The story contained in this page covers the
period from November 1965 until January
1968. Its main characters are the weapons we
all lived with every day, the tools of trade
of the Infantry Battalion of the time in the
Australian Army and in particular 5 RAR in
The Republic of South Vietnam. It tells of
their strengths and weaknesses, their design
problems and defects, as well as the
comforts and security they gave us.
In Holsworthy in 1965 the old 1 RAR (1st
Battalion Royal Australian Regiment) lines well
reflected the traditional weapons with which we
trained and worked. The solid old wooden huts
even smelt of small arms maintenance oil (OM13),
linseed oil, Brasso and boot polish. The
principal weapons were:
7.62 Self Loading Rifle (SLR).
The standard issue personal
weapon manufactured by the Small Arms
Factory at Lithgow. An Australian
version of the Belgian 7.62 FN.
9mm Owen Sub Machine Carbine (OMC).
Usually carried by Section Commanders and
Platoon Commanders. All were of 1945 or
prior vintage, rugged, simple but showing
7.62 General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG).
Low profile, belt fed, high rate of fire,
highly mobile, simple to repair.
9mm Browning Semi-Automatic Pistol.
Belgium produced by Fabrique Nationale. Some
earlier models had fittings that could take
a butt-like shoulder grip but the majority
of ours were newer models with no such
SUPPORT COMPANY WEAPONS INCLUDED:
106mm Recoilless Rifles:
Mounted on modified Landrovers
84mm Carl Gustav Anti-Tank Weapons.
We trained on these and took all of them with us to
South Vietnam in April and May 1966. Prior to our
departure the team of armourers, Mick Henrys, Steve Wood
and Jim Toohill inspected and serviced all weapons. Here
we made our first mistake. I thought that if we had all
of our SLR's processed through the Base Workshop at
Moorebank to be re-blackened, this would give us a good
starting point, as it should have made them like new and
therefore easier to maintain. We did this by working
shift work through the nights while the battalion
trained by day. In fact the blackening all came off very
easily but the sights and the gas regulator were clogged
with chemical salts which made them much harder to use
and difficult to clean. It took several weeks to clean
this up. My belated apologies to all concerned!
Within days of our arrival in Vietnam and long before we
could unpack any of our tools or equipment our family of
weapons was changing rapidly. Colt AR-15, 5.56mm Rifles
were given to us from 1 RAR. These had had a lot of use
and being early model AR 15's, not the AR 16's that we
became very familiar with later, and were therefore very
much lacking in technical reliability. Their most
dramatic problem was that they did not have a 'Forward
Assist Device' or serrated Bolt Carrier. This meant that
the slightest bit of sand or dirt would cause the bolt
to lock in the semi-closed position and the weapon was
then useless and if this happened when the weapon had
been hot, it was usually totally beyond repair. We also
picked up a number of M79, 40mm Grenade Launchers from 1
RAR, along with a small number of 12 gauge, Remington,
pump action shot guns.
The move into Nui Dat, part of Operation Hardihood, saw
us picking up all of our faithful weapons and walking
into the rubber trees. It was here that I became aware
that one of the Company Quarter Master Sergeants (CQMS),
Lofty Cunningham from Support Company, had brought along
an old friend of his from a previous affair (or
marriage, I'm not quite sure.) Yes, Lofty decided that
we needed at least one .303 Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE)
that he had used in Korea. I told him we could look
after it provided he had the ammunition. So unknowingly
we became the last Infantry Battalion to carry Owen Sub
Machine Carbines and .303 SMLE rifles into war.
Some people, not many, decided that they were better off
carrying foreign weapons. Sgt 'Shorty' Ford for example,
a photographer, who was often attached to 5 RAR for
operations, had picked up a US M1 Carbine and a CSM,
John Clark, was using a German P38 Walther 9mm pistol he
had collected when he was an Advisor. Very sadly one of
the young soldiers had also been given a 12 gauge double
barrel sawn-off shotgun. (More on that later).
Others, who were not prepared to wait, bought fairly
standard US issue weapons that were becoming common in
our Battalion as they became available. Brian London
purchased a M16 from his 1 RAR counter-part and John
Lea-Smith bought one from the boot of a CIA car in Cholon after drinking with the owner in the Capital Bar.
