Friday, May 21, 2010

The USA’s M4 Carbine Controversy

In February 2007, “2006 Carbine Competition: What Happened, Revealed” discussed an Army solicitation for competitive procurement of 5.56mm carbines, which was withdrawn once sole-source incumbent Colt dropped its prices. The DoD’s Inspector General got involved with a critical report, but the Army dissented, defending its practices as a sound negotiating approach that saved the taxpayer a lot of money on the contract. As it turns out, there’s a sequel. A major sequel, that’s only getting bigger with time.
It seemed like a routine request. Order more M4 carbines for US forces in the FY 2007 supplemental, FY 2008 budget, and FY 2008 supplemental funding bills. It has turned into anything but a routine exercise, however – with serving soldiers, journalists, and Senators casting a very critical eye on the effort and the rifle, and demanding open competition. With requests amounting to $375 million for weapons and $150 million in accessories, they say, the Army’s proposal amounts to an effort to replace the M16 as the USA’s primary battle rifle – using specifications that are around 15 years old, without a competition, and without considering whether better 5.56 mm alternatives might be available off the shelf. Meanwhile, the M4/M16 family is both praised and criticized for its current performance in the field. 

DID explains the effort, the issues, and the options. The latest developments? The M4 and 3 competitors, including one M4 variant that can be converted from existing rifles, come out of a sandstorm reliability test – and the M4 finishes dead last, with more than 3.5x more jams than the 3rd place finisher. But the US Army publicly says that it doesn’t care. Low-grade political pressure has continued on Capitol Hill, and the Army appears to be backtracking now, with a competition that may even be open to all calibers. Is their latest information request to industry serious, or just a replay of past practices? Meanwhile, single-source contracts to Colt continue…

The M4 Carbine
M4 Carbine
M203 on M4 Carbine

The 5.56mm M-16 has been the USA’s primary battle rifle since the Vietnam war, undergoing changes into progressive versions like the M16A2 widely fielded by the US Marine Corps, “Commando” carbine versions, et. al. The M4 Carbine is the latest member of the M16 family, offering a shorter weapon more suited to close-quarters battle, or use by units who would find a full-length rifle too bulky. 

The M4 offers a collapsible buttstock, flat-top upper receiver assembly, a U-shaped handle-rear sight assembly that could be removed, and assortment of mounting rails for easy customization with a variety of sight, flashlight, grenade launchers, shotgun attachments, et. al. It achieves approximately 85% commonality with the M16, and has become a popular weapon. It has a reputation for lightness, customizability, and, compared to its most frequent rival the AK-47, a reputation for accuracy as well. The carbine’s reputation for fast-point close-quarters fire remains its most prominent feature, however. After Action Reviews done by the Marines after the early phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom revealed that urban warfare scenarios made employment of the M16A2 difficult in some situations; Marines were picking up short AK-47s with collapsible butt-stocks, or scrounging pistols for use inside buildings.

Like its predecessor the M16, the M4 also has a reputation as an excellent weapon – if you can maintain it. Failure to maintain the weapon meticulously can lead to jams, especially in sandy or dusty environments. 

Kalashnikovs may not have a reputation for accuracy, or lightness – but they do have a well-earned reputation for being able to take amazing amounts of abuse, without maintenance, and still fire reliably. The Israeli “Galil” applied these lessons in 5.56mm caliber, and earned a similar reputation. Colt’s M16 and M4 have never done so.

The original order for the M4 Carbine in the mid-1990s was a small-scale order, for a specifically requested derivative of the Army’s primary battle rifle, to equip units who would otherwise have relied on less accurate 9mm submachine guns. As such, its direct development and sole-source contract status raised little fuss. Subsequent contracts also raised little scrutiny.

So, what changed?
  1. Extended combat in dusty, sandy environments that highlighted the weapon’s weak points as well as its comparative strengths, leading to escalating volumes of complaints;
  2. The emergence of alternatives that preserve those strengths, while addressing those weak points;
  3. The scale of the current request for funding.
Nobody Loves Me but My Mother – and She Could Be Jivin’ Too…

XM29 OICW Prototype

There have been sporadic attempts to field more modern weapons during its tenure, including the unwieldy 20-or-so pound, 2 barrel, “someone watched Predator too many times” XM-29 OICW, and more recently the aborted contract for the G36-derived XM-8 weapon family from Heckler & Koch. Still, the M4’s designers could never sing B.B. King’s famous tune. 

The M16/M4 family has achieved a great deal of success, and garnered many positive reviews for its features and performance. Even its critics acknowledge that it has many positive attributes. The M4 has also attracted criticism – and at least 1 comprehensive fix.

According to briefing documents obtained by Gannett’s Army Times magazine:

“USMC officials said the M4 malfunctioned three times more often than the M16A4 during an assessment conducted in late summer 2002 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…. 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.”

