Sen. Coburn on the M4
Senator Coburn raises questions about the M4 rifle.
I've no experience with one. I know that its predecessor, the M-16, had serious jamming problems in Vietnam, and I've read reports of jamming in Iraq, but no idea whether those were common or rare. While I do an AR-15 type firearm, and like it, I've always been a bit suspicious of direct gas impingement, esp. in a setting where you might have to fire off hundreds of rounds without cleaning. Might any readers have experience, or know of those with it, in this area?
UPDATE: I'd agree the cartridge is a big problem -- and least likely to be fixed soon. Changing over is a major operation (and requires coordination with NATO). Consider that in 102 years, we've only switched twice -- from .30-06 to .308, a modest change after nearly half a century, and then to 5.56mm (with lots of .308 weapons still in use).
I was involved in the Waco civil trials, and one exhibit was a revolver carried by an agent as backup. It took a hit square on the sideplate while he wore it, from an AR-15, with the old 55 grain projectile. It blew a star-shaped crater in the sideplate, a little over a half inch in diameter and maybe an eighth of an inch deep. The revolver was probably still usable. The hit knocked him down, he got up and was moving again without injury. You wouldn't see that with a .308. Of course they've switched to a heavier round with a steel penetrator tip, but that just gives a tradeoff. More penetration, but less stopping power. You can use your limited energy and momentum one way or the other.
ANOTHER UPDATE: the problem with Vietnam M-16s was the lack of a chromed chamber, and also a switch in propellant. The rifle was originally tested with tubular powder. Then they went to ball powder. As I recall the issue, the ball powder had more retardent, and thus more fouling. Jams became so frequent that they added the bolt assist to force a jamming round into the chamber (as one user remarked, how come Kalashnikov never had to add this sort of thing to the AK?)/
I own 3 ARs, all semiauto. I keep them pretty clean but after thousands of rounds of military, commercial, and reloaded ammunition, never a failure to feed, fire, or extract.
But I am not in a sand-box, nor under duress, and have the luxury of pretty high maintenance. Seems to me that a piston-driven design, that keeps carbon and other gook away from the bolt and carrier, would be inherently more reliable.
That said...this is a contentious issue (not "merely" due to the extremely lucerative contracts at stake):
Part 1 of 2 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5CQOvdYW6c
Part 2 of 2 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6L5ZXU9mr9g&feature=related
Posted by: Carl in Chicago at April 23, 2008 01:51 PM
The issues in Vietnam early on were related to a number of things, many of which involved the failure to use a chrome lined chamber (McManera's whiz kids decided that it didn't need one, over the objections of the Army). In IRAQ, the very find duct is causing problems for many semi automatic firearms.
That said, the piston system is thought to be a great improvement. Check out:
Posted by: Jim at April 23, 2008 01:53 PM
Does anybody know if there are any firearms manufacturers in Sen. Coburn's state? Who make, or could make, M-4s if Colt didn't have a near-lock on the market?
This sounds like a rival of Colt getting their senator to beat up on Colt and maybe pry a contract out of the Pentagon, just to make them STFU.
Maybe I'm too cynical; maybe there are real probs with the gun.
Posted by: Turk Turon at April 23, 2008 02:18 PM
I own a Colt AR-15 and like the readers above don't put them through sandy operations or give them high abuse like the military, but I think the AR-15 platform is still a valid design. I had some failures to extract on a Bushmaster AR-15 the day I bought it, but that was because the edge of the extractor was chipped.
While I'm not a protectionist, it's nice to know that a company with an American history like Colt makes our firearms. If Colt loses their military contract, say goodbye to Colt's Patented Firearms Company. It is military sales that keep them in business. How many times did they nearly go out of business in the 1990s?
