From air power to infantry to chemicals, the weapons used in the Vietnam War were more devastating than those of any previous conflict. United States and South Vietnamese forces relied heavily on their superior air power, including B-52 bombers and other aircraft that dropped thousands of pounds of explosives over North Vietnam and Communist targets in South Vietnam. While U.S. troops and their allies used mainly American-manufactured weapons, Communist forces used weapons manufactured in the Soviet Union and China. In addition to artillery and infantry weapons, both sides utilized a variety of tools to further their war aims, including highly toxic chemical defoliants or herbicides (on the U.S. side) and inventive booby traps using sharpened bamboo sticks or crossbows triggered by tripwires (on the North Vietnamese-Viet Cong side).
Vietnam War: Weapons of the Air
The war saw the U.S. Air Force and their South Vietnamese allies fly thousands of massive low-altitude bombing missions over North and South Vietnam as well as over sites of suspected Communist activity in neighboring Laos and Cambodia. The B-52 heavy bomber, developed by Boeing in the late 1940s, helped the U.S. and South Vietnamese dominate the skies, along with smaller, more easily maneuverable fighter planes like the F-4 Phantom. Also widely used was the Bell UH-1 helicopter, dubbed the “Huey,” which could fly at low altitudes and speeds and land easily in small spaces. U.S. forces used the Huey to transport troops, supplies and equipment, aid ground troops with additional firepower and evacuated killed or wounded soldiers.
Among the more devastating explosives used in U.S. and South Vietnamese bombing runs was napalm, a chemical compound developed during World War II. When mixed with gasoline and included in incendiary bombs or flamethrowers, napalm could be propelled greater distances than gasoline and released large amounts of carbon monoxide when it exploded, poisoning the air and causing even greater damage than traditional bombs. Though the large-scale U.S. and South Vietnamese aerial bombardment efforts damaged or destroyed much of the land and population of Vietnam, they proved less destructive to the enemy than expected, as North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops fought an irregular style of guerrilla warfare that proved much more resilient than the Americans had hoped.
U.S. and South Vietnamese Artillery & Infantry Weapons
The M-48 tank, with mounted machine guns, could travel up to 30 mph and was used to provide support for U.S. and South Vietnamese troops. Due to Vietnam’s soggy jungle terrain, tanks were not used extensively in combat during the Vietnam War. Armored personnel carriers such as the M-113 transported troops and performed reconnaissance and support functions. A common artillery weapon, previously used in World War II, was the 105mm howitzer, which could be towed behind a truck or carried by helicopter and dropped into position. Operated by crews of eight men each, the howitzers fired high-explosive shrapnel shells or “beehive” cartridges (thousands of small, sharp darts) at a rate of three to eight rounds per minute over a range of some 12,500 yards.
One of the most common infantry weapons used by U.S. troops in Vietnam was the M-60 machine gun, which could also be used as an artillery weapon when mounted or operated from a helicopter or tank. The gas-powered M-60 could fire up to 550 bullets in quick succession at a range of almost 2,000 yards, or at short range when fired from the shoulder. One drawback of the M-60 was the heavy weight of its cartridge belts, which limited the ammunition that soldiers could carry. Standard issue for infantrymen in Vietnam was the M-16, a gas-operated, magazine-fed rifle that could fire 5.56 mm-caliber bullets accurately over several hundred yards at 700-900 rounds per minute on its automatic setting; it could also be used as a semi-automatic. Its ammunition came in magazines of 20-30 rounds, making it relatively easy to reload.
North Vietnamese and Viet Cong Weapons in Vietnam
Most of the weapons, uniforms and equipment used by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces were manufactured by the Soviet Union and China. The portable, shoulder-fired SA-7 Grail missile was one of many anti-aircraft weapons extensively against American aircraft conducting bombing raids in North Vietnam. On the ground, the DP 7.62mm light machine gun (the equivalent to the U.S.-made M-60) was based on a Soviet design and manufactured in both the Soviet Union and China. The simple but deadly accurate AK-47, known to many as the “peasant’s rifle,” was shorter and heavier than the M-16, with a lower rate of fire (up to about 600 rounds per minute). It was extraordinarily durable, however, and was able to fire 7.62mm bullets either automatically or semi-automatically from a 30-round clip at a rate of up to about 600 rounds per minute, at a range of up to 435 yards. Another widely used semi-automatic rifle was the SKS carbine or “Chicom."
In addition to Soviet- or Chinese-supplied arms, Communist forces also carried weapons captured from the French and the Japanese in earlier Indochina wars or used weapons made by hand in Vietnam. Troops in the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) or the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) had access to more standard-issue clothing and weapons, while Viet Cong often used improvised weapons and wore peasant clothing to blend in to the South Vietnamese population.
Other Weapons Used in Vietnam
In addition to rifles and machine guns, U.S. infantry troops were armed with hand grenades (such as the Mark-2), which could be thrown or propelled using rifle-mounted launchers. Mines were used to guard the perimeter around campsites; they could be triggered by trip wires or exploded manually. In terms of chemical weapons, U.S. Air Force planes sprayed more than 19 million gallons of herbicides over 4.5 million acres of land in Vietnam from 1961 to 1972 as part of Operation Ranch Hand, a large-scale defoliation program aimed at eliminating forest cover for North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops, as well as crops that might be used to feed them. The most commonly used defoliant, a mixture of herbicides containing the toxic dioxin and known as Agent Orange, was later revealed to cause serious health issues–including tumors, birth defects, rashes, psychological symptoms and cancer–among returning U.S. servicemen and their families as well as among large sections of the Vietnamese population.
For their part, North Vietnamese and particularly Viet Cong forces often used explosives captured from U.S. and South Vietnamese forces or cut open unexploded bombs to manufacture their own crude explosives. They also employed booby traps, including hidden bamboo maces or crossbows that could be triggered when soldiers stepped on a tripwire. One particularly common menace was the punji stake trap, a bed of sharpened bamboo stakes that was concealed in a pit for enemy soldiers to stumble across.