Somebody sent me some old American Rifleman magazines for a morale-boosting walk down memory lane. (Thanks, “Spurs.”) I was only 12 years old in 1969, and the Vietnam War was daily grist for network TV news, with Walter Cronkite mournfully announcing the weekly American military KIA and WIA numbers every Friday at the end of his nightly show. (It took us a lot longer to figure out that “Uncle Walter” was a secret champion of the World Federalist Association, dedicated to global government, and opposed to America’s sovereign superpower status).
I was already a shooter by then, and I followed weapons developments, news, and rumors as much as I could, and I have done so in all the decades since. So I was greatly impressed by this unexpected January 1969 American Rifleman article about the M-16 in combat in Vietnam by a Capt. William A. Smith, USA.

In particular, I was impressed by his recommendation for putting a 2X7 variable power optic on the M-16’s carry handle for NCOs and company grade officers, sort of a harbinger of the modern Designated Marksman Rifle. He also suggests adapting 2 issue G.I rifle slings to create a modern over-the-neck “ready carry” combat sling. I was so impressed by this article that I scanned it and formatted it for easy sharing. Please feel free to comment here, or to reformat and repost it anyplace that shooters like to talk about war guns, past and present. The more credit that Capt. Smith gets, the better.

The first “flat top” M-16s I ever saw were being built “unofficially” in the armory at SEAL Team Two in the early 1980s. These were not yet approved for military use, but frogs in the ST-2 armory were grinding the carry-handles off “surveyed,” and hence expendable, (wink-wink) M-16 uppers, and then drilling, tapping, and epoxying commercial Weaver scope rails on top. These were direct forerunners of the modern Picatinny rail. The idea, of course, was to get your face and shooting eye down lower for a good cheek weld, and not an extra couple inches too high up on top of the carry handle. This was circa 1982. I’d love to hear from other military “early adapters” who were making similar modifications around that time.

At the time, the conventional wisdom was that battery-powered electronic red-dot sights would never be rugged enough for combat use, but were just a gimmick used by shooting sports hot-shots. Around 1981 or so I had mounted an early Aimpoint on my personal Ruger Mini-14 with a side-folding Choate stock. It worked great even when shooting while treading water after complete submersion.
Like Capt. Smith suggests, it’s always a good idea to retract the bolt a little first to ensure the barrel is clear of water. (Even more so in the case of the M-16, with its gas tube that can also also fill with water.) My Ruger Mini-14 / Aimpoint experimentation was done circa 1981-83. I still have that old Aimpoint, but it’s proprietary batteries are no longer made, so it’s just a paperweight and conversation piece. I’ll bet if the batteries were available, that original 1982 Aimpoint would still boot up, and still hold zero, in or out of the water.

I know from my own mentorship by Vietnam SEAL veterans in the 1980s that back in Vietnam they were already using the “modern” combat-ready over-the-neck carry slings similar to the one in the picture of Capt. Smith on photo 3/5. (Often they were operator-created from 1″ green tubular nylon or other available strap material.)
And now, in 2021, the U.S. military is going to put a battery-powered 1X6 optical sight on most modern versions of the M-16, however they rename Eugene Stoner’s rifle. Capt. Smith and the others like him in the “Big Army” in 1969 were far, far ahead of their time. It has taken the “Big Army” many decades to finally catch up to what these Vietnam War soldiers (and many other military pioneers in various special ops communities) had already figured out about the utility of modern rifle carry slings and optical sights, even way back then.

The basic AR platform has not really changed all that much in 50 years, all credit going to Eugene Stoner. Now it turns out that “early adapters” had already figured ways to optimize the platform that the DoD .Mil would not accept for general issue for decades to come. And Capt. Smith’s commentary on the optimal uses of semi- and full-automatic fire still ring true down the years until today.