Weapons of the Vietnam War

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Vietnam era rifles used by the US military and allies

This article is about the weapons used in the Vietnam War, which involved the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) or North Vietnamese Army (NVA), National Liberation Front for South Vietnam (NLF) or Viet Cong (VC), and the armed forces of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), United States, Republic of Korea, Philippines, Thailand, and the Australian, New Zealand defence forces, and a variety of irregular troops.

Nearly all United States-allied forces were armed with U.S. weapons including the M1 Garand, M1 carbine, M-14 and M-16. The Australian and New Zealand forces employed the 7.62 mm L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle as their service rifle, with the occasional US M16.

The PAVN, although having inherited a variety of American, French, and Japanese weapons from World War II and the First Indochina War (aka French Indochina War), were largely armed and supplied by the People's Republic of China, the Soviet Union, and its Warsaw Pact allies. In addition, some weapons—notably anti-personnel explosives, the K-50M (a PPSh-41 copy), and "home-made" versions of the RPG-2—were manufactured in North Vietnam. By 1969 the US Army had identified 40 rifle/carbine types, 22 machine gun types, 17 types of mortar, 20 recoilless rifle or rocket launcher types, nine types of antitank weapons, and 14 anti-aircraft artillery weapons used by ground troops on all sides. Also in use, primarily by anti-communist forces, were the 24 types of armored vehicles and self-propelled artillery, and 26 types of field artillery and rocket launchers.

Communist forces and weapons[edit]

Captured PAVN weapons

During the early stages of their insurgency, the Viet Cong mainly sustained itself with captured arms (often of American manufacture)[1] or crude, self-made weapons (e.g. copies of the US Thompson submachine gun[2] and shotguns made of galvanized pipes).[3] Most arms were captured from poorly defended ARVN militia outposts.[4]

Communist forces were principally armed with Chinese and Soviet weaponry though some VC guerrilla units were equipped with Western infantry weapons either captured from French stocks during the first Indochina war, such as the MAT-49, or from ARVN units or requisitioned through illicit purchase.

In the summer and fall of 1967, all Viet Cong battalions were reequipped with arms of Soviet design such as the AK-47 assault rifle and the RPG-2 anti-tank weapon.[5] Their weapons were principally of Chinese[6] or Soviet manufacture.[7] The period up to the conventional phase in the 1970, the Viet Cong and NVA were primarily limited to mortars, recoil-less rifles and small-arms and had significantly lighter equipment and firepower in comparison with the US arsenal, relying on ambushes alongside superior stealth, planning, marksmanship and small-unit tactics to face the disproportionate US technological advantage.[8]

Many divisions within the NVA would incorporate armoured and mechanised battalions including the Type 59 tank., BTR-60, Type 60 artillery and rapidly altered and integrated new war doctrines following the Tet Offensive into a mobile combined-arms force.[9] The North Vietnamese had both amphibious tanks (such as the PT-76) and light tanks (such the Type 62) used during the conventional phase. Experimental Soviet equipment started being used against ARVN forces at the same time, including Man-portable air-defense system SA-7 Grail and anti-tank missiles including the AT-3 Sagger.[10] By 1975 they had fully transformed from the strategy of mobile light-infantry and using the people's war concept used against the United States.[9]

US weapons[edit]

The American M16 rifle and XM177 carbine, which both replaced the M14, was lighter and considered more accurate than the AK-47 but was prone to malfunction. Often the gun suffered from a malfunction known as "failure to extract", which meant that the spent cartridge case remained lodged in the chamber after a round was fired. According to a congressional report, the malfunction was caused by a change of gunpowder in the ammunition, which was done without adequate testing and by a money saving policy, headed by Pat McNamara, to not issue adequate cleaning kits to soldiers. This led to a myth of a self-cleaning gun. These decisions were made without regard to the safety of soldiers and resulted in many deaths.

