Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Mighty 106mm Recoilless Rifle!

Courtesy of www.historic

Picture courtesy of Historical Reproductions

I learned how to tell the difference between my right hand and left hand through a scholarship program provided by the U.S. government. After two months of basic training at Fort Ord, I eventually figured out that my watch was on my left hand, and that my left foot was usually on the same side under my watch.

After basic, the army chose me for their elite TOW anti-tank missile school at Ft. Polk, Louisiana. At least that was the intention, but by the time I showed up, the TOW school training cadre had departed to the Sinai to help stop Egyptian armored columns (my secrecy agreement expired a couple of years ago, so I can mention these things). Instead of the pleasant prospect of having nothing to do until they got back, I wound up being trained on the more venerable M-40 106mm recoilless rifle (hooor-hah!-- there's a remarkable reproduction of one at

With this weapon I had the chance to hone my right and left hand coordination skills. While looking through an optical sight, I traversed, that is made the gun tube point left or right, by spinning a wheel with my right hand, and at the same time I elevated, that is made the gun tube go up or down, by spinning, with my left hand, another wheel above and perpendicular to the traverse wheel . Tracking a moving target required me using my right and left hands simultaneously and independently at different speeds, sometimes moving my hands in opposite directions, sometimes not.

To determine the range and lead distance of a moving target, I pushed a knob on the traverse control. This fired a tracer-round from the top mounted .50 cal spotting rifle (note the smaller barrel on top of the main gun tube). I would then make corrections to my elevation and traversion and then pull the same knob to fire the main gun. That was the theory.

On the range, things were more complicated and eventually my gun tube started circling around like the eye stalk of a crazed Dalek. Invariably during the spotting phase, other neophyte gunners accidentally fired the main gun.

In retrospect, firing the 106 was definitely fun because it resulted in a resounding explosion and scary flash of fire from both the front and rear of the gun--the backblast was designed to reduce the recoil. However, at the time it was hard to concentrate while feeling and hearing an enormous loud explosion take place several inches from my face.

For most of the day, the firing line lit up and round after round passed harmlessly over, under, behind, in front of, but never on the target. The instructors looked at the unscathed targets, shook their heads, and expressed their fondest hopes that we wouldn't be called upon in our soon to be short career to do anything more intellectually taxing than excavating outdoor latrines, no doubt with our bare hands, as we most likely would be unable to learn the intracacies of a d-handled earth moving implement, i.e. shovel.

As if the humiliation of the firing session wasn't enough, then came the time to take apart and clean the 106. The gun tube was easy, it required half an hour of swabbing similar to how a ship's cannon was loaded two hundred years ago. Then came the difficult task: putting the firing mechanism back inside the breechblock.

My problem was with a trigger transfer bar,a four inch metal rectangle with strange angles and slots. It was a puzzle piece that could fit inside several ways, with only one that allowed the weapon to work. Try as hard as I could, I could not get the breech block transfer bar to fit. I couldn't see where it was supposed to go, and I kept jamming it. An armorer came by, and couldn't help but notice my panic and frustration. I looked down because tears were beginning to form. Without saying a word, he took out the part, wiped it , and placed it inside. He tested the trigger and for the first time that evening I heard a click, proving the 106 was working. The armorer then disassembled the breechblock, smiled, and told me to close my eyes, take the bar, and wiggle it inside the breechblock. He said that the part would find its way. I followed his advice and to my shock it worked. He disassembled the breechblock and told me to try again. I attached the bar perfectly.

I learned an important lesson that evening: not everything I had to do required conscious will power and thought. Even if I couldn't use my visual skills, I had to trust my sense of touch that the part would fall in place.

Two nights later during night fire, the spotting gun sear broke, and the rate of fire became, briefly, automatic until the barrel exploded. My helmet and main gun tube shielded me, and I was left staring in amazement at the spotting barrel, which now resembled a peeled banana. The range instructor, more excited than I was, quickly ran over and made sure that I was all right. He helped me pull the gun from the firing line. Moving the 106 was like moving a heavy wheelbarrow. We momentarily lost the balance of the gun and rammed the barrel into dirt, normally an unforgivable sin, but a minor problem tonight. We manhandled the gun back to the cleaning shed, where the armorers quickly replaced the spotting barrel and broken sear and left me to clean the rest of the weapon.

What had happened this evening had not bothered me, in fact I was delighted at being able to take apart the breech block and put it back together. Though it was near midnight, and I was grimey, coated in and smelling of powder residue and cleaning solvent, I didn't feel dejected or tired. Working in the cleaning shed made me think about how, with assistance, I had worked through frustration and beaten failure. I felt elated and looked forward to next day on the range, and I was very sure I was going to nail that target dead on, which was exactly what happened.

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