In a subsequent letter to the magazine, M4 manufacturer Colt argued that the US Army had disagreed with the USMC study, then added that the Army and Colt had worked to make modifications thereafter in order to address problems found.

Gannett’s Army Times magazine also obtained a copy of Project Manager Soldier’s Weapons Assessment Team’s July 31, 2003, report:

“The executive summary said that M16s and M4s “functioned reliably” in the combat zone as long as “soldiers conducted daily operator maintenance and applied a light coat of lubricant.” 

Soldiers had their own comments, however, which were also included in the report and relayed in the magazine article:

3rd ID soldier: “I know it fires very well and accurate [when] clean. But sometimes it needs to fire dirty well too.”

25th Infantry Division soldier: “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.”

82nd Airborne Division soldier: “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.”

75th Ranger Regiment member, SOCOM: “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.”

The 507th Maintenance Company, ambushed outside Nasariyah in 2003 during the opening days of the ground invasion of Iraq, might concur with all of the above. The post-incident report released by the US Army had this to say:

“Dusty, desert conditions do require vigilance in weapons maintenance… However, it is imperative to remember that at the time of the attack, the 507th had spent more than two days on the move, with little rest and time to conduct vehicle repair and recovery operations.”

Even without those extenuating circumstances, however, there have been problems. A December 2006 survey, conducted on behalf of the Army by CNA Corp., conducted over 2,600 interviews with Soldiers returning from combat duty. The M4 received a number of strong requests from M-16 users, who liked its smaller profile. Among M4 users, however, 19% of said they experienced stoppages in combat – and 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.” The report adds that “Those who attached accessories to their weapon were more likely to experience stoppages, regardless of how the accessories were attached [including via official means like rail mounts].” Since “accessories” can include items like night sights, flashlights, et. al., their use is not expected to go away any time soon.

US Army Ranger Capt. Nate Self, whose M4 jammed into uselessness during a 2002 firefight after their MH-47 Chinook was shot down in Afghanistan’s Shah-i-kot Mountains, offers another case. He won a Silver Star that day – with another soldier’s gun – and his comments in the Army Times article appear to agree that there is a problem with the current M4 design and specifications.


SOCOM appears to agree as well. While US Special Operations Command is moving ahead on their own SCAR rifle program with FN Herstal, they’re also significant users of the M4 Carbine’s SOPMOD version. By the time Capt. Self was fighting of al-Qaeda/Taliban enemies in Afghanistan with a broken weapon, Dellta Force had already turned to Heckler & Koch for a fix that would preserve the M4 but remove its problems. One of which is heat build-up and gas from its operating mechanism that dries out some lubricants, and helps open the way for sand damage.

In response, H&K replaced Colt’s “gas-tube” system with a short-stroke piston system that eliminates carbon blow-back into the chamber, and also reduces the heat problem created by the super-hot gases used to cycle the M4. Other changes were made to the magazine, barrel, et. al. The final product was an M4 with a new upper receiver and magazine, plus H&K’s 4-rail system of standard “Picatinny Rails” on the top, bottom, and both sides for easy addition of anything a Special Operator might require. 

HK416, labeled

In exhaustive tests with the help of Delta Force, the upgraded weapon was subjected to mud and dust without maintenance, and fired day after day. Despite this treatment, the rifle showed problems in only 1 of 15,000 rounds – fully 3 times the reliability shown by the M4 in US Army studies. The H&K 416 was declared ready in 2004.

A rifle with everything they loved about the M4, and the fire-no-matter-what toughness of the Kalashnikov, was exactly what the Deltas ordered. SOCOM bought the first 500 weapons right off the assembly line, and its units have been using the weapon in combat ever since. Other Western Special Forces units who liked the M4 Carbine have also purchased HK416s, though H&K declines to name specific countries. US Major Chaz Bowser, who has played a leading role in SOSOCM’s SCAR rifle design program:

HK416: Desert Testing

“One thing I valued about being the weapons developer for Special Operations is that I could go to Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere with whatever weapons I wanted to carry. As soon as the H&K 416 was available, it got stuffed into my kit bag and, through test after test, it became my primary carry weapon as a long gun. I had already gotten the data from folks carrying it before me and had determined that it would be foolish to risk my life with a lesser system.”

Actually, they don’t even have to buy the whole gun. Christian Lowe of reports that:

“In a routine acquisition notice March 23 [2007], a U.S. Special Forces battalion based in Okinawa announced that it is buying 84 upper receiver assemblies for the HK416 to modify their M4 carbines…. According to the solicitation for the new upper receiver assemblies, the 416 “allows Soldiers to replace the existing M4 upper receiver with an HK proprietary gas system that does not introduce propellant gases and the associated carbon fouling back into the weapon’s interior. This reduces operator cleaning time, and increases the reliability of the M4 Carbine, particularly in an environment in which sand and dust are prevalent.”

