The charging handle is a critical component of the AR rifle. Knowing how to use it properly is essential to operating the AR. And, while in theory it seems simple, like most aspects to gun handling there's a lot more to it than most people realize.
With all weapon manipulations consistency is the key to safety and efficiency. So, when cycling the handle the right-handed shooter uses the left hand. To perform a chamber check or lock the bolt to the rear the right hand works the handle.As usual, The Shooting Wire (click here to subscribe to their informative daily newsletter) provides useful tips on a wide variety of shooting-related interests. And as usual, I read every article and even followed up by clicking links which lead the reader to more detailed info.
But when it comes to the AR frame ... I tend to holler "Whoa, Nellie!"
I got a bad feeling about AR style rifles. And no, it's not about the "EEEEvil Black rifle" thingie. It's all about my experiences with the AR Model 16 (M16) during my so-called Military Career.
You may be old enough to remember what a controversial subject the original M16was, during the Vietnam War Era.
They got dirty in Vietnam .. red dust coated the working mechanisms, and the rifle required frequent cleaning with a special lube to be applied after the rifle was determined to be 'clean'.
The special lubrication medium was a thick grease, looking a lot like Vaseline, and it attracted dust like a magnet attracts iron filings.
Not rust .. dust!
In the early days, soldiers died because their M16's jammed early in a firefight; often after the first shot. The model was modified to include a 'forward assist' plunger, which was useful when the bolt failed to return to battery because of particle fouling. The familiar "Tap/Rack/Bang" immediate-action drill was not available to U.S. Soldiers in Vietnam until that necessary feature was added.
From top to bottom:
- M16 A1
- M16 A2
- M4 A1
- M16 A4
By the time I got to Vietnam, I had read everything available in Gun Magazines about the M16, including the emphasis on frequent/thorough cleaning and lubrication.
Some of the literature included descriptions of the "incredible maiming power" of the fast, lightweight bullets. One article I recall included graphic x-ray photos of the arm of a Viet Cong who had been wounded. The upper arm bone was clearly shattered by the bullet.
The article also mentioned, in passing, that M16 rounds (5.56 MM) were frequently "deflected" .. or more appropriately "exploded", but contact with trees ... twigs ... leaves.
In case you are not familiar with tropical jungles, there are more trees, twigs and leaves there than there were "targets" (Viet Cong, NVA). And when American soldiers found themselves in a firefight, they often found themselves outgunned by the enemys' AK47. Bigger bullet, slower velocity.
As a consequence, many American soldiers chose 'other' arms to defend themselves.
Designated "Point Men" (those who walked at the head of a squad in the jungle) were given first choice of the limited number of M14 rifles; firing the venerable .30 caliber bullet (.308; 7.62 NATO), those magazine-fed rifles were so effective in the jungle that the 'first responders' had no doubts that their semi-automatic fire could and would disrupt the organization of a Viet Cong ambush.
Unlike the Garand (which fired a similar, but not identical cartridge and amazed the .30-06 advocates of the 1903/A3 Springfield), this rifle was magazine fed. Which allowed American troops to shoot more often (20 times instead of 8) and reload more quickly than the clip-fed Garand.
M1897 Trench Gun
Medics often opted to arm themselves; their choice of weapon was a WWI 'Trench Gun" ... a short-barreled 12-gauge pump shotgun. It held 5 12-gauge shotgun shells and when loaded with buckshot could cut through the shrubbery with great efficiency. There were few of these available via legitimate military sources, which explains why medics ALWAYS got those few available. And none of us complained; we knew that the one man who ALWAYS received first priority was he who would keep us alive until the dust-off chopper arrived. I personally witnessed three occasions when our medic (always called "Doc") saved live and/or limb of men in our platoon; on the one occasion when he lost a man who had been too badly wounded by a grenade fragment to the heart, he cried on his knees in the middle of the battlefield. We always protected our medic, and he was always high on Librium.
M79 Grenade Launcher
As a Platoon Sergeant, I chose to use an M79 grenade launcher. That shoulder-fired, single-shot 40mm break-action weapon offered not only a wide variety of ammunition (fragmentation grenade; double-ought shot shell with more .32-caliber 'pellets' than a 12-gauge shotgun; parachute flare; starshell flare) but it was so intuitively 'point shooting' friendly that most grenadiers removed the sights. I only experienced one time when I regretted that my "Thump Gun" was sightless; when we spotted an ammo can in the field, and I tried to detonate the suspected booby-trap by hitting it with grenade rounds at 50 yards. (It turned out to be .. and empty ammo can, nothing more.)
The advantage to a commander was obvious. Our division (FirstI Infantry) was a light infantry division, which means we didn't carry heavy packs and we typically operated in small units. Think ... the Platoon Leader (lieutenant) took two squads on on mission while I, the Platoon Sgt (E6 Staff Sergeant) took the other two squads on another mission.
The M79 is an 'area weapon' ( like a mortar round ), a 'signalling tool' (like a starshell), a night-time illumination tool (like a parachute flare), and a small-unit shotgun (again, the 'buckshot' round).
