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American fighting men have carried the M16 in one form or another into combat for more than fifty years, from Vietnam to the present day. The story of the original M16, whose descendants the M16A4 and M4 carbine today fight in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State, goes all the way back to the 1950s and the institutional soul-searching that came after another war.
In the aftermath of the Korean War, the U.S. Army took stock of its small arms arsenal. The Army’s M1 carbine, M1 Garand rifle, Browning Automatic Rifle squad automatic weapon and machine guns were all some variation on .30 caliber. The Army needed a new rifle and carbine, ideally a single weapon, but the data suggested that the lighter, slower .30 caliber round of the M1 carbine was less useful than the .30 and .30-06 rounds used in other small arms.
At the same time, influential studies by Army ordnance engineers suggested that a soldier using a small caliber, high-velocity rifle of about .21 caliber would expect to kill 2.5 times more targets than with the M1 rifle. The average infantry engagement took place at 300 yards or less, and the average expert rifleman’s marksmanship declined sharply beyond 100 yards. Therefore the utility of a heavier round requiring heavier bullets and a heavier recoil—but capable of killing targets at 500 yards—was questionable.