But the US Army won’t consider even this partial replacement option. The Army position was reiterated in a release on April 2, 2007:

“The M4 Carbine is the Army’s primary individual combat rifle for Infantry, Ranger, and Special Operations forces. Since its introduction in 1991, the M4 carbine has proven its worth on the battlefield because it is accurate, easy to shoot and maintain. The M4’s collapsible stock and shortened barrel make it ideal for Soldiers operating in vehicles or within the confines associated with urban terrain. The M4 has been improved numerous times and employs the most current technology available on any rifle/carbine in general use today.

The M4 is the highest-rated weapon by Soldiers in combat, according to the Directorate of Combat Development, Ft. Benning, Ga. In December 2006, the Center for Naval Analysis conducted a “Soldiers’ Perspective on Small Arms in Combat” survey. Their poll of over 2,600 Soldiers reported overwhelming satisfaction with the M4. The survey included serviceability and usefulness in completing assigned missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The Cry for Competition: How Much Is That HK In the Window?


The HK416 isn’t the only alternative out there by any means – but it has been a catalytic alternative. In an analogous situation, limited USMC deployment of mine-resistant vehicles like Force Protection’s Cougar and Buffalo in Iraq, and the contrast between v-hulled casualties and Hummer casualties, led to a cascade that now looks set to remove the Hummer from a front-line combat role. The technology to deal with insurgencies that used land-mines has been proven for over 30 years – but awareness of that fact didn’t rise within the US military and among its political overseers until an obvious counter-example was fielded. One that demonstrated proven alternatives to the limited options people had previous been shown. Likewise, the use of the high-commonality HK416 has served to sharpen awareness that the M4 might not be the best option on offer for US forces.

Couple that with a major buy that looks set to re-equip large sections of the US military with a new battle rifle, and the question “what if we can do better?” starts to take on real resonance. The Army’s $375 million sole-source carbine procurement, on the basis of specifications that have not been changed to reflect these realities, is starting to raise hackles – and attract a wide spectrum of opponents.

Gannett’s Army Times quoted former Army vice chief of staff Gen. Jack Keane (ret.), who tried at the end of his tenure to update the USA’s infantry rifle with the XM-8 project, as saying:

“We are not saying the [M4 and M16 are] bad,” said “The issue for me is do our soldiers have the best rifle in their hands…. The fact of the matter is that technology changes every 10 or 15 years and we should be changing with it. And that has not been our case. We have been sitting on this thing for far too long.”

Capitol Building

An aide to Sen. Tom Coburn [R-OK] agreed, and added that the substantial price reduction created by the mere threat of an open competition in 2006 was evidence that Colt had been using its sole-source status to overcharge the government. The Senator has sent a formal letter to the Secretary of the Army requesting an open competition in order to ensure both the best deal, and the best off-the shelf rifle that incorporates modern improvements. The winner could well be Colt, said Coburn’s aide – but they should have to prove it, and earn it. “This is supposed to be a battle rifle.” He said. “We’re supposed to have a rifle that just doesn’t jam.” Impossible, of course – but one that jams far less often, and requires far less maintenance to avoid jams, while offering all of the M4’s compactness and add-on ease… that would represent a significant step forward.

Ironically, even Colt may have a better system ready to go. In a letter to Army Times magazine, Colt COO James R. Battaglini (US Marine Corps Maj. Gen., ret.) said:

“The gas piston system in the H&K 416 is not a new system. Rifles were being designed with these systems in the 1920’s. Colt proposed a piston operated weapon to the Army in the early 1960’s. Today Colt Defense has the ability and expertise to manufacture in great numbers piston system carbines of exceptional quality should the U.S. military services initiate a combat requirement for this type of weapon”

Unfortunately, fighting the Army for improvements is no easy task. Colt CEO William Keys, who is also a retired USMC General, explained out to Army Times that Colt has to build what the US Army asks for, to the Army’s exact specifications:

“If we have a change that we think would help the gun, we go to the Army… which is not an easy process, by the way. We spent 20 years trying to get [an extractor] spring changed. They just said ‘well, this works good enough.’ “

Sen. Coburn’s letter to Secretary of the Army Peter Green takes a dim view of this entire situation:

“I am concerned about the Army’s plans to procure nearly a half a million new rifles outside the any competitive procurement process…. There is nothing more important to a soldier than their rifle, and there is simply no excuse for not providing our soldiers with the best weapon – not just a weapon that is “good enough”.... In the years following the Army’s requirements document [DID: for the M4 in the early 1990s], a number of manufacturers have researched, tested, and fielded weapons which, by all accounts, appear to provide significantly improved reliability. To fail to allow a free and open competition of these operational weapons is unacceptable…. I believe the Army needs to rapidly revise its rifle and carbine requirements. Free and open competition will give our troops the best rifle in the world….”

