This article also appeared on "The American Thinker" web site. Two postscripts are attached to this piece.

24 August 2004

The Last “Big Lie” of Vietnam Kills U. S. Soldiers in Iraq

Anthony F. Milavic, 

Major, United States Marine Corps (Retired)

At a Vietnam Special Forces base during 1964, I watched a U. S. soldier fire 15 rounds of .223 caliber ammunition into a tethered goat from an AR-15 rifle; moments after the last round hit, the goat fell over. Looking at the dead goat, I saw many little bullet entry-holes on one side; and when we turned him over, I saw many little bullet exit-holes on the other side. Over time, those observations were confirmed and reconfirmed revealing that the stories we were told on the lethality of the .223 caliber cartridge were fabrications. Those false reports drove the adoption of the .223 caliber cartridge as the 5.56mm NATO cartridge and, ever since, Americans have been sent to war with a cartridge deficient in combat lethality; a deficiency that has recently caused the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. 

What is efficient combat lethality? The book Black Hawk Down quotes SFC Paul Howe's description of SFC Randy Shughart, a soldier who elected to carry the 7.62mm M-14 into the urban battlefield of Somalia in 1993 rather than the 5.56mm CAR-15 (M-16-variant): 

“His rifle may have been heavier and comparatively awkward and delivered a mean recoil, but it damn sure knocked a man down with one bullet, and in combat, one shot was all you got. You shoot a guy, you want to see him go down; you don't want to be guessing for the next five hours whether you hit him, or whether he's still waiting for you in the weeds.” (1)

With the wisdom of a combat veteran, Howe describes the lethality necessary for a cartridge in combat: one-round knockdown power.

How did we get from military cartridges with proven one-round knockdown power such as the 30-06 and 7.62mm to the 5.56mm? The journey starts with the term, “tumbling.” This term has been associated with the .223 cal./5.56mm cartridge since early in its marketing as a potential military cartridge to this day. The very word, "tumbling," prompts images of a bullet traveling end over end through the human body in 360-degree loops: In reality, it does not. Dr. Martin L. Fackler, COL., USA (Ret.) served as a surgeon in Vietnam during 1968 and, subsequently, pursued the research of terminal ballistics by observing the effects of bullets fired into blocks of ballistic gelatin. In “Wounding patterns for military rifle bullets,” he reports the observation that “all” non-deforming pointed bullets--this included the 30-06 and 7.62mm military full-metal jacket bullets-- “yawed” 180 degrees while passing through the gelatin to exit base-forward; i.e., heaviest end forward. The 5.56mm projectile acted in the same manner with a very precise exception: These rounds “yawed” to 90-degrees, and then fragmented at their weakened serrated band (cannelure) into two or more pieces when fired into ballistic gelatin.  However, the 5.56mm projectile does NOT always yaw or fragment. Under field conditions, the probability of these effects is reduced by the following factors: (2)

--The round strikes the target at less than 2700 feet per second. That      
velocity is reduced by: the farther the range to the target, the greater 
reduction in velocity; shortened weapon barrel length as is the case with 
the shorter M-4 carbine; and/or, manufacturing variances in the 

--Variances in human body thickness and flesh density and/or consistency.

--The clothing and equipment worn by the target that must first be penetrated

In those cases, the bullet neither yaws nor fragments and causes only a pencil size hole through the body; i.e., small hole in, small hole out. Neither Dr. Fackler nor anyone else has provided any empirical data or estimate on the incidence of the 5.56mm yaw/fragmentation effect on enemy soldiers. Conversely, since first used by Americans in combat there has been a consistent observation from the field-enemy soldiers continue to fire their weapons after being hit by multiple 5.56mm bullets; evidently, no yaw/fragmentation effect. Nevertheless, the term “tumble” was apparently derived from idealized yaw action and, as suggested by the following, was chosen in lieu of the word yaw because it would “sell” better.  

