Legendary Guns of Special Forces 1972-1992

Second of three parts. (The first part, Legendary Guns of Special Forces 1952-1972, can be found here).

Synoptic weapons list for this period:

This short list is provided because this is a very long post. Details of these weapons after the jump, and indeed after an awful lot of scene-setting.

  • Shoulder weapons: M16A1, M16A2, M16 Carbine, early M4, M203, AKMS-47.
  • Handguns: M1911A1, M9
  • Crew-Served and Special Weapons: M72 LAW, no machine guns.



SF Culture at the Start of this Period

This era began with withdrawal from Vietnam triggering a period of slow motion and even retrenchment in the Army in general and SF in particular. Headcount was cut back and units vanished as the Army transitioned from a rather clumsily implemented draft levée en masse to an all-volunteer force, something only one major power had attempted before (indeed, it was largely the British success of a volunteer military that encouraged  us to end the draft that had run continuously since 1940). Draftees had never been the core of Special Forces (although during Vietnam, draftees had volunteered their way in) but the Regular Army was not going to let end-strength cuts spare SF. In fact, Big Green wasted no time flushing everything that reminded it of Vietnam, including Special Forces. The Chief of Staff was an officer known to despise SF, and he raised a generation of SF-loathing Mini-Me’s. (Pleas click “more” to continue).

The 1st, 3rd, 6th and 8th Special Forces Groups were disbanded, and their experienced NCOs scattered: to drill sergeant duty, to ROTC assignment purgatory, to babysitting fractious troops in conventional units. A few cadred a new idea, two Airborne Ranger battalions, units that the Chief hoped would replace SF’s raid and reconnaissance capability without becoming so culturally distinct from Big Green. SF combat officers bore a disproportionate  share of officer Reductions In Force (RIFs). The teams of the surviving groups (5th, 7th, and 10th) inherited responsibility for the areas once covered by the disbanded units, but had to do it at about two-thirds strength. Even the Reserve and Guard groups (11th, 12th, 19th and 20th) lost numbers because some members had joined with a view to avoiding Vietnam without looking yellow. These crypto-yellows were soon gone, and, ironically, were often replaced by Vietnam veterans who, having finished their military service and started new jobs and families, missed something about it.

Money for training dried up. Ammunition was cut, to the point where even an SF unit had to fight to get its men 40 rounds a year to fire the qualification table and another 10 or so to zero. The conventional Army didn’t even try, conducting rifle qualification with the “M1 Pencil.” Forget about blanks for force-on-force training: they were doled out like rubies, and many exercises ended like childhood games, with both sides standing on the objective after shouting “bang, bang!” during the TOT, arguing about who killed whom. It was not only deleterious to readiness, it was unseemly.

The other SF specialties suffered similarly. Funds for continuing education of medics evaporated, too; commo gear repairs didn’t happen, and even crypto pads became scarce, with clueless commanders suggesting saving and reusing old ones (a very bad idea); ultimately they made a set of reusable pads for training, and resigned themselves to Ivan reading our every message on exercises. While all this logistical strangulation was going on, commanders lied on their unit readiness reports. (A truth-teller committed career suicide, in a sea of flunkies admiring the Emperor’s New Clothes). In the Pentagon, all looked rosy; a command culture of unwillingness to listen to negative reports produced, mirabile dictu, an Army that never transmitted a negative report.

This was corrosive to troops’ respect for their superiors, but superiors who could produce the illusion of respect with a command seemed satisfied with it.

Meanwhile, society at large turned on the military in the aftermath of Vietnam, particularly elite, educated society. Soldiers were losers, morons, cretins who could get no better work, or perhaps were attracted to the military by character deficiencies: lust for power, inability to adapt to civilian life, or outright criminality. Celebrity psychologists published research-lite opinion papers on “the military mind.”  (In a word: dim). A series of news reports on “tripwire vets” blamed crime on Vietnam veterans. Their examples were often rampant wannabees but Boomer reporters like CBS’s Dan Rather were so disconnected from the military — Rather had flunked out of Marine boot camp, but calls himself a former Marine, a foundational lie in a career packed with them — that they couldn’t tell. (Hot tip: a guy with a below average IQ and personal hygiene, telling tales about cutting babies’ throats, probably wasn’t really a SEAL).

