Break Glass in Case of War: Smadge and the M16 Rifle

The Sergeant Major was 100% pure unfiltered warrior.

The Sergeant Major was the hardest soldier I have ever met. We respectfully called him Smadge, and he was terrifying. He was comparable parts patriot and psychopath. To understand the Smadge you should appreciate what made him what he was.

Many generations train incessantly for war but practice their art infrequently for real. By contrast, Smadge spent three full years in combat.

For Smadge, killing was a profession. He invested his entire life preparing his mind and body for this mission. Unlike many professional soldiers, however, he found ample opportunity to put his remarkable skills to work.

Smadge really didn’t talk a whole lot. When he did, however, people listened.

Smadge was not a terribly imposing man physically, maybe five-nine in sock feet. However, his was a hard, sinewy form. He held a black belt and seldom spoke above a whisper. However, I never saw anybody, regardless of rank, who did not fall silent and listen when he had something to say.

Experience is everything for a soldier. The entire formalized military rank system orbits around recognizing and promoting its value.

If Smadge was feeling frisky he had a way of greeting young soldiers who encountered him in the hallway. I would nod and wish him a good day. In an instant, he would have me against the wall, his stubby rock-hard fingers around my larynx. He would then smile through tobacco-tainted breath and wish me a good day in return. He treated all of us young studs the same.

An Awkward Social Encounter

When the Smadge was a young man his first tours through Vietnam were with the 101st Airborne.

Smadge did three combat tours in Vietnam. His last was with some kind of spook mob. I never got the details, but he spoke fluent Vietnamese and once told me he looked good in black pajamas. His earlier trips were with the 101st Airborne.

I honestly cannot imagine the chaos of trying to defend a remote firebase in the dark after the enemy had breached the wire.

Smadge’s firebase was once overrun during a night attack. The VC were inside the wire. As a young NCO Smadge ran from position to position distributing ammo and coordinating defenses.

These wiry little guys were some simply superb soldiers.
The SKS carbine was a common weapon in the hands of the Viet Cong. This vet bringback example was captured in the A Shau Valley.

Smadge vaulted over a small berm and came face to face with a VC soldier armed with an SKS. Illuminated by the flames from burning fougasse there was a pregnant pause.

The M16A1 was the standard Infantry rifle used by American forces during most of the Vietnam War.

Smadge then snapped his M16A1 rifle up and shot the man eighteen times in the chest. He told me never to load my magazines to their full capacity. Our mags are hugely better today. If I recall correctly, Smadge took home a Silver Star after that night’s work.

The widespread use of helicopters revolutionized warfare in Vietnam.

Another time a distant firebase was under concerted attack and in desperate need of reinforcement. Smadge and his unit assaulted into the outpost via Huey slicks.

Amidst the chaos and confusion of a live air assault a nearby bunker seemed the best refuge.

Smadge said that upon touchdown he reflexively dove into the nearest bunker. The bunker’s sole living occupant was a North Vietnamese soldier with an AK.

The XM177E2 was typically called the CAR15 by those who carried it.

In his own words, “Imagine my surprise. There was Chuck. This wasn’t Chuck’s bunker. I was embarrassed, Chuck was embarrassed. It was awkward, so I shot Chuck in the face with a burst from my CAR15 and didi mau’d.”

Smadge never elaborated much on his third tour in Vietnam. He said he had been on the Ho Chi Minh trail and frequently carried an AK.

Of his time with the spooks, Smadge was much more circumspect. He once told me that only one other member of his small team remained alive and that he ran a gun shop someplace. Smadge said he usually carried an AK47 and once killed a man with his Kabar. He never volunteered details, and I never pushed.

The Guns

Very early M16 rifles like this one struggled in fetid jungle climes.

I once brought Smadge an M1 Garand just to show it off. He had the weapon detail stripped before I could find a chair. However, he still nonetheless respected the M16.

The earliest AR15 rifles had their charging apparatus located within the carrying handle. This Brownells BRN Proto is a remarkably accurate modern day reproduction.

