The C-130 Hercules tipped violently and began its steep final descent into Quang Tri. The loadmaster, a grizzled and unflappable master sergeant, yelled, “Stand by, boys! The field is under attack, and we’re going in steep and fast! As soon as we reach the end of the runway, get off the aircraft as quick as you can… there are 122mm rockets and RPGs coming in from the east and south.” We’d already “gotten the word” about the attack before the evasive air maneuvers had begun. We had quickly broken down the two lashed-down pallets at the rear of the aircraft that contained our battle gear and ammo and “loaded up.” We were set, ready—and scared silly. Damn, I thought. We aren’t even on the ground yet, and they’re shooting at us! Is this how it’s going to be for the whole year I’m going to be here?
The Herc touched down hard and hot, its four-bladed props quickly reversing pitch to begin the braking process. Almost immediately, the rear ramp began to come down. Peering out of the port-side window, I saw the plane in front of us veering left from the runway onto the grass. It was burning—the result of a chance hit by an incoming 122mm rocket. Its rear ramp was down, and GIs were pouring out at a run, weapons at the ready.
I hope everyone made it out, I thought.
And so began what ended up being a two-year, back-to-back stint in northern I Corps of Vietnam. To my considerable relief, I found out later that everyone had, indeed, made it out of the burning C-130 and that, thank God, it wasn’t going to be as stressful and frightening as our reception had been.
It was January 1968, and the Tet Offensive and the Battle Of Khe Sanh (a mere 27 miles or so to the west) were in full swing. The news media was full of horror stories claiming that waves of North Vietnamese soldiers were sweeping across the land. Just my luck, right?
Fortunately, as usual, they were wrong. Although there were firefights between U.S. and N.V.A. forces across the countryside, the situation wasn’t nearly as bad as the anti-war propaganda that the “unbiased” media back home represented it to be. Two years later, almost to the day, I stepped onto the chartered Flying Tiger Airlines “Freedom Bird” in Da Nang for the long and “often-dreamed-of” flight home.
We’d seen some blood, that’s for sure, and some of our brothers-in-arms had fallen, but we’d decisively beaten the N.V.A. every time we met them. I was older, thinner and much, much wiser—courtesy of malaria, “humping the hills” while carrying my own weight in battle gear plus a 100-pound rucksack, and dozens of firefights. That wisdom was to serve me well all over the world in the years to come.
Those are just some of the memories—some good and some not so good—that surfaced when I read about Brownells’ introduction of the BRN-16A1 Retro last winter. Like all combat veterans of all wars, I had some scars (one over my left eye, for example, where an N.V.A. bullet obliquely struck the front sight of my M-16A1, deflected slightly and smacked me in the head). I also had some pretty good scars on my right wrist and shoulder and left leg—again, the result of some erstwhile N.V.A. trooper trying to make Uncle Ho proud.
“With only two minor exceptions… it’s a dead-ringer for the legendary M-16A1 and will, no doubt, find much favor with any serious rifleman or collector.”
THE ASSIGNMENT BEGINS
No matter what your opinions about Vietnam might be, one thing is irrefutable: The M-16A1 is the symbol of U.S. involvement in that war. It was carried by an entire generation of U.S. soldiers and used in hundreds of firefights. From 1965 until 1985, it was the standard service rifle of the U.S. military, and its descendants—the M-16A2, A3, A4, A5 and M-4—are still in action.
So, it was with all those memories rushing back that I accepted Gun World Editor Robb Manning’s assignment to evaluate the BRN-16A1.
“No matter what your opinion about Vietnam might be, one thing is irrefutable: the M-16A1 is the symbol of U.S. involvement in that war.”
Visually, the BRN-16A1 is a dead ringer for the M-16A1, from the birdcage flash suppressor to the elliptical handguards, the fixed carrying handle and slim pistol grip, oval forward assist plunger and even the solid-rubber buttplate found on the models issued during the transition from the original M-16 to the A1 configuration.
Unlike its military counterpart, the BRN-16A1 is, of course, incapable of fully automatic fire. Nevertheless, externally, with only two exceptions, it’s a dead ringer for the original. The exceptions are, at least on the example provided to me for testing, that its flash suppressor is blued and the receiver is anodized black, rather than gray-parkerized like the M-16A1. These notwithstanding, it’s virtually identical.
From an accuracy standpoint, the BRN-16A1 shoots as well with iron sights as anyone can shoot it and more than meets the MIL-SPEC 3-MOA standard with M193 55-grain FMJ military ball ammo and virtually any good-quality commercial ammo. As most AR-15/M-16 aficionados know, the 1:12 twist of the M-16A1 (and BRN-16A1) won’t stabilize bullets heavier or longer than 55 grains, so my testing reflected that limitation. Still, as already mentioned, the piece shot well, exceeding MIL-SPEC with all ammo tested.