But as we’ve seen, the trend collision of an under-resourced military and leaders’ zero-defects mentality produced a military culture that demanded and tolerated systematic dishonesty whilst paying cynical lip-service to integrity. The psychologists were right about the military being messed up; they were wrong about how. 

SF leaders tried to hold the line against the moral collapse of the Army. It was a challenge to train without money. With no fuel to fly aircraft, instead of parachute infiltration, men would be tapped out of the back of a 2 1/2 ton truck at intervals across a field. With no money for training ammo, the men bought their own, even though it was literally a crime to fire it in a government owned weapon. Conventional units’ commanders and supply sergeants wondered where our ammo came from; they’d seen the empty bunkers at the ammo supply point. But SF culture stressed mission over regulations, and the Army at large stressed regulations over mission. It never occurred to them to lay their American Express down at a gun shop to buy, ironically, surplus ammunition that the downsizing post-Vietnam Army had dumped for pennies on the dollar.

This penny-pinching Army, struggling to refocus on potential tank battles in Central Europe and Korea, was not interested in providing SF with non-standard weapons. During this period, specialist weapons, except for limited foreign and obsolete weapons, vanished and SF did its thing for a long time with Army standard weapons.

Small Arms

The armament of the Special Forces ODA in 1972 was extremely simple: 12 M16A1 rifles and 12 M1911A1 pistols (wait till you see what it is in 2012, in the next segment of this report). Both weapons were adequate, combat-proven weapons. The achilles’ heel of the M16A1 was its flimsy magazines, and for much of this period the mags issued were old, Vietnam-era 20-rounders. (If you saw a guy in SF in the 70s or early 80s with 30- or the rare 40-round mags, he usually had bought them himself). Hard usage, including parachute jumps, also was capable of bending an M16 barrel. But it was easy to carry (most SF men removed the mispositioned stock sling and did without, or improvised a proper one from a General Purpose (GP) strap and 550 cord) and ergonomic. The quality of M16A1s varied wildly: Colt had suffered periodic labor unrest during which workers sabotaged, or managers working on the line screwed up,  thousands of rifles (out of a production of nearly three million). The other contract makers (GM’s Hydramatic division and Harrington & Richardson) had struggled to make minimum quality standards on their hundreds of thousands. The Army had only weak systems for identifying and correcting deficient small arms, and the corrupt readiness-reporting system discouraged turn-in of unserviceable machinery.

But when an M16A1 is a built to spec, and fed by an undamaged magazine, it’s a very good weapon. It is light and handy in a way its modern progeny are not. It is more accurate than its iron sights can accommodate (the small Colt scopes were popular, and we began experimenting with single-point sights even before 1972 — generally as personal, private purchases). It adapted well wherever SF took it, from the Sahara to the Arctic Circle to equatorial rain forests. American weapons’ superior corrosion proofing is an advantage few think about, but SF guys observing the effects of environmental conditions on their own weapons and their host nations’ counterparts’ saw it first hand.

Yes, a carbine would have been nicer, but there weren’t many left of the very short (10,000 serial numbers) production run. The M16A1 was good enough for its time, and better than many of its contemporaries. During this period, too, SF missions changed to keep the regiment alive, and the new missions depended less upon riflery and more upon stealth and something new: joint terminal guidance operations with the Air Force and Navy. As the Army was led for years by officers like Creighton Abrams and Bernard Rogers, focused on the potential tank battles in NATO’s CENTAG area, they did not see how SF’s doctrinal unconventional approach, working “by, with and through”  indigenous forces, helped their war. They wanted ultra-long-range reconnaissance, stealthy small SICTA (Special Intelligence Collection Team Alpha) detachments as deep as a thousand miles behind enemy lines. These teams were sent out unsupported, and the classified war plans contained only sketchy provisions for their exfiltration. “If we fire our rifles,” one team sergeant observed, “we’re done for.” And they wanted pinpoint target attack, which led to such exotica as the SADM (Special Atomic Demolition Munition, withdrawn from service circa 1986, most details of which remain classified) and offset beacon bombing, an intricate minuet of SF team, radio beacon, and singleton F-111F or A-6E bomber crew.

