Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Does the M-16 suck as much as people say it does?

C.J. Chivers, who is awesome (as we have documented in the past), has a two-part post up on the Times "At War" blog (Part 1, Part 2) about the reliability of the M-16 and M-4.

Few issues are more personal to soldiers than the question of whether they can trust their rifles. And few rifles in history have generated more controversy over their reliability than the American M-16 assault rifle and its carbine version, the M-4.

In recent weeks, a fresh round of complaints about weapon malfunctions in Afghanistan, mentioned in an Army historian’s report that documented small-arms jamming during the fierce battle in Wanat last year, has rekindled the discussion. Are the M-16 and M-4 the best rifles available for American troops? Or are they fussy and punchless and less than ideal for war?

Don’t expect a clear answer any time soon. Expect several clear answers at once – many of them contradictory. This is because when talk turns to the M-16 and the M-4, it enters emotionally charged territory. The conversation is burdened by history, cluttered with conflicting anecdotes, and argued over by passionate camps.

This much is indisputable: Since the mid-1960s, when at Gen. William C. Westmoreland’s request an earlier version of the M-16 became the primary American rifle in Vietnam, the reputation of the M-16 family has been checkered.

This isn't new territory for Chivers, who has written on small arms before for the Times and plans to publish a book next Spring called Killing Machine: A Social History of the AK-47, The Rifle of the Revolution from the Cold War to the Jihad. But I'll read pretty much anything this guy writes. Seriously, he could switch to the John & Kate Plus 8 beat and I'd be all over it.

Anyone with experience downrange have opinions on the M-16 controversy?


  1. As a non-informed person, I'd like to know whether there is a 2nd major design issue with the M4 apart from the direct gas blowback system, which wouldn't be addressed by a piston design.

  2. This is a persistent argument, but most of the issues were addressed long ago. I still hear guys who retired 15 years ago gripe about malfunctions from the M16A1. The M16 has a checkered history, but it has also seen many modifications. Maybe that's what he referred to regarding the emotional aspect.

    As for the current M4 - leaving aside the compatibility with the rail system and the less recoil that likely extends the life of the various items attached to the rail - show me an AK-47 that has fired as many rounds and taken as much abuse in the past 5 years as an M-4 that has been on the property book of an Infantry Company. Then we can begin the comparisons. If your thing is stopping power, try using the 5.56mm 77 Grain LR. Like anything else worth a damn, it was in very short supply - it was only fielded with the intent of being used by our "squad designated marksmen."

    As for the issues at Wanat: Was it the weapon or the magazine? Or was it the ammo? In the heat of battle, did the Soldier insert a magazine that was half ammo and half sand? Was the weapon damaged during the fight? Lengthier response here.

  3. If we continue using the M-4/ M-16, then upgrade them with better longer lasting barrels, piston upgrade kits, and MK 262 77gr. ammo. But that would be putting a bow on a turd in my opinion.

    All in all, I wouldn't use an M-4 to kill deer from across a canyon, nor do I think it is a good man killer. It is a great weapon for hunting rabbits or coyotes though.

    For a man killer weapon, you want something simple, ergonomic, lethal, and accurate. You also want something that is tough. The AK is alright, but the ergonomics suck, and the accuracy is lacking out past 250-300 m.

    If you want a man killer, then use something chambered in 7.62 Nato, like a FAL, G3 or an AR 10 with piston set up. Or something like an M-14. That 7.62x51mm round is a man killer, and it has punch. I also like a weapon with a rail on it, so I could easily put various optics on it.

    My choice would be any of the AR style 7.62 x 51mm shooting weapons. HK 417 is nice, but expensive. Other companies make stuff that is similar, and the arms market has plenty to choose from.

    And to prove my point, upgraded M 14's are being used in the field in Afghanistan as we speak, as are M-240's or the lighter M-48 Mod 1 machine guns. The troops love them, because it actually kills what it hits, and it has some reach.

    For logistics, if all your weapon systems are using the same round, then everyone can use each other's stuff, and everyone can engage targets all at the same distances. That is efficiency. The ammo is heavier, but with carrying less ammo, requires more focus on accuracy and being careful with what you got.