The heavily armored, 90 mm gun M48A3 'Patton' tank saw extensive action during the Vietnam War and over 600 were deployed with U.S. forces. They played an important role in infantry support though there were a few tank versus tank battles. The M67A1 flamethrower tank (nicknamed the Zippo) was an M48 variant used in Vietnam. Artillery was used extensively by both sides but the Americans were able to ferry the lightweight 105 mm M102 howitzer by helicopter to remote locations on quick notice.[11][12] With its 17-mile (27 km) range, the Soviet 130 mm M-46 towed field gun was a highly regarded weapon and used to good effect by the PAVN. It was countered by the long-range, American 175 mm M107 Self-Propelled Gun.[13]

The United States had air superiority though many aircraft were lost to surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery. U.S. airpower was credited with breaking the siege of Khe Sanh and blunting the 1972 Easter Offensive against South Vietnam. At sea, the U.S. Navy had the run of the coastline, using aircraft carriers as platforms for offshore strikes and other naval vessels for offshore artillery support. Offshore naval fire played a pivotal role in the Battle of Huế in February 1968, providing accurate fire in support of the U.S. counter-offensive to retake the city.[14]

Captured South Vietnamese warplanes in Ho Chi Minh City

The Vietnam War was the first conflict that saw wide scale tactical deployment of helicopters.[15] The Bell UH-1 Iroquois nicknamed "Huey" was used extensively in counter-guerilla operations both as a troop carrier and a gunship.[12] In the latter role it was outfitted with a variety of armaments including M60 machine guns, multi-barreled 7.62 mm Miniguns and unguided air-to-surface rockets.[12] The Hueys were also successfully used in MEDEVAC and search and rescue roles.[12] Two aircraft which were prominent in the war were the AC-130 "Spectre" Gunship and the UH-1 "Huey" gunship. The AC-130 was a heavily armed ground-attack aircraft variant of the C-130 Hercules transport plane; it was used to provide close air support, air interdiction and force protection. The AC-130H "Spectre" was armed with two 20 mm M61 Vulcan cannons, one Bofors 40mm autocannon, and one 105 mm M102 howitzer. The Huey is a military helicopter powered by a single, turboshaft engine, and approximately 7,000 UH-1 aircraft saw service in Vietnam. At their disposal ground forces had access to B-52 and F-4 Phantom II and others to launch napalm, white phosphorus, tear gas and chemical weapons as well.[16] The aircraft ordnance used during the war included precision-guided munition, cluster bombs, a thickening/gelling agent generally mixed with petroleum or a similar fuel for use in an incendiary device, initially against buildings and later primarily as an anti-personnel weapon that sticks to skin and can burn down to the bone.

The Claymore M18A1, an anti-personnel mine was widely used, and is command-detonated and directional shooting 700 steel pellets in the kill zone.

Weapons of the South Vietnamese, U.S., South Korean, Australian, and New Zealand Forces[edit]

Hand combat weapons[edit]

The KA-BAR knife was the most famous edged weapon of the war.

Pistols and revolvers[edit]

Infantry rifles[edit]

Vietnamese Rangers with M16 rifles in Saigon during the Tết Offensive
A U.S. soldier with an M14 watches as supplies are dropped in Vietnam, 1967.
South Vietnamese People's Self-Defense Force militiawomen with M1 carbines
  • M14 rifle - issued to most U.S. troops from the early stages of the war until 1967-68, when it was replaced by the M16.[38]
  • M16, XM16E1, and M16A1 – M16 was issued in 1963, but due to reliability issues, it was replaced by the M16A1 in 1967 which added the forward assist and chrome-lined barrel to the rifle for increased reliability.[39]
  • CAR-15 – carbine variant of the M16 produced in very limited numbers, fielded by special operations early on. Later supplemented by the improved XM177.
  • XM177 (Colt Commando)/GAU-5 – further development of the CAR-15, used heavily by MACV-SOG, the US Air Force, and US Army.[30]
  • Stoner 63 – used by US Navy SEALs and USMC.[30]
  • T223 – a copy of the Heckler & Koch HK33 built under license by Harrington & Richardson used in small numbers by SEAL teams. Even though the empty H&R T223 was 0.9 pounds (0.41 kg) heavier than an empty M16A1, the weapon had a forty-round magazine available for it and this made it attractive to the SEALS.[30]
  • MAS-36 rifle - used by South Vietnamese militias[40]
  • AK-47, AKM and Type 56 - Captured rifles were used by South Vietnamese[41] and U.S forces.[42][43]

Sniper/marksman rifles[edit]

Submachine guns[edit]

Shotguns[edit]

Ithaca 37

Shotguns were used as an individual weapon during jungle patrol; infantry units were authorized a shotgun by TO&E (Table of Organization & Equipment). Shotguns were not general issue to all infantrymen, but were select issue weapons, such as one per squad, etc.

Machine guns[edit]

US Marine fires his M60 machine gun at an enemy position during the Battle of Huế.