When we in the 10th Special Forces Group pointed out that we could raise the captive peoples of Europe in the rear area of any Soviet assault, a supercilious mandarin from the Central Intelligence Agency told us that in their judgment, which was much better than ours, the resistance potential in Eastern Europe was: zero. “They’re happy with their lot there, and take great pride in being more disciplined and having more of a communitarian focus than the West,” this senior desk jockey told us. (Meanwhile, nearly every man in the group was related to refugees or had been trained in language and culture by them. We had a much better sense of how Eastern Europeans thought than Langley’s dry analysts).

The M203 joined the ODA during this period and provided the team with a rudimentary indirect-fire and area-weapon capability built onto the rifle. An ODA or ODB had two M203s assigned. As a rule of thumb, the 203s were carried by the team engineers (12B at the start of this period, 18C after the establishment of SF Branch in the 1980s).
Some still preferred the M79 for its higher rate of fire and less awkward handling; trying to be two distinct things, the 203 system was compromised both as a rifle and as a grenade launcher. But Big Green had spoken and the M79s were turned in.

Big Green’s weapons platform decisions grated on many in the SF Weapons community. The replacement of the M16A1 by the “improved” A2 was not universally well received in the SF world, nor was replacement of the 1911 by the Beretta M9.

The M16A2’s dominant cons were increased weight, less durable sights, reduced close-quarters lethality, and the unreliable 3-shot burst system. It wasn’t all negative, though: the sights produced greater accuracy, and what the new M855 round and 1:7 twist gave up in short-range lethality, they gained in long-range penetration. (That was a deliberate design decision to meet an arbitrary NATO standard requiring penetration of a Russian WWII steel helmet at 800 meters).

Starting in the 1980s, defense budgets began to rise, and SF began to recapitalize. New field gear came with new weapons, and there was now training ammunition — for special operations forces, if not always for Big Green.

The M16A2 took a long time to make its way to all of SF, and it didn’t serve there for very long, because the Army reissued Colt carbines. The first of them resembled the original Vietnam era CAR-15 but had a longer barrel (14.5″) and the M16A1 flash suppressor. They were soon replaced by a weapon with the sights, case deflector, flash hider, heavier barrel and hated burst fire conrol of the M16A2.

At first these carbines were known as “M16 carbines” but by 1992 they would be known as “M4s”. The issue of carbines to SF became possible because, beginning with the Goldwater-Nichols act of 1986, special operations forces had their own money, Major Force Program 11. MFP-11 funds would revolutionize the armament of Special Forces teams, but they were slow in coming.


The controversial replacement of the 1911 pistol by the M9 took place in the mid 1980s. In SF, as in every other corner of the gun culture, the change was hotly debated. The pros were: the larger magazine, the second-strike on the primer capability, and the more readily available ammunition, worldwide. (SF is always thinking about battlefield scrounging). The cons were — the less effective round, the ergonomics of the pistol (worse for small hands than the 1911), and, well, there was a lot of affection for the 1911 built up over the decades. The Beretta did not inspire the same love, maybe because it was foreign, maybe because it was new. The Army did not help by mandating empty-chamber, but SF men had ignored that rule for the M1911 and they didn’t start obeying it now. (A wise commander never gives intelligent troops a stupid command).

And then we got word that M9s were breaking. A naval special warfare unit had had several slides break, one of them leading to an injury. Several measures were taken, including retiring slides at a certain round count. The unit in question had jumped the M9 gun with a purchase of commercial Beretta 92s, and fired many thousands of rounds. Later on, as the manufacture of the M9 moved to a plant in the US, corners cut in manufacture would lead to more problems, including failure of locking blocks (less hazardous than slide failures, but it still downed the pistol). Naval special warfare units sought out other pistols, taking advantage of the fact that the SIG also passed the exhaustive testing the M9 did (Beretta edged SIG-Sauer out on cost). We stuck with the M9, because around this time we stopped doing urban combat and building clearing with pistols as primary weapons.

The brief reign of the MP-5

It was the MP-5, acquired largely because of CT successes by the British and German forces while using this weapon, that taught SF to clear buildings and conduct CQB with a carbine in preference to a pistol. The terrs (or, in training, the paper targets representing them) wound up just as dead, but maybe a hairsbreadth faster; and the guys took less time, training ammunition, and coaching to be shooting at world-class level.

