Early VC Small Arms

By J David Truby

The Vietnam War changed the face of modern warfare. Not only were there organized armies fighting, but guerrilla fighters also terrorized the Allies. Guerrilla tactics created unique issues that needed creative solutions. The one armory where unique and creative innovation reigned was that of the Viet Cong in the early days of the war.

Displays of captured small arms show just about every individual weapon imaginable, ranging from contemporary to the most basic crude, homemade pieces, but, all were lethally effective. Among the most common were weapons from Southeast Asia’s myriad previous conflicts, even some from the 19th Century. Pictures from the war depicted everything from WWI German Mausers to French, Japanese and WWII British Enfield MK4s. The American WWII era Thompson, real or homemade, was quite popular with the NVA.

Of course, the majority of early firearms were those provided from the USSR and the PRC, e.g., AK-47s, SKS and CKC carbines. As the Soviets added new small arms, they shipped the second-hand stuff down the Ho Chi Minh trail to their VC allies. One such classic was the WWII era PPSh-41 which ended Soviet service in the ‘50s.

The Soviet 7.62mm TT-33 can lay claim to being produced in greater numbers than other handguns. Many of these guns were picked up by the Americans who often took them for souvenirs.

Another Soviet gun reported in use was the Soviet Dragunov “super” sniper rifle and was said to have been used to engage Marines around Khe Sanh. Despite official denials about this rifle being in Vietnam, former Special Forces officer and Vietnam veteran, Robert K Brown, publisher of Soldier of Fortune magazine, “somehow” managed to have one transported back to the U.S.

Finally, Communist countries often supplied AK assault rifles to the VC. Back then, American flagpole officers did not understand the wide use of AKs, because they reportedly rusted too quickly. They were rightfully questioned, “How would they know, they never saw or heard any VC or their AKs out in the boonies.”

The Viet Cong (VC) got their weapons in a variety of ways. Many Japanese Arisaka rifles were WWII leftovers. Rebuilt and homemade versions of British Sten guns were common because they were easy to make, maintain and use.

The VC also used French firearms left from the 1950s when the French departed Indochina after the decisive defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Literally thousands of the French MAT-49 submachine guns exchanged hands then.

Other communist countries were an integral part of keeping the VC armed. China was a large supplier of ordnance and many ChiCom guns were recovered throughout the conflict. These recovered weapons were sometimes used as a kind of “medal,” given to soldiers who exemplified honor and courage on the field of battle. A 1960 ChiCom T-53 rifle was presented to 1st Lt. USMC Carl White for his service at Cholen where a bullet struck him between the eyes with only the edge of his helmet saving his life.

Other VC weapons were either stolen from American GIs after attack or bought from ARVN troops on the black market. Some of these weapons included the M16A1 automatic rifle and the M79 grenade launcher. Other American weapons that made it into the VC cache were the standard issue Colt .45 and privately held Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum and various .38 revolvers. Shotguns were preferred by field troops because the buck shot was effective in thick vegetation. The issue Remingtons was among the favorites of the VC. Among the more rare examples of VC contraband were two documented Smith and Wesson M76s that were recovered from the VC.

The VC was well known for their homemade and modified guns. Often times these guns were used until a better one was acquired. The makeshift gun was then passed on to a younger comrade. Laos and Cambodia had shops that made and improvised weapons for the VC. These village shops produced the most from the Viet Minh era through 1966. The shops were usually run by a foreman with apprentices who were either kids or wounded soldiers. These shops also had their own private armies to protect the village that they were in.

As far as creating weapons, the best known shop was in Cao Dai in the Mekong Delta. It was known for its copies of the M1911A1 .45 caliber and the FN Browning. Villages in North Vietnam also created guns for the VC, some in crude shacks, others in actual machine shops. They turned out copies of the Soviet Tokarev pistol for the guerrilla forces. Another ordnance the Vietnamese turned out was the K-50M. This was a submachine gun based on the Type 50s (PPSH-41 variant) supplied by China. The difference was that the K-50M had a three inch cooling sleeve, the foresight was based on the French MAT-49, a pistol grip was added and the barrel was shortened. An interesting percussion piece was captured in 1966. It was crudely constructed with a forge and tools. Weighing in at a hefty 9 pounds, it used lead and black powder slugs and had open sights, accurate at 75 meters.

Shop workmanship was usually hurried and shoddy, thus, service life was short. This was because the guns weren’t heat treated and were made of soft materials. Sometimes they only lasted a few rounds. They may have been crude, but they were deadly.

The VC produced a large amount of rudimentary weapons until 1966, when large supplies of AK-47s and other foreign weapons began flooding the area. Besides the AK, B-40 rocket launchers and Polish Vzor machine pistols also began to be carried. The Polish Vzor was carried by communists, especially in II and III corps areas. It was later photographed being carried by female VC members in the 1975 victory parade in Ho Chi Minh City.

After 1966, more modified weapons began to be recovered as special mission weapons were often produced. Doing this included sanitizing pieces, creating one-use assassination guns and booby-trapping guns that Americans might want as souvenirs. The VC were also known for producing wire-handle pistols, which were very flimsy and only lasted a few lethal rounds.

Some of the earliest weapons captured by the U.S. included the basic framework of the French MHS rifle with the barrel replaced by a pipe, a bolt hammered out of a chunk of iron and the stock was often a hand-carved piece of GI 2x4. A duplicated Thompson M1928 was also recovered. This modification included an omitted Cutts compensator, the sling swivel on the left side and a shortened barrel. Other commonly modified weapons were the Mauser and Arisaka rifles.

The VC were very creative and innovative when it modified weapons. For instance, knowing it would be difficult to get ammo for an 1874 rifle; VC officers cut down French Gras rifles and altered the chamber to accept .410 shells. The 9mm “Destroyer” carbine also got a special new look. The Spanish police carbine was modified with a special magazine well and latch system that allowed it to accept a P-38 magazine. Getting even more inventive, an M79 grenade launcher was chopped down and was extremely effective when fitted with beehive rounds and used at close quarters.

Silencers were also very prevalent on both sides throughout the war, mostly on reconnaissance missions. For the VC, homemade silencers were ineffective compared to silencers supplied from abroad. The American Army and Marine snipers, SEALs and Special Forces frequently used Sionics model silencers, designed by Mitch WerBell. These proved to be some of the most effective silencers of the conflict.

On the American front, SEALs commonly used the Hush Puppy by Smith and Wesson. The High Standard and Colt Woodsman suppressor were issued for CIA/SF special missions in .22 caliber. Because these were suppressed weapons, their use was supposed to be classified and security was tight to keep them out of VC hands, for obvious tactical reasons.

Due to the uniqueness of the weaponry in Vietnam, many weapons were taken as souvenirs by U.S. soldiers. They were fond of Sterlings, Uzis and Swedish Ks, a gun that Americans could not typically get, because Sweden imposed an arms embargo in protest of the war. The most popular prize for the GIs was a ChiCom K-54, which was modeled after the Soviet Tokarov. It could cost $200 of the soldiers’ hard-earned money.

The Vietnam War was a war of opposites. Organized fighting was pitted against the rough-and-tumble tactics of guerrilla warfare. Traditional ordnance from developed countries mixed and mingled with homemade weapons created by homegrown gunsmiths. No matter how you look at it, these opposites are what made the war unique and different than any other war in history. Vietnam may be remembered for its brutality, but the war, and its weapons, will always be remembered for changing the face of war.

This article first appeared in SmallArmsReview.com on November 29, 2013


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