The book, The Black Rifle, M16 Retrospective by Edward C. Ezell and R. Blake Stevens, “ . . . is, so far as [the authors] could make it so, the truth about the controversial 5.56mm caliber AR-15 (M16)-what it is, what it is not, where it came from, and why.” Edward C. Ezell, Ph.D., now deceased, was the Curator/Supervisor of the Division of Armed Forces History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC and the editor of perhaps the world's most famous gun book, Small Arms of the World. The Black Rifle contains one of the earliest characterizations that the .223 cal. bullet tumbled in a brochure produced by Colt's Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company, Inc. The caption written by the book's authors reads, “From the first Colt AR-15 brochure, produced in a desperate attempt to interest somebody - anybody - in the merits of the AR-15's 'unmatched superiority.'” In one of the three internal brochure illustrations is text reading, in part, “On impact the tumbling action of the .223 caliber ammunition increases effectiveness.”  (3)

In 1961, Colt's did get somebody's attention. The Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) of the Department of Defense (DoD) was enjoined by the Kennedy administration to explore how the United States could support a foreign ally in a “limited” war. In the spring of 1961, ARPA's Project AGILE was implemented to supply “research and engineering support for the military and paramilitary forces engaged in or threatened by conflict in remote areas of the world.” In October of 1961, ARPA provided ten Colt's AR-15's to Vietnamese Forces in Saigon to conduct a limited test. The Black Rifle remarks of this test, “The number of rifles might have been small, but the enthusiastic reaction of the Vietnamese and their American advisors alike who handled and fired the AR-15s was just as [Colt's marketing agent] had predicted.” Armed with these positive results, ARPA succeeded in expanding the Project AGILE study by procuring 1,000 AR-15s for distribution among select Vietnamese units for field-testing. Ezell & Stevens write that this approval resulted in “ . . . saving Colt's from almost sure financial disaster and also setting the stage for the most influential yet controversial document so far in the history of the already controversial AR-15.”  (4)

The purpose of this test, as set forth in, ARPA, “Report of Task 13A, Test of ArmaLite Rifle, AR-15,” dated 31 July 1962, was “ . . . a comparison between the AR-15 and the M2 Carbine to determine which is a more suitable replacement for shoulder weapons in selected units of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF).” The Project AGILE results were summed up, in part, by ARPA as follows: “The suitability of the AR-15 as the basic shoulder weapon for the Vietnamese has been established. For the type of conflict now occurring in Vietnam, the weapon was also found by its users and by MAAG advisors to be superior in virtually all respects to the M1 Rifle, M1 and M2 Carbines, Thompson Sub-Machine Gun, and Browning Automatic Rifle.” NOTE: This study and its recommendations concerned the suitability of the AR-15 for Vietnamese soldiers, who were described by the testers to be of “small stature, body configuration and light weight,” NOT larger stature United States soldiers. (5) 

In any case, the report was widely read and some of its components came under serious question, especially those purporting to describe the demonstrated lethality of the .223 caliber cartridge. The following are three such examples from the Project AGILE report: 

a. Number of VC killed: 5 [Descriptions of the one-round killing wounds follow.]

“On 160900 June, one platoon from the 340 Ranger company was on a ground operation . . . and contacted 3 armed VC in heavily forested jungle.. . . At a distance of approximately 15 meters, one Ranger fired an AR-15 full automatic hitting one VC with 3 rounds with the first burst. One round in the head took it completely off. Another in the right arm, took it completely off. One round hit him in the right side, causing a hole about 5 inches in diameter.. . . (Rangers)”

EXAMPLE 2. “On 9 June a Ranger Platoon from the 40th Infantry Regt. Was given the mission of ambushing an estimated VC Company.. . .

1. Back wound, which caused the thoracic cavity to explode.
2. Stomach wound, which caused the abdominal cavity to explode.
3. Buttock wound, which destroyed all tissue of both buttocks.
4. Chest wound from right to left; destroyed the thoracic cavity.
5. Heel wound; the projectile entered the bottom of the right foot
    causing the leg to split from the foot to the hip.

