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Annie, Get Which Gun?

The M-16 versus AK-47 debate rages on. Experts step in to set the record straight.

11:01 PM, Dec 13, 2001 • By BO CRADER
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MY RECENT ARTICLE comparing the AK-47 to the M-16 has elicited a substantial number of personal anecdotes, expert opinions, and gun-nut testimonials. Readers seem split when it comes to which assault rifle they prefer. One Vietnam vet suggests he's been spoiled by the M-16 and finds the AK-47 "unpleasantly sloppy to shoot," while an Army captain says the "M-16 is the biggest piece of junk ever foisted on the American soldier." One 26-year military policeman would "rather carry a good AK-47 than an M-16 any day of the week," while an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel writes that he would "take the M-16, hands down."

So, which is the superior infantry rifle? I've sorted through reader mail, read countless government reports, and traded war stories with a couple of old grunts in an attempt to clear up some disputes and answer the question once and for all.

One writer, an Army attorney and critic of the M-16, argues that only Annie Oakley could engage targets at 500 yards with an M-16. Not quite: Marine recruits at Parris Island train with the M-16 by firing on human-sized targets at 500 yards. The range advantage afforded by the M-16 is ideal for troops on the defensive with large, open killing zones. "In the mountains and the sparse open terrain that covers much of Afghanistan," writes Terry Gander in the upcoming edition of Jane's Infantry Weapons, "extended effective ranges are almost certain to be demonstrated as more important" than any other consideration.

At the same time, Frank Hanner, director of the National Infantry Museum at Fort Benning, Georgia, suggests the value of the M-16's half-kilometer range might be overrated. "Most combat generally takes place between 100 and 400 meters," Hanner reports. "Unless you're in the mountains," he suggests, "the M-16's additional range doesn't pay off."

Other writers took issue with the M-16's stopping power, many citing an episode in Mark Bowden's "Black Hawk Down" as evidence that the M-16 is, in fact, a pea-shooter. "Black Hawk Down" recounts the story of American troops in Somalia in 1993 surrounded by a numerically-superior force of AK-47-wielding guerrillas. Sergeant First Class Paul Howe, armed with the CAR-15, a 5.56mm infantry rifle similar to the M-16, notes that a number of Somalis, after being hit center mass, simply got back up to continue fighting. "It was like sticking somebody with an ice pick," Howe said. "The bullet made a small, clean hole, and unless it happened to hit the heart or spine, it wasn't enough to stop a man in his tracks."

This nightmarish situation--hitting the enemy dead center only to have him get back up--is explained largely by Howe's ammunition, according to William Atwater, director of the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum and a technical adviser to Bowden on "Black Hawk Down." The ammunition used by Howe has a "green-tipped tungsten carbide penetrator," Atwater explains. These specialized rounds are "heavier than normal rounds, much more stable, and designed for penetrating steel helmets or going through flak jackets at 500 yards." Alan Killinger, a museum specialist also at the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum, elaborates in grim detail: Standard M-16 ammunition "enters the body and stands up, turns on its side, rips through flesh and organs," and tears a gaping exit wound. Green-tipped rounds, because they have a more stable flight, generally won't tumble inside the body at distances of less than 300 yards.

Even with the green-tipped rounds, Atwater argues the stopping power of the M-16 should be more than adequate. "Many of the Somalis were hopped up on drugs" and didn't immediately succumb to their wounds, Atwater continues. "But they eventually went down--we're talking about getting up and taking a couple steps--before they died from internal bleeding."

Another common complaint about the M-16 is its reliability. A reader "who's had to hump everything from the M-16 to the M-203 to the M-60" notes the weapon's "low reliability" and says that "the advantages of an M-16 are moot if it stops firing because it's dusty or muddy." Another soldier calls the M-16 "a finicky weapon [that] hates the dirt and must be treated with care." Quite true. The small tolerances that give the M-16 its range, accuracy, low recoil, and handy ergonomics also tend to clog with dirt and mud. Referring to the M-16's notorious reliability problems in Vietnam, Atwater explains that "the M-16 was deployed without proper testing. Troops were given low-grade ammunition [that] fouled the chamber and firing mechanism." Moreover, the M-16 was "rumored to be self-cleaning . . . troops didn't have cleaning gear or proper instruction in maintenance."