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Other Lessons from Viet Nam

This is your Captain speaking…

Reading Michael Yon’s dispatch from Iraq, (highly recommended), I saw that our forces seemed to have trouble killing the terrorists there with our small arms. We were using many shots to try to kill them where they had the advantage of using the larger bore bullets of the AK-47 inflicting serious wounds to our guys with a single shot. I wonder if our military has forgotten the lesson of the boxer rebellion in China, when we couldn’t kill the rebels with the S&W .38 pistols and we came up with the Colt .45 1911. Then when we shot them they went down and stayed dead.

Reminds me of an incident that happened to my squadron mates in Viet Nam. During a follow-up offensive in the spring of ’68, the VC managed to get into the flight line at Tuy Hua, one of our TDY bases in-country. They came in at night (this was before everyone had night vision goggles and the VC owned the night) and really made a mess of a number of our parked airplanes. One of the C-130’s that got shot up had a crew sitting under the wing eating whatever you eat at three in the morning waiting for your plane to get loaded. A VC armed with an AK-47 climbed up the stairs into the cockpit, sprayed it with .30 cal bullets and came back out of the plane, looking in the cargo compartment to see if there was anyone there he could kill. He completely missed the five terrified Americans sitting on the other side of the #1 engine. (Both the crew and their unwanted visitor were on the left side of the plane.) About this time there were some shots fired down the flight line, and the invader hurried off to join that fight, leaving the C-130 crew with a plane that had suprisingly little damage. He had shot the backs of a bunch of seats, all of which had armor plating protecting them, but hadn’t hit anything vital. The crew fired up the engines and got the heck out of there.

The point of the story is the fact that all five of the crewmembers were armed with a .38 pistol, but knowing that they were outgunned none of them decided to engage the VC. Let me tell you, combat infantrymen we were not. (In fact, I was surprised that they had their survival vests and pistols even on. I know I almost never had my vest on. I was worried that one of the hundreds of people who wandered on and off our planes would steal my vest and pistol, so our crew kept them under lock and key underneath the flight deck ladder.) Really, just would you expect them to do? If you shot from the #1 engine toward the plane you had a much greater chance of hitting the plane in some vital spot than the VC in any spot at all. All you had was a nice little revolver without night sights, not exactly the weapon you would choose to use to engage a combat experienced man with a large automatic rifle who had you outlined against the lights of the ramp if he saw you. Your best bet was to do exactly what they did: Freeze in place and hope he didn’t see you.

That whole story to complain about the modern BB guns our combat troops are using. I know the smaller ammo is lighter, but is it better to carry a bunch of bullets that need a bunch of hits to be effective, or a bit heavier bullet that does its job with one hit? We now have aimed fire with our 2000 lb bombs, why do we have our infantry use these little guns and just spray them around instead of using aimed fire on the ground?


2 Responses

  1. This arguement always stirs the pot. I’ve got a few things to add for consideration:
    1.I dont know if they are still actually using AK-47s, as thats an old but good weapon. More likely AKMs; same caliber, 7.62*39mm. Also, more likely the rebels are using AK-74s, which actually have a smaller bullet than our own. (5.45 mm) vs USA 5.56.
    Part of the problem may be that our rounds are FMJ and not something terribly leathal. Second problem: the M4 has a shorter barrel than the M16, which is matched better with the 5.56mm round. Too short a barrel means less accuracy, less speed (fps).
    My own experiences include my issued M16 jamming on me in the field, several times. But my personal, cheap, but tough, Russian auto rifle has NEVER let me down and rarely gets cleaned or oiled. The damn M16 needs a lot of oil, something not always possible in the field.
    I also dont agree with the DOD moving towards a computerized, over-complicated, expensive rifle of the same caliber. Too much computer crap to break in the field. Might be better suited to Special Forces, but not your average grunt.
    I agree completely with you on the .38. You would not see me going cowboy with some little snubnose popgun. Only good for 15′ or less, last resort type.
    Good post Captain.

  2. I’m really straining my memory here, but I believe the 5.56 caliber came about after studies of WWII engagements found that very few bullets actually found their mark and the use of ammunition was mainly to keep your enemy’s head down while your unit manuvered into a position to kill or escape.

    The idea of the M-16 was a light gun that kept heads down and the assumption that even a hit from a small bullet would effectively end your opponents fighting ability – which is ultimately the point in a modern cold war battlefield.

    Of course the big drawback is lack of stopping power which might be important if you’re being charged by a guy strapped with explosives.

    I tend to think that the M-16 and the small units strategy it supported was perfectly valid. The problem now is we have a very different enemy and very different missions that are more along the lines of policing than soldiering.

    We now get a question of logistics. Can we create a gun that can do it all? Or should we be issuing two sets of arms? Or even more interesting, maybe we should have multiple equipment billets to match missions. This would require a great deal more training for each soldier to master various armaments. Very plausible with special forces, possibly even with hard fighters like the Rangers and Marines. But difficult for general infantry and impossible with a drafted army.

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