Military Firearm Missteps
These are some of the biggest blunders made in the design and deployment of military-issued firearms throughout U.S. history.
Looking to the past, one can find many instances where military implementation of a certain piece of technology didn’t work out as planned. Sometimes it was done in an attempt to save money; other times, it was just a bad design. Regardless of the reason, the US and other countries have all fallen victim to this at one point or another. In no particular order, here are ten of those instances:
.38 LONG COLT IN THE PHILIPPINES
The .38 Long Colt was a centerfire blackpowder pistol cartridge released in 1875. Not designed with the military in mind, the round did well in the New Line, House, and Lightning revolvers in Colt’s civilian lineup.
By 1892, the U.S. Army had adopted it as the official service revolver cartridge. The new cartridge adoption was accompanied by a new revolver adoption: the Colt New Army M1892. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t take long for the .38 Long Colt’s limitations to be discovered in the heat of battle.
During the Philippine-American War in the late-19th and early 20th-centuries, it became clear that the newly-adopted cartridge was lacking in stopping-power. Moro Juramentados rejected the American attempt at colonization and they attacked many U.S. soldiers.
These Moro swordsmen were often engaged in suicide missions, so attacking soldiers wielding firearms was of no consequence to them. What the Americans did not count on, however, was the fierce devotion to duty that the Moros would present during their attacks. As a result, the Juramentados’ adrenaline rush was often enough to temporarily defeat the effects of six rounds of .38 Long Colt to the body.
Additionally, battlefield reports said the .38 rounds were getting stopped by thick jungle foliage and even the rudimentary armor worn by the Juramentados.
This meant that individual attacks often resulted in two deaths: one Moro Juramentado full of bullet holes, and one Army soldier who had been hacked to death.
The need for more adequate firepower was initially met with a stop-gap measure. Army ordnance reserves handed out old Colt Single Action Army and M1902 revolvers, both chambered for the harder-hitting .45 Colt cartridge.
It wasn’t until 1909, however, that the .38 Long Colt was officially retired. In its place was the .45 M1909 cartridge, which was essentially a .45 Colt with a larger rim so that the newly-issued Colt New Service revolvers could reliably extract the cartridges.
TRAPDOORS AT LITTLE BIGHORN
General Custer’s problems at the battle of the Little Bighorn are voluminous. Countless books have been written about things that he himself could or should have done differently. Instead of critiquing the man, let’s take a look at the equipment.
The 7th Cavalry was equipped with single-shot “trapdoor” firearms. After each round was fired, the breech block was swung up and open. This movement allowed the thin, blade-like extractor to engage the rim of the spent cartridge, automatically ejecting it from the breech. A new cartridge was then inserted and the breech was closed. Cock the hammer and its ready to fire.
The extractor’s design was compromised by the military’s use of early copper cartridge cases, which tended to expand from the heat of firing a whole lot more than brass. This caused the cases to stick to the walls of the chamber, creating extra work for the extractor.
Unfortunately, the extractor often acted more like a knife blade, cutting through the stuck copper rim and leaving the case jammed in the gun.
Most soldiers resorted to prying the stuck cases out with knives, costing them precious time in battle. Cases recovered from Little Bighorn have been analyzed by battlefield archaeologist Dr. Douglas D. Scott. His work has revealed that approximately 5% of the carbines used by Custer’s men experienced these jams during the battle, though its almost impossible to tell, as most of the firearms had been taken from the battlefield before anyone else got there.
The other equipment setback for Custer was the arms themselves. Quite simply, his men found themselves outgunned by the Native Americans. While Custer was stuck using the antiquated, single-shot arms issued to him by the US government, the Native Americans were armed with a variety of repeating arms. Dr. Scott’s archaeological work has revealed a staggering amount of repeating arms were used by the Natives. Spent casings from Spencer, Evans, Henry, and Winchester repeating arms have been recovered from the battlefield.
A total of 81 different arms were used by Custer’s men, compared to at least 134 used by the Native Americans – 62 of which were Henry repeaters. The archaeological evidence reveals that Custer’s men were outnumbered and outgunned. The US military’s use of somewhat-antiquated arms and ammunition cost the 7th Cavalry dearly.