The product of a terribly small enterprise in 1956, that first black rifle was originally a proof of concept of sorts. Gene Stoner, Bob Fremont, Jim Sullivan, and a few others contrived the revolutionary Space Age weapon while in the employ of ArmaLite, a tiny subsidiary of Fairchild Aircraft Corporation.

The ArmaLite AR10 was the gun that started the black rifle revolution. Chambered in 7.62x51mm, the AR10 was indeed a radical weapon for its day.

ArmaLite never meant to build guns in quantity. Theirs was a design enterprise. The original 7.62x51mm AR10 begat the 5.56x45mm AR15. The zippy little .223 cartridge that spawned the 5.56x45mm round was also a Gene Stoner invention. Production of the AR10 was farmed out to the Dutch Company Artillerie Inrichtingen.

This Dutch AR10 rifle was used by Portuguese Special Forces in Africa, demilled, and imported into the US as a parts kit. It was then built into a legal semiauto rifle on a newly manufactured lower receiver.

Dutch AR10 rifles saw service across sundry African brushfire wars. A few made it as far as Cuba. The AR10 was briefly considered during the trials that ultimately led to the M14.

Moving the charging handle from the top to the back was the most obvious change Colt made to the gun. Further alterations to the furniture, front sight base, and lower receiver made the gun more efficient and easier to mass-produce. This is the Brownells BRN-Proto rifle.

In 1959 ArmaLite sold Colt the rights to the AR15. Colt adapted the design for mass production and aggressively marketed the weapon to the military. The most obvious change involved moving the charging handle. The first commercial contract for the resulting M16 was for 300 rifles that went to Malaya in September of 1959.

Early M16 rifles used in Vietnam rocked a three-prong flash suppressor. They demanded meticulous maintenance for reliable operation.

Those earliest M16 rifles lacked a chrome-plated bore and sported some well-documented reliability problems. In 1967 the M16A1 variant was introduced with a chrome-plated tube and an enclosed birdcage flash suppressor. Smadge was an absolute Nazi for weapons maintenance. He said the M16 could be a reliable weapon, even in the jungle, but that it required a great deal of attention to remain so.

Today’s HK416 incorporates attributes taken from those early XM177E2 rifles.
The XM177E2 influenced much of today’s modern combat carbine.

Smadge’s CAR15 was technically designated the XM177E2. Designed as part of the CAR Military Weapons System in 1966, the XM177E2 was an effort to turn the M16 rifle into a submachine gun. The collapsible stock and carbine-length gas system of that original XM177E2 can be found in today’s M4 Carbines.

The XM177E2 was the Army’s effort to shrink the M16 down to something smaller and more maneuverable.

These early guns had 10-inch (XM177E1) or 11.5-inch (XM177E2) barrels. The muzzle blast from these stubby tubes was absolutely breathtaking. Now that the revolutionary Pistol Stabilizing Brace allows us mere mortals to run rifle-caliber pistols we all have a chance to taste that sort of chaos.

The moderator on the muzzle of the XM177E2 was designed to mitigate the violence coming from that short stubby barrel. This is a modern reproduction.

Those early XM177 rifles included a flash moderator to help keep the blast in check. These moderators alter the gun’s report enough for the BATF to consider them registerable sound suppressors. Original moderators are rarer than honest politicians today.

Particularly later in the war the AK47 became a common fixture in Vietnam.

Vietnam was dirty with captured AK47 rifles. They came in from a variety of sources and were not uncommonly bartered among American forces.

The AK47 is an exceptionally reliable and efficient combat weapon still used around the world today.

For covert operations, the benefits of the AK47 included ready availability of captured ammunition and a report that was indistinguishable from threat weapons. The AK47 is widely extolled as the world’s most reliable autoloading combat rifle.

A Fine Line

Later in his career the Smadge saw his primary mission as the mentoring of young soldiers like me.

Smadge was a warrior who took his responsibility to mentor young soldiers seriously. Though undeniably intimidating, he remained nonetheless approachable. I once in innocence asked him what it was like the first time he killed somebody. It was a newbie pogue question, but I was a newbie pogue. He quietly responded with, “In the Army or before?”

