A Dissection Of (Yet) An(other) M4 Hit Piece


    The AR-15 family of rifles was accepted into US service under strange circumstances. In 1962, Ordnance – previously in charge of rifle and ammunition procurement – was abolished by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and the offices themselves restructured under the new Army Materiel Command, followed closely by the adoption of the AR-15 by the Air Force to replace M2 Carbines. In 1963, the order was handed down to stop the production of the troubled M14 rifle, and in February of 1963, McNamara approved procurement of the AR-15, warts and all, for the US armed services.

    This sequence of events left a lot of people out in the cold, and it’s partly from this that a lot of the discontent with the AR-15 family of weapons stems. As a result of controversy both online and off, sensationalist journalism regarding the weapons, such as this article from The Atlantic, is not uncommon. From time to time, it is necessary to respond to such pieces, so that a more sober discussion of the subject can occur.

    The rifle that today’s infantry uses is little changed since the 1960s—and it is badly flawed. Military lives depend on these cheap composites of metal and plastic. So why can’t the richest country in the world give its soldiers better ones?

    I suppose you have to have a catchy subtitle.

    A custom M4, similar to the one used by infantry today. The M4 is a lighter version of the M16, which killed so many of the soldiers who carried it in Vietnam. (Adam Voorhes)”

    I am not sure why he chose a picture of a civilian AR-15 with a Slidefire stock. Presumably because he isn’t very familiar with the subject he is writing about.

    One afternoon just a month and a half after the Battle of Gettysburg, Christopher Spencer, the creator of a seven-shot repeating rifle, walked Abraham Lincoln out to a grassy field near where the Washington Monument now stands in order to demonstrate the amazing potential of his new gun. Lincoln had heard about the mystical powers of repeating rifles at Gettysburg and other battles where some Union troops already had them. He wanted to test them for the rest of his soldiers. The president quickly put seven rounds inside a small target 40 yards away. He was sold.

    But to Army bureaucrats, repeaters were an expensive, ammunition-wasting nuisance. Ignorant, unimaginative, vain, and disloyal to the point of criminality, the Army’s chief of ordnance, General James Wolfe Ripley, worked to sabotage every effort to equip the Union Army with repeating rifles, mostly because he couldn’t be bothered. He largely succeeded. The Civil War historian Robert V. Bruce speculated that had such rifles been widely distributed to the Union Army by 1862, the Civil War would have been shortened by years, saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

    It’s difficult to be patient with nonsense like this. In particular, the bit about General Ripley not wanting to be bothered, and so working tirelessly to sabotage the repeating rifle is a stand-out piece of doublethink.

    Ripley’s bureaucratic victory over Lincoln was the beginning of the longest-running defense scandal in American history. I should know. I was almost one of Ripley’s victims. In June of 1969, in the mountains of South Vietnam, the battery I commanded at Firebase Berchtesgaden had spent the day firing artillery in support of infantry forces dug into “Hamburger Hill.” Every person and object in the unit was coated with reddish-brown clay blown upward by rotor wash from Chinook helicopters delivering ammunition. By evening, we were sleeping beside our M16 rifles. I was too inexperienced—or perhaps too lazy—to demand that my soldiers take a moment to clean their guns, even though we had heard disturbing rumors about the consequences of shooting a dirty M16.

    At 3 o’clock in the morning, the enemy struck. They were armed with the amazingly reliable and rugged Soviet AK‑47, and after climbing up our hill for hours dragging their guns through the mud, they had no problems unleashing devastating automatic fire. Not so my men. To this day, I am haunted by the sight of three of my dead soldiers lying atop rifles broken open in a frantic attempt to clear jams.

    With a few modifications, the weapon that killed my soldiers almost 50 years ago is killing our soldiers today in Afghanistan. General Ripley’s ghost is with us still. During my 35 years in the Army, it became clear to me that from Gettysburg to Hamburger Hill to the streets of Baghdad, the American penchant for arming troops with lousy rifles has been responsible for a staggering number of unnecessary deaths. Over the next few decades, the Department of Defense will spend more than $1 trillion on F-35 stealth fighter jets that after nearly 10 years of testing have yet to be deployed to a single combat zone. But bad rifles are in soldiers’ hands in every combat zone.

