Lately my mind has been stuck on Vietnam war era sniper optics and rifles. Friends keep asking me about the subject and it has come up a lot this month. It is an evergreen topic for most people interested in US martial arms , sniping and long range shooting anyway so I thought I would touch on it a little more today before my longer article on the Unertl 10X USMC sniper optic some times next week( hopefully).
I like to think most of our readers are already familiar with the M40 and Redfield 3x-9x optics since I’ve covered it a few times already. When the M40 came from Remington originally the rifle. the optic and mounts were all marked with the same serial number. Remington had very carefully zeroed the optics to as to nearly bottom out at 100 yards with only a few clicks lefter over. This gave the scope its 40plus minutes left over and allowed the scope to dial up to shots at 1,000 yards. Of course once the guns got to Vietnam, things got taken apart and mixed up and precious kept the scope/base/gun matching. As a result most of them could not be dialed up to 1,000 yards. Or much past 500 really. Below is an example of how things got mixed up.
The Redfields were had a range finding capability. The reticle was standard crosshairs but there was also a range ladder to the right side with two extra horizontal stadias. As you can see below the idea was to adjust the zoom ring until the two top stadias fit with the top on a man’s shoulders and the bottom on his belt. The ranger scale would then show the yardage. The redfields ranging scale and measuring stadia worked well with the average measurements of an adult asian male. Now if that was done on purpose or not I have yet to find out. One you had the range you could either dial in the DOPE ( usually never done as it took too much time) or you held off. This system was also incorporated as part of the US Army’s ART system used on the XM21. But that is another day. Word has it few Marine snipers used the scope’s ranging ability very often. The range finding stadia and ladder often melted when the sun came through the objective lens after a relatively short amount of time so care was taken to keep it covered or out of direct sun. Because of that a lot of the scopes are minus the range finding ability.
And here we have a picture of The Master Sniper himself with the M40 he used on his second tour as a scout sniper. The picture is noteworthy not only for being who it is but for he gear he is carrying. What Hathcock carried with him on most missions has been recorded multiple times. He noted many times he usually took nothing more than his rifle, binos a belt with two canteens, a pistol, a poncho , a knife, a compass and a bandoleer of 30cal match in cloth bandoleer tied around his waist. This was done in case he had to drop his pistol belt to run, he still had “all he really needed.” Yes, a gun and some ammo is truly the only thing Hathcock really needed if you had the idiocy to chase him through the countryside. The rest he carried in his pants cargo pockets. Here is is wearing the M56 belt with what appears to be two M56 ammo pouches, a flak vest and his NVA pack. I found it interesting that Carlos appears to have a lanyard attached to his 1911. Hathcock wears his signature 3rd pattern ERDL jungle fatigues and his boonie with his white feather in it laying on his back.
Here is a photo taken from where Hathcock took perhaps his record breaking 2,500 yard shot. If you have seen this photo before else where claiming that is Hathcock in the image beside the gun, it is not . That is SSGT Roberts, his spotter on that mission and the picture is from Carlos’ own collection so I think he knows who was in the picture. You can see the 8x Unertl mounted to the M2 Browning he used to make his famous shot and the terrain beyond. Perfect position to make a shot like that.
Back to the 3x-9x sniper Redfield. Few seem to know but it was also used on the M2 browning.
Back to the Unertl 8x for a bit. The scope is forever tied to Carols in the minds of many when it comes to USMC sniping and of course the gun Carlos used in his first tour during the time he made most of his most celebrated accomplishments of combat sniping. Below is pictured a real USMC Model 70 sniper rifle with USMC contract Unertl 8x. I’m sure many younger people would look at that and see ancient gun tech and wonder how they did what they did with it. Truth is even today that combo would wreak havoc as a sniper rifle in capable hands.
The Unertl was used on the model 70s and the M2 browning, but some imaginative snipers managed to mount it on other rifles they wanted to snipe with. I’m don’t think I need to say how much I would love to try that out.
The Mil-Dot reticle used by the USMC was made by Premier reticles and sent to Unertl to be installed into the Unertl 10X USMC sniper scope. Below is a tray of the mildot reticles ready to be shipped out to J. Unertl.
Due to having to take my Father to a doctors appointment today and some other things, there won’t be any detailed technical article or historical writing. Instead I will be letting my mind wonder a bit and share a few things that have caught my interest over the years. I hope it will be a fun post for all. If there is any “theme” for today’s post it wold indeed be scattered shots.
A few years ago I ran across the pictures taken during the war in SE Asia. They are from a news article reporting on the young girls of RVN training to fight the communists. When ever I rear or see a video on youtube of some hot, big name expert firearms trainer ex-marine SF trooper advising people about how hard it is to control the recoil of the .45ACP and the M1911. I think of these pictures. Having spent many years around Vietnamese, I can safely bet you not a one of them is over 5foot 4 inches tall or barely break 100 pounds. ( apologies for not using the metric system for all of you who do and have yet to land a man on the moon).
Speaking of Vietnamese ladies using big bore handguns we have a great picture of Trần Lệ Xuân. Maybe better known to you as “Madame Nhu.” She was the sister in law to RVN’s first president, Diem and in this man’s opinion, both of them got a bad rap. Had the left in the US not had their way and Diem was not allowed to be killed, the country would still exist to this day. In the picture Xuân is putting on a shooting demonstration and she was well known at the time to be an excellent shot capable of rapid and accurate shooting and pulling off some impressive trick shots. She always used a large bore or magnum powered pistol for her shooting and would turn down offers for something less powerful. It was said she was a big fan of the .357 magnum.
There has been a lot of talk hereabout the M1903 Springfield rifle in the last month. Many aren’t aware of the M1922 training rifle. Developed to closely feel and look like the’03 but in .22long rifle. It has an interesting history that will have to wait for another day. Some very fine sporter rifles have been made with its barrel and action. That action by the way is ultra slick.
The RIA post about the trench guns the other day reminded me another US martial shotgun. This one used during the Vietnam war. The Remington 7188. The 7188 is/was a select fire combat shotgun used in small number mainly by the SEALS. Based on the 1100 the shotgun was of course full auto. It suffers all the usual drawbacks of using a shotgun in combat, lack of range show to reload, limited capacity and empties too fast. It would have been an amazing wall of lead while it lasted though. Combined with the “duck-bill” shot spreader, it would have wreaked havoc in close range jungle fighting..for a few seconds. Which may have been all that was needed in an ambush or to break out of one. Reliability may have been an issue in the jungle with ammo at the time. Below some one has posed the shotgun with some ERDL uniform, a Vietnam era shotgun shell pouch and bata type boots. All things that would have been used by the people who carried the 7188. While the 7188 had to bow out from history, the 1100 went on to be a classic shotgun and developed into the 11-87.
With shotguns now on my brain, I have to talk about my personal favorite sporting use shotgun. I could only be talking about the most excellent Remington Model 31.
Like many good things in this world the M31 owes its existence to John Browning. An altered version of JMB’s Remington Model 17, the Model 31 was brought out to compete against the Winchester model 12. It didn’t quite match the popularity of the Model12 and so the M870 came about and we all know how that turned out. The Model 31 action went on to be changed slightly and used as the base for the very reliable Ithaca Model 37 and a cheaper simplified version known as the mossberg 500. The model31 is in my opinion the ne plus ultra of pump shotguns. It is hard to describe to you how smooth and slick the action of a 31 is. It almost cycles itself. Mine is a 16 gauge because I don’t think it gets much better than the 16 for most hunting uses. The model 31 can be found in 12, 16 and 20. If you ever run across one, my advice is to buy it.
I don’t recall where I found this picture below. Obviously taken on some island in the pacific in WW2. Two Marines pose with their newly acquired war trophy, a Japanese officer’s chest. The now dead man’s wife in a variety of pictures stuck to the lid. The level of hate both sides had for each other in the Pacific theater is probably hard for many of current generation to understand when thinking about how close an ally Japan has been since then. I have often wondered if anyone who was shown that chest at the time paused for even a second over those pictures of some Testsuo’s wife and thought maybe they were just people too. Even monsters can love their wives. It is fascinating to me that the same military that raped or killed everyone in china it could find had officers that had such tender pictures of their own women. Just goes to show the ability of many ( and you better believe it is MANY) humans to be loving and tender with some and on the other hand still commit atrocities against other people and their loved ones as if they aren’t anything other than insects.
