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Most Iconic Weapons of the Vietnam War

From small arms and booby traps, to massive 8-engine bombers and supersonic jet fighters, the weapons of the Vietnam War were diverse and deadly. 

Some, like napalm and the B-52 Stratofortress, would become timeless symbols of the era’s political unrest and social upheaval, and the controversial conflict that resulted in millions of deaths.  

Though the United States’ military wielded overwhelming firepower compared to North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces, its equipment and tactics were often ill-suited to the country’s rugged terrain and guerilla-style tactics used by its enemy. 

Over time they were adapted with lethal effect, but in the end superior hardware and massive budgets couldn’t overcome the will of a people to determine their own fate. 

Now nearly half a century after the conflict officially ended, some of its most recognizable weapons are still in use around the world. In many cases they’re more iconic than ever.

UH-1 “Huey”

UH1 Huey - Fly Navy 2017
UH1 Huey – Fly Navy 2017.By Airwolfhound, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The Bell UH-1 Iroquois is probably the most enduring image of American military might during the Vietnam era, and though it entered service in the early 60s, development began nearly a decade before. 

In its most common form, the venerable utility helicopter, or “Huey,” wasn’t a traditional weapon, but a transportation workhorse tasked with delivering the Army’s mobile air cavalry units to hotspots quickly. 

The country’s rough terrain was largely unsuitable for ground-based transport via truck and armored personnel carrier, and the helicopter filled an important void in the new type of warfare.  

Noted for its ability to hover for hours at low altitudes and land in remote areas, the Huey could also carry a formidable arsenal of weapons including rockets, heavy machine guns and grenade launchers. 

The aircraft’s renowned versatility and durability prompted expansion into other roles, including medical evacuation, reconnaissance, and close air support to beleaguered ground troops. 

Early versions’ power came from a single 1,100 horsepower turboshaft engine spinning a massive 2-bladed rotor with a diameter of nearly 50 feet. 

Each helicopter was 55 feet long, could carry seven soldiers and their gear, and reach speeds in excess of 130 miles per hour. 

Nearly half of the approximately 7,000 UH-1s that served in Vietnam were lost, but some are still flying today. 

AK-47

soviet AK-47 type 2
Soviet AK-47, Type 2 made from 1951 to 1954/55.By Nemo5576, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Perhaps no other weapon in history has more completely symbolized armed conflict and class struggle than the venerable AK-47. 

Named after its inventor Mikhail Kalashnikov and the date of its design in 1947, the “Automatic Kalashnikov,” or AK-47, officially went into service with the Soviet military in 1949.

Known for its simplicity and reliability, the compact assault rifle originally fired a stubby but potent 7.62 mm round with a muzzle velocity of more than 2,000 feet per second. 

It featured semi and fully automatic firing options, the latter of which was capable of unleashing 600+ rounds per minute on adversaries more than 400 meters away.

Early versions had crude wooden stocks and distinctive curved 30-round magazines, but despite its attributes, AK-47s were notoriously hard to handle and relatively inaccurate. 

AK-47s and its variants were shipped in staggering quantities from the Soviet Union and China to their comrades in Vietnam during the ‘60s and ‘70s, ultimately making up the bulk of the embattled country’s light weapons. 

Compared to the M14 which was the standard American infantry weapon before the introduction of the M16, the AK-47 was shorter and lighter, which allowed each soldier to carry more ammunition. 

In stark contrast to western weapon design, Kalashnikov famously loosened the tolerances between the gun’s moving parts, which allowed dirt and debri to fall away instead of getting trapped inside. 

This feature made AKs more reliable and less prone to jamming than early M16s, and many American servicemen considered them superior weapons in many respects.  

75 years after its debut, AK-47s are still popular with the militaries of less developed countries, nationalist movements, terrorist organizations, and organized crime syndicates around the world.  

It’s still commonly seen on revolutionary propaganda and is featured prominently on the flag of at least one African nation. 

It’s estimated that more than 100 million AK variants have been produced over the years, but it’ll probably always be most associated with the conflict in Vietnam.

M16

American Assault rifle M16A2. Caliber 5.56x45mm NATO.
American Assault rifle M16A2. Caliber 5.56x45mm NATO.By Armémuseum, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

In the early years of the Vietnam Conflict, the stout M14 was the US Army’s primary infantry weapon. 

The full-size .30 caliber rifle was powerful and accurate, but in many respects it was unsuited to battlefield conditions. 

It was long, heavy and tough to manage in close quarters, and in 1964 then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered a replacement. 

The M16’s development had begun in the ‘50s by ArmaLite, Inc. designer Eugene Stoner. 

In its early forms the rifle had a number of different designations, and was chambered in 7.62 and Remmington .223, though it ultimately fired the standard 5.56 NATO cartridge. 

It was shorter, lighter and less robust than the M14, and many soldiers and officers saw it’s relatively small round and cheap resin construction as annoyingly toy-like. 

When it was introduced the M16 was plagued by chronic reliability problems, primarily from spent shell casings failing to eject properly, and clogging issues resulting from carbon build-up and debris in the barrel.  

In a number of separate incidents soldiers were overrun and killed when their weapons jammed during firefights, and a Congressional investigation was launched to look into the matter. 

Eventually modifications were made that significantly improved performance and reliability, and later versions met with greater success and acceptance. 

M16s were characterized by their prominent triangular front sights, protruding handles and polymer components, and when fired in full-auto mode could spit out nearly 1,000 rounds per minute.

Like their AK-47 rivals, many M16 variants are still in use, though total production was less than 10% of its Soviet counterpart.   

F-4 Phantom

By the standards of the day, the F-4 Phantom was a technological marvel when it burst onto the scene in 1963. 