Posted by: Carnivore at April 23, 2008 02:20 PM
The piston system IS a great improvement. I don't think anyone would complain about the M4 platform if it had one. Unfortunately no rifle the Army ever gave me had a piston system. I heard a lot of people complain about the m4 and m16 in (or that were in) Iraq. Most people just learned to keep oil on them and clean it all the time. Not like you had a hell of a lot else to do. I heard about an equal amount or possibly more complaints from people that had shot someone only to have them keep on coming or running. What I think they need to do is modify the design to use the piston system and adopt the 6.8mm widely. I have never used the 6.8 in combat, but I bought one right after I got to try one. That is a round I can trust. (Mine doesn't have the piston system, I don't go through enough rounds here to need that.)
Posted by: Ryan at April 23, 2008 02:23 PM
IMO the M-16 was a very bad design, shooting a horrible round for taking men out of the battle (I am a fan of the .308 as a man stopper although the 7.62 x 39 isn't bad). Shortening the barrel to the m4 configuration makes it even worse. For a detailed review of this issue see Small Arms Review article which interviews L. James Sullivan. SAR Vol 11. no 5,6 and 8. Or ask a soldier or marine who has been there done that.
Posted by: David M. McCleary at April 23, 2008 02:34 PM
Having dealt with hide-bound burueacrats for a long time, the policy wonks an the bean counters decide what the troops will have. The .280 Enfield that Springfield dismissed in 1952 in favor of the T56 cartridge had the performance that the 6.8 SPC touts now. One wonders what might have been had we gotten the FAL in .280 in 1957 instead of the lay on your belly at Camp Perry rifle. Not to mention the double dealing that was done to cause the initial problems the M16 had in RVN. The same mentality that had trapdoor Springfields facing 7mm Mausers in Cuba 110 years ago.
Posted by: Emil at April 23, 2008 02:36 PM
H&K has been pushing hard to get the Army to replace the M4 with either their HK416 or the XM8, and one of their angles has been claiming that the M4 is unreliable. What they don't want to admit is that the Army extensively tested the XM-8 and found durability problems, which was why they lost that oppurtunity to replace the M4, and the HK416 isn't THAT much of an improvement over the M4 to justify a new purchase program. Especially since the biggest cause of jams with M4's in the testing was magazine-related, not sand-related. I asked my brother specifically about reports of problems with the M4 when he returned from his tour in Iraq, he said the only problem with the M4 was the caliber, his never jammed on him, and none of the guys with him had problems, other than ONE guy who tried the 77 grain ammo and had issues, but switching back to M855 he didn't have anymore issues. Granted, my brother snagged an M14 at every opportunity, but he's always liked the M1 and M14 rifles, and he wasn't happy with the lack of penetration from the .223 rounds (he brought back a picture of a round that failed to penetrate to the target when fired through the back window of a car, it embedded in the driver's seat).
Posted by: James at April 23, 2008 02:48 PM
Colt is dependent on military sales because they don't sell to Americans, in their arrogant parlance civilians.
Maybe if they are faced with bankruptcy, they'll decide to sell to Americans. If not, bye bye colt, we hate you as much as you hate us.
Posted by: mike123 at April 23, 2008 03:02 PM
I guess you spend little time in forums like http://www.thehighroad.org or http://www.ar15.com.
If you did, you'd realize that the like the existence of God, Schroedinger's Cat, or the Origins of the Universe, the combat efficacy of the 5.56Nato round and the reliability of the AR-15, M-16 or M-4 platform under combat conditions is a question that stubbornly resists a conclusive answer.
You might as well ask "9mm or .45acp for personal defense?"
Posted by: geekWithA.45 at April 23, 2008 03:10 PM
Posted by: geekWithA.45 at April 23, 2008 03:11 PM
Turk, good point. Coburn's from Oklahoma. I don't know of any major manufacturers, there. Colt is in CT. FN is in SC, and HK is in AL....rifles by HK and FN are obvious contenders. The article quotes Sen. Jeff Sessions (AL) as favorable...at least favorable to considering alternatives to the M4.
I hate to be cynical, but following the money usually leads to the answer.
Posted by: Carl in Chicago at April 23, 2008 03:11 PM
My M4 jammed on me in my first fire fight in Baqouba in OIF 1. I was the platoon Sergeant and we cleaned weapons at least twice a day. I never fully trusted it after that. I also had problems with the stopping power of the round. Granted that the Geneva Convention stipulates the use of a full metal jacket round, but I never had that problem with my M14. I carried one of those in my second tour at FOB Falcon.