The positions were, and are, clear. The US Army says the M4 isn’t broken, and adds that an Army-wide fix would cost $1 billion. Critics contend that these costs may be exaggerated given some of the potential solutions, and add that an army already planning to spend $525 million to re-equip the force with M4s has a moral and financial imperative to see if a better rifle exists. Meanwhile, calls about the M16/M4 had been coming in from Oklahoma, and other Senators and representatives had also been hearing from constituents on this matter. 

A second letter from the Senate on this subject was likely if the Army digs in its heels – and that letter would have far more signatures at the bottom. In the end, however, legislative tactics forced the Army’s hand.

Testing, Testing – Fairly?

ORD Rifle XM-8 Family
XM-8 Family

The issue finally came to a head when Sen. Coburn exercised his ability as a Senator to block nomination of the proposed new Secretary of the Army, until the US Army relented and agreed to testing at the Army’s Aberdeen Test Center in Maryland. Secretary Geren was confirmed shortly thereafter.

The tests included the M4 and 3 other rifles: the M4-based HK416, the FNH USA-designed Mk16 SOCOM Combat Assault Rifle (best known as FN SCAR-L), and the H&K XM8 carbine. Unlike the M4, the HK416, XM8, and FN-SCAR all use gas-piston operating systems to achieve automatic fire. The XM8 family is an very updated version of the popular G36 in use with many NATO militaries; it was slated to be the M4’s replacement, but that RFP was suspended by the Army in July 2005 and then canceled in October 2005. The FN-SCAR is a “live” program, and July 2007 marked the beginning of Special Operations Command’s operational tests of the FN-SCAR 5.56mm Mk16 and the 7.62mm Mk17, which could become its future mainstays. reported that the US Army sand tests will include 10 samples of each weapon through which engineers will fire 6,000 rounds. Each weapon and loaded magazine will be exposed to “extreme dust” for 30 minutes then test fired with 120 rounds. Each weapon will be wiped down and lubricated every 600 rounds, with a full cleaning every 1,200 rounds. The firing, collection of data and analysis of data is expected to take approximately 5 months.

ORD FN SCAR w Grip Pod Detailed
FN SCAR w. Grip Pod

One’s first reaction upon seeing the proposed testing regimen was to compare it very unfavorably with the regimen Delta Force put the HK416 through, firing it day after day without maintenance for thousands of rounds. Or even the testing HK itself uses for its HK416s. Indeed, it seems on its face to be a test designed to minimize the very weaknesses in the M4 incumbent that have triggered this controversy. Those who believe the cycle is reasonable cite 300 rounds as the soldier’s 1-day load, and say that under sand storm conditions, a once a day wipedown is the bare minimum for any weapon. Every 600 rounds is thus a safety factor of 2 against the worst possible conditions. Of course, sandstroms have a way of lasting more than one day, and when they do – as in the initial portion of Operation Iraqi Freedom – even vehicle interiors may feature a fine particulate haze.

Within its chosen regimen, there are 3 key ways the Army could choose to bias the test. One is the size of the particulate in the dust chamber – which can be made large in relative terms to lower the number of problems with fouling and jams. The biggest problems in theater are with the very fine particulates. This is especially relevant given the October 2004 report prepared by the Desert Research Institute for the US military. 

”....current chamber test methodology misrepresents real-world conditions. The character of the soils and dust collected from areas of military activity in Iraq is greatly different from the material used in current weapons testing procedures. Current procedures employ laboratory generated dust that is 99.7% silicon dioxide (i.e. quartz), contains no salt or reactive chemicals, and contains coarser particle sizes than most of the Iraq samples. Use of this material cannot simulate conditions in Iraq that have contributed to the weapons failures.”

The next item to watch is whether the rifles used are randomly chosen, or cherry picked and then pre-maintained to perform at an unusual reliability level vs. a field weapon. A third way of gaming the testing system involves the level of lubrication used. One source noted that the first dust test new M4s had 9,836 jams in 60,000 rounds – almost one jam every 6 rounds. The Army kept working on the test until they figured out a “generous lubrication” approach that used far more than the manufacturer recommended, but lowered jams to 1 in 88 rounds. A fair test must match the manufacturer’s manual for each weapon, or use the same lubrication for each weapon based on the minimum recommended among all test weapons.

UPDATES: The Tests, Reactions, and Subsequent Developments

ORD M4 Carbine Extreme Dust Test III

March 10/10: In testimony before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Air and Land Forces, senior Army officers state that [PDF]:

“We are currently taking a dual approach to improve the current weapon, the M4, as we move forward with a new carbine requirement. The Project Manager (PM) released a market survey in January 2010, seeking the best industry has to offer for improvements to the current M4. The PM expects to release an RFP soon to compete the upgrade program. Additionally, the Army will conduct a full and open competition to address a new requirement for an individual carbine. Once the Joint Requirements Oversight Council approves the new requirement, the PM will initiate the competition with the release of an RFP for comments from industry. This is the first step in conducting the competition. The Army is working with the other Services in these programs to ensure their requirements are included in our process and they are always invited to participate in the programs’ development and production.”

