(I've never, in this blog, or in classes, hidden my affection for the M4 platform. It's a lightweight, ergonomic piece of engineering, and is more than adequately lethal from contact distances out to ranges beyond what most people can shoot under field conditions, contrary to popular opinion.-J.M.)
The M16's often lauded, largely over-rated predecessor, the M14, was a weapon that honestly, never should have existed. When NATO decided they wanted a common caliber, following WW2, extensive studies were conducted by both the U.S. military and our allies. The vast majority of that research positively indicated that the "ideal" infantry caliber for fighting rifles was an "intermediate" caliber; specifically something in the 6.5 millimeter, or .260 range. The U.S. Army Ordnance Corps, in its infinite wisdom and hidebound by the American "rifleman" tradition, refused to believe the evidence and insisted on retaining a full-power rifle cartridge. Wanting to keep the .30 caliber energy of the M1 Garand, but in a removable box magazine-fed rifle, they developed and settled on, the 7.62x51, or .308 Winchester round. NATO was brow-beaten into accepting that, due to the influence of the U.S. military. The Ordnance board went on to test proposed weapons in the new caliber. Most notable amongst these was the Belgian Fusil Automatique Leger (Light Automatic Rifle), the FAL, and the rifle that would become the M14. The FAL inarguably won the competition, multiple times, but the Ordnance Board, putting U.S. industrial pride before the weapons needs of the fighting man, chose the T44, which was adopted as the M14.
The FAL of course, went on to be adopted by over 90 different NATO armies and became known as "Freedom's Right Arm." The M14 served as the U.S. military's primary fighting rifle from its time of adoption in 1957, until it was retired in favor of the M16 in 1964 (although the USMC continued to issue the M14 to some degree until 1968 for use in Vietnam); less than a decade. It's long, heavy, has poor ergonomics, and the weight of the .308 cartridge limited the doctrinal "basic load" of ammunition.
The M14 continued in limited special operations use as the M21 sniper system. The M14 has been resurrected during the GWOT through its application in the Squad Designated Marksman (SDM) role, at ranges beyond the typical infantryman's marksmanship limit of 300 meters (Yes, I am aware the Marine Corps teaches BRM out to 500M. That doesn't change the reality in the field that even amongst 0311s, most can't hit shit beyond 300M under combat conditions). This is especially ironic, since there are numerous accounts of individual shooters making solid, one-shot kills with M4s, at ranges well beyond the 500M doctrinal point target maximum effective range of the M4. The M14, ultimately, was a weapon that never should have been adopted, firing a cartridge that the world's military forces never really needed (even in the sniper role).
The M16's Birthing Problems
The M16, from its earliest days of use in Vietnam, has been held in abject contempt by many, for many reasons (not all of them lacking in merit). The Stoner design has, however, managed to outlive every single one of its predecessors. It is the longest-serving rifle in American military history. There's a reason for that: it works, and well.
When the military adopted the M16, Armalite, who Stoner had originally designed the weapon for, had sold the patents to Colt. In an effort to lower production costs, thus increasing profits (seldom a sin in the corporate world...That's what businesses are supposed to do after all: make a profit for the shareholders. Just preferably, not at the expense of people's lives), Colt ignored Stoner's design parameters and began manufacturing the new weapon without the chrome-lined barrel and chamber (Today, some companies still manufacture new AR-15s without chrome-lined barrels and chambers, claiming it results in a more accurate rifle. While this may or may not be true, a chrome-lined barrel is more reliable and longer-lasting). In the humid and wet jungles of Southeast Asia, the burned powder residue in the chamber and barrel would absorb the moisture and quickly pit the insides. As cartridges were fired, they fire-form to the shape of the chamber, pitting and all. This quickly leads to stuck cases, and the resultant dead Marines, killed with cleaning rods shoved in the muzzles as they tried to unfuck their weapons in the middle of a fight.
Further, the Ordnance Board changed the powder used, contrary to Stoner's design parameters. This lead to increased fouling and reduced performance. Basically, the birthing problems resulted from people fucking around with the engineer's design.
After Congressional review, thanks to innumerable complaints from serving servicemen and their families, both of these were quickly remedied. The complaints along these lines were certainly merited. You fuck with a design and it kills people, you deserve to get fucked in the ass by a very well-endowed convict. Colt of course, maintained the contracts and simply fixed what they were told to fix.
In the early 1980s, in an effort to further improve the basic M16A1 series, and utilize the Belgian designed SS109 62-grain round (we'll get into that in a minute), the barrel was changed to a heavier barrel, with a different rifling twist, to stabilize the heavier cartridge. The fire control group went from being select-fire between semi-automatic and full-automatic to semi-automatic and a bizarre and fundamentally useless three-round burst. The sights were also changed.
The SS109, adopted by the U.S. as the M855 (commonly referred to as "green tip"), was specifically designed with a tungsten penetrator cored projectile to punch through Soviet body armor of the era. It was designed to function in the Belgian's Minimi machine gun, also adopted by the U.S. as the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW), not a rifle. Nevertheless, it was adopted for both the SAW and the M16A2.