THE BEAUMONT AT LOMBOK
In 1888, the Dutch armed forces transitioned from the M1871 Beaumont rifle to the M1871/88 Beaumont-Vitali rifle. The 71/88 variation incorporated a box magazine, converting the 11mm single-shot design into a repeating rifle.
The magazine was loaded with a four-round en bloc type clip. When empty, a string was pulled to remove the cardboard clip from the gun. Issues with a manually-removed cardboard clip notwithstanding, the conversion of Beaumont rifles with the Vitali magazine was indeed an improvement.
Unfortunately, the conversions were not adopted across the board for all of Holland’s soldiers. Their army utilized the new fixed box magazines. Their colonial troops, however, did not. This would be a costly decision in the coming years.
In early 1894, the Dutch initiated a plan on the Indonesian island of Lombok, which was at the time under control of the Balinese, that would result in the eventual colonization of the region by Holland until after World War II.
By August 1894, the island’s inhabitants had had enough of the Dutch involvement and the effect of its blockade on their ability to obtain more weapons and reinforcements. One night, they attacked a colonial military camp by surprise.
The 900+ colonial soldiers present during the attack outnumbered the native forces. However, the Balinese were far better armed. The Dutch colonials struggled to keep up the rate of fire with their single-shot, bolt-action rifles. The island’s inhabitants, armed with Winchester-Hotchkiss and Winchester Model 1873 repeating rifles, killed more than 500 colonial troops. That battle stands as the single largest loss of Dutch colonial troops in history.
Despite suffering 55% casualties, the Dutch colonials did not immediately upgrade their arms. Whether due to bullheadedness or bureaucracy, they continued to carry the single-shot Beaumont M1871 rifles until 1897.
M16 POWDER PROBLEMS
By late 1963, M16 rifle production had picked up steam, meaning that massive quantities of ammunition also had to be manufactured and distributed.
Remington received a contract in October of that year for 19 million rounds. The contract’s specifics note that they were to use IMR propellant, but they ended up loading the rounds with WCC, which was ball-shaped instead of extruded.
Army tests found that the ball powder produced more carbon fouling and increased the cyclic rate of the rifles, both of which resulted in a decrease in the weapon’s reliability in the field, turning it into a jam machine.
It also didn’t help that when the rifle was first issued, Colt touted the M16 as a self-cleaning rifle. The Army didn’t even issue cleaning kits for it at first and Colt did not chrome the barrel and chamber like the designer specified.
All this combined meant the first M16s were quite unreliable and reports of U.S. soldiers being found dead next to their disassembled rifles in the field led to a Congressional investigation.
Instead of requiring a change back to the specified propellant type, the military chose to alter the rifle’s buffer to slow the cyclic rate and increased the amount of weapons cleaning and maintenance training received by soldiers.
It was eventually revealed why the government chose to alter the rifles instead of the propellant. Powder that could no longer be used in rounds for cannons was diverted to small arms cartridge production. This reduced cannon powder waste and provided a cost-savings on rifle round production. Like it had so many times in the past, government cost-cutting measures proved problematic to the soldiers in the field, and cost some men their lives.
In February 1967, the improved XM16E1 was standardized as the M16A1. The new rifle had a chrome-plated chamber and bore to eliminate corrosion and stuck cartridges and other, minor, modifications. New cleaning kits, powder solvents, and lubricants were also issued. Intensive training programs in weapons cleaning were instituted including a comic book-style operations manual. As a result, reliability problems greatly diminished and the M16A1 rifle achieved widespread acceptance by U.S. troops in Vietnam.
GREASE GUN BOLT HANDLE
The .45-caliber M3 submachine gun was born out of necessity. It was both cheap and fast to manufacture. The gun’s sheet metal construction allowed it to be stamped out at General Motors’ Guide Lamp Division in Indiana at less than half the cost of a Thompson submachine gun.
What enabled the gun to be produced so easily would ultimately be one of its downfalls, rendering the gun unserviceable at an inopportune moment until a field modification was implemented.