Nov 30/09: US Army TRADOC releases a paper by Major Thomas P. Ehrhart of the Command and General Staff College titled “Increasing Small Arms Lethality in Afghanistan: Taking Back the Infantry Half-Kilometer” [PDF]. It points out that American forces are routinely engaged in Afghan firefights beyond 300 meters, where their weapons are less effective than their opponents. Excerpts:

“Comments from returning non-commissioned officers and officers reveal that about [50%] of engagements occur past 300 meters. The enemy tactics are to engage United States forces from high ground with medium and heavy weapons, often including mortars, knowing that we are restricted by our equipment limitations and the inability of our overburdened soldiers to maneuver at elevations exceeding 6000 feet. Current equipment, training, and doctrine are optimized for engagements under 300 meters and on level terrain. 

There are several ways to extend the lethality of the infantry. A more effective 5.56-mm bullet can be designed which provides enhanced terminal performance out to 500 meters. A better option to increase incapacitation is to adopt a larger caliber cartridge, which will function using components of the M16/M4. The 2006 study by the Joint Service Wound Ballistics – Integrated Product Team discovered that the ideal caliber seems to be between 6.5 and 7-mm. This was also the general conclusion of all military ballistics studies since the end of World War I.

The reorganization of the infantry squad in 1960 eliminated the M1D sniper rifle and resulted in the loss of the precision mid-range capability of the infantry squad…. All 5.56-mm weapons are most effective when employed within 200 meters due to velocity limitations. Once contact is made, the fight is limited to machine gunners, mortars and designated marksmen. In the table of organization for a light infantry company8 only the six -M240B 7.62-mm machine guns, two- 60-mm mortars and nine designated marksman armed with either 7.62-mm M14 rifles or accurized 5.56-mm M16A4’s rifles are able to effectively engage the enemy. These weapons systems represent 19 percent of the company’s firepower. This means that 81 percent of the company has little effect on the fight. This is unacceptable.”

Jan 12/10: Heckler & Kock announces that they will begin producing civilian variants of the HK416 and the 7.62mm HK417 in a new HK manufacturing facility in Newington, New Hampshire. It’s co-located within an existing 70,000 square foot facility, and would create an American manufacturing base from which to offer military HK416s as well. EVP Wayne Weber of Heckler & Koch USA:

“It is our intention for all U.S. made HK products to equal the quality and reliability of the products made in Germany…. By establishing American-based manufacturing, we can compliment our German production and ensure that HK can be more competitive in the U.S. and comply with government contracts requiring U.S. manufacturing. HK products made in the USA will be fully compliant with federal solicitations giving preference to domestically produced products.”

Sept 17/08:’s Christian Lowe reports that that the Army issued a solicitation to industry in August 2008, asking companies to submit proposals that would demonstrate ”...improvements in individual weapon performance in the areas of accuracy and dispersion… reliability and durability in all environments, modularity and terminal performance.”

The intervening years have seen a number of new carbine designs hit the market, as well as a number of “personal defense weapons” that attempt to deliver carbine-class firepower in a weapon only slightly larger than a pistol. Most use calibers other than 5.56mm or 9mm, however, which has prevented their adoption for use by pilots, vehicle crew, and other specialists who need an extremely compact weapon. The Army solicitation also asks for ideas on a “subcompact” variant that would fit in this category.

The article quoted Richard Audette, project manager for Soldier weapons at the US Army’s Picatinny Arsenal. The Army is currently working on its carbine requirements document, and is trying to write it in a way that does not exclude other calibers:

“We’re at the point now where we’re going to go out and compete…. We’re looking for anyone that has a world-class carbine…. We’re interested in any new technologies out there…. We want to know about everything that’s out there, regardless of caliber…. If you’ve got a 6.8 [mm caliber weapon], we’re interested in that and seeing what that brings to the table.”

What the Army will insist upon, however, is production capacity. Colt can churn out 10,000 M4s per month, and in June 2009 the M4s blueprints will no longer be a Colt exclusive. Experience with ongoing M16 orders suggests that this will expand production capacity, and drive down prices. In contrast, manufacturers of weapons in promising new calibers like 6.8mm have not received large military orders to ramp up their production capacity to the same levels. Producibility is certainly a valid concern. It must be part of any fair and reasonable competition. It can also be abused to become a back door method of ratifying existing decisions, while adopting the veneer of competition. Which will it be in this case? Only time will tell.