I have always loved the idea of the “assault kit”or the “deployment kit” when it comes to guns. You can’t take everything you have with you as bad as you wish otherwise. But, thanks to the unlimited modularity of the AR15 you can take one gun and some carefully chosen accessories with an upper or two and have the ability to tailor a rifle for several needs.
Thanks to modern tactical optic mounts, you can now have optics pre-zeroed for an upper, or just left on an upper and swap them as needed. Then, with a choice of uppers you can have a plan for several mission needs. Going inside a mud hut? Put the MK18 upper on. Maybe need to take a long range precision shot? Put your MK12 upper on. Or just swap optics around before you leave. Maybe even possible to swap optics hours or minutes before needing it depending on circumstances. Add to that kit a handgun or two, a suppressor and some odds and ends and you could put together a kit you could grab and travel with that would be very versatile. I know some like the barrel swap but this never had much appeal to me. It is a lot faster to swap uppers and changing the upper doe not require tools nor re zeroing the optic or iron sights. No one in the real world swaps barrels on a rifle/carbine or swaps uppers in the field on a “mission” anyways so size and ability to carry a spare upper compared to a barrel is irrelevant.
In the1980s it was still possible to buy some pretty neat stuff from other countries. One of those I wanted but never got my hands on was the semi auto imported Valmets.
I saw and handled a couple back then but this was before I had the money to buy one. It was the M76FS. Which is to say the folding stock model. They are as rare as hen’s teeth now a-days and I have given up on owning one unless I win the lottery but I still think back fondly on them and how close I came. I have said to Howard a few times how back then we had a much larger selection of foreign rifles, the Ar15 options were a small fraction of what we have today. I would give up those options from other countries gladly for the development that went into the AR15 and the result of it today.
Last is a picture of my assault wheelchair. I sometimes write reviews for movies at grindhousefilms.com and one of the guys over there asked if I could make him a machinegun wheel chair. I took a stab at it and produced this. Any gun person knows it is absurd and is completely non-functional but it does look cool if I do say so myself.
Sorry for the lack of a normal article or review today as I said. But I hope this was some what enjoyable for you and a fun few minutes while you are goldbricking at work. Hopefully things will be back to normal tomorrow.
The Unertl rifle scopes are something most shooters know about today thanks to the web and videogames. Few of them know much about them otherwise. They know Hathcock used one on his sniper rifle during his first tour in Vietnam. They know it’s “old” and they know it looks ancient and complex. And if you ever looked into buying one you know they are expensive and no longer made. So this week we will take a closer look.
John Unertl Sr. worked in the optical field while in the service with the German army in WW1. In 1928 he and his family immigrated to the US. He was hired by the J.W Fecker telescope manufacturing company in Pitssburgh, PA where he later became the superintendent. In 1936, Unertl left Fecker to start his own company. During WW2 Unertl provided the USMC with the 8x rifle scopes most casual observers are familiar with then post war continued on with new models. In 1960 John Sr. passed away and his son John Jr. took over further expanding the line and company. Commercial production for rifle optics ended in 1985. I doubt many shooters would realize the external adjustment Unertl scopes were made as late as 1985. Maybe even later as various people bought the left over parts from the shop and turned out a few more, Then various people bought the rights to the company name and things get really muddy and fuzzy there and I won’t go into it.
Now lets finally get to taking a look. The Unertls set on target blocks common in the past. Basically target blocks are various sized and drilled metal blocks with a dovetail that the mounts on the scope slide over and secure to. The mounts have a bolt that tightens onto the block and the dove tail keeps it from coming out of place. Picture below shows a target block. The target blocks worked on iron sights and optics mounts.
Above is the rear mount with elevation and wind and below is front mount. Both are aluminum and came in a variety of styles I won’t go into here but will in comments if asked.
Also in the above picture you will note the spring.
The body of the scope set suspended between the two mounts. This allows the scope to travel freely during recoil as its adjustments are external. That is, they move the rear of the scope up.down/ left/right. The spring is set depending on recoil force of round used. and the tension of the spring will return the scope to its full forward position. If not you have to do it by hand. Not all Unertls came with this feature as it was an optional add on. You will have noticed the USMC 8x sniper scopes do not have these as the Marines feared sand would get between the spring and body and score the tube. At the front of the mount is a clamp that holds it all in place of course. This can be adjusted if you want the eye piece of the scope to come back further or to move it away from you. Unlike modern optics you can also notice the rib that runs on the top and through the mount. This makes sure the scope and crosshairs stay straight up and not canted.
Below is the rear mount. Here you can see the external adjustments and how they move the rear of the tube. The micrometer turrets are very precise and repeatable. And very tough.
On this model the objective lens can be focused by a pretty nifty system. Not as fast to use as modern systems but very precise.
The other setting are made on the eye piece. At one time a piece was sold to replace the rear of the scopes that would allow you to boost the magnification by a few Xs.
The glass on these optics are outstanding. Even with all the modern advances in modern optics, a full 2 inch ultra varmint model Unertl is super clear and sharp. The crosshairs on this model are the pretty standard fine crosshairs. I really regret that I did not have the right camera set up to show you just how clear and sharp a Unertl in good condition can be. Unfortunately trying to take apicture through a 20x target riflescope is not easy.
Lastly the scope come with a front and rear metal screw on protective caps.
Needless to say, these scopes are fine quality and old craftsmanship. Everything about oozes quality and I am not kidding. They were made to last.
The down sides now. The price for any of these is going up by the second. The internet has made more people aware of these and of course the price goes up. Also, unless you are close to a gunsmith, you are not going to be able to pop one on most factory guns made after the mid 1980s. And that is if you are lucky. Old Remingtons, Winchesters, and target guns will most likely have the correct hole spacing in the places needed to mount one. The down side is, most of those companies making factory guns in the 70s and early 80s also were prone to have barrels not straight and receivers not drilled in line and all manner of problems. If you over come that, you need to find the correct target blocks. They came in a variety of heights and thickness to account for barrel contour and hole spacing and models. Charts are out there people have scanned and put online and some small companies make blocks new. I don’t mean to discourage you, just do your research carefully.
The colt 3×20 and 4x 20 scopes have been around a long time. Almost as long as the AR15 it was meant for. It is one of the first optics to ever be designed specifically for the AR15/M16 and was used during the Vietnam war.
The optic attaches to the carry handle of the upper by using the hole in the center. A threaded post protrudes out the bottom and a lever is used to tighten the assembly to the underside securing it tightly into the carry handle slot.
Once the optic is installed, the iron sights on the rifle or carbine can still be used.
The optics have a BDC turret that can be used after finer zeroing at 100 is done. To do this you remove the top cover to gain access to the finer adjustment screw. Windage adjustment is on the right side of the scope body and can be adjusted after removing its cover. ll adjustment values are 1/4 inch per click. The rear of the optic is adjustable for parallax.
Once the optic is zeroed at 100 yards, the BDC can be used for fast and easy range adjustments.
The BDC does match and work pretty well and it is repeatable on all of the examples I have tried over the years. The optic is calibrated for the M193 military load which is the 55 grain bullet. At the time there wasn’t much else out there. Even later models can safely assumed to be matched for the M193 type load.
The crosshairs for the scopes came as a post of a duplex crosshair. I have never been much of a post fan myself. The glass is very clear on these optics. Of course you can find some that have been used and abused and see some narfed up glass. They are not ACOGs, so they can not take that kind of abuse. But that isn’t to say they are delicate. They did see actual combat use from Vietnam to the first Gulf War.
Except for a few very early makes, the Colt optic is usually marked Made In Japan. The 4x model is the same size as the 3x.
Other than the older models having a slightly shinier finish than the newer made ones, the y are nearly identical.
