March 08, 2013
U.S. Military Arms: A Few Mistakes Here and There
By David E. Petzal
In writing my post on the M-14, I alluded to our less-than-sterling record of not always putting the best guns in the hands of our servicemen. This is not a base canard; it is a dismal fact.
Let us start with the War of Southern Miscalculation, when the Union’s issue weapon throughout the conflict was the Model 1861 Springfield Rifle Musket (above). It was a good weapon as muzzle-loaders go, but it had a sustained rate of fire of two rounds per minute (three in the hands of someone who was really good) while the cartridge-firing lever-action Spencer, which was available in the latter stages of the war, could deliver 20. Union Ordnance would have refused to issue the Spencer at all save for the direct intervention of A. Lincoln, who tried it and liked it. The Spencer rifle and carbine established an admirable record and might have shortened the conflict had they been in wider use.
In 1873, the Army adopted the Colt Model 1873 .45 revolver, probably the best sidearm available at the time, but then screwed the pooch by also adopting the powerful, hard-kicking, slow-firing, single-shot Springfield Model 1873 carbine and rifle. Plains Indians, many of whom were armed with lever-action Henrys, Spencers, and other fast-firing guns, thought this was a terrific idea.
In 1898 when we opted into the Spanish-American War, we were partly armed with same Model 1873s (above) that were already obsolete at the Little Big Horn, and the strange Krag-Jorgensen bolt-action (below). The Springfield was a relic, and the Krag was grossly inferior to the Mausers issued to Spanish troops. We also adopted the .38 Special revolver to replace the Model 1873 .45. When American soldiers in the Philippines, armed with .38s, ran into juramentados wrapped in vines and swinging bolo knives, the calls went out to get the Peacemakers out of storage.
In World War I, we fought the War to End All Wars with the Model 1911 Colt, the best military sidearm ever made, and the Model 1903 Springfield, a splendid rifle. However, the Browning Automatic Rifle, which was ready for the last year of the war, was largely withheld from the AEF out of fear that the Hun would capture and copy it. As a result, the doughboys were forced to use the French Chauchat, possibly the worst light machine gun ever made anywhere by anyone.
In World War II and Korea, we had better small arms (with the exception of the M-1 Carbine) than anyone else. This has never happened since.
We went into Vietnam with the already-obsolete M-14, which was quickly replaced by the M-16. However, the design and introduction of the M-16 (below) were so botched that it would take an entire book chapter to recount, and that has been done in Chris Chivers’ The Gun. No small number of American soldiers died because of this fiasco, and a number of necks should have stretched, but didn’t.
Iraq/Afghanistan. It depends who you ask. According to some accounts, the M-16 and M-4 have a terrible time in the dust and sand unless they’re kept immaculate, which is a tall order for a combat soldier. The 5.56mm round is criticized as being underpowered and lacking range for this AO. The M9 Beretta pistol is OK, but no better, and the 9mm round has no fans at all.
On the other hand, there has been a great deal of innovation, mostly with sniper weapons and sophisticated sights. High marks there. The re-introduction of the M-14, which cuts the mustard, makes a lot of sense. The song of Ma Deuce is heard a lot, which is bad news for the bad guys.
Are we getting better? Could be. There’s lots of room for improvement.