By - Alan Farnham

(FORTUNE Magazine) – When and if land fighting intensifies, this war -- fought until now mainly on the bloodless plains of high technology -- will come down to one man's trying to kill another with his hands, a knife, or a gun. For 400,000 GIs, that gun will be the M16. Anyone who remembers Vietnam remembers the M16, and probably remembers it wrong. Though eventually the rifle became the Army's standard, at first it had trouble even getting a hearing. The Army liked to develop its ordnance in- house, but the M16 came from outside -- the ArmaLite division of Fairchild Industries developed it in 1957. In 1963, ArmaLite got a lucky break: President Kennedy saw the rifle demonstrated and liked it so much he requested two for his personal use. He kept them on board the presidential yacht for plinking at floating cans. That same year, the Army ordered 104,000. With Vietnam escalating, Colt Industries (which licensed Fairchild's patents) was soon making more than 25,000 a month. In the field, problems developed. Soldiers were told the rifle needed little or no cleaning, and the Army issued it without a maintenance manual or cleaning kit. In the jungle humidity, barrels corroded, rifles jammed, men died. Colt and the Army corrected the problem by supplying manuals and cleaning equipment, and coating the barrel with chrome. But so much damage was done to the M16's reputation that even today people think of it as a lethal lemon. In actuality, the M16 serves as the standard rifle not just for the Army but for NATO and many governments in the Mideast. Today's version, the M16A2, closely resembles the M16A1 of Vietnam. It packs a 30-shot clip of 5.56-mm ammunition, capable of piercing light armor. But where the A1 can fire all 30 shells in one automatic burst, the A2 fires either single rounds or three-shot bursts, to conserve ammunition. A Colt spinoff, Colt's Manufacturing in Hartford, still makes the M16 -- but not for the Army. In 1988, Colt lost the contract to FN Manufacturing of Columbia, South Carolina, a subsidiary of Fabrique Nationale, a Belgian conglomerate that owns Browning and U.S. Repeating Arms (formerly Winchester). Though FN has been in Columbia since 1980, top-level conversations at the plant are still conducted in French. FN underbid Colt by nearly $60 a rifle ($420 vs. $477.50), winning a five- year contract worth $112 million. It calls for FN to supply 291,361 rifles by March 1994. Willy Dumeunier, FN's vice president, refuses to say how FN cut the price, but low labor costs must have helped. At the time Colt was unionized; FN's work force of 422 men and women wasn't, and isn't. The plant looks clean, ordinary -- no different from the auto plants where quality engineer Leigh Rose, 28, worked before she came to FN. ''I went from fasteners to hubcaps to guns,'' she says, taking in a floor of milling machines with a sweep of her hand. Dumeunier says war has affected FN ''not at all.'' The company is running more than 20,000 rifles behind on its contract, but expects to close the gap by boosting output gradually. At present, employees, who work a four-day week, are making 7,000 rifles a month. FN could boost production further if the Army asked, but so far it hasn't. Colt's President Ron Stillwell says his company could supply more than 20,000 rifles a month if the Army ever really got strapped. How will the M16 perform in the desert? Says Stillwell: ''It's a very difficult environment for any mechanical system. But almost all the Gulf countries use the M16, and we have never, ever, had a report that they were having problems because of the environment. It's not Ohio, but as long as you take the right precautions -- cleaning and handling -- it ought to do fine.'' To keep out sand and dust, GIs are slipping condoms over the ends of barrels. The Army has ordered 500,000 plastic bags to encase the weapons. But cleaning during battle isn't easy and some rifles could jam. Iraq's rifle, the Soviet-designed AK47, needs less pampering and could prove more reliable. But it lacks the M16's range or armor-piercing power. Few locals have ever heard of FN, but that is probably not why the plant has never seen a protester. In Columbia, even clergy are bellicose. Says the Reverend William Bouknight III, senior pastor of Trenholm Road United Methodist Church: ''In a hateful world, there are some things worse than war. You've got to have a defense structure, and that includes M16s.'' Apostolic minister Jackie Williams works at FN as a machine operator. His voice, on a Monday morning, is still hoarse from Sunday's singing, which he calls ''having a good time in the Lord.'' At age 47, he has never fought a war. ''But I wanted to,'' he says. ''I've got a brother who's a Navy chaplain and a nephew who's a lieutenant deployed right now in Saudi Arabia. I've got a niece in the Army Reserve and another nephew who's a pilot. So I've got plenty of interest in what happens over there.'' He's not alone. On the wall of FN's lunchroom is a list of 12 names of people serving in the Gulf -- all of them employees or relatives of employees. Does making rifles conflict with Williams's calling as a minister? ''That thought did arise in my mind,'' he says, affable in a navy-blue knit shirt, sports cap, and spectacles. ''But then I said, 'Even people in gun manufacturing need to hear about the Lord. I'm not for killing anybody, but war is the will of God.' '' A red-headed woman near Williams agrees: ''I think it's all running along with the Bible.'' Armageddon? She nods. At Josh's bar and restaurant, close to the plant, both TVs are set to CNN, and a poster reading INSANE HUSSEIN shows Saddam with a target drawn on his belly. Manager Alison Meincke says the men and women from FN stay mum about their work. ''I'm here 80 hours a week,'' she says, ''and I've never heard them talk about the gun once.'' She thinks the silence has less to do with concerns about security than with workers' reluctance to face the fact their lethal product may have to be used. The Army hopes to have a deadlier rifle soon. Under target-range conditions, a soldier with an M16 (or any rifle) has only a 60% to 70% chance of hitting a target 300 meters (328 yards) away. In battle, that chance falls to 10%. The Army wants 20%. In 1982 it paid $40 million to six manufacturers to come up with a successor to the M16. Testing of prototypes started in January 1990, and by 1995 the Army should have its new rifle -- a potential order that could run as high as one million. Of six original competitors, only four, including Colt's, remain. FN, having no R&D capacity, didn't enter. Colt's submission looks like a refinement of the M16A2. It fires two bullets in tandem, the second shot having a slightly random dispersion around the aim point. This increases the likelihood that a soldier will hit something. Of the other prototypes, two shoot dispersions of three supersonic metal darts, called flechettes. Darts do more damage to body tissue than do bullets, promising, says the Army, ''very favorable soft-target lethalities.''