In a comment to my post on the XM8 James Rummel (who runs the excellent Hell in a Handbasket site) responded to ACE‘s question about the advertised reliability of the M16 when it was being developed. I did a quick search and came up empty, but Mr. Rummel knows his guns. He wrote
It would appear that it was touted as perfectly reliable. There’s even a well known story about how they didn’t include cleaning kits with many M16’s because they said that it never needed to be cleaned at all! This meant that a vast number of rifles were marked as defective when they started to jam and had to be replaced entirely.
Now, I wouldn’t dare to doubt Mr. Rummel when it comes to firearms, but I found the idea that M16 would have been issued without cleaning kits to be incredible. I mean, everyone’s heard horror stories about jamming M16s in Vietnam, but NO CLEANING KITS? Come on!
Well, Mr. Rummel. Slap me down. Hard.
A further search (using Google, not Booble) turned up some more info. This site writes
On 16 June 1966, Colt was awarded a contract for nearly 840,000 rifles for $91.7 million, assuring the M16’s future. But between 1965 and 1967, several major problems, centering on the direct gas action and the lack of maintenance equipment, occurred with the M16 in combat because there was no one entity to manage the overall production process of the M16.
The use of ball gunpowder left a very sticky residue in the barrel and the gas tube of the M16. Since the barrel wasn’t chrome-plated and no cleaning equipment and/or lubricants were available, it hardened quickly and soon made the rifle inoperable. The residue also caused spent casings to become stuck in the chamber and the rifle suffered a rim shear extraction failure, where the bolt’s extractor tore off a portion of the end of the spent casing, leaving the rest of the case stuck in the chamber. Because of the ball gunpowder’s ballistic characteristics and the rifle’s buffer’s light weight, the M16 fired fully automatically with a cyclic rate of between 850-1000 rounds per minute, well in excess of the normal 750-850 rounds per minute. Compounding this comedy of errors was the lack of training and instruction given to those troops who were issued the M16.
And this page has
The only major problem that was not discovered yet was that the Army told its soldiers that the M16 need not to be cleaned. This would have been true if the Army had used the ammunition the M16 was designed for, but instead the army used cheaper ball powder, which clogged up the barrel and lead to malfunctions of the rifle. From Ezell’s book I quote:
“When Stoner developed the 5.56mm cartridge, he used a commercial gunpowder called Improved Military Rifle (IMR) powder. Stoner had used this extruded gain propellant because it was cleaner-burning than the ball type specified by the Ordnance Corp. …transmitted powder residues that tended to dirty up the bolt and bolt carrier assembly, and in turn jam the rifle.”
This was quickly taken care of by issuing cleaning kits to the soldiers.
Amazing. Simply amazing. Given the extraordinary claims made by many involved with the XM8 testing, I hope we’re not repeating history here.
Mr. Rummel, I apologize for ever doubting you. Thanks for the tip.