Combat is physically tough on both soldiers and their equipment, and the Grease Gun got its baptism by fire in early June 1944. The M3’s open-bolt design utilized a crank handle mounted on the right side of the frame in order to retract the bolt before firing. Some of the guns were dropped in battle and landed on their right side. This impact was often enough to break off the sheet metal crank handle, effectively taking the gun out of use.
Because the M3 was manufactured and implemented in an expedient manner, Army ordnance company repairmen did not have spare parts or any guidance for alternate repair options. Out of necessity, the repairmen milled a seven-inch long slot in the receiver and attached a crude steel bolt handle to the rear of the bolt assembly.
By December 1944, the M3A1 had fixed the problem with the original design, utilizing a finger hole in the bolt. The crank handle was superfluous and done away with completely.
M1903 ROD BAYONET
In 1901, the US Army Chief of Ordnance reported that traditional bayonets were “imperfect and antiquated,” adding that it was nothing more than an “impediment” to soldiers because “the bayonet has now only a very rare use and may well be dispensed with….”
As such, when the US Military adopted the M1903 bolt-action rifle, it was equipped with what is known as a “rod bayonet.” Designed to fit into the stock underneath the barrel, this style bayonet also doubled as a cleaning rod. This meant that the diameter had to be less than .30” in order to fit down the barrel. That shortcoming, combined with a less-than-intimidating “business-end” that more closely resembled a Phillips-head screwdriver than a bayonet, proved fatal for the design.
In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote to the Secretary of War with some comments about the bayonet’s design: “I must say that I think the ramrod bayonet about as poor an invention as I ever saw.” He noted that “it broke short off as soon as hit with even moderate violence” and that “it would have no moral effect and mighty little physical effect….”
It’s hard enough to argue with the President of the United States, let alone one with so much of his own military history. Ultimately, less than 74,500 M1903s were made with the rod bayonet. The rest utilized the M1905 bayonet, which featured a more traditional knife-like blade, 16 inches in length.
THAT DAMNED, JAMMED CHAUCHAT
The French Chauchat light machine gun has earned the reputation of being one of the worst military firearms ever created. Some of its many critiques include: weak magazine springs prevented them from being loaded to full capacity; overheating caused the barrel to expand and adhere to the shroud; open sides on the magazine allowed dirt and mud to render them inoperable; and more.
Production of the Chauchat in Paris was not focused on quality. Reports of issues with heat treating and use of subpar materials were commonplace. Canvas covers were eventually issued to keep dirt out of the magazines, but this was just part of the problem. The mags were flimsy at best and were prone to bending or crushing, rendering them completely unusable.
The Chauchat certainly had its problems when chambered for ammo of European design, but those paled in comparison to the problems of the guns chambered for the .30-06 Springfield cartridge.
In order to utilize the Springfield cartridge, the gun needed definite modifications. These included a new magazine, a new magazine well, a relocated foregrip, and new reamed chambers. Unfortunately, the chambers weren’t reamed deep enough, which caused the cartridges to be jammed into the chamber. That extra force proved too much for the extractor, and many spent cases were stuck in the guns. The rifle’s complicated and delicate nature often prevented field repairs and undoubtedly cost men their lives in the trenches of World War I.
PROBLEMS WITH THE PIAT
The British “Projector, Infantry, Anti Tank” – or PIAT – was designed during World War II as a lightweight, portable anti-tank weapon. Weighing little more than 30 pounds, the PIAT launched a 2.5-pound shape charge at a distance of 100-300 yards, depending on a direct or indirect role in battle.
In addition to being lightweight and portable, the PIAT benefitted from no back-blast and little smoke when fired to give away the shooter’s position. Despite these advantages, this anti-tank weapon was hampered by another absolutely vital aspect of the PIAT’s design: the cocking mechanism.
In order to ready the PIAT for firing, a long spring had to be manually retracted into the weapon’s body where it would connect with the trigger. The easiest way to do this was to have a soldier stand the PIAT on end and place their feet on the arm’s padded butt. Then, they would pull the body up and rotate it to the side, locking the spring in place.
