U.S. Army's M4, M16, AR: A National Disgrace?

Based on the many failures and shortcomings of the standard M4 rifle, U.S. Army Special Operations Command went with the SCAR rifle. How many U.S. servicemen and women have been killed or injured because we give them lesser equipment?

The Army has been eerily silent about it. The shooting sports industry, in large measure, has failed to address the matter. Yet, the best evidence available points to how the United States has failed and is currently failing our young men and women placed in harm's way to serve American interests. It is a matter that should be of great concern, if not outrage to all Americans.

The troubled old M16 platform has had its problems from the beginning. A design mired in the late 1950's, Jim Sullivan of the original design team has denounced it. Mr Sullivan has commented, “They're right exactly where they were when we gave them the M-16 in 1960. They haven't advanced an inch. That AK-74 out-hits the M-16 by two to one on full automatic.” The U.S. Army's own testing, provoked by the efforts of Senator Tom Coburn, showed that the current M4 finished dead last in sandstorm reliability testing versus three other rifles. The M4 had more stoppages in the November, 2007 test then all three of the other rifles combined.

CBS News, on October 12, 2009, ran the story, “M4 Rifles Causing Problems for U.S. Troops
Independent Study of Wanat Battle by Military Historian Finds Widely Used Gun Can Jam at Worst Time
.” At that time, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a leading critic of the M4, said at that time the Army needs to move quickly to acquire a combat rifle suited for the extreme conditions U.S. troops are fighting in. Not much is happening quickly. Yet, U.S. Special Operations forces, with their separate acquisition budget and the latitude to buy equipment, have already replaced their M4s.

On October 30, 2009, U. S. Army weapons officials presented the proposed changes to Congress on the M4. They include:

• Adding a heavier barrel for better performance during high rates of fire.
• Replacing the direct-impingement gas system with a piston gas system.
• Improving the trigger pull.
• Adding an improved rail system for increased strength.
• Adding ambidextrous controls.
• Adding a round counter to track the total number of bullets fired over the weapon’s lifetime.

Still, little has been done, despite the widely-reported and well-known issues. Dr. Gary K. Roberts gave a concise presentation for the NDIA in 2008, titled “Time for a Change U.S. Military Small Arms Ammunition Failures and Solutions.” Dr. Roberts wrote, SALVO, SPIW, 6 mm SAW, ACR, XM29, XM8…even with modern engineering, CAD/CAM techniques, and new materials many proposed U.S. small arms and ammunition improvements cost tens of millions of dollars, years of RDT&E, and then rarely seem to ever actually reach the field.”

“Millions of dollars are poured into next generation small arms technologies with no near-term potential to improve combat capability, like caseless, telescoping, and air-burst ammo, while simple innovative incremental advances that can immediately make an impact in combat operations, like barrier blind ammunition and intermediate calibers, get minimal funding or are ignored. DOD replaces computer hardware and software every 3 or 4 years, yet does not offer the same
type of incremental improvements for small arms weapons and ammunition, despite similar costs.”

“The sacred altar of “green” ammo has sucked up tens of millions of dollars over many years in the nebulous pursuit of “non-toxic” ammunition, yet with a few COTS exceptions, has not resulted in any improvements in ammunition reliability, accuracy, or terminal performance--the factors that actually help win fights.”

“The United States made several major missteps in its search for the ideal combat rifle caliber. In the late 1920’s, the U.S. Army selected the .276 Pederson caliber produced by Frankford Arsenal as the best caliber for a new semi-automatic rifle. The .276 fired a 125 gr bullet at approximately 2700 f/s. Ordnance trials determined that John Garand’s new .276 caliber T3E2 rifle was an ideal combat weapon, however, development of the .276 rifle was halted in 1932 because of the large
remaining stocks of old .30-06 caliber M1906 150 gr FMJ ammunition left over from WWI; thus the U.S. military threw away an opportunity to adopt the superior performing .276 caliber and the M1 Garand rifle was adopted in the old .30-06 caliber.”

