In the course of decades of research in various military and museum archives, Robert Bruce has acquired a treasure trove of photos of what might be considered “odd and unusual weapons.” This is yet another follow-on to earlier oddities that appeared in previous issues.

 Now, with apologies for some of these rough-looking images—presented as they were found—let’s look at some very unusual weaponry from the early 1960’s and America’s gradual but quickly growing involvement in South Vietnam’s fight against Communist guerrillas, backed by North Vietnam and China.

First, here are some weapons used by the VC (Viet Cong) and NVA (North Vietnamese Army).


Homemade Recoilless Gun. A “VC HOMEMADE BOMB LAUNCHER 66mm TYPE SSA CAPTURED AT NAM CAN ON FEB. 5, 1963.” This was during the early days of the “America adviser” period before large numbers of conventional troops were committed. According to the 1964 edition of FSTC 381-5012 Typical Foreign Unconventional Weapons, “The Model S.S.A. Recoilless gun was made either in North Vietnam or in a Viet Cong safe area because its manufacture requires fairly extensive machine shop capabilities. The tube is a 60mm smooth bore made of a piece of pipe approximately 4½ feet long. The weapon traverses freely, but elevation is accomplished by means of a threaded shaft extending from a clamp around the rear of the tube to an arm attached to the mounting clamp. The total weight is approximately 72 pounds. The test history of this weapon is not known. The weapon is presumed to be effective.” No word on the finned rocket, but it had to have operated on the recoilless principle, delivering its explosive warhead at some undetermined range and with some degree of effectiveness.


Why Vietnam?

American military involvement in French Indochina dated back to WWII when the OSS (Office of Strategic Services—forerunners of the CIA] assisted Ho Chi Minh in his guerrilla war against Imperial Japanese occupiers. It continued in the early 1950s with advisers and massive shipments of war materiel to the French who were trying to keep Ho and his Viet Minh insurgents from kicking them out of their reclaimed colony. The French lost, and Vietnam was divided into a Communist north and a republic in the south. Fearful of South Vietnam falling like a “domino” into the rapidly growing Communist bloc, American aid and advisers began pouring in again. But the nature of counter-guerrilla warfare was quite different from what characterized massive conventional battle in WWII and the Korean Conflict. Once again, the U.S. Army, as an institution, and its essential Ordnance Corps were inadequately prepared, even against a poorly equipped but highly determined foe.


Medieval Crossbow in Modern Warfare? This undated Communist propaganda photo is intended to show the courage and determination of these teenage “liberators” despite the terrible handicap of primitive weapons. Its official caption says, “Militia of the Khua minority people … have efficiently helped the border guards defend the security of the DRVN (North Vietnam) frontier … They have detected and captured many spy-commando groups smuggled by the U.S. imperialists and their henchmen.” We note that the string on the young man’s crossbow is being held rearward by his thumb because the triggering stud is apparently a bit too short. His female battle buddy is much more effectively armed with what looks to be a U.S. .30 cal. M1903A3 bolt-action rifle, presumably captured from their South Vietnamese Army enemies.


Vintage Submachine Guns. This trio of subguns, captured from VC combatants, represents some typical subguns supplied by the insurgent movement’s Communist benefactors. From top to bottom: the Soviet PPS-43 or Chicom Type 54, a WWII German MP40 and an NVA K-50M, modified from the Red Army’s iconic PPSh 41. Judging from its descriptive card, the German “burp gun” has probably the most interesting origin, “GERMAN 9MM SCHMEISSER SMG 1941 ASSEMBLED FROM THE COMPONENTS OF SEVERAL SCHMEISSER WEAPONS PURCHASED IN EUROPE BY COMMUNIST AGENTS … .” Aside from perpetuating the long-common mistake of erroneously identifying Heinrich Vollmer’s MP38 and 40, there must have been some evidence of its origins from among millions of surplus German weapons in Europe after the War.


VC “Zip Gun.” July 6, 1965, Fort Hood, Texas. SFC Wes Willoughby, curator of the 1st Infantry Div. Museum, shows a VC-made 9mm pistol. While pretty conventional and surprisingly sophisticated in its grip, receiver and barrel, it feeds from a highly unusual 3-round sliding chamber. No word on how this was moved up or down to index each round for firing. The rifles in the display case behind him appear to be typical types from the Soviets, Red Chinese and various European countries.

