An accidental discharge is when you fire a weapon when you don’t mean to. Obviously, bad things can happen when someone accidentally discharges a weapon. There’s a good chance of shooting someone you don’t necessarily want shot. Cranky, over at the Hostages asked me the following:
Hey, ever been around a clearing barrel when someone puts the barrel of the weapon into the opening and squeezes the trigger and it fires? Everybody laughs.
A clearing barrel is simply a 55 gallon drum, filled with sand, mounted with an opening. You stick the barrel of your weapon in there, and squeeze the trigger. That’s proof positive that the weapon is clear. Units deployed overseas that routinely go out armed with live ammo have them. Units in the states generally don’t. You clear your weapons at the range. And when you get back. And just before you put them in the armsroom.
Hawaii, 1986. We were back from a live-fire exercise and turning in our weapons. One of the guys in line had an M-60 machine gun. He had the bolt pulled back and the feed tray and cover closed. He extended the bipod legs and dropped the weapon a few inches to the ground while waiting for his turn at the window. The jolt of the drop let the bolt slip forward. And the weapon functioned perfectly after that, firing a 7.62mm round. Which went right past the crowd waiting to turn in weapons, hit the concrete wall, ricocheted, went right back past the crowd and across the street where it lodged somewhere in the battalion headquarters. It was a minor miracle no one was hit. But not even a miracle could have saved that soldiers stripes. You can have a thousand “attaboys” and they are all wiped out by one “Oh, Shit!” I never did learn how he got all the way back to the company with a round in the weapon. He should have checked it, his assistant gunner should have checked it, his squad leader should have checked it, and the range safety NCO should have checked it. Still, soldiering is a human endeavor, and humans will always find a way to screw things up.
My own sin was, luckily, a venial one, and not a cardinal sin. My 20th birthday, still in Hawaii. The Big Island to be specific. We we conducting a raid. We had flown from the Pohakaloa Training Area in the center of the Island to some private land that allowed us to operate there. After getting off the Blackhawks, we had a long, long walk in the woods. Just before boarding the choppers, our Company Commander had reiterated his stance on accidental discharges- DON’T. He’d had a soldier shot in an accidental discharge and was adamant that it wouldn’t happen again. So, of course, it was my turn in the barrel. The company column stopped briefly and we all took a knee. As I knelt down, I heard the distinctive “POP” of an M-16 firing a blank. My first thought was “Wow, someone screwed the pooch!” My next thought was panic as my platoon sergeant clamped his hand down on my shoulder and asked what the hell was I thinking. I had not only screwed up, I’d done it with an audience. My platoon sergeant was directly behind me. Right behind him was the company commander and the evaluator grading our excercise. Oops. I had indeed fired the round. No harm done but for some embarrassment. Our standard operating procedure in those days was to travel on patrol with your finger on the trigger and your thumb on the safety. I’d somehow hit the safety (probably on my equipment belt) and not noticed it. My CO awarded my a summarized Article 15 with 5 days of extra duty. It was just painful enough punishment to make sure the lesson was learned, but not so painful as to turn me off from soldiering.
The next incident was the one of the worst moments of my time in the Army. My brigade was at Grafenwhor in Germany. Graf is a huge complex of ranges, for everything from M-16s to tanks, Bradleys and artillery. I was working in the armsroom while the company went out to a range where squads mounted in M-113s would each practice assaulting an objective. While one of our squads were in the back of the 113, and just before heading out to shoot, the platoon leader tossed in some weapons lubricant (called Break-Free CLP) and advised everybody to make sure their weapons were lubed. George was armed witht he M-249 SAW. The normal way of lubing a SAW was to open the feed tray and squirt a little in there. Then you would pull the bolt back and pull the trigger and cycle the bolt back and forth a few times. But in addition to feeding from a belt laid on the tray, the SAW could be fed from a rifle magazine mounted on the side of the weapon. George’s weapon had a magazine in the side. When he let the bolt go forward, it stripped a round from the magazine, fed it into the chamber, where the firing pin struck it. The round fired and the bolt cycled. Seven rounds were fired. Each round struck the Track Commander in the back of his left leg and passed through to strike the driver in the back. Both were critically wounded. The Track Commander, a former college footbal star, lost most of his left leg. The driver’s injuries were so severe that he was later discharged with 100% disability. George was court-martialed for negligence and sentenced to 18 months in prison.