Going price $60.00 US. In turn this went to Jock Logan
in 7 RAR. Brian also carried a Colt .45 Automatic but as
this used non-standard ammunition for our system, he
accepted full responsibility for re-supply. The
armourers did do minor maintenance when asked.
We were very soon to have two other significant major
additions to our collections. Courtesy of the Commander
of 173 Airborne Brigade, US Army and perhaps some
horse-trading by Ron Shambrook and John Miller, a number
of .50 Cal Browning Heavy Machine Guns became available
and formed a very important part of our perimeter
defences. Also the standard number of GPMG M60's was
increased from 54 to 65 because of the need to move the
section guns out on extended operations, but still
supply the defences necessary on the newly formed base
camp. From hereon in, the time line of our affair with
these weapons goes something like this:
Operation Hardihood saw everyone struggling with the mud
and damp as we worked to establish the base and set up
very primitive working conditions. It was impossible for
soldiers with problems with their weapons to get to us
(the armourers) so we decided that we would arrange
regular and routine visits to each of the Company sites
and inspect, service and repair the weapons there. Any
seriously damaged or non-functional weapons were brought
to us via the CQMS system.
Browning .50 Calibre Machine Gun
The introduction of .50 Cal Brownings was, by far, the
biggest single impact at this time. Fortunately we (the
armourers) had been trained on these weapons but we were
the only people in the Battalion who knew much about
them, as they were not a standard Infantry weapon. From
this time on and for the complete 12 months, this gave
us a very different role, that being, to train operators
in the use of this major defence weapon. This took each
of us to many different sites throughout the Province
working with Australian, US and Vietnamese soldiers.
Users had to be trained in the firing, maintenance, and
particular to Browning machine guns, the timing and
head-spacing of the weapons after barrel changes.
In the early stages of the occupation of Nui Dat these
machines guns were seen to as a major part of the perimeter
defences and were placed in strong points in each
Company. As there was a lot of movement going on outside
these lines each night, these weapons were considered to
be very important. On my second night in Nui Dat, I
think around 28th May 1966, I was called to
the RAP (Regimental Aid Post) by SSGT Mick Seats, shown
into the doctor's emergency treatment area and there on
the stretcher was C Company's .50 Cal. It was the only
place in the area that was sufficiently well blacked out
to allow a torch to be alight. A quick minor operation
to remove and replace a broken firing pin and to free up
the mechanism was all that was necessary to allow the
patient to return to duty.
These guns continued to give us good service for the
remaining year and many Infantrymen became extremely
competent with them. We installed them on the hill at
Nui Dat for D Coy and then again for D Coy on The
Horseshoe when they moved there.
M60 Machine Gun
Our friend the GPMG M60 was a trusted and much needed
part of the Infantry Section's operations. It provided
massive firepower from a low profile and could be moved
very quickly from site to site when only on the bipod.
From the operators' point of view, its strength was that
it was belt fed and thus could fire a great number of
rounds very quickly. Its weakness was also that it was
belt fed and the ammunition could not be kept clean and
would pick up mud and dirt to be fed into the weapon
until it jammed.
armourer's point of view it was very cheaply
built, primitive in design, and had minor breakdowns
frequently. On the plus side, it was very easy to repair
and we could always get them back into service very,
very quickly. armourers were frequently called into
company operations to repair these guns 'in situ'.
I now am going to record what may be a sensitive issue.
That being the major 'breakdown' that occurred with
these guns. By far and away the most common problem was
that a gun would be reported as only being able to fire
a single round and then had to be manually re-cocked.
95% of breakdowns were this issue. What happened, was
that the gas piston had been removed and replaced,
facing the wrong way.
Was this a training problem or a design problem? The
manufacture's solution was to classify the gas piston
and cylinder as being "self-cleaning", and therefore not
to be touched by the operator, however the gun still
came with a spanner to fit the nut necessary to open it.