Ingenious GIs

When his life is on the line and the weapons he’s given don’t measure up, the American GI takes action. Either on his own or with some help from higher ups. Here are some developments that validate once again the old expression, “necessity is the mother of invention.”


Improvised Door Gun. In Vietnam in 1963, PFC Dave Foch, 57th Light Helicopter Transportation Company, shows his “John Wayne Sling,” with on-board ammo can and chute-fed .30 cal. Browning M37 machine gun. According to Wikipedia, “The shooting down of a CH-21 Shawnee near the Laotian-Vietnamese border with the death of four aviators in July 1962 were some of the U.S. Army’s earliest Vietnam casualties.” So, since this H-21C Shawnee “Flying Banana” doesn’t appear to have a suitable mount for the gun in its door, Foch’s clever rig is likely intended to provide suppressive fire when in flight and on landing zones, as well as a formidable, portable weapon in case his helo is forced down like the one some months before when the whole crew was killed by guerrillas.


Browning Hits the Skids. In the undated, but probably around 1959 photo, the XM-1 Armament System is seen on the left side skid of a little Hiller OH-23D Raven observation helicopter. A common complaint from pilots of these nimble but unarmed little scout choppers from service dating back to the Korean War was the inability to take out targets of opportunity or to immediately retaliate against hostile ground fire. That’s a solenoid fired, .30 caliber Browning M37 machine gun, fed by disintegrating steel-linked belts pulled up from an under-mounted magazine. Because the feed side of the M37 could be easily switched, another set was mounted on the right skid for balance, backup and double the firepower when needed.


“Custom” Pistol? In 1963 at Ton Son Nuht, Vietnam, Staff Sergeant Robert Blerk, Chief Machine Gunner with the Army’s 57th Light Helicopter Transportation Company, shows off “Long Tom,” a customized .22 auto that’s obviously set up to take a muzzle-coupled suppressor along with a high-mounted rear sight to clear the can. With no more info on the photo print we found, we’ll speculate that the pistol (possibly built on a High Standard Target model) was acquired in friendly association from flying around some of America’s clandestine operators of the CIA, spookily assessing strength and capabilities of insurgent forces. That’s an H-21C Shawnee in the background.


Dragon Feeding Time. We’ve got a “two-fer” here in this May 1966 photo from the Vietnam War with cowboy-rig revolvers and Gatling guns. From left to right are Staff Sergeant John Boineau, Staff Sergeant Carl Starwalt and Master Sergeant Norris Johnson, USAF airmen loading steel-linked 7.62mm ammunition for Miniguns on an AC-47. Plenty was needed because each of the three M134 Miniguns could rip out up to 100 rounds per second at top speed, and with every fifth round a red tracer, its nighttime signature, looked like undulating streams of dragon fire. Whole books have—rightly so—been written about Dr. Gatling’s hand-cranked cartridge spitter in America’s War of Northern Aggression and its evolution into various motor-driven super machine guns, as well as other books detailing the saga of stalwart Captain Ron Terry fighting the arrogant Air Force brass to fly close support missions in his FC/AC-47 modified WWII cargo planes. These quickly became known fondly as both “Spooky” and “Puff the Magic Dragon.”

A New Rifle for a New Type of War

At the time, soldiers and militiamen of South Vietnam were armed with the usual array of America’s leftover infantry weapons from WWII. Since most of these men were considerably smaller than their GI counterparts, big Garands, Brownings and Thompsons weren’t a good fit. M1 and M2 carbines were more favorable, but range and stopping power were lacking. American soldiers and Marines had heavy M14 rifles firing hard-hitting 7.62mm (.30 caliber) rounds; excellent for warfare in the open spaces of Europe but not so much for tropical Vietnam. What followed is a tale of optimism and woe, perhaps best detailed in R. Blake Stevens’ and Edward C. Ezell’s The Black Rifle: M16 Retrospective.