These deaths were inflicted by the AR-15 and all were instantaneous except the buttock wound. He lived approximately five minutes. (7th Infantry Division)”

EXAMPLE 3. “On 13 April, a Special Forces team made a raid on a small village. In the raid, seven VC were killed. Two were killed by AR-15 fire. Range was 50 meters. One man was hit in the head; it looked like it exploded. A second man was hit in the chest, his back was one big hole. (VN Special Forces)”  (6)

The above “field-reports” are incredulous on their face and some in DoD requested that these results be duplicated scientifically. The Army Wound Ballistics Laboratory at Edgewood Arsenal attempted to do just that. Using .223 caliber Remington ammunition provided by Colt's representative, they conducted their “standard lethality trials that consisted of measuring the cavitational and other effects of firing at known distances into blocks of ballistic gelatin, and where necessary, anaesthetized goats.” They failed to duplicate the explosive effects reported by Project AGILE. In November 1962, the Army initiated “Worldwide” tactical and technical tests of the AR-15 using U. S. soldiers. Edgewood was tasked to perform further lethality tests using modified .223 caliber ammunition. Ezell and Stevens describe the modifications: “They had modified some 55-grain .223 caliber ball bullets of Remington manufacture by cutting approximately 1/4 inch off the nose and drilling a 3/32-inch-diameter hole about 1/4 inch deep into the lead core of each bullet.” The results? The authors continue, “As it turned out, even the hollow-points failed to duplicate anything like the spectacular effects recorded by the Vietnamese unit commanders and their American advisors, which had subsequently been taken as fact and much used as propaganda.” (7) 

The .223 caliber cartridge was morphed into the 5.56mm NATO cartridge and adopted for the United States Service Rifle M-16 (formerly, AR-15) replacing the 7.62mm M-14. How could such propaganda have convinced the Department of Defense to adopt the .223 caliber cartridge? 

“All this was inspired by the principle -- which is quite true in itself -- that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper stata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily, and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods.”      
                                                                                                                                           Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf (8) 

As is usually the case, a judgment based on lies was to adversely affect those at the “pointy end of the spear.” American warriors reported enemy soldiers continuing to close and fire their weapons after sustaining multiple hits by 5.56mm bullets. This happened as early as 9 December 1965 in the official “After Action Report of the Ia Drang Valley Operation . . ..” popularized by the movie and book We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young. The commanding officer of the battalion engaged there, Col. Harold G. Moore, USA, writes of assaulting enemy soldiers being hit by 5.56mm rounds: "Even after being hit several times in the chest, many continued firing and moving for several more steps before dropping dead." (9)  

Later in the Vietnam War, a similar experience is voiced by Col. John Hayworth, USA (Ret.): “In one fire-fight, I saw my RTO place three rounds [of 5.56 mm] in the chest of a charging NVA regular at 50 yards.  He kept firing his AK and never slowed down.  At 30 yards, I hit him with a blast of double ought buck.  It picked him up off his feet and he didn't get up again.”  (10)

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the DoD increased the weight of the 5.56mm 55-grain bullet (M193) to 62-grains, replaced most of its lead core with a steel "penetrator," painted the bullet tip green and designated the new cartridge, "M855."  In 1991, the Pentagon sent its warriors to the Gulf War with this new green-tip cartridge. Maj. Howard Feldmeier, USMC (Ret.) was there: “ . . . several Marines commented that they had to shoot Iraqi soldiers 2-3 or more times with the 62-grain 5.56mm green tip ammo before they stopped firing back at them . . ..” That report is exemplified by one of an Iraqi officer who was thrown from his vehicle and set afire by an explosion:  “Somehow he managed to hold on to his AK-47.  He also got up, still on fire, faced the firing line of Marines and charged forward firing his weapon from the hip.  He didn't hit anyone but two Marines each nailed him with a three round burst from their M-16A2s.  One burst hit him immediately above his heart, the other in his belly button. [He} . . . kept right on charging and firing until his magazine was empty.  When he got up to the Marines two of them tackled him and rolled him in the sand to put out the fire. . . .  He was quickly carried back to the battalion aid station . . .. The surgeons told me he certainly died of burns, but not necessarily from the six 5.56mm wounds . . ..”  (11)

In spite of the above “lesson learned,” the DoD dispatched its warriors to combat in Somalia in 1993 with the same flawed “green tip” cartridge as testified in Mark Bowden's book Black Hawk Down: “His weapon was the most sophisticated infantry rifle in the world, a customized CAR-15, and he was shooting the army's new 5.56mm green tip round. . . .  The bullet made a small, clean hole, and unless it happened to hit the heart or spine, it wasn't enough to stop a man in his tracks. Howe felt he had to hit a guy five or six times just to get his attention.” 

