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The Ongoing Woes of the M-16 Family of Weapons

Recent troop losses in Afghanistan have prompted the usual search for scapegoats and easy or cosmetic fixes. One of the early candidates for scapegoat is the M-4 Carbine.

The M-16 series of weapons, of which the M-4 is one of the latter children, has been trouble prone since inception. Most of these troubles were (and are) a consequence of the gas operating system of the design, which tends to cause substantial carbon deposits to form in the chamber and barrel. This deposition issue seems to be further exacerbated by cold temperatures and high altitude. Dust, which is another known issue, is no worse in Afghanistan than in Iraq.

Despite these known issues, the M-16 family of weapons has done reasonably well in service, and remains popular with most users since it has the twin advantages of lighter ammunition (thus allowing more rounds to be carried), good accuracy, and (especially in the case of the M-4 Carbine) a light and compact form factor. Most of the gas operation woes can be ameliorated by constant and thorough cleaning by the troops who use the weapons.

Amelioration is not elimination.

The systemic problem (gas operation) was addressed in the XM-8 Program by replacing the gas tube with a short stroke piston. Nor did this engineering solution die with the XM-8 Program in 2005. Instead, the designer of the XM-8 (Hekler and Koch) applied the lessons learned from the canceled XM-8 to the H&K 416.

The H&K 416, which is the M-4 with the short stroke piston replacing the gas tube system, has been adopted by U. S. Special Forces, and recently as the new main battle rifle of the Turkish Army, both of which have long experience of mountain fighting in arid environments.

UPDATE below the fold

StrategyPage returns to the subject today:

Jammed Rifles And Other Obsessions


The mass media reports soon were talking about American assault rifles overheating and jamming. Some of the reports displayed a remarkable ignorance of how military rifles operate. One report had the American M4 rifle barrels white hot with heat. That's a physical impossibility, because of the metal used for these rifles. Long before the rifle barrels turned any color from heat, rounds would automatically fire ("cook off") from the heat, and the barrels would fail (split apart). The reporters also seemed unaware of how automatic weapons handle heat. Assault rifles are built to fire about once every four seconds for hours, without any heat problems. Machine-guns do have heat problems, and are designed with easily removable barrels, so you can switch in a fresh barrel. In short, any automatic weapon will overheat if you put too many rounds through it in too short a time. The troops are taught all about this, and are impressed with the fact that they must either cope with it, or risk death.

There was one thing mentioned in the news stories that has some relevance, and that's rifles jamming (not just because of heat problems). This goes back to the decades old argument about replacing the recoil system in American assault rifles. This came to a head (again) two years ago, when the army ran more tests on its M-4 rifle, involving dust and reliability. Four weapons were tested. The M4, the XM8, SCAR (Special Operations Forces Combat Assault Rifle) and the H&K 416 (an M4 with the more dust resistant components of the XM8 installed).

The testing consisted of exposing the weapons to 25 hours of heavy dust conditions over two months. During that testing period, 6,000 rounds were fired from each of ten weapons of each type. The weapons with the fewest failures (usually jams) were rated highest. Thus the XM8 finished first, SCAR second, 416 third and M4 last. In response, the army said it was satisfied with the M4s performance, but was considering equipping it with a heavier barrel (to lessen jams from overheating, which causes metal to expand, and provide less room for a new round to enter the firing chamber) and more effective magazines (27 percent of the M4s 882 jams were magazine related.) The army noted that the M4 fired over 98 percent of its rounds without problems. The army had been forced by Congress to conduct the tests. Congress was responding to complaints by the troops.

The XM8 had 127 jams, the SCAR 226 and the 416 had 233. Thus the M-4 had nearly eight times as many jams as the XM8, the rifle designed to replace it. The M4 had nearly four times the jams of the SCAR and 416, which were basically M4 type rifles with a different gas handling systems. Any stoppage is potentially fatal for the soldier holding the rifle. Thus the disagreement between the army brass, and the troops who use the weapons in combat.


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Comments (18)

A US Army SF Major supposed... (Below threshold)

A US Army SF Major supposedly said in 2007 that if the Army cannot buy a rifle how can they buy anything? It is clear that the M4 has a problem with jamming. The fact that SOC went and got a whole different weapon should tell you something.

Also the M4 was just a chopped down version of the M16 to replace the M1 "Grease Gun" SMG for vehicle crews. It wasn't supposed to become general issue but in Iraq the length of the M16 posed a problem and they went to M4 for all.

I've had occasion to hang o... (Below threshold)

I've had occasion to hang out with some very dangerous people over the years (one of my good friends had a lot of old buddies in the special ops community), and I've yet to meet one who preferred the M-16 and its variants as a primary weapon.

Sure, many of them are okay with it, but there's a strong push from the dedicated shooters to buy a newer weapon with a heavier round like the 6.8.

The M-16 is a fine weapon, ... (Below threshold)

The M-16 is a fine weapon, however, it is 40+ years old. I agree that the direct gas impingement system is directly related to fouling of the action, and that a short stroke piston is probably a better system to alleviate that problem. The real issue (as seen in Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan) has been a lack of "stopping power", or the ability to kill or stop a fanatical opponent. I'd prefer the 6.5mm grendel to the 6.8, as it has a much higher ballistic coefficient and more stable flight profile for longer shots.

Changing the ammunition wou... (Below threshold)
The Whistler:

Changing the ammunition would create a problem with our NATO allies. If I understand it we had to throw our weight around to get them to accept the 5.56.

