The U.S. Army has never been a particularly agile beast when it came to bold new technologies. Horse cavalrymen were dragged kicking and screaming into tanks during World War II, and the grunts and tankers of the ’50s viewed the helicopter with a tolerant skepticism at best. In 1963 the 11th Air Assault Division was testing the practical aspects of air mobility at Fort Benning, Georgia. Two years later the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) went to war.
The war in Vietnam saw the introduction of a wide array of new technologies. From smart bombs to night vision and lightweight assault rifles, Vietnam was a proving ground for countless new weapons and the tactics that drove their employment. As a result, flight crews operating Army rotary-wing combat aircraft frequently made up the rules as they went along.
There really was no precedent for what those guys were doing. UH1 Hueys and CH47 Chinooks carried troops, ammunition, equipment, and supplies into places that would have otherwise been inaccessible. The use of massed helicopter assets allowed Army commanders unparalleled mobility around and above a non-linear battlefield. Light and agile aeroscout aircraft like the OH6 provided responsive intelligence gathering. Armed versions of the UH1 and later dedicated AH1 Cobra gunships offered responsive and overwhelming aerial fire support. Throughout it, all Army flight crews operated in the treetops engaging the enemy face to face in a pitiless close range fight to the death.
The Whirlybird Becomes a Warplane
For better or for worse the M60 was our standard belt-fed light machine gun at the time. This basic gun saw action in the D-model configuration with spade grips on a pintle mount in the doors of Hueys and Chinooks. As a flexible weapon crew chiefs frequently simply suspended their standard ground guns on bungee cords for maximum maneuverability. Solenoid-fired versions in pivoting mechanical mounts armed the first Huey gunships.
The M134 minigun saw its baptism by fire in Vietnam as well. While a few of these electric-powered Gatling guns were mounted as door guns, most saw action in the chin turrets of AH1G Cobra gunships. In this configuration, the M134 alongside the M129 automatic grenade launcher reaped a bloody harvest from the Viet Cong and NVA.
One aspect of the helicopter’s low and slow operational environment was that these early aircraft were mightily vulnerable to ground fire. Heavy machineguns like the DSHk were murder on low-flying helicopters while shoulder-fired small arms were also quite effective at the sorts of ranges these engagements demanded. As a result, the Vietnam War saw an unprecedented number of survivable aircraft crashes. When faced with the prospect of personal defense while awaiting air support and extraction many of these early Army aviators acquired some unusual small arms.
GI-Issue Personal Defense Weapons
There is an adage in Army Aviation that you will leave a burning helicopter equipped solely with what is affixed to your body. Throughout most of the Vietnam War the standard issue handgun for Army aircrews was the double action .38 revolver. In the event of a crash pilots and aircrewmen needed to be able to operate their handguns one-handed if they were injured. As Condition 1 carry was not authorized for troops armed with the 1911, the double action .38 offered easy one-handed operation and foolproof reliability. Countless Army aviators nonetheless acquired 1911 pistols through means both official and otherwise.
Helicopter cockpits were cramped so small lightweight rifles that were easy to stash behind seat armor became a great boon. The M16 found its way into Aviation units as it was issued to other branches. Despite the relatively small size of those early M16’s, they still did not ride well in the front end of a helicopter. The solution was something somewhat stubbier.
In 1967 Colt developed a shortened version of the M16 called the XM177. There had been several lesser efforts previously, but the XM177 was the first Carbine version of the M16 to see large-scale production. Early versions sported a 10-inch barrel tipped with a sound moderator. Later versions extended the barrel to 11.5 inches for greater reliability as well as diminished muzzle flash and noise. These guns were universally referred to in theater as CAR-15’s.
The CAR-15 weighed 5.35 pounds and was 29.8 inches long with its stock collapsed. These little rifles could subsequently fit inside the cramped cockpits of Cobra Attack and Loach Observation helicopters. While problems with range, poor accuracy, excessive fouling, and erratic performance with tracer rounds plagued the guns, they saw widespread service with Army aviators.
Necessity is the Mother of Invention
A protracted war such as the one in Vietnam saw the proliferation of small arms from a variety of nations and eras. Friends who served in theater have related stories of obtaining everything from World War II-era submachine guns to civilian shotguns to captured Combloc weapons by barter, purchase, or theft. As a result, in these heady days before so much standardization, Army aircrews frequently flew with an amazing amalgam of defensive small arms.
The M1A1 Thompson and M3A1 Grease Gun were readily available as they were in widespread issue with South Vietnamese forces. These guns both launched heavy .45ACP rounds and had the added benefit of sex appeal to young soldiers who grew up on gangster movies. However, the Thompson, in particular, was brutally heavy. Many sky soldiers who acquired Thompsons soon grew weary of them after packing them for a time.
