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Vietnam: A Television History | Article

Weapons of War

A U.S. Air Force F-4 flies with the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron over White Sands Missile Range

A list of aircrafts and big guns ⁠used by U.S. Forces followed by the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong.

U.S. Forces:

Bell UH-1 Helicopter
The Bell UH-1 helicopter, popularly known as the "Huey," was the workhorse aircraft for U.S. forces in Vietnam. Well adapted for jungle warfare, the Huey could fly at low altitudes and speeds, land in small clearings, maneuver to dodge enemy fire, and carry an array of powerful armaments.

Among other duties, the versatile chopper transported troops, equipment, supplies, and support personnel into the field; provided additional firepower to troops engaged on the ground; and evacuated the dead and wounded.

Technical data for the UH-1B:

- Type: Utility Helicopter
- Year: 1960
- Engine: Lycoming T53-L-11 turboshaft, 1,100 SHP (shaft horsepower)
- Rotor Diameter: 44 ft.
- Fuselage Length: 38 ft. 5 in.
- Overall Length: 53 ft.
- Height: 14 ft.
- Empty Weight: 5,055 lbs.
- Max Takeoff Weight: 9,500 lbs.
- Max Speed: 138 m.p.h.
- Ceiling: 21,000 ft.
- Range: 286 miles
- Crew: two
- Load: seven fully equipped troops, or 3,000 lbs.

- Armament varied, but could include: one or two M60 7.62mm machine guns, XM157 rocket launcher with high-explosive or phosphorus rockets, 40mm grenade launchers

B-52 Stratofortress
Designed in the late 1940s to carry nuclear bombs on long-range, high-altitude missions to targets in the Soviet Union, the B-52 Stratofortress performed well under quite different circumstances in Vietnam. Outfitted with conventional metal bombs at assembly-line-type loading operations at bases in Thailand and on Guam, B-52s flew tens of thousands of low-altitude, high-density bombing sorties in North and South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The massive bombing runs did not paralyze the enemy as they might have in a more conventionally-fought war, but the B-52 proved instrumental in containing or breaking up North Vietnamese offensives, disrupting supply lines, and bringing the Communist forces to the negotiating table.

Technical data for the B-52G:

- Type: Bomber
- Manufacturer: Boeing Airplane Co.
- Engine: eight Pratt & Whitney J57-43W or 43WB turbojets, 13,750 lbs. thrust each
- Span: 185 ft.
- Length: 157 ft. 7 in.
- Height: 40 ft. 8 in.
- Loaded weight: 505,000 lbs.
- Maximum speed: 595 m.p.h.
- Ceiling: 46,000 ft.
- Range: 8,406 miles
- Crew: six
- Armament: four M2 .50 caliber machine guns, mounted in rear, operated either by a tail gunner or by remote control from gunner in cockpit
- Payload: About 60,000 pounds of bombs, arranged in the bomb bay and on pylons attached to the wings

F-4 Phantom Fighter Plane
While U.S. air power dominated the skies of South Vietnam, bombing runs into North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia often proved deadly. To suppress enemy anti-aircraft fire and counter harassment by lethal MiG attack fighters, the U.S. relied heavily on the F-4 Phantom. Armed with a 20mm cannon and air-to-air missiles, the fast, maneuverable Phantom also served as a bomber, delivering conventional or radar-guided payloads to enemy targets that were too well-protected to be hit by lumbering B-52s. F-4s also prepared target areas by dropping loads of radar-reflecting metallic fibers, known as chaff, to scramble enemy radar.

Specifications for the F-4:

- Year: 1963
- Engines: two General Electric J-79-GE-15s of 17,000 lbs. thrust each (with afterburner)
- Wingspan: 38 ft. 5 in. (27 ft. 6 in. folded)
- Length: 58 ft. 2 in.
- Height: 16 ft. 6 in.
- Weight: 58,000 lbs. loaded
- Maximum speed: 1,400 m.p.h.
- Cruising speed: 590 m.p.h.
- Ceiling: 59,600 ft.
- Range: 1,750 miles (without aerial refueling)
- Crew: Two
- Armament: Up to 16,000 lbs. of externally carried nuclear or conventional bombs, rockets, missiles, or 20mm cannon pods in various combinations

Various forms of artillery, both base-stationed and carried into the field, supported troops on the ground by breaking up enemy troop concentrations, illuminating hostile positions, and knocking out opposing forces' artillery, support fire, and supply lines. Infantrymen carried lighter guns on patrol, using them to provide close-up, mobile support. The larger guns, positioned at firebases throughout the south, rained shells on enemy positions when called upon by radio.

