When John F. Kennedy infuriated Army bigwigs by awarding Special Forces the GreenBeret by executive order in 1961, the unit had been in existence for less than ten years. Before it hit its 20-year anniversary, it would go to Vietnam ahead of Big Green and come home ahead of Big Green (in 1971). During this time it went through several generations of weapons, and at the end of this period the old-timers were still hanging on to the weapons they used at the start of the era.
In 1952, SF stood up, first with just one Group targeted on the Russian satellite/slave nations in Eastern Europe. The unit was armed, like the rest of the Army, with the proven arms of World War II: the M1 Garand rifle, the M1/M2 Carbine, and the Browning Automatic Rifle as individual weapons. The most-used crew-served weapon was the venerable Browning Model 1919A4/A6 light machine gun. The standard pistol was the M1911A1 .45. Special Forces, a unit meant to work behind enemy lines, also trained extensively with the weapons of potential enemies and the deniable weapons of the defeated Axis powers and various unaligned nations. During these two decades, the Army replaced its individual weapons twice. Out of all this hardware, only a few weapons became legends.
The M1/M2 Carbine
Nobody was neutral about this lightweight rifle that fired a special low-powered cartridge. You lived it or you hated it, no middle ground. The lovers liked its handiness, its lightweight ammunition, and, once Vietnam got going in SF’s second decade of existence, the fact that it was the same weapon their indigenous strike force troopers carried. Having a weapon that didn’t have a distinctive report or flash could be helpful in preventing the VC/NVA from locking on the USSF members of the patrol, while conversely, USSF carrying a different weapon made the Civilian Irregular Defense Group strikers lose confidence in their carbines. The folding-stock M1A1 version was seldom if ever seen, through the 1960s and into the Vietnam decade, the carbines were just generic carbines. The M2 was a selective-fire version. The M3 used a very early and very primitive active infrared night-vision system, with a visual range of barely 100 yards, but it introduced SF to the night-vision concept that would only come to real fruition in the 1990s.
The Browning Automatic Rifle
Early SF guys loved this WW1-vintage hunk of firepower. It had selectable rates of fire, enough weight to be solidly controllable, and fired a powerful round. When the BAR finally succumbed to obsolescence, the web belts that were made to carry its magazines got another twenty-plus years of service.
The Armalite AR-15/Colt Model 601
Before most of the Army ever heard of this rifle, SF tried it out in combat under Project AGILE and liked it. The early Colt Model 601 AR-15 gave an SF trooper nearly the close-range firepower of that BAR in a six and a half pound package — which let him carry prodigious quantities of ammunition. Every M16 and AR-15 variant today is descended from these early guns, but if you’ve only shot the descendants, the sire is a revelation — light, fast-handling, perfectly balanced, and free of the protuberances, knobbly bits and sharp edges that thirty years of improvements have added to the gun. Many modern ARs are half again the weight of the 601, and that’s before you start adding optics and gadgets that trade-off balance and handling for increased capability.
Or as the Joes called it, the Swedish K. An excellent 2nd-generation submachine gun, the K was carried by special ops forces in regular and suppressed versions. There was nothing special about the gun, except perhaps for its thick green paint job; it really didn’t do anything that an M3 grease gun didn’t do, except “be exotic,” which was enough to endear it to generations of SF soldiers. In Afghanistan in 2002 we found a cache with a couple Egyptian “Port Said” copies of the Swedish K, and a couple of our guys spent the rest of their war stylin’ and profilin’ with ’em. Compact assault rifles killed off the pistol-caliber submachine gun, but they’re still good for lots of “cool points.” The one in the picture is a homemade one, from original parts and an 80% receiver from Philadelphis Ordnance.
This shortened version of the M16 rifle was made in a wide variety of versions and variants. The ultimate version was the XM177E2, (Colt Model 639). This weapon is probably more associated with the elite cross-border reconnaissance teams of the Special Operations Group (SOG) than any other. After the war, though, it was quickly phased out of the inventory — only to inspire the return to carbine-length weapons many years later. Civilian export models were used on the Son Tay Raid, perhaps the most daring (if unsuccessful) operation of the war.
The M1911A1 .45
This classic Browning design was the standard US Army sidearm for most of the 20th Century, and still serves in limited places today. It had been the standard sidearm for 40 years and two major wars when SF kicked off, and at the end of this period (1972) it was still the unchallenged king of the handgun hill.
The Hi-Standard .22
Developed for the OSS, this nearly silent weapon was used in covert and clandestine raids. It was also used by the OSS’s other offspring, the CIA (U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers had one in his survival kit, which resides in a museum in Moscow).
The M1935 Browning HP.
This was a prestige handgun by dint of its non-US-issue status. Every weapons man was taught it, along with dozens of other US and foreign weapons, in SFQC. But it was also used when deniable foreign weapons were needed, and tended to surface from warehouse stocks somewhere when large deployments were made. While some BHPs were privately owned, others were FN-made or Inglis-made weapons that somehow wound up in US stocks.
In addition to “service” Hi-Powers, in the Vietnam War presentation Hi-Powers were sometimes given to Sf soldiers completing a tour successfully. However, it seems more common to hear the story of how a trooper got rooked out of a HP than to hear the story of him getting one!
The image came from Stephen Camp’s good (but not recently updated) hipowers-handguns.blogspot.com.
You can’t be SF and not love mortars. Mortars are SF’s own little artillery pieces, letting us rain down the Judgment of the Lord on whatever heathens need smiting, whether they’re Vietcong (godless Communists, no God at all) or Salafist Taliban (too much God and the wrong kind). And the 60mm mortar is mortar on a personal scale. Think of it as the military answer to desktop publishing… desktop depublishing genomes from the Book of Life. The mortars of this period were the small, light M2 and M19 60mm mortars.
Model 1919A4/A6 light machine gun
This was a standard US weapon for many years; a robust weapon, designed by John Browning (again!) and fielded from tripods or in a peculiar looking bipod/shoulder-stocked version. The famous .50 M2HB is basically this weapon, scaled up. SF used these on vehicles occasionally, and to defend fixed positions, like the A-camps in Vietnam.
Legendary Guns of SF 1952-72
We hope you enjoyed this look at the legendary weapons of Special Forces’ first two decades. In the next installment, we pick up in the lean years after Vietnam and carry on for two more decades into new realms of global responsibility: 1972-1992.
UPDATE: This post has been corrected. The SF CAR-15 was the XM177E2, not XM144E2, as noted by Daniel Watters of The Gun Zone in the comments. Also, two facts should probably have been made clear: the Army then termed it a Submachine Gun, as strange as that seems today when the conceptually similar M4 series is recognized as a Carbine. And the XM177E2 and Colt Model 639 were the same gun with different markings — 177 for the US Military, and 639 for the civilian, foreign and export market.