Like all carryhandle mounted scopes, there is the usual issue with cheek weld. It is something a cheek rest could remedy, but why bother. I think the days of this being your only choice for an optic for your AR/M16 may be over. Now they are too collectible and slightly rare to be out using for much more than fun anyways. And they are a lot of fun to play with. Or even hunt deer with. 3x and 4x are still usable and hunters and snipers of years and wars past used scopes not even as powerful as 3x for serious work. They can be used for some pretty decent precise shooting in reasonable conditions.
The copes came in a cardboard box with leather end caps to protect the glass. Inside was simple instructions on how to zero and use and take care of the optic.
The little scopes are a neat little piece of AR15 history and they are a lot of fun to shoot with. Especially on an older SP1 rifle or M16 clone. If you have ever wanted to hunt with your old SP1 or clone and iron sights won’t cut it for you these are just the thing for getting some real use out of the old retro AR15.
As the Korea war rages in 1952 and A captain in IX Corps Ordnance and veteran of infantry combat during WW2 in the Pacific , William S. Brophy recognized a total lack of US Army sniping equipment and marksmanship compared to its current and future needs. In an effort to reverse some of this and educated units in the field he visited several units to discus with and educate the on sniping equipment and tactics.
At this time the Army had the scoped m1 rifle as their standard sniping rifle. This system limited the sniper to a range not much greater than 600 yards. To demonstrate what a skilled marksman with proper equipment could do and to hopefully get the Army to pay serious attention, Captain Brophy bought at his own cost a Winchester Model 70 “Bull gun” in ,30-06 and Unertl 10X target optic. The Winchester rifle listed as the “bull gun” was a target gun with heavy target stock and 28 inch heavy barrel.
Brophy using his rifle and skill developed during a career in competitive shooting was able to register several Chinese communist kills. The reaction to his ability was quick and people began to take note. However it was still the usual position of the Army that the weapon was not durable enough for combat use. Brophy and the selected men who used the rifle to demonstrate what it could do and endure did finally get the Army to seriously consider the Model 70 as a sniping arm.
Ultimately it was decided that it was not desirable to inject a special rifle into the supply system with a requirement for match ammo for it. Oddly enough over the coming years in Vietnam match ammo which was earlier labeled too hard to supply to troops in the field was readily available to snipers so much so that not one ever said that concern for having enough match ammo never crossed their minds.
The Model 70 was not the only effort then Captain Brophy put forth to improve US Army sniper ability. While out sniping with the Model 70, targets appeared beyond the range of even the match .30cal sniper rifle . To remedy this Brophy had the barrel of a Browning .50cal aircraft model machine gun mounted to a Soviet PTRD 14.5mm antitank rifle. A butt pad and bipod were also added as well as a 20x Unertl optic.
With this set up, Brophy and his team was able to make several Communists into good communists. Hits with the 50 were recorded at ranges from 1,000 yards to 2,000.
This rifle went on to inspire several other of its types with different barrel and scope combinations. This attempt at a longer range sniping arm no doubt was one of the predecessors to today’s Barrett M82. Below Brophy demonstrates one of the 50 cal rifles in Korea to higher officers.
The concept of the 50 caliber sniping rifle was further developed by the AMTU and Col. F.B Conway. Later attempts used optics such as the ART scope system and even a Boys Antitank rifle.
And of course one of the more more famous early 50 cal sniping systems.
In these early attempts , accuracy of the ammo was the main problem holding back the weapons. Standard service ammo was the only thing available for use at the time.
Colonel Brophy passed away in 1991 and left behind an amazing record of accomplishment as a shooter, an Army officer who served in WW2, Korea and Vietnam and writer of many definitive books on US small arms.
After college I worked for a man who really became a mentor to me when it came to precision shooting, I had been shooting for all of my life of course, but he was the person who is responsible for most of my knowledge of precision hand loading for extreme accuracy, Bench-rest shooting, proper cleaning methods for match barrels, a taste for vintage target /varmint rifles and optics and most of my knowledge about firearms history from the early 1900s up until about 1990. He had been a national bench rest shooter, he tested prototype rifles from Ruger, was one of the testers of the rim fire ammo used by the US Olympic teams in the 70s and earl 80s and even had a few wild cats rounds to his name among many other things.
Above is my mentor and friend shooting a heavy varmint Model 70 Winchester in .243WCF using a 12x Unertl sometimes in the mid 80s.
I got to hear a lot of stories from his past over those years and one of my favorites is this story from his boyhood.
He grew up and lived all of his life , not including a few years in the Army with 18 months of that in Vietnam, in a small town in WV named Stollings, which is just a couple of miles from Logan, WV. From his office window I could see the famous Blair mountain. If you don’t know, Blair mountain is the site of the Battle of Blair Mountain. If you don’t know about that, here is some text about it I ganked from Wikipedia. My friend was also paid by the state to help identify fired cases and gun parts found on the mountain while searching it for historic items some years ago.
“The Battle of Blair Mountain was the largest labor uprising in United States history and one of the largest, best-organized, and most well-armed uprisings since the American Civil War. For five days from late August to early September 1921, in Logan County, West Virginia, some 10,000 armed coal miners confronted 3,000 lawmen and strikebreakers, called the Logan Defenders, who were backed by coal mine operators during the miners’ attempt to unionize the southwestern West Virginia coalfields. The battle ended after approximately one million rounds were fired and the United States Army intervened by presidential order”
As a side note. Blair mountain is now history itself. The mountain is gone since it has been stripped mined. Like most things in Southern WV, Logan WV in particular , if the local politicians can get a kick back from it, then history be dakjed
It was a rough area in those days and was through his childhood and honestly it still is. I live and have lived in KY my entire life, but o very close to the border of WV. The Matewan massacre , which you may have heard about or seen the movie, happened only about 20 minutes drive from me, and the entire area was the stomping grounds of the Hatfield and McCoy feud.
I said all that so you can see how wild the area was for some one born in 1948 and had to grow up there. Many places in the outskirts of the town he grew up in was full of less than honest businesses. One of those places of less than high moral standards helped him earn money for ammo.
In Stollings at the time he was about 10 years old there was a building that was like a small hotel. Two or three stories and multiple rooms. The entire building was more or less a brothel. One part was used as a small bar. The occupants of the building would set any garbage out back before some one would come collect it for disposal and this of course drew in rats from all over. It didn’t take long for a population of rats to grow out of control.
My friend some how worked out a deal with the owner of the brothel for his services. So, every summer day my friend would walk down to the area and wade across the little creek and set up on the opposite bank. He would lay there with his Winchester model 1904 and shoot rats all day. At the end of the day he would cross back across the creek and collect up all the dead rats. The owner would give him 25 cents for every 2 rats he killed. He would use that money to buy his 22 ammo and soda and snacks all summer long.
As you can imagine, he had a lot of fun with that rifle and made a lot of good memories with it. I asked about it after hearing this story and sad to say, he told me about it’s fate. When he went off to Vietnam, his younger brother got it some how. His idiot brother decided he wanted to mount a scope to it and in typical Hilljack fashion,found some kind of mount meant for side mounting to a receiver. His solution was to take nails and nail the side mount to the stock on the left side of the gun below the action. This did exactly what you would expect it would do and split the wood and ruined the gun. Having ruined it, the brother just tossed it into the garbage.
I have have been on the lookout for the same model on an off over the years since he told me this story. If I ever find one in good shape at a reasonable price I intend to buy it for him.
Will the Vietnam war ever stop being fascinating? Not to me it won’t. One of the many things from that period that is fascinating to me is what the fellows carried and used while in the war. Not just the Special Forces, but the regular guy. The equipment started out much like the gear of the past generations. Made of cotton and canvas and metal. Then , towards then end, we started to see the first widespread use of the nylon and plastic that would be the materials of the ALICE system used all through the 1980s and most of the 90s. Today we will take a look at two set ups used in the war and a few other things.
First we have up a near mint set of the webgear that would have been carried by an infantryman in the US Army. It is the M-1956 Load-Carrying Equipment (LCE), also known as the Individual Load-Carrying Equipment (ILCE). This is the system that replaced the the combat pack of WW2 and Korea and the multitude of cartridge belts used to support the older US family of weapons. The M56 gear was developed and came out during the time the military was going to the M14 and then on to the M16. Because it was a time when a lot of the older legacy weapons were still being used, the equipment was very general purpose. Especially the M56 ammo pouches.