M48 Tank
Because the often soggy Vietnamese terrain limited their range, tanks did not play a major role in Vietnam. They did, however, provide valuable support to American forces in the south, securing contested roadways and engaging enemy troops. The most common U.S. tank was the M48. The diesel-powered M48 carried a 90mm turret-mounted main gun, capable of rotating to fire in any direction, as well as one 7.62mm machine gun and one .50 caliber machine gun. The tank traveled at maximum speeds of about 30 m.p.h. Armor plating on the M48 varied from 76-100mm, with the heaviest armor reserved for the front of the tank's hull.

M113 Armored Personnel Carrier
The M113 armored personnel carrier served valuable transport, reconnaissance and fire support functions in a variety of terrain. Protected by between 12 and 38 millimeters of armor, a .50 caliber Browning machine gun and two optional M60 60mm machine guns, up to eleven soldiers could travel securely in the M113. The amphibious vehicle ran on dual aluminum tank-type tracks, traveled at speeds of over 40 m.p.h., and was controlled by a two-man crew.

Mark I P.B.R.
The US Navy created special riverine task forces to disrupt weapons shipments in areas such as the Mekong delta. The P.B.R. (River Patrol Boat), a small, fast, lightweight craft, served as the main vessel of riverine operations. P.B.R.s stopped and searched junks, sampans, and other boats, and engaged in firefights with shore-based enemy soldiers. Powered by a 220 horsepower General Motors engine and propelled by a Jacuzzi Brothers water jet, the fiberglass-hulled P.B.R. traveled at speeds of about 28.5 knots. It carried a veritable armory, including twin .50 caliber machine guns, a 7.62mm machine gun, a Mark 18 grenade launcher, and, occasionally, a 20mm cannon. Ceramic armor protected the conning station and the machine gun positions.

M60 General-Purpose Machine Gun
Light enough to be carried on patrol and deadly in a firefight, the M60 general-purpose machine gun proved its mettle in countless combat situations. The M60 fired up to 550 high-velocity bullets from a gas-powered, belt-fed system at a range of over 1,900 yards. The M60 could be fired from a bipod, a tripod, or from the hip. Perhaps its greatest shortcoming was the weight of its cartridge belts, which limited the amount of ammunition that could be carried into the field.

Redeye Anti-Aircraft Missile
Since the North Vietnamese Air Force only represented a threat to U.S. bombing raids in the north, not to American bases in the south, anti-aircraft weapons were not used frequently by U.S. forces. They were kept on hand, however. The Redeye, a short-range, shoulder-fired missile launcher, was standard issue.

M19 60mm Mortar
One of the most common field support weapons, this portable mortar fired as many as 30 high-explosive, smoke, or illumination rounds per minute. It had an effective range of approximately 45 to 2000 yards. The M19 could be operated from a hand-held position or mounted on the ground using a steel base plate.

105mm Howitzer
A favored support gun, the 105mm howitzer used in Vietnam had seen action in World War II. Modified to improve field mobility, the guns served admirably throughout the Vietnam conflict. An eight-man crew operated the 105, which could be towed behind a 6x6 truck or carried into position by helicopter. The weapon fired about three to eight rounds per minute and handled a variety of ammunition, including high-explosive shrapnel shells and "beehive" cartridges, which contained thousands of small, sharpened darts. The 105 had a range of about 12,500 yards.

The Outfitted Infantryman 

Standard-Issue Equipment
Much of the standard-issue U.S. Army infantry equipment proved poorly adapted to jungle and counter-insurgency warfare. Individual soldiers often customized their gear, abandoning some equipment altogether, augmenting it by trading with other GIs, or even using equipment taken from the enemy.

Soldiers received a standard issue "pot" or steel helmet, which, in addition to providing some protection against shrapnel or bullets, often saw duty as a chair, cookpot, or even "butt armor" during helicopter transport. Helmets also protected valuables such as cigarettes, matches and personal letters from frequent downpours. The pots were heavy and, in the high jungle temperatures, extremely hot; some soldiers abandoned them in favor of floppy, fabric hats in the field. Many men emblazoned their helmets with slogans such as "Don't Shoot, I'm Short" or "God is My Pointman."

In hot, humid jungle climates, standard-issue cotton uniforms quickly disintegrated. The military developed clothing that incorporated ripstop nylon, but this proved no great improvement. Spare clothes increased the weight of field packs. Soldiers prized extra socks but often carried only the clothes they wore, along with rain ponchos, which also served as bedrolls. Colorful insignia and shoulder patches could give away a position during combat. These were sometimes recreated in muted "camouflage" colors for field use.

