Wartime U.S. presidents have taken keen personal interest in picking the most lethal gun for the military.
But in President Obama’s first foray into small-arms procurement for the armed forces, his Jan. 4 executive order on gun control directs the Pentagon to find ways to make not so much more lethal firearms, but safer ones.
His direct order has brought a few snickers among retired combatants who argue that the commander in chief is issuing his directive at a time of more pressing small-arms priorities. The military, critics say, fields a flawed personal rifle and has spent more than a decade selecting a new off-the-shelf pistol, with no winner yet.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, an artillery officer in Vietnam who is steeped in military history, says at least three former presidents immersed themselves in ballistics — for reasons other than safety.
Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War commander in chief, tested emerging “repeater” rifles in the White House “back yard” and championed the Spencer model.
Theodore Roosevelt, the combat-hardened Rough Rider, ordered development of the Springfield rifle.
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John F. Kennedy, considered a founding father of the Green Berets, pushed the Army to give up the M14 for the new AR-15, which became the venerable M16. Kennedy envisioned the automatic rifle as the perfect counterinsurgency weapon in South Vietnam.
With that White House history, Mr. Scales said, “I had to laugh” at Mr. Obama’s priority — smart guns.
“Presidential involvement in small arms has been strategic and game-changing in our history,” said Mr. Scales, a former commandant of the U.S. Army War College. “Obama comes along and tells the Army that, in this administration, money is going into small arms to build — not a deadly weapon, not an effective weapon, not a dominant weapon, not a lifesaving weapon, not a technological cutting-edge weapon — but a weapon that prevents accidental discharge. Give me a break.”
Mr. Obama, who has made reducing gun violence and increasing gun control a top priority, signed a Jan. 4 order that directs the Defense Department, as well as the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, to “Increase research and development efforts.”
A White House fact sheet states: “The Presidential Memorandum directs the departments to conduct or sponsor research into gun safety technology that would reduce the frequency of accidental discharge or unauthorized use of firearms, and improve the tracing of lost or stolen guns. Within 90 days, these agencies must prepare a report outlining a research-and-development strategy designed to expedite the real-world deployment of such technology for use in practice.”
Mr. Scales is one the Army’s sharpest critics of the primary soldier’s rifle — the M4 carbine, modeled after the AR-15. He believes it is prone to overheating and jamming, and that Germans have produced a better-designed carbine toted by many U.S. special operations troops.
The Washington Times published a two-part series on the M4 in which soldiers who had been thrust into heavy direct combat complained that the magazine jammed, among other flaws. Some admitted, on the record, to breaking the rules and buying off-the-shelf foreign replacement components.
The Army defends the M4 as popular among soldiers. Its critics say surveys should focus on soldiers who have actually fired the weapon in a series of battles. They also say polled soldiers have nothing with which to compare it because the M4 is the only main rifle issued.
Mr. Scales has found a powerful Capitol Hill ally, Sen. John McCain, in focusing on small arms. Their importance has grown in the war on terrorism, where close-in combat is a more common ground engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, as opposed to fighting with tanks and attack jets.
Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, issued a blistering report this fall on another Army small-arms program — the replacement for the M9 pistol.
“America’s Most Wasted: Army’s Costly Misfire” said the Army has sent to a perplexed industry pages of complex requirements for what is supposed to be a $500 off-the-shelf Modular Handgun System.
“The Army has managed to create entirely new acquisition problems for what should be a simple, straightforward purchase of a commercially available item,” said Mr. McCain. “The Army’s effort to buy a new handgun has already taken 10 years and produced nothing but more than 350 [pages of] requirements micromanaging extremely small unimportant details and Byzantine rules and processes the Army wants followed, many of which are unnecessary or anti-competitive.”
Mr. Scales met recently with Mr. McCain on the topic of giving troops better rifles, machine guns and pistols.
“The only real hero in this discussion is McCain because McCain gets it,” Mr. Scales said.
The senator already has taken steps to get the Army’s attention.
The fiscal 2016 defense budget/policy bill orders the Army and Marine Corps to submit a comprehensive report to Congress on how they plan to modernize small arms during the next 15 years.
On carrying out the president’s executive order on smart guns, an Army spokesman said: “As the President’s executive order directed DoD regarding research, DoD will have to decide on the lead agency for the program. Army will proceed if so directed.”
The nonprofit Association of the United States Army reports in its weekly “tip sheet” to members: “As part of a gun-safety initiative launched by President Barack Obama in early January, the Army-led program will look at new technology to reduce accidental discharge and unauthorized use of guns. A research plan is expected by early April.”
The National Institutes of Health released a report on firearms deaths and injuries from 2002 to 2011 for military personnel not deployed in the wars. It found 4,657 total firearms injuries in the 1.4 million active force, or about 400 per year at a time when stateside units were undergoing increased combat training for Afghanistan and Iraq. Of those, 35 percent were fatal. Of those, half were suicides and homicides.
“In circumstances other than war, rates of both fatal and nonfatal firearm-related injuries are much lower among military members than civilian males aged 18-44,” the report said.
Presidents in arms
As for White House gun aficionados, Abraham Lincoln personally test-fired the Spencer repeating rifle on at least three occasions and hosted the inventor for personal instruction.
“Lincoln was a hands-on commander in chief who, given his passion for gadgetry, was keenly interested in the artillery used by his Union troops during the Civil War,” says an article in History.com. “Lincoln attended artillery and cannon tests and met at the White House with inventors demonstrating military prototypes. Although there was a standing order against firing weapons in the District of Columbia, Lincoln even test-fired muskets and repeating rifles on the grassy expanses around the White House, now known as the Ellipse and the National Mall.”
Historians differ on his role. Some say his endorsement directly led the Army to purchase tens of thousands of Spencers, their repeat fire changing the war’s course. Other articles say a stubborn Army ordnance command had finally begun ordering the gun before the president’s hands-on testing.
Theodore Roosevelt, too, was an avid shooter and hunter. He promoted the 1903 Springfield rifle for his troops. He met one day at the White House with gunmakers and ordered a change to the bayonet.
As a sportsman and a National Rifle Association member, John F. Kennedy enjoyed shooting rifles and shotguns.
As president, he played a direct role in forcing the Army to compete three rifles — the in-house M14, the Armalite AR-15 and the AK-47. When the Army picked its M14, Robert S. McNamara, Kennedy’s revolution-minded defense secretary, was suspicious.
Kennedy himself ordered an independent investigation on Nov. 6, 1962. The probe found that the Army was biased toward its rifle. The generals eventually acquiesced and began buying the AR-15, designated the M16, in 1964 after Kennedy’s assassination.
The AR-15 fit Kennedy’s national security strategy to prepare for unconventional wars in which small arms can tip the balance.
Then-Army Maj. Danford A. Kern chronicled the president’s love for the M16 in his 2006 master’s thesis at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
“President Kennedy, a life NRA member and gun buff, had been given two AR-15s from Colt,” Mr. Kern wrote. “He had written Colt a letter telling them how much he enjoyed shooting the rifles. This is a clear example of the influence of civilian organizational culture from both the NRA and from civilian industry on potential military decision processes.”
That Army-Kennedy standoff was not the last fight between generals and politicians over which gun to buy.
In 2013, then-Sen. Tom Coburn, hearing complaints from Oklahoma soldiers about the M4’s performance in the war on terrorism, badgered the Army to conduct a carbine competition.
His efforts led the Army secretary to order a shoot-off. But with a new Army secretary in office, the top brass stopped the competition and proclaimed that no challenging gun outperformed the M4 by a wide enough margin to justify a change.