We’ve talked a lot about the service weapons utilized by the military here. We’ve covered rifles, SMGs, shotguns, handguns, and more. Typically the service weapons we cover are fairly good, or even revolutionary in their designs. Sometimes they are odd–and that’s fun too–but today we’re going in a different direction… Let’s discuss the five worst service weapons the United States ever issued in its 245-year run. The following weapons are presented from the best-worst gun to the worst of the worst.
Underneath our starry flag. Civilize ’em with a Krag.
I want to be fair to the Krag-Jorgensen and say it wasn’t necessarily a bad design. It was reliable, had a very smooth bolt, and a magazine that was easy to top off. The primary reason why it was a bad service weapon is that it was literally outdated from the first day it was adopted.
As soon as the Krag went against contemporary Mauser designs, the Army realized they had a problem. The Mauser was more accurate, could fire faster, and leveraged more powerful rounds. The Krag’s design was weaker overall and, in particular, couldn’t handle high-pressure rounds.
In fact, the Krag was replaced by the Springfield 1903, which was a Mauser clone. The U.S. even paid a royalty fee to Mauser… right up until World War 1, anyway.
The Krag served for only 12 years, making it rather short-lived as far as service rifles go. That being said, if you ever get the chance to handle a Krag, do so. They are unique and fun guns to shoot.
Related: The strangest Spec-Ops firearms in SOCOM’s armory
Speaking of short service lives, the M14 served for only six years, making it the shortest-lived general issue service rifle in American history and one of the worst service weapons in general. People like to talk about how great the M14 was, but I think that can be largely attributed to nostalgia for wood and metal service rifles. The M14 was a big heavy rifle designed to replace the M1 Grand, the BAR, and the M3 Grease gun.
In reality, it was a clumsy, heavy weapon chambered in a round that was only chosen because the Army couldn’t break away from the 30 Caliber. While you may have heard legends of soldiers tossing their M16s in favor of old M14s, it’s far from true.
The Army did a survey among Marines who’d seen combat, and almost unanimously, they wanted the M16. The M14 wasn’t suited for jungle or urban combat by any means and, in general, required more labor to build.
The M14 promised to use Garand tooling, but that turned out to be a lie, so production quickly proved more expensive and problematic than expected. During an inspection of firearms from Springfield, H&R, and Winchester, the Army found not a single rifle was built correctly. In-country, when the rifle broke, it broke big. And, unfortunately, they broke often. It was the shortest-serving modern service rifle for a reason, legends or not.
Related: The Infantry Automatic Rifle is nothing new
The M50/55 Reising
The M50 and 55 Reising were SMGs issued to Marines in the Pacific. These guns were quite innovative for SMGs, utilizing a closed bolt and a delayed recoil system. They really had the potential to be great guns. They offered controllable, compact firepower, were extremely accurate and well-balanced guns, and maybe most importantly, they were much cheaper than the Thompson.
The problem was that they broke, and they broke often. Despite their forward-leaning design, many Reisings served more time as paperweights than as guns. Many of the gun’s fragile pieces needed hand fitting when replaced, so they could rarely be fixed in the field, especially when hopping from island to island.
But to be fair to these weapons, the M50 and M55 Reising were service weapons designed for stateside law enforcement, not the brutal rigors of an island-hopping campaign.
On top of the reliability issues, these weapons also came with very fragile sights that broke easily. The weapon needed to be cleaned often to avoid failures, but breaking them down for cleaning was complex and difficult. As a result, they were probably rarely cleaned, further exacerbating their reliability issues. The Fleet marines gladly got rid of the Reisings as soon as the opportunity arose, and they went on to serve the role they were intended for, as service weapons for police officers, Sailors serving on Naval guard duties, and the like.
Related: Suppressed machine guns: A worthwhile proposition
Colt New Model Revolving Rifle
Take a revolver–you know, the cowboy-type–stretch the barrel and add a stock, and you get the best thing since sliced bread! At least that sounded like a good idea in 1855. The service weapons of the era were percussion cap-based guns, so rifles were single-shot guns that took time to reload after each shot.
