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Guns of the Grunts

By Jon Guttman
August 2018 • Vietnam Magazine

Infantry troops in Vietnam carried powerful new weapons into combat.

Despite the massive artillery and air firepower the United States deployed in its attacks on communist forces in Vietnam, most gunfights came down to infantry weapons used at often terrifyingly close quarters. Automatic weapons had increased the carnage of war since the early 20th century, but in Vietnam a proliferation of M16 assault rifles put rapid-fire guns in the hands of every grunt, whether he was fighting in a carefully prepared ambush or a chance encounter. The U.S. infantryman’s arsenal included a dazzling array of lethal devices: machine guns, grenade launchers, advanced versions of World War II bazookas, small mortars and remotely detonated land mines. Allies sometimes had their own versions of those weapons. The Australians, for example, carried the semi-automatic L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle (SLR, or as many called it, “stupidly long rifle”) and sometimes the F1 submachine gun. The North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong came to the battlefield with weapons such as Soviet AK-47 assault rifles, light machine guns and wooden-handle grenades. The Viet Cong also used whatever they could smuggle or improvise, including Thompson submachine guns, homemade firearms not far removed from matchlock muskets and mortars made from 2-inch pipes with metal strips for legs. 

  • The war’s iconic rifle The M16, first used in Vietnam in 1965, initially suffered from reports of jamming and inadequate cleaning kits, but battlefield experience hastened improvements that turned the rifle into a worthy weapon—provided it was kept clean. The Starlight Scope, introduced in an early form in 1965 and improved in 1967, gave this soldier, shown with his M16 in January 1967, the ability to spot enemy troops at night. (AP Photo/Johner)
  • A shorter variant of the M16, the XM-177E2, displayed at left by a rifleman in the 1st Cavalry Division in October 1967, led to the M4 carbine. (Bettmann/Getty Images)
  • Derived from the German MG42 of World War II, the M60 was the standard platoon machine gun in Vietnam, replacing the M1919A6 Browning .30-caliber machine gun. Ideally served by three crewmen, the machine gun’s bulkiness and weight earned it the moniker “Pig.” The 7.62 mm M60 could be fired from the shoulder or mounted on a vehicle, helicopter or riverboat. The M60’s superior range and stopping power has kept it in service to this day, although it is now complemented by the lighter 5.56 mm M249 squad machine gun.
  • The M79 grenade launcher, introduced in 1961, could shoot a variety of 40 mm grenades: fragmentation (which exploded into deadly fragments), flechette (cannisters filled with metal darts) buckshot, tear gas, smoke and illumination. The single-shot weapon—carried here in April 1968 by a Marine near Khe Sanh—acquired nicknames such as Thumper, Blooper and Can Cannon. Its simplicity, handy size and weight made it a popular choice when troops needed extra firepower, and it was dubbed the “platoon leader’s artillery.” (AP Photo/Schneider)
  • Beginning in 1963 the M72 LAW, short for light anti-armor weapon, gave soldiers and Marines a high-explosive rocket that could knock out tanks. But the M72, shouldered in this photo by a soldier in the 101st Airborne Division in 1966, was also able to penetrate up to 2 feet of concrete or 6 feet of soil and was used to destroy enemy bunkers more often than it was fired at tanks. However, its sensitive electrical system could succumb to corrosion or other ailments. In April 1972, South Vietnamese troops used LAWs to great effect against enemy T-54 and PT-76 tanks during urban battles. (Getty Images)
  • The designer of the M18A1 mine nicknamed it after a historic Scottish broadsword capable of sweeping away all who lay before it: the Claymore. Unlike most mines, the Claymore was installed above ground on two metal scissor legs and detonated remotely through a connected wire. It sprayed metal balls in a 60-degree arc as far as 300 feet. From its arrival in Vietnam in 1966, the Claymore was used by Americans—and Australians like the one at right—to set up ambushes in the Vietnamese foliage. ( Australian War Memorial)
  • While most of the artillery that supported men in the field was fired from a distance, some types of mortars were hauled into the jungle by troops on foot. A common one was the 60 mm M19 mortar derived from the British Stokes mortar of World War I. Americans got an extra punch from another mortar, the 81 mm M29, illustrated above by a crew from the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, near the Demilitarized Zone in October 1966. (AP Photo)
  • (AP Photo)
  • Famous for defeating T-34/85 tanks in Korea, the M20 “Super Bazooka” found virtually no tanks to fight in Vietnam. However, its 3.5-inch rockets were good at blowing holes in enemy fortifications. At left, a member of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, holds a launcher and rocket above a swollen creek near the DMZ in October 1966. For U.S. forces, the M20 gave way to the M72 LAW and the M67 recoilless rifle early in the war. (AP Photo/Merron)
  • This photo of a March 1966 North Vietnamese Army training exercise shows the NVA’s primary infantry weapons: in the background, the 7.62 mm AK-47, renowned for its reliability even in adverse conditions; in foreground, the 7.62 mm Degtyaryov RPD squad machine gun, lighter than the M60 but lacking the ability to change barrels when it overheated. (AP Photo/North Vietnamese News Agency)
  • The NVA and Viet Cong frequently used bamboo launchers for 122 mm rockets, like these found east of Saigon by a U.S. 1st Infantry Division patrol in March 1969. (AP Photo)

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