    Yes, US arms procurement was in shambles during Vietnam. The M14 had just bitten the dust, and soldiers were sent to war with a weapon and a brand new kind of ammunition that were both in a developmental stage at best. All new equipment will have problems, and the AR-15 was very, very new for the way in which it was being used. He further says the “weapon that killed his soldiers” (I believe that was the enemy, actually – the weapons failed his soldiers) is still at it today “with a few modifications”. That would be less misleading if the rifles in service today were literally modified original production M16s; they are not.

    In the wars fought since World War II, the vast majority of men and women in uniform have not engaged in the intimate act of killing. Their work is much the same as their civilian counterparts’. It is the infantryman’s job to intentionally seek out and kill the enemy, at the risk of violent death. The Army and Marine Corps infantry, joined by a very small band of Special Operations forces, comprises roughly 100,000 soldiers, some 5 percent of uniformed Defense Department employees. During World War II, 70 percent of all soldiers killed at the hands of the enemy were infantry. In the wars since, that proportion has grown to about 80 percent. These are the (mostly) men whose survival depends on their rifles and ammunition.

    In combat, an infantryman lives an animal’s life. The primal laws of tooth and fang determine whether he will live or die. Killing is quick. Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq reinforces the lesson that there is no such thing in small-arms combat as a fair fight. Infantrymen advance into the killing zone grimy, tired, confused, hungry, and scared. Their equipment is dirty, dented, or worn. They die on patrol from ambushes, from sniper attacks, from booby traps and improvised explosive devices. They may have only a split second to lift, aim, and pull the trigger before the enemy fires. Survival depends on the ability to deliver more killing power at longer ranges and with greater precision than the enemy.

    What silliness! I am not sure who he expects to win over by all but calling infantrymen “animals”. I am further not sure how he believes a Pashtun with an antique bolt-action rifle and iron sights is more capable of delivering long-range fire than a US infantryman with a modern rifle and optics, much less, say, an 84mm recoilless rifle.

    Any lost edge, however small, means death. A jammed weapon, an enemy too swift and elusive to be engaged with aimed fire, an enemy out of range yet capable of delivering a larger volume of return fire—any of these cancel out all the wonderfully superior and expensive American air- and sea-based weapons that may be fired in support of ground troops. A soldier in basic training is told that his rifle is his best friend and his ticket home. If the lives of so many depend on just the development of a $1,000, six-pound composite of steel and plastic, why can’t the richest country in the world give it to them?

    Because glossy multi-fold brochures and slick marketing do not a superior infantry weapon make.

    The answer is both complex and simple. The M4, the standard carbine in use by the infantry today, is a lighter version of the M16 rifle that killed so many of the soldiers who carried it in Vietnam. (The M16 is still also in wide use today.) In the early morning of July 13, 2008, nine infantrymen died fighting off a Taliban attack at a combat outpost near the village of Wanat in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province. Some of the soldiers present later reported that in the midst of battle their rifles overheated and jammed. The Wanat story is reminiscent of experiences in Vietnam: in fact, other than a few cosmetic changes, the rifles from both wars are virtually the same. And the M4’s shorter barrel makes it lesseffective at long ranges than the older M16—an especially serious disadvantage in modern combat, which is increasingly taking place over long ranges.

    What does he propose as an alternative? Perhaps we should issue a seventeen-pound light machine gun with many spare heavy profile barrels to every infantryman. Wasn’t it he above who says every small advantage makes a difference in combat? I suspect weight matters, so where is the magical lightweight solution to soldiers firing their weapons like machine guns, and why does it require the scrapping of tens of thousands of recently-purchased rifles and carbines?

    The M16 started out as a stroke of genius by one of the world’s most famous firearms designers. In the 1950s, an engineer named Eugene Stoner used space-age materials to improve the Army’s then-standard infantry rifle, the M14. The 5.56-mm cartridge Stoner chose for his rifle was a modification not of the M14’s cartridge but of a commercial Remington rifle cartridge that had been designed to kill small varmints. His invention, the AR‑15, was light, handy, and capable of controlled automatic fire. It outclassed the heavier, harder-recoiling M14. Yet the Army was again reluctant to change. As James Fallows observed in this magazine in 1981, it took the “strong support” of President Kennedy and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to make the Army consider breaking its love affair with the large-caliber M14. In 1963, it slowly began adopting Stoner’s invention.

