It’s well established that the M16 was developed as a single solution to replace the M1 Garand, M1/M2 Carbines, M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle, M3 “Grease Gun” and Thompson submachine gun. Developed at the height of the Cold War by gun designer Eugene Stoner as the AR-15, it evolved into Colt’s M16, and in early 1966, this new firearm headed off to the jungles of Vietnam.
The M16 in American Pop Culture
The weapon had quite the baptism of fire. M16s were prone to jamming, made worse by the fact that the firearm was wrongly touted at the time as being “self-cleaning.” As a result, the M16 earned the nickname “Jamming Jenny.” To encourage proper care of the M16, the U.S. military responded by issuing a 32-page comic book, The M16A1 Rifle: Operation and Preventative Maintenance, written by noted cartoonist William Erwin Eisner, that was a key departure from more traditional manuals. Instead of relying mostly on text and black-and-white photos, it featured colorful illustrations and sexual innuendos, including a buxom narrator.
The pamphlet was no doubt a novel way to reach a new generation of soldiers who grew up with comic books, but this was just one facet of how the M16 immediately became so closely linked with popular culture—a connection that exists to this day.
While the Soviets had kept tight wraps on the development of the AK-47 following World War II, and the now-infamous firearm was never officially announced or introduced to the world (it was really only first seen by Western observers during the 1956 Budapest Uprising), the AR-15 was rolled out to the world in the most American of ways. In 1963, Time magazine photographer Arthur Rickerby captured a Colt demonstration of the AR-15 with 1962 Miss America pageant winner Maria Fletcher holding several of the weapons.
It isn’t clear if the young Fletcher actually fired the AR-15 during the photo shoot, but it appears that she knew a thing or two about firearms based on her posture. Her exaggerated “chicken wing” stance may seem odd today, but it was actually a common practice for many shooters at that time.
This introduction has largely been forgotten simply because of bad timing. Time ran the article, Corporations: Colt’s New Rifle, in the issue dated November 22, 1963—the same day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Interestingly, it was also in Dallas where the Secret Service agents may have been issued the AR-15 for the first time.
On The Big Screen
Unlike the AK-47, which was seldom seen in movies during much of the Cold War due to an embargo on Warsaw Pact weaponry, the AR-15/M16 and its variations have appeared in literally hundreds of movies since the early 1960s. One of the reasons is that movie armorers had the opportunity to buy weapons that were phased out of active duty, while semi-automatic Colt AR-15 SP1 rifles were easily converted to full-auto fire and looked nearly identical to the military versions.
The M16’s first appearance on the big screen wasn’t in a major war epic, however. Instead, it made its big-screen debut in 1964’s Seven Days in May¸ which featured a plot line where a general (played by Burt Lancaster) sought to overthrow the president of the United States. The weapon only appears in a handful of scenes and probably seemed futuristic to viewers because, at the time of the filming, the U.S. Army was still using the M14. It would be another two years before the M16 first saw adoption and use in combat. However, Seven Days in May could be seen as a portent of things to come, as it was set in 1970, by which time the M16 had become the standard combat rifle for the U.S. Army.
It’s also worth noting that Kirk Douglas, who starred in the film as Marine Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey, was the first American film star to carry an AK-47 in a Western-made movie in 1978’s The Fury. Who knew that Douglas would appear in the first films to usher two such iconic weapons into the mainstream?
Another four years would pass until the M16 appeared in another major film: 1968’s Ice Station Zebra. It was seen in a key scene where U.S. sailors have a standoff with Soviet paratroopers—the latter armed incorrectly with Madsen M50s and not AK-47s. In fact, it wasn’t until the Israeli-made film Operation Thunderbolt in 1977 in which both M16s and AK-47s appeared in the same film.
XM16E1 Hits the Big Screen
The M16’s “starring role” also came in 1968 when the XM16E1, a modified variant with a forward assist that was common in the early stages of Vietnam, was used in the John Wayne film The Green Berets. This is among one of the few times real XM16E1s were used, as later films, including 2002’s We Were Soldiers, featured mocked-up M16A1s instead.
It wasn’t just the M16 that got its moment in the spotlight. One interesting accessory was the single-shot, 40mm, under-barrel M203 grenade launcher, which made a big impact in films as well. Introduced in 1969 to replace the standalone M79 break-action grenade launcher, it was used in the later stages of the Vietnam War but was actually first seen in the 1983 film Scarface. While Tony Montana (Al Pacino) was actually holding a fake M203 when he called out, “Say hello to my little friend!” it looked good in the scene.
