Whether one looks at comic books, fiction or film, firearms play a huge part in geek culture. In fact, there’s an entire web site dedicated to document who carried what.
This feature takes a look at some of these weapons – focusing on their real-world performance rather than in-universe function. If there’s something you want to know more about, be sure to mention it in the comments.
This week we’ll look at one of the signature weapons of disgruntled Special Forces veteran John Rambo: the M-60.
Maximum Macho, Minimum Reality
One of the subtle joys of 80s action movies is their absurdly unrealistic treatment of firearms. Hollywood has long has issues with magazine capacity and reloads, but the rise of lightweight fully-automatic weapons introduced a new trope: the ability to fire fully automatic weapons with both unerring accuracy and non-existent recoil.
Back when military arms were heavy objects made of wood and steel, merely holding them up was something of a trial of strength, and the notion of using – for example – and M-1 Garand one-handed was obviously absurd.
The advent of “black rifles” changed not only this reality but also public perception of it. Clearly the weapons were so lightweigh that perhaps a professional spraying bullets all over the place might be able to accurately take down all those charging Vietnamese troops.
(The counterpoint to this was the A-Team’s inability to hit anyone while dumping ammo all over the place, but I digress.)
Let’s Talk About Recoil
We’ve touched on this before in earlier columns, but what a lot of people call “kick” is really “felt recoil.” That is the pulse of energy that goes back into a firearm when it sends a bullet out the other end.
It’s just like pushing off while swimming: if you push against something solid or heavy (poolside or a large boat) the energy is easily absorbed, but a light raft or rowboat will move. For centuries, this recoil energy went straight back into the user, and for a large number of firearms, that is still the case. Break-action, lever action, bolt action, pump action, revolvers – all of these simply push the energy released by firing the cartridge and sending the bullet downrange back on the user. If they are heavy, or braced or padded, the amount the user feels can be reduced, but it’s still there.
What auto-loaders do is take some of this energy and use it to cycle the weapon (eject a spent casing, re-set the hammer or striker, chamber a new round) and ready it for firing (fully-automatic weapons will immediately discharge another round if the trigger continues to be held).
What this means is that there are some firearms that hit the user like the proverbial ton of bricks, while others are quite mild. Most fall somewhere in the middle, but when one attempts rapid (or automatic) fire, they get harder to control. Some people talk of “barrel rise” or “climb” because such weapons typically tilt upwards, but the fact remains that holding such a weapon on target is very difficult.
For this reason, many automatic weapons are fired in short bursts, which saves ammunition, improves accuracy, and reduces heat in the barrel. Yes, you can damage or even melt the barrel of a firearm by firing it non-stop.
Happily, Hollywood doesn’t have to deal with this because they use extremely underpowered cartridges called “blanks,” which are simply a powder charge with no projectile. I mentioned before that one reason revolvers are a popular prop gun is that guns that need recoil to function (semi-auto rifles and pistols) don’t work well with blanks.
However, it is possible to modify a firearm specifically with blanks in mind. The end result is an ammo-spewing machine that makes lots of noise and flash, but doesn’t really move around.
In any event, there must have been a fire sale on blank adapters in the 80s because it was the golden age of recoilless automatic weapons fire.
A Beast of a Gun
The most iconic image of the whole Rambo franchise is Sylvester Stallone laying waste to entire battalions of enemy troops while firing an M-60 one-handed. He has to do this because the other is necessary to ensure the proper feed of the belt. This is of course nonsense on stilts, but that only adds to its charm.
By the time I joined the Army in the late 1990s, the M-60 was on its way out, with newer (and lighter!) weapons taking its place. However, our company was blessed with one of the last of the “pigs” still in service and while there was a brief show of enthusiasm about getting to have “Rambo’s gun,” the reality of the situation quickly set in and The Pig was regarded with universal loathing. For my sins, I was briefly sentenced to carry it on a road march and it was not an enjoyable experience. Happily, there were plenty of other screw-ups in my platoon, so I was soon relieved of this duty.
Firing The Pig was another story. The recoil was jarring but not unpleasant, and certainly well worth the satisfaction of watching tracers arc out to hit the junk sitting on the range. I should note that firing was always done with a bipod with the user either prone or braced against the side of a foxhole.
For those who have vast amounts of money, these can be purchased with sufficient background checks and paperwork. One of the more amusing Hollywood tropes is having bank robbers use full-auto weapons to pull off their heist. If you know anything about market prices, it’s ludicrous since the weapons are likely worth more than the amount of cash they are stealing. There’s also the price of ammunition, which used to hover in the proverbial “dollar a shot” category but is much higher. A few minutes on the range with one of these toys would cover a car payment; a day might pay off the whole car.
If one has the opportunity, it’s a worthwhile experience and one that will totally change how you watch war movies, particularly the action films of the 80s.