The Pentagon remained unmoved by that experience of its warriors and continued to send them to war underpowered.  On 4 April 2002, I received an e-mail from a trooper in Afghanistan who appeals, in part: “The current-issue 62gr 5.56mm (223) round, especially when fired from the short-barreled, M-4 carbine, is proving itself (once again) to be woefully inadequate as [a] man stopper.  Engagements at all ranges are requiring multiple, solid hits to permanently bring down enemy soldiers.  Penetration is also sadly deficient.  Even light barriers are not perforated by this rifle/cartridge combination.” (12)

Additional observations of the impotence of the 5.56mm round soon appeared in official and professional publications. In their official briefing “Lessons Learned in Afghanistan” dated April 2002, LTC C. Dean, USA and SFC S. Newland, USA of the U. S. Army Natick Soldier Center reported: “Soldiers asked for a weapon with a larger round. 'So it will drop a man with one shot.'” In the October 2002 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette magazine, Capt Philip Treglia, USMC reflected on his Afghanistan experience in December 2001 by reporting that, “the 5.56 mm round will not put a man to the ground with two shots to the chest.” Capt Treglia's men were trained to fire two bullets into an enemy's chest and if that did not knock him down, they were to shift fire to the head. This is the corrective action implemented for these Marines and many others in the Armed Forces for the impotent 5.56mm cartridge rather than equipping them with a rifle that fired a bullet with one-round knockdown power.  And, as Capt Treglia reported, multiple hits with the 5.56mm bullet didn't work any better in Afghanistan than it did anytime in the past.

In a 3 March 2003 written briefing, LCdr. Gary K. Roberts, USNR recommended to RAdm. Albert M. Calland, Commander, Naval Special Warfare (NSW) Command that he upgrades his command's 5.56mm weapons to the 6.8mm cartridge. That briefing, entitled, “Enhancement of NSW Carbine & Rifle Capability,” opens by observing:

                  "Recent combat operations have highlighted terminal  
              performance problems, generally manifested as failures to
              rapidly incapacitate opponents, during combat operations
              when M855 62gr. “Green Tip” FMJ is fired from 5.56mm rifles
              and carbines. Failure to rapidly incapacitate armed opponents 
              increases the risk of U.S. forces being injured or killed and
              jeopardizes mission success." (13)

That statement was prophetic:

On 12 September 2003, in Ar Ramadi, Iraq elements of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group engaged enemy forces in a firefight. An insurgent was struck in the torso by several rounds of 5.56mm ammunition from their M-4 carbines (this is the current shortened version of the M-16 Service Rifle). He continued to fire his AK-47 and mortally wounded MSgt Kevin N. Morehead, age 33, from Little Rock, Arkansas. The engagement continued with the same insurgent surprising SFC William M. Bennett, age 35, from Seymour, Tennessee from a hiding place and killing him instantly with a three-round burst to the head and neck. SSgt Robert E Springer, threw away his M-4 carbine, drew an obsolete WWI/WWII vintage .45 caliber pistol and killed the insurgent with one shot. A close inspection of the enemy's corpse revealed that he had been hit by seven 5.56 mm rounds in his torso. Also, in this engagement, these soldiers were provided with a commercially produced 5.56mm round of 77-grain weight vice the 62-grain bullets in use by general-purpose forces. Obviously, the larger 5.56mm round was of little consequence. (14) 

These reports are consistent with my own experience during three tours of duty in Vietnam from the goat incident in 1964 described above to service with the 3rd Marine Division in 1968-69; experience that repeatedly reminded me that this 5.56mm cartridge was nothing more than the full-metal jacket military version of the commercial .223 caliber Remington cartridge. The .223 caliber Remington was and is today commercially advertised and sold as a “varmint cartridge” for hunting groundhogs, prairie dogs and woodchucks. The cartridge is offered with soft point, hollow point, fragmentation, or projectiles incorporating two or more of these attributes to enhance its lethality and assure a “clean kill”: one-round knockdown power on varmints.  States such as the Commonwealth of Virginia do not permit it to be used for hunting deer or bear because its lethality-with or without those enhancements--does not assure a “clean kill” on big game. Yet, its full metal jacket military counterpart continues to be issued to American warriors in spite of almost 40 years of Lessons Learned that enemy soldiers continue to fire their weapons and have even killed our soldiers after sustaining multiple hits from 5.56mm bullets. (15)

The lethality of the 5.56mm cartridge, sold on lies, cannot be fixed in truth. It is time the Department of Defense recognizes this “Big Lie” from the Vietnam War and in the names of MSgt Kevin N. Morehead and SFC William M. Bennett replaces this varmint cartridge with one that gives our warriors that critical capability described by SFC Paul Howe above: one-round knockdown power! 

