M16 - The Weapons That Changed The World

There’s much to admire about the M16's incredible design. The weapon is the longest continuously-serving rifle in American military history.

It is an air-cooled, gas-operated, modular weapon system, meaning components can be reconfigured to support different features.

The rifle can be created using alternative materials like wood and steel and some parts can even be 3D printed.

Colt estimates that more than 8 million M16 and M16 variants have been sold.

In May 2018 Manchester City midfielder Raheem Sterling faced criticism in the press for a tattoo on his right calf.

The footballer, who is currently the most expensive under-21 player in history, could have chosen anything to put on his body – but decided to get a tattoo of an M16 assault rifle.

The tattoo has deeper significance than a simple pun on the double meaning of the word ‘shoot’. 

When he was just two his father was shot dead in Jamaica, prompting his mother to move his family to the UK.

For Sterling the tattoo is not just a symbol of power and aggression but also a reminder of his father and the tragedy weapons can bring.

This all begs the question, why an M16 rifle? As we’ll see, the M16 is a weapon with conflicting symbolism at its very heart. 

Listen To The Sixth Episode Of Weapons That Changed The World In Full Below...

In the wake of the Second World War the United States was keen to replace ageing semi-automatic and automatic rifles like the M1 Garand and the M3 submachine gun, which had helped the Allies win the war.

These weapons were reliable, powerful and accurate but heavy and incapable of dealing with larger groups of hostiles.

American infantryman fighting in Korea often faced enemy fighters in close quarters situations - something rifles designed for long-range use, like the M1 Garand Rifle, weren’t good at.

The global nature of American conflicts also meant the military wanted a rifle which could be versatile and work in a range of environments.

This desire for an all-in-one firearm led to the father of the M16, the M14.

The M14 was essentially a new and improved M1 rifle. It was lighter, had an increased on-board ammunition supply and much greater accuracy when firing in semi-automatic mode, thanks to the much-reduced recoil.

Yet despite these obvious improvements, it was more expensive to manufacture and less reliable.

Most damning, however, was that its most significant new feature was also its Achilles heel.

The weapon was almost uncontrollable when being fired in automatic mode. Recoil became very harsh and follow-up shots struggled to find their target. The all-in-one rifle wasn’t quite there yet. 

Eugene Stoner was the chief engineer and designer at the arms company Armalite. Inspired by the aircraft industry, he used materials common in the production of aircraft, like fibreglass and aluminium alloys, to revolutionise weapon design.

The AR-10 assault rifle and the later AR-15 were both incredibly lightweight. At only 5lb the AR-15 rifle was light, meaning soldiers could carry around three times the amount of ammunition than if they were using the M14.

The weapon could fire a 25-round magazine and perhaps most importantly, it could hold its own when being fired automatically. 

M16 - The Weapons That Changed The World

Yet despite all these clear advantages over the M14, the US Army didn’t take to the rifle.

It may have been down to politics, with many uneasy about letting a weapon designed by an outsider be integrated into the Army.

There were also failed Artic region tests that many, including Stoner himself, believed had been set up to fail. Either way, the Army refused to accept the small-calibre weapon just yet. Two elements would have to come into play before the US military would fully embrace the rifle.

The pioneering civilian arms manufacturer Colt saw real promise in the AR-15 and brought the rights from Armalite. With Colt the AR-15’s profile was raised and top brass started noticing the rifle.

Easily the most important person to see promise in the rifle, though, was the newly-appointed Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara.

As the Vietnam War was raging, AR-15 rifles found their way to the frontline and in the hands of American soldiers, who instantly took to the weapon.

Word got to McNamara, who ordered production of the M14 to be halted in early 1963 and replaced by the AR-15, which would not long afterwards be further developed and renamed the M16. 

Stoner’s rifle had finally been officially adopted by the Army, albeit under a different name and with a few changes.

The rifle could now shoot further thanks to using ball powder and featured both a left and right-hand grip and a thicker barrel.

As Vietnam escalated throughout the 1960s the M16 would head to the jungle. But could it cope under such extreme conditions?

M16 - The Weapons That Changed The World

Troops reported that the rifle was notoriously unreliable and would often jam.

The AK-47, which had fewer moving parts, coped much better in the environment despite being much older.

The rumour spread that Americans would ditch their M16 rifles and use recovered AK-47s during the war.

These stories have long been around since the war ended, although there is little evidence to suggest there is truth to them.

The M16 often suffered because of a ‘failure to extract’, where the casing of a just-fired round was not successfully extracted from the chamber. 

Morale in Vietnam was already incredibly low and the jamming of rifles certainly didn’t help.

Worse still, the Army touted the M16 as the world’s first self-cleaning rifle so didn’t issue cleaning kits to the soldiers. It wasn’t.

McNamara’s team (known as the ‘Whiz Kids’) had vetoed the idea of a chrome-plated chamber for the rifle, which would have radically reduced the amount of rust affecting the weapon.

They assumed that Stoner would have included the feature in if it was really necessary.

The US Army and the DoD would then bicker back and forth about how best to implement the weapon in a war the West was doomed to lose.

M16 - The Weapons That Changed The World

It was an inevitability, however, that the M16 would be replaced eventually.

Colt developed the M4 carbine rifle as a shorter, lighter version of M16 variant, the M16A2. The M16 had a remarkable shelf-life and still appears in many conflicts around the world. 

The M16’s association with one of the most controversial wars in modern history has tainted its history for many.

Even for the most ardent anti-gun activist it’s difficult not to admire the weapon from an aesthetic viewpoint, however.

The smooth, geometric shapes and sleek black finish make the rifle seem as elegant as it is deadly.

The M16 is still in use in 15 NATO countries and more than 80 countries worldwide.

The M16 was adopted by the British SAS, who used it during the Falklands War, while Argentinian special forces also used the rifle.

From Afghanistan to Uganda the M16 really was the West’s answer to the Soviets’ scrappy AK-47. 

M16 - The Weapons That Changed The World

Although the rifle is still being used worldwide, it will always be associated with America and its messy wars of the second half of the 20th century.

The military symbol of America at the height of its superpower can be seen to convey power, alongside brash arrogance and overconfidence.

The moral ambivalence of those conflicts and the weapon which supported them, meanwhile, help make sense of footballer Raheem Sterling’s seemingly-paradoxical anti-gun, gun tattoo.