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It was not until the Vietnam War — the first major proxy battle against the Soviets — that U.S. troops faced the AK-47 in action. They would pay dearly for their government's failure to recognize the power of Kalashnikov's simple weapon.
One key problem the United States faced in Vietnam involved basic weaponry: For all their military might, U.S. forces did not have an infantry weapon that could stand up to the AK in the pattern of warfare that was emerging. Confrontations often consisted of jungle patrols from both sides finding themselves unexpectedly face to face, and the side that could pump out the most rounds the fastest won.
After many years of bureaucratic wrangling, the U.S. military had finally introduced its own assault rifle, the sleek and sophisticated M-16. More than 100,000 of them were ordered by the summer of 1966 and shipped to the Asian war zone. By October, however, some unexpected reports were coming in.
M-16s were jamming in combat.
U.S. troops were found dead with their rifles in mid-breakdown, trying to undo the cause of the misfire while under attack. Morale plunged as they thought they could not trust their weapon. And as the Viet Cong learned of these problems, they became emboldened: The sight of the "black rifle," as they called it, was now less threatening. Although the Army tried to minimize the public relations fallout, reports reached Congress through the parents of servicemen as well as from soldiers who felt betrayed. A congressional subcommittee investigating the issue heard testimony about American troops routinely removing AKs from enemy dead and using them instead of their own M-16s.
The culprit, it turns out, wasn't the gun, but the ammunition. M-16s jammed because authorities had insisted on changing the cartridge propellant, and residue clogged the mechanism after repeated firing. But even after problems were addressed, it was too late. The AK came to be perceived widely as the world's top infantry weapon, and one that could beat the West's best offering. It was low-tech Soviet style vs. high-tech American style, and the communists won the war of perception.