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The M1 Carbine, by Leroy Thompson, Osprey Publishing, 2011
The M16, by Gordon L. Rottman, Osprey Publishing, 2011

The most-used weapon of the Vietnam War was the personal fire-arm, and that conflict saw it evolve from a Soviet-designed, Chinese-manufactured bolt-action carbine to an assault rifle offering the grunt his choice of semi- or fully automatic fire. Two major elements of that evolution are the subjects of two recent additions to Osprey’s “Weapons” series, one originating long before the war and the other serving long after it.

Conceived in 1938 as a “light rifle” or personal defense weapon, and entering production in October 1941, the M1 carbine, with its gas-piston operating system, was something of a compromise between the pistol and the M1 Garand infantry rifle. Criticized for having less killing power than the latter, it nevertheless proved to be extremely popular in forests and jungles where a light, handy weapon was of more value than a larger, heavier, more cumbersome one offering greater accuracy at longer range.

Issued to airborne and support troops, among many others, the M1 carbine and its derivatives came to be produced in greater numbers than the M1 rifle—some 6 million—and went on to serve the U.S. forces in Korea and Vietnam, as well as the French in Indochina, and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and Viet Cong in the early years of Vietnam. All of these are covered in Leroy Thompson’s The M1 Carbine, as well as its civilian use and the continuing popularity of the M1 and selective fire M2 carbines among firearm fanciers today.

As revolutionary in its own way was a compact, light rifle using aluminum and plastic components, introduced in 1958 as the ArmaLite .223-caliber AR-15. Adopted by the U.S. Army in 1962 for Security Police and Special Forces, the rifle, bearing the military designation of M16, was issued to regular infantry in Vietnam in 1965, to decidedly mixed reviews. Although lighter and easier to use than the M14 7.62mm rifle, the M16 had relatively poor ammunition performance, was certainly less rugged and above all was exasperatingly prone to jam under the “real world” conditions that would not have phased a Viet Cong armed with an AK-47 (or a captured M1 carbine, for that matter).

As explained by Gordon L. Rottman, however, in Osprey’s The M16, the weapon became the standard U.S. Army long arm and found particular favor among the ARVN troops because of its reduced size and weight. Remarkably, while undergoing improvements and even more compact variants, such as the M4 carbine, the M16 family has been used in almost 70 armies and is still used today, with the likelihood of continuing in use for the next 20 years. As it is, at nearly 50 years old, this iconic Vietnam War weapon can claim the longest first-line service use of any firearm in U.S. military history.