Semper One-Round Knockdown Power,

Anthony F. Milavic

Major USMC (Ret.)

-----2 POSTSCRIPTS-----

1) Subsequent to the above, the Commandant of the Marine Corps recieved a Congressional request dated 5 March 2005 to perfom a survey on the combat effectiveness of the M16 rifle and its 5.56mm cartridge. The Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned (MCCLL) responsed to that request on 9 May 2005 with a report that concluded: "Caliber of the round is only one of several factors impacting the ability to immediately incapacitate an enemy. Marksmanship is key." That conclusion was based, in part, on the statement of a Marine captain, who served as an MCCLL "collector" for the report, who stated: "Heard one story from, I believe it was 2nd Battalion 2nd Marines, they shot a guy twice with a Barrett 50 Cal and he was still coming." At least a half-dozen active duty Marine officers have used that .50 caliber report to me personally in attempting to counter my arguments of 5.56mm impotence. They argued, as the report concludes, that that report constituted prima facie evidence that the purported 5.56mm shortcomings in lethality was a problem of marksmanship not bullet size. An example of a .50 caliber ball cartridge is shown below as the bottom example and a 5.56mm "Green Tip" cartridge (bullet in current use by the USMC) is shown as the top example. (16)

Please look closely at the two examples above: Anyone who believes that the 5.56mm bullet on the top has the knockdown power of the .50 caliber bullet on the bottom believes a tack hammer and a sledgehammer are one in the same. [Projectile Weights: 5.56mm, Ball, M855A1--62grs & .50 Cal., Ball, M2--709grs. REF: Frank C. Barnes, CARTRIDGES OF THE WORLD, 9th Edition, Iola, WI: Krause Publications 2000, Chapter 17]

Also, at a Marine Corps Association luncheon on 22 January 2007, I asked the Commandant of the Marine Corps what was being done to give Marines the knockdown power for their rifles equal to that of the 7.62mm bullets used in the enemy's Kalashnikovs. He said that the Corps was going to increase marksmanship training for troops against moving targets.

As evidenced above, the 5.56mm bullet adoption was based on lies of its lethality and that lethality continues to be justified by manifest stupidity and blaming the troops.

2) US Military's "inferior small arms":Statement for the Record: Senate Armed Services Committee, Airland Subcommittee, May 18, 2017--MG Robert H Scales, USA (Ret)


1. Bowden, M, Black Hawk Down, Penguin Books, 2000, p. 208.

2. Fackler, ML,"Wounding patterns of military rifle bullets," International Defense Review, January 1989, pp. 59—64.

3. Ezell, EC & Stevens, RB, The Black Rifle, M16 Retrospective, Collector Grade Publications, Inc., 1994, p. 98.

4. Ibid. pp.99—100.

5. Ibid. pp.101—106.

6. Ibid. pp. 106—107.

7. Ibid. p. 116.

8. Hitler, A, Mein Kampf. James Murphy, translator. LondonNew YorkMelbourne: Hurst and Blackett Ltd; April 1942;     page 134.

9. Moore, Col. HG, "After Action Report, Ian Drang Valley Operation 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry 14—16 November 1965," dated, 9 December 1965, p. 8.

10. Hayworth, Col. J, E-Mail to author, 23 April 2002.

11. Feldmeier, Maj. H, E-Mail to author, 21 May 2002.

12. Anonymous, E-Mail to author, 26 March 2002.

13. Roberts, USNR, LCdr. Gary K., Brief to RAdm Albert M. Calland, CMDR NAVSPECWARCOM, "Enhancement of  NSW Carbine & Rifle Capability" brief, 3 March 2003.

14. Jones, Bruce L., "MILINET: Case Studies in Combat Failures of 5.56mm Ammunition," 3 November 2003