But once we figured out you could work in tight spaces with a short long-gun, the MP-5, as cool-looking as it was, inevitability got compared to the M16 Carbine/M4, and came out second best. The final nail in the MP-5 coffin came about during the invasion of Grenada, in October, 1982. A Navy team found themselves ashore and under accurate long-range fire, armed only with MP-5s. They survived, but nobody in the special ops community went to war with all pistol-caliber, short-range weapons ever again.

The SF-issue AK-47

One of the most peculiar (in the normal “odd” sense of the word, not the “peculiar to” sense it’s used in the acronym SOPMOD) weapons ever employed by SF was the AKMS-47. The 10th Special Forces Group, which would have operated in Europe behind a Soviet advance, identified a need for Soviet equipment not only for training but also for deployment. As a result a large purchase of AKs was made on the world arms market. (The Army had always acquired small quantities of weapons this way for technical-intelligence purposes). The weapons were brand-new in-crate AMKS rifles, with underfolding stocks, and each came with spare magazines, cleaning tools, and a bayonet. The bayonets were not on the hand receipts at first, and one supposes most of them wound up as souvenirs.

To our shock, almost one weapon in ten was unserviceble right out of the crate, usually due to bad stamping or machining of internal parts. At the time, a lot of information was loose in the world indicating that the Soviets were nine feet tall and their weapons were perfect. But these AKs were, sometimes, as phony as a 1979 US Army readiness report: they were beautifully rust-blued in Old World style on the outside, but crudely finished inside, and the rust-blue turned to just plain rust in humid conditions.

On the other hand, they were AKs, which meant that, if the thing wasn’t DOA, it was as hard to kill as Rasputin.

In the end, difficulty getting the ammunition converged with new and increasingly anal-retentive requirements for safety inspections from, where else, Big Green. The depot technicians charged with the inspections had no knowledge of and no tools for foreign weapons, but they did know how to really gum up a unit’s foreign-weapons armory. Sometime in the nineties, they laughed at a guy who suggested his team should carry AKs, and that was the last time anyone suggested it. The weapons were kept around for hands-on mechanical training, but without certification from the maintenance crew, they couldn’t be shot.

Special-Ops Weapons Reemerge: the M24

The army began, grudgingly, to see that special operation forces needed some particular weapons. In the 1980s, SF did produce one winning weapons platform: the M24 sniper system was developed almost entirely inside the Special Forces community. Impetus for its creation was a major command post exercise that solved a geopolitical problem with an artfully placed SF sniper team; only afterward were the senior leaders told that the shot was problematical with the  well-worn existing stockpiles of the 1960s-era M21 Sniper System. (That may seem strange, but today, you can get an ART II scope serviced and Army gunsmiths are aces at rebuilding M14s; in 1984, good luck). That opened up the tap and the money began to flow.

The M24 was developed by SF gunsmiths with input from the ODAs, from marksmanship experts, and from the Marines, who had and loved a Remington-action sniper rifle. One important question for the Marines was, “how would you improve the weapon?” They wanted more range, and so the M24 was designed from the outset with a long-action suitable for a larger cartridge, like the .300 Winchester Magnum.

The M24 was a hit not just with SF but with the regular Army, which rediscovered sniping. It still serves on the front lines (well, in SF, behind the front lines) today, but they’re being rebuilt into M2010 sniper rifles — in .300 Win Mag, some 30 years after their initial production. The M24 was the most successful SF weapons fielding initiative of the 1972-1992 period.

The 1990s and Modularity

At the beginning of the 1990s, two changes shook the world of SF weapons. end of the cold war, and the development of the weapon that would become the M4 Carbine. As mentioned above, Colt began supplying M16 Carbines (later termed M4s) towards the end of this period. The Air Force had always used carbines to guard its nuclear missiles and air bases, and Colt had kept plugging away at the carbine and solved its reliability problems with different gas ports and improved buffers, among other production-line changes. But the carbine was essentially  a baby M16.

SF and other special operations forces demanded more. They wanted optical sights — scopes for range, and red-dots for CQB. They wanted weapons lights. Police had lasers, why couldn’t we? Since we owned the night with night vision gear, why not infrared lasers, invisible to our enemies? They could be used for signalling as well as for target designation. Why not bigger magazines? Why doesn’t a scope mount hold zero, it’s just a machine!

