Earlier this fall, David E. Petzal shared his interview with C.J. Chivers–author of The Gun and a Pulitzer-prize winning correspondent for The New York Times–on The Gun Nuts. Chivers then offered to answer questions from readers. Many of you were quick to respond with questions, and Chivers was just as quick to send his answers. Regrettably, we’ve been the ones who were slow to publish the dialogue. Until now. Please enjoy Chivers’s candid and thoughtful responses below.
The Best Military Rifle-Cartridge Combo?
In regards to caliber choice, has it ever been seriously considered to do an “upgrade” to a cartridge that carries a bit farther than the 5.56 but could still utilize the M-16 or M-4 platform in a reasonably unaltered state? I’m thinking some of the 6mm to 6.8mm variants out there that have been adapted to the AR, such as the 6×45. –Amflyer
Many of you have asked for a recommendation or an opinion on one cartridge or rifle choice or another for a general-issue military rifle for American service. Let me answer all of you at once. My ambition is not to champion a particular product, or even a particular caliber. My state of knowledge is not high enough to do that, even after years of study and thinking through the many compromises and potential pitfalls that accompany military rifle selection. And you know what? There is a reason that even someone who does his homework faces limits in trying to give a clear answer. The reason is this: an enduring culture of military secrecy in the United States.
So let’s talk about that. Here’s a bit of background. Many important studies of the questions asked here have been done by the Army and the Marines. And only small chunks and summaries of the information have been made publicly available. In recent years, complaints from the field have been collected by the people who test and select rifles for military service, and many tests have been held into relative lethality of existing cartridge-rifle combinations, and of the performance of many different rifles. There have also been tests of proposed new calibers. But these tests have not been made public in a complete sense. It’s not necessarily because the people involved are bad people. Not at all. Many of the people I have come to know in the ordnance community are smart, conscientious, and far more knowledgeable in the subjects of their work than I will ever be. But the institutional habit is to classify information as “Secret” or “Confidential” or “For Official Use Only,” and thereby restrict its circulation.
This leads to my answer. If I had a say in any of this, I would propose that the existing studies be rushed into wider hands, for public consumption, and for informed reflection and debate. And I would propose further studies to examine any research gaps. Then, perhaps, through transparency and deliberation, the United States might be able to make an informed choice about the best caliber and bullet composition for general military issue worldwide. The next stop, once the round was selected, would be to select a rifle to fire it–a reasonably compact, highly-ergonomic, eminently reliable middleweight or lightweight arm that could do all of the things the grunts would like a rifle to do. Instead, we have a habit that feels like a game–unintentional perhaps, but real –of keep-away. And we have several weapons and cartridges out there that troops do not like, and we have many troops who are highly suspicious of the people who provide them their arms.
Any of you are welcome to disagree with me, and I mean no insult to good people I have met in ordnance circles. I also am not an absolutist, and understand the need for certain types of secrets to be kept. But we’re talking about rifles and cartridges here, not the technical characteristics of heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles or the countermeasures to defeat them, and a lot of the secrecy that surrounds American rifle tests seems reflexive, habitual, or designed to prevent government employees from answering public questions, rather than to safeguard life, property, or national security. And we know this: One of the great lessons of the disastrous introduction to combat service of the early M-16 in Vietnam was that secrecy aided cover-up. It served to hide the self-evident flaws in the rifle’s selection and development cycles, and it ultimately endangered troops and undermined the war. To the extent that the ordnance community of today can open its books, in the long term (as opposed to the short-term interest of protecting the brass’s hides, or containing public knowledge of troops’ complaints) the men and women on the ground would be well-served. And I might be able to answer these questions with a specific choice. Thank you for these questions.
What a Long Range Trip It’s Been…**
What would your own view be on the 7.62? I felt that rather than just complain about the M-14, there could have been a request to rebuild the rifle and keep a decent round. Was not the Stoner such a rifle? And now they are making AR-style .308s with little recoil._ –Jeff4066
Yes. Regarding the .308 AR-style rifle with little recoil and M-14s, (both of which are in active use in the current desert wars), I would say this: These rifles have proven to be reliable, popular, and, in the eyes and experiences of many troops, quite effective in the arid environments of Afghanistan and Iraq. But they still have a weight penalty associated with both the rifles themselves and the ammunition load. Everything is a compromise. And many American infantry platoons and squads now have so-called designated marksmen with these longer-range weapons and updated optics. This seems both smart and an important adjustment to the shortfalls of the assault-rifle age, and a conceptual mimic of the Soviet use of Dragunov-carrying “snipers” to complement the larger AK-toting force. One wonders why it took so long to happen.
AKs Around the World**
Could you talk a little bit about what sorts of AKs (and variants, I suppose) are available where? I don’t really shoot that sort of gun, but I’ve always been curious. I heard a bit of an interview of yours on NPR where you discussed some of the very old, original AKs making it to the Afghan battlefield. What makes up the majority of the stock there? Does it vary by affiliation or by region? What about the clones we have here in the States. Obviously, they’re not the selective-fire Soviet arms, but what do we get? And how about random hellholes like the Sudan? As an American with a very limited understanding of how guns move around the third world, could you elaborate a bit?_ –Teodoro
I can’t give a particularly informed answer about the AK-variants most common in the United States; it has not been the focus of my study. But certainly many Gun Nut readers can weigh in with first-hand knowledge. (I would add only that I understand that the Arsenal variants, assembled in Las Vegas, are made from original Soviet-era drawings and a degree of collaboration with Bulgarian and Russian factories that once made the Cold War-era items. I would venture that these variants are well-represented among American owners.) As for overseas, in conflict zones, each war can have its own assortment. At present in Afghanistan, most of the Taliban AKs I have seen are old Chinese and Russian stock, including the solid-steel milled receiver variants and early original AKMs and the reverse-engineered Chinese copy. The Afghan police have been issued about 75,000 Hungarian AMD-65s, which is a poor choice but in wide use. (The AMD-65 might be the most commonly seen weapon in Kabul, where the police presence on the street is high.) The police also often have older Russian, Romanian, and Bulgarian AKs. The Afghan National Army has carried a mish-mash of original Soviet AKs from the plant in Izhevsk along with all of the variants above. (The Pentagon is distributing M-16s to Afghan soldiers now, so the AKs are gradually disappearing from Afghan soldiers’ hands.) A lot contractors in Afghanistan, where private security is a huge urban industry, carry older Russian AKs. But the bigger mix is in view every day.