Smadge was a professional soldier who had become very comfortable with killing.

Smadge grew up without a dad in a big city fraught with violence. His first kill was during a gang fight as a teenager. A bat was his weapon and a garbage can lid his shield. He said his biggest concern at the time was getting caught. When he realized he had literally gotten away with murder he said the experience wasn’t as morally burdensome as he had expected.

The Smadge easily justified killing if the subject of your wrath wished the same upon you.

He told me that when the guy you kill is actively trying to kill you it takes a lot of the moral pressure off. He had twenty-seven confirmed that he knew of from Vietnam. In quiet moments, however, you could tell there was still something unsettled there.

Smadge’s serendipitous discovery in the jungle resulted in some darkly macabre psyops.

Before reading further, keep in mind the circumstances. These guys lived every day in the shadow of violent death. Smadge was on a jungle patrol when he came across the body of a VC soldier leaning against a tree. The unexpected encounter nearly scared him out of his skin. The VC looked asleep. Upon further investigation, the unfortunate Charlie had caught a large-caliber round behind the ear that had taken the back of his head off.

The Death Card was used to send a message to surviving enemy troops.

Seeing inspiration in the moment Smadge produced his Kabar. He carved out the guy’s eye sockets, broke his arms, and stuck the dead man’s own fingers through his eye holes from behind. He carefully arranged a 101st Ace of Spades death card between the fingers and somebody snapped a photograph.

We really shouldn’t send our young soldiers to hell and then second guess their decisions from the comfort of our living rooms. The exigencies of modern war can take a man to a strange moral place.

Smadge thought this hilarious and even sent a copy of the picture home to his wife. People living in comfort, peace, and security shouldn’t pass moral judgment on those who are in the suck. Theirs is a different universe. Sometimes the demarcation between patriot and psychopath can at times seem thin.

The Rest of the Story

It doesn’t matter your branch, experience, or rank, everybody hates the MPs.

The most dangerous thing in the world is a Private with a gun and a badge. Smadge once had a bit too much to drink at the NCO club and was confronted by three MPs while walking home. One of the cops made the mistake of poking him in the chest with a nightstick.

The MPs showed up with reinforcements and took the Smadge into custody.

A friend who was there told me that Smadge put down all three MPs before heading home. The post SWAT team arrived later and took him into custody without a struggle. Smadge was allowed to retire without further incident. Six months later he died of a brain tumor.

Rough men like the Smadge are a necessary evil for a free society. Such men are needed if we hope to prevail in the face of the world’s manifest darkness.

The country needs hard men like Smadge. What they do in their world does not translate well into ours. That’s one of the reasons I think imbedded reporters are a bad idea. Americans in their living rooms don’t need to see what happens downrange. They can never hope to understand.

The Smadge kept me in shape, taught me discipline, showed me how to run a rifle, and started me down the path toward becoming a real soldier myself. A deeply flawed man, he was nonetheless undeniably hardcore.

Smadge was the hardest man I’ve ever known. I wouldn’t trust him around the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, but he’s the guy you’d want alongside you in a fight. An eclectic combination of Chuck Norris, John Wayne, and SSG Barnes from the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, Smadge was every bit the warrior.

War takes young men to some dark places.   

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About the author: Will Dabbs A native of the Mississippi Delta, Will is a mechanical engineer who flew UH1H, OH58A/C, CH47D, and AH1S aircraft as an Army Aviator. He has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning and summited Mount McKinley, Alaska, six times…always at the controls of an Army helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains. Major Dabbs eventually resigned his commission in favor of medical school where he delivered 60 babies and occasionally wrung human blood out of his socks. Will works in his own urgent care clinic, shares a business build-ing precision rifles and sound suppressors, and has written for the gun press since 1989. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three awesome adult children, and teaches Sunday School. Turn-ons include vintage German machineguns, flying his sexy-cool RV6A airplane, Count Chocula cereal, and the movie “Aliens.”

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  • archie brown February 26, 2021, 3:16 pm

    May God bless all soldiers. Only He knows what is in a person’s heart.

