into hostile stockpiles, to deadly effect. SOG would do likewise, the Joint Chiefs decided on August 30, 1967, but first Col. Singlaub arranged for CIA ordnance experts to conduct a quick feasibility study. A few weeks later, at Camp Chinen, Okinawa, Singlaub watched a CIA technician load a sabotaged 7.62×39 mm cartridge into a bench-mounted AK rifle. “It completely blew up the receiver and the bolt was projected backwards,” Singlaub observed, “I would imagine into the head of the firer.”

After that success began a month of tedious bullet pulling to manually disassemble thousands of 7.62 mm cartridges, made more difficult because Chinese ammo had a tough lacquer seal where the bullet seated into the case. In this process, some bullets suffered tiny scrapes, but when reloaded these marks seated out of sight below the case mouth. Rounds were inspected to ensure they showed no signs of tampering. When the job was done, 11,565 AK rounds had been sabotaged, along with 556 rounds for the Communist Bloc’s heavy 12.7 mm machine gun, a major anti-helicopter weapon.

Eldest Son cartridges originally were reloaded with a powder similar to PETN high explosive, but sufficiently shock-sensitive that an ordinary rifle primer would detonate it. This white powder, however, did not even faintly resemble gunpowder. SOG’s technical wizard, Ben Baker – our answer to James Bond’s “Q” – decided this powder might compromise the program if ever an enemy soldier pulled apart an Eldest Son round. He obtained a substitute explosive that so closely resembled gunpowder that it would pass inspection by anyone but an ordnance expert. While the AKM and Type 56 AKs and the RPD light machine gun could accommodate a chamber pressure of 45,000 p.s.i., Baker’s deadly powder generated a whopping 250,000 p.s.i.

Sabotaging the ammunition proved the easiest challenge. The CIA’s Okinawa lab also did a very professional job of prying open ammo crates, unsealing the interior metal cans and then repacking them so there was no sign of tampering. In addition to SOG sabotaging 7.62 mm and 12.7 mm rounds, these CIA ordnance experts perfected a special fuse for the Communist 82 mm mortar round that would detonate the hand-dropped projectile while inside the mortar tube, for especially devastating effect. Exactly 1,968 of these mortar rounds were sabotaged, too.

Project Eldest Son’s greatest challenge was “placement” – getting the infernal devices into the enemy logistical system without detection. That’s where SOG’s Green Beret-led recon teams came in. Since the fall of 1965, our small teams had been running deniable missions into Laos to gather intelligence, wiretap enemy communications, kidnap key enemy personnel, ambush convoys, raid supply dumps, plant mines and generally make life as difficult as possible in enemy rear areas. As an additional mission, each team carried along a few Eldest Son rounds – usually as a single round in an otherwise full AK magazine or one round in an RPD machine gun belt or a sealed ammo can – to plant whenever an opportunity arose.

When an SOG team discovered an ammo dump, they planted Eldest Son; when a SOG team ambushed an enemy patrol, they switched magazines in a dead soldier’s AK. It was critically important never to plant more than one round per magazine, belt or ammo can, so no amount of searching after a gun exploded would uncover a second round, to preclude the enemy from determining this was sabotage.

Planting sabotaged 82 mm mortar ammo proved more cumbersome because these were not transported as loose rounds, but in three-round, wooden cases. Thus, you had to tote a whole case, which must have weighed more than 25 lbs. Twice I recall carrying such crates for insertion in enemy rear areas, and to our surprise, my team once witnessed a platoon of NVA soldiers carry one away. SOG’s most clever insertion was accomplished by SOG SEALS operating in the Mekong Delta, where they filled a captured sampan with tainted cases of ammunition, shot it tastefully full of bullet holes, then spilled chicken blood over it and set it adrift upstream from a known Viet Cong village. Of course, the VC assumed the boat’s Communist crew had fallen overboard during an ambush. The Viet Cong took the ammunition, hook, line and sinker.

