The Army is asking the gun industry to build new components for its soldiers’ primary weapon — the M4 carbine — a move that experts say is a tacit admission that the service has been supplying a flawed rifle that lacks the precision of commercially available guns.
At a recent Capitol Hill hearing, an Army general acknowledged that the M4’s magazine has been responsible for the gun jamming during firefights.
On the federal government’s FedBizOpps.gov website, the Army announced a “market survey” for gunmakers to produce a set of enhancements to essentially create a new model — the “M4A1+.” It would include a modular trigger, a new type of rail fitted around a “free floating” barrel and other parts. The upgrade is supposed to improve the rifle’s accuracy and reliability.
The Army last year took the significant step of beginning to convert the basic M4 into the special operations version, the M4A1, with a heavier barrel designed to better withstand the heat of rapid fire.
The Washington Times reported in 2014 on confidential prewar tests that showed the barrel was prone to overheating. The Times also quoted active-duty soldiers who said the M4 is inferior based on their experience in battle. A Green Beret said he takes the extraordinary step of rebuilding his M4A1 on the battlefield by using components from other gunmakers — technically a violation of Army regulations.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, an artillery officer and decorated Vietnam combatant, is one of the M4’s most vocal critics. He also believes the 5.56 mm M855A1 ammunition — an environmentally sensitive, or “green,” round — is wrong for the gun.
Gen. Scales said the Army’s new solicitation is further proof of the carbine’s shortfalls.
“It’s another attempt by the Army to make the M4 look good,” he said. “If the Army wants to improve the M4, fine. But it’s not a weapon suitable for high-intensity, close combat in extremes against an enemy who is basically matching us in weapons performance in a close fight. Everybody knows the weapon has flaws.”
Mr. Scales said the M4’s basic shortfall is that it uses gas, or direct, impingement to extract and expel its shells as opposed to a piston system. A piston firing mechanism is in the prolific AK-47, which runs cleaner and cooler but is considered slightly less accurate.
One consistent complaint about the M4, even from users who love the gun, is that it requires frequent cleaning. Another frequent gripe is that the 30-round magazine is prone to jamming.
“It’s what everyone has known for 50 years,” Mr. Scales said. “There is no mystery here. Every report, every study, every anecdotal piece of evidence has long ago proven that the gas-impingement system of that rifle is imperfect because there’s not a firm connection for the operating system to move in one piece. The technology cannot be improved unless you remove gas impingement. And the Army knows that.”
Old gun, new parts
Direct impingement versus a piston system has been a lively debate among gun enthusiasts. Proponents of gas impingement argue that the gun is more accurate, and its parts are less expensive and easier to find.
The Army’s industry solicitation states: “The M4A1+ components shall provide a synergistic effect to enhance soldier and weapon system lethality, survivability, and operational effectiveness.”
Max Slowik, a firearms expert at Guns.com, wrote a column on the M4A1+ package that notes that these features are already commercially available on rifles under the grouping AR-15s (named for its first manufacturer, ArmaLite). His article implies the Army M4 is behind the times.
“While it will be some time before we see how any of this materializes, this is great news for soldiers everywhere,” Mr. Slowik wrote. “We can’t know for certain what the M4A1+ is going to look like, but we do know that it’ll have more than a little resemblance to the more tricked-out AR-15s on the commercial market.”
Mr. Slowik said in an email the M4 has had a list of shortfalls.
“The M4 carbine, and, to a lesser degree, the M4A1 have shortcomings, but they can be ameliorated with modern free-floating hand guards, lighter triggers, heavier barrels and improved magazines,” he said, noting some of the items in the desired new package.
Asked why the M4 lags behind commercial models, he said: “Compared to the commercial market, the military market is small and slow. The commercial and law enforcement markets are more interested in the next big thing and are willing to experiment with newer technologies. While a lot of it doesn’t directly apply to military rifles, there are many newer features, materials, finishes and accessories — including the upgrades that the M4A1+ program is asking for — that are well-established with commercial users.”
For example, Mr. Slowik says the Army wants to add a “low profile” gas block and free-floating hand guards, changes that should improve accuracy because they “don’t touch or deflect the barrel like fixed hand guards.”
“This is a major part of why commercial rifles achieve better, more predictable accuracy over current M4s,” he said, underscoring the point that the Army is behind the private gun world.
A congressional military staffer who tracks small-arms acquisition said the solicitation for the M1A1+ means the “Army is starting to finally worry about what we warned a decade ago. There’s better stuff out there, and our guys don’t have it.”
The bad news, the staffer said, is that the way the Army wrote the solicitation allows the service to maintain complete control and “kick out anything that doesn’t fit with the M4 50-year-old technology. The best solution will not rise to the top.”
Said Mr. Scales: “They’ll go off on their merry way to try to improve on a system that is terribly flawed while contesting the fact it is terribly flawed to the media.”
‘A capable weapon’
The Army on Monday released a statement to The Times that said, in part: “The M4A1+ modifications and training are intended to provide for improved mounting flexibility for enablers [such as] lights, lasers, optics, slings, grips, bipods, ancillary weapons. They are part of the continuous evolution of a weapon as technology becomes available. This enhanced flexibility in system configuration in conjunction with appropriate training techniques provides for improved Soldier performance under a wide variety of mission scenarios.”
Army officials last month delivered a defense of the M4 at a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California, senior Democrat on the tactical air and land forces subcommittee, said soldiers have told her that they don’t like the gun.
“I continue to hear inside and outside the military that the individual soldier or Marine wants a replacement for the M4 and the M4A1,” Ms. Sanchez said during the hearing.
Lt. Gen. Anthony Ierardi, deputy chief of staff for equipment integration, said the Army has made more than 90 improvements to the M4.
“That weapon continues to move it forward,” Gen. Ierardi testified. “And it is a capable weapon.”
Concerning soldier complaints, Gen. Ierardi, who was assigned to the Pentagon after having commanded a division, said: “In my service [with] in 1st Cavalry Division, I did not hear one complaint from my soldiers about the M4 carbine. As a matter of fact, soldiers wanted the M4 for what it brings, which is a compact, easy-to-maintain and capable weapon.”
Ms. Sanchez: “So you never had a reliability issue with respect to that with the men that served with you, the men and women?”
Gen. Ierardi: “There have been a number of improvements in this weapon system. And our strategy right now is to continue to improve what we have while we look to procure new M4A1s.”
Ms. Sanchez: “OK. Well, I would beg to differ with what I hear. So I will continue down this warpath of trying to get the individual soldier and Marine a better weapon, especially with some of the studies that I’ve seen.”
The congresswoman added: “When I get calls, it’s always about [that] these things are jamming.”
Lt. Gen. Michael Williamson, an Army acquisition deputy, acknowledged the problem, but said recent upgrades to the M4 have eliminated jamming by changing the magazine.
Soldiers told The Times the M4’s magazine often jams. One combatant said soldiers frequently changed to a German-made magazine once in Afghanistan.
“As you know,” Gen. Williamson said, “when we looked at the upgrade for the M4, one of the things we looked at was the feed mechanism to understand if it was caused by the round or the mechanics of the weapon. We think that we’ve addressed that. To be honest with you, we’ve addressed that in the magazine, where we were having some problems with the feed mechanism.”
In 2013 the Army choose FN Manufacturing, owned by a Belgium conglomerate and the operator of a plant in Columbia, South Carolina, to produce the M4, replacing longtime maker Colt Defense.