July 11/08: reports that about 30 legislative aides signed up to attend a July 11 demonstration at Marine Corps Base Quantico. Congressional and industry sources report that the event feature the standard 5.56mm M4 carbine, plus the FN SCAR Mk17 7.62mm (SCAR MK16 is the 5.56mm version that was tested by the Army), – and a modified “M4-style MURG” rifle capable of firing a new 6.8mm special purpose cartridge round, among others. Attendees included FN-USA, HK, LWRC who offers receiver group switchouts like HK’s and adds a 6.8mm version, Barrett (REC-7 6.8mm), and Bushmaster. All reportedly avoided commercial sales pitches, and stuck to facts and demonstrations. 

Complaints persist from troops on the front lines regarding the current 5.56mm round/riling combination’s lethality. The ballistic characteristics of calibers around 6.8mm have yet to feature a breakthrough military purchase in the face of 5.56mm standardization, but these calibers are gaining growing recognition for their balance of size (can be used with M16 magazines), light weight, and knock-down power.

Participants reportedly had the opportunity to observe the effects of different caliber rounds in translucent ballistic jelly, which simulates human tissue, and to fire the weapons involved. Sens. James Coburn [R-OK] and Ken Salazar [D-CO] remain very active in this area, but the number of participants suggests that their efforts may be gaining traction despite the Army’s sensitivities and position on this issue. | American Mohist.

Late December 2007: DID obtains some exact results from the Army’s testing. The Army has now done 3 dust tests. In the late 2006/Jan 2007 report “Baseline Reliability and Dust Assessment for the M4, M16, and M249,” the M4 jammed 9,836 times – 1 jam every 6 rounds. In a May 2007 “Extreme Dust Test II”, with no competitors, the M4 had 1 jam every 88 rounds, using heavy lubrication. In the November 2007 “Extreme Dust Test III”, as DID has discussed, the competing rifles were subject to significantly more maintenance and lubrication than elite American forces like Delta used in their weapon selection process, or indeed in HK’s own field testing of its HK416s prior to shipment.

We’ll begin with the Army’s overall results, from its own release:

“Even with extreme dust test III’s 98.6 percent success rate there was a total of 863 class 1 and 2 weapon/magazine stoppages with 19 class 3 stoppages. During extreme dust test II conducted during the summer, there were 296 total class 1 and 2 stoppages and 11 class 3 stoppages. 

A class 1 stoppage is one a Soldier can clear within 10 seconds; a class 2 stoppage is one a Soldier can clear, but requires more than 10 seconds; and, class 3 is a stoppage that requires an armorer to clear.”

DID will simply point out that 10 seconds can be a rather fatally long time when people are shooting at you, and at your friends. So, what happens when the Extreme Dust Test III stoppages are broken out by weapon?
The M4 Carbine is the Army’s existing weapon.
  • 882 jams, 1 jam every 68 rounds, again using heavy lubrication. In addition all 10 of the M4 barrels needed to be replaced, and a number of their parts were replaced during the test. None of the cold hammer forged HK416 and XM-8 barrels needed replacement.
The HK416 is a modified M4 carbine, which can be and has been converted from existing rifles. Used by US Special Forces.
  • 233 jams, 1 jam every 257 rounds, 3.77x more reliable than the M4.
FN SCAR is US special Forces’ new weapon, designed by SOSOCM. It just went into production in late 2007.
  • 226 jams, 1 jam every 265 rounds, 3.85x more reliable than the M4
XM-8 is a developmental rifle. It’s an advanced version of HK’s G36, a rifle in wide use by many NATO armies. The US Army cancelled the XM-8 weapons family 2 years ago.
  • 127 jams, I jam every 472 rounds, 6.95x more reliable than the M4.
The failure of M4 barrels at 6,000 rounds confirms SOCOM objections that date back to the Feb 23/01 report “M4A1 5.56mm Carbine and Related Systems Deficiencies and Solutions,” which ended up concluding that “M4A1 Carbine… does not meet the requirements of SOF.” The barrel replacement also increases the rifle’s life cycle costs when compared with the 10,000 round advertised barrel life, as additional barrels are sold to the Army for $240 each. A longer, heavier M16 barrel, which is a competed production weapon, cost $100 by comparison. While the dust test is indeed an extreme test, the 10,000 round requirement is under “all conditions” – not just ideal conditions.

Dec 18/07: The US Army publishes “M-4 Carbine Has High Soldier Confidence Despite Test.” Not exactly a headline to inspire confidence, as the Army acknowledges that the M4 Carbine finished last among the 4 contenders – but amazingly, asserts that the rifle is just fine and shows no interest in buying even the HK416’s parts swap-out into the existing M4:

“After being exposed to the heavy dusting, 10 of each weapon fired 6,000 rounds apiece. They were fired in 50 120-round cycles. Each was then wiped and re-lubricated at the 600 round mark. After 1,200 rounds were fired from each weapon, they were fully cleaned and re-lubricated… “While the M-4 finished fourth out of four, 98 percent of all the rounds fired from it went off down range as they were supposed to do,” Brig. Gen. [Mark] Brown [commander of Program Executive Office Soldier and the Natick Soldier Systems Center] said. “However, the three other candidates did perform better at about a 99 percent rate or better, which is a mathematically statistically significant difference, but not an operationally statistical difference.”.... The Army has put an option on an existing contract for 64,450 M4s, according to the general.”