As a percussion weapon, making a repeater rifle was difficult. Percussion revolvers were successful, so Colt made their revolver into a rifle, and now a soldier could fire 5 to 6 shots before he had to reload.
This greatly increased the rate of fire for the average soldier. It seemed like a brilliant idea and maybe it was, in theory. However, in practice, the revolving rifle was plagued with issues.
First, the gap between the cylinder and bore allowed a substantial amount of blast to escape, which could injure the shooter’s arm. To combat this, shooters had to wear special gauntlets or adopt an awkward shooting style that positioned their body parts out of harm’s way. Worse still, the paper cartridges of the era would leak black powder, and if that powder was ignited while firing, a chain fire could result. Six full chambers going off at once would seriously harm the user, and potentially cost them an arm or worse. It’s pretty easy to see why this technologically advanced (for its time) rifle went the way of the dodo as a service weapon.
Related: The weaponry of the future Marine Corps Rifle Squad explained
Chauchat Machine Rifle
The French-designed Chauchat Machine rifle promised to bring automatic fire to the average infantryman in World War 2 (just like the Marines are doing with the M27 today). The U.S. saw the potential in the weapon and adopted the Chauchat as a machine rifle, chambered in the famed .30-06 service cartridge. Unfortunately, the Chauchat turned out to be one of the least reliable machine rifles ever made. It was a finicky weapon that was plagued with issues.
First, it wasn’t made for the hot and heavy .30-06, and that created wear issues. Additionally, the construction mixed well-made, high-quality components with shoddy and sub-standard parts, oftentimes reused from other guns.
Side plates were held on with screws that became loose under consistent firing. The sights were a mess, and the open magazine invited dirt and mud, both common in the trenches, into the gun.
These magazines reportedly caused two-thirds of reported stoppages. The Chauchat was bad enough that American soldiers would (reportedly) really would ditch the weapon in favor of a bolt action Springfield. American inspectors at the Chauchat manufacturer rejected 40% of the guns off the line, and the rest worked just well enough to pass inspection. From the cradle to its early grave, the Chauchat was a mess.
The Worst Service Weapons
These weapons may have failed, but they often came with certain innovations or good ideas that would eventually find their way into later service weapons. However, good ideas and innovation only go so far when the gun hits the field. A failed service weapon may be a portent of better things to come, but that doesn’t make it any easier to manage in a fighting hole.
Gary Foster says
The author certainly is correct. The previous commenters only pass on the same old nonsense thats been repeated time and time again. There is a reason the M-16 platform remains the standard infantry rifle today. It works. Troop surveys show it was liked by the vast majority of troops. We thought the M14 was really cool when our drill Sgt’s carried them but they are way too heavy and the ammo way too heavy. They solved the powder issue fairly quickly and the M16 performed well after that.
Charles Wilson says
I have read multiple books written by Marines who served in Vietnam, and I have never-ever read of a Marine saying he wanted the M16. If they did, after one day of “use” they wanted the M14 back. The M14 was basically the same rifle as the Garand with a few modifications. The “legends” of the failure of the M16 are true and cost many Marines and Soldiers their lives. The M16 was junk; it was unfit for jungle warfare. As I said the M14 was the same basic rifle as the Garand, which functioned well in all environments in WW2 and Korea. The writer is totally ignorant and uninformed and pulling his opinion from his backside, because he is wrong.
