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This is another set of recollections and personal opinions based on 16 years in the military and is also the result of another e-mail conversation. This was compiled from several different messages by different people so it may seem a little choppy.
When you consider that the average 'Snuffy' (infantryman) often carried 20 magazines, just in case, and the size and load bearing capacities of the Snuffies varied considerably, and that they used their weapons more on automatic than on single shot in fire-fights, it kind of makes sense. I also think that some of the lessons the Germans learned in WWII were starting to filter down and the fact that the Germans transitioned to weapons that were, in principle, similar to the modern infantry weapons led our military people to head towards weapons that might not be able to buck wind (although I can consistently hit a thigh up real-scale human silhouette 9/10 times at 500 meters with either an M-16A1 or M-16A3, no matter the wind) and brush. Brush-bucking was a big deal in Vietnam, and I think it was one of several reasons that fire-fights caused the expenditure of so much ammunition and the consequent number of magazines carried.
It may have all been caused by small unit leaders not having the necessary skills to maintain fire discipline. In all of the books I've read about Vietnam, even about some of the elite units there, most of the fire-fights were fought in 'rock and roll' mode. There are many stories of people lying behind trees and holding their M-16s overhead, pointed in the general direction of the 'bad guys' and firing until they ran out of ammunition (all magazines expended), or the weapon malfunctioned.
I would really be interested to know if the Commonwealth forces in Vietnam maintained fire discipline effectively. Military organizations with a European background would seem to me to be more conservative with their use of ammunition.
I think fire discipline was fairly good. We had the FN SLR, which is a 7.62mm full size rifle, heavy bloody thing. 20 (I think) round mag. It was a semi-auto, not full auto. So that makes the ammo heavy, being so, I doubt that troops had much of it so disciplined fire would have been a requirement.
It is such a big gun that I am unable to lie prone and fire it (I am too short in the upper arms for it). The mag touches the ground and the recoil going down through the mag throws the round so far off target that I may as well throw rocks.)
Late in the Vietnam era people decided that the 20 round 5.56 mm magazine for the M-16 wasn't capacious enough to provide a useful and consistent volume of fire. Those 20 round magazines had straight sides but were made mainly of aluminum, as opposed to the M-14 magazines which (all the ones I saw) were made of thin sheet steel. The M-16 magazine, even full, weighed significantly less than the 20 round M-14 magazine. The new M-16 magazine was made of aluminum, as usual, but it had a slight curve towards the muzzle of the rifle. It also held, theoretically, 30 rounds instead of 20. Unfortunately, there was at least one period of time when the people who made the magazine feed springs didn't check the heat treatment of those springs well enough. To this day, you can ask any US military person with a loaded M-16 how many rounds they have in their magazine, and, if they say "30" you will know that they are probably from a support unit rather than a combat unit.
Combat troops are taught that they should never load more than 28 rounds into the 30 round mags because, if they are left to sit for a while, the feed spring becomes too weak to push the last two rounds into the breech. This usually leads to a fatal (in a combat situation) malfunction.
I remember seeing a lot of pictures of the FN SLR, and it looked like it was quite long. The 20 round mag sounds right and I think that, for non-Communist forces, it was kind of a standard at the time. Didn't the South Africans, when there was such a thing, use the same weapon, or was it a local 'knock-off'?
Supposedly, the change from the M-14 to the M-16, which occurred for the US Army in the 60s and for the Marine Corps some time later, was because our troops, in situations where they were receiving fire, but could not identify individual opponents, would fire as fast as possible in the direction that the incoming fire was coming from, and hope for the best. At the time an M-14 magazine pouch held three 20-round magazines, and the magazines probably weighed more than two pounds apiece. Many of the special unit types actually used canteen pouches to carry magazines because they could hold 4 to 5 instead of three.
Eventually, the M-14A2 or A3 was released for use in the BAR role. This model had a selector switch that would allow full automatic mode, which we hadn't had in an internal squad weapon since the BAR. These weapons would go through a magazine in a few seconds when in auto mode. Consequently, it became necessary for every man in the unit to carry more magazines. By late 1967 the standard load, in some units, was 20 magazines per person (400 rounds in magazines), or approximately 25 kg of ammunition carried on the belt (supported by the 'H' harness), with additional ammunition (several hundred more rounds) in the ruck, along with food and whatever was needed to survive if they didn't get into combat. Basically, it was not possible to keep the troops mobile while they carried that much ammunition.
Isn't it odd that the Russians noticed early in WWII that, even in wide open spaces, they could survive, or prevail, in most combat situations using a 'light' round? I think that, before the AK-74, they used 7.62x39 while we used 7.62x51, and their main issue weapon was capable of full automatic fire. (I have no idea what ammunition caliber they used during WWII, but I think they used 7.62x39 as early as Korea in the SKS rifle. (SKSs are very popular as 'sporting' rifles here because they are cheap and nearly impossible to screw up.)
I think that the Kalashnikov was developed at a time when the German army used bolt action rifles. The Germans realized, as early as 1941, that the Kar98k was not exactly suitable to some of the current conditions, and the Schmeisser was not a suitable alternative. I think that, for the time and technology, the German assault weapons at the end of WWII were extremely good and would remain the standard for another decade. I don't remember the caliber, but it was probably 7.92 by something short.
The M-14 was a lovely weapon even though I had a very bad experience with one early in my military career.
It also kicked the hell out of me because
1. I didn't know what I was doing, (didn't listen to my instructors)
2. Believe it or not I only weighed 160 pounds at the time. (110 pounds ago)
3. The butt plate was made of checker patterned steel.
To get to the point, finally, if I ever had a problem with my magazine grounding (M-14), I probably would have dug a hole for it, but I honestly don't remember ever having to do that. The only place I ever fired an M-14 from, in the prone position, was at the range, and it was usually such a painful experience by itself that I probably didn't take any note of minor inconveniences.
We may have finally learned our lesson when the SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon) was introduced. It was only 5.56mm but used the heavier NATO projectile, and could feed from a box magazine under the weapon even when on the move. I only saw a few of these because the Marine Corps got them after I had moved to the Air Wing, but they looked like good weapons, and I didn't hear any complaints about them. The barrel may have been a little light for long bursts, but I imagine (hope) that they were fairly easy to change.
The importance of the SAW was that it could provide more than 30 rounds of automatic fire on demand without significantly increasing the weight of ammunition that a small unit would need to carry. One of the main reasons that we went from the M-14(7.62mm) to the M-16 (5.56mm) was the weight of ammunition that an individual had to carry in Vietnam. A 20 round magazine of 7.62 weighs significantly more than a 30 round magazine of 5.56.
I read the bit about the SAW with interst because I believe a lot of our infantry units who use the SA80 version called the LSW (light support weapon) are keeping hold of GPMGs because of range/weight of bullet/Rate of fire etc. I may be doing the MOD an injustice and it may well always have been the intention.
I never used the SA80 but did strip & assemble one. It doesnt balance well (notice the strange drill for carrying it on parade) and its possible to reassemble (or it was) the gas plug the wrong way round so it has to go to a workshop to get fixed. Its not nice to strip & assemble and the cocking handle is fixed to the right hand side so its difficult to fire left handed - unless you dont mind losing teeth and firing round corners is tricky. It has I think a front safety like the GPMG which makes it difficult to fire one handed if the safety is on. It is accurate. The magazines use to fall off easily but I think thats sorted now. I thought the Royal Marines where using something different than the SA80 in Afganistan but I am not sure.
My thanks yet again to Rory.
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