    Training with this type of weapon requires a different way of thinking. You don't spray and pray with these weapons. You use methods like the Drake Shoot in order to efficiently use the ammo you got, and to increase your squad or platoon's hit ratio. You are also able to be more effective at distance, and with optics, can be deadly.

    That is my view on the whole thing.

  4. Political junkies argue about abortion. We argue about the M4.

    I think it is an exaggeration to say this is putting a bow on a turd, or even lipstick on a pig. It’s more like buying a slutty outfit for plain Jane.

    I don’t know anyone who was not confident that their weapon would function. Our only gripe was stopping power. The 77 grain round was the solution. It was day and night. With the green tip, we got blood trails. With the 77 grain, a hit in the torso would put people flat on their back with the first round. Even if we shot some douche in the leg, he fell down and his leg was too jacked for him to get back up. Firing green tips at people was like firing them at paper targets. You leave a hole, but you don’t knock the guy down... unless you hit the cardiothoracic region, head, or pelvis. Simple enough on the range – not always in practice. Wounds to the abdomen and extremities were common. The 77 grain helped to compensate for such a marksmanship faux pas (a little French lingo for the Ink Spots crew).

    A lot of the advocacy for a newer, better weapon is an instance of le mieux est l'ennemi du bien (Voltaire). To use a domestic example, I own a Glock model 23. Nothing fancy. No tritium sites, no taclight, no modifications. It’s just a handgun. Now I guess I could go out and buy some modified, personalized, nickel-plated, Desert Eagle .50 with a bunch of gadgets hanging off of it and I’d theoretically be ready for anything. But really, what are the odds that someone wearing level IV body armor and night vision is going to invade my 6th floor apartment? My Glock is plenty sufficient, whether it is shooting intruders, shooting beer cans, or just shoring up my street cred when I’m back in da hood. Same for the M4. It’s not some super-whiz-bang $15,000 firearm. It doesn’t need to be. It needs to be reliable and effective. It is. If there is any shortcoming, it’s our green tip ammo. Start producing the good stuff already.

    There, I said it. But I suspect we’ve got a better chance of settling the abortion debate than the M4 debate.

  5. The direct gas blowback system issue is being address, but not by replacing it with a piston design. This is because the piston design solution is a bad solution.

    The problem with the piston design is that by fixing one problem it creates new problems.
    The problems with the piston design is:
    1-It is heavier than the direct gas system. Adding the piston assembly adds >1.5 lb to the weight of weapon. Just compare the weight of an M4 and an HK416 to see this.
    2-Piston design adds a mass (the piston)to the weapon that cycles back and forth with each shot. This increases recoil and, since the cycling mass is off axis to the barrel, it decreases accuracy.

    A better solution is one that solves the direct gas problem without causing the piston design problems. Fortunately, such a solution exists. The Army has been working on it for several years, and is just started to implemented it this year:

    The solution not to modify the weapon but to modify the cartidges it fires. Replace the dirty burning nitrocellulose-based powder in the cartridges with clean burning HMX-based powder. Since HMX has a higher oxidizer content than nitrocellulose, it solves the carbon buildup issue. The extra oxidier burns the carbon away. HMX also burns at a lower flame temperature reducing the heat stress issues.

    The new cartridge is call M855 LFS. The cartridge has other modifications to it to solve other issue also, but HMX based propellent is one of the features.

    So, direct gas glowback problem solved without the downsides of piston design.

  6. I'll agree with Schmedlap on this one. I had two problems with the M-4. One is the magazine - it lets in way too much dirt. I have had a problem keeping my weapon clean, but those dammed magazines just got plain filthy. And it's such a pain to unload, clean, and load a full basic load before every patrol. I will say they do function better than the M9 magazines, but it was still awful. Fully enclosed plastic magazines (such as on the Steyr) seemed to work better in dusty conditions.