Grenades and mines[edit]

Claymore anti-personnel mine in use in Vietnam

Grenade and Rocket Launchers[edit]

Flamethrowers[edit]

Infantry support weapons[edit]

A US soldier carries an M67 recoilless rifle past a burning Viet Cong base camp in Mỹ Tho, South Vietnam, 1968

Artillery[edit]

Self-propelled Howitzer M109 in Vietnam

Artillery ammunition types[edit]

Aircraft[edit]

(listed alphabetically by modified/basic mission code, then numerically in ascending order by design number/series letter)

USS Garrett County at anchor in the Mekong Delta with two UH-1B Iroquois helicopters on deck.

Helicopters[edit]

(listed numerically in ascending order by design number/series letter, then alphabetically by mission code)

Aircraft ordnance[edit]

Aircraft weapons[edit]

A minigun being fired from a combat search and rescue helicopter in Vietnam

Chemical weapons[edit]

Vehicles[edit]

In addition to cargo-carrying and troop transport roles, many of these vehicles were also equipped with weapons and sometimes armor, serving as "gun trucks" for convoy escort duties.[211]

Other vehicles[edit]

Combat vehicles[edit]

Tanks[edit]

Other armored vehicles[edit]

Naval craft[edit]

Fast Patrol Craft

Communications[edit]

Soldier using an AN/PRC-77 radio transceiver with the KY-38 secure voice encryptor (below), part of the NESTOR system.

Radios[edit]

The geographically dispersed nature of the war challenged existing military communications. From 1965 to the final redeployment of tactical units, numerous communications-electronics systems were introduced in Vietnam to upgrade the quality and quantity of tactical communications and replace obsolete gear:

Encryption systems[edit]

Encryption systems developed by the National Security Agency and used in Vietnam included:[267]

Weapons of the PAVN/VC[edit]

The PAVN and the Southern communist guerrillas, the Viet Cong (VC) as they were commonly referred to during the war, largely used standard Warsaw Pact weapons. Weapons used by the PAVN also included Chinese Communist variants, which were referred to as CHICOM's by the US military. Captured weapons were also widely used; almost every small arm used by SEATO may have seen limited enemy use. During the early 1950s, US equipment captured in Korea was also sent to the Viet Minh.

Small arms[edit]

Vietcong guerrilla stands beneath a Vietcong flag carrying his AK-47 rifle.
A U.S. Army M.P. inspects a Soviet AK-47 recovered in Vietnam in 1968.
PAVN troops with PPSh-41
VC soldier with SKS

Hand combat weapons[edit]

The KA-BAR knife was the most famous edged weapon of the war.

Handguns and revolvers[edit]

Automatic and semi-automatic rifles[edit]

Bolt-action rifles/marksman rifles/shotguns[edit]

Submachine guns[edit]

  • K-50M submachine gun (Vietnamese edition, based on Chinese version of Russian PPSh-41, under licence)[292]
  • MAT-49 submachine gun – Captured during the French-Indochina War. Many were converted from 9x19mm to 7.62x25 Tokarev[30]
  • PPSh-41 submachine gun (both Soviet, North Korean and Chinese versions)[293][294]
  • PPS-43 submachine gun (both Soviet and Chinese versions)[295]
  • M3 submachine gun[281]
  • Thompson submachine gun[281] - including Vietnamese copies[229]
  • MP 40[296]
  • MAS-38 submachine gun – Captured from the French in the Indochina War.[297]
  • PM-63 submachine gun - Used by Tank Crews
  • Vietnamese home-made submachine guns, inspired by the Sten or the Thompson, were used by the Viet Cong early in the war.[274][286]

Machine guns[edit]

Grenades and mines[edit]

Flamethrower[edit]

Rocket launchers, recoilless rifles, anti-tank rifles and lightweight guided missiles[edit]

Recoilless rifles were known as DKZ (Dai-bac Khong Ziat).[321]

North Vietnamese SAM crew in front of a SA-2 launcher.

Mortars[edit]

The KS-19

Field artillery rocket launchers[edit]

Field artillery rockets were often fired from improvised launchers, sometines a tube fixed with bamboo.[90]

Field guns and howitzers[edit]

Anti-aircraft weapons[edit]

Aircraft[edit]

Aircraft weapons[edit]

Helicopters[edit]

Tanks[edit]

Other armored vehicles[edit]

Support vehicles[edit]

Naval craft[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Citations and notes[edit]

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