    With a paragraph so riddled with errors, it’s difficult to choose where to begin. First, the M16 is not a variant of the M14. Perhaps this is a grammatical mistake, but if so it’s a fairly serious one, as while the author may not be a small arms expert, he is at least paid for his writing. Second, Stoner did not choose the 5.56mm cartridge, though he did have a hand in the design. CONARC was the body responsible for the smaller caliber, working off of research done by Aberdeen Proving Grounds. Third, the direct impingement mechanism used in the AR-15 was Stoner’s invention, the AR-15 itself was the result of the hard work of L. James Sullivan and Bob Fremont. Fourth, the Army did not “break it’s love affair with the M14”, McNamara outright forced them to adopt the AR-15, as no M14s were being made (because they had severe issues in both their production and design). The Army insisted on waiting for the SPIW, which they were sure would be ready by 1965(!), but McNamara wisely accepted the AR-15 as standard until the SPIW was ready for service (which never occurred).

    The “militarized” adaptation of the AR-15 was the M16. Militarization—more than 100 proposed alterations to supposedly make the rifle combat-ready—ruined the first batch to arrive at the front lines, and the cost in dead soldiers was horrific. A propellant ordered by the Army left a powder residue that clogged the rifle. Finely machined parts made the M16 a “maintenance queen” that required constant cleaning in the moisture, dust, and mud of Vietnam. In time, the Army improved the weapon—but not before many U.S. troops died.

    What powder? What residue? Why did this happen? Was the powder something new that had never been tried? If not, why did it work in other weapons and not the M16? The author has no answers for these questions; the mystery suits him as it supports his argument. I do have answers; The 5.56mm ended up using ball propellant because it could be most easily mass produced; ball propellants were in fact not specified by the Army, they were the only viable propellant, as DuPont had withdrawn IMR 4475 as a qualified propellant, because they could not make enough of it to specification. The powder used in the original 5.56mm ammunition, WC 846, contained calcium as an antacid agent. Some lots of WC 846 contained far too much calcium, which could have caused stuck cases in the AR-15*. The powder formulation was changed to better fit the AR-15, becoming WC 844 (which is still in use in M855 specification ammunition, though M855A1 uses the newer SMP-842 powder), and the AR-15 was given a chrome-lined bore and chamber to better handle problematic ammunition.

    *Daniel Watters’ note:

    An excess of calcium carbonate could cause fouling of the gas tube, but I suspect that the lack of brass hardness standards and corrosion in non-chromed chambers caused more issues with extraction.  Some saw the bore fouling of calcium carbonate as a net benefit as it served as an ablative coating against bore erosion.  In any case, Olin soon introduced tighter controls over calcium carbonate content and ultimately eliminated it from its Ball Propellants.

    As for “finely machined parts”, where does the (mostly forged!) AR-15 use any finer machining techniques than any other US service rifle?

    Not all the problems with the M16 can be blamed on the Army.

    Indeed, the great majority of problems that beset the M16 are the result of over-zealous or unscrupulous journalists.

    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. 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.

    The author is obviously in favor of adopting recoil-operated infantry rifles.

    In contrast, the Soviet AK‑47 cycles rounds using a solid operating rod attached to the bolt assembly. The gas action of the AK‑47 throws the rod and the bolt assembly back as one unit, and the solid attachment means that mud or dust will not prevent the gun from functioning. Fearing the deadly consequences of a “failure to feed” in a fight, some top-tier Special Operations units like Delta Force and SEAL Team Six use a more modern and effective rifle with a more reliable operating-rod mechanism. But front-line Army and Marine riflemen still fire weapons much more likely to jam than the AK‑47. Failure to feed affects every aspect of a fight. A Russian infantryman can fire about 140 rounds a minute without stopping. The M4 fires at roughly half that rate.

    I don’t think our readers will have a difficult time picking apart this paragraph; I leave it to them.

    During the Civil War, General Ripley argued, among other things, that infantry soldiers would have trouble handling the complexity of new repeating weapons. We hear similarly unconvincing arguments now. Today’s grunt has shown in 13 years of war that he can handle complexity. He’s an experienced, long-service professional who deserves the same excellent firearm as the more “elite” Special Operations forces, who have the privilege of buying the best civilian gear off the shelf if they want to.

    That is certainly the first time I have heard anyone arguing explicitly for more complex infantry weapons.

    What should a next-generation, all-purpose infantry rifle look like? It should be modular. Multiple weapons can now be assembled from a single chassis. A squad member can customize his weapon by attaching different barrels, buttstocks, forearms, feed systems, and accessories to make, say, a light machine gun, a carbine, a rifle, or an infantry automatic rifle.