In Laos, American B-52s constantly targeted enemy logistical areas, which churned up sizeable pieces of terrain. SOG exploited this opportunity by organizing a special team that landed just after B-52 strikes to construct false bunkers in such devastated tracts, then “salt” these stockpiles with Eldest Son ammunition. However, on November 30, 1968, the helicopter carrying SOG’s secret Eldest Son team, flying some 20 miles west of the Khe Sanh Marine base, was hit by an enemy 37 mm anti-aircraft round, setting off a tremendous mid-air explosion. Seven cases of tainted 82 mm mortar ammunition detonated, killing everyone on board, including Maj. Samuel Toomey and seven U.S. Army Green Berets. Their remains were not recovered for 20 years.

But as a result of these cross- border efforts, Eldest Son rounds began to turn up inside South Vietnam. In a northern province, 101st Airborne Division paratroopers found a dead Communist soldier grasping his exploded rifle, while an officer at SOG’s Saigon headquarters, Captain Ed Lesesne, received the photo of a dead enemy soldier with his bolt blown out the back of his AK. “It had gone right through his eye socket,” Lesesne reported.

Boobytrapped mortar rounds took their toll, too. Twenty-Fifth Infantry Division soldiers came upon an entire enemy mortar battery destroyed – four peeled back tubes with dead gunners. In another incident, a 101st Airborne firebase was taking mortar fire when there was an odd-sounding, “boom-pff!” A patrol later found two enemy bodies beside a split mortar tube and blood trails going off into the jungle. On July 3, 1968, after an enemy mortar attack on Ban Me Thuot airstrip, nine Communist soldiers were found dead in one firing position, their tube so badly shattered that it had vanished but for two small fragments.

Boobytrapped ammunition clearly was getting into enemy hands, so it was time to initiate SOG’s insidious “black psyop” exploitation. “Our interest was not in killing the soldier that was using the weapon,” explained Colonel Steve Cavanaugh, who replaced Singlaub in 1968. “We were trying to leave in the minds of the North Vietnamese that the ammunition they were getting from China was bad ammunition.” Hopefully, this would aggravate Hanoi’s leadership – which traditionally distrusted the Chinese – and cause individual soldiers to question the reliability (and safety) of their Chinese-supplied arms and ordnance.

One Viet Cong document – forged by SOG and insinuated into enemy channels through a double-agent – made light of exploding weapons, claiming, “We know that it is rumored some of the ammunition has exploded in the AK-47. This report is greatly exaggerated. It is a very, very small percentage of the ammunition that has exploded.”

Another forged document announced, “Only a few thousand such cases have been found thus far,” and concluded, “The People’s Republic of China may have been having some quality control problems [but] these are being worked out and we think that in the future there will be very little chance of this happening.”

Under the guise of cautioning G.I.s against using enemy weapons, warnings were sent to Armed Forces Radio and TV. The civilian Stateside tabloid Army Times warned, “Numerous incidents have caused injury and sometimes death to the operators of enemy weapons,” the cause of which was, “defective metallurgy” or “faulty ammo.” The 25th Infantry Division newspaper similarly warned soldiers on July 14, 1969, that, “because of poor quality control procedures in Communist Bloc factories, many AKs with even a slight malfunction will blow up when fired.” Despite such warnings, some G.I.s fired captured arms, and inevitably one American’s souvenir AK exploded, inflicting serious (but not fatal) injuries.

By mid-1969, word about Eldest Son began leaking out, with articles in the New York Times and Time, compelling SOG to change the codename to Italian Green, and later, to Pole Bean. As of July 1, 1969, a declassified report discloses, SOG operatives had inserted 3,638 rounds of sabotaged 7.62 mm, plus 167 rounds of 12.7 mm and 821 rounds of 82 mm mortar ammunition. That fall, the Joint Chiefs directed SOG to dispose of its remaining stockpile and end the program. In November, my team was specially tasked to insert as much Eldest Son as possible, making multiple landings on the Laotian border to get rid of the stuff before authority expired.