“A mathematically statistically significant difference, but not an operationally statistical difference.” Statistically, 99% is a 100% improvement over 98%. Operationally, I jam every 68 rounds is almost one jam for every 2 30-round magazines. Whereas one jam in 257 rounds would only happen about once in 8 30-round magazines. Readers are left to contemplate the operational significance of those probabilities in a sustained, serious firefight.

June 29/07: A document circulated on Capitol Hill asking for testing includes these excerpts:

“The Army has claimed “83% reported confidence that the M4 will not suffer major breakage or failure that necessitates repair before further use” – A soldier should be 100% confident that his weapon will not break the next time he fires it…. Since the M16 was introduced in Vietnam the answer has always been “It’s the soldiers’ fault”... The Special Operations Command has the most proficient soldiers in the world, they shoot the most and they operate in the most difficult environments – In 2001 SOCOM was highly critical of the reliability of the M4, and they chose to adopt a new weapon – the SCAR. Our Tier 1 units – like Delta Force, and Seal Team 6 have all abandoned the M4 for other weapons that is [sic] significantly more reliable.”

Any Last Words?

G36 Norwegians Telemark Torgeir Haugaard
G36s: Norwegian Telemark battalion by Torgeir Haugaard

Sgt. Charles Perales of Fort Bragg, NC had this to say in a letter reprinted by Defense News:

“My unit – B Company, 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment – was deployed to Afghanistan from April 2005 to March 2006. While there, we were attached to Special Forces at Camp Tillman on the Afghan border…. I saw first-hand what happens when your weapon jams up because of the harsh environments we have to call home there. An 18B weapons sergeant was shot in the face due directly to his weapon jamming. I just can’t believe that after things like this happen, the Army is still buying more M4s.

Why not rotate them like we used to before the war? All rapid-deploying units used to get the new M4, the support units would get the excess M16s and so on. I’m not saying they need to outfit the whole Army with a new weapon, but why not start phasing it in? ....Soldiers’ lives are on the line. Why is it a hassle to make an improvement that could save lives?

The M4 isn’t a bad weapon; it just needs improvements. It’s about time people stop fighting to keep things the same and start moving toward a better weapon system.”

The last word will be left to SOCOM’s Major Chaz Bowser:

“We buy new laptop computers every few years across the gamut, so couldn’t we do the same with our single most important piece of military equipment? .... Waiting for a leap-ahead technology based on a kinetic energy weapon platform is a waste of time and money, so we need to look at what is out there now…. What the Army needs is a weapon that is now ready for prime-time and not a developmental system…. The requirement comes from the field, not from an office in some garrison activity, not from some consultant and definitely not from a vendor.

Let’s do this quickly without all the bureaucracy typically associated with change. Find someone in our ranks who can make a decision – who hasn’t floated a retirement resume with a gun company – and make the decision now. Just look how fast we were all issued the ‘highly coveted’ black beret or the digital uniform. Find that recipe card, change out the word ‘Velcro’ with ‘battle rifle’ and that may be a start to finding a solution [DID: which, he acknowledges, could be Colt’s M4 if that’s what the competition shows]. Our men and women deserve much better than we are giving them, and shame on us.”

Appendix A: M4 Carbine Contracts Announced to Date

M4 carbine, firing

The following contracts concern the M4 Carbine and its variants directly; other than spare parts or magazines, all other related contracts for accessories et. al. were excluded.

Feb 2/09: Colt Defense LLC in Hartford, CT received a $9.5 million firm-fixed-price 5-year Requirements contract for 18,000 Barrel & Front Assemblies; 13,600 Hand Guards; 7,100 Heavy Barrel Assemblies; 22,000 Receivers and Cartridges; and 200,000 Extractor Spring Assemblies. Work is to be performed at Hartford, CT with an estimated completion date of Sept 28/12. US Army Tank and Automotive Command Rock Island in Rock Island, IL manages this contract (DAAE20-03-D-0191).

April 17/07: Small business qualifier Colt Defense LLC in Hartford, CT, was awarded on April 6, 2007, the full delivery order amount of $50.8 million as part of a firm-fixed-price contract for M4 and M4A1 carbines. Work will be performed in Hartford, CT, and is expected to be complete by July 30, 2008. This was a sole source contract initiated on Feb. 16, 2007 by the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command in Rock Island, IL (W52H09-04-D-0086). See also July 26/06.