The M16 rifle, standard issue for infantrymen, fired .223 caliber/5.56mm bullets at a rate of 750-900 rounds per minute on automatic setting, or as fast as a soldier could pull the trigger on semiautomatic. The rifle had an effective range of about 435 yards. Before a late 1966 redesign, the fussy M16s responded poorly to wet, dirty field conditions, and often jammed during combat, resulting in numerous casualties.

M16 cartridges came in 20 or 30-round "clips," which could be quickly popped in and out of the rifle's loading port during firefights. Although the clips added weight to the soldier's gear, the danger of running out of ammunition during a firefight caused many grunts to carried as many clips as they could stand when they went into the field.

Mark 2 Anti-Personnel Hand-Rifle Grenade
Soldiers often carried fragmentation grenades, which could be thrown about 30 yards, or propelled accurately at distances of about 150 yards using a rifle-mounted launcher. Carrying grenades through thick jungle was a hazardous proposition. Fuse pins sometimes could catch on undergrowth and pull from grenades, resulting in unintentional and deadly explosions.

M18A1 Claymore Anti-Personnel Mine
Soldiers frequently used these portable tripod-mounted mines to form a perimeter around a night encampment. When triggered by a tripwire or a manually-operated lanyard, the mine released a charge of 700 steel balls in a 60-degree arc, with an effective range of about 50 yards.

A necessity in hot, arduous patrolling conditions, these prized possessions were often passed on to friends by soldiers shipped home. Many soldiers carried multiple canteens when given the opportunity, despite the weight added by the water.

At base camps, soldiers ate a variety of foods, from steak and potatoes washed down with beer to Vietnamese dishes in local eateries. In the field, food was a different proposition, and included a variety of dehydrated and canned meals, or fish, rice, and other edibles scavenged from the land. Many soldiers bemoaned the extra weight that food added, and often carried the minimum amount they needed until the next scheduled resupply drop. Not infrequently, they came up short.

Infantrymen carried their gear in a canvas field packs. When filled to capacity, the pack weighed as much as 90 pounds or more, and its straps cut into the shoulders, sometimes rendering the arms numb. Some GIs favored Vietnamese packs, which were taken from captured or killed North Vietnamese.

Standard black leather combat boots proved hot and susceptible to rot. The military introduced jungle boots, which included cooler nylon-mesh uppers, and drain holes that allowed water to escape. The boots also featured reinforced soles to protect against the sharpened bamboo stakes, or "punji spikes," used as booby traps by enemy soldiers.

North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong:

Sources of Weapons
Although most of their weapons, uniforms, and equipment were provided by the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, the North Vietnamese also carried arms captured from the French and even the Japanese in the earlier Indochinese wars. North Vietnamese Army (N.V.A.) troops more often used standard-issue gear; their Viet Cong counterparts dressed as the peasants in whose villages they sought harbor, and frequently used improvised weapons.

The Soviet MiG-21 served as the primary high-altitude fighter in the North Vietnamese arsenal. Capable of flying more than twice the speed of sound and armed with a 30mm cannon and air-to-air missiles, the MiG-21 disrupted American bombing raids, shooting down bombers and engaging in furious and often victorious dogfights with American fighter planes. The highly-maneuverable MiG was also easy to maintain and could operate from unimproved airfields. The MiG-17, an earlier model in the MiG fighter series, also saw frequent service as a fighter/interceptor in North Vietnam.

Specifications for the MiG-21:

- Year: 1955
- Engine: Tumansky R-11F-300 with 12,675 lbs. thrust (with afterburner)
- Span: 23 ft. 6 in.
- Length: 51 ft. 9 in.
- Height: 15 ft. 9 in.
- Weight: 18,080 lbs. max.
- Maximum speed: 1,300 m.p.h.
- Cruising speed: 550 m.p.h.
- Ceiling: 50,000 ft.
- Range: 400 miles
- Crew: one
- Armament: one NR-30 30mm cannon plus two K-13A air-to-air missiles

T-54/55 Tank
The North Vietnamese Army forces did not use tanks in large numbers. The N.V.A. relied on the Soviet-made T-54/55 as one of their main battle tanks. Fitted out with a 100mm, turret-mounted main gun, the T54/55 fired anti-armor and high explosive rounds at a range of about 16,000 yards. A four-man crew controlled the tank, which traveled at a top speed of about 50 m.p.h. The tank's armor varied in thicknesses from 20mm on the underside to 203mm at the turret. The T54/55 weighed 36 tons.

