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.
Pierre Sprey couldn't have been less impressed when I told him what we had seen. A former Pentagon weapons expert, he championed the 5.56 to secretaries of state and presidents believing it both lethal and light. During our time together, he shook his head at the online debate sparked, he felt, by those who are far from expert in the field of testing and war. He believes the more bullets the better, and that soldiers carrying 300 rounds and firing on automatic don't compare to those carrying 100 and firing one big bullet at a time. "There is no such thing as a well-aimed shot in combat," said Sprey. "Combat is fought by scared 18-year-olds who haven't trained enough and are in places they've never seen before."
Well, I've been in enough places over time to know when it comes to investigative work there's no better path to follow than what we call "the paper trail." So off we went — eventually discovering a confidential report to Congress in which active Marine commanders complained about the 5.56 ("the most worthless round … torso shots not lethal") and two more internal reports based upon the Army's most extensive testing of the 5.56 since 1990.
The testing took place at the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey. In an initial interim report dated September 2004 the 5.56 ranked last in lethality out of three bullets tested. A second draft, dated March of this year, confirmed those rankings to a CBS producer who looked at the report. To top it off we found a story in a recent issue of Marine Corps Times magazine that was particularly enlightening. In it a squad leader said his Marines carried and used "found" enemy AK-47s because their 7.62 bullets packed "more stopping power." In effect, they put down their own weapons in favor of those carried by the enemy because they felt more secure, especially in close-quarter battle.
We contacted both an arsenal and an Army spokesman at the Pentagon about our story, and both knocked it down. Initially, they called the reports and rankings "wrong … not statistically grounded" and "not the final version."
Then just before our story ran, the Army issued a press release stating it had completed a detailed study affirming the effectiveness of the 5.56. Surprisingly, at least to us (given the rankings and reports we had seen) the Army said their study actually was not a comparison of the 5.56 to any other caliber bullets in close-quarter fighting but rather the 5.56 to "commercially-available" rounds. The release pointed out the 5.56 did "have the same potential effectiveness in the hands of a Warfighter during the heat of battle."
You can read what you want in that last paragraph. I can tell you many of the people to whom we were talking expressed a great deal of displeasure over it. No matter what side you're on, one thing is abundantly clear: with nearly 800,000 U.S. soldiers carrying M-16 rifles around the world, the cost of modifying those guns to fire any other bullet seems certain to spark a firestorm all its own.