The M56 ammo pouch would carry a 6-pocket M1 cotton bandoleer of M1 Garand enbloc clips (8-rounds each; total of 48 rounds), 8 x M1 Garand enbloc clips (8 rounds each; total of 64 rounds), 2 x BAR magazines (20-rounds), 4 x M1 or M2 carbine magazines (30-round), 3 x 40mm M79 grenades, or 2 x M26 hand grenades plus 2 x hand grenades fastened on the sides of the case. Then with the newer rifles it would hold 2x M14 magazines and 3x M16 magazines. Or so it is said it will hold only 3 mags for the M16 but it will hold 4x M16 magazines though tightly.
The belt is is a slightly different design than the WW2 era belt but in function it is nearly identical. With the adoption of the M56 pouches, this combo did away with the the M-1936 individual equipment belt, the M-1923 cartridge belt for the Garand , and the M-1937 cartridge belt for the BAR. The M56, like the older belt, also has the holes for using equipment that attaches via the 1910 wire hangers.
The new H harness suspenders are cotton canvas with two webstraps for hanging various items from like the flashlight shown above and the general purpose first Aid/Compass pouch on the other. The H -harness is very wide and flat and comfortable. Out of all the older military webbing I have tried over the decades, the M56 H suspenders is the most comfortable.
The M56 canteen covers are heavy canvas with heavy wool lining. They aren’t that different from the older covers but use the “slide keepers of all M56 gear. The slide keeper is now known as “ALICE clips”. Covers held one 2 quart canteen and cup. Though they were used by special operations forces to hold rifle magazines and various grenades in other units like MACVSOG. Those units needed to carry considerably more ammo and munitions that the average infantryman and the M56 ammo pouches were not enough. The canteen covers could be worn on the belt or on the field pack ( AKA butt pack) by attaching it to wide webbing straps on each side of it. Or, they could be attached to webbing straps on the various rucksacks used in the war. The cover was meant to be soaked in water to help cool the water in the canteen. This soaking and drying faded the color and it is common to see surplus covers nearly khaki in color from fading.
The field pack, also known as the butt pack, is the samll backpack looking bag at the center rear This pack is the M1961 pack and is and upgrade from the original M56 pack The M61 pack has a rubberized collar inside to protect the contents as well as eyelets along the outside flap to attach more equipment. The field pack was meant to carry the items the soldiers needed, one day’s ration, toilet paper, socks and such. It didn’t take long to find out that the “butt pack ” did not hold enough.
In addition to the M56 gear you can see the M16 bayonet with scabbard and light weight rip stop poncho attached to the bottom of the M61 field pack. A M56 entrenching tool cover was also issued. The shovel cover held the folding shovel and had two grommets and strap for attaching the rifle bayonet to it to make room on the belt. Also, a convoluted sytem of webbing straps exists with the purpose of carrying the bed roll. I have a set but did not picture it since putting it together is a nightmare.
Next up is a belt worn in the early days of the war in some units whose automatic rifleman used the M14. It was issued to indig forces who used the older US family of weapons from Korea nad WW2 and it was a popular choice by US Army Special forces.
Of course we are talking about the M-1937 cartridge belt for the BAR. This one is an unissued example made during the Korean war era. This is why it is a dark shade of green instead of the OD3 mostly used during WW2. The BAR was popular because it would hold would hold more M16 magazines than the M56 pouches that was standard issue. The belt also was lined on the bottom of the magazine pouches with holes for the older 1910 wire hangers and the webbing on the back had room for M56 canteen covers. The top holes on the belt would also fit the M56 H-harness.
Each cell of the BAR belt would fit x M16 20 round magazines. I have read many times that it is possible to get 5 mags in each pouch but I have never been able to get 5 in all of them. It does require stretching to get it to hold 5 magazines. It would also hold a variety of other items if desired. One of the practices of SOG recon teams was to hang a older WW2 type canteen covers off of the lower grommets for additional canteens or to use as munitions pouches. Using this they could carry grenades or the larger 30 round M16 magazines. In various books about SOG, it is noted that the canteen cover was hung on the left side for reload magazines and the right side for hand grenades.
The 1910 attachment holes also allowed for attaching more pouches like extra first aid kits from WW2, the jungle survival kit, handgun holsters or pouches for radio antenna. You can see int he image below the way a Special Forces SOG recon man has set up his BAR belt. Often later int he war the SOG troopers replaced the H harnes and M56 web belt with the STABO harness. The BAR belt was added to the STABO rig. The STABO harness allowed a man to snap into a rope from a chopper quickly to be lifted away.
Above you can see how the older 1910 wire hangers allowed the user to attach the older equipment like this WW2 era type first aid pouch and the jungle first aid kit.
I have also recreated the common practice of tapping water purification tablets to the plastic USGI canteens. The M56 covers did not have the side pouch for the tablets. Perhaps extra tablets would have been taped to the canteens anyway so as to always have extra in a convenient spot. The covers have been painted over for camo sake. Which was another common thing seen done by the SOG recon units, along with uniforms and guns. Being the BAR belt is mint I demurred from painting it.
Another iconic piece of equipment common;y seen during the war was the now rare lightweight rucksack. The pack was originally designed for arctic use to replace the mountain rucksack. It was the first all nylon piece of equipment to be adopted by the US Army
The pack will hold more items that you can carry and most equipment the soldier did not need to immediately fight with was store on or in the rucksack. Things like LAWS rockets, rations, shovel, machetes, extra canteens and clothing could be places inside its main compartment of the three smaller ones outside or hung from the webbing and cargo straps on the frame. The pack could be worn low on the frame, in the middle or high up depending.
Of all the things my Dad spoke about using during the war, the light weight ruck, the M16 and the poncho liner was like the holy trinity to him. For years I hear about how comfortable the curving tubular pack frame was. Finally after 30 years I was able to track down two of these packs for him and bought both of them. He was right, the pack frame is very comfortable when wearing it. Below you can see how the frame curved for the body.
The suspension system of straps on the frame also kept the pack off of the back and allowed air to move through to help stop over heating. The original waist belt band is missing on this example and some one had replaced it with the ALICE pack style kidney pad at some point post war. IF you look at the shoulder straps you can see the quick release feature. The vertical straps are cargo straps for holding items added above the pack.
From the side you can see the webbing straps to hold addition canteens. Both the left and right side have webbing straps for the older 1910 wire attachment or the M56 covers with ALICE clips. A web strap with buckle goes around the canteen to secure it and to keep it from flopping around. This pack was replaces later in the war with the tropical rucksack that is the basis for the later ALICE pack.
A pack that did serve as inspiration for the tropical ruck was the ARVN ruck or also known as the indigenous ruck sack. The pack was made in the US for ARV troops. It became popular with US troops who could get it as it was a better option than the M1961 butt pack. This pack is the one seen in the movie Platoon.
The ARVN ruck used the same X frame that was later used int he US tropical ruck . The ARVN rucksack is a handy pack about the size of modern assault packs.
The ARVN ruck is hard to find now a days as it was made and issued only for the military of the Republic of South Vietnam. It was never issued to US forces for US military use. It was a handy little pack though and you can still see the influence it had in later years on other packs.
“With the emergence of the M16 as the principal infantry arm of the US ground combat forces in South Vietnam, the major thrust of suppressor development was centered on the 5.56mm rifle. The USAMTU had been actively involved with suppressor testing during the course of Army revaluations. So far as the AMTU was concerned, if there were certain benefits to be gained by field use of a suppressor-equipped M16 rifle, then fitting a similar device to an accurized rifle “offered endless possibilities” for combat use in Vietnam. ” -Senich
While suppressed guns had been used in past wars ,their use and development during the war in Vietnam was the golden age of silencers in use as more than assassinations or sabotage special missions. The effectiveness of long range fire on enemy at night or day light with out being able to determine true range or direction can not be questioned . The impact of the effectiveness of knowing friendly troops have suppressor equipped rifles even has an effect to their fellow soldiers. “ I would see these guys from time to time, they would come in just after first light and I couldn’t help thinking how damn glad I was they were on our side” To many US troops the sight of other US combat personnel with suppressed rifles made and impression.
