The Ingenuity of the Viet Cong: Home-Made Weapons from the Jungle

By Michael Heidler

During the Vietnam War the North Vietnamese forces could rely on support from China and the Soviet Union, but for the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, better known as the “Viet Cong,” the situation was rather miserable. They suffered from a lack of modern weaponry for their armed resistance against the government and the American military. To compensate for these shortcomings, much talent at improvisation was needed.

With the end of the Indochina War and the division of Vietnam, the foundation stones for future conflicts had already been laid. Almost seamlessly, South Vietnam was struck by a civil war against the dictatorial acting President Ngo Dinh Diem and his anti-Communist government. He took ruthless action against any opposition and primarily persecuted the Communist Viet Minh that remained in the South. From isolated peasant uprisings against the forced land reform, a resistance movement was born in 1956-1957. In 1958, it already counted about 1,700 members from Viet Minh, Communist Party, Cao Dai, Hoa-Hao, Catholics and Buddhists. In the first three years, more than 1,000 government officials fell victim to their terror. By 1960, the government of North Vietnam had decided to support the resistance in the South. Several thousand Communist fighters, who had been educated in the North, gradually infiltrated into South Vietnam. They would organize the armed struggle against the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and also act as instructors.

When travelling the hidden paths to the South, the fighters from the North could only take small amounts of weapons with them. Thus, there was a lack of modern weapons like the AK-47 or machine guns; not to mention heavy equipment such as mortars, anti-aircraft guns and their supply with ammunition. Only the forced expansion of the Truong-Son trail, in our language better known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, improved the situation considerably. This network of paths, roads and waterways was already used during the Indochina War and extended from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. By the end of 1966 the North Vietnamese had completed 2,959 kilometers of vehicle-capable roads, including 275 kilometers of main roads and 576 kilometers of bypasses. The dense vegetation protected the widely branched paths very well from view from the air, and they were difficult to identify. In part, the paths went through the “neutral” neighboring kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia, so that official attacks by U.S. troops could cause a lot of diplomatic trouble. In October 1965, General Westmoreland received authorization to launch a U.S. military cross-border recon effort. In November, the first mission was launched into Laos by the MACV-SOG. This was the beginning of an ever-expanding reconnaissance effort by MACV-SOG that would continue until the operation was disbanded in 1972. Despite all the efforts until the war ended, the supplies were never permanently interrupted.

However, until the transport via the Ho Chi Minh Trail came into full swing, the fighters in the South had to fall back on improvised weapons and equipment. In small local workshops, mostly hidden deep in the jungle, in caves or the notorious tunnel systems like those in and around Cu Chi in the so-called “Iron Triangle,” more or less usable weapons were designed and manufactured. The workers used simple hand tools to shape metal components and wood stocks from whatever materials they could scrounge. Depending on the machine and tooling and the skills of the craftsmen, the quality varied significantly, and not all weapons were really suitable for long-term use. Sometimes it was feared that the first shot might also be the last shot. The workshops also produced explosive devices, which were extremely primitive but nevertheless very effective.

Numerous such weapons could be captured by the U.S. troops during the fighting or confiscated during raids. Many of them were taken home by the servicemen as souvenirs or ended up in military museums–for example, in the collection of the United States Military Academy at West Point (New York). The weapons there convey a very interesting impression of the ingenuity and craftsmanship of the Viet Cong.

The various models of the Thompson were at that time the most famous American submachine guns in the world. Their recognition value was correspondingly high. This is probably the reason why the Viet Cong workshops took up this weapon, although it was very expensive and time-consuming to manufacture. For the extensive turning and milling operations, hardly any suitable machines were available. The receivers were thus not milled from the full material, but brazed together from appropriately cut and shaped metal plates. Also, most of the barrels were smooth bored and not rifled. The magazines were of U.S. origin. Most of the examined copies were designed for .45-caliber cartridges. According to an American veteran, who had tried several Thompson copies on the spot, the weapons worked surprisingly well and reliably. However, the range for a targeted shot was usually less than 30 yards. Because of the smooth bores the precision left much to be desired. But not everything that looks like a Thompson was designed as a submachine gun. Often weapons appear to be more formidable than they actually were. On one of the guns pictured, the wood cladding tries to imitate the shape of a typical Thompson receiver, but hidden underneath is a semi-automatic weapon with a tubular housing.

The wide variety of bolt-action and single-shot weapons includes, besides primitive shooters, various well-known weapon models. It is really amazing what effort the workers had tried to imitate the overall shapes as detailed as possible. From the struggle against the French, there were still large stocks of French MAS36 bolt-action rifles left, and the model was relatively well-known in the population. It is therefore not surprising that numerous weapons were created in the appearance of the MAS36. Unserviceable original weapons were cannibalized and the parts reused to produce look-a-likes. On the weapons pictured here, the spike bayonet, which reversed in a tube below the barrel, was imitated from tube material, and even the typical stacking hook was attached. From some distance one can be deceived by such imitations and might actually assess that a given Viet Cong unit might be better armed than it actually was. The internal magazine, which in the case of the MAS36, is visible as a part of the receiver between the front and rear stock, was painted with black color on the newly made one-piece wooden stock. This weapon is a bolt-action rifle in .30 caliber with a magazine capacity of five rounds. The other MAS36 copy is a single-shot shotgun.

Weapons for shotgun shells are quite simple to manufacture. Straight pieces of waterpipes are well suited for making smooth bore barrels. No repeating devices were used on all known such weapons. The Viet Cong also manufactured shotgun shells with various fillings–depending on what material was available. At short fighting distances, as usual for ambushes or fighting in the tunnel systems, a shot of this kind was extremely effective. The weapon pictured here is also very short and handy due to the extendable wire stock.

Even more handy were, of course, pistols. They could be hidden more easily and were well-suited for concealed carrying. That way an innocent-looking villager was able to carry out an unexpected (and often lethal) attack when a good opportunity arose. Like all guns, the pistols were made in very different quality. For some of them, one wonders whether they are capable of shooting real bullets at all.

In evaluating these weapons, however, one must not forget that they were not all made for use in active combat. Often the main intention was to intimidate the native rural population. Many villagers had to be persuaded by the Viet Cong to cooperate, and a martial-looking weapon from which perhaps one or another warning shot could be fired had certainly helped with this decision-making.

The author thanks Mr. Leslie Jensen (Curator of Arms & Armor) and the museum of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V22N1 (January 2018)
and was posted online on November 17, 2017


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