    The other problem I had was in 2003 when the powers that be decided that we needed a mixture of tracer and AP rounds in 5.56. Why on earth I needed AP when I was in a tank was beyond me. But we never faced a threat that required AP, and those bullets just went straight through dudes. You could shoot a guy who was sprinting and I'm telling you he wouldn't skip a step when he took one in the torso. The wound was usually too small. I'll all for the 77 grain round in standard ball. The new cartridge sounds interesting as well.

  7. Schmedlap is right. The real debate is over stopping power.

    Inside a kill room, it doesn't so much matter, but defending against a complex SAF attack from distance (such as in OEF), there are a lot of questions about the ability to reach out and touch someone with the M4.

    Dismounted, I shredded an Iraqi insurgent vehicle doing a hit-and-run from 400m down a deserted street, but that's only because I was firing the M16A2 and NOT the M4. When you put 20+ tracer (marking mag for the IAs) into a moving target it tends to stop it (and burn it).

    I'm a fan of the M16A2 w/NATO ball round when it tumbles on impact because I've watched the combo lop off human limbs without penetrating most structures. But it doesn't work well against moderately armored insurgents or most vehicles.

    But there are trade offs. You gain range and accuracy with the M16A2 but the longer barrel can be a pain in the ass during MOUT. And they're both still 5.56mm, which limits stopping power. The infamous "dust test" pretty much told us what we already knew about jamming, which can happen no matter how perfect the conditions appear to be.

    If you go to 7.62mm in other system, you gain the weight in ammo you have to lug and might not shorten the barrel or improve the ease of operation (depending on the alternative rifle).

    For those who haven't shot the Recce, the 77-grain round is OK but you get a heavier barrel. If it were up to me, I'd give everyone the MK12.

    I used the Steyr a lot when I cross-trained with 1RAR in Queensland a zillion years ago. I thought it was superior to the M16A2 largely because it had a handy optical sight that worked surprisingly well.

    The M203 launcher was the same, if I recall.

    I was a fan of the XM8, but I no plenty who never liked the model when they tried it. When I field fired it, it didn't jam at all and seemed to have plenty firepower and reach. But I'm not an expert.


  8. The 5.56 works primarily by fragmenting, not knocking them down, and it needs speed to fragment. It doesn't get that speed from a 14 inch barrel, it was designed to work out of a specific platform (the 20 inch barrel - the Canadians have the right idea with the collapsible stock and 20 inch barrel). The 62 grain green tips were designed with the vision of shooting through Soviet body armor. The 55 grain stuff worked a lot better (you haven't lived until you've seen a man come apart after being hit with an entire CAR magazine - hydrostatic shock is a reality) against soft unarmored targets in Vietnam, and they would work better in Afghanistan too.

  9. The m16 is a series of bad/goofy workarounds and the result of the Army not knowing what it wanted. The 30 cal M14 was uncontrollable in full auto. The Army really wanted controlled full auto, so we get the 5.56 round and a rifle with the bolt/recoil buffer/stock all in line. This neccesitated a pistol grip and the sights to go up on the "carry handle". The sights now force the shooter to expose 50% more of thier face and head, the pistol grip and hollow stock made bayonet tactics useless, and the tiny bullet was ineffective. Not to mention all the tiny springs, pins, bits and small pieces that are easily lost in the field. In VietNam the Army felt that the soldiers were blowing through ammo too fast in full auto, duh. Now we have "burst" which is used now mostly on accident as it too wastes ammo. We could have saved A TON of money and hassel by just removing the full auto option from the M14 and kept that fantastic combat weapon in service. Yes the M14 is heavy in comparison but it was solid, simple, and devistating through brush, armor, trees, sandbags, etc. I would take the M14 into combat over the M16 all day everyday.

  10. After much time in the Army and years overseas I can safely say that the m-16 sucks and the m-4 is worse. Let's get something that fires when you pull the trigger, then worry about all the other stuff. "Well, you need keep it clean." For that to be effective, one would need to be cleaning the thing while on patrol.

  11. I own an SKS, its the best rifle i ever had..NEVER clean it, it hits hard, reliably each time I fire it...lets rid the m-16 and go to the AK type weapon with its good caliber. The 5.56 stinks.