“Following WWII the United States Army again made a colossal weapon system selection error when it rejected the British .270 caliber 130 gr and .280 caliber 140 gr ammunition fired at approximately 2400 f/s and instead insisted on the full power 7.62 x 51 mm cartridge that offered nearly identical ballistic characteristics as the old .30-06 it replaced. Given the 7.62 mm’s extremely short life as the standard service rifle caliber, in hindsight, we can hypothesize that both
the .270 (6.8 mm) and .280 (7 mm) would probably have been ideal combat rifle calibers and might still be in use today if either had been chosen.”

“The disturbing failure of 5.56 mm to consistently offer adequate incapacitation has been known for nearly 15 years. Dr. Fackler’s seminal work at the Letterman Army Institute of Research Wound Ballistic Laboratory during the
1980’s illuminated the yaw and fragmentation mechanism by which 5.56 mm FMJ bullets create wounds in tissue. If 5.56 mm bullets fail to upset (yaw, fragment, or deform) within tissue, the results are relatively insignificant wounds, similar to those produced by .22 LR--this is true for ALL 5.56 mm bullets, including military FMJ , OTM, and AP, as well as JHP and JSP designs used in LE. This failure of 5.56 mm bullets to upset can be caused by reduced impact velocities when hitting targets at longer ranges, as well as by the decreased muzzle velocity when using short barrel carbines. Failure to upset can also occur when bullets pass through minimal tissue, such as a limb or the torso of a thin, small statured individual, as the bullet may exit the body before it has a chance to upset. Finally, bullet design and construction plays a major role in reliable bullet upset. Without consistent bullet upset, wounding effects are decreased, rapid incapacitation is unlikely, and enemy combatants may continue to pose a threat to friendly forces and innocent civilians.”

“6.8 mm offers superior terminal EFFECTIVENESS compared to 5.56 mm in all environments, including CQB & Urban, especially when fired from short barrels. Unlike 5.56 mm, 6.8 mm continues to demonstrate good terminal performance even after defeating common intermediate barriers, such as glass, walls, and automobiles, as well as loaded AK47 magazines, like those frequently worn in chest pouches by terrorists.”

Just how poor is the .223 / 5.56 compared to the 6.8mm and others? Consider the entire report by Dr. Roberts and decide for yourself: U.S. Weapons Problems.

The evidence is clear and it is overwhelming. The United States does not equip its troops with the best rifles for the job, and the rifles currently in use feature an obsolete, underpowered, fundamentally flawed, comparatively inferior and ineffectual cartridge compared to the 6.8 mm and others.

Politicians and pundits have enjoyed saying that the United States has the best-equipped, best trained, most efficient military on the planet. They are either lying or ignorant. No, the M4 despite it “improvements” is severely lacking in SIX key areas that the Army itself has identified in its report to Congress with its proposed changes. The Army's own tests show the reliability problems of the M4.

The lead designer of the M-16, Jim Sullivan, has stated that the current, 3rd generation AK-74 is far superior to what we give our troops to work with, and that if his own son was fighting in the sand he would much rather have him use an AK-74 than the problematic M4 we saddle our troops with. U.S. Special Operations Command back in 2004 understood the problems and limitations of the M4, moving away from it with the SCAR. This is of no consolation to the bulk of U.S. Army troops that are forced to rely on inferior equipment.

For over fifteen long years, the sad inferiority and “disturbing failure” of the 5.56 round has been clearly understood and loudly lamented by any wounding ballistics expert of any knowledge. Yet, nothing has been done. We forget that we are a nation engaged in war, providing a great deal of lip-service in the support of our troops, yet failing to provide them with the best tools to get the job done.