Even though rack grade M16s with suppressors had been issued for specialized units for covert missions and regular forces for long range patrols, recon, and ambush missions no official organized program existed for fielding optic equipped suppressed M16s. Examples of M16s with optics and suppressors are seen in many pictures, but usually this was an example of individual initiative or small units going about it in a quasi official manner.
Official documents from as early as May 1966 show that a program to field suppressed M16s to RVN had began. The USARV submitted an ENSURE request for “silencers for the M16A1rifle.” Even so, it took a considerable amount of time before examples were sent to RVN for combat testing.
Most of the examples sent to VN for testing and use are the US Army Human Engineering Lab, Frankford Arsenal and Scionics inc. After testing it was concluded that all models did reduce a noticeable amount of muzzle noise from the M16, they all also came with issues and an increased in cleaning.
During the testing and fielding it did not take long for users to bring up the idea of sub sonic ammunition to increase the effectivness of noise reduction. From the book by Gary Douglas , A LRRP’s Narrative.
” I let Crowe carry my M16 with silencer. We had a number of 556mm rounds bootlegged, using low velocity powder and soft lead bullets that did make the suppressor quite effective .. The lead bullets worked fine, except for the one drawback. You had to hand cycle each round. “
Of course making sub sonic ammo is well thing the means of ammo producers or handloaders but making sub sonic ammo that would cycle the action of the rifle is another matter Not to mention the obvious requirement for effective terminal performance and range. One problem encountered was with making sub sonic ammo was the now empty space inside the case. They found quickly that if the bore was pointed down, the powder would fall to the front of the case away from the primer resulting in failure of ignition or delayed ignition.
“A concerted effort was made to develop suitable subsonic ammunition. However, a major problem came as a result of the reduced powder loading. When the M16 round was down loaded there was only a small amount of powder in the case, When the weapon was angled downward the powder showed the tendacy to move forward in the case, away from the primer and ignition was either irregular or nonexistent. I was necessary to emply filler on top of the powder charge, Numerous substance such as oatmeal, cream of wheat, and cotton were tried; all with disastrous results. After firing a few rounds the rifle gas port and suppressor became clogged with the inert filler.” Donald G Thomas -Scionics
The method to finally cure this was to use an epoxy inserted into the case in a way that left a small central cavity for the powder. An effective but very time consuming and expensive. The end result being that the vast majority of suppressors used and issued during the war were used with standard service ammunition.
By the end of the War , the Scionics MAW-A1 suppressor was the model deemed the most suitable and durable for use on the M16 rifle.
The suppressed M16 became a very effective tool for operations in South Vietnam, especially for small recon teams. My mentor served in a ranger company on LRRP missions in the 199th Brigade and carried a suppressed M16. He tells of ambushing a group of Viet Cong one night while cooking their dinner.
” They were about 5o yards away and it was almost night . They were sitting around a fire cooking and smoking dope. One had his back to me and I shot him in the back of the head. He immediately fell over onto the fire and the look on the faces of his friends was pure terror. The shock of being sprayed with their buddies head, not hearing the shot and being stoned really took its toll Then the rest of the team opened up on them “
He was made more or less the team sniper and liked the suppressor and M16 combo. He did say that in an emergency fight he had to fire on full auto and at a certain point the suppressor blew off the end of the barrel and “took off like a rocket”.
The Army would take some time before getting serious about suppressing M16 family of weapons for general or sniping use. It went on to focus on the Xm21 system and a suppressor for it. This combining 762mm semi auto rifles and suppressors of course went on to be more fully realized in the M110.
The concept of the M16 with suppressor was and is just too good to die. The military went on to field the KAC NT4 suppressor for the M4 and MK18 carbines. The with the more perfected idea from Vietnam of the M16 with suppressor in the excellent MK12 special purposes rifle using the Opcs inc. suppressor. Perhaps what many user in the Vietnam wished for.
All of the previous systems are no longer used or being phased out of and being replaced with newer designs. But the AMTU’s idea of a suppressed M16 is still as valid and useful as it was in the 60s.
There are some US military fire arms that enjoy the love and adoration of millions of people. These guns earned a reputation from major battles and wars. Guns that entire generations used to fight off the enemies of America large and small. The M1 Garand, the M1911, the M1 Carbine. The M14… ahem.. One of those seems to have a lure and romance about it equal to or maybe beyond even the M1 Garand. That being the United States Rifle, Caliber .30-06, Model 1903. Also known as the “’03” or “Springfield”.
The story of the M1903 being adopted as the US service rifle is pretty well known to anyone who knows anything about it. The US was not happy with the very finely made and smooth action-ed side loading Krag rifle and its .30-40 service round after being shot to pieces by Spanish Mausers in the Spanish American War. Something about being under effective long range rifle fire from the other guy while you can not return same really drives a demand for change.
The Army got together all the experts, took a look at the captured Spanish Mausers and decided the US Army needed to be using comparable. In fact it was so comparable that a law suit was brought about over just how comparable the 03 was to the Mauser.
After a being adopted the M1903 had its share of problems. A number of Pre WW1 rifles had brittle metal and and the receivers would come apart in various uncomfortable ways while shooting. The problem was figured out and fixed eventually but it is not advised to risk shooting any “low number” M1903.
After getting this squared away the rifle then went on to glory and ever lasting fame in the hands of Doughboys like Sgt York ( maybe.. maybe not reports vary) and the USMC and its marksmanship skill. Official accounts of Marines mowing down Germans from long range with their rifles tell of great marksmanship with great rifles and images are every where os snipers using the 03 for the dawn of modern sniping. Though it was the standard service rifle it was not the most widely issued and used rifle by the troops. That was actually the M1917. But even though the 03 was still the rifle most coveted by the US troops. As said by Cpl. Mike Shelton: “What we really wanted were Springfields. They were the best rifles in the war”.
But were they?
The 1903 is a fine, fine rifle with beautiful lines. It handles like a dream compared to most of its peers and was accurate enough to be used to the US team int he Olympics. This makes for a beautiful military bolt action rifle.
It has a very finely adjustable precision rear sight and blade front sight. When folded down the rear sight is the open V notch and very small. When extended the rear sight has a tiny peep sight that is adjustable for windage and elevation. The adjustment was so fine it was capable of very precise adjustments. When using a sling while prone on a nice sunny day at Camp Perry a rifleman could show what the 1903 could achieve. The story of the Farr cup trophy and why it has that name is a great example of just what can be done with the sights of the standard M1903.
Those things are all that great , but not for the combat of WW1.
The rear sight in on the front of the receiver. Too far away for best most efficient use. Trying to look through the tiny rear aperture was useless in low light. And the light didn’t have to be all that low to make it impossible to use. The rain and mud of the trenches and battlefield could find its way into that peep. The front sight blade was too small and easily damaged. Low light also renders it difficult to see. The front sight was so easily damaged that a thicker blade was used by the USMC and a protective hood was used. This did protect the front sight but it also allows a little less light in. It also capture mud into the hood and front sight assembly. That being a common thing with all hooded front sights.
The rear sight’s fine precision adjustments are just that. Finely made with micrometer like precision. And slow. Very slow to use. The marksmanship of some units like the USMC was at a high enough standard that the rifleman could adjust their rear sight for outstanding long range precision fire on enemy infantry and machine gun positions. But this was not as often done as many make it seem. Adjusting the rear sight for precise long range fire on moving targets at undetermined distance while under rain and with mud covered hands as artillery fell around them made using the long range sights a daydream for most. The rear sight does have an open notch for faster firing and and closer range but it is small and not easy for anyone with less than perfect vision. This sight was set for 547 yd (500 m), and was not adjustable. Not very useful for ranges most likely encountered when time is critical . It also had the problem of not being well protected. Something the sights on a battle rifle need to be in such an unforgiving environment. Later on the M1903A3 rifle had a more simple peep sight on the rear of the action closer to the eye. The peep sight was better for most infantry engagements and was an improvement over the original.
