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“By the time the last combat forces had been withdrawn from Vietnam, the 5.56mm, M16A1 rifle manufactured by the Colt Forearms Division, Colt Industries, had emerged as the standard US infantry arm.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