A major part of the saga of the AR-15 is the story of how the military version of the rifle, the M16, performed in Vietnam. After early rave reviews for the gun from Army officers and soldiers, the Pentagon drastically increased orders from Colt, the sole manufacturer of the rifle at the time. But a military technical committee made changes to the gun and to its ammunition without proper testing. The committee also allowed Colt to alter testing protocols to meet the massive demand for the new weapon as the war in Vietnam ramped up. The result was that many soldiers and Marines found themselves in jungle combat with a weapon that wouldn’t shoot. Lack of training and proper cleaning equipment also compounded problems.
In American Gun, we recount these terrifying situations, a congressional investigation that followed, and how no one at the Pentagon was ever held accountable for the disaster. Some Vietnam veterans dislike the M16 and the civilian semiautomatic AR-15 to this day because of what they experienced. The trauma has made its way into literature. The late, great writer Thom Jones (1945-2016), who trained as a Marine but didn’t serve in Vietnam, wrote about an M16 jamming in “The Pugilist At Rest,” the title short story in his masterful 1993 collection, which won a National Book Award.
In the story, the emotionally and physically damaged main character recounted a firefight in Vietnam in which his M16 jammed, but the jamming ironically ended up saving his life because enemy fighters didn't notice him in the confusion of battle. The experience left the main character with survivor’s guilt as he watched his friends die.
“When I next tried to shoot, the Tonka-toy son of a bitch remained jammed, and at last I frantically broke it down to find the source of the problem. I had a dirty bolt.….It was impossible for me to get my weapon clean. Lucky for me, ultimately.” (The Pugilist At Rest, pp. 15-16)