In 1993, during Operation Gothic Serpent, U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF), most notably Task Force Ranger, noticed that the M855 round had a disturbing tendency to punch straight through the Somali militiamen they were trying to kill. Solid hits that should have been solid kills, were leaving pin-prick holes at CQM ranges.
The M855 projectile is designed to yaw dramatically after it penetrates the human body, fracture at the cannelure, and cause massive trauma as a result of multiple permanent wound channels. Unfortunately, due to the very slight physical structure of starving Africans, the rounds were punching all the way through, before they began to fracture. This is obviously a bad thing. (I've personally never had a problem with it. Everyone I shot with M855 seemed to stay the fuck dead, as long as I punched them where they needed to be hit). This led to the development of the MK262 round, with a 77-grain open-tip match (OTM) bullet, and a newer round, the MK316, a 62-grain round, also with an OTM projectile.
These rounds have increased the accuracy potential of the M4 platform, while also increasing it's maximum effective range.
One old variant of the M16 rifle system was the XM177 which became the CAR-15. In the early 1990s, this was re-developed into the M4 SOPMOD (Special Operations Peculiar, Modular). It featured the M16A2's heavier barrel, in a shorter, handier 14.5-inch length, a collapsible stock like the CAR-15, and a removable carrying handle with M1913 rails, designed to the Picatinny arsenal standards. This allowed the end-user to modify the weapon with various modular accessories, to suit different mission needs. By the beginning of the War on Terror, this had been adopted as a replacement for the M16A2 by most of the Army, and is now generally THE standard issue rifle of the U.S. military (with Marine Corps still issuing the full-size rifle in the M16A4 variant).
The M4 is fast-handling for close-range urban fights, lightweight enough to be carried all day long up and down the mountains of Afghanistan, and still packs an adequate punch.
So, with that very brief look at the history and development of the longest-serving infantry rifle in American history, where do I stand?
I ran the M16A2, the CAR-15, and the M4 as a soldier, at different times. I have somewhere in the millions of rounds fired through the M16/AR15 platform over the last twenty years, both in training and combat. I have run it with the older M193 55-grain round and the M855 62-grain green tip. It has never failed me; NEVER.
Common complaints about the AR15/M16/M4.
- It's a "varmint round" and is insufficient for killing human beings. Yet, more people have been killed with the M16 than were ever killed with the M14. No shoulder-fired rifle is a magic talisman. Anyone who feeds you the line that .308 is a one-stop killing machine is lying to you. I've watched bad guys hit with multiple rounds of .308 keep coming, just like I've watched bad guys hit with 5.56 keep coming. Shot placement, shot placement, shot placement. You punch two or three or four rounds through a guy's upper thoracic cavity, hips, or head, and he IS going to stop being a threat. I don't care if you're shooting a fucking .22LR! Never, ever assume that one, or two, or three rounds is adequate. You keep shooting the motherfucker until he's on the ground, and no longer poses a threat, whether it's one round or ten rounds. Don't try and tell me that 5.56 won't kill people, I've seen it and I've done it.
- It's not any good past 75 yards, because it loses too much velocity to ensure fracture at the cannelure. There's some truth to this. No, the round isn't going to fracture and cause massive hemorrhage at 500 yards, the way it will at 50 yards. It will create holes however. Holes mean the bad guy bleeds. Multiple holes (remember that whole thing about not expecting one round to do the job?) means he bleeds more quickly. If you're accurate with your marksmanship, he's not just bleeding, but has a punctured lung or two, a ruined femoral artery, or a broken femur. Anyone of those is going to very quickly take the fight out of anyone, with very limited exceptions (do a web search for the award citation for SSG John Wayne Walding, 7th SFG). The ability to utilize precision, aimed fire is far more critical to battlefield success than what size your penis...er...caliber...is.
- It shits where it eats. Yes, you will have more fouling with a direct-gas impingement system weapon than with a piston-driven gun like the AKM. A dirty gun CAN be a source of malfunctions. However, Pat Rogers' EAG training school has a Bravo Company Manufacturing rifle that has well over 30,000 rounds through it without ever having been cleaned. It still runs flawlessly. If you lube the M4 it will continue to run. The old adages about running it dry were wrong (and I don't give a fuck what your daddy, granddaddy, or drill sergeant told you!). It's like a woman: the wetter you keep it, the better it will serve you. In classes people are still amazed at how much lube I use on my weapon. When a student's rifle starts shitting the bed, I add lube...lots of lube. 99% of the time, it fixes the problem (except that one time, when the hammer spring was in backwards and it took us a bit to figure out why the hell the weapon wouldn't fire a round...I'd actually never seen that before). I've never had a problem with my weapons malfunctioning from being too dirty. Of course, I lube the shit out of them, and clean them as frequently as possible (in the field this may be no more than a thorough wiping down of the bolt-carrier group and a patch or two down the barrel).
