The Last Big Lie of the Vietnam War
Maj. Anthony F. Milavic, USMC (Ret.)
From: [email protected]
Date: Sat, 12 Oct 2002 13:44:04 EDT
At a Vietnam Special Forces base during 1964, I watched a U. S. soldierfire 15 rounds of .223 caliber ammunition into a tethered goat from anAR-15 rifle; moments after the last round hit, the goat fell over. Looking at the dead goat, I saw many little bullet entry-holes on one side; and when we turned him over, I saw many little bullet exit-holes on the other side. Over time, those observations were confirmed and reconfirmed revealing that the stories we were told on the lethality of the .223 caliber cartridge were fabrications. Those false reports drove the adoption of the .223 caliber cartridge as the 5.56mm NATO cartridge and, ever since, Americans have been sent to war with a cartridge deficient in combat
The book Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden, illuminates that deficiency and the lethality necessary for warriors in combat. The author describes a soldier by the name of Sgt. Randall Shuhart who elected to carry the 7.62mm M-14 into the urban battlefield of Somalia in 1993 rather than the 5.56mm
CAR-15 (M-16-variant). With the wisdom of a combat veteran, this warrior tells us what level of bullet lethality a soldier needs in combat -- one-round knockdown power:
"His rifle may have been heavier and comparatively awkward and delivered a mean recoil, but it damn sure knocked a man down with one bullet, and in combat, one shot was all you got. You shoot a guy, you want to see him go down; you don't want to be guessing for the next five hours whether you hit him, or whether he's still waiting for you in the weeds."\1
How did we get from military cartridges with proven one-round knockdown power such as the 30-06 and 7.62mm to the 5.56mm? The journey started with the term "tumbling." This term "tumbling" has been associated with the .223/5.56mm cartridge since early in its marketing as a potential military cartridge and continues to be used by many to this day. The very word, tumbling, prompts images of a bullet traveling end over end through the human body in 360-degree loops: In reality, it does not. Dr. Martin L. Fackler, Col., USA (Ret.) served as a surgeon in Vietnam during 1968 and, subsequently, pursued the research of terminal ballistics by observing the effects of bullets fired into blocks of ballistic gelatin. In "Wounding patterns for military rifle bullets," he reports that "all" non-deforming pointed bullets "yaw" 180 degrees shortly after penetrating flesh, then continue on to exit base-forward; i.e., heaviest end forward. The .223/5.56mm full metal jacket projectile acts in the same manner with a very precise exception. If this round impacts flesh at 2,700 feet per second or more, it will "yaw" to 90-degrees, and then fragment at its weakened serrated band (cannelure) into two or more pieces. These fragments traveling in different directions cause an internal wound cavity.
Conversely, should these projectiles impact bone or the flesh of appendages, they will probably yaw less due to the shorter distance traveled through flesh. The term "tumble" was apparently derived from this yaw action and, as suggested by the following, was chosen in lieu of the word yaw because it would "sell" better.\2
The book, The Black Rifle, M16 Retrospective by Edward C. Ezell and R. Blake Stevens, " . . . is, so far as [the authors] could make it so, the truth about the controversial 5.56mm caliber AR-15 (M16) -- what it is, what it is not, where it came from, and why." Edward C. Ezell, Ph.D., now
deceased, was the Curator/Supervisor of the Division of Armed Forces History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC and the editor of perhaps the world's most famous gun book, Small Arms of the World. The book contains one of the earliest characterizations that the .223 tumbled in a brochure produced by Colt's
Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company, Inc. The caption, written by the book's authors, reads: "From the first Colt AR-15 brochure, produced in a desperate attempt to interest somebody â " anybody - in the merits of the AR-15's 'unmatched superiority.'" In one of the three internal brochure illustrations is text reading, in part, "On impact the tumbling action of the .223 caliber ammunition increases effectiveness."\3
In 1961, Colt's did get somebody's attention. The Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) of the Department of Defense (DoD) was enjoined by the Kennedy administration to explore how the United States could support a foreign ally in a "limited" war. In the spring of 1961, ARPA's Project AGILE was implemented to supply "research and engineering support for the military and paramilitary forces engaged in or threatened by conflict in remote areas of the world." In October of 1961, ARPA provided ten Colt's AR-15's to Vietnamese Forces in Saigon to conduct a limited test. The Black Rifle remarks of this test, "The number of rifles might have been small, but the enthusiastic reaction of the Vietnamese and their American advisors alike who handled and fired the AR-15s was just as [Colt's marketing agent]
had predicted." Armed with these positive results, ARPA succeeded in expanding the Project AGILE study by procuring 1,000 AR-15s for distribution among select Vietnamese units for field-testing. Ezell & Stevens write that this approval resulted in " ...saving Colt's from almost sure financial disaster and also setting the stage for the most influential yet controversial document so far in the history of the already