The M1903 had a typical for it’s day safety lever. It would be easy to complain about how slow it is to use if you need to fire quickly it was common. Other Bolt action combat rifles of the day had similar systems and a few had a fast and some what more natural feeling system .
One thing the military thought it needed was a magazine cut off. This little bit of brilliance was a lever that when activated would not allow the action to feed from the magazine. This would require you to load a single round by hand or flip it to allow magazine feed. The idea was you would fire and load one round at a time while keeping the internal magazine in reserve for when you really needed it and had no time to single feed by hand. This supposedly would save ammo. Either way it is always a dumb idea. It was dumb when it was on the Krag and it was dumb on the 1903. Especially since it could be unknowingly engaged.
None of of the things certainly deal killers or mentioned are deal killers or make the rifle useless by any means. The M1903 is a beautifully made gun and wonderfully accurate.
There is a reason for that old chestnut about service rifles from WW1. “The Germans brought a hunting rifle, the British brought a combat rifle and the US brought a target rifle.”
Now looking at the other option carried by US rifleman in WW1. The rifle at the time not as well admire but more widely issued and used. The M1917.
The M1917 was a rifle being made in the US for British troops in .303. When the US entered the war it did not have enough 1903s and there was no way to make enough in time. The decision was made to tweak the .303 rifle into using the .30.06 service round. This went off easily and the gun became the M1917 and was issued.
While it is heavier, it is built like a tank.
The magazine held one more round than the M1903. The safety was a lever on the right hand side. Much easier to quickly disengage.
The rear sight is positioned much closer to the eye and has a nice peep with a fold up sight for more precise longer range shooting. A great feature is the huge “ears” on each side that protects the rear sights from damage,
Another part of the M1917 that aids in fast action for combat is the action. Unlike the M1903 the M1917 cocks on closing. This may not seem like much of a difference but it is. In rapid fire it is much easier to work the bolt and cock it while rotating the bolt down with the speed and momentum of forcing the bolt forward then turning down opposed to cocking while lifting the bolt handle. The dog legged angled bolt handle is also very usable despite it’s oddball look. This allows for a very fast operation. It is also a feature of other British bolt action designs like the Lee Enfields. The MK 3 and MK 4s are very fast and smooth. British troops famously practiced rapid long range volley fire using their rifles and a technique of working the bolt and depressing the trigger with their bottom two fingers of the firing hand as soon as the bolt closed. A company of British troops firing in this manner could wreak a larger unit a long range and was an effective way to compensate for lack of machine gun support.
The M1917 has recently started to get the respect it deserves, it still does not have the admiration or mythical status of the M1903.
Luckily most of the things that make the M1903 less than idea for comabat were addressed in later models. AS I mentioned the M1903A3 corrected the rear sight issues with a peep sight that was simple to use and more suited for ranges most firefights really occur. It wasn’t made with the same aesthetic care and old world craftsmanship as the M1903 but it worked is really the better gun if you had to take one to war.
The M1903 served several roles in its career and is much respected. In some of those roles it was everything you could ask and more In others not so much. As a sniper rifle its target rifle accuracy , handling and trim lines really made it shine.
It served as a sniper rifle into WW2, Korea and even some in Vietnam. The Army opted for using a 4x weaver with the M1903A4 while the USMC adopted and used the Unertl 8x optic. A deadly combination that produced many Japanese widows. As seen below a team of USMC sniper on Okinawa.
Today the Springfield still enjoys a status as a real classic. A real icon of US military Arms. It’s accuracy being the stuff of legend and its full powered 30 caliber round will always be unquestioned in it’s ability. But, its original classic M1903 incarnation never saw nearly the amount of combat as many believe and it was certainly not the best bolt action of the war. It wasn’t even the best Mauser action combat rifle of the war.
Just like the M14, the original issued M1903 was. not much for fighting.
Since the passing of our friend Kevin AKA “Hognose” owner of weaponsman.com we have be reposting his work here in tribute and to make sure it survives. This is another technical article from Kevin in part of a series.
The M249 Squad Automatic Weapon is widely distributed in the US Army and Marine Corps (even after the Marines replaced many SAWs with M27 Infantry Automatic Rifles). But how did we get to that point, and what other weapons were considered along the way? This series will look at each of the four contenders in turn. The principal objective of this article is to set the stage, and introduce an unfamiliar cousin of a familiar old friend: the XM106 Automatic Rifle, an M16A1 redesigned by Army engineers for the tactical role once filled by the Browning Automatic Rifle in the American rifle squad.
It’s a bit amazing that a SAW program got any traction at all. In 1979, the Army was concerned about the vintage of its small arms and other systems. While we’re most concerned about small arms here, the Army’s RDT&E guys had to develop it all, and they had their hands full trying to field or develop, at that time:
The XM1 Tank (with 105mm gun; not yet named Abrams).
The 120mm smoothbore follow-on for the M1. This was principally setting up American manufacture of an already-successful German gun.
The Infantry Fighting Vehicle and its cav variant (not yet named Bradley).
The Copperhead laser-guided precision artillery shell.
The YAH-64 helicopter (“Y” means prototype; the Army was testing 5 prototypes, but they hadn’t selected the night vision and fire control systems yet; everyone remembered the AH-56 Cheyenne, which had gotten to this stage and beyond before its ignominious cancellation).
The still unnamed MLRS rocket system was in early phases of tests, and precision guided rockets for it were barely on the engineers’ whiteboards.
Improved missiles: I-HAWK, TOW, and Pershing II.
New missiles: HELLFIRE and Patriot.
US production of the superior British 81mm mortar.
Those are the ones that turned into successful fieldings, but every one was opposed by vocal lobbies, which argued that the weapons cost too much, and would never work. (Some of these opponents were concerned patriots, like John Boyd’s famous reform mafia; others might not have been, like the CDI, a group that toed Ivan’s line so thoroughly that it was rumored to be financed by the USSR, and that did indeed fade from prominence after the USSR went belly up, although no one ever found any proof of anything as far as we know).
To the delight of the opponents, some development projects would turn out to be turkeys, like the DIVAD gun (later named Sergeant York; its fate was sealed when a high-stakes live demo saw it lock on to a latrine fan instead of a hovering, easy-pickin’s drone helicopter). Some would blow their budgets and get put out of their misery by the Carter administration or the Congress. Nobody remembers the US Roland AA missile, or the Stand Off Target Acquisition System, a helicopter with a Rube Goldberg targeting radar that needed a Heath Robinson raising and lowering mechanism.
But all in all, for all that the suits would like to zero out Army R&D, and for all that some projects would be dead ends, the need for these systems was so great, and/or the contractors had promised to manufacture them in so many Congressional districts, that the Army had an RDT&E budget request for $2.927 Billion for FY 80 (which began 1 Oct 79).
The principal small arms program was the SAW (the long-running Air Force/Joint pistol trials, the M231 Firing Port weapon, and a 30mm repeater grenade launcher which never saw type-classification, were some of the others). The Squad Automatic Weapon program was well along; the service needed to complete a developmental and operational test of four prototypes and evaluate the test data. Considering that it would produce a weapon still in the field today, this program’s budget request was almost invisible: $500,000. It was a little less than 2%, not of the RDT&E budget, but of 1% of the RDT&E budget (0.01708% if you do the math; rounds up to 171 10/1000ths of a percent).
The Army had just given up on the idea of a return to a .30 caliber small arm. A study called IRUS-75 evaluated the .30 concept as part of a question of the overall organization and equipment of the future rifle squad; a follow-on study, the Army Small Arms Requirements Study (ASARS), made it clear that the caliber mattered less than having two auto weapons per squad to provide a base of fire, as the BAR had done in days of yore.
The four NATO ammo contenders. Soon after the SAW tests described in this series, NATO chose the SS109.