  • Ej harbet February 26, 2021, 12:20 pm

    This is my favorite dabbs story!
    Smadge seems like my dad but 3 times the hardcore in maximum overdrive. What a mentor to have!

  • Jimbo February 25, 2021, 1:40 am

    Thank you, Will. God bless.

  • Bryan February 24, 2021, 10:25 am


  • Dixie Ranger February 23, 2021, 10:14 pm

    First two pictures under ‘A Fine Line’ are of Lt. Ken Bowra of 5th Group with ‘yards’. Bowra retired a General.

  • Tom Roberson February 23, 2021, 1:52 pm

    Everyone has there stories to tell about the brave Soldiers they served with in combat. Mine is about CSM Sabalauski(Mr. Army), He served in wwII, Korean War, and Vietnam. CIB W/2 stars. He was never there for the money, E-9 probably made less than an e-4 today. He was there for us, not for money or glory. My last seeing the CSGM was at West Point in 1968. He sat at a table with myself and a group of 2/50duce(2) members wanting us to go back to RVN to our old unit. He was upset that they were putting (LEGS) in his 0 deuce. I can Imagine what He thought about them naming the Air Assault School @ Ft. Campbell after him. He like Gen. Patton was a Old War Horse that saved his troops lives again and again STRIKE FORCE SERGEANT Major!

  • Bones February 23, 2021, 11:21 am

    In all objective reality .. ole smadge is just osama bin laden in different clothes… right? What you say?

  • Ti February 23, 2021, 10:30 am

    That was a great article. Too young for Vietnam, about a third in my unit were though. They had a certain demeaner I couldn’t understand at a younger age. Some were pog, some were prior combat arms(SF) that went to flight school but had been in RVN. All the stories( when they talked about it) would make me lean in and listen.

    10 years ago my work brought me to the greater Los Angeles area. After hours, I was able to trek down to that Armalite machine shop in West Hollywood. Just interesting to see the unassuming building and imagine what went on in there. And the rest is history.

  • NTexas February 22, 2021, 10:03 pm

    AS VIET NAM , 1970 ~ 71 , 187 RAKKASAN , 101 , AIR MOBLE , THAT WAS GOOD ARTICAL .

  • Gordon February 22, 2021, 7:31 pm

    Thank you sir. Excellent article as are all your writings. I was an E-5 Recon NCO with the 101st. (E co 1/506)
    in 1970-71. We operated out of Camp Evans just outside Hue.
    My first mission was off of FB Ripcord just prior to it being overrun.
    I was curious about where and when Smadge did his 101st tours.
    My hero at the time was Cpt. Mark Smith known to his men “Zippo”
    He was Company commander of C company (1/506)
    You should look up his exploits. I know you would find his time in RVN amazing.
    Thanks again for your insights into a most unpleasant occupation.

  • David February 22, 2021, 6:44 pm

    Dr Dabbs, in the photo of your hat, what are the two items between the luminous cat eyes? Are they morphine styrettes?

    • Will February 22, 2021, 9:49 pm

      Those are flechettes of the sort you might find in 2.75-in rockets or 105mm beehive rounds. It was common practice to stick a couple in the backs of our patrol caps back in the day just because they looked cool.

  • Clint Hebert February 22, 2021, 1:44 pm

    Man what an article!! Smadge sounds like a BAD MF!! I would have liked to have met him and heard some of his war stories firsthand if he would have been willing to share them.

  • Bones February 22, 2021, 1:12 pm

    On too of it.. the article bashes MPs… my cousins an MP.. he takes pride in defending and protecting lawful actions… so now .. when conveinant.. the so called 2A community rips not only law inforcement .. but the military also.. (whats MP stand fot ?). Mighty hypocritical wouldnt you say? Who side you really on here?.. I think I already know ..keep showing the true colors..

    • Shanz February 24, 2021, 7:49 pm

      Bones all your comments drip with hatred. Why you even here? We get it, you hate America.

    • Big Al 45 February 25, 2021, 10:52 am

      Lol! YOU speak of hypocrisy? Do you even read your own comments?