I did a torture test once. My M14 rode on top of my Bradley turret and at the conclusion of a days mission was usually pretty grungy. After one mission, I loaded up two mags (40 rds) of the nastiest green delinked ammo I could find and fired it out at the range. Not one hiccup. I'll take a 7.62 M14 ANY day.
Posted by: sean at April 23, 2008 03:26 PM
David, you've whacked the hornet's nest here, old buddy. The real answer is 1) that the M16 and all of its variants have served acceptably for over 40 years, 2) that the problem with this weapon system is that the direct impingement gas system craps where it eats, 3) that the US is unlikely to wholesale change rifles in the middle of a two theatre fight, and 4) that either the FN SCAR or an M16 variation with a tappet system of some variation is likely to be what is adopted next.
Posted by: Letalis Maximus, Esq. at April 23, 2008 03:30 PM
I don't disagree that Colt has been less than 100% pro-gun on the gun issue but they certainly sell guns to civilians. I have a recent AR-15 and a 1911A1 (1991A1) from Colt and both are very good firearms.
If we said bye-bye to all the American gun companies that flirted with anti-gun forces at one time or another, we'd have lost Ruger, S&W, and Remington by now. I got nothing against imported firearms from foreign companies, but making firearms is one thing we still do pretty good in the US.
You want to talk about a company that doesn't sell much to the civilian market, H&K is your choice. For years people have been asking for them to make a civilian version of their military firearms in the US and they have only given us abortions like the SL-8. FN seems to be the only company willing to sell a nearly identical civilian version of its military firearms....FN2000....PS90. Colt comes close.
Posted by: Carnivore at April 23, 2008 04:03 PM
In an ideal world, the US Military would have a rifle that utilized the M4/M16 lower, trigger group, safety, and magazine (all of which work very, very well and have excellent ergonomics for anyone who might be firing the thing) combined with an easily changeable (depending on mission parameters) upper that has a short-piston action, different barrel lengths, rails, sights, lights, suppressors and all the rest of the toys...
In something like 6.5 Grendel, allowing solid power hits with the round still supersonic at greater than 1200 meter ranges, and allowing about 80% of the ammo of the 5.56 round (by weight) to be carried by the soldier.
I have one 6.5 Grendel upper, with a typical gas impingement system. I'm seriously considering getting one for each of my AR15 platforms. If I could get a piston top I'd probably do it in a heartbeat.
Posted by: Flighterdoc, MD at April 23, 2008 04:10 PM
The biggest issue I have is with your statement that the magazine works very, very, well. The biggest problem I have had with an AR-16/M-4/M-16 have stemmed from the magazine. Admittedly, if you are able to treat the magazines as disposable items and use a brand new mag each and every time then there are likely to be few or no problems. Otherwise, the design is not very secure and can lead to magazines that do not lock securely into the well thus placing the feed lips at a less than optimal position.
Posted by: Gregg at April 23, 2008 04:55 PM
I've had problems with the mags too...but the mag well works well, and the HK (brit) mags, the magpull mags and a few others (none made by the lowest bidder or issued by the US government) work every time....period.
And even the new GI mags (internal teflon coating, levelling floorplate) work pretty well.
I'd NEVER trust a brand new mag in a desperate situation, though, for any kind of weapon (if I had the choice). I think that any mechanical device can fail, and will, usually at the worst possible time unless it's been tested.
And I've had magazines fail, or fall out, of M14's G3's, HK91's, FAL's (metric and english), AK's, Uzi's, Thompsons, and a few others. I've even had the magazine floor plate drop open on a Mauser hunting rifle as I was getting ready for a shot..Nothing is guaranteed not to fail no matter what. Operator training is always a good idea.