The purpose of this test, as set forth in, ARPA, "Report of Task 13A, Test of ArmaLite Rifle, AR-15," dated 31 July 1962, was " ... a comparison between the AR-15 and the M2 Carbine to determine which is a more suitable replacement for shoulder weapons in selected units of the Republic of
Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF)." The Project AGILE results were summed up, in part, by ARPA as follows: "The suitability of the AR-15 as the basic shoulder weapon for the Vietnamese has been established. For the type of conflict now occurring in Vietnam, the weapon was also found by its users and by MAAG advisors to be superior in virtually all respects to the M1 Rifle, M1 and M2 Carbines, Thompson Sub-Machine Gun, and Browning Automatic Rifle." NOTE: This study and its recommendations concerned the suitability
of the AR-15 for Vietnamese soldiers, who were described by the testers to be of "small stature, body configuration and light weight," NOT larger stature United States soldiers.\5
In any case, the report was widely read and some of its components came under serious question, especially those describing the demonstrated lethality of the .223 caliber cartridge. The following are three such examples from the Project AGILE report:
Example 1. "On 160900 June, one platoon from the 340 Ranger Company was on a ground operation... and contacted 3 armed VC in heavily forested jungle.... At a distance of approximately 15 meters, one Ranger fired an AR-15 full automatic hitting one VC with 3 rounds with the first burst. One round in the head took it completely off. Another in the right arm, took it completely off. One round hit him in the right side, causing a hole about 5 inches in diameter...." (Rangers)
Example 2. "On 9 June a Ranger Platoon from the 40th Infantry Regt. Was given the mission of ambushing an estimated VC Company.... a. Number of VC killed: 5 [Descriptions of the one-round killing wounds follow.]
1. Back wound, which caused the thoracic cavity to explode.
2. Stomach wound, which caused the abdominal cavity to explode.
3. Buttock wound, which destroyed all tissue of both buttocks.
4. Chest wound from right to left; destroyed the thoracic cavity.
5. Heel wound; the projectile entered the bottom of the right foot causing the leg to split from the foot to the hip.
These deaths were inflicted by the AR-15 and all were
instantaneous except the buttock wound. He lived approximately five minutes. (7th Infantry Division)"
Example 3. "On 13 April, a Special Forces team made a raid on a small village. In the raid, seven VC were killed. Two were killed by AR-15 fire. Range was 50 meters. One man was hit in the head; it looked like it exploded. A second man was hit in the chest, his back was one big hole. (VN Special Forces)"\6
These "field-reports" are incredulous on their face and some in DoD requested that their explosive results be duplicated scientifically. The Army Wound Ballistics Laboratory at Edgewood Arsenal attempted to do just that. Using .223 Remington ammunition provided by Colt's representative,
they conducted their "standard lethality trials that consisted of measuring the cavitational and other effects of firing at known distances into blocks of ballistic gelatin, and where necessary, anaesthetized goats."
They failed to duplicate the explosive effects reported by Project AGILE.
In November 1962, the Army initiated "Worldwide" tactical and technical tests of the AR-15 using U. S. soldiers. Edgewood was tasked to perform further lethality tests using modified .223 caliber ammunition. Ezell and Stevens describe the modifications: "They had modified some 55-grain .223
ball bullets of Remington manufacture by cutting approximately 1/4 inch off the nose and drilling a 3/32-inch-diameter hole about 1/4 inch deep into the lead core of each bullet." The results? The authors continue, "As it turned out, even the hollow-points failed to duplicate anything like the
spectacular effects recorded by the Vietnamese unit commanders and their American advisors, which had subsequently been taken as fact and much used as propaganda."\7
The .223 caliber cartridge was morphed into the 5.56mm NATO cartridge and adopted for the United States Service Rifle M-16 (formerly, AR-15). How could such propaganda have convinced the Department of Defense to adopt the
.223 caliber cartridge? "All this was inspired by the principle -- which is quite true in itself -- that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously
or voluntarily, and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods." Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf \8
As is usually the case, that error in judgment was to affect those at the "pointy end of the spear" and not the **************. Those warriors reported enemy soldiers continuing to close and fire their weapons after sustaining multiple hits by 5.56mm bullets. This was reported as early as 9
December 1965 in the official After Action Report of the Ia Drang Valley battle popularized by the movie and book We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young. The commanding officer of the battalion engaged there, Col. Harold G. Moore, USA, writes of assaulting enemy soldiers being hit by 5.56mm
rounds: "Even after being hit several times in the chest, many continued firing and moving for several more steps before dropping dead."\9 Later in that war, a similar experience is voiced by Col. John Hayworth, USA (Ret.):
"In one fire-fight, I saw my RTO place three rounds [of 5.56 mm] in the chest of a charging NVA regular at 50 yards. He kept firing his AK and never slowed down. At 30 yards, I hit him with a blast of double ought buck. It picked him up off his feet and he didn't get up again."\10