The Army conduced an extensive computer study that determined the optimum caliber for a SAW was 6mm. This caused the first casualties inflicted by the SAW as logisticians’ heads exploded: they had no desire to stock a third caliber alongside 5.56 and 7.62. Accordingly, the SAW was specified to use 5.56mm ammunition: not the standard M193 ball round, but whatever round came out of new NATO testing, whether it was the FN SS109, the US XM777, or something completely different. The test guns were, as we understand it, set up for XM777. (XM777, like SS109, sought to get more penetration out of the 5.56x45mm cartridge by using a steel penetrator. It was, however, backwards-compatible with the 1:12 rifling of earlier 5.56 rifles. SS109 proved superior in NATO tests to SS109 and experimental British and German small-caliber rounds, and was adopted; the US version is M855).
The Army did not have an entirely free hand in weapons development, since the Joint Services Small Arms Program had been established in December, 1978, as “the senior joint services body for small arms development,” but the Army did retain control of the SAW program. By early 1979, four prototypes were under test by the Material Testing Directorate of the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground. One of the four was going to be the SAW and replace two of the rifle squad’s M16A1 rifles. (Doctrine at the time designated one rifleman in each fire time the “automatic rifleman”. He got a bipod and more ammo. The rest of the riflemen were supposed to fire on semi-auto against point targets only).
The four candidates were three belt-fed 5.56mm light machine guns: Ford Aerospace’s XM248; FN’s XM249; H&K’s XM262; and one magazine-fed weapon, the XM106.
The XM106 had the home-field advantage: it was developed by the Army’s own Ballistics Research Laboratory. But it was, by far, the least advanced rifle. It was essentially an M16A1 with a modified fire-control system and a bipod. It fired full-auto only, from an open bolt, and had a heavy buffer system to bring the rate of fire down to 750 RPM. The bipod was an M2 bipod, as used on the M14, but it mounted above the rifle’s barrel. All XM106s appear to have been hand-built, toolroom guns, and there are a few variations among them. The XM106 had a clever, but complex, interchangeable barrel, a desirable feature in a weapon that may be called on to deliver lots of automatic fire. In most XM106s, the front sight base was moved closer to the muzzle end of the barrel (which army records record as 482mm [21.5 in.] including the flash suppressor, the second longest of the contenders), reputedly to extend the gun’s sight radius.
XM106 removable barrel version.
The barrel-changing mechanism removed the front sight and gas tube from the gun, leaving the bipod attached to the receiver. The handguards, as you can see in the picture, split. This system had two drawbacks — one, shared with the M60 and numerous other GPMGs is that rear sight adjustments could only be zeroed for one barrel — when you changed barrels, you changed point of impact, and it might have done something ugly to the accuracy of your weapon. The second drawback is clearly visible in the picture: that gas tube hanging off the spare barrel, just asking some GI to bend, break, or plug it with something.
The XM106 was not only magazine-based, it had its own special magazine — sort of. A spring clip held three 30-round magazines together. When one was exhausted, the auto-rifleman pressed the magazine release and shifted the mag over and reinstalled it. It was another Rube Goldberg / Heath Robinson contrivance, but in the late 1970s there were no reliable high-cap magazines.
We’re not aware of any surviving XM106s. The open-bolt mechanism and the plate renaming the fire selector positions lived on, however, on the M231 Firing Port Weapon. Colt was to reevaluate the M16-based MG and develop a version in conjunction with Diemaco for Canadian Army tests; that would also fire from the open bolt, but it had a superior barrel change system and bipod to those of the XM106.
If the XM106 was the least technically ambitious of the SAW contenders, Ford’s XM248, which instantiated some concepts developed at BRL and elsewhere in the Army ordnance world, was at the opposite end of the spectrum — a technical stretch. But that’s for the next installment.
Other than its influence on Colt’s future private developments, the XM106 was an evolutionary dead end. With four very different guns to choose from, three had to lose, and with its lack of a belt and awkwardness, the XM106 was never really in contention. It’s interesting to compare it to the M27 automatic rifle the Marines ultimately chose to replace most of its SAWs, a weapon that accepted the inconvenience of magazine loading for the benefit of much lighter weight.
That the XM106 was so quickly set aside tells us that “not invented here” wasn’t holding the Army ordnance experts back in the late 70s and early 80s — the gun was designed by their own compadres at the Ballistics Research Laboratory, but it wasn’t the best. Any disappointment that BRL might have had was limited, however. Their firing-port weapon design, a more extensively modified M16A1, was adopted as standard equipment for the new Infantry and Cavalry Fighting Vehicles, and it, too remains in service today — so there’s a little bit of XM106 still out there.
In Monday’s installment, we gave you the overview of the SAW program as of 1979, and we looked in depth at the least radical design, the magazine-fed M16 variant, XM-106 automatic rifle, a product of the Army’s own Ballistic Research Laboratory. Today’s installment will fill you in with a little more on the competition and its history, and will go into a little depth — unfortunately, a little depth is all we have — about the XM-248 and especially its forerunner, the XM-235.
To recap, as of the beginning of 1979 four candidates were being compared for a concept of a Squad Automatic Weapon that was then (barely) filled in the infantry fire team by giving one guy a stamped-steel bipod and permission to set his selector to Crowd Control. Along with the XM106, which was an M16A1 with some concessions to firing high rates and volumes of automatic fire, the contenders at this point were three belt-fed 5.56mm light machine guns: Ford Aerospace’s XM248, FN’s XM249 and H&K’s XM262.
The XM-248 is a good-looking gun with a straight inline mechanism and a very clever belt feed that had the potential to be more positive, but less upsetting to accuracy, than the typical feed tray that’s been standard on GPMGs ever since the MG34 instantiated the category way back during the Great Depression.
To understand the XM248, we have to roll back a bit, to the very dawn of the SAW program in 1975 (the term “SAW” dates to 1970, and the idea of an intermediate gun between the rifle and the 23+lb M60 GPMG dates to 1966). The Army’s Training and Doctrine Command had noted that a war in Europe was possible, and Europe was vastly more built-up than in the last war. Even then, much of the fighting was in cities — dismounted infantry terrain. A squad automatic weapon that could deliver fire in high volumes would benefit such a squad, in what the Army now calls Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT) and then called Military Operations in Built-up Areas (MOBA). So in 1975, the Army began designing in its own labs, and calling for, from industry, a new weapon, at the same time it began to evaluate M16 improvements that would lead (through a winding path blazed mostly by the USMC) to the M16A2. Both improvements were aimed at MOBA as well as just generally increasing the lethality of the squad, and drew upon TRADOC studies that said fire volume was more important than fire precision.
The 6.0x45mm cartridge, centered between the 5.56 and 7.62 NATO.
The new SAW — the squad’s volume-fire weapon — would use either an optimum cartridge or the standard rifle cartridge. (Each approach had its adherents). The first round of paper SAW candidates were chambered for disparate cartridges, including a new experimental 6mm and the standard 5.56mm. The 6mm fired a 105-grain projectile at 2450 fps (6.8g/.747m/s) compared to the M193 round’s 55gr/3250fps (3.5g/990m/s), giving the new MG a range beyond 800m. One of the main drivers of the 6mm caliber wasn’t anything to do with ball ammunition — it was that given the tracer technology of the time, no known compound could trace to and beyond 800m in daytime, and be contained in the volume of a 5.56mm projo. Army ordnance guys really liked the 6mm; loggies, and the senior generals who would have to square a new caliber with our NATO allies, were more reserved, for entirely non-technical reasons.
Because it was no longer in production or actively being promoted, the Stoner XM207E1 was out of the picture. In any event, the Army’s ordnance officers had a strong prejudice against it: the SEALs loved the gun and used them until there were no parts to be had, but the Army considered it too maintenance-intensive to be reliable in the hands of draftees with GT Scores of 80. Likewise, Colt’s CMG-2; and like other guns rejected before the contest began, they fired the 5.56mm cartridge, which didn’t meet the Army’s desire for an 800m+ weapon.
The three contenders in the 1975-76 round were made for the 6×45 cartridge and given sequential model numbers. XM233 (left) was Maremont’s entry. As you might expect from the maker of the M60, it looked like a baby 60. The XM234, a spindly-looking thing, was prototyped by Philco (about which, more below). And the Army’s own Rodman Laboratories (at Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois) developed a radically new concept which was labeled XM235.