Lacking the earlier finesse, such insertions had to have confirmed to the enemy that we were sabotaging his ammunition-but even this, SOG believed, was psychologically useful, creating a big shell game in which the enemy had to question endlessly which ammunition was polluted and which was not. The enemy came to fear any cache where there was evidence that SOG recon teams got near it and, thanks to radio intercepts, SOG headquarters learned that the enemy’s highest levels of command had expressed concerns about exploding arms, Chinese quality control and sabotage. In that sense, Project Eldest Son was a total success – but as with any such covert deception program, you can never quite be sure.

Colt’s Short Lived . 22 Cadet

It will surprise exactly no one to know I had that same sweatshirt at the time. And the Colt cadet.

In the 1990s Colt came out with a .22 rimfire pistol. It was no doubt intended to compete with the ultra popular Ruger .22 pistols and be an affordable plinking and target pistol.

The Cadet was the shorter barrel version with fixed sights. The gun had a heavy barrel and it was accurate. I owned one for many years and a close friend has the longer barrel model with adjustable target sights. The pistol is very easy to field strip and clean and has excellent ergonomics and a magazine that is reliable.

Many chipmunks bought the farm under my Cadet and my first AR15 with the Colt 22 conversion kit installed. In decades past a boy would have had a Winchester model 67 or 69 and a 22 revolver, GenXer’s like myself used Ar15s and semi auto 22 pistols with polymer frames. The looks may change but the idea never does! Though I doubt few people now a days would do anything but call 911 and head to their feinting couch at the sight of a teenager walking around the woods with an Ar15 and pistol shooting squirrels. we have lost so much.. Anyway Back on topic.

The Cadet was very simple and tough. It was as reliable as man can make a semi auto rimfire handgun. I never had trouble with it, even with subsonic rounds. At the time I wished it had the adjustable target sights though. Even with the fixed sights I was able to shoot sycamore balls off of the tree limbs on the side of the mountain from the yard about 25 yards away.

As you can see above, the Target Model had the top sight rail that allowed mounting of optics.

The gun was discontinued though. it didn’t sell enough to justify keeping it around much like the Colt Cowboy. Another case of buyers screaming about how much they want something, then when actually brought out, they find some reason or other to not buy it because – “it isn’t ..X enough.” Same with the Cowboy. Buyers claimed they wanted a Ruger vaquero equivalent from Colt. Once they got it, they didn’t buy it. Just like I personally believe will happen when Colt finally succumbs to a relatively small minority and brings back the python.

The Cadet wasn’t the Woodsman was its biggest sin for many. it didn’t have that old world craftsmanship and blued steel and all that stuff, and it wasn’t as cheap and plentiful as the Rugers. Maybe it never stood a chance. It is a good pistol though and if you want a really solid fun 22 rimfire pistol for camping or plinking or whatever and see one used some where for a good deal I would certainly get it.

Sniping With The M16A1

Today the precision AR15 is taken for granted. There are all manner of variants of the AR that will fill damn near every long range precision shooting need you have. This includes a wide range of rounds that can be used. It took a while to get to that point though and a lot of people think it’s a recent effort. Not true though. Efforts to have the M16 adapted to sniper use started as early as the Vietnam war.

By the time the last combat forces had been withdrawn from Vietnam, the 5.56mm, M16A1 rifle manufactured by the Colt Forearms Division, Colt Industries, had emerged as the standard US infantry arm. From the standpoint of sniper use, contrary to most beliefs, the M16 did receive official consideration as a sniping arm.”