The process could be done while lying down, but it was awkward and more slow to do, so soldiers often opted to just stand up and cock the weapon. Unfortunately, this made them vulnerable to enemy fire because they would have to expose themselves from their cover in order to properly cock the PIAT in a standing position.
Even though it subjected the user to danger, it was worth the risk. British reports after the Normandy campaign indicated that they took out more German tanks with the PIAT than with rockets fired from aircraft. Of the 181 Victoria Crosses awarded during World War II, six of them resulted from soldiers using the PIAT.
After a decade of use, the British replaced the PIAT with the ENERGA, which was fired from a rifle attachment and did not require the shooter to unnecessarily expose himself to enemy fire.
RIPLEY’S REBUFF OF REPEATERS
Unfortunately, slow adoption of new technology is not a new phenomenon with the government. When the Civil War began, repeating rifles were on the rise. Men like Benjamin Tyler Henry and Christian Sharps had developed rifles that far surpassed the military-standard muzzleloader’s rate of fire.
James Wolfe Ripley was a seasoned veteran of the War of 1812 and the Seminole War, coming of age in an era of flintlocks and smoothbores. When he became Superintendent of Springfield Armory in 1842, the military had just adopted percussion ignition as the new standard. When he became the Union’s new Chief of Ordnance in 1861, he was just shy of his 67th birthday and deeply entrenched in his ways.
Ripley correctly saw a need for rifled artillery pieces, so he ordered the old smoothbores to be altered and they performed well in their new role. He then ordered the military’s stockpile of older, .69-caliber smoothbore muskets to be rifled in an effort to save some money. Unfortunately, these guns did not perform as well as their .58-caliber counterparts that were purpose-built as rifles instead of smoothbores.
Cost-saving measures were also a factor when it came to Ripley’s opinion of repeating rifles. These new guns often cost twice as much as a traditional muzzleloader, which is not something to be overlooked when the government often awards contracts to the lowest bidder, both then and today.
Ripley disparaged the designs, calling them “newfangled gimcracks” and claimed that their increased rate of fire would cause soldiers to waste ammunition, thereby costing the government more money. When the Civil War ended in 1865, Ripley’s dislike of repeaters had won. While some Union regiments fielded repeaters that had been privately purchased, not a single unit went into battle armed with government-supplied repeating rifles.
The single-shot mindset remained with the military long after Ripley’s tenure ended in 1863. It wasn’t until 1892 with the adoption of the Krag rifle that US soldiers fielded repeating rifles as a standard service weapon.
1836 FLINTLOCK PISTOLS
The concept of percussion ignition was invented in 1805 by a Scottish Reverend named Alexander Forsyth. English-born artist Joshua Shaw invented what we know as the percussion cap in 1822, and he patented it in the United States to avoid legal action by Forsyth.
The military was still very clearly entrenched in the flintlock era. The two main contracts for the Model 1836 single-shot flintlock pistols were fulfilled by firms run by Robert Johnson and Asa Waters, both based in New England. Johnson’s contract alone was for 15,000 pistols over a five-year period.
Percussion ignition wasn’t adopted by the US military as the official ignition system until 1842. Because most everything moves slow with the government, military contracts for flintlocks continued to be filled for two more years despite the new ignition designation.
The Model 1836s were obviously a successful design. Despite their size and weight, it was universally held that these guns balanced well and were of superb manufacture. It is because of this (and the military’s slow embrace of the percussion system) that the Mexican-American War was fought with flintlock weapons. It wasn’t until 1848 that the government armories did an inspection of their weapons and ordered all serviceable pieces to be converted to percussion. Many of the Model 1836s would later be converted to percussion in 1850. Some of those guns even saw use in the early stages of the Civil War in 1861.
Officials who decide what gets implemented are human and, as such, they are bound to make mistakes along the way. There have been plenty of other military missteps, to be sure, but this piece would go on forever if it attempted to cover them all. With that said, military development hasn’t been all blunders. They do get it right on occasion. Look at the M1911’s 74-year-run as the US military standard sidearm, for example.