Women Marine Rifle Qualification in 1978
By Corrina Martell
Several years before women recruits began qualifying on the M16A1 rifle in Marine Corps boot camp, many women Marines were already qualifying on the M16A1 rifle in the fleet.
In late November and early December of 1978, I was part of a detail of about 50 women Marines who qualified on the M16 while stationed at Camp Zukeran, Okinawa. We were told that all women Marines in the fleet had to qualify on the M16 because women recruits were going to begin qualifying on the rifle range in boot camp. We assumed it meant that women were qualifying in boot camp as of that year, and I didn’t find out until years later that rifle qualification for women recruits in boot camp didn’t actually start until 1985.
We were issued camouflage utilities and given crash instructions at cash sales on how to wear and press them, how to starch the cami cover, and how to blouse our boot laces. There were no boot sizes for women at that time, so we were given the smallest size mens’ boots that were available – most didn’t fit well and caused blisters and limping by the end of the day.
At 3 a.m. every morning for two weeks we boarded cattle cars and rode north to Camp Schwab. We were issued our weapons at the Camp Schwab armory, and our rifle range instructors were a burly gunnery sergeant, an older staff sergeant, and a young sergeant who was a sniper. The gunny didn’t seem to like women Marines in general, and he definitely didn’t like having to teach us to shoot – but it didn’t bother us. We knew he had to make sure we were trained on the M16 even if he didn’t like the idea.
The sergeant held the rifle up in the air in front of us on the first day, told us it was an M16, showed us how to hold and carry it, and proceeded from the ground up pointing out, naming and explaining each part on the weapon. He drilled us relentlessly on positions, knowing how to and when not to breathe, “setting the dope” for windage and elevation, safety, and endless snapping in. It was a grueling two weeks, but I remember that we all accepted it as if it was just another day in the Marine Corps – we had no idea we were making history – no idea how important the memories of it all would be someday.
It intrigued me as a young woman back then, how easily we made the transition from skirts and pumps to camis and boots and a rifle. On the long rides home at the end of the day, we lay and rested on the benches in the cattle car as the motion on the highway made it creak back and forth – the rumble of the motor in the cab ahead and the swish of the vehicles going past lulling us into a sort of half sleep. There was no grumbling about the discomfort of the cattle car, the ache in our muscles or the grit under our fingernails. We knew what our Marine sisters who came before us had always known – that we were up to any task that the Marine Corps gave us.
When it was time to qualify, we took turns pulling butts – excited for whoever it was who was shooting when we pulled down the target and found a bullseye to stick the marker in before sending the butt back up. We were sweaty, dirty, sunburned and tired – but no one complained.
Back then women Marines were discouraged from grunting the famous bulldog sound, but as we sat below the butts and heard the whistle of the rifle fire above us, I think we all wanted to shout a great bit “OOHRAH”.
As I recall, we all qualified with mostly sharpshooters, some marksmen, and a few experts.