The M16 is the United States military designation for the AR-15 rifle. Colt purchased the rights to the AR-15 from ArmaLite and currently uses that designation only for semi-automatic versions of the rifle. The M16 rifle fires the 5.56x45mm cartridge and can produce massive wounding and hydrostatic shock effects when the bullet impacts at high velocity and yaws in tissue leading to fragmentation and rapid transfer of energy. However, terminal effects can be unimpressive when the bullet fails to yaw or fragment in tissue.
The M16 entered United States Army service as the M16A1 and was put into action for jungle warfare in South Vietnam in 1963, becoming the standard U.S. rifle of the Vietnam War by 1969, replacing the M14 rifle in that role. The U.S. Army retained the M14 in CONUS, Europe, and South Korea until 1970. Since the Vietnam War, the M16 rifle family has been the primary infantry rifle of the U.S. military. With its variants, it has been in use by 15 NATO countries, and is the most produced firearm in its caliber.
The development of the M16A2 rifle was originally requested by the United States Marine Corps as a result of the USMC's combat experience in Vietnam with the XM16E1 and M16A1. The Marines were the first branch of the U.S. Armed Forces to adopt the M16A2 in the early/mid 1980s with the United States Army following suit in the late 1980s. Modifications to the M16A2 were extensive. In addition to the new rifling, the barrel was made with a greater thickness in front of the front sight post to resist bending in the field and to allow a longer period of sustained fire without overheating. The rest of the barrel was maintained at the original thickness to enable the M203 grenade launcher to be attached. The front sight was now a square post with 4 detent positions, adjustable for vertical zeroing by using a cartridge, nail or special tool. A new adjustable rear sight was added, allowing the rear sight to be dialed in for specific range settings between 300 and 800 meters to take full advantage of the ballistic characteristics of the new SS109 rounds and to allow windage adjustments without the need of a tool or cartridge. The flash suppressor was again modified, this time to be closed on the bottom so it would not kick up dirt or snow when being fired from the prone position, and acting as a recoil compensator. The front grip was modified from the original triangular shape to a round one, which better fitted smaller hands and could be fitted to older models of the M16. The new handguards were also symmetrical so that armories needn't separate left and right spares. The handguard retention ring was tapered to make it easier to install and uninstall the handguards. The pistol grip adds a notch for the middle finger and more texture to enhance the grip. The buttstock was lengthened by 5/8 inch (16 mm). The new buttstock became ten times stronger than the original due to advances in polymer technology since the early 1960s. Original M16 stocks were made from fiberglass-impregnated resin; the newer stocks were engineered from DuPont Zytel glass-filled thermoset polymers. The new stock included a fully textured polymer buttplate for better grip on the shoulder, and retained a panel for accessing a small compartment inside the stock, often used for storing a basic cleaning kit. The heavier bullet reduces muzzle velocity from 3,200 feet per second (980 m/s), to about 3,050 feet per second (930 m/s). The A2 also uses a faster twist rifling to allow the use of a trajectory-matched tracer round. A spent case deflector was incorporated into the upper receiver immediately behind the ejection port to prevent cases from striking left-handed users.
The action was also modified, replacing the fully-automatic setting with a three-round burst setting. When using a fully-automatic weapon, poorly trained troops often hold down the trigger and "spray" when under fire. The U.S. Army concluded that three-shot groups provide an optimum combination of ammunition conservation, accuracy and firepower. There are mechanical flaws in the M16A2 burst mechanism. The trigger group does not reset when the trigger is released. If the user releases the trigger between the second and third round of the burst, for example, the next trigger pull would only result in a single shot. Even in semi-automatic mode, the trigger group mechanism affects weapon handling. With each round fired, the trigger group cycles through one of the three stages of the burst mechanism. Worse, the trigger pull at each of these stages may vary as much as 6 lbf (27 N) in pressure differential, detracting from accuracy.
All together, the M16A2s new features added weight and complexity to the M16 series. Critics also point out that neither of the rear sight apertures is ideally sized. The smaller aperture was described as being too small, making quick acquisition of the front sight post difficult; and the larger aperture was described as being too large, resulting in decreased accuracy. To make matters worse, the rear sight apertures are not machined to be on the same plane. In other words, the point of impact changes when the user changes from one aperture to the other. The rear sight's range adjustment feature is rarely used in combat as soldiers tend to leave the rear sight on its lowest range setting of 300 meters. This distance is seen by many as an excessively long range for the minimum setting, given that most engagements take place at significantly shorter ranges. Despite criticism, a new rifle was needed both to comply with NATO standardization of the SS109 (M855) and to replace aging Vietnam era weapons in the inventory.
The M16A3 was a fully-automatic variant of the M16A2 adopted in small numbers around the time of the introduction of the M16A2, primarily by the U.S. Navy for use by SEAL, Seabee, and Security units. It features the M16A1 trigger group providing "safe", "semi-automatic", and "fully-automatic" modes.
The M16A3 is often incorrectly described as the fully-automatic version of the M16A4 or an M16A2 with a Picatinny rail. This misunderstanding likely stems from the use of the "A3" designation by Colt and other manufacturers to describe commercial AR-15 type rifles before the official adoption of the M16A3 or M16A4. Colt used the "A3" designation in the hopes of winning military contracts as they also did with the terms, "M4" and "M5".