On the heels of his terrific guest post, 10 Things Authors Get Wrong About the Military, Joshua Hood is back with more insights from his background as a decorated combat veteran who served five years in the 82nd Airborne Division. He’s also the author of the novels Clear by Fire and Warning Order, both published by Simon and Schuster.
Today, however, he’s writing about what writers need to know about one of the most ubiquitous U.S. military firearms in fiction, the M16. Enjoy!
On Writing Guns in Fiction: Haters Gonna Hate
When it comes to writing military fiction I have a simple rule: do your research. Being a stickler for accuracy is what separates the rock stars from the groupies, and can make or break your reputation. A friend of mine, whose name I won’t mention, is a well-known thriller author with a major publisher. Not only is he a stickler for accuracy, but he has the military equivalent of a Jedi Tab, which pretty much makes him a subject matter expert.
But at the end of the day, both he and his editor are human. One of his many New York Times bestsellers went to print with a typo. There was a line that said something to the effect of “the Colt M-4 chambered for 5.5.”
Did you catch it?
He left out a digit. It should have read, “the Colt M-4 chambered for 5.56.” Big deal, but some Cheetos-eating, I-live-in-my-mom’s-basement keyboard commando couldn’t let it go, and mounted a full on Amazon assault. Crazy, huh?
So, to avoid this kind of negativity, writers must all remember that the moment a mortal dons his or her writer’s hat, they immediately transform into a subject matter expert, so god help you if you make a mistake.
A Great Example: The M16
A common problem I see over and over deals with a very common military rifle: the groundbreaking and much maligned M-16, pictured below. Let us bask in its radiance.
(This and other military firearms are sometimes written as “M-16” or “M16.” Either style is appropriate, but it is important to be consistent. ~Ben)
Part of understanding the M16 and its grandson, the M4, comes from its history. In 1962, the U.S. military had a problem. It needed a new battle rifle. The M1 Garand had been in service since World War II, but it was heavy, made out of wood and fired one bullet at a time. Warfare had evolved, and long-distance engagements became common.
For close work, you needed to establish a base of fire so you could maneuver. Basically, you needed a select-fire weapon, one that allows you to fire on semi-auto (one shot at a time) or full auto (“if you ain’t blastin’ you ain’t lastin’”).
While the Russians were perfecting the AK-47, the U.S. was asleep at the wheel. The first attempt to replace the M1 was the M14, which was basically a ‘roided out version of the Garand. The rifle fired a 7.62×51 mm NATO, but was heavy as hell, had a small magazine capacity, and was hard to control on full auto. Not a good fit. After a bunch of tinkering and general time wasting, someone decided that the solution was a Space Age-looking rifle called the Armalite AR-10, which was eventually renamed the AR-15. After the U.S. military adopted it, it was designated the M16, and it came in successive variants.
Trivia question: what does “AR” stand for? Hint: it is not “assault rifle.”
M16A1: 1965 to 1983
If you are writing military fiction set between the years of 1965 and 1983, the M16A1 (the A1 denotes the version of the M16) is the rifle your military character will most likely be carrying. It has a few distinguishing features like a triangular hand guard, fixed carrying handle and the ability to fire on full auto. It came with a 10-round magazine and fired 5.56 ammunition from the closed bolt position. It was prone to rust, liked to jam and had the general reputation of being a piece of crap.
There are variants like the CAR-15, which is a cut down version of the M16 carried by special operations during Vietnam because it was shorter. This weapon was abandoned following the war.
The M16A2: Early 1980s to 1994
Following a pretty dismal showing in Vietnam, the Marine Corps finally had enough. It basically said, “Hey, this M16A1 kinda sucks. Maybe you guys can fix a few things?”
The military complied. It made the rifle more resilient, adjusted the rifling so it was more accurate and replaced the full auto option with a three-shot burst (because when you give someone a machine gun you’d better believe they are going to shoot a ton of ammo). It also had a brass deflector and a more ergonomic hand guard.
If you are writing a book set during the early 1980s and 1994, this is the rifle that your characters would be lugging around Panama, Grenada or Desert Storm.
The M16A3 and M16A4: Recent Years
The M16A3 is basically an M16A2 that can fire on full auto, and like the CAR-15 was produced as a niche weapon.
The M16A4 started showing up in the mid-1980s and became the main battle rifle of the Marine Corps until being replaced by the M4 in October of 2015. Similar in many ways to the A3 in design and look, it had a removable carrying handle, and a Picatinny rail that allowed the addition of optics, lights and lasers, which are cool.
The M4, Successor to the M16: 1994 to Today
In 1994, the M4 showed up. Since 9-11, it’s surpassed the M16 as the U.S. military’s standard. With its smaller size, it’s the yin to the AK-47’s yang.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave or under a rock, you have seen the M4 on just about every TV show or movie since the invasion of Afghanistan. Its popularity is based on size and the fact that it is Swiss Army Knife of rifles. You can attach just about whatever you want to the weapon.
It is so versatile that the M4 has created its own after-market industry. Much like the Glock, a user can buy the basic model and then change just about every component imaginable.
Final Thoughts About Military Firearms
Before I sign off, I’d like to leave you with a few tidbits that I hope will serve you well.
The first is the difference between 5.56 and the civilian .223 round. They are very similar, but the main thing to remember is that a rifle chambered for 5.56 can shoot a .223 round, but not vice versa.
Hollywood likes to show people getting blown off their feet when shot by a 5.56. In my experience this is not the case. I think of the 5.56 as an icepick to the 7.62’s hammer.
Some special operations units carry hollow points in combat, and there has been a lot of recent talk about using them in the military’s next handgun.
People love to argue about the AK-47 versus the M16. It is almost as popular as the .45 versus the 9mm debate, or the 1911 versus Glock debate. I’d avoid these arguments because no one really wins, and in the end your head is going to hurt.
In the end it is up to the author what weapon his or her protagonist carries. Some people like certain guns so they put them in their book, others want to be historically accurate. My advice is to always remember that a weapon is just a tool. Just like a hammer, it is nothing without you.
About Joshua Hood
Joshua Hood is the author of Clear by Fire and Warning Order (Simon & Schuster), and a decorated combat veteran who served five years in the 82nd Airborne Division. He conducted combat missions in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom as a team leader with the 3-504 Parachute Infantry Regiment. As a squad leader, he deployed with the 1-508 Parachute Infantry Regiment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. While in Afghanistan, he was decorated for valor in Operation Furious Pursuit, a battle that would become the subject of award-winning artist James Dietz’s portrait, Into the Heart of Darkness.
He is currently a member of a full-time SWAT team in Memphis, Tennessee, and has conducted countless stateside operations with the FBI, ATF, DEA, Secret Service and U.S. Marshals.