We know that, according to Army tests, the HK416 was “3.77x more reliable than the M4,” the FN SCAR “3.85x more reliable than the M4,” and the XM-8 was “6.95x more reliable than the M4.” The failure of M4 barrels confirms SOCOM objections from the Feb 23/01 report “M4A1 5.56mm Carbine and Related Systems Deficiencies and Solutions,” which concludes that “M4A1 Carbine… does not meet the requirements of SOF.”

We know the M4 is a deficient rifle. We know the 5.56 is a deficient. Aside from Senator Tom Coburn, very few seem to care while our troops are left wounded or dying due to inadequate equipment. Our nation should be outraged beyond words.

While we dawdle, while we ignore, while we debate health care and the economy, while we complain of taxes and partisan politics, we overlook those Americans who are asked to give the greatest sacrifice their country can ask of them and willingly give it.

The current M4 rifle and its cartridge are both an embarrassment and a national disgrace. Our men and women who serve deserve better and they deserve better right now. We are failing America's bravest ever deeper with each passing day.

From the Army Times: “The harsh terrain of Iraq and Afghanistan have served as proving grounds for the U.S. Army, putting to the test virtually all that soldiers wear, carry and operate.

One critical lesson has been that the M4 and M16 rifles that regular Army troops carry are dangerously vulnerable to the fine sand and extreme temperatures of those combat zones. Soldiers have had their weapons jam when they most needed them — while under fire. Keeping them clean in the combat zone requires more care than is reasonable to expect from busy, weary soldiers.

Members of Delta Force decided they wanted a weapon more reliable than the Colt-made M4 and bought a new carbine, the 416, from gunmaker Heckler & Koch. The 416 essentially is an enhanced M4 but with a critical difference: It features an operating system that better cycles the heat and gas created when rounds are fired, reducing both the rate at which the weapon jams and the wear on parts.

Though the 416 is more reliable and comparable in cost to the M4, Army leaders are not considering it for regular soldiers, saying it did not represent enough of a leap in technology. For that, they have focused on developing the XM29 Objective Individual Combat Weapon. After six years and $100 million, the weapon is deemed too heavy for the battlefield and its future is hazy. Army weapons officials say it will be well into the next decade before the Vietnam-era M16/M4 family of weapons has a replacement.”

Better than the M4, but you can't have one. So says the Army Times, referring to the H & K 416 depicted above.

Another article from the Army Times discussing the 416 from March 1, 2007, is titled “Better Than M-4, but you can't have one.” This isn't vaporware or pipe dreaming at all. We know that that the H&K 416 and the FN SCAR rifles are far more reliable than what our troops are saddled with. The first autoloading rifle to be issued in any quantity to the infantry was the M1 Garand. The M1 Garand was in service from 1936-1957, being replaced by the M14. After 21 years, it was time to move on.
Yet, the hoary M16 has been in service since 1963. In the last forty-seven years, time hasn't stood still and we know that both the fundamental rifle and the cartridge are deficient compared to several other options. Yet, nothing has been done of substance to replace the M4.

All of this inaction comes at a time when the U.S. has had no problems throwing piles of money at the private sector, bailing out Wall Street, buying American banks and debt, throwing billions into a failed automotive industry, funding new Toyota sales with “Cash for Clunkers” and stressing small businesses at the same time. Just recently, one trillion dollars has been committed for health care. The level of federal government involvement and interference in the private lives of Americans is rightly the subject of debate. It is a debate that looks to go on for years.

However, there should be no debate whatsoever about our responsibility to give our troops the best equipment possible. None. Since 2003, according to globalsecurity.org, some 35,000 American service members have been killed or wounded in Iraq. Reported on March 27, 2010, by the Associated Press: “The number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan has roughly doubled in the first three months of 2010 compared to the same period last year as Washington has added tens of thousands of additional soldiers to reverse the Taliban's momentum. Those deaths have been accompanied by a dramatic spike in the number of wounded, with injuries more than tripling in the first two months of the year and trending in the same direction based on the latest available data for March.
U.S. officials have warned that casualties are likely to rise even further as the Pentagon completes its deployment of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and sets its sights on the Taliban's home base of Kandahar province, where a major operation is expected in the coming months.”

