By Bud Harton
Over the years, I have read a lot of posts all over the Internet badmouthing the M60 machinegun. I always thought that strange because that wasn’t my experience at all. Back in 1966-68, I used an M60 every day and I would guess that I fired in excess of a half-million rounds through mine. The video above is of me and my buddy Jim who was a fellow crew chief on another aircraft. On the day the video was made he was flying with me because his aircraft was down for maintenance . . .
Jim stayed in Vietnam just as long as I did, but he was truly a badass. Once, in a landing zone, when we were both still on “slicks” – the UH-1D troop carriers – one of the aircraft in our flight hit a tree stump on landing and rolled over on the its left side, pinning the gunner and one grunt.
We had landed in a partially flooded rice paddy and while an aircraft hovered up to the rolled-over bird, Jim climbed up on top of the downed aircraft and attached a rope to the cargo hook of the hovering slick and then to the door frame of the downed bird. Then, while the hovering aircraft strained to lift the Huey up (sort of like grabbing yourself by the hair and lifting yourself off the ground) Jim crawled underneath the downed aircraft and pulled the grunt and the pinned gunner out. The grunt had drowned but he got the gunner out.
Badassery at its best.
But, this is about the M60, or as we called it, the pig. We fired our door guns from a bungee cord that was hanging from the ceiling of the aircraft. We had highly modified our guns and that included adding a half-length of operating rod spring to the operating rod and putting a couple of nickels or washers under the buffer in the butt stock. That brought the cyclic rate of fire up to somewhere over 1,000 rounds per minute. We couldn’t tell the exact rate because we had no way of timing it, but I carried about 2,500 rounds in a minigun ammo can on the floor between my legs and it sure didn’t last very long. You virtually couldn’t hear individual shots.
We also twisted off the flash suppressor from the barrels and removed the bipod legs. By “twisted off” I mean that literally. We put the barrel in a vise in the gun shack and used a honking big pipe wrench to twist it off. We didn’t bother removing the locking pin first so once you put the flash suppressor back on the barrel it was only a matter of time until the suppressor was going to go down range while you were firing.
In the aircraft, because the guns were ‘free’ — that is not restrained by a mount and without a brass catcher — we had to make accommodations to keeping the brass inside the aircraft. That was because the brass flying out the right door would sail through the tail rotor.
Losing a tail rotor or even damaging one while flying at 90 knots and at fifty feet in altitude is a really bad thing. So, being highly motivated and absolutely dedicated to having firepower on the right side of the ship, we hung the right door gun upside down. Take a look at that video again and watch Jim on the right side. Here’s a fram from it that shows him firing and notice his M60 and the rounds ejecting to the left. You can see the front sight is upside down.
All of the gunship door gunners developed incredibly ugly and deformed little fingers.
When we were hard up for ammo, and it sometimes happened, we were forced to use the straight 200-round cans consisting of four ball and one tracer. But in good times, we re-armed with 200-round cans (and later 1500 round cans) of 100% tracer. It was tre-F-ing-mendous for starting fires and getting on target with a minimum number of rounds expended. And of course, it was really pretty at night.
We typically fired suppressive fire while the aircraft was making a gun run at a target on the ground. Sometimes that was at a specific target and lots of times it was along a tree line bordering a field or rice paddy that was soon to become a landing zone. We fired to suppress enemy fire and also to cover our wingman as he made his run.
We normally operated in a race track pattern using two gunships known as a light fire team. (A’heavy’ fire team was three aircraft.) The object as we started our attack was to have the second ship start their attack as the lead ship was already breaking out to the left or right. We would then operate at 180 degrees from each other with the inside door gunners firing below their wingman’s aircraft.
That sometime went badly. In the Spring of 1968, I had the door gunner of a wingman who was firing down at enemy troops bounce one of his rounds in a flooded rice paddy and had it ricochet right into the engine oil reservoir of my aircraft. Down we went when the turbine engine blades welded themselves together.
But, this method worked great as enemy troops (or a lot of innocent trees in the jungle) were subjected to a tremendous volume of fire. That’s because we didn’t fire the traditional 6-8 rounds bursts. We fired 100, 200 or even 300 round bursts. Once we started the long descent towards the target, we kept the triggers squeezed and the gunner that was on the inside of the turn kept firing all the way back out.
If we were receiving a lot fire (and because we were always low, you could hear as well as see it) both gunners often kept firing and used the entire 180 degrees available to them. That’s why you often see pictures where a gunship door gunner is standing outside the aircraft on the skid below the fuselage. Using 100% tracers. We could even fire straight back to mark an enemy position so the following wingman could hit it with his aircraft armament.
Shooting long strings of ammo like that generated a lot of heat. You could tell when your barrel was getting too hot because it would start glowing red right behind the gas piston. We always carried as many spare barrels as we could scrounge and that usually meant at least three a piece. But I can remember times when I had up to six.
There were times when you couldn’t stop firing and let the barrel cool. Any enemy position that had a belt fed automatic weapon meant we had to put as much fire on them as possible because it only took one bullet hitting a vulnerable spot (engine, transmission, tail rotor gear box) to put you down right now. When someone did lock on to us or get lucky, you could hear the rounds hitting the aircraft or the blades. A sudden “whirring” sound meant you had taken a hit in a rotor blade, and the occasional “tink, tink, tink’ meant you had rounds going through the fuselage.
When you heard a “thunk!”, that meant something solid was hit. Time would suddenly stand still and you could see all four of our heads swivel to the center of the cockpit instrument cluster where all the warning lights were located and nobody took a breath until we assured ourselves nothing was suddenly throwing a red flashing light.
When we were firing the door guns like that, the barrel would start to glow red like I described before. But if we had to keep shooting, we ignored it and it would then turn to yellow. As it slowly turned to white you would notice it because the barrel would start to droop, your rounds were no longer impacting where you were aiming and the only thing you could do then was flip the barrel release lever up, fire another round and let the bullet carry the barrel “down range”.
We fired a lot. During an ongoing operational mission supporting troops in the field (almost every day) it was normal to rearm/refuel two-four times a day. Each time, that meant 1500-2500 rounds for each door gun, 3600 rounds for each minigun and 14 aerial rockets at a time. During the 1968 Tet Offensive, there were many days when we launched, arrived at the target, expended all of our ordinance and returned to base all within 45 minutes. We normally didn’t even shut down the aircraft while we feverishly reloaded and pumped 1200 pounds of JP4 fuel onboard and launched again.
There were times when I pulled an Intermediate maintenance inspection (after 25 flight hours) every other day and there were times we skipped the inspection due to operational necessities. Those were times when I listened to every little noise the components made especially closely.
So, my experience with the M60 was it was the perfect weapon for me for a big chunk of my life. It did everything I asked it to do and when it broke, it could be fixed immediately and gotten back into the fight. Every time I go shooting now, I really miss it.
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