A series of awkward stop-gaps, many developed by Dick Swan of A.R.M.S., mounted optics, lights, and lasers to the handguards or carrying handle in a series of awkward ways. But the cheek weld was wrong, or the eye relief was wrong, or something was wrong. The carrying handle was in the way. Why not get rid of it?

Special forces weapons men on the teams had long made unreasonable demands like this. But in 1992, there was a difference: MFP-11 money was available to solve these problems. A joint-services team began work on the radical idea of a modular weapons system, adaptable, adjustable and upgradeable at the user level. Something like Gene Stoner had been reaching towards with the Stoner 63, but leveraging the thirty years’ improved technology available, and based on the standard carbine.

As this team was tinkering in labs and on ranges, the 40th Anniversary of Special Forces arrived in 1992. It was old enough to have greats and legends, and young enough for many of those legends and greats still to be alive. In half the worlds’ time zones Special Forces soldiers, deployed on training, advisory or other missions, watched the sun set and mused that they were actually being paid to do this.

6 thoughts on “Legendary Guns of Special Forces 1972-1992

  1. Morgan Lewis

    I left 1st SF Group (Okinawa) in late 1970. Sometime before that, all our 1911’s were turned in for .38 Spl revolvers. I believe they were S&W’s, the basic Military/Police model. My experience is limited to a small training camp away from the flag pole. Everyone thought it a poor decision. This may have been in the 1969 timeframe. I have no idea if this was particular to 1st Group, SF, or Army wide.

    1. Hognose Post author

      I’d never heard that. The .45s were the rule in the groups when I got to 10th ten years later.At that time, 1st was on hiatus.

      The .38 was a standard issue weapon until the M9, it was mostly issued to airmen and MPs with small hands (especially after they opened Military Police to women around 1978-80 or so). It’s odd that they replaced them with M9s because that has a greater grip circumference than the M1911A1. Of course, the MPs didn’t know or couldn’t use the SOF trick of using the flat 1911 (not A1) mainspring housing and pinning the grip safety for a small-hands shooter. Never mentioned the .38 before because I never thought SF used them. Learn something new every day! Some of the guys carried privately owned revolvers, but this series is about issued weapons.

      Handguns were very important in CQB from about 1977 to 1987 or so… firing the .45 in the tire house with the early NODs, the world would go bright green for a count of three thousand every time you fired.

  2. Torres

    A good piece but there is a weapon that is conspicuous by it’s absence form your list of SF weapons of the period. One that any good SF Trooper from the period had the pleasure of lugging out at Camp Mackall during SFQC.

    Yes, I’m talking about the unreliable but cool-looking M-60 LMG. Haven’t we all loved hearing the shout of “60!!!” and the man in front of you lifting the beast above his head for you to take off his hands while he grabbed your nice, light M-16A1, and ran to the rear of your detachment? How about only having to carry the barrel of the aforementioned beast while negotiating the land nav course whilst your comrades carried their M-16 back before they started issuing deactivated rubber weapons to all of the students.

    Yes, I loved the M-60 and look back fondly on those days now that they are 31 years in the past!

    1. Hognose Post author

      Ah yeah, how did I forget that? “60!” We never shot them in Phase 1 for some reason. For the field patrolling training, they took them away and gave us more M14s. And linked ammo we had to delink. (There’s an MSG Craig Maxim story in that, actually). I think the 60s had to go to depot maintenance for some recall/inspection during my class. It may have been due to the well-known problem with receivers stretching.

      We all carried A1s on the land nav course. One guy came in without a handguard — the draw ate it. (I lost my Ranger School Ranger cap the same way). We only used the rubber ducks on the swimming stuff. Sometimes the rubber ducks come up on GunBroker. They were cast rubber around a shot-out A1 barrel. A friend of mine got one that had a rare early cast front sight base, and that encouraged him to cut the whole barrel out, but the barrel was early, pre chromed-bore, and badly pitted.

      I think we got too deep in the SF culture in this one. Next installment will be the rise of the SOPMOD kit and will have a complete rundown on what an SF team had for weapons as of 2010. It’s already changed, of course. Tempus fugit.

  3. Jacob Jackson

    Wow. This post was well worth waiting for. I didn’t realize that SF primarily used pistols for room clearing – I guess that partly explains the MK23 being labelled as an “offensive pistol.” Didn’t know about the ammo shortage, either – I’d’ve figured SF at least shouldn’t have a problem with that. Thanks for sharing.

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