It was supposed to be a wonder weapon—a light, lethal rifle to help the United States win the war in Vietnam.
Weighing less than the enemy’s AK-47, it was less fatiguing for soldiers to carry than older, heavier American rifles. It also fired a new type of ammunition that was light enough that a soldier could carry nearly twice as much ammo—and yet just as lethal as much heavier bullets.
But instead of saving American lives, the complex, unreliable M-16 ended up getting troops killed. In desperation, the Army created a comic book, a silly little book with a deadly serious purpose—to teach troops how to take care of their new rifles … and maybe save their own lives.
Who better to write and illustrate the instructional sequential art than Will Eisner, now a comics legend? The M-16 would improve. In the meantime, Eisner’s The M-16A1 Rifle: Operation and Preventative Maintenance played at least a small role in keeping the weapon from being a total write-off.
Eugene Stoner of the Hollywood, California-based ArmaLite invented the M-16 in 1963. Stoner sold the revolutionary design to Colt Firearms, which then marketed it as a lightweight infantry weapon to the Air Force, Army and Marine Corps.
The U.S. military was becoming more of an expeditionary force, with Marines, paratroopers and Special Forces operating in hot spots from the Caribbean to the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
The trend was toward lighter, more mobile forces. Helicopters were becoming a part of the ground forces, lifting commandos, air cavalry and Marines into battle. The rifle seemed a like a good fit for the times.
Known as the M-16, it was also innovative, as it used light-weight plastic and aluminum instead of wood and steel. An M-16 with six loaded magazines weighed 11 pounds, significantly easier to carry than the older M-14, which weighed almost 19 pounds with an equivalent number of magazines.
Vietnamese troops, shorter than Americans, also needed a lightweight rifle with stopping power.
The M-14 was far too big. With nothing else available, the South Vietnamese troops carried World War II-era M-2 carbines. But Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army troops carried the powerful AK-47, which outgunned the South Vietnamese.
The M-16 stumbles
The M-16 worked well—for a while—when used for testing purposes in limited numbers. As America’s commitment to Vietnam escalated, the military decided to equip all troops fighting in Vietnam with the rifle.
The first problem is that the Army instituted a number of changes to the production model M-16, including a new type of gunpowder. The new gunpowder was dirtier, which fouled the rifle with black carbon residue and made it more likely to jam.
The military compounded the issue by sending M-16s to Vietnam without enough cleaning tools. Cleaning rods were in short supply, and the Army issued many rifles without cleaning kits altogether.
Worse, in what ranked as one of the most catastrophic U.S. military mistakes of the postwar era, troops in Vietnam came to believe that the rifles were so advanced, they did not need cleaning.
The results were tragic. As American troops flowed into Vietnam, M-16s became notorious for jamming in battle. In C.J. Chivers’ The Gun, a Marine infantryman vented to the Ashbury Park Evening Press: “Believe it or not, you know what killed most of us? Our own rifle,” the Marine said.
“Before we left Okinawa, we were all issued the new rifle, the M-16,” he added. “Practically everyone of our dead was found with his rifle tore down next to him where he had been trying to fix it.”
Reports of failing M-16s grew more frequent, and the manufacturer, Colt, sent representatives to Vietnam to investigate. Kanemitsu Ito, an Army veteran, traveled to Vietnam three times and described himself as “shocked” at the poor maintenance conditions he found among the troops operating the M-16.
“I spoke to many enlisted personnel as to why they did not maintain their rifles. Some of them didn’t know how,” Ito wrote. “Many of them said they were never taught the maintenance of this rifle, or had seen this rifle until they arrived in Vietnam.”
Word got back to the Pentagon, which set about fixing the problem. The military redesigned the rifle to be more reliable, and fixed the gunpowder issue. But there was still a gaping training and maintenance problem. The troops in the field needed to learn how to clean and service their rifles—and they needed to learn fast.
Enter The M-16A1 Rifle: Operation and Preventative Maintenance, or as the Army called it, Department of the Army Pamphlet 750-30.
The “pamphlet” was actually 32-page comic written by none other than Will Eisner, a cartoonist and writer who had created The Spirit, a popular comic book series about a masked crime fighter. Drafted into the Army in 1942, Eisner devoted his talents to illustrating a series of comics designed to teach G.I.s how to service vehicles.
Eisner created the comics to entertain and inform G.I.s in their downtime. Eisner’s creations weren’t supposed to replace military manuals but supplement them, introducing new regulations or emphasizing particularly useful tips and techniques.
From M-16 to ‘The Sweet -16'
Eisner’s background in comics was instrumental in making The M-16A1 Rifle a success. He knew his audience well—basically the same Americans who read his comic books back home, now just a few years older.
Engaging and amusing, the comic didn’t bore the reader or come off as preachy, pushy or overly didactic. The illustrations were clear and to the point. This constrained the writing to the bare minimum, comic book style. It used exclamation points on nearly every page, where a regular Army field manual did not.
Eisner understood what would get young male draftees reading. The M-16A1 Rifle was not above sexual innuendos—it included them right from the start.
The first two pages introduced the comic’s mascot: a blonde, buxom Ann-Margret lookalike wielding the new, improved M-16A1. To the mascot’s flanks are instructions on how to take apart the rifle, entitled “How To Strip Your Baby.”
Other chapters included “Sweet -16” and “All the Way with Negligee.” (The “negligee” in question was a plastic storage bag used to keep the rifle dry.) If that wasn’t an attention getter for grunts who hadn’t seen an American woman in months, nothing was.
The blonde mascot appears on almost every other page, wearing jungle fatigues and a green beret with a 5th Special Forces Group flash. In another illustration, she’s suggestively holding an upright rifle by the hand guard.
The M-16A1 Rifle was not all innuendos. Eisner refers to the M-16 as the “spunky teenager of the small arms field” and addresses the reader as “brother.” There’s even a reference to Alice in Wonderland. The book also uses a baseball metaphor—a home run—to describe a proper field maintenance job.
Things do get a little weird in the chapter “Putting Maggie Together,” in which a 20-round magazine is transformed into a pseudo-girlfriend, complete with long eyelashes and shapely legs. “Maggie” begs a lovestruck G.I.,“Protect me, you big strong guy!”
The reason for this is because Vietnam’s severe humidity corroded the M-16’s steel magazines, causing jams. Eisner apparently thought the solution was to make G.I.s protective of their magazines, as though they were … girlfriends or something.
For today’s shooter
The M-16A1 Rifle almost certainly saved the lives of American troops in the middle of a war in Southeast Asia. The comic format was also so popular it persists to this day—minus double entendre and cheesecake—with the latest Army comics issued in January 2014.
Skyhorse Publishing reprinted the The M-16A1 Rifle in 2013. More than 40 years later, 95 percent of the content is still applicable to the U.S. current-issue M-4 carbine, the Marine Corps’ M-16A4 and civilian AR-15s.
But that’s testimony to the guide’s continuing relevance. The comic book as a teaching tool for soldiers was genius. It’s instructive, humorous and a little bit sexy.