These guns, with some local modification to the tripod
fitting became a common sight mounted on the Battalions' Landrovers. It was those vehicles that would have
normally carried the 106mm Recoilless Rifles that were
so modified. As they had no canopy, they were known as
As a quick aside can anyone remember what material the
special gloves for changing the barrels was made of??
... You guessed it! Asbestos ... and plenty of it.
In the twelve months of continual service our 65 GPMG's
only had one failure that could not be fixed within a
two-hour period. That was caused by a broken firing pin
that had cracked at the "rear spool" and fallen down and
jammed the unlocking mechanism. Steve Wood headed off to
a more heavily equipped workshop in Vung Tau to work on
it and even though we had tried all types of things to
free it first, the road trip down did the job for us and
he fixed the gun in a matter of minutes on arrival
there. A rough road and good luck can sometimes be
Late in 1966 we managed to "find" 4 GPMG's that had had
a lot of firing with a US Army unit. They were packed up
and sent to the RAEME (Royal Australian Electrical
Mechanical Engineers) Training Centre where they were "sectionised"
and converted into training aids. Up until then no such
thing was available in Australia. Three of them were
returned to 5 RAR at Holsworthy. I saw the fourth one in
a museum in Bandiana in 2004.
The Owen Sub Machine Carbine (OMC)
Only had a short life in Vietnam. They were carried by
Platoon Commanders, Forward Scouts and Stretcher Bearers
among others. They remained with us until October 1966.
There were no real problems with the weapon; it was the
ammunition that failed. I think there were several
attempts to prove that the gun/ammo was no longer
suitable and should be replaced with many more 5.56
weapons. Success finally came when the armourers
provided copies of a formal instruction that the weapons
were not to be test fired with any ammo older than 1954.
The only rounds that the Battalion could get for
operations were made in the early 1940's. Bye-bye OMC's,
hello AR 16's.
7.62mm SLR (Self Loading Rifle)
In the early days the 7.62mm SLR
served us all very well. There were some
calls from individuals to have 30 round magazines fitted
and to modify the weapon to fire full automatically.
These, of course, were formally ignored and quietly done
when necessary. The formation of the Reconnaissance
Platoon and the closing down of the Anti-Tank Platoon
meant two things. Firstly the packing up of the 106mm
Recoilless Rifles and secondly many, many requests for
modifications to the SLR's. These were quietly done but
not talked about. We liked to think that the individual
soldiers concerned were capable of handling the modified
weapons safely. To do it for everyone would have opened
up a can of worms that no one would be able to control.
To ignore the requests of some might have meant that
they would go ahead and do the modifications themselves
and not as well as we did. Anyway, those who really only
wanted an automatic weapon usually managed to get an
From March 1967 onwards the story of the SLR changed
quite a bit. Problems that had never been seen before
began to appear more and more frequently. Steve Wood and
Jim Toohill both identified a combination of worn parts
in the trigger mechanism that caused the sear (that part
of the mechanism that actually trips the hammer) to lock
completely. Formal reporting of this brought no action,
so another way around the issue was used to replace as
many of the older weapons as possible. At about the same
time another very strange fault developed. The cocking
handle would lock in the forward and folded position and
could not be moved. We were never able to find a way of
identifying the likelihood of this happening and it was
a great concern for us. Individual weapons could be
fixed by removing metal from the body of the rifle, but
this could not be done in the field. Not a good
situation. Once again, formal reporting brought no
action. (Perhaps nothing was possible.)
Electrical and Mechanical Engineering Instruction
Weapons D253 Paragraph 14b gave us a means of condemning
rifles by measuring the wear between two different parts
of the body. It had nothing to do with the real problem,
and we found that in fact we could use it to condemn any
brand new rifle that we chose to inspect. The fact that
I can remember the number of this instruction 40 years
later clearly shows how many times we used it in the
those months of 1967.
The greatest weakness of the SLR was that the ammunition
was heavy and that, in very bad times, the re-supply was
by ammo packed in boxes and there was no quick way of
loading them into a magazine. During the battle of Long
Tan, all the 5 RAR armourers were on the helipad loading
15 rounds into extra magazines that were then pushed out
of a helicopter into the D Company 6 RAR site. The
original FN version had a bridge over the body that
allowed for magazine filling from rounds held in clips.
