Monday, July 30, 2007

M-4-gery Goings On...

Headed for A Shoot-Out

"Earlier this year, Colt lost a lawsuit claiming sole right to use the M4 designation on short-barrel AR-15 type rifles. In that decision, the court ruled that the "M4" designation had become a reference for a type of rifle, not a particular rifle manufactured by a particular firearms company. In essence, the court put the "M4" into the public domain.

That's something the Department of the Army has never done. And it appears that the Army's reluctance (some say intransigence) on considering an alternative to the M4 carbine may be headed for a fight next month as a long-awaited side-by-aide sand test hat will either settle the matter or heat up into a full-fledged fight between politicians, front-line soldiers, and Army purchasing agents who seem unwilling to admit there may be a better rifle for our troops..

At issue is the one point that critics say should be the prime factor for selecting a front-line weapon for today's warfighters: reliability. Since it's introduction in the Vietnam War, the AR-platform has been criticized as being unreliable. Many of the improvements across the years have been modifications that have addressed the question of reliability. Some - including ranking Army officials - say it is now the best choice for our soldiers. Others say it is a good rifle platform, but "good" might not be "best".

Defenders of the platform say it would cost nearly a billion dollars to replace the existing AR-15s with another weapon. Critics respond that with more than a half-billion dollars in replacement and accessory purchases ready-to-go, it might be time to pay more attention to the criticisms of troops in the field.

Field forces say the rifle is excellent when kept clean and rigorously maintained., something difficult to do in the Middle East where sand - a very fine-grained variety - gets into every crack, crevice and pore, seemingly despite anyone's best efforts to keep it out.

In combat, force movement and general conditions in Iraq, it's not always possible to keep the M4 clean.

In February of this year, there were calls for competitive procurement of 5.56 carbines. The call was cancelled (sic) when Colt, the sole provider of the M4, lowered the price. Critics complained the price change reflected the fact Colt had used its sole-provider status to overcharge the military. The Army said they saved millions through the adjustment and moved on.

Critics finally got the Army to agree to a head-to-head test when they held up budgets and confirmation of a new Secretary of the Army. Now, we're apparently close to getting a biting question answered - is there a better 5.56mm option available for our troops?

Special Forces and Delta Force are both using alternatives- including the Hecker (sic) & Koch HK416. The 416 is basically an AR-15 lower with what experts say is a superior upper utilizing a short-stroke piston system to eliminate fouling concerns of the AR. It's been tested by Delta Force in mud and dust without maintenance, and fired every day. Under those conditions, testers say the HK416 only failed 1 time in 15,000 rounds - three times the reliability levels the Army has for the M4. The HK416, incidentally, has been ready since 2004. Delta bought the first 500 production rifles - and other countries are using it as well.

The 416 upper assembly, could be placed atop the Colt lower, eliminating the need for the Army to purchase entire new rifles - or replace the existing rifles in one massive movement.

The Army, however, won't consider the partial option. With them, it's all or nothing.

Hence, the demand for open testing. Manufacturers already know how difficult it is to change Army mindsets (one observer says it took 20 years to get a single extractor spring changed - despite the problems the original part caused). Confidentially, observers say the test will be like a championship fight - you can't just outbox the champ, you have to knock him out.

The tests next month will involve the M4 and three other contenders: the HK416 M4 derivitive, the FNH US-designed Mk16 SOCOM Combat Assault Rifle (SCAR) and the previously-shelved H&K XM8 carbine.

Critics say the Army can "shade" the tests so as to minimize any potential problems for the M4.

One way would be the size of testing particulates in a dust chamber. The larger the minimum particulate, the harder to cause problems with fouling and jams. Problems in Iraq come with - you guessed it -smaller particulates.

Another is how the rifles are selected for the tests. Random testing pulls test guns out of inventories; "cherry picking" on the other hand, allows the guns to be "pre-maintained" to perform better than average.

The third way involves specifying the level of lubrication used. The Army has used "generous lubrication" to minimize problems. Advocates of testing want test standards based on either the manufacturer's manual for each weapon or the same lubrication for each weapon based on minimum recommendations of all test weapons.

The 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. Rifles will be wiped down and lubricated every 600 rounds, and fully cleaned every 1,200 rounds. Tests -and analysis- are expected to take five months.

Does this signal a backing off of the Army's position. Not according to Army spokesman Lt. Col. William Wiggins. The test, Wiggins told the media, "will be part of the ongoing Army assessment and requirements process - with the ultimate goal of continuing to provide the best possible weapons and equipment to our soldiers."

The key words in that comment would seem to be "continuing to provide" - and we'll keep you posted.

--Jim Shepherd

When they took away my M-14 and replaced it with a jamomatic plastic toy, it was full frontal shit fit time, case closed. The early 16's, and believe me when I tell you that the Marine Corps was given early M-16's, weren't good enough to be called a door stop let alone a main battle rifle. Yes, many of the outright horror stories were exaggerated and that's because what might seem like a minor pain in the ass to Mr. Chairborne Purchasing Agent was life or death to the average grunt and emotions ran hog ass wild. Lethality of the 5.56 round aside, it IS true that throughout the years the M-16 and its variants have evolved into a decent rifle. Decent isn't good enough when one is discussing a poodle shooter but I cannot see a snowballs chance in hell for any big changes. One fighting hole containing one dead Marine with an inoperative weapon means enough heads rolling to make the French Revolution seem tame, and screw it that the sandbox wrecks havoc with the innards because we've enough bad press coming out of Iraq and nobody wants even a hint of any more.

We don't need an HK upper as a temporary bandaid fix me up. We need a more powerful round in a more reliable platform. The perfect rifle has yet to be invented, comparing special-forces needs to general infantry requirements is dumber than dumb should get, and sure, Colt should get the contract to design a new battle rifle. Keep it here in America if possible, by all means. But someone please find the stones to at long last say that the love/hate affair with the M-16 is over and move on to a better weapon system. In my lifetime might be cool because then I could at least die knowing that not one more sorry ass grunt would have to make-do when making-do is for 3rd World asswipes and not the bloody United States of America.

The main battle rifle barrels keep getting shorter and shorter, but the ammunition hasn't been tweaked to account for this, and that's yet another big time snafu in waiting. High-velocity 5.56 rounds owe a lot of their lethality to raw speed, but of course. The M4's 14.5" barrel is too short to deal deadly doses of good old Yankee know-how, and lets not even go there with the H&K variants that feature 10.5" tubes.

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