  • Mike in a Truck February 22, 2021, 1:03 pm

    I lusted for an XM after a SF troop wandered into our Battery Firing Point carrying one. It wasn’t till many years later that I bought a civilian CAR15. I remember Colts catalog showing the CAR15 as the perfect camping rifle. That’s exactly how I used it while touring/camping on my Harley. Everything that came after the CAR15 are pretenders to the throne.

  • donn February 22, 2021, 12:17 pm

    Keep them coming Will. This article tells us a lot about PTS. I was a kid during Nam. In the late 80’s one of my vet friends was facing his umpteenth marihuana possession charge. I was not representing him, but had the opportunity to speak with the judge about “cookie”… my respected friend. I heard his story from his uncle. He was a door gunner, and the gunship went down, surrounded he melted barrels on the M60s, two of them I was told. Help came, lit up the area around him, and he survived. The smiling kid that went over there, he was no longer. I explained to the judge that we all owed a duty to him. I don’t believe he was ever charged again. Cookie is still my friend today. I never have told him about that.

  • D. S. February 22, 2021, 11:47 am

    Thank you for this story Dr. Dabbs. Thirty years active duty, and I knew one or two of these type of guys. Awkward in peacetime but no finer comrade when the SHTF.

  • Mr Shifter February 22, 2021, 11:45 am

    I have a great friend that spent 3 tours in Vietnam also…..The Smadge story sounds like my buds story….he never talked about things until like seven years ago. His skills at handling a weapon lead him to become a sniper half way through his first tour or so…..I only seen him cry once, known him for 64 years….it was when he once had to kill a child that had a mass of grenades strapped to him that had breached the wire during a night fight. The details, I will not get into…he teared up and turned away, we never talked about that again. He had around 90 recorded kills and 220 probable kills. He still today has shrapnel on his entire left side, and right leg from another hit….spent over six months total in the hospital, which ultimately ended his 3rd tour.

  • BigRed1 February 22, 2021, 11:44 am

    Thanks for the article. Respectful of a soldier’s commitment to being one of those rough men who stand ready for others.

  • Rex Dickerson February 22, 2021, 11:03 am

    Another outstanding article. Thanks Will!

  • Nicky Boy February 22, 2021, 10:58 am

    A man must do what a man must do! Stand tall before the man.

  • Michael Hegyan February 22, 2021, 10:52 am

    Very interesting…my father was a WW2 B 25 mitchell pilot, corporal . Like most most WW2 vets, he never spoke of the horrors..he was very tough man, great athlete, and wonderful father..

  • Steven Dick February 22, 2021, 10:47 am

    I wonder what you would say about me when I tell you I know the names of several of the people in those photos. One is still a good friend after all these years.

    • Steve G February 22, 2021, 12:10 pm

      I’d say “thanks”.

    • Duane February 22, 2021, 2:18 pm

      Thank you very much!!

  • JimM February 22, 2021, 10:36 am

    Great article sir. Such insight on real soldiers. Thank you.

  • Bryce February 22, 2021, 8:24 am

    One of the Best Stories Lately! Real Life. Not Political.
    Thank You for Reminding Me what Matters!

    • Bones February 22, 2021, 9:32 am

      Justifying or glorifying immoral/ criminal type actions …in an immoral conflict/ war… all in the name of patriotism…..proves and displays the worst of human behavior that is despicable…it’s bullshit just like manifest destiny was…..reminds me of Jan . 6 at the US capitol…humans always find a way to make themselves feel warranted for their disgusting actions and beliefs…it’s pathetic….it proves gods are lies…and humans are still just animals..don’t ever think otherwise..

      • Michael Keim February 22, 2021, 10:28 am

        Were you there? If not, SHUT THE FUCK UP SNOWFLAKE!

