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Months later, the Army’s Armament Technology Facility, part of the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, conducted its own study of the M4A1.

The 2002 report sent by the facility’s chief to Special Operations Command told of “reliability problems related to the failure to extract and eject casings, broken bolts, failure to function in arctic and over-the-beach (surf zone, surface and subsurface swimmer) environments,” according to a copy obtained by The Times.

“The M4A1 has also experienced cook-off [premature ammunition explosion] after a relatively few numbers of rounds have been fired at a high rate of fire,” it said. “Catastrophic barrel failure has also been experienced after a relatively low number of rounds have been fired.”

Preventing jamming

The Times asked Special Operations Command why it continued to distribute the M4A1.

“The M4A1 and M4 Carbines have served our forces well during more than a decade of sustained combat,” said Navy Capt. Kevin Aandahl. “The Army has improved the M4A1/M4 significantly over the past 12 years. The Army developed a heavy barrel and placed it in production in 2002. In addition, the M4 and M4A1 have received improvements to the trigger assembly, extractor spring, recoil buffer, barrel chamber, magazine and bolt. These upgrades addressed the issues raised in the 2002 report.”

Capt. Aandahl said the command on its own has fielded new gun parts to “improve the M4A1 capability to meet USSOCOM requirements for close-in, urban operations and room-clearing types of engagements that require this type of weapon.”

The same year Picatinny weighed in, the Marine Corps conducted its own testing of the conventional M4. The Corps infantryman’s main rifle was then, and is today, the longer-range, heavier-barrel M16.

The Army Times, an independent Gannett newspaper, later reported that the “M4 malfunctioned three times more often than the M16A4.”

To Mr. Traudt and other M4 critics, the testing should have prompted the Army to rethink the design as thousands of the carbines were about to be shipped overseas.

Mr. Traudt said he thinks the jamming problems encountered by a significant segment of troops over the past decade could have been avoided if special operations continued developing Green Mountain’s Reliability Product Improvement Kit.

The kit was tested at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Ind., in 2001 and at Picatinny in 2002. It included replacing the extractor spring, ejector spring, gas tube and gas plug with more heat-resistant ones, and moving to a one-piece, four-coil system that was engineered from more thermally durable materials to make the gun function better.

“An M4A1, when equipped with those parts, will fire continuously on full-automatic magazine after magazine until its barrel disintegrates,” Mr. Traudt said. “In our tests, M4A1 barrel failure occurred at 1,375 rounds. A normal Army M4A1 is out of action at 840 shots fired when equipped with its standard, metallurgically and technologically antiquated parts — and this isn’t even barrel failure. It’s gas system or bolt failure.”

At the time of the tests, internal reports by SoCom and Picatinny said the M4A1 was terribly flawed and not suited for commando missions.

One person on Capitol Hill eventually took notice. By 2007, enough anecdotal evidence had poured in from the wars to prompt Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, to launch a campaign for the Army to find a new rifle.

Story Continues →