When Added Features Lead To Death

The Client isn’t always right

Photo by Lucas Sankey on Unsplash

The Scientists

It was obvious to the Generals at the start of the Vietnam war, that the US rifles needed updating. They had been in use since World War 2 and had to be modernised.

Enter the Armalite AR15.

The scientists couldn’t help but smile at all the fancy innovations they had developed in the new weapon. They had successfully reduced the bullet size from .30 to .223. This meant it could be fully automatic like a machine gun but have greater accuracy.

The reduction led to more added benefits. It was better at killing. The smaller rounds would lodge fatally in the enemy, instead of just passing through. It was lighter, which meant the troops could carry more and thus kill more.

It was even more reliable. All through testing, the results were outstanding. The scientists could comprehensively prove its reliability.

In 1959, the Springfield Test Armory said:

“It is the best lightweight automatic rifle ever tested by the armoury.”

“A squad of 5–7 men armed with the AR15 would have better hit distribution and capability than the present 11-man squad.”

“The troops favour the AR15 because of lightness, reliability, and freedom from recoil and climb on full automatic.”

“Taking into account the greater lethality of the AR15 it is up to 5 times as effective.”

So a clear winner, right?

The Client

The Generals weren’t happy and they knew best. Who better to understand the psychology of a soldier? Who better could understand the impact of a weapon? Why, if they had the time, they would design the rifle themselves. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were uncomfortable about a rifle that fired a smaller round. Bigger is better they argued.

Despite the figures, the endless test results and the all important ‘seeing is believing’ visual affirmation, the Generals wanted to make changes.

The smaller bullets had been demonstrated that it was more lethal than the larger round, but it wasn’t what they wanted. And, like any unhappy client, they wanted to ‘try’ a few things. They wanted to make changes just because they could.

For the Generals, it was all about range. Their idea of warfare was how many soldiers they could kill from a distance. They judged rifles by what are called “gravel bellies” — marksmen and sharp-shooters who lie on the ground and shoot at targets a long way away.

Those rifles, they insisted, were the weapons of choice. Those rifles was how the army was going to win a war. With longer range. Bellies on the ground.

The Vietnam War had already started. The soldiers had entered the country using the old rifles. Time was pressing. The new rifle had to be deployed as soon as possible.

The scientists argued that the Vietnam war was being fought at close range in the jungle. It didn’t matter replied the Generals. It would be good to have that option.

The Generals didn’t just stop with one more innovation. No. They wanted the gun to work perfectly in the Arctic, in temperatures 65 degrees below freezing.

Again, the scientists argued that the Vietnam war was being fought in a jungle environment. Temperatures would often reach above 100 degrees. It didn’t matter replied the Generals. It would be good to have that option.

Then they insisted on adding a manual bolt-closing device.

Even though a USAF document said:

“During three years of testing and using the AR15 under all conditions, we had no malfunction that could have been corrected by a manual bolt-closing device. Worse, it would add weight and complexity and so reduce reliability.”

But the Joint Chiefs of Staff were the client, so they got their way.

Because, you know, Generals know best. The client knows what he wants.

The Result

With all the added extras, the Armalite AR15 was renamed. Armalite didn’t sound like an effective killing machine. It had tones of weekend camping trips out to shoot deer. It was important to get a manly sounding weapon. One that would invoke fear. They called it the M16. M stands for model. The next stage of development.

Millions of the ‘improved’ rifle were ordered.

The Americans would go on to lose the war. It wasn’t all down to the weapon of choice, but the M16 certainly played a part.

It performed so badly in combat that the House Armed Services Committee had to conduct an enquiry and issue a report 600 pages long.

Some of the quotes from the troops actually fighting in Vietnam, were as follows:

“I fired 40 rounds, the rifle jammed 10 times”

“I fired 50 rounds, the rifle jammed 14 times”

“32 of 80 rifles failed yesterday”

“2 marines died with jammed rifles”

“70% of my dead buddies had a round stuck in the chamber”.

Nobody in actual combat were happy with the added benefits. The larger bullets were useless. The extra weight was alarming. And surprising, the ability to fight in arctic conditions was unnecessary.

Design by Committee

Bigger is better? The client is always right? Design by committee is often the best way?

When a great idea, developed and executed, comes face to face with a demanding client, it can often lead to disastrous results. Not always to death, but great ideas start to change. They stop being a great idea.

Remember that, when someone thinks their personal opinion outweighs everything. Allowing their ego to get in the way. The type of personality who needs to prove they’re in charge.

It pays to remind the client about the research. The testing. The time spent developing that great idea. Remind the client who the end user is.

It’s not about them.

It’s easy to critic work and demand added features. It’s harder to recognise the benefits.

Stand up to your client. That’s why you’ve been hired.

As they say: opinions are like arseholes, everybody’s got one.

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