The Great Debate Goes On. And On…**
You were allowed to graduate with a degree from Cornell being in ROTC? Incredible. Being in Officer Corps in ’70s and ’80s there was present a big, savage debate within the Officer Corps between leadership and management. For example: “A conflict is managed, but troops are led, not managed, to their deaths.” Or: “Staff is there to support, not to be supported.” How did this debate fare in the end, or is it the debate still active?_ –Mark-1
The debate continues. It probably always will. I am fortunate in that I am allowed to focus my work and my inquiry on the ground-level experience of wars. I do not have to spend much time in anyone’s capital.
Another Must-Read Book For Gun Nuts**
Your book is currently on my “books I want to read” list. I would like your opinion on another book, if possible. Have you ever read American Rifle: A Biography by Alexander Rose, and, if so, how accurate would you consider it to be?_ –LoganAdams
I read portions of American Rifle in a compressed and busy period, and intend to get back to it. Two thoughts. First thought: There are many days that I wish I could write as gracefully as Alexander Rose writes. He makes a very difficult craft look easy. Second thought: There are too few writers trying to write comprehensive and apolitical surveys of firearms and their histories. I support anyone who endeavors to try. And so I recommend his book.
The Ammo Status Quo**
Since the U.S. led the way in the adoption of 7.62×51 NATO and later 5.56×45 NATO, should it not lead the way again in revising the standard? Why are the top brass reluctant to move away from 9mm and 5.56? –O Garcia
One problem is that any change, in theory, requires the consensus of NATO. But history suggests that this obstacle might be more theoretical than practical, because when the U.S. favored certain choices in past cycles of standard cartridge selection, it forced its picks (the 7.62x51mm and the 5.56x45mm rounds) on NATO. And expected the alliance to follow suit. And the alliance did. But right now what the troops have is what the troops have, and the discussion of a caliber switch that were heard a few years ago have mostly fizzled. Remember, as a British officer once said, “The status quo needs no advocate.”
The Right Gun For the Right Job
_I like the majority of the good questions tossed to you, and would gladly read your responses, but isn’t the real question one of gear? Which works best in the end: a 110-grain bullet or a chocolate bar and some friendships with the locals? Shall we get sharper swords or better overall tactics? The Soviets seemed to fall to a determined Afghan, often armed with an old Brit MkIII, and a fierce disposition for a feud.
I am for giving our troops the best, and am an old .45 1911 believer. I have carried the .45 and .38 in harm’s way, but always felt better with the bigger bullet–and some intelligence._ –blueridge
Your observations about tactics are spot-on. I agree with you–any rifle-cartridge combination, or pistol-cartridge combination, is one part of something much larger. Tactics and so-called soft-power are essential ingredients in how many wars turn out. But for all of the moments when soft-power and engagement are not working, and the contest turns violent, then the firearm-cartridge selection in troops’ hands does matter. It matters, in fact, very much. One saying that has been in vogue in recent years is that “You can’t eat soup with a knife.” It’s meant to caution the military that weapons and violence might not be the best tools in many situations, and might be counter-productive. All of that is true enough, and it’s a useful reminder that the military should apply a broad counterinsurgency doctrine to its work in Afghanistan and Iraq. But I’d add a companion thought. This: “You can’t stop an attacking gunman with a spoon.” It’s not a pretty or a fashionable right now to say that. But so what. There are moments in these wars, many moments, when weapons have to be matched to the job they were intended to do. And troops should have confidence that what they have been issued will be up this awful but fundamental task.
The Problem With Pistols During War
Thank you Mr. Chivers! There is virtually no military and naval knowledge in today’s “lame stream” media. My only question is would the M9 Beretta still be disliked by the troops if they were using good jacketed hollow point bullets that expanded, versus the standard full metal jacket ammo?_ –idahoguy101
In almost all circumstances, the military follows the now well-established international convention of issuing fully jacketed rounds to conventional troops. I imagine that the troops would be more satisfied if their magazines carried hollow points; gunfighters like advantages. But it’s not likely to happen at any large scale. And in any event it won’t solve the core problem, which is this: Almost no one on the battlefield ever gets shot by pistol rounds. Period. Pistols are simply not significant factors in conventional warfighting. That said, it makes a reasonable amount of sense for a well-selected pistol to be included in the kits and training of aircrews and others who might need a simple and very portable weapon in extremis, but travel in extraordinarily tight confines. So pistol selection is worth getting right. Back to my first answer, about rifle and rifle-cartridge selection: Let’s see the old government tests, and prod the Pentagon to hold comprehensive tests to fill in any gaps, and make the results transparent. Then let’s have a decision. I don’t like making choices without the available facts, especially if I paid for the facts to be gathered, which in this case we all already did.
Another excellent roundup of questions. Thank you. This has been a terrific set of questions. Keep them coming. –C.J. Chivers