        • Major Tom February 22, 2021, 12:21 pm

          Psychopathic animals like Smadge are not soldiers, are not necessary and are not rare. I’ve known numerous of these and was happy to end their careers in courts marshal. They were killers and criminals long before ever joining the army, and I grew up with them in my neighborhood in the Bronx. They invariably loved the killing, enjoyed torturing prisoners and desecrating corpses. Men like these were a dime a dozen in the Waffen SS. Which is why we usually shot them outright instead of taking them prisoner in WW II. Michael Keim’s remark is typical of the ignorant mendacity of the kind a half-men who admire a semi-upright simian like Smadge. As a career officer I’m proud to say the army routinely roots outdegenerates like Smedge and his admirers. He was not an American “Warrior” he was a sick bastard who disgraces everything the U.S. Army stands for

          • Michael Keim February 23, 2021, 9:58 am


          • Shanz February 24, 2021, 7:57 pm

            So you were never in combat?
            Enjoy your pension and retirement. You sound really brave and honorable. Men like you are why our country is turning into a socialist shit hole.

        • Down Ranger February 22, 2021, 12:29 pm

          Well said.

      • Rex Dickerson February 22, 2021, 11:02 am

        Ostensibly, you have never been in combat. What is pathetic and disgusting is your gutless judgement of soldiers who’ve experienced combat and had to make split second decisions to stay alive. You’re mention of January 6, which has no relation to Dabbs article, reveals you as the troll you are.
        In the end, you’re entitled to your feeble, bullshit opinion.

      • Carolina Peacekeeper February 22, 2021, 12:45 pm

        Lies sir. I spoke with someone who was there on the 6th. And not just some mo-name, but one who knows the politicians personally. It was BLM/Antifa who breached the Capitol. Explosions were going off before Trump finished speaking. He had nothing to do with it, nor did any of his followers. You know this to be true.

        “In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
        – George Orwell

        Isaiah 5:20-21 KJV
        [20] Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! [21] Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!

        To your remark about mankind being no more than animals:

        Romans 1:22 KJV
        [22] Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,

        Genesis 1:27-28 KJV
        [27] So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. [28] And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

        Job 35:11 KJV
        [11] Who teacheth us more than the beasts of the earth, and maketh us wiser than the fowls of heaven?

        I don’t know you but I highly doubt you believe and trust the word of God, based on your earlier comment. But let God be true and every man a liar (Romans 3:4). God’s word is true. It is not false because you don’t believe it. It is not true because I believe it. It stands in its own.

        Psalm 119:89 KJV
        [89] For ever, O Lord, thy word is settled in heaven.

        John 17:17 KJV
        [17] Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.
        John 17:3 KJV
        [3] And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.

        Acts 16:31 KJV
        [31] And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.

        Hebrews 9:27 KJV
        [27] And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment:

        If you die rejecting God and his salvation offered in his only begotten son, the Lord Jesus Christ, there is but one decree for you:

        Revelation 20:15 KJV
        [15] And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.

      • 2 much February 22, 2021, 12:56 pm

        your one stupid ass bones. A f…n pussy

      • Ej harbet February 26, 2021, 2:10 pm

        True despicables project their mental illness on others because it makes them feel like God. They can’t be alone because then they have to face what they are,cowards and lowlife.thats why they seek to rule others because when you are busy ruling others it easier to ignore your faults and fears.they hate the idea of a creator because they want to be the big man on campus.

        When these creatures gain power they cause nothing but death and suffering to their subjects study history and know I speak the truth.

        Bones is what happens when the tyrant doesn’t gain power
        I encourage the suicide of people like this because it ends a sad existence and makes the world a better freer place for the decent

  • Jeff February 22, 2021, 7:42 am

    Dr Dabbs so love your articles! Always a welcome read…I am grateful for men like you & the men you write about that have served our country to make her great.

  • David A Boerboom February 22, 2021, 7:09 am

    Thank you. That was a wonderfully reaffirming, reasuring thing to wake up to. You should receive a citation for this.

    Sound the Charge.

  • Stan92166 February 22, 2021, 6:29 am

    I fully understand the article. Most will not. 3 tours all most back to back Iraq , Afghanistan. 11B

  • John February 22, 2021, 6:26 am

    Excellent article, thank you for sharing.

  • Christopher Mace February 22, 2021, 12:58 am

    That third tour is almost always a bitch.

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