The argument has frequently been made that the enemy’s AK47 was a better Infantry weapon than our M16. The Russian AK47 and its Chinese counterpart the Chicom Type 56 were robust, reliable, hard-hitting rifles. When they could be obtained AK47’s, particularly the compact folding-stocked versions, were popular aircrew guns. AKs fed from reliable 30-round magazines and carried the extra benefit of producing a common muzzle report with the enemy’s weapons. When down and evading in hostile territory it is not good to sound strange, distinctive, or foreign.
The Combloc RPD was also a superlative weapon for its time. Firing the same M43 7.62x39mm round the AK ran from non-disintegrating 100-round belts, the RPD was remarkably lightweight and effective. Though it suffered from the lack of a quick-change barrel and a tedious reloading protocol, the RPD offered a great deal of firepower for its 16-pound weight. By contrast, our M60 weighed 23 pounds. The RPD carried its onboard ammunition in a pair of connected 50-round belts connected and wound into a pressed steel drum.
The Smith and Wesson Victory Model .38-caliber revolver is indeed stupid-proof. Reliable and soft shooting, the .38 Special caliber has proven itself in countless police shootings over the decades. However, reloading is tedious and carrying spare ammunition loose in a survival vest is a suboptimal solution.
The 1911A1 hits like a freight train downrange, and its single action trigger is the standard by which all others are judged. A friend who carried a 1911 for two years as an Infantryman in World War II told me he carried his pistol with a round in the chamber, the hammer at half cock, and the safety on. With practice he could get his weapon into action both quickly and one-handed. The GI-issue 1911’s that I used operationally back in the day were all fairly long in the tooth. The loose tolerances that kept these guns in action in the face of dirt and grime typically came at the cost of accuracy.
The many-splendored ills of the M16 have been thoroughly explored in other venues, and most of the same problems apply equally or worse to the CAR15. However, aircrews typically had the luxury of keeping their weapons clean and in good repair. In my prime, I could consistently hit a man-sized target out to 400 meters with an M16A1. Having run a lot of rounds through the CAR15 over the years I would not trust it much past a football field.
The 5.56mm round relies upon velocity for effectiveness. As the CAR15 barrel in its earliest iterations was exactly half as long as that of the M16 the CAR15 offers questionable wound ballistics at long ranges anyway. Spare 20-round magazines typically rode in bandoleers draped over the seat armor.
The M60 is a monster of a gun that is pure torture on a long forced march. When kept clean and run from fixed mounts the M60 was relatively reliable in my experience, but I never had one run really well in the dirt. Personally, I would leave the Pig, the affectionate term all soldiers used for this beast of a gun, in the aircraft. I’d grab something lighter with which to escape and evade.
The AK, particularly in its folding stock guise, is a superb aircrew weapon. The steel struts on the underfolding stock are uncomfortable, but they remain fully serviceable. You can wrap the stock struts in 550 cord to improve your cheek weld. The AK jumps around a bit on full auto, but its heavy 123-grain bullet carries energy well out to 300 meters or so. The sliding tangent sights are yesterday’s news but remain thoroughly effective.
The RPD would never ride in the cockpit of a Cobra or Loach but would easily tuck behind the sling seat in the crew compartment of a Huey or Chinook. The RPD offers massive short-term suppressive firepower during an extraction, though reloading is a pain. Additionally, any full auto belt fed gun runs through ammunition at a frightful rate.
When I flew for Uncle Sam we packed M9 Beretta pistols that offered both high capacity semiautomatic firepower along with one-handed double-action operation. A colleague indeed scrounged an M3A1 Grease Gun and flew with it during the First Gulf War. However, for the most part, Aviators of my era were expected to make do with a handgun. Much of my career was spent flying CH47D Chinooks so we had plenty of space. Nowadays the widespread issue of the M4 Carbine allows most Aviators to pack the same weapon used by his or her ground-pounding brethren.
On the modern battlefield, a soldier’s personal weapon is but the smallest part of the overall tactical equation. However, for a downed aviator that handgun or rifle become his entire world. A friend who was shot down in Mogadishu actually had to rely on his handgun for real. While it was not a decisive tool, it did buy him some time. When he got home he made a point to impart to those with whom he served the importance of range time with your assigned defensive weapon.
As of 2013 a CH47F helicopter cost $38.55 million. The investment required in training up the pilots and flight crewmembers to operate these complex aircraft is comparably substantial. However, when evading in hostile territory everything comes down to a basic rifle or handgun. Starting back in the 1960’s Army Aviators have carried a wide variety of personal defense weapons. In today’s non-linear battlefields these lessons learned still carry exceptional gravitas.
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