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M60 Machine Gun Was Loved, Hated by G.I.s

It was a fixture in Vietnam.

Second only to the Huey helicopter as the “most recognizable” weapon of its era according to a poll by the trade journal Army Times, the M60 machine gun was everywhere in the Southeast Asia conflict. In post-Vietnam years, the gas-operated, air-cooled, belt-fed 7.62 mm machine gun was inseparable from the looming countenance of Sylvester Stallone in the Rambo movies.

M60 Machine Gun

Sgt. Ronald Mann of the 1314th Ground Combat Readiness and Evaluation Squadron fires an M60 machine gun from the standing position during the Defender Challenge ’88, Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., Aug. 26, 1988. The M60 could be shouldered and fired, albeit inaccurately. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. John K. McDowell

American soldiers loved it and hated it.

They loved its reliability and rate of fire but disliked its bulk, which earned it the nickname “the Pig.” Changing the barrel on an M60 was an awkward, cumbersome task, all but impossible in the heat of battle.

Former U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Steve Beasley, a firearms authority, said the M60 is “iconic as a general-purpose light machine gun,” but had many flaws.

“It had some good features,” said Beasley in a telephone interview. “It had many that weren’t so good.”

In Vietnam, the M60 dangled from helicopter doorways, stood guard on bunkers, and accompanied squads into combat. It became the “Hog” or the “Pig” to American soldiers because its report sounded like the grunt of a barnyard hog.

The Army was enthusiastic when the M60 was being developed in the Cold War 1950s. Its inspiration was the German MG-42 machine gun of World War II — often called a better crew-served weapon than anything the Allies had. An attempt to build an American copy of the MG-42 stumbled on political and technical obstacles, but in the 1950s, the United States developed its own T-161 machine gun, which employed a 7.62 mm ammunition belt patterned from the German template.

The T-161 looked promising. It could be shouldered or fired from the hip if its operator was strong enough (a la Rambo). The recoil would quickly make aiming impossible when it was used that way, but as a two-soldier weapon operated by a gunner and assistant gunner it seemed almost perfect. When it went into production, the T-161 was redesignated the M60.

M60 Machine Gun

An M60 machine gun team changes barrels before engaging their last target during Defender Challenge ’88, Aug. 26, 1988. Since the bipod was attached to the barrel, the gunner would have to hold the weapon up in the air as the barrel was changed, unless it was conveniently mounted on a tripod, as in this photo, which happened rarely.. Later versions of the M60 added a handle on the barrel so that the assistant gunner didn’t need to use an asbestos glove to change barrels, and mounted the bipod on the gas tube. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. John K. McDowell

The Army standardized on the M60 in February 1957 as a companion to the M14 rifle. Both were chosen because they handled the 7.62 mm (.308 caliber) cartridge adopted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In service, the M60 replaced the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), M1919A6,  and the water-cooled M1917 machine gun. It was touted as the first U.S. machine gun with a true quick-change barrel system although, as noted above, a change didn’t usually happen very quickly.

C.G. Sweeting, an author of books on guns and combat equipment, said in an interview that the M60, “showed that as late as 1960, we were still adapting our armed forces with the kind of technology the Germans had pioneered 15 years earlier.”

It became the “Hog” or the “Pig” to American soldiers because its report sounded like the grunt of a barnyard hog.

In Vietnam, the M60 dangled from helicopter doorways, stood guard on bunkers, and accompanied squads into combat. It became the “Hog” or the “Pig” to American soldiers because its report sounded like the grunt of a barnyard hog.

 

Comfortable Shooter

Using its bipod, the M60 had a maximum effective range of 800 meters (the measurement used in U.S. manuals). Typically, every soldier in a rifle squad carried a supply of 200 linked rounds of ammunition for the M60, a spare barrel, or both. Ammunition fed into the weapon from a 100-round bandolier containing a disintegrating, metallic split-link belt.

M60 Machine Gun

Special Warfare Combat Crewman spray a mock enemy area with a barrage of live M60 machine gun fire from weapons stations aboard their combat patrol craft during a training exercise in the bayous of Stennis,Space Center, Miss., ca. Jan. 2000.  U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 1st Class Robert Benson

Said Beasley: “The rubberized fore-grip was very comfortable — something its replacement, the M240, didn’t have when it was introduced. The M60 was easy to carry. The pistol grip was easy to use. It had a good sling mount. Disassembly was not difficult.”

Beasley added: “The rate of fire was another positive: It was easy to control how many rounds you were firing. The sights on it were good but not great; they were pretty durable which is good because in the infantry guys are good at breaking things.”

Former Spc. 4 Sidney S. Reeder, who operated the M60 with the 1st Cavalry Division in South Vietnam, said in an interview that the weapon had other strengths and weaknesses. “It had gas system components which would work loose,  resulting in a sluggish or runaway gun,” he said. “It had operating rods made out of substandard metal. But it had a really decent rear sight, which was easily adjustable for windage and elevation.”

Versions of the gun are in service in about 30 countries around the world.

The standard ammunition mix for the M60 was four ball-type (M80) rounds for each tracer (M62) round. The four-and-one mix allowed the gunner to adjust fire while observing results. The weapon could also accommodate armor-piercing (M61) rounds.

There were numerous models of the weapon and other names for it. To the Navy, it was the Mk. 43 series of weapons, including the M60E4/Mk. 43 Mod O used for many years by Navy SEALs. Versions of the gun are in service in about 30 countries around the world. The figures below are for the standard, Vietnam-era M60.

In the 1980s the Army began replacing the M60 with the 5.56 mm M249 Squad Automatic Weapon and, soon afterward, the M240 7.62 mm machine gun.

 

M60 Machine Gun

  • Length: 3 feet 7 inches (110 centimeters)
  • Width: 5.9 inches (15 centimeters)
  • Weights: Empty, 23 pounds (10.43 kilograms); loaded 28 pounds (12.70 kilograms)
  • Range: From bipod on an area target, 800 meters; from M122 tripod on an area target, 1,100 meters
  • Cyclic rate of fire: 550 rounds per minute

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...