- It's only a 200/300/500 meter gun; my M1A will shoot to 1000 easily. BULLSHIT. Number one, most .308 rounds go transonic (cross back below the sound barrier), well before 1000 meters, meaning the round loses it's stability, and thus accuracy. You CAN learn to shoot .308 to 1000 meters, but you can also learn to shoot 5.56 to 1000 meters. Don't believe it? Look at the records of Service Rifle competition...There are numerous accounts of solid hits at 600, 700, and 800-plus meters from both Iraq and Afghanistan with M4s. I personally know at least a dozen guys who have made these shots in combat. I've made hits in excess of 500 meters in combat. I can consistently hit E-type silhouettes at 400 and 500 meters, with iron sights, all day long. With optics, I can reduce those to upper thoracic cavity shots, and still get hits out to 600+, under field conditions.
- The AKM is more reliable and has better lethality. The Kalashnikov was designed to be operated by illiterate, third-world peasants with minimal training. It is not, and never was, intended to be a precision weapon (there's a reason the safety selector switch goes to full-auto before it goes to semi-auto!). The 7.62x39 cartridge has the external ballistics of roughly the .30-30. It's a 200 meter round. Yes, there are guys that can hit further out with it. I'm among them. I can make hits at 200 meters standing (and at 100 meters while moving) with the AKM, and have made hits out to 300 consistently, with occasional success out to 400. It's beyond the technical limitations of the round however, and with the exception of some of the newer U.S.-manufactured weapons with U.S. made barrels, beyond the limitations of the rifle. As far as lethality? Not so much. At CQM ranges, it makes a slightly larger hole (specifically about 7/100ths of an inch larger in diameter). It delivers more weight into the target. But it does not kill any better, or worse, than the 5.56.As far as reliability? I've never had an AK-variant fail to work, but then, I've never had an M16/M4/AR15 shit the bed on me either...Further, the ergonomics of the Stoner design are far beyond those of the AKM. Reloads are faster and more intuitive, the safety is in a far more logical and efficient position, and the charging handle on the Stoner weapon is faster and more efficient to operate.
- The 5.56 won't punch through cover as well as heavier rounds. What kind of cover? A cinder block wall? Earthen berms? Sandbags? Automobiles? Body armor? I've put 5.56 rounds through all of them, depending on the thickness, and even the vaunted .308 won't punch through a thick enough earthen berm or sandbags...(remember, M855 was designed to punch through armor, and hell, 115-grain 9mm ball will punch all the way through a vehicle). In a one-on-one gunfight, the ability to punch through some light cover MIGHT be a factor. In a small-unit action? It's less critical. the purpose of the support-by-fire element is to kill the enemy, but more important is to keep the enemy from killing the maneuver element. If the bad guys are hiding behind cover, guess what? They're not shooting at your buddies.
- The magazines are weak and cause malfunctions. When Stoner designed the M16, the magazines were DESIGNED TO BE AN EXPENDABLE ITEM! They were supposed to be pre-packaged with ammunition already loaded in them at the factory, palletized, and shipped to the war zone. Guys were supposed to get reloads already in their magazines, shoot them empty, and leave them laying on the battlefield. That's why they're made out of fucking aluminum. Then some logistics guy decided maybe they could save the Army some money by having guys re-use the magazines. So, they did. Unfortunately, in the way of any bureaucracy, this quickly led to magazines being used until they were past their serviceable lifespan. Aluminum is an extremely malleable metal. It bends pretty easily. Well, if your feed lips are bent on that quintessential American gun of lore, the 1911, guess what happens? It fucks up. Same-same with the M16 magazines, except they were designed to be aluminum which bends much easier than steel. Steel mags have a longer service life, because they're less likely to bend. Polymer mags, at least the higher end ones like the PMag, don't bend at all, the feed lips will break before they bend. While that sucks, at least you can SEE that it's fucked up, and discard the magazine. So, to overcome this problem? Test-fire your magazines. If a mag fails, throw it away and replace it. Stockpile plenty of magazines NOW, while you still can. In the long term, they are all going to go bad. Guess what though? The government owns MILLIONS of them. Re-supply, during the coming unpleasantness, WILL be available.
Guys, here's the skinny. I've run FALs, G3s, M14s (real M14s, not M1As), and run them all well. I can run a stock AK as well as damned near anyone, and better than most guys run AR15/M4s. Yet, I still choose to run the M4.
Part of that is simply the fact that I've got more rounds through the platform than all others combined. Muscle memory, familiarization, and all that...I could overcome that though, if I switched over and trained on one of the others exclusively. Yet, I continue to run the M4. Granted, it's the weapon of the U.S. military and much of law enforcement, so there's the whole compatibility issue. I can ALWAYS get a re-supply of ammunition and magazines. Mostly, I run the M4 because I LOVE the weapon, and I TRUST the weapon. It's never failed me.
I don't care what YOU choose to carry and use. Just know, there's a reason that most of the special operations forces of the "free" world choose the M4. Because it works really well for killing people.
Somewhere in the Mountains