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from Guns & Ammo
July 2005

Shoulder Arms
Our resident military-hardware historian picks the Top 10 battle-shaping longarms.

The role of the infantryman, for the most part, has pretty much been the same through the ages, and if you read some period accounts it becomes obvious that they all shared similar experiences. I'm sure that if a Napoleonic-period British infantryman, a World War I French poilu and an American grunt in Vietnam sat down around a campfire, they'd soon all be bitching about their officers, rotten chow, long hours, bad pay, sore feet and the soldier's sorry lot in general.

Where things would start to get a tad testy would be in the weaponry department. I'll bet the Brit, crushing Brown Bess to his bosom and stroking her titian-toned stock, would proclaim her the "queen of battlefields." The Frenchman and the Yank would shake their heads and launch into animated discussions extolling the merits of the Lebel and M16--each probably feeling sorry for the other's second-rate weaponry. You know what, though? They'd all be right.

Given their frames of reference and taking into account the technologies of the times in which they were fighting, all were equipped with some of the best infantry arms available--arms that would have an effect far beyond their own particular periods. That's what this piece is about--my personal selection of the world's most important infantry firearms. Some had longer service lives than others, but all had a great influence on history and in the further development of weaponry. I'll present them in reverse chronological order rather than by some subjective merit system, for, as I've said, they were all the best there was.


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M16
Being the Luddite that I am, for a long time I resisted the charms of the M16. I'd been issued an M14 in the Army, fell in love with that rifle and figured it was just about as good as one could get. Since my callow youth, however, I've had time to get to know the M16 and appreciate it for the world-class piece of hardware it really is. The M16 got off to a bad start in Vietnam, but once it was serviced properly and slight modifications were made, it worked just fine. Designed by Eugene M. Stoner, this .223-caliber semi-/full-auto rifle is a wonder--adaptable, effective, reliable and lightweight. Unlike its principal adversary, the AK47, the M16 is pretty darned accurate. Like the AK, it's widely dispersed and popular not only with American troops but also with many of our allies--as well as with whatever bad guys can get their hands on one.

(Left to right) M1 Garand, M16, AK47

AK47
A few years ago I spent an afternoon in his dacha with Mikhail Kalashnikov, designer of the AK47. He's a voluble, affable, grandfatherly little fellow who likes his vodka--hardly the sort one would credit with coming up with one of history's most effective killing machines. The AK47 is a true assault rifle--it can be fired either semi- or full auto. Chambering the attenuated 7.62x39 round (ballistically similar to the .30-30), the AK47 was easy to use, easy to fieldstrip and service and rugged in the extreme. Initially adopted and produced indigenously by the Soviets, the gun was also made in Yugoslavia, Red China, Romania, East Germany, North Korea, Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary. The Finnish M60 and M62 and Israeli Galil are also based on the AK design. Americans have come up against it time and again in such places as Vietnam, Africa and, most recently, the Middle East. It might not be as accurate as the M16, but, man, does it work. The AK can really spray lead from its 30-round magazine and is particularly adaptable to being held over one's head and fired from behind the carcass of a burned-out automobile. This little sucker is everywhere, and it will be with us for a long, long time.

M1 Garand
General George S. Patton called the M1 "the greatest battle implement ever devised." Patton might have been a royal pain in the butt, but he was a pretty good commander and knew his guns, and he was right on with this one. Canadian designer John C. Garand worked for almost 20 years to come up with a semiauto action strong enough to handle the .30-06, and the result was a winner. There had been other military semiautos, such as the French Model 1917 St. Etienne, but none had ever been in general issue like the Garand. The action was operated by tapping off propellant gas, and a special eight-round en-bloc sheet-steel clip actually functioned as part of the feeding system. The Garand came into service in 1936--plenty early enough to become America's main battle rifle of World War II. The Yanks were the only ones--Axis or Allied--who had a standard-issue semiauto, and though the Germans tried to emulate the Garand's success with the G43, the Hun gun wasn't produced in numbers even approaching those of the Garand, nor was it even remotely as good. The M1 continued service in the Korean War and beyond, when it was finally replaced by the M14, which was actually just an upgrading of the Garand to semi-/full-auto, removable-magazine status.


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