    Presumably much more modularity than is already offered by the AR-15 family of weapons is needed because soldiers are easily bored, and can entertain themselves by endlessly changing their weapons from one configuration to another.

    The military must change the caliber and cartridge of the guns it gives infantry soldiers. Stoner’s little 5.56-mm cartridge was ideal for softening the recoil of World War II infantry calibers in order to allow fully automatic fire. But today’s cartridge is simply too small for modern combat. Its lack of mass limits its range to less than 400 meters. The optimum caliber for tomorrow’s rifle is between 6.5 and 7 millimeters. The cartridge could be made almost as light as the older brass-cased 5.56-mm by using a plastic shell casing, which is now in final development by the Marine Corps.

    A hit piece on the AR-15 wouldn’t be complete without a paragraph deriding the 5.56mm cartridge as a near-useless “poodleshooter” round. Hey man, poodles get pretty big!

    The Army can achieve an infantry version of stealth by attaching newly developed sound suppressors to every rifle. Instead of merely muffling the sound of firing by trapping gases, this new technology redirects the firing gases forward, capturing most of the blast and flash well inside the muzzle. Of course, an enemy under fire would hear the muted sounds of an engagement. But much as with other stealth technology, the enemy soldier would be at a decisive disadvantage in trying to determine the exact location of the weapons firing at him.

    Hiram Maxim would like a word. I do wonder how much larger (and longer) these 6.5mm wunder-caliber assault rifles would be once you attached a sufficiently large can to them to moderate the noise. I guess “every advantage matters” doesn’t include things like size, weight, and recoil.

    Computer miniaturization now allows precision to be squeezed into a rifle sight. All an infantryman using a rifle equipped with a new-model sight need do is place a red dot on his target and push a button at the front of his trigger guard; a computer on his rifle will take into account data like range and “lead angle” to compensate for the movement of his target, and then automatically fire when the hit is guaranteed. This rifle sight can “see” the enemy soldier day or night at ranges well beyond 600 meters. An enemy caught in that sight will die long before he could know he was seen, much less before he could effectively return fire.

    Perhaps he means the heavy and specialized TrackingPoint scopes. Perhaps he doesn’t know what he means.

    But infantrymen today do not use rifles equipped with these new sights. Hunters do.

    Hunters use whatever they have or can afford. I am sure some game animals have been taken by rifles with TrackingPoint scopes, but it’s hardly a common accessory for the activity. That fact, though, doesn’t really help with the sensationalist narrative, of course.

    In fact, new rifles and ammunition are readily available. They are made by many manufacturers—civilian gun makers and foreign military suppliers that equip the most-elite Special Operations units. Unlike conventional infantry units, top-tier Special Operations units are virtually unrestricted by cumbersome acquisition protocols, and have had ample funding and a free hand to solicit new gun designs from private industry. These units test new guns in combat, often with dramatic results: greater precision, greater reliability, greater killing power.

    Writing like this betrays not only an unfamiliarity with the subject matter, but also reflects a style often used to conceal dishonesty, or shield one from criticism. You see?

    The Army has argued that, in an era of declining resources, a new rifle will cost more than $2 billion. But let’s say the Army and Marine Corps buy new rifles only for those who will use them most, namely the infantry. The cost, for about 100,000 infantrymen at $1,000 each, is then reduced to roughly $100 million, less than that of a single F-35 fighter jet. The Army and the Marine Corps can keep the current stocks of M4s and M16s in reserve for use by non-infantry personnel in the unlikely event that they find themselves in combat.

    The author appears to be under the impression that rifles do not need spares, accessories, or ammunition.

    From the time of General James Ripley to today, the Army has found reasons to deny its soldiers in the line of fire the safest and most efficient firearms. It doesn’t have to be this way. A few dollars invested now will save the lives of legions of brave infantrymen and -women for generations to come.

    If this is true, what makes him believe an article in The Atlantic will be enough to change the Army’s mind?

    What use is responding to articles like this? That is a good question; there’s an argument to be made that they should be ignored instead of re-posted. However, I could also argue that nothing can stop sensationalist writing of this kind – which by its very nature is designed to attract attention and incite outrage – and so a response from more sober camps is necessary for meaningful discussion to take place.


    Special thanks to Daniel Watters, who assisted me in making this article as factually accurate as possible.

    Nathaniel F

    Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. He can be reached via email at [email protected]