The Australian made version did not.
Perhaps the silliest thing to ever happen with the SLR
was the fitting of a plastic plug to the bottom of the
return spring tube. A modification kit was just starting
to arrive for this in 1967. This was done to only a
handful of weapons in our time, but became very common
practice later. The idea was to prevent moisture from
getting into the tube. All it did was to prevent
moisture from getting out and thus converted the spring
and tube into a shock absorber. Some of you may remember
our trick of having a small bet with anyone who came
forward with the common statement, "My rifle will not
operate on a gas setting of less than 8." Many a beer
was won after Steve would demonstrate his special oiling
and cleaning process. Usual time, one minute.
I recall one particular SLR that was returned to us in a
very sick state. The user, Murray Claydon from C
Company, had been fired upon while crossing a creek and
had gone under water. Coming up ready for action he
fired but the weapon was full of water. The barrel laid
open, the body bulged out and the magazine burst with
all live rounds in it being "exploded" through the
bottom. The sides of the magazine were welded to the
body of the rifle.
84mm Carl Gustaf Anti-Tank weapon.
This one is very simple. Manufactured in Sweden, we were
unable to use them because the Swedes would not provide
ammunition, as they did not support the war in Vietnam.
That must have been a good contract.
Browning 9mm Pistol
Useful in vehicles and the bars of Vung Tau when you did
not want to have to carry a rifle with you all the time.
The cause of many Accidental Discharges (AD's) but
mostly into the ground. It was regarded as being as good
as any other pistol and as limited as they were as well.
Its worst technical feature was that the magazine could
not withstand being left with a number of rounds in it
for very long before the spring ceased to function,
leading to mis-feeds and jamming. The RMO, Captain Tony
White has told me that he found the butt quite handy for
eliciting reflexes during physical examinations.
Colt AR 16 5.56mm Rifle.
Vastly over-rated but definitely recognised as the
"weapon of Vietnam". As described above, it was a very
necessary improvement on the AR 15 Armalite. It was
capable of firing a great number of rounds in the
general direction in which is was pointed and because of
the small calibre the ammunition was lighter and
therefore an individual soldier could carry more of them
than, say, 7.62 rounds. Initially thought to be able to
kill anything that is was even vaguely near, the 5.56
bullet was actually really as limited as any other small
calibre, high velocity round. It was all very simple;
how many could you carry? That was the advantage. From
an armourer's view point, perhaps the best thing to come
out of Mr. Colt's effort was that they came with a good,
small diameter cleaning rod which was excellent for the
SLR and the GPMG's. Before these arrived, we would make
cleaning rods out of fencing wire.
SUPPORT COMPANY CREW SERVED WEAPONS
I use this term to cover all of those specialist weapons
that were based within Support Company. I do this
because these need to be treated differently. These
weapons were complex and at time massively important.
The armourers knew how to service them, but far more
important was how to use them. We had learnt to stand
well back and listen to the expert users and ask how we
could support them in their tasks rather than to tell
them what could and could not be done.
106mm Recoilless Rifle
106mm Recoilless Rifles Whilst D Coy
occupied Nui Dat Hill before being required to hand it
over to the SAS, some of the 106's were sighted there.
Here they were tried in their secondary role as an area
weapon. At high elevation the back blast was something
to see and Max Carroll remembers Mick Deak (Baron von
Berg) calling the fall of shot and making corrections as
he developed new skills. After 17 rounds and orders such
as "Drop 2000, Repeat!!!" the side of Nui Nghe Mountain
was finally hit. Luckily longer-range artillery arrived
very soon after and the 106's were packed up. Anti-tank
Platoon became Reconnaissance Platoon.
Having packed up the 106mm Recoilless Rifles, the
mortars and the flamethrowers became the main focus
here. By necessity, the 81mm Mortars won our attention,
and justly so. To witness a mortar section moving out on
operations with all of their equipment man-packed is one
of the most moving sights ever seen. The sheer physical
loads and the endurance expected from and given by these
men was breath taking.