The Thump Gun allowed me to use my weapon as both an offensive weapon and as a "command tool". My job was not to shot at the enemy; it was to direct the fire of my element .. my two squads .. toward the element.
I could walk through the jungle with a buckshot-round loaded, and it provided the 'area' firepower of a shotgun with twice the one-shot coverage of a 12-gauge shotgun.
I could use the grenade round during a firefight to not only bring pain to the enemy, but also to signal to my men where they should be directing their fire.
I could use the parachute flare when we ambushed Viet Cong forces at night, so that we could safely sweep the "kill zone". Usually, we called upon support artillary to fire "Flare Rounds" so we had light to see potential (not-dead) enemy who might return fire as we assaulted the kill-zone; with the M79, we could assault sooner and more quickly for the initial pass over the killing grounds. Division Artillary often took several minutes to register the target area and to load for illumination rounds. I and my M79 was right there, right then .. we didn't have to either stumble through the dark nor to wait for the wounded enemy to crawl away before we swept the area. We found wounded Viet Cong in kill zones who turned out to be valuable sources of military intelligence, because we COULD see them, dominate them, and capture them up before they left the battlefield. We never lost a man in the aftermath of a night ambush, simply because we could see immediately who remained in the kill zone or in the near vicinity.
And when we called for external ground support after a night ambush (usually, that would be an armored platoon or squadron, the starshell gave the support troops their initial guide on our immediate location. It's impossible to overemphasize how important that ability could be to a unit which has just ambushed a Viet Cong unit which has only been decimated ... not destroyed .. an whose surviving members are conceivably loitering in the area with 'payback' on their mind.
(They might counter-ambush us .. but they will not fire on mobile armored forces! There's nothing quite so militarily overwhelming as a tank firing a cannister round from it's main gun down the gulch through which a NVA raiding party has advanced against an ARVN base camp .. and then used the same route to didi out of the kill-zone.)
Back to the M16:
So, what part did the M16 play in Vietnam?
It got a lot of American troops killed, when their maintenance turned out not to have been adequate to the job at hand.
Yes, it allowed American troops to carry more ammunition than those American troops could carry during WWI and WWII (.30-06) and even Korea (still .30-06). But the M16 was "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing". For example, the only reason why more American troops were not killed by "Blue-on-Blue" attacks (friendly fire) is that the 5.56mm M16 round was so ineffective in deep jungle vegetation. I witnessed several accidental "Blue on Blue" firefights which would have been much more deadly if "real rifles" had been used.
M16: or ... "You Can Tell If It's Matel; It's Swell!"
What's It All About?
So it's obvious that my personal bias against the M16 and it's descendents (the M4, etc) is based on negative personal experiences .. especially when compared to 'real guns', such as the shotgun, the grenade launcher, and even (omg!) the 1911.
(In a personal note; this week I exchanged an series of texts with my Navy Cop Son "The Squid" in which he called me a "1911 snob".)
So .. yes, I am preternaturally (?) biased against small-caliber, high-speed rifles which jam easily and .. especially! .. need detailed instructions on how to LOAD THE NEXT ROUND so as to preclude a feeding failure.
I look for reliability first in a firearm, and stopping power next. I don't see the AR frame as one which has proven to meet either criteria, especially in a combat situation.
I have been told that the 'current generation' is much more reliable than my experiences of .... omg, has it been 40 years ago now?
On the other hand, the Beretta 92 in 9mm has replaced the 1911 .45 acp in most American Military Units .. except in units which DEMAND both Reliability and Stopping Power. In those units, the 1911A1 in .45acp (or its varients) are still the standards.
This article (okay, go back to the top and click on the link) suggests that anyone whose life depends on their AR-style rifle needs to know just how frail and tempermental it is. I'm uncomfortable with that. I think that any combat rifle which requires a "forward assist" is fatally flawed.
"Fatally Flawed": that's an euphemism for "piece of shit weapon which will get combatants killed".
No, I have ALWAYS been uncomfortable with American troops having to nursemaid a tempermental rifle. Why have we gone to that option, when better rifles are available.
Is it the cost? Maybe .. they're being bought at around $1,000 per rifle, which is dirt cheap.
I have pistols which cost more than that! And I'm only shooting in competition ... not in defense of my life in a combat situation. Back in The Day, M16's cost a whole lot less, in inflation-adjusted dollars.
Is it because the troops can carry more ammunition? Is it because the emphasis on American military training has changed from 'accuracy' to 'volume of fire'?
Perhaps both of these factors.
I'm not going to reach a conclusion here. But you might. And ... I think I've spent enough of our time for you to make up your own mind about whether the AR frame is better as a military arm (at $1,000/unit) or as a competitive arm (at considerably greater expense, but less cost in terms of fatalities).
You probably wouldn't agree with me. But then, perhaps you've never seen a kid crying and cussing over a jammed AR when the bullets are flying.