- - Tuesday, February 2, 2016


Just after the Battle of Gettysburg, Christopher Spenser, inventor of a revolutionary repeating rifle, escorted Abraham Lincoln out to the East Lawn of the White House to do a bit of target shooting. Lincoln was so impressed that he ordered Gen. James Ripley, the Army’s chief of ordnance, to purchase tens of thousands of Spenser’s repeaters at once and issue them to soldiers. Sadly, Ripley disobeyed Lincoln and continued to equip Union Soldiers with a single-shot rifle that had to be loaded from the muzzle, using a ramrod. Some historians postulate that had the Union possessed repeating rifled arms after Gettysburg, perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides might have been saved.

A half-century later, Theodore Roosevelt returned from the Spanish American War furious that his Spanish enemy possessed a superior rifle. After his election he took personal charge of the Army’s effort to produce a first-class rifle. He became so engaged in the new Springfield rifle’s development that he fired it often and obsessed over every detail. One of his most notable memos even criticized the weapon’s bayonet, protesting that “it broke off as soon as it hit it would have no moral effect and mighty little physical effect.” Needless to say, the Army changed the rifle’s bayonet design immediately. The Springfield was such a superior weapon that the military kept it in action as late as the Korean War.

President John Kennedy and his defense secretary, Robert McNamara, anticipated the rise of global insurgencies and continually badgered a reluctant Army to shift its priorities away from war in Europe and focus on emerging hot spots like Vietnam. Kennedy’s personal involvement led to the expansion of Army Special Forces and the replacement of the Army’s Cold War-era M-14 rifle with the smaller, lighter, faster-firing M-16 rifle, a gun that remains in the hands of our troops today.

President Obama continues the tradition of presidential involvement in the development of small arms. The commander in chief has directed the Army to research a “safer” gun. According to the Association of the United States Army, the Army’s main lobbying group, the “Gun Safety Initiative” launched by Mr. Obama in January will look at “a new technology to reduce accidental discharges and unauthorized use of guns.”

Our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are breathing a huge sigh of relief. At last they will be issued a “PC gun” that will keep them from harming themselves and protect our citizens when Army weapons are lost or stolen.

All of this would just be humorous, of course, if the American military didn’t need a new small arm desperately. Soldiers today take into harm’s way the same lousy, short-ranged and unreliable gun that killed three of my soldiers in Vietnam almost a half-century ago. Even the century-old British Enfield rifle commonly used by the Taliban grossly outranges our M4 carbine. The 5.56-millimeter bullet fired by the M4 was originally designed to kill varmints and does a terrible job of killing the enemy.

Sadly, the M4 is killing our soldiers in today’s wars. During the 2008 battle of Wanat in Afghanistan, three young Americans died when their M4 carbines malfunctioned. Our rifle is not fixable. Unlike the far-more-reliable Russian AK-47 used by most of our enemies, the M4 uses a “gas impingement” action that relies on a puff of recoil gas to eject each round and reload the rifle. The AK-47, along with most newer assault rifles, employs a solid “direct action” that connects all recoiling parts together solidly and is at least twice as reliable when fired in the automatic mode.

“Direct Action” teams from America’s elite: Delta Force, the Rangers and the SEALs, do most small-arms killing today. Unclassified Special Operations Command documents complain about the range and stopping power of the M4 and the poor performance of its ammunition. The Marines have similar complaints and have refused to even use the Army’s ammunition. Our rifle is so bad that Delta Force and the SEALs prefer to purchase their rifles off the shelf from commercial sources. A German rifle killed Osama bin Laden. The bullet that killed him came from a civilian vendor.

A cynic might say the administration’s PC gun initiative places the lives of our fighting forces behind their obsession with eroding the Second Amendment. Think how much less reliable a “safe gun” will be in the hands of a special operator when he has to push buttons or press his finger against a print detector to disengage a cyber-locking device before engaging the enemy in a close fight.

Perhaps our soldiers would be better served if all PC “safe gun” developmental money were spent to give our soldiers and Marines a weapon that will defend against the enemy rather than protect them from themselves.

Maj. Gen. Robert Scales retired in 2001 after 37 years’ service in the U.S. Army. His last assignment was commandant of the Army War College.

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