Posted by: Flighterdoc, MD at April 23, 2008 05:13 PM
I understand the limitations of the 55 grain bullet used by most of our military. Having carried rifles with many rounds, I figured the reason for the light round was so the solder could carry many more rounds. Our solders are expected to travel extensive amounts on foot and this would make a difference. I still would rather have the 7.62*39 in my clip, its not that much heavier and has much punch in the closer situations, just not as good for the long range shots that the 55grain bullet has. Its a trade off and I really think we need a round somewhere between the 55grain bullet and the .308 for our military. Ya kinda like the AK round
Posted by: Tom at April 23, 2008 07:46 PM
Like Geek said, this has been flogged unmercifully at the The High Road and The Firing Line. Loads of opinions on all sides.
Talking about replacing the direct impingement (DI) system with a piston is kind of funny. Not saying it's a bad idea, just amusing considering how the DI system came about. It was designed to replace the piston and operating rod system because it's lighter, easier to build and has fewer moving parts. But it does drop hot gases into the bolt. Trade-offs.
I do own an AR and have carried M-16s and M-4s in various places, including Iraq. Works fine. The issues I have had have been nearly exclusively magazine related. I would prefer a 30-06 or .308 for power but I can carry a LOT more 5.56. The rifle's a lot lighter too.
I firmly believe that the biggest portion of the perception of the AR platform as unreliable came from the early rifles in Vietnam with non-chromed chambers. Damp places like that are awful for a rust prone system. Of course, the M-16s were also originally deployed without cleaning kits because the rifle was so technically advanced it didn't require it. ????!!!! Yeah, that's a recipe for success.
Posted by: Mike at April 23, 2008 08:51 PM
I've talked to a couple of ex-SF people I know and they said that while the M4 did have knock-down issues, the fact was that 1500+ rounds of 5.56 was a lot lighter to carry than 1500 rounds of 7.62x51. One of them said that he came close to using his entire basic load in fire fights more than once.
Meanwhile, when I was in the army, cleaning the back end of the bolt and the inside of the bolt carrier was always a major pain. It seems to me that adding a piston and upping the cal to something like 6.5 grendel or 6.8 SPC might be a good incremental improvement and solve many of the issues with the M4. Of course this is much easier said than done, especially considering the supply issues. This is one area where the civilian market can shake out some of the bugs before military issue. Incidently another argument for the civilian "militia" being allowed to get military grade weapons. The synergy and "cross pollination" are in the long run potentially significant. Prime example: Barrett's M82A/M107.
Posted by: Alan A. at April 23, 2008 10:15 PM
The military round is also handicapped by the US being signatory to the Hague Convention, thereby excluding hollow points for use.
Posted by: dave at April 23, 2008 10:24 PM
Oh my god!!!!! The stopping power myth is still going strong. I would suggest if anybody is really interested in small projectiles do damage see MacPherson's Bullet Penetration-Modeling the Dynamics and the Incapacitation Resulting from Wound Trauma and several articles from the old IWBA by Dr. Fackler M.D., Col USA (ret).
Posted by: Mark at April 23, 2008 11:51 PM
The AK is more reliable because:
-the cartridge is conical instead of cylindrical. No parallel chamber walls means that there is little contact between the cartridge and the chamber until it is full seated
-the AK's gas system is oversized by an enormous margin and self adjusts by exposing vent holes in the tube about 5mm after the gas piston starts to move.
-the AK's bolt carrier is very big and heavy and gets quite a bit of room to build up momentum on the way forward. Anything short of a direct chamber obstruction is not going to stop it
-the AK uses a solid ejector that is part of the receiver. There is no spring mounted bit to clog or get dirty. The big gas piston shoves the carrier back with way more force than necessary and the big solid extractor punches the case out with a ton of force. This really kills reloadability, but it doesn't ever FTE.
-the stamped receiver has plenty of extra room inside for crud to go as the parts move around. The AR really didn't leave a ton of extra interior space for crud to hide
-the gas system on the AK doesn't exit where the bolt face seats. You can run an AK all day long and the bolt carrier will get filthy but the bolt and locking lugs both stay clean for the most part
Posted by: Jim W at April 24, 2008 04:00 AM
1500 rounds? I doubt anyone carries 50 mags. Army basic load is 7 mags (210 rounds.)