Subsequent movies, including Predator and Heartbreak Ridge, would also utilize faux M203s made by prop house Special Effects Unlimited. More recently, armorers have used the Cobray 37mm CM203 flare launcher as a stand-in for the M203. These include such notable films as Black Hawk Down and Jarhead, but in both of those movies, real M203s are also used alongside the flare launchers.
The First Toys
Today, there are dozens of options when it comes to replica M16s, including airsoft versions, as well as toys—even now, when the mere mention of a “toy gun” will send a California liberal into shock. However, the first true toy black gun was the Mattel M16 Marauder, which was introduced in 1966—the same year the actual firearm went to Vietnam. Unlike other toy guns introduced after WWII, the Marauder didn’t need batteries or caps to provide a “realistic” sound of a weapon being fired. This toy version was close in size to the actual M16, and while it did feature a ridiculously large magazine and mag well, it was fairly accurate.
This explains why the Mattel M16 Marauder was actually used in the film The Green Berets in two different scenes. It’s carried by Colonel Kirby (John Wayne) during the nighttime battle sequence and later is the gun that Kirby smashes against a tree so that it couldn’t be captured by the Viet Cong. As I can attest, the Marauders were rather fragile even for kids in the 1970s, so it makes sense that the movie would use this toy for the scene, especially considering how hard it is to damage aircraft-grade aluminum.
Because of the presence of the Marauder in that film, and the fact that it did reasonably recreate the M16, there has been a persistent rumor that Mattel produced parts—or at least pistol grips—for the real M16s. The rumor is so great that stories still abound that soldiers recall seeing “Mattel” on their M16s while serving in Vietnam. But Mattel did not manufacture any parts for the M16 at any point, so perhaps those who believe they saw one in Vietnam just watched The Green Berets one too many times.
The Marauder and other M16 toys were made throughout the early to mid 1970s, even after the Vietnam War, but part of the renewed interest in such toys came from the TV show S.W.A.T. However, toys M16s stopped being produced by the end of the decade—not because of any political or anti-gun backlash, but because of the oil embargo, which drove the cost of plastic up. The energy crisis and the cost of petroleum helped kill off the original 12-inch G.I. Joe as well, and then, in 1977, a film called Star Wars came out, and kids were more interested in sci-fi designs.
More recently, the M16 and its variants have found a new audience via video games, and it’s in the arsenal of dozens of military simulations, including Battlefield Vietnam and Call of Duty: Black Ops, and even appears in modern crime and horror-based games like Left 4 Dead 2. Game developers have generally done an excellent job in realistic modeling the M16 and capturing its muzzle flash, recoil and sound signature.
Given the anti-war movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, it’s not surprising that the M16 hasn’t gotten much love in songs over the years. Also, unlike the AK-47 or MAC-10, it hasn’t been praised or deified in hip-hop or rap songs, either.
In most songs, the M16 has unfortunately been used to denigrate or disparage the U.S. military and soldiers in general. And yet, the first song to actually call out the firearm by name could be Warren Zevon’s “Jungle Work” in 1980, which has been described on occasion as the “mercenary theme song,” as it called out operators parachuting into enemy territory. That song failed to make much of an impact on the records charts.
The same year, the Rolling Stones released their own anti-war song, “Indian Girl,” which featured the nonsensical lyrics, “They’re shooting down planes with their M16 and with laughter.” The biggest thing to laugh about in this one is the idea of an M16 as anti-aircraft weapon.
Other references to the M16 in songs include forgettable releases like punk band Dropkick Murphys’ “Warlords,” heavy-metal rockers Helloween’s “World of War” or Accept’s “Guns ‘R’ Us.” In fact, it’s almost impossible to find any praise for the firearm in music at all, but then again, the M1 Garand and Brown Bess haven’t gotten much musical love, either.
Whether it’s the love the gun has gotten onscreen or in games or the distain in music, it’s doubtful that Eugene Stoner would ever have expected the M16 to have such an impact in popular culture.
This article originally appeared in the April-May 2020 issue of Tactical Life magazine. Get your copy or digital subscription at OutdoorGroupStore.com.