Something Burl wrote in a comment reminded me of this story the other day:
WASHINGTON — In the chaos of an early morning assault on a remote U.S. outpost in eastern Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Erich Phillips’ M4 carbine quit firing as militant forces surrounded the base. The machine gun he grabbed after tossing the rifle aside didn’t work either.
When the battle in the small village of Wanat ended, nine U.S. soldiers lay dead and 27 more were wounded. A detailed study of the attack by a military historian found that weapons failed repeatedly at a “critical moment” during the firefight on July 13, 2008, putting the outnumbered American troops at risk of being overrun by nearly 200 insurgents.
Which raises the question: Eight years into the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, do U.S. armed forces have the best guns money can buy?…
I’ve sort of wondered for years why this country couldn’t simply produce a weapon as simple, as effective, as cheap, and most of all as RELIABLE as the AK-47.
I read part of the recent book by Larry Kahaner about that remarkable weapon (one of the many books I’ve read “part of” while drinking coffee but not buying anything at Barnes & Noble, my favorite leisuretime activity), and it reads like pretty much an indictment of the free enterprise system. The way it developed was this: A soldier in the Red Army, dissatisfied with what guys like him had to rely on in battle, decided to design a multi-purpose infantry weapon that would get the job done, and always work. So he did, the Soviets mass-produced it, and it became the number-one weapon in the world, the favorite of rebels, terrorists, thugs, and child soldiers everywhere.
It’s cheap; it’s ubiquitous. It puts a LOT of high-impact bullets on a target in a big hurry, so you definitely don’t want to go up against one if you can help it. It’s simple, and easy to maintain. It requires so little skill — and upper-body strength — to operate that it makes a child soldier into a particularly dangerous person.
In other words, it’s pretty horrible. But it’s a way better weapon, in lots of ways, than anything we’ve mass-produced.
We’ve heard about the troubles with the M16 since Vietnam, and the M4 is its descendant. The M16 fires a lower-weight slug at a high velocity, so it rips up whatever it enters — although it doesn’t have much knockdown power. (In Black Hawk Down — the book, not the film — a Delta team member gripes about the M16 because when he shoots somebody who’s shooting at him, he wants to see the guy go down.)
Meanwhile, nothing ever seems to go wrong with Kalashnikovs, no matter what you do to them. The story Burl told matches one I’ve heard before:
A friend (now deceased) who was part of the Army test team for the M-16 told me this anecdote.
He thought the M-16 was delicate and undependable, told the Army so, he was told to shut up and buy stock in Colt.
A few years later, he’s in command of a firebase in Vietnam, and they’re clearing a kill zone. The bulldozer uncovers a dead Viet cong who has buried for a year or so, along with his AK-47. Dave jumped down in the hole, said “now here’s a REAL weapon,” and cocked the muddy, rusty AK, pointed it at the sky and pulled the trigger.
So — are our soldiers taking unnecessary risks because of inadequate weapons? I’d be interested in particular to hear from Capt. James Smith and others who have actually taken the M4 into battle (that’s him below getting his ACOG zeroed in on arriving in Afghanistan — at least, I think that’s an M4).