A powerful behemoth of an aircraft, it was designed in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s to perform a variety of missions. 

It’s twin-engine two-man layout departed from previous fighter designs that featured small airframes, pilot-only cockpits, single engines, and the ability to outmaneuver enemies at various speeds and altitudes. 

Featuring two afterburning GE J-79 engines with combined thrust of nearly 36,000 pounds, the 60,000 pound aircraft was many times heavier and more powerful than single-engine rivals like the MiG-17 and MiG-21. 

The F-4 was nearly 60 feet long, could climb to 60,000 feet, and was capable of achieving a blistering 1,400 miles per hour. 

Depending on mission requirements, F-4s could carry 16,000 pounds of weapons like air-to-air missiles, ground attack rockets, napalm canisters, and 20 mm cannon pods on external hardpoints.

During the conflict F-4’s tangled mainly with MiG-21s, though North Vietnamese Air Force brass typically prohibited them from engaging Phantoms unless they had superior numbers or the element of surprise on their side. 

Even then, they preferred hitting hard and retreating quickly to protracted dog fights against F-4s, which were more advanced and had better trained pilots. 

Perpetually frustrated by their enemy’s unwillingness to engage, F-4 crews sometimes flew in formation like F-105 Thunderchief bombers enroute to targets in the North to lure their adversaries into action. 

When fully loaded, the lumbering and relatively defenseless F-105s were easy targets for experienced North Vietnamese airmen, but on one occasion in January of 1967, intercepting MiG-21 pilots were shocked to find battle-ready F-4s looking for a fight. 

When it was all said and done, seven MiG-21s were shot down without a single F-4 loss, making it one of the single deadliest air encounters of the war for North Vietnam. 

In addition to escorting bombers and killing MiGs, F-4s also bombed strategic targets, scrambled enemy radar with metallic chaff, and provided close air support for ground troops.  

Some statistics suggest that in the early stages of the air war, American pilots relied too heavily on guided missiles and heads-up displays instead of classic dog fighting techniques and guns.

Nevertheless, kill ratios became increasingly more one-sided as the conflict progressed.    

MiG-21

mig-21 lancer C
MiG-21 Lancer C.By Cristian Ghe, is licensed under CC-BY

Unlike bombers and transport aircraft, fighters usually have short lifespans. 

Technological advancements in the fighter arena are made in leaps and bounds, and in previous eras they often became obsolete within a year or two of entering service. 

That being said, the Russian MiG-21 is still flying with many air forces around the world despite first taking to the skies in the early ‘50s. 

When its successful but subsonic Mig-15s and 17s were no longer matches for their western counterparts after the Korean War, Soviet designers set about creating a new supersonic fighter – the MiG 21. 

It featured a narrow fuselage, delta wings, and a powerful Tumansky R-11 axial-flow afterburning turbojet capable of producing 13,000 pounds of thrust. 

Even at 18,000 pounds the aircraft could reach speeds of nearly 1,300 miles per hour, and it was maneuverable at low speeds as well. 

Armed with a devastating 30 mm cannon and advanced air-to-air missiles, the MiG was primarily an air superiority fighter, but also saw service as an interceptor and ground attack aircraft.  

The new and untested airplane was North Vietnam’s primary fighter during the conflict, though full-on dog fights with F-4 Phantoms were rare. 

However the MiGs were far more nimble than the hulking American warbirds, and in many instances were able to dodge air-to-air missiles fired from F-4s. 

Drawbacks of the MiG-21 included a relatively light bomb load, poor visibility, short range, and a service ceiling a full 10,000 feet below that of phantoms.  

Of the approximately 12,000 units built some are still in service, and may be for years to come. 

T-54/55

t-55 heavy tank
T-55 Heavy tank.By Vitaly V. Kuzmin, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Compared to other 20th century wars, the battlefields of Vietnam saw limited engagements between main battle tanks. 

Though both sides used them with some success, the terrain just wasn’t conducive to campaigns involving large formations of heavy vehicles designed to confront one another on European soil. 

Weighing 35 tons, powered by a V-12 diesel, and featuring a 100 mm main gun capable of accurate fire in excess of 2,500 meters, when the T-54 officially entered service in 1950 it was a potent symbol of the Soviet Union’s industrial and military might. 

The tank’s welded hull and cast iron turret were nearly 200 mm thick, making them resistant to all but the most powerful armor piercing shells and anti-tank weapons fired from relatively close range. 

T-54 crews consisted of a commander, driver, gunner and loader all crammed into small, noisy and claustrophobic spaces that barely allowed them to perform their duties. 

During the Vietnam War the Soviets supplied North Vietnam with both T-54s and T-55s, and though they were mainly tank killers, they also saw service as mine clearers, recovery vehicles, mobile artillery platforms, and armored personnel carriers. 

With a turret snorkel attached the tanks could traverse creeks and rivers more than 15 feet deep, and successive variants received engine, armor and sighting upgrades that increased effectiveness and survivability.  

But despite their impressive specifications, it’s the image of a North Vietnamese T-54 tank smashing through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon on April 30, 1975 that cemented its place as one of the conflict’s most iconic weapons.

To communist revolutionaries it was the storybook ending to an era of civil war and American imperial aggression that had ravaged the country for more than a decade. 

It’s estimated that over 50,000 T-54s were produced both in the Soviet Union and abroad, making it one of the most produced tanks in history. 

Production officially ended in the early ‘80s, but subsequent models like the T-62 were far less popular, and many countries opted to keep their T-54s and 55s. 

It remains in service in many countries, and saw action during the late 20th and early 21st century in Asian, African and Middle Eastern conflicts. 

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