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Long-retired Maryland man's idea for M16 protecting US troops

Marine Cpl. Kevin J. Godfrey practices the proper shooting position during his M16 qualification test March 17, 2010.

ALEX C. SAUCEDA/COURTESY U.S. MARINE CORPS

By MARISSA GALLO | The Aegis, Bel Air, Md. | Published: July 23, 2012

"I bowl and I square dance," John Struve said of his hobbies these days. "Ten years ago I bowled a 300 game."

There's something else Struve, 77, once got a kick from, and it involves the accuracy of rifles used by the U.S. military.

The Bel Air resident's time as an Aberdeen Proving Ground employee seems like a lifetime ago, considering he retired in the early 1970s. His work at APG, however, can be found on many rifles used by the U.S. military.

In 1973, Struve, now 77, was working for the Small Arms System Agency at APG. The agency was set up to control the spending of money on small arms research and development, and Struve was in charge of the future Army rifle program.

"I was drafted into the Army in 1957 and they [the military] put me out here," Struve said of his assignment to the Harford County military installation, where many of its top ballistics development and testing people were employed. "I spent two years in the military testing high explosives, and as years went by got promoted to different places."

One day discussing the standard Army issue M16 rifle with colleague, Lt. Col. Vince Oddi, Struve said they talked about the rifle's hit capability in the automatic mode and came up with an idea on how modify the muzzle compensator to improve it.

"We go to the machine shop and had a part made," Struve recalled. "We took it out on the range, put it on a rifle and tested it and it did what it was supposed to do."

As is the case with most rifles, Struve explained, the M16 tends to jump when fired in the automatic mode.

A first round may be on target, but the second and many subsequent rounds may be off target by as much as 200 or 300 yards, with distance to the target magnifying the "pull" caused by a gun's recoil. Typically, the recoil of gun forces the muzzle up and, to a lesser degree, to the right or sometimes left. Each subsequent firing adds to the effect, and the person firing the weapon has to fight to keep an automatic weapon pointed in the same direction. The Struve modification mitigates this effect, helping to make the automatic rifle more accurate.

Closing the bottom vent, which caused the gases escaping to pull the muzzle down and offset the rifle's jump, modified the muzzle compensator.

Going on at the same time, however, was an Army realignment, which caused Struve's agency to be dismantled and its mission transferred to Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois.

Struve said everyone lost their jobs, and no one went to Illinois along with the agency. He forgot about the work he and Oddi did on the compensator and thought the Army did likewise.

Then, last year, Struve got a blast from the past, courtesy of his son, Douglas, who currently works at APG and is involved in small arms testing. Struve had once shown Douglas the compensator he and Oddi had improved upon, and the son recognized their work.

"He called me up all excited," Struve said. "He said it's standard issue now."

Struve was thrilled that something he thought was long forgotten was not only being used, but is helping to protect U.S. militarymen and women on the battlefield.

With the dismantling of his agency at APG and the three and a half decades that have passed, Struve said he hasn't been able to find out who followed through on his idea.

From his subsequent research, Struve said, the compensator was incorporated into the rifle in 1982 as part of other improvements, which resulted in the M16A2 and the current M16A4 model.

APG confirmed that muzzle compensator devices were developed sometime in the 1970s or 1980s and are currently being used on the M16A2 and M249 machine gun. The installation could not determine, however, if Struve's idea was incorporated into the compensator.

Once a weapon concept is established at the installation, it is transferred to Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey for actual development into a prototype for manufacture.

Very similar to what Struve worked on, the "bird cage" model flash suppressor was built into new production starting in January 1967, according to "The Black Rifle," a history of the M16, by R. Blake Stevens and Edward C. Ezell.

The time Struve spent working on the compensator was during a difficult period in his life — he was battling stage 4 Hodgkin's Disease.

"It was a very tough time for me," he said. "I had three little boys and as a result [of the agency dismantling] was going to be out of work."

Struve beat the disease and when his health improved began part-time work at Kunkel Service Company, the Bel Air auto parts supplier and machine shop, doing computer billing for 25 years.

Now retired, Struve keeps busy with his hobbies, his family and volunteers to deliver for Meals on Wheels.

He's pleased that his work has been able to help others, particularly those serving our country who are in harm's way and need the most reliable equipment possible.

"I feel good about it," Struve said. "This little idea has actually become a very important thing."

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