There is no end in sight. We are a nation at war. Yet, in several ways we don't act like it. The United States' great failure in giving our troops the best equipment screams louder and louder every day. It is morally unconscionable, yet our spring to inaction persists.
How many American soldiers are left dead or wounded every year due to poor equipment? This is a question that our President and our Congress needs to address and rectify and it just can't be too soon. The lives of American servicemen and women cannot be just politics. We cannot be derelict in our responsibility to give our troops the best equipment for the job. We have failed, are currently failing, and we need to fix it. Surely the lives of Americans we place in harm's way is as important than giving out cash for a clunker? We spent $3 billion on cash for clunkers. Outfitting our servicemen with state of the art rifles would cost less than one third of that. This is all a very tiny drop in the bucket compared to the huge piles of money we are spending on so many other issues. Edmunds estimates that American taxpayers spent $24,000 per clunker, the new car of choice being the Toyota. Just what is the life of an American soldier worth?

The lead designer of the M16 series, Jim Sullivan, knows it is deficient and has said so. The U.S. Army's own tests confirm it. Members of Delta Force wanted a more reliable rifle. They got it, going with the H&K 416. United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) recognized the problems of the M4, going with superior FN SCAR-L and SCAR-H rifles. The regular soldier has been ignored and bypassed.

It was Martin Luther King, Jr., who used the phrase “remind America of the fierce urgency of now.” The fierce urgency of now needs to be applied to the aged, obsolete, problematic M4 and its weak cartridge. American troops deserve better, we can give them better, and it is a national disgrace that we have not done so.

Mathew Cox, staff writer for the ARMY TIMES, reported some of the soldier's points of view in his March 1, 2007 article:

“The stack of anonymous soldier comments that accompanied the report paints a different picture. Though there were plenty of positive comments about the M16 and M4, soldiers weren’t shy about criticizing the weapons’ reliability.

A 3rd Infantry Division soldier wrote, “The weapon malfunctions in rough conditions/hard to keep clean.”

Another 3rd ID soldier wrote, “I know it fires very well and accurate [when] clean. But sometimes it needs to fire dirty well too.”
A 25th Infantry Division soldier wrote, “The M4 Weapon in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan was quick to malfunction when a little sand got in the weapon. Trying to keep it clean, sand free was impossible while on patrols or firefights. Sometimes we spend more time cleaning the weapon than firing it.”

An 82nd Airborne Division soldier wrote, “The M4 is overall an excellent weapon, however the flaw of its sensitivity to dirt and powder residue needs to be corrected. True to fact, cleaning will help. Daily assigned tasks, and nonregular hours in tactical situations do not always warrant the necessary time required for effective cleaning.”

Elite forces also had similar criticisms of the M4.
A member of the 75th Ranger Regiment wrote, “Even with the dust cover closed and magazine in the well, sand gets all inside; on and around the bolt. It still fires, but after a while the sand works its way all through the gun and jams start.”

Self, the former 75th Ranger Regiment officer who had his weapon jam in Afghanistan, told Army Times that his unit routinely kept its M4s covered in a tent to protect them from dust and sand.
“I think it’s the sand” in Afghanistan, he said. “It’s a big problem.”

Infantry Center officials label these criticisms as purely anecdotal, and argue that there is no statistical data that shows reliability problems with the M16 or the M4.

That’s not exactly accurate, according to the Marines.
The M4 suffered significant reliability problems during Marine Corps testing in late summer 2002. According to briefing documents, Marine officials said the M4 malfunctioned three times more often than the M16A4 during an assessment conducted for Marine Corps Systems Command at Quantico, Va.