In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the DoD increased the weight of the 55 grain bullet (M193) to 62 grains and increased its length to accommodate a steel "penetrator." These changes resulted in a new 5.56mm round with the
In 1991, the Pentagon sent its warriors to the Gulf War with this new cartridge. Maj. Howard Feldmeier, USMC (Ret.) was there: " ... several Marines commented that they had to shoot Iraqi soldiers 2-3 or more times with the 62 grain 5.56mm green tip ammo before they stopped firing back at
them...." That report is exemplified by one of an Iraqi officer who was thrown from his vehicle and set afire by an explosion: "Somehow he managed to hold on to his AK-47. He also got up, still on fire, faced the firing line of Marines and charged forward firing his weapon from the hip. He didn't hit anyone but two Marines each nailed him with a three round burst from their M-16A2s. One burst hit him immediately above his heart, the other in his belly button. [He} ... kept right on charging and firing until his magazine was empty. When he got up to the Marines two of them tackled him and rolled him in the sand to put out the fire... He was quickly
carried back to the battalion aid station.... The surgeons told me he certainly died of burns, but not necessarily from the six 5.56mm wounds...."\11
In spite of the above "lesson learned," the DoD dispatched its warriors to combat in Somalia in 1993 with the same flawed "green tip" cartridge as testified in Mark Bowden's book Black Hawk Down: "His weapon was the most sophisticated infantry rifle in the world, a customized CAR-15, and he was
shooting the army's new 5.56mm green tip round. The green tip had a tungsten carbide penetrator at the tip, and would punch holes in metal, but that very penetrating power meant that his rounds were passing right through his targets.... 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. Howe felt he had to hit a guy five or six times just to get his attention."
The Pentagon remained unmoved by that experience of its warriors and continues to send them to war underpowered. On 4 April 2002, I received an e-mail from a trooper in Afghanistan who appeals, in part: "The current-issue 62gr 5.56mm (223) round, especially when fired from the
short-barreled, M-4 carbine, is proving itself (once again) to be woefully inadequate as [a] man stopper. Engagements at all ranges are requiring multiple, solid hits to permanently bring down enemy soldiers. Penetration is also sadly deficient. Even light barriers are not perforated by this rifle/cartridge combination."\12
These reports are consistent with my own experience during three tours of duty in Vietnam from the goat incident in 1964 to service with the 3rd Marine Division in 1968-69; experience that repeatedly reminded me that this 5.56mm cartridge was nothing more than the full metal jacket military version of the commercial .223 Remington cartridge. The .223 Remington was
and is today commercially advertised and sold as a "varmint" cartridge for hunting groundhogs, prairie dogs and woodchucks. The cartridge is offered with soft point, hollow point, fragmentation, or projectiles incorporating two or more of these attributes to enhance its lethality and assure a
"clean kill" on varmints: one-round knockdown power.\13 States such as the Commonwealth of Virginia do not permit it to be used for hunting deer or bear because its lethality -- with or without those enhancements -- does not assure a "clean kill" on big game.\14 Yet, its full metal jacket
military counterpart continues to be issued to American warriors for the purpose of knocking down an enemy soldier and causing him to stop shooting. As evidenced above, this varmint cartridge fails to do that even with multiple hits.
In desperation, some troopers in Afghanistan are using the commercial .223 Remington 77-grain Sierra MatchKing hollow point bullet loaded by Black Hills Ammunition. Ironically, even this extreme effort has not fixed the problem: "Its performance on enemy soldiers is not much better, but it does
penetrate barriers. We're fighting fanatics here, and they don't find wimpy ammunition particularly impressive!" cries a voice from Afghanistan.\15
A rifle that entered testing for issuance to Vietnamese soldiers was adopted for the warriors of the United States. A bullet that was advertised to tumble, but did not, was accepted as the standard cartridge for that rifle. And, Americans were sent into battle with this cartridge based on
reports that it would: blow the head off a soldier with one round; blow the arm off a soldier with one round; kill a soldier with a one-round hit in either the stomach, back, chest, buttock or heel of the foot! From the Ia Drang Valley of Vietnam to the mountains of Afghanistan, our soldiers and Marines only found that enemy soldiers continued to advance firing their weapons after being hit by multiple 5.56mm bullets! From 55-grain (M193) to 62-grain (M855) to 77-grain (Sierra MatchKing), these changes in the weight and composition of the 5.56mm/.223 Remington bullet have failed to increase
lethality to that needed in combat: one-round knockdown power. The lethality of this cartridge, sold on lies, cannot be fixed in truth. It is time the Department of Defense recognizes this last remaining Big Lie from the Vietnam War and in the name of Honesty, or Transformation, or Combat Effectiveness replaces this varmint cartridge with one that gives our
warriors one-round knockdown power on an enemy soldier!