Jan 22/07: Small business qualifier Colt Defense LLC in Hartford, CT received a delivery order amount of $5.6 million as part of a $24.3 million firm-fixed-price contract for Unique Spare Parts for the M4 and M4A1 Carbine. Work will be performed in Hartford, CT, and is expected to be complete by May 30, 2008. This was a sole source contract initiated on April 5, 2004. The U.S. Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command, Rock Island, Ill., is the contracting activity (DAAE20-03-D-0191).

Sept 26/06: Small business qualifier Colt Defense LLC in Hartford, CT received a maximum $10 million firm-fixed-price, indefinite-delivery/ indefinite-quantity contract for M4A1 machine guns. The M4A1 Carbine and variants will be utilized with the family of carbines that are currently in the U.S. Military arsenal. The M4A1 Carbine will come in four basic versions, which consist of longer and shorter versions of the M4A1 Carbine. Work will be performed in Hartford, CT, and is expected to be complete by September 2011. 

Contract funds in the amount of $278,300, will expire at the end of the current fiscal year. This contract was not competitively procured by the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division in Crane, Indiana (N00164-06-D-4805).

July 26/06: Small business qualifier Colt Defense LLC in Hartford, CT received a delivery-order amount of $53.8 million as part of a $242.5 million firm-fixed-price contract for procurement of M4/M4A1 carbines. Work will be performed at Hartford, CT, and is expected to be complete by Sept. 30, 2007. This was a sole source contract initiated on June 30, 2006. The Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command, Rock Island, Ill., is the contracting activity (W52H09-04-D-0086).

Jan 13/06: Small business qualifier Center Industries Inc. in Wichita, KS received a $7,712,600 modification to a firm-fixed-price contract for aluminum magazines for the M16 rifle/M4 carbine. Work will be performed in Wichita, KS and is expected to be complete by Oct. 31, 2007. This was a sole source contract initiated on Dec. 30, 2005 by the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command in Rock Island, IL (DAAE20-02-F-0022).

April 1/05: FN Manufacturing Inc. in Columbia, SC received a delivery order amount of $6.7 million as part of a $29.8 million firm-fixed-price contract for M16A4 rifle and M4 carbine. Work will be performed in Columbia, SC, and is expected to be complete by Dec. 31, 2008. There were 2 bids solicited on Dec. 20, 2004, and 2 bids were received by the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command in Rock Island, IL (W52H09-05-D-0080).

FN Manufacturing LLC writes in to say that they have won “the vast majority of M16A2, A3 and A4 contracts as well as spare parts contracts for these systems since 1989” through “full and open competition.” Having said that: ”...never was FN Manufacturing LLC, or any other small arms manufacturer, awarded M4 contracts. The M4 cannot be competed and always has been awarded sole source to Colt because of licensing rights restricting full and open competition until 2009.”

Aug 30/04: Small business qualifier Colt Defense LLC in Hartford, CT received a delivery order amount of $0 as part of a $123 million firm-fixed-price contract for 124,803 weapons in either M4 carbine or M4A1 carbine configurations. Work will be performed in West Hartford, CT, and is expected to be complete by Sept. 30, 2007. This was a sole source contract initiated on Oct. 14, 2003 by the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command in Rock Island, IL (W52H09-04-D-0086).

Jan 15/04: Small business qualifier Colt Defense LLC in Hartford, CT received Jan. 13, 2004, a delivery order amount of $4,029,095 as part of an $8,058,190 firm-fixed-price contract for M4 unique spare and repair parts. Work will be performed in Hartford, CT, and is expected to be complete by Jan. 30, 2009. This was a sole source contract initiated on Sept. 18, 2003 by the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command in Rock Island, IL (DAAE20-03-D-0191).

July 31/02: Colt’s Manufacturing Company Inc. in Hartford, CT received an $18.5 million undefinitized contracting action for 25,764 M4 carbines and 300 M4A1 carbines, in support of the U. S. Air Force, U. S. Army, and foreign military sales countries on July 30, 2002. Work will be performed in West Hartford, CT, and is to be complete by Sep. 30, 2004. This was a sole source contract initiated on June 6, 2002 by the U.S. Army Tank and Automotive Command in Rock Island, IL (DAAE20-02-C-0115).

Sept 19/96: Small business qualifier Colt’s Manufacturing Company Inc. in Hartford, CT received a $5.5 million firm fixed price contract, with a potential value of $.5 million if all options are exercised, for 9,861 M4 Carbines, 5.56mm and 716 M4A1 Carbines. Work will be performed in Hartford, CT and is expected to be complete by April 30, 1998. This is a sole source contract initiated on September 6, 1996 by the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive & Armaments Command in Rock Island, IL (DAAE20-96-C-0391).

This article can be found in its original format here.

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