M29 81 mm
mortar sections fired an amazing number of rounds on particular days (for
example, a platoon of 4 mortars fired 960 rounds on the 8th Oct
1966) and the guys were always looking for ways to improve their operations.
Then when they returned to Base they were called upon to fire regularly from
their semi-permanent position to "keep the baddies on their toes." As
technicians we listened and advised, measured and monitored, made mechanical
modifications on the side and kept things going. Measurement of the bore was
necessary, as excessive wear would mean that the weapon might be inaccurate
thus failing to do its job or presenting a danger to our own troops. Bob
Hunting informed me that of even greater concern was the very unreliable US
supplied Ammunition. "Drop-shorts" of a few hundred metres were common when
using it. The tail fin would drop off making them very unstable.
the wet season in particular, the mortars had a bad habit of burying their
base plates, particularly after continued firing in the base camp. One very
good crew decided that they could fix this with some sand and a few bags of
cement. It worked but immediately caused the bipod arm to shatter. A locally
manufactured version worked for the several weeks that it took to get a
replacement part, but everyone was very happy.
The M79 40mm Grenade Launcher
Was widely used and presented a number of maintenance
problems. It was very cheaply made and quite flimsy,
especially around the sight area, and had been
introduced into service hastily. Spare parts were
One afternoon I was handed an M79 with a partly fired
High Explosive round stuck in the barrel. After reading
a little technical data on the round, I was reasonably
sure that it was fairly safe as the round had to rotate
several times on its way out before it became fully
armed. So in theory it was possible for me to drive the
stuck round out of the barrel with a hammer and punch
(and hopefully have it caught immediately as it came out
of the barrel)
After a few hefty hits, the round began to change shape
and become more firmly stuck. I immediately saw a
solution to our spare parts problem. Remove the barrel
from the weapon, use a demolition charge to destroy it,
together with the stuck round, and then declare the
complete weapon as having been destroyed. Everyone in
the area agreed.
The M79 made a further appearance in a slightly
different form slung under the M16. This was known as
M72 LAW (Light Anti-Tank Weapon) made up part of our weapons inventory, but
as it was a non-maintainable item, it had little impact on the armourers.
Remington 12 Gauge Shotgun
Remington 12 Gauge Shot Guns. These pump action weapons which were simply an
un-blackened civilian weapon, were held at company level and did not get
much use, and did not need much maintenance.
Sawn-off double barrel 12 gauge shot gun. Not many people knew of its
existence and it was passed from person to person when the original owner
was evacuated home. He, apparently, was given it by his uncle or father with
the best of intentions. One afternoon in Nui Dat it was mishandled and
someone was killed. It came into the armourer's hands to be destroyed after
May 1967 we handed over our supply of spares, tools and even some of our
experience to the 7 RAR boys. On our return to Holsworthy we set up the new
armourer's facility in a brand new building and were amazed just how easy
life was without the mud, sweat and anguish. Very sadly, within a few weeks
Jim Toohill and Steve Wood were involved in a vehicle accident and Jim was
Shortly afterwards I was posted to the RAEME (Royal Australian Electrical
and Mechanical Engineers) Training Centre where I was instructing
future armourers, Steve Wood joined me there some 12 months later.
contents of these pages come completely from my memory and I invite anyone
to provide me with further information that might allow for either expansion
or correction. I know that I now look back on those years and my time with 5
RAR in awe, and with the greatest respect possible for the people with whom
I was lucky enough to serve.
P.S. My complete
lack of faith in the existence of morality and ethics
amongst members of the weapons manufacturing and sales
industry was re-confirmed several years later. In the
mid 1970's I was working with the PNG Defence Force in
Port Moresby. A European officer with the Police Force
came into my office to show me an M 16. He had just
purchased several hundred of them and was very proud of
his purchase. He left a much less happy person when I
pointed out to him that he had been sold old leftover
pieces of very early model M15 Bodies and M16 Bolt
Carriers. The Bolt Carriers had the serrations for the
necessary "forward assist" but the bodies were a much
earlier version M15 that did not have the matching Jack.
I wonder how many other developing countries helped Mr.
Colt get rid of his excess stock of useless parts after
the Vietnam War?
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