Posted by: ParatrooperJJ at April 24, 2008 07:09 AM
Part of the Senator's motivation may well be Congressman Murtha (a jackass...) who is VERY tight with the CEO of Colt.
Coburn may be sending a warning shot across Murtha's bows...
Posted by: dad29 at April 24, 2008 07:39 AM
How come Kalashnikov never had to add one to the AK? Because it was designed by John Moses Browning, that's why.
Posted by: Bill Twist at April 24, 2008 10:15 AM
"...(as one user remarked, how come Kalashnikov never had to add this sort of thing to the AK?)"
The above line is usually rendered "tongue in cheek": Of course the AK does have a foreward assist ... the bolt handle, just like on an M1 or M14.
Posted by: C Smith at April 24, 2008 10:57 AM
Special Ops guys are carrying as many rounds as they can, sometimes in bandoliers, and are using the M4 pretty much in the same role as others use the M249.
Dan Shea of Long Mountain Outfitters, and I would never disagree with him on a point of weapons use, says that the M249 is not a base of fire squad automatic, but is instead a belt-fed assault rifle. But, it is heavy and so these guys in Afghanistan are absolutely flogging the devil out of the M4 by using it to lay down suppressive fire in the M249 role without the weight of the M249 and that takes *lots* of rounds.
Posted by: Letalis Maximus, Esq. at April 24, 2008 11:49 AM
The handle protuberance on an AK's bolt renders a forward assist unnecessary.
Posted by: rkh at April 24, 2008 06:56 PM
Huh huh huh huh huh huh he said "protuberance."
Posted by: Letalis Maximus, Esq. at April 24, 2008 07:05 PM
Nothing is as counterproductive as being killed by a combatant you have fatally injured. That is why the M-16 is a lousy weapon.
Posted by: straightarrrow at April 24, 2008 10:50 PM
Re: direct gas impingement
Several rifles before the family of AR-10/AR-15/M-16/M-4 rifles used direct gas impingement with great success. The problem with the M-4 carbine isn't direct gas impingement as much as it is the design which combines a gas cutoff and expansion chamber into the bolt-carrier group. That design feature injects hot gas right into the most critical inner moving parts of the rifle. I read of Kalishnikov derisively equating that design-feature to a steam-engine.
But even so most of the flaws of the AR family ultimately derive from the flawed core-concept of the AR weapon system -- that the ideal weapon for an individual rifleman is a lightweight shoulder-arm that provides handheld fully-automatic fire. That concept is extremely ironic considering that the main AR variant today, the M-16a2, doesn't even have a switch permitting fully-automatic fire anymore and is limited to 3-round bursts!
Doctrine with well trained troops is no longer to spray and pray, so actual practice today is to fire well-aimed shots with the aid of the best optics and night-sights money can buy. Fully-automatic fire is properly left to honest-to-god machineguns.
Posted by: Brad at April 25, 2008 01:18 AM
Yeah, like I said, the M16 family all craps where it eats.
Posted by: Letalis Maximus, Esq. at April 25, 2008 02:10 PM
"Doctrine with well trained troops is no longer to spray and pray, so actual practice today is to fire well-aimed shots with the aid of the best optics and night-sights money can buy. Fully-automatic fire is properly left to honest-to-god machineguns."
That's not entirely true. The doctrine distinguishes between well aimed shots and suppressive fire. If you've got your 240s providing suppressive fire, great, but otherwise the riflemen have to do it. And even with machine guns you're still always firing in measured bursts.
Posted by: ben at April 25, 2008 04:22 PM
Ask anyone with experience with both:
You have a guy 200 yds away shooting at you;
would you rather they have an AK or an M-16 variant?
Posted by: bud at April 29, 2008 11:40 AM
does anyone know anything about the gas piston upper recivers from bushmaster specifically internal gouging of the upper reciver by the bolt carrier and wear marks in the recoil spring tube. How serious is this? and can it eventually cause catastropic damage?
Posted by: xavier at August 31, 2008 06:52 PM