ARVN Armalite. In June 1962, ARVN (Army of Republic of Vietnam) infantrymen were armed with early-production 5.56mm AR-15 rifles during a field operation; these small-stature soldiers no doubt were glad to be rid of the heavy, hard-kicking M1 Garand rifles previously issued. Sharp-eyed readers will note the prong-style flash suppressor and slab-sided lower receiver with unshielded mag release and no forward assist mechanism. Also, on the soldier’s pistol belt is the little rifle’s bayonet and carrying case with “clothespin” bipod. Early field performance reports were sometimes exaggerated, hastening replacement of the 7.62mm M14 with the M16 in U.S. military service. A fateful decision …


AR Optic Experiments. While today’s American military riflemen take for granted the combat effectiveness of electro-optical sights now standard on their M16 series rifles and M4 carbines, this was a long time coming. As early as 1961, with the USAF’s initial evaluation of Eugene Stoner’s Armalite/Colt AR-15, some low powered scopes were handily mounted without any modification into their preordained space on the carrying handle. But for various reasons this essential enhancement didn’t become standard for decades despite the Son Tay Raiders in 1970 having early Aimpoint red dots on their XM177E carbines. However, some optically scoped “Sixteens” did find use in ‘Nam as seen in this photo of a 2nd Bn 2nd ROK (Republic of Korea) Marine sniper’s M16A1 during Operation Dragon Fire, south of Chu Lai.

 “Brown Water Navy” 

The U.S. Navy has its own Ordnance establishment that’s turned out some interesting weaponry over time. Relevant to this installment is the immediate adaption of the WWII PT (Patrol Torpedo) boat’s swiveling gun tub with twin .50 M2 machine guns to the similarly fast and light PBR (Patrol Boat River) of Vietnam. Transitioning from open-ocean “blue water” to muddy rivers of the Mekong Delta, supporting riverine operations required some real institutional and engineering expertise. Fortunately for sailors, SEALs and Marines, the work started early and paid off quickly.


Piggyback Pounder. An early 1960’s joint development by weapons wizards at Naval Weapons Station, Crane, Indiana and their Coast Guard comrades at Curtis Bay, Maryland, the Mk 2 Mod 0 and Mod 1 81mm mortar with piggyback .50 cal. machine gun was a murderous combination on patrol craft in Vietnam. The mortar tube could be elevated for conventional drop fire at long range or levered down for direct fire with a trigger mechanism. And with all that steel in the gun and its massive mount, bolting a Browning M2 on top was a piece of cake. The mortar fired all the conventional M43 series ammo and the wickedly awesome M120 APERS packed with 1,200 steel needle flechettes.


Crank ’em out! April 1969, Cà Mau Peninsula, RVN. A U.S. Navy PCF (Patrol Craft Fast) “Swift Boat” crewman readies an Mk 18 grenade launcher. No word if this was the one that John Kerry claimed to have been cranking when he was “wounded in combat action.” Responding to an urgent request from the Navy in the early 1960s, Honeywell Corp. developed a novel hand-cranked weapon firing standard, low-velocity 40mm ammo for the M79, held securely in Mylar/Dacron tape belts. What became known as the Mk 18 Mod 0 Grenade Launcher utilized a clever “clam shell” split breech of two star wheels that clamped around each cartridge from opposite sides as it was ratcheted up into firing position. For simplicity, the rounds were not extracted from the belt for firing, and the empties were simply cranked out the other side.


40mm Forerunner to the Mk 19. While not strictly an early Vietnam War weapon, the Mk 20 is included here as an example of rapid development in response to combat urgencies. Although it’s hard to understand how the ultra-simple and somewhat reliable Mk 18 was falling short, the archaic hand crank was dispensed with in the automatic firing Mk 20. Fielded by the Naval Ordnance Station, Louisville, Kentucky, in a crash program after just 6 months’ work, it fired the same belts of the low-velocity 40mm M79 ammo but in a radical blow-forward mechanism. Only a very few of these oddities were made, and the much more effective Mk 19, firing high-velocity, longer range 40mm ammo in full-auto, quickly gained acceptance, continuing to this very day.


An A 40 and A 50 for the Fight. April 1969, My Tho, RVN. Gunners Mate 3 Thomas Bruemer USN PBR on river patrol. In a piggyback rig that’s handy in most any engagement, the 40mm Mk18 on top is used to crank out M79-type grenades for suppressive fire in close-combat action, while the much more formidable M2 .50 cal. could punch hard and fast at near and very far range. It is worthy to note that around this time there was experimentation with Duplex and Triplex (two and three projectiles) in each cartridge case for the M2.

What’s Ahead

In the next installment of Ordnance Oddities, we’ll take a look at some interesting developments that the massive might of the combined U.S. Armed Forces was brought to bear in Southeast Asia; not only against elusive Viet Cong guerrillas but increasingly in pitched battles against well-trained and -equipped regulars of the North Vietnamese Army.