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Did Mattel really create an M16 or is this a great urban legend?

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Pilots examine newly issued M16
310798 Flight Lieutenant (Flt Lt) Philip Kenneth (Phil) Cooke, of Watson, ACT (left) and 219176 Flt Lt Leslie Wilfred (Les) Morris, of Frenches Forest, NSW, (right) get the feel of the newly issued M16 Armalite Rifle at Vung Tau Airfield. They are still wearing their helmets after returning from a flight, 9 November 1966. (Photo by Gerald Wallace/Australian War Memorial)

One urban legend that continues to persist – even since the days of Vietnam – in the world of military firearms is that the toy company Mattel produced some early versions of the M16 assault rifle for the United States military. Whether Mattel had anything to do with the rifle, in any capacity, is questionable – and is made more questionable by the advent of the internet and Photoshop. Today, we’ll dig into the urban legend and examine any connection between Mattel and the M16. 

The Mattel rumors 

These rumors have been spreading ever since the M16 entered service. The M16 was the first general infantry rifle to make heavy use of polymers in its furniture to reduce weight and bulk. The handguard, grip, and stock were all made of polymer and certainly had a toy-like quality about them. 

So, it wasn’t long before rumors started that the M16 was produced by Mattel under contract with the US Army. However, this ignores the fact that Colt had the contract for the M16, and every M16 was stamped with Colt. Further, it’s easy to debunk the myth that Mattel made the M16 because the company never had a license to produce machine guns, which the M16 is classified as. 

The other rumor is that Mattel made the furniture for the M16 as a contractor for Colt. The rumor states that Mattel produced the handguard, stock, or even the grips. Reportedly, Rock Island Armory, a very respected firearm auction house, once claimed, in a catalog, to be selling an M16 with a Mattel-made stock. However, it’s not clear if the catalog is real, and if real, the information on the catalog page is incorrect, as it states that the weapon is listed in the Book of Colt Firearms by serial number, but it is not. 

A common source of the rumor comes from veterans. It seems like everyone who served in Vietnam knows a guy who saw Mattel or M stamped on his M16 handguard or stock. The little M is seemingly so common that it would be more than a rumor at this point – at least if the internet was to be believed at face value. 

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The evidence question 

US Soldier Vietnam M16
A US Soldier using an M16 during the Vietnam War. (Creative Commons)

If Mattel produced any part of the M16, no verified example has ever been found. There are also no terms of contracts, cage codes, or anything tying Mattel to the M16 and the company has denied the rumor that it ever produced M16 parts. A common argument that many hold against Mattel’s denial is that Vietnam was an unpopular war, so the toy company didn’t want to be associated with it. 

You might think that if Mattel only made handguards and stocks for M16s in the 1960s-70s they must be rare. Well, M16 handguards, even period-correct models, are easy to get. Also, even if they were rare, it’s still likely someone would have found a set by now, as they would be highly collectible amongst military history enthusiasts and firearm enthusiasts. These groups are remarkably capable of finding rare and unique firearms, firearm accessories, and furniture. For example, only two of the Nazi Pistols were ever produced, and one is still in the hands of a private collector. The same can be said for tons of weird and rare firearm parts and pieces. 

If a Mattel handguard, stock, or grip existed, one would have been found by now. Or at the very least, some contract, cage code, or confirmation from the Army, Colt, or Mattel would exist. 

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Why the rumor persists

Matter M-16 Marauder
An advertisement of Mattel’s M-16 Marauder toy gun. (Creative Commons)

The Mattel rumor persists for several reasons. First, the M16 was the first weapon in general issue by the military world that embraced a lot of polymer to reduce weight. Before the M16, soldiers had been trained on the wood and steel of the M1 Garand and M14 rifles. In comparison, the M16 must have felt like a toy and was nearly three pounds lighter when loaded. Also, military forces in the past have used toymakers for firearm furniture, for example, a British wood toy maker produced forward grips for Tommy guns during WWII. 

I assembled an AR-15 rifle the best I could to the original M16A1 specifications. Purchasing original Colt-era handguards is very easy to do, as there are tons out there, and they are quite cheap. When I first received my Colt furniture, I was shocked at how flimsy it felt. It does indeed feel toylike. It’s easy to see why the M16 was associated with Mattel, enough so that one of the nicknames for the M16 is the Matty Mattel. 

Additionally, Mattel did produce an M16 toy that was quite realistic and certainly wouldn’t be produced today. The Mattel Marauder looked a good bit like an M16. Building on the rumor, in The Green Berets, the only film made about Vietnam during the Vietnam War, a Mattel Marauder made an appearance. When a fellow Green Beret is killed, John Wayne picks up his “M16” and smashes it against a tree to make it useless to the enemy. However, the gun smashed against the tree was the plastic Marauder from Mattel. 

The end of the rumor 

No evidence exists to prove Mattel ever made M16s or furniture for the weapons. While plenty of people claim to have seen one, I think they are mistaken. The Mattel logo during that era was quite distinctive, and if such a gun existed, it would have been documented. The Mattel M16 is a rumor, but if you just so happen to have some Mattel-marked M16 furniture, I’d love to be wrong and you’ll get a nice payday amongst collectors! 

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Travis Pike

Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine gunner who served with 2nd Bn 2nd Marines for 5 years. He deployed in 2009 to Afghanistan and again in 2011 with the 22nd MEU(SOC) during a record-setting 11 months at sea. He’s trained with the Romanian Army, the Spanish Marines, the Emirate Marines, and the Afghan National Army. He serves as an NRA certified pistol instructor and teaches concealed carry classes.