Malfunctions were broken down into several categories, including “magazine,” “failure to chamber,” “failure to fire,” “failure to extract” and “worn or broken part,” according to the briefing documents. During the comparison, the M4 failed 186 times across those categories over the course of 69,000 rounds fired. The M16A4 failed 61 times during the testing.

The Army conducted a more recent reliability test between October 2005 and April 2006, which included 10 new M16s and 10 new M4s. Testers fired 35,000 rounds through each weapon in laboratory conditions. On average, the new M16s and M4s fired approximately 5,000 rounds between stoppages, according to an Army official who asked that his name not be released.
By comparison, the 416 fires 10,000 to 15,000 rounds between stoppages in similar test conditions, Vickers said.
U.S. SOCOM would not comment on any aspect of the 416’s performance, Air Force Maj. Ken Hoffman, a spokesman for the command, said.

In addition to Delta, experts say the 416 is also in use by other specialized Army units, including the Asymmetric Warfare Group, as well as the Navy’s elite SEAL Team 6.”

CNA conducted a survey of over 2600 soldiers returning from active combat duty in December, 2006. Nearly 30 percent of soldiers in the survey, conducted on behalf of the Army by the Center for Naval Analyses, said the M4 carbine should be replaced or more deadly ammunition fielded. Among M4 users 19% said they experienced stoppages in combat. Almost 20% of those said they were “unable to engage the target with that weapon during a significant portion of or the entire firefight after performing immediate or remedial action to clear the stoppage.” That's right-- nearly 30% of these returning combat veterans want a new rifle or better ammunition. That's what soldiers in harm's way have said.

1) We know that the M4 has serious problems. The basis is the 47 “improvements” already adapted to attempt to fix the M4.

2) We also know that problems persist to the point where on October 30, 2009, U.S. Army weapons officials presented the six major proposed changes to Congress mentioned above. Neither the prior 47 improvements to this old design nor the six major changes proposed to Congress happened because nothing was wrong, or the U.S. Army had nothing else to do.

3) Members of Delta Force have recognized the inherent problems of the M4 and took action.

4) Marine Corp testing of the M4 at Quantico revealed reliability issues.

5) Close to 30% of combat veterans (of over 2600 surveyed by CNA) feel the M4 should be replaced or they should be provided with more effective ammunition. Nearly 20% of the M4 users reported stoppages in combat. M4 jamming cannot be considered at all rare or isolated.

6) SOCOM objections from the Feb 23/01 report “M4A1 5.56mm Carbine and Related Systems Deficiencies and Solutions” detail M4 problems. SOCOM has taken action, opting for the more reliable FN SCAR rifles.

7) The U.S. Army's own sandstorm testing, finally completed belatedly at the urging of Senator Tom Coburn, revealed more stoppages with the M4 than the other three test rifles combined.

The problem of the ineffectual 5.56mm cartridge has become even MORE pronounced in Afghanistan. We know this, every ballistics study since WWI confirms it, and the report Increasing Small Arms Lethality in Afghanistan: Taking Back the Infantry Half-Kilometer by Major Thomas P. Ehrhart, United States Army, shows this in great detail. We are failing our troops in Afghanistan in training and equipment today beyond doubt. We can do far better and we know it.

From Jim Sullivan, lead designer of M-16, to Delta Force, to the U.S. Marines, to comments from soldiers on the ground, to the Army's CNA-conducted survey of soldiers returning from combat duty, to SOCOM, to the U.S. Army's own testing, to the U.S. Army's proposed changes before Congress, to Major Thomas P. Ehrhart's seventy-two page monograph, the message is loud and clear: we can do better for our men and women in uniform, and we can do so right now.

The fierce urgency of now is right now. We owe Americans that serve the best we can offer, right now, and we are just not doing it.



Copyright 2010 by Randy Wakeman. All Rights Reserved.

Note: for more historical background on the M16, please see:

Saga of the M16, Part One

Saga of the M16, Part Two


Legendary Whitetails 


Custom Search