BTR 60 Armored Personnel Carrier
The Soviet-made BTR armored personnel carrier served as the Vietnamese counterpart of the M113. Several different models of the BTR series were used, including the BTR 60P, an eight-wheeled amphibious vehicle with a crew of two, which carried up to sixteen soldiers. While the sides of the vehicle were protected by armor in thicknesses of up to 10mm, the roofless BTR 60 offered no cover for attack from above. The BTR 60 traveled on land at speeds of up to 50 m.p.h. and in water at about 10 m.p.h.

North Vietnamese forces shipped supplies through coastal and riverine areas using thousands of small watercraft. Chief among these was the junk, a traditional Chinese vessel dating back thousands of years. Made of wood, junks were usually powered by sail, although motors were also used. Since junks were not built as warships, their armament, if any, consisted of the weapons carried by their crews.

DP 7.62mm Light Machine Gun
The North Vietnamese used the DP light machine gun as their squad-level, automatic support weapon. This counterpart to the American M-60 fed cartridges using a pan magazine or belt, and had a range of about 875 yards. Based on a Soviet design, the DP 7.62 was provided to the Vietnamese by both China and the Soviet Union.

SA7 Grail Anti-Aircraft Missile
In North Vietnam, American pilots faced a deadly barrage of radar-guided, base-stationed anti-aircraft fire. In the South, one of the biggest threats to American aircraft was the SA7 Grail. A shoulder-fired, portable weapon, the Grail could be moved quickly and concealed easily, making it difficult to deter. Grail missiles downed numerous American planes and helicopters.

The Outfiited Soldier

N.V.A. soldiers wore a variety of headgear, the most common a pith-type helmet made of pressed paper or even of plastic, with a five-pointed star insignia. Viet Cong troops often wore the floppy cotton hat in the field.

N.V.A. soldiers dressed in simple green canvas uniforms. Viet Cong troops, who needed to blend in with local populations, most often wore black Ho Chi Minh-style loose pants.

Both the Chinese and the Russians provided variations on the SK-47 rifle in quantity to Communist forces. Known as a "peasant rifle," the AK-47 was simple in its design, reliable, and accurate. It fired a 7.62mm bullet either automatically or semi-automatically from a 30-round clip at a rate of up to about 600 rounds per minute, and performed with accuracy at up to 435 yards.

Communist troops also used the S.K.S. carbine or "Chicom," a semiautomatic rifle that fired 7.62mm ammunition from a 10-round clip at a slightly greater range than the AK-47.

Grenades and Anti-Personnel Devices
In addition to standard mines provided by their backers in China and the Soviet Union, Communist troops used a variety of anti-personnel devices, many handmade or obtained from U.S. forces. Viet Cong soldiers dug up and reused American land mines, took Claymore mines from their tripods, and even cut open unexploded bombs to harvest components for their hand-made weapons. Many Viet Cong soldiers lost their lives in accidental explosions at low-tech bomb factories.

Booby Traps
North Vietnamese forces frequently employed homemade booby traps. These included "punji sticks," sharpened sticks of bamboo concealed in hidden pits and designed to pierce the feet of enemy soldiers; bamboo maces, which swung down onto soldiers who triggered trip-wires; trip-wire operated crossbows; and boards studded with nails. While these devices did not kill en masse, their existence traumatized enemy troops psychologically.

Capable of living off the land and with the support of sympathetic villagers, the North Vietnamese troops, particularly the Viet Cong, could feed themselves without a complicated food supply system. Viet Cong troops often carried canvas bags of rice slung over their shoulders, and ate nearly anything they could find.

While some N.V.A. soldiers wore standard-issue jungle-type boots, they often adopted the same footwear as their Viet Cong counterparts -- simple cloth sandals with soles made from recycled tire treads. Some Viet Cong even fought barefoot.



Air War-Vietnam. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1978.

Casey, Michael, et al. The Vietnam Experience: The Army at War. Boston: Boston Publishing Company, 1987.

Macksey, Kenneth. Technology in War. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1986.

Rosser-Owen, David. Vietnam Weapons Handbook. England; Patrick Stephens Limited, 1986.

Uhlig, Frank, Jr., ed. Vietnam: The Naval Story. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1986.

By Sea, Air, and Land: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Navy and the War in Southeast Asia
This online publication from the U.S. Navy's Naval Historical Center provides a chronological history of the U.S. Navy in Vietnam along with photographs, maps, and charts.

Online Bookshelves on Vietnam
This site from the U.S. Army Center of Military History provides numerous publications on the Army's involvement in the Vietnam War.

Vietnam War Aircraft Hangar
Examine the aircraft used in Vietnam on this site maintained by the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

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