“The M4 Rifle is a Terribly Flawed Weapon”

An M4A1 carbine with an ACOG sight.
So said a major general to the Senate Armed Services committee, adding that the "American penchant for arming troops with lousy rifles has been responsible for a staggering number of unnecessary deaths.” Here is an example of an M4A1 carbine with an ACOG sight.web photo

It looks like the U.S. military might finally be moving away from the M4 platform as the go-to infantry rifle, possibly in favor of something chambered for a larger round, marking a move away from the 5.56 as well.

In a statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales leveled some serious concerns about the M4 family of rifles, and to the lengthy, expensive, and some say unnecessary process of updating military firearms in general, according to the text posted by outdoorhub.com.

He laments that, since World War II, a military that has prided itself on being the most technologically advanced in the world has essentially ignored the most basic, on-the-ground weapons that infantry use the most for decades—which is a significant problem since infantry incur about 80 percent of battlefield casualties. Scales alleges that insufficient or malfunctioning guns have led to too many of those deaths.

“They died because the Army’s weapon buying bureaucracy has consistently denied that a Soldier’s individual weapon is important enough to gain their serious attention,” Scales said in his statement, before noting that the “Ma Deuce” 50-caliber machine gun is about to hit its 100th anniversary and it still in service.

Most of the issues outlined in Scales’ statement hit on major problems with the acquisition process by which the U.S. Army chooses its guns, most recently highlighted by the the X17 trials, a new handgun for soldiers that will replace the M9, in service since 1985.

We followed the long and expensive trials, which resulted in the Army choosing the Sig Sauer P320 as its new sidearm. The duration of the trial puzzled many, who said the Army could have simply chosen a gun that has been combat proven, like the Glock.

“The Army’s Acquisition Community wasn’t able to select something as simple as a pistol. After eight years and millions of dollars the only product they produced was a 400-page written “Request for Proposal” for an off the shelf commercial pistol,” Scales said.

He then moved on to rifles, saying, “The most horrific story has to be the one about the rifle. During my 35 years in the Army, it became clear to me that from Hamburger Hill to the streets of Baghdad that the American penchant for arming troops with lousy rifles has been responsible for a staggering number of unnecessary deaths.”

The M16 was introduced in the late 1960s at the start of the Vietnam War, nearly 50 years ago. It replaced the M14, a box-magazine fed update of the venerable M1 Garand, chambered in .308 Win. The rifle was intended to be small and handy, utilizing composite materials and chambered for the small and fast 5.56 round. The idea was that the round’s speed and the fact that its size would allow troops to carry more ammo would make up for its lack of mass—a plan that Scales says hasn’t panned out.

The original issued M16, designed by Eugene Stoner, was hated on the battlefield. The gun had furniture not ready for jungle climates, it lacked the chrome lining on the bore and chamber, which allowed jams to become frequent, a problem exacerbated by ammo using propellant that burned extremely dirty. Soldiers were told their new rifle didn’t need to be cleaned (and it was famously first issued without a cleaning kit), when the reality was the rifle’s small parts needed cleaning more than other rifles.

Though those problems were mostly attributed to changes made from Stoner’s original design and had been patched with the M16A1, A2, and subsequent models, the rifle remains largely unchanged and it is still limited by the performance capabilities of the 5.56 round.

"The M4 rifle is a terribly flawed weapon," Scales said in his testimony, according to this story from stripes.com, as he recalled carrying the M16 in Vietnam.

“Not all the problems with the M16 can be blamed on the Army. Buried in the M16’s, and now the M4’s, operating system is a flaw that no amount of militarizing and tinkering has ever erased,” Scales said. “Stoner’s gun cycles cartridges from the magazine into the chamber using gas pressure vented off as the bullet passes through the barrel. Gases traveling down a very narrow aluminum tube produce an intense “puff” that throws the bolt assembly to the rear, making the bolt assembly a freely moving object in the body of the rifle. Any dust or dirt or residue from the cartridge might cause the bolt assembly, and thus the rifle, to jam.”

Of course, there are many AR-platform rifles on the market that use piston systems that don’t blast barrel gases into the rifle’s chamber instead of Stoner’s direct impingement system, but they certainly aren’t general issue. Since they are exempt from the acquisition process of the Army, Special Operations groups like the Navy SEALs can select or requisition pretty much any gun they want, so various updated versions of the M16 platform have been fielded and tested in combat, further highlighting the M4’s shortcomings.

“…Front line Army and Marine riflemen still fire weapons much more likely to jam than the AK-47,” Scales said. “In the open terrain of Afghanistan, the M4 is badly out ranged by Taliban weapons manufactured before the First World War.”

So what should the Army be looking for?

Scales went on to say a new infantry weapon should be modular, with multiple configurations assembled off a single chassis, allowing it to perform as a rifle, a carbine, a light machine gun or a infantry automatic rifle—which sounds a lot like the Stoner 63 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoner_63#Deployment, a weapon platform created by Eugene Stoner in the early 1960s that saw limited combat use by U.S. forces in Vietnam. It became a favorite of Navy SEALs and Marines who got their hands on them, though the gun was seen as difficult to maintain and overly complex.

He also said the 5.56 is “too small for modern combat. Its lack of mass limits its range to less than 400 meters. The civilian version of the 5.56mm bullet was designed as a varmint killer and six states prohibit its use for deer hunting because it is not lethal enough to ensure a quick kill.”

The best caliber for the next generation rifle lies between 6.5 and 7mm, according to Scales, who likes the Remington 270.

Whenever anyone talks about upping the caliber for the military, the first consideration is weight, since bigger rounds mean heavier cartridges, and that means fewer rounds per ounce carried by a given infantryman, the very problem the 5.56 was supposed to solve.

Scales says new, larger cartridges could be made almost as light as the brass-cased 5.56 by "using a plastic shell casing, which is now in final development by the Marine Corps."

Later in his statement, Scales said suppressors should be attached to every infantry rifle to reduce noise and muzzle flash and that electronic targeting systems, like Tracking Point, should be implemented.

But wouldn’t fielding a new rifle for the entire U.S. Army be extremely expensive? The Army says it will cost about $2 billion to outfit every soldier with a new rifle.

Scales says, if the Army follows the Special Forces model, it would cost much less.

He said if the Army and Marine Corps bought new rifles only for the 100,000 infantry who use them in combat at $1,000 each, the cost would be about $100 million—the price of a new fighter jet— with the current stockpile of M4s and M16s held in reserve for use by non-infantry personnel.

Scales ultimately asked the committee to authorize $100 million to support an open competition to develop a new family of small arms that would last a year and to be overseen by ground combat arms officers and non-commissioned officers and run by the Ground Service Chiefs and the Commander, Special Operations Command with no acquisition agencies involved.

If they follow his recommendation, we may see the U.S. Army adopt a new infantry service rifle in the next couple years.