Vice Adm. Joseph Metcalf III, returning from command of the U.S. invasion of Grenada in October 1983, tried to bring back more than a dozen captured Soviet-made automatic rifles despite military and federal prohibitions, Defense Department sources said yesterday.

At least seven lower-ranking Marines and soldiers, including an Army captain, were court-martialed and ordered jailed for as long as three years for similar actions. Some also tried to sell the weapons, military spokesmen said. A Navy spokesman said Metcalf was "cautioned" but not punished.

According to the sources, Metcalf told investigators that he brought back the AK47 rifles as souvenirs and was not aware of prohibitions.

Navy officials issued a statement that the Navy "considers the matter closed" and declined to elaborate. Metcalf, deputy chief of naval operations for surface warfare, could not be reached for comment.

Senior naval officials privately acknowledged an apparent discrepancy in the weapons cases but said the Navy should not be expected to match what they termed the Army's harsh brand of justice.

The officials said the court-martialed Marines, who also fall under the Navy's jurisdiction, had been warned specifically not to keep captured weapons, which was not the case for at least the convicted Army officer.

Metcalf, 56, who became known as a colorful and pugnacious commander in Grenada, was returning to Atlantic Fleet headquarters in Norfolk with senior aides Nov. 3, 1983, when U.S. Customs Service officials boarded their aircraft after receiving what Pentagon sources said was an anonymous tip. Metcalf was commander of the Second Fleet at the time.

Metcalf's plane, according to a Customs Service spokesman Christine Frazer, contained 24 AK47s of the type supplied to Grenada's leftist government and to Cuban troops on the island. The shipment also included 24 empty ammunition magazines, she said.

Pentagon sources said 16 of the weapons were labeled for Metcalf and his staff.

According to military regulations, U.S. servicemen returning from combat duty are allowed to bring certain "war trophies" and firearms. The code, drafted in 1969 when U.S. involvement in Vietnam was near its peak, notes certain exceptions, however, including automatic weapons, and emphasizes that "major commanders will be guided by this regulation."

The National Firearms Act also prohibits importing automatic weapons without proper authorization or license. Jack Killorin, spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said the prohibition includes AK47s.

Frazer said weapons on Metcalf's plane were held overnight, then turned over the next day -- along with the case itself -- to the Naval Investigative Service.

Pentagon sources said the in-house investigation was completed within a month of Metcalf's return. In yesterday's statement, Navy spokesman Capt. Brent Baker acknowledged the incident.

"Vice Adm. Metcalf has been cautioned regarding the capture and disposition of enemy weapons following battle," Baker said. "He has been apprised of the existing regulations governing the disposal of such weapons and the rules prohibiting their retention as souvenirs. He is now in compliance with those regulations. The Navy considers the matter closed."

Five soldiers from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division were court-martialed, fined, imprisoned and dismissed from the service for related offenses after serving in Grenada, according to Army spokesman Lt. Col. Craig McNab.

Capt. John E. Dorsz, 28, for example, was convicted of larceny, conspiracy to commit larceny and conduct unbecoming an officer and sentenced to a year in prison. He said at his court-martial that he brought five AK47s from Grenada, intending to keep one as a souvenir, and give two to his alma mater, the Valley Forge Military Academy, and two to lower-ranking soldiers in his unit.

Dorsz, released last year before serving his full sentence, also was dismissed from the Army and fined $500 a month for one year.

Four noncommissioned Army officers were fined, sentenced to hard labor for terms ranging from nine months to two years, demoted to private and given bad-conduct discharges.

Marine spokesman Capt. Mark Hough said at least two Marines have been court-martialed for offenses related to arms captured in Grenada, while a third faces trial.