Unsuited as the M16 may have been for specialized long range shooting, the right combination of marksman, rifle ammunition and telescope accounted for documented hits at ranges up to 700 meters. Nevertheless, results such as this were far from common”

The above quotes are from The Complete Book Of US Sniping By Peter Senich, a book published in 1988. We now know that the Ar15/M16 is quite capable of 700 meter hits and beyond. At the time however, the M16A1 was still the Army’s standard service rifle. The M16A2 did not become adopted by the Army until 1987 and obviously Mr. Senich’s book was researched and written before this rifle became standard even if the book was published a year after. The M16A1 was not suited for precision long range accuracy. The barrel, the ammo it was limited to and no satisfactory way to mount an optic to the gun as it came standard were among the main reason. Good as the M16A1 is, and really it is still a very good gun for a lot of things, it is not however, a sniper rifle

“Compared to the M14. rather simple score mounts could be readily attached to the M16’s integral carrying handle directly over the receiver in line with the bore, With this advantage, a considerable number of telescope sighted M16’s were pressed into service in Vietnam well in advance of the of the match grade M14s. “

Yes, it is easy to come up with mounts to attach optics to the M16, it wasn’t very easy to get an optic or the rifle. This lead to commercial optics being purchased ad brought into the country by units or single soldiers on their own initiative. Because of this, a good variety of M16s pressed into service as sniper rifles went out into the field. This when you start to see photos from the period show up of the M16 with the Colt 3x optic, the ART I scope and various other optics mounted to the rifle. Some of the mounts being fabricated in Vietnam by armorers.

An Army Lieutenant attached to MACV while serving as and advisor to and infantry battalion of the 5th ARVN Division, Parrish was armed with an M16 mounting a 3x-9x variable powered commercial scope and mount he reportedly had purchased from a gun shop in Hawaii. Among the field experiences with the scope sighed M16 that Parrish made note of was the following.”

“This was too good to be true. You rarely saw live VC, and to have them running across a 300 meter field in broad daylight was really something. I told the riflemen that I’d take over for a while and carefully laid my M16 on the pile of dirt in front of me. I had just gotten ready when another charlie broke for a stump. He was about 200 meters away, and I put the scope’s cross hairs just a little in front of the chest. I squeezed the trigger and the rifle kicked. When I brought the scope back on target, he was nowhere to be seen, but the cheering from the soldiers told me it was a good kill.”

Honestly that quote from the LT. on his shot isn’t very impressive. A 200 meter shot on a man in an open field being something special enough for him to write about says more about the Army’s marksmanship training at the time than it does about how good the M16 could be with optics. It does illustrate how much better even so-so shooters can be with optical help though, Something finally learned decades later and resulted in ACOGS and Aimpoints being standard issue items.

Other that Parrish, other soldiers gave impressions of the M16 and its accuracy. In the Jan. 1966 issue of American Rifleman, Louis Garavaglia gave his thoughts in an article titles “Snipers in Vietnam Also Need Firepower”.

Despite derogatory remarks published about reliability, our sniper teams used the weapons quite successfully”

His unit was the 4th Infantry Division LRRP and used the M14 rifle with M84 optic for sniper purposes. Even with access to a stock M14 with optic, they found the M14 with 3x very useful. Foreshadowing the M16A4 with ACOG and M4/ACOG becoming a standard system years later.

We found the M16A1 accurate as issued. The crack shots in my unit could hit 6″x6″ targets off hand at 200 yards. Not only is the distance greater than taht which most kills are made, it also indicates the weapon can hit more closely than most men will hold under combat conditions. When we used the M16A1s as substitute sniper rifle. we equipped them with the Colts 3X scope with the upside down tapered post reticle, Firing this combination from a supported position, our snipers could hit the army “E” silhouette targets at 400 meters”

Considerable efforts to increase the M16s long range capabilities based on evaluations of heavy barrels, different cartridge loading and bullet weights were to continue through the course of the war in Vietnam. Despite such efforts, and excepting limited field tests, the M16 rifles utilized for sniping purposes in Southeast Asia were as issued.”