The BRN-16A1’s rubber-coated front and rear sling swivels are also identical to those of the M-16A1 and are to reduce sling noise. Although the 30-round magazine was eventually adopted in the waning years of the Vietnam War, most of the conflict was fought with 20-round mags. Brownells has thus included one with the BRN-16A1.
“From an accuracy standpoint, the BRN-16A1 shoots as well with iron sights as anyone can shoot it and more than meets the Mil-spec 3-MOA standard with M193 55-grain FMJ Military Ball Ammo and virtually any good-quality commercial ammo.”
Publication deadlines precluded a long-term, ammo-consuming test, but I did manage to run a bit more than 1,000 rounds through the test rifle with no problems encountered. In short, although I fired a wide variety of ammo through it, the BRN-16A1 functioned perfectly. I’ve carried the M-16A1 on many occasions all over the world, and one of the most common criticisms I’ve heard is that its 5.56x45mm cartridge is a poor manstopper. This is, of course, not the fault of the rifle; rather, it is the fault of its military FMJ bullet. Everywhere it’s been—Vietnam, Grenada, the Negev Desert, Africa, Latin America, Iraq and Afghanistan—both the 55-grain M193 and 62-grain M855 “green tip” loads have earned the scorn of both GIs and enemy personnel alike. One common complaint from veterans of both Iraq and Afghanistan is that enemy personnel would take as many as a half-dozen hits with M855s to bring them down, and after a few seconds, they would often jump up and run off.
During the Vietnam War, I, too, had multiple failures-to-stop with perfect hits using M193 ball and witnessed perhaps two dozen more. However, with ammunition utilizing bullets of more-efficient designs, the 5.56 performs quite well. Virtually any 55-grain soft-point or 40-grain hollow-point boosts its efficiency considerably, and the 39-grain Terminal Shock controlled frangible from Dynamic Research Technologies (DRT) boosts it even more, putting the 5.56 in an entirely different performance category. Coupled with the fact that, in my test rifle, at least, it exhibited the best accuracy of all the loads tested, the 39-grain DRT produces terminal ballistics that are nothing less than extraordinary, making it a great choice for either sporting or tactical applications.
The original idea of the 5.56 was to allow the rifleman to carry more ammo, thus boosting his performance. However, the poor stopping power of both the M193 and M855 make multiple hits necessary, thus negating one of the primary reasons for their adoption in the first place.
Two things I always liked about the M-16A1 are its light weight (slightly fewer than 7 pounds) and fast handling qualities, both of which, in my opinion, deteriorated with later models. Being a faithful replica, the BRN-16A1 mirrors the handling of the original and allows ultra-fast target engagement, regardless of what kind of target is involved.
In summary, the BRN-16A1 is a nice rifle. It’s tight, well-built, accurate and, with any kind of decent ammo, it is functionally reliable. With only the two minor exceptions mentioned earlier, it’s a dead-ringer for the legendary M-16A1 and will, no doubt, find much favor with any serious rifleman or collector.
And, for you RVN vets like me, it will also make a great sentimental piece to put alongside your other Vietnam memorabilia. In fact, it’s got me so fired up, I think I’ll grab the test BRN-16A1, polish up my combat infantryman’s badge and paratrooper’s wings, load up some 20-round magazines with some of my remaining Vietnam-era GI M193 ball and go bust a few caps… just for old-time’s sake!
|Dynamic Research Technologies 39-grain Controlled Frangible||
|Handload Hornady 55-grain SP (27.0 grains BL-C2)||
|Winchester 55-grain Ballistic Silvertip||
|Barnes Vor-TX 55-grain TSX||
|Federal Premium Law Enforcement, 55-grain SP||
|Hornady 55-grain V-Max||
|PMC Bronze 55-grain FMJ-BT||
|PMC X-TAC 55-grain FMJ||
|Lake City (LC-82) M193 Military Ball, 55-grain FMJ||
|Winchester 55-grain FMJ||
NOTES: BRN-16A1; 100 meters; average of three three-shot groups; Caldwell Lead Sled rest. Ambient temperature: 91 degrees (F); relative humidity: 23%; elevation: 4,250 feet above sea level
OPERATING SYSTEM: Gas; direct impingement
ACTION TYPE: Semiautomatic
OVERALL LENGTH: 40 in.
BARREL LENGTH: 20 in.; chromed bore
RIFLING TWIST RATE: 1:12 in.
FLASH SUPPRESSOR: Birdcage type with 6 vents
FRONT SIGHT: Post, adjustable for elevation
REAR SIGHT: Dual aperture, adjustable for windage
WEIGHT, UNLOADED: 6 lbs., 13 oz.
MAGAZINE TYPE: Detachable box
CAPACITY: 20 or 30 rounds
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the November 2018 print issue of Gun World Magazine.