P. Michael Phillips says
The Krag was not obsolete when adopted by the U.S. Army in 1892. Bear in mind the first smokeless powder rifle to enter any military service was the M1886 Lebel in France, and for our army to settle on any advanced smokeless weapon within six years of the trend was quite an accomplishment. The Krag was smooth operating and accurate, and its biggest failing was not pressure; the .30-40 Krag (with its rifle’s single bolt lug) remains rated for about the same SAAMI pressure as the 8mm Mauser, if only for safe use in antique arms. It was not until after 1900, when the U.S. Army attempted to match improvements made in the Mauser, with its new .323 caliber spitzer bullet design, that the Krag action failed to keep pace. In truth, the Krag’s only practical debility was its relatively slower reload time: the Krag, loaded from a thimble belt, was potentially clumsier than the Mauser, which had incorporated a stripper clip and receiver guide by 1895. Even then, however, consider that when the U.S. Army adopted the Krag that the M1888 Mauser then in service used an enbloc clip, which actually made the Krag’s side gate — in which cartridges could be loaded singly or entirely — fully superior. Moreover, the Krag was as accurate and every bit a killer with its 220 grain round-nosed bullet. And although reports exist of some Moro tribesman being hit to little effect, the same was reported of the comparable .303 British Lee Metford rifles in Rhodesia in 1896. Simply put, the ideal compositions of powder and bullets remained unsettled in the 1890s — as, I might add, they remain today. In sum, the Krag was but one brilliant weapon in an age when improvements in killing came rapidly. On one point, however, I agree: Krags are fun to shoot, and they remain a top choice for North American game, even in the spindly 180-grain commercial loading usually offered. You will rarely find a more pleasant .30 caliber rifle with which to take the field.
The 8mm Chauchat worked reasonably well until it got hot. Then it jammed due to the difference in coefficient of expansion between steel and aluminum. The gun (as was the BAR) was designed to be operated by a crew of 3 men, one of whom was a loader, thus the open magazine to allow to loader to anticipate when to swap out magazines. The third man carried extra magazines and provided rear and flank security. There were problems with the metric/customary units conversions in the design and production of the 30-06 version. The 30-06 was significantly more powerful and generated more heat than the 8mm Lebel cartridge, thus making the gun heat up and jam faster. The Chauchat (as was the BAR) primarily intended to be fired in semi-auto mode rather than full auto. The automatic rifle/light machine gun (the terms were used interchangeably in the Great War) was intended to lay suppressive fire on the heavy machine gun positions in conjunction with rifle grenades to allow the rifle/bayonet men and hand bombers to get close enough to destroy the heavy machine gun position. Use of this tactic was how the US Army broke through the Hindenberg line in the Argonne and brought the war to an end. By 1917 and 1918 nobody ( even the British) were attacking the way they did in the Somme in 1916. The Chauchat ( while not perfect being a pioneering weapon) helped bring the war to an end.
How about the first round of M-16s (the XM-16E1), which were inferior to the AR-15s that the Air Force had purchased for SAC security units because the Army ordnance department changed the powder to a more fouling formula, decided a cleaning kit wasn’t needed, and redesigned the charging handle, adding a forward assist, and inexplicably changed to an un-chromed barrel, all of which contributed to jamming and failure to extract problems when it was rushed into service in Vietnam. It was so bad that my father – a Special Forces troop in that time period – stated that he preferred an M1 carbine or TRW M-14 to the M-16.
Another that belongs on the list is the Hall M1847 Cavalry Muskatoon, The first and most serious issue was that the captive ramrod was fragile and broke easily – not what one wants when trying to reload in combat! In addition, the cartridges and barrel for smoothbore .69 caliber weapon was soon found problematic – the round ball was easily separated from the paper cartridges by jostling when stored in a saddle holster on a moving horse, leading to troopers firing a blank round in action! Of course, given the accuracy of a short-barreled smoothbore weapon fired from a moving horseback, the ability to hit a target was pretty low even with a ball in the barrel.
Then there is the M1941 Johnson rifle, issued to the US Marine Paramarine battalions and known for excessive vertical dispersion and constructed of a lot of tiny parts easily lost when broken down from cleaning.
Michael Byrd American Hero, Babbit is a dead Slut says
M60 and M16 should be on this list . Both are POS’s that are unreliable and need to be babied with different ammo from other weapons of their caliber. The M60 was replace for a good reason, they are heavy and will become a bolt action rifle after few minutes of firing it.
Brett Baker says
TRW, which never made guns before, built good M14s.