Like so many investigative stories, this one started with a trickle of information — a phone call from a source who pointed us in the direction of a military firestorm over the so-called "stopping power" of the 5.56 mm bullet used by U.S. troops in their M-16 rifles on the ground in Iraq.
As it turns out, the debate dates back more than 40 years, ever since the 5.56 replaced the larger-caliber 7.62 mm bullet in the early days of the Vietnam War. Lately, however, given the nature of urban warfare in Iraq, reports from the field have raised new questions about an old bullet.
One particular episode immediately caught our eye. It involved a Special Forces raid in Ramadi in response to the bombing of the U.N. Headquarters in Baghdad back in August 2003. According to a soldier who was there, during a fierce exchange of gunfire, one insurgent was hit seven — count 'em, seven — times in the torso by the 5.56, only to be brought down by a single shot to the head from a .45 caliber pistol. But before the insurgent died, he killed two U.S. soldiers and wounded seven.
The man who brought that story to our attention was retired Marine Maj. Anthony Milavic, who's hardly shy in his anger over the 5.56.
"The lack of lethality of that bullet has caused United States soldiers to die," said Milavic, a veteran of two tours of duty in Vietnam.
From his home in Virginia, Milavic moderates an online discussion group where the 5.56, it turns out, is the source of a great deal of chatter and frustration among veterans and weapons experts. Many insist the 5.56 is better suited to shooting squirrels than the enemy; that close-quarter fighting in Iraq demands a bigger bullet. "A bullet that knocks the man down with one shot, and keeps him down" Milavic told me. "I call that knock-down power. I call that stopping power."
But a single sense of outrage, no matter how powerful, does not a story make. So senior producer Bert Rudman and I traveled to Southern California to interview a man who said he would literally show us what all the fuss was about. Bruce Jones is a mechanical engineer who helped design artillery, rifles and pistols for the Marines. In a nondescript industrial park on the outskirts of Los Angeles, Jones gave us a close-up look. First he fired the 5.56 into a block of glycerin designed to show what happens in the human body when a bullet rips through it. Then he fired the larger-caliber 7.62 into another block of glycerin. To the naked eye the "exit wounds" seemed similar, which is one reason I'm the TV correspondent and Jones is a mechanical genius (he's a card-carrying member of Mensa). In actuality, he told us, the "hole cavity is 50 percent or more larger." Sure enough, when our intrepid camera crew backlit the glycerin blocks, the difference between the "funnel path" of the 5.56 and the 7.62 was clearly evident.