As we can see now, the limitations at the time kept the M16 from seeing official sniper use at the time. Some one remembered that potential though. We have seen the M16 change into an accurate precision rifle that dominated high power rifle competitions after the development of heavier bullets thanks to the faster barrel twists. The free floating hand guards and the flat top upper. This evolved into the MK12 and of course the 7.62 pattern rifles now mainly used as sniper rifles.

Complete Book Of US Sniping- Senich

The Long Range War-Senich

American Rifleman January 1966 issue

The Beretta Model 38

There was a lot of iconic guns that became famous, or more famous, during WW2. The submachine guns seemed to get special attention. A lot of those are familiar to even the non-gun person. The Thompson, the Mp38/40, the PPsh. But perhaps the best SMG of the war, is not very well known at all in comparison.

Produced from 1938 to 1950 it fired the 9mm round. The gun was machined and produced to a very high quality standard. Magazines for the gun came in 10s, 20,s 30, 40. The M38 was highly regarded by Roy Dunlap, a Sgt. of Ordnance in WW2 who gave his opinion on most Axis and Allied weapons in his book Ordnance Went Up Front.

“Their Beretta M38 is one of the best ever built. Of 9mm parabellum caliber, taking a powerfully loaded Luger cartridge, simple blowback operated, it is hard ot beat for performance”.

“Sights were adjustable 100 to 500 meters with blade front sight. The gun has a 3/4 length stock , and barrel jacket perforated with round cooling holes and incorporated a built in compensator to aid in control under automatic fire. A dust cover on the magazine port keeps out dirt when carrying unloaded.”

“The magazine enters from the bottom and ejection port is on the right hand side of the tubular receiver, just forward of the operating handle which incidentally is free of the bolt and does not move with it in action, serving only to cock it, as in the case of our BAR. Fire is controlled by two triggers, front for semi automatic fire, rear for full machine action. The gun fires from an open bolt.”

“The Beretta 38 is my favorite gun of its class, as it was of the Eight Army. As easy to fire and control as a 22 sporting autoloader, it had terrific punch and range. The special 9mm cartridge loaded for it made it effective at 300 yards and dangerous to 500( when you consider the .45 caliber Thompson is an even money bet at 100 yards you will understand why we liked the Beretta). It would operate well with German, British or American 9mm Luger ammunition. No one every bothered with any other kind of submachine gun if he could get hold of a M38 and keep it. even the Germans liked it and they hated to admit anything was good except their own stuff. “

The M38 and its variants was so good it was issued to elite units like the Italian 185 Airborne Division which used it exclusively. Other elite units within divisions used theM30 as their sole infantry arm, making it even more associated with special troops. and as Roy is quoted above, everyone who could get theirs hands on one used it.

The Vietnam Liberator Pistol

Most people reading this are already familiar with the liberator ( FP-45) pistol of WW2.A cheap single shot hand gun for use by the underground to use against Axis troops. The idea was to air drop these simple unmarked pistols to resistance forces to use to waste of a axis soldier and then take his weapon. Claims of them actually being used are dubious at best but the idea was not a bad one.

What most people d0on’t know is there was a version cooked up for use in Vietnam.

the “deer gun”

Thought up by the CIA the idea was the same as the FP45 in WW2. This time it would be used by RVN resistance to use against PAVN ( commie) troops. Instead of being .45ACP, these were made in 9x19MM and came with three rounds, and a rod to knock a fired case out of the chamber.

instructions on how to load, fire and shoot a commie in his degenerate back

Supposedly about 1,000 were made in 1964 and some even made it into South Vietnam to be tried out. Well, the war went from clandestine small scale guerrilla war to full blown B-52 war pretty quickly after. Not much need for something like this when the full logistical support of the US Military starts pouring equipment into your country to bolster Indig forces. Did some make it into North Vietnam? Maybe. But doubtful due to a weird policy about having a direct hand in creating a armed resistance movement in North Vietnam. The things that could have been…