February 01, 2023
In 1987, I was a sergeant in the Maine Army National Guard. I can’t really say I was a serious competition shooter, but I shot a bit of Bullseye pistol and had some success in the National Guard combat matches leading a machine gun team to regional wins. Unfortunately, my machine gun team wasn’t going to the 1987 Wilson Matches in Little Rock, Arkansas like we had the three previous years. As I walked into the armory for my weekend drill, Joe Butera, a grizzled old warrant officer, pointed at me and said “We need you to shoot on the Combat Rifle Team in Arkansas this year.” I tried to weasel my way out of the job by telling him that I really didn’t shoot rifles much but he was adamant.
So, in the fall of 1987 I went to Arkansas with the Maine Combat Rifle Team. Every state entered a team. Each team was required to consist of 50 percent new shooters. A new shooter was someone who hadn’t fired on a team in a previous year. The “new shooter” rule forced states to send some different people each year. A state would hold its own matches between local Guard units and select the highest scoring unit team to attend the Wilson Matches. The top 10 percent of the Guard teams firing at Little Rock went on to compete against the regular Army at Ft. Benning.
The course of fire was similar to an NRA National Match Course. We fired standing slow fire at 100 yards, sitting rapid fire at 200 yards, prone rapid fire at 300 yards and prone slow fire at 400 yards. Targets were silhouette style with scoring rings. We were required to wear our basic combat uniform while shooting including a helmet and a pistol belt with magazine pouches and canteen. If the pistol belt was adjusted high enough with the load-bearing suspenders, the shooting elbow could be supported by a magazine pouch when shooting offhand. In NRA High Power competition this would be considered “artificial support.” However, it was legal for combat shooting. We fired individual matches and team matches. Prior to the team match we were required to run two miles in a specified time with our rifles wearing combat gear. The rest period was brief before we started shooting. My scores during this first trip to the combat rifle matches were not memorable but I became interested in competitive rifle shooting.
I was encouraged by my State Marksmanship Coordinator to practice for the 1988 matches and he supplied me with plenty of 55-grain M193 ammunition. I had the 1960s vintage barrel on my rifle replaced by the unit armorer. The new SAK (Saco Defense) barrel improved my scores. After qualifying for the 1988 team, I decided to try NRA High Power rifle competition. Firing the local 200 yard NRA matches, I earned a Sharpshooter rating with my M16A1. The Lake City 55-grain ball ammo was fairly good quality and did well at 200 yards. Everyone was issued ammo on the line from the same lot in a combat rifle match. Lake City ammo came packed in 20-round boxes for annual qualification or marksmanship competitions.
Our issue rifles at the time were garden variety M16A1s. Most of them were made by Harrington & Richardson during the Vietnam conflict. Not really what you would call “match rifles.” No accurizing of combat weapons was allowed. It was permissible to mix and match parts and install new parts but everything had to be G.I. issue. Armorer vans were set up to inspect weapons for “modifications.” In later years I worked as an armorer for the NGMTU (National Guard Marksmanship Training Unit) inspecting and repairing weapons at the matches. A soldier would step up to my bench with his weapon and I would ask him to clear it. Then I would inspect the weapon for modifications or any parts that were not G.I. issue. Triggers were weighed. The standard trigger pull weight of an M16A1 is in the 6 to 7 pound range with plenty of creep. After you’ve inspected a couple hundred M16s, your finger becomes pretty well calibrated to detect unusually light trigger pulls. Besides the rifles, we checked .45 and 9mm pistols and M60 machineguns for legality. The .45s were especially prone to trigger stoning. Any questionable parts were replaced with G.I. issue components, the weapon was tagged and returned to the soldier.
The regular Army was receiving M16A2 rifles at this time but few Guard units received them. Our supply sergeant obtained M16A2 handguards and buttstocks for our team rifles. We felt that the 5/8-inch longer length of pull of the M16A2 buttstock and the shape of the ribbed M16A2 handguards were better than the Vietnam era furniture for match shooting. The slings we used were old cotton olive drab slings of Vietnam vintage. The nylon slings were too slippery for position shooting. Twenty-round magazines were used in competition. The 30-round mags were too long for a low, prone position. We were not allowed to touch the ground with the bottom of the magazine while prone.
The Wilson Matches
At the 1989 Wilson Matches, I somehow managed to shoot a score of 95-3V out of a possible 100-10V in the 400 yard slow fire prone match. Mostly luck, it was a new National record. A photographer came out to the range and there was a small blurb in the local paper. So much for my 60 seconds of fame. My team qualified for the “Reserve Component Championships” held at Fort Benning, Georgia. I had another good match and won some Leg points toward a Distinguished badge.
Firing 55-grain M193 ball at 400 yards in any kind of wind was tricky. A 10-mph full value wind will change the point of impact of the little 55-grain FMJ-BT bullets by almost 2 feet. Wind flags were present on the range and seasoned shooters watched them closely. A man-size silhouette seems very small at that distance. With a block time of 10 rounds in 10 minutes for slow fire we sometimes simply held off a bit (Kentucky windage) to compensate for wind changes if time ran short. The sights were coarse and sight radius was short. Elevation adjustments from 100 to 300 yards were made with the front sight post (1 MOA increments). When moving from 300 to 400 yards, we would flip the rear sight to the “Long Range” position. Competitors had to be careful how much sling pressure was used on the thin G.I. “pencil” barrels. Since the sling swivel was attached directly to the front sight base on the barrel, a point of impact change would occur if a soldier attempted to use the kind of aggressive sling pressure NRA competition shooters commonly use.
In 1990, I saw an advertisement for the “Colt Cup” match at the Blue Trail Range in Connecticut. This was a 200 yard NRA High Power type match open only to Colt AR-15s or M-16s built under Colt contract. Four of us from the Combat Rifle Team tossed our M16A1s in the trunk of my Honda and headed south. When our rifles were inspected by the Colt armorer for legality he said, “I haven’t seen any of these old H&Rs in a long time”. He installed limiting tabs on the selector switches to disable the Full-Auto position per NRA rules.
I only managed 117 out of 259 shooters, who were using mostly commercial rifles and ammo, in my first Colt Cup. The next year I borrowed a Colt HBAR, floated the barrel with a Krieger sleeve, fired Federal Match 69-grain ammo and squeaked into 10th place. The introduction of heavy match bullets by Sierra for the 1/7 twist Colt barrels started a revolution in NRA High Power Rifle competition and by 1995, AR-15 based rifles dominated the sport.
PSA Retro Rifles
Today, M16A1-style rifles are considered “retro” and are cool again. Palmetto State Armory through their H&R Arms Company division is currently working towards bringing back a variety of early Vietnam-era model AR-15/M16 rifles and carbines for collectors and shooters. They also offer M16A1 “pencil” barrels in both the original 1/12 inch and newer 1/7 inch rifling twist. Plus, they have different parts and pieces for builders with more on the way.
It’s not only collectors today who recognize the potential of the M16A1. Many shooters appreciate its light weight, short long of pull compared to the A2, simpler sights and the way it handles. The A1 is quick to the shoulder and accurate for a service rifle. Plus, the 20-inch barrel offers an advantage over a carbine. All in all it is a well-balanced package which is, in many ways, superior to the rifle which replaced it.
About the Author
Gus Norcross is a former Ordnance NCO and Cold War veteran. He has been a licensed gunsmith since 1986 and has written gunsmithing articles for Shotgun News, Firearms News, Book of the AR-15 and others.
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