Two more-familiar 5.56mm guns that were being developed in Europe and entirely outside the Army competition at the very same time were not considered at this time: the FN Minimi and the H&K HK23. Ironically, they were rejected specifically because they were 5.56mm weapons. But we haven’t heard the last of the little round and these two commercial guns, either, because in Developmental Test/Operational Test 1, they, and a heavy-barreled variant of the M16, were used as controls and benchmarks for the “real” 6mm guns.
Philco’s 6mm gun was called the XM234, and it looked like this:
And that picture is almost all we know about it. At the time, we recall reading, and laughing about, the idea that Philco had entered a gun in the Army competition. Philco was the subsidiary of Ford that made the radios and 8-track players (don’t we keep telling you, The Past Is Another Country? Some of us lived there). And so, the idea of it making machine guns was pretty funny. But Detroit automakers are no slouches on mass production, and the Army has often turned to them when it needed quantity and quality. In World War II, the Navy threw a young officer named Henry Ford II out so he could take over from his ailing father and take charge of Ford’s war production, which included guns, gun parts, and complete B-24 Liberators. GM made M3 grease guns, and later would produce M16A1s with considerably less drama than Colt, despite a rather lacking Technical Data Package. So, Philco probably could make a gun; auto manufacturing technology was effective for guns; and mechanical engineering is the same discipline of materials, statics and mechanics for a gun designer that it is for a guy designing a valve train or power-steering mechanism.
By the time the 11th Edition of Small Arms of the World, from which a number of these facts and photos are taken, was published in 1977, the defense branch of Philco had taken on the more dignified name, Ford Aerospace & Communication Corporation.
There’s very little information about the Philco entry available, especially online; and at the end of the first phase, DT/OT1, in December, 1974, both its gun, the XM234, and Maremont’s weren’t what Army evaluators were interested in. But they really liked the Army’s entry, the XM235:
The XM235 had been developed by a dedicated team at Rodman, led by Curtis D. Johnson and including at least 7 more dedicated engineers, who all signed on to the patent US # 3,999,461 on the gun (USPTO link) (Google Patents link).
General Arrangement from Patent 399,461 is unmistakably the XM235.
One of the controls also fared well at the tests: the FN Minimi was as reliable as the best of the 6mm guns, and more so than the H&K. It used then-special FN ammo (SS109) which didn’t interchange with the riflemen’s 1:12 M16s. Nobody liked the HB M16 as a SAW.
At this point, the Army dropped the idea of the 6mm round. It not only complicated Army logistics to have a third entire caliber, but it would be hard to sell to NATO, where American allies had already had two Yankee cartridges rammed down their throats. So the SAW was going to be 5.56mm. How were they going to get the 5.56 to perform “beyond 800m” as the spec had said? They weren’t. So the new spec was “up to 800m.”
This set the Army up for the next round of testing, but they needed someone to produce the XM235. The prototype that so impressed everyone at DT/OT1 was handbuilt, and the Rodman guys weren’t manufacturing or production engineers. The answer seemed obvious: let Maremont and Philco, uh, Ford Aerospace, bid on producing the the XM235. Ford won the bid, and engineers being engineers, began improving the design even as they committed to building a couple of dozen prototypes in 5.56 for testing. The 5.56 quasi-production variant of the XM235 was the XM248.
Let’s take a look at the XM235 technically and see why it was so admired at the time. We’ll push back Ford’s many changes that produced the XM248 till tomorrow. (This post is already 1500 words long!)
The Rodman engineers began with a clean slate and the understanding that, other things being equal, automatic weapons firing bursts had always been less accurate than rifles firing single aimed shots. This wasn’t invariably a bad thing, as it allowed for the natural dispersion of a burst to “correct” in a way for a gunner’s aiming error, but it was terribly wasteful of ammunition.
Engineers being engineers, they asked why the automatic guns were less accurate, and they concluded that several things degraded the accuracy of automatic weapons:
Parts of the mechanism were moving whilst bullets were still in the barrel.
Whether operated by recoil or gas, the operating mechanism reflected excess energy back into the weapon, what the developers called “high restitution” from rebounding parts.
Extant light machinegun designs had overly high rates of fire (650 to 1000 rpm).
Peak recoil was high (500-1200 foot/pounds – 2,200-5,300 N).
Those items, taken together, degraded accuracy. So the characteristics sought in the 235 design were:
A long motion of recoiling parts.
A soft cycle without the hammering of buffers on stops often seen in LMGs.
Rate of fire reduced to 500 rpm, little more than half that of an M16A1 with M193 ammo loaded with WC846 powder.
Reduced recoil impulse (to 200 lb-ft) and reduced recoil effects on muzzle movement by careful placement and design of stock and grips, gas system, and so forth.
A change in belt handling to reduce the stop-and-go motion of the belt
Placing parts that induced motion inimical to accuracy (the belt feed, for instance) close to the weapon’s center of gravity, to reduce the moments these parts induced for a given force.
In addition, the engineers wanted to design a weapon with world-class reliability and maintainability. They wanted it to be made up of field replaceable modules, and readily field-stripped in 10 seconds. They wanted to reduce the parts count relative to the M60 (they cut the parts count by 40%).
The receiver was extremely unconventional. What looks like the receiver in pictures is a sheet metal cover with no structural function. The fore-end likewise is a simple stamped cover. The actual receiver comprises two long tubes, a forward end cap that joins the tubes to the barrel, and an aft end cap that contains a sophisticated hydraulic buffer. The bolt carrier rides between the tubes, and connects to upper and lower pistons and springs, which ride inside the receiver tubes (which do double duty as gas tubes). The bolt carrier also contains, of course, the bolt, which has three lugs like an AK bolt, dual extractors and a plunger ejector.
The bolt carrier also drives, in its long travels, a rotating cam tube that turns a feed sprocket that lifts the feed belt with rotary action. There is no reversing or reciprocating motion orthogonal to the direction of fire — unlike the classic MG34/MG42-inspired feed tray cover, or that of the Browning or Maxim for that matter.
A spring-loaded firing pin rode in the bolt, and the fire control and related switchgear were contained in the pistol grip. In order to hang the belt container exactly on the center of gravity, the pistol grip was also hung on the center of gravity front-to-rear but offset to the right. Several effects came packed with this: moments of any operator input on the pistol grip were reduced, because it was at an arm of nearly zero, increasing accuracy; the weapon gave the gunner unprecedented control; and the weapon required right-handed operation. The Army liked the former two, but were keenly aware that about 10% of troops are left-handed. The weapon also required left-handed operation because it was, in effect, a bullpup design. Previous Army skittishness about bullpup safety may have been reduced by measures taken to prevent an out-of-battery firing, and the bolt’s location within the heavy carrier and the solid sheet-metal receiver cover.
Ford Aerospace had the order to produce 18 production-ready XM248s, which were to be the XM235 in 5..56 (instead of the abandoned 6.0×45) with a few improvements. (In the end, they’d make two versions). The improved XM235 was the XM248. Then, post-Vietnam budget cuts savaged the SAW program. The money was there to make the XM248s, but not to test them. The XM235 had been set to compete against the Minimi — if the Minimi could be lightened enough to meet spec — and a couple of USMC-sponsored heavy-barrel M16s (again). That is, in fact, where the 1977 11th Edition of Small Arms of the World left the competition: uncertain, and potentially cancelled entirely. The budget for the competition had been cut so much that the Army had no money for testing the 18 5.56mm XM248s that Ford delivered under their contract, or anything else. IF FN was going to lighten the Minimi, they’d have to do it on their own — contract money wasn’t forthcoming. H&K was fuming on the sidelines, believing their HK23 had been unfairly DQ’d. And Army squads still had, by MTOE, an “automatic rifleman” whose only concession to firepower was a tinny little bipod for his M16A1; alternatively, they could carry a heavy M60 and its heavy ammunition along.
Tune in tomorrow as the XM235 emerges from its Ford chrysalis as the XM248 — and becomes the most advanced light machine gun the US Army ever rejected.