We arrived back at our barracks one evening after training to discover that someone had installed close circuit televisions (CCTV) at the end of each floor of each building. Our first lesson on the CCTV was the care and maintenance of our rifles. We pulled our footlockers together and followed the televised instructor as he field stripped and reassembled his weapon. In no time we were competing to see who could do it the fastest, blindfolded.
I had fired thousands of rounds of small bore ammunition – mostly .22 caliber – before I joined the army. I also shot trap and skeet with shotguns. Thus, I had no problem when it came to zero our weapons. We had to place three shots inside a one inch square target at 25 meters. Most of us Southern boys accomplished the task with just a few shots to adjust the sights. We then relaxed the rest of the day as the Yankees fired hundreds of rounds attempting to duplicate our feat. It was like having a day off.
I'm convinced my weapon was captured by the Viet Cong and thrown back as unfit for use. It was in pretty bad shape, but it served its purpose. I fired Expert when the time came to qualify with it. However, during night firing exercises, the sear pin wore away and it emptied the full magazine of twenty rounds with just one pull of the trigger. The sergeant in charge of the firing range was livid. “Who the hell's the John Wayne on my firing line!” he shouted as he came looking for the offender. Obviously, he believed that someone could pull the trigger that fast.
I kept my mouth shut.
I was lucky to keep the barrel pointed down range when that happened. Later, when we fired the AR-14, a fully automatic version of the M-14, we discovered that no one could control it. The barrel jerked off target when firing short bursts of just two rounds.
The Manual of Arms was equal parts a guide to marching and saluting with a rifle as well as how to fire it. Both halves were drilled into us until we could obey any command reflexively. Firearms safety was our first and foremost lesson. A battlefield is dangerous enough without the men around you mishandling their weapons.
I well remember our first time on the firing line. We were instructed to stand behind a row of stakes in the ground – one for each of us sticking about six inches above the earth. The sergeant in charge then ordered us to lay out weapons with the muzzles pointed down range, resting on the stakes in front of us, and then stand at attention with the butt end of rifles between our feet. He expressed his dissatisfaction with our performance and had us retrieve our weapons and do it again. And again. And again. It became apparent to me that he was establishing his control over us.
We learned three basic firing positions: standing, sitting, and prone. To qualify, we had to fire accurately on targets as far away as 400 meters from all three positions. There were three levels of qualification: Marksman, Sharpshooter, and Expert.
We also had to learn how to fire our weapons in combat. It wasn't enough to simply shoot at targets. We had to know which targets to engage and when to engage them. Fighting as a unit is vastly different from fighting as an individual. Individuals such as snipers shoot to kill – one shooter, one bullet, one kill. Infantry units such as fire teams, rifle squads, and rifle platoons shoot to destroy, neutralize, or suppress the enemy.
Our weapons had to be cleaned and ready to be issued to the next class when our eight weeks of Basic Combat Training ended. The company armorer made sure they were cleaned well enough when we turned ours back to him. Each platoon was given ample cleaning supplies and a whole day to make them ready for inspection. Each man made several attempts to satisfy the armorer that his weapon was clean enough.
Unfortunately, I was detailed to the mess hall that day and had only a few minutes to clean my weapon. Of course, all the cleaning supplies were used up by the time I made it back to our barracks. I tore up a t-shirt to make cleaning patches and used a bottle of Jade East aftershave as a solvent. You should have seen the look on the armorer's face as he brought the weapon close to look down the barrel. He quickly pushed it away and looked at me incredulously. I shrugged and explained that I had been on KP all day. He shook his head and put my weapon on the rack. That was the last I saw of it.
Postscript: Upon arrival in Vietnam, I was issued an M-16. I never fired an M-14 again.