I was part of a crew of 12 ... (Below threshold)

I was part of a crew of 12 Air Force people that were sent to an Army post up north in Vietnam in the early 1970's. We were sent there without weapons. The Army quartermaster issued us old M-2 carbines instead of M-16s, which were being handed out "only to qualified people". When we were attacked, the Army was making contact at 150-250 yards. We (a bunch of southern farm boys) were hitting targets as far out as 350-500 yards. I've had the firmly-held belief that a mix of weapons and ammunition is better than either the long-range but slow-rate-of-fire of the M-2, or the short range but rapid rate of fire of the M-16. Unfortunately, that would significantly raise costs and complicate supply issues, so some sort of compromise is needed. Also, during two weeks of action in pretty crummy weather conditions, my M-2 never jammed. Can't say that about the M-16.

The M-14 is still a good ri... (Below threshold)

The M-14 is still a good rifle but was replaced because it cost too much.

Thier a number of good replacements for the M-16, M-4 and we need to start looking into them more and more. Our goverment is spending Trillions of everything but the Troops.

Stoner did no one a favor w... (Below threshold)

Stoner did no one a favor with his gas system. The Army in it's infinite wisdom took my M14 from me while I was in Vietnam and issued me a toy rifle. First time I fired it for familiarization and training, it jammed. Brand new, out of the box and it jammed! Over the years I've used a Rock River NM AR15 in high power rifle competition. 88 rounds would be the most I'd fire in a single day at the range. It's recommended that you break down the bolt assembly and clean it thoroughly after 500 rounds. That's a ridiculous number if you're in a sustained firefight over several hours. The gas piston system is much more forgiving and keeps the damned carbon away from the bolt.

The M14 was replaced in und... (Below threshold)

The M14 was replaced in under a decade because it was a piece of crap. It replaced the $80 per unit Garand at $240 per unit. It failed to replace the BAR (which it was claimed to do), so the M60 was pressed into service. It failed to replace the grease gun (which it was claimed to do). It failed to replace the 1911 (which it was claimed to do). Then it got to the jungle and was too big, too bulky, with too little a basic combat load. It could not be produced en masse cost effectively, and still can't. Fine marksman's rifle, worthless as an infantry weapon for general issue.

You will probably see 6.8 within the decade. It will replace 7.62 to increase the basic combat load of the gunner. Given the current spray and pray, first person shooter, yank the trigger video game marksmanship, there is not going to be a movement to a caliber that REDUCES the basic combat load for a given weight, especially with the weight of all the other impedimenta.

The M16 family works fine for troops who know how to clean it, and don't try saturating it with oil or using it as a GPMG instead of a rifle.

If you've seen what the Army douches pass off as "training" these days, you'd kick them in the balls for not having the decency to be ashamed.

Oh, yeah--piston systems fo... (Below threshold)

Oh, yeah--piston systems for ARs have been around for 4 decades. They never catch on because they're a waste of time. The XM8 wasn't adopted because, like most HundK crap, it was well marketed, but still crap. It's an AR180 (HundK steals most of their designs. Consider the CETME) with a plastic shell that doesn't allow modularity, and had worthless sights.

The FNC might be a good choice, though I don't know what tests have been conducted with it, and the STG 90 is another great weapon. Neither is US made or patented, though, and the wunderkids want something "new," but they also want it to be without flaw. This does not happen in the real world.

As a side note, SF had thei... (Below threshold)

As a side note, SF had their HK416's taken away for a number of BS reasons, mostly that certain politicians were trying to make a political football out of the rifle issue much like they did the armor issue (which resulted in the Corp's awful MTV vest, which was done away with before it was even entirely fielded). Make no mistake, there is a lot of politics involved in this.

The M14 is indeed a piece of crap, generally, compared to modern weapons. It is hideously difficult to maintain and not inherently accurate, and even if you do accurize one it's hard to make it STAY accurized. They're issued as a stop-gap, nothing more.

Ideally we need a tad more round than the 5.56mm, but the .308 is clearly too much. Hence the development of the 6.8mm and 6.5mm rounds the last few years.

A lot of people are talking out of their ass on the M16 platform. Look at the article; the journalists are making a big deal about weapon overheating after firing 12 magazines. M4 carbines may burst their barrels with as few as 6 or 7 magazines on full auto; an assault rifle is simply NOT a light machinegun. (similarly, there are gripes in the article about SAW's failing after x-hundred rounds of ammo; if you try to rip off an entire belt in one go, your weapon will likely fail. This is a training issue)

The M16's do run fine if you maintain them correctly - which many troops do not, because of myths about going light on oil so as not to "attract dust" and other nonsense. The extra carbone vs. a piston system is not in the "chamber and barrel", it is around the bolt carrier group. Failure to lubricate this will cause it to run sluggishly.

Conversely, other systems will run longer without cleaning, or with less cleaning - but we're talking, say, 3k rounds vs. 10k rounds. No one is shooting anywhere near that much without maintaining their weapon.

Caliber concerns aside (since the platforms can be easily changed to other calibers), what the M16 brings to the table is a lightweight and abnormally accurate platform. (not "good" accuracy, OUTSTANDING accuracy) Only hits count. Out of currently available mass produced weapons, the M16 is better than most.

This isn't to say there aren't better options that could be chosen for production - (projects the SCAR and the (much-renamed) Remington ACR come to mind, but the military doesn't seem to be planning to change any time soon. We are talking about the government here.

I'd rather send the Air For... (Below threshold)

I'd rather send the Air Force. And make sure the ordinance they use is plentiful and doesn't need to be too "precise" Then you don't have to worry about M-4s jamming. Or recidivism amongst the targets.

"The M14 was replaced in un... (Below threshold)

"The M14 was replaced in under a decade because it was a piece of crap."


That one weapon cannot replace 4 specialized weapons should have been a given. But it wasn't. The M14 was fine as a replacement for the M1. Period. Yeah, the basic load was less than the M16. But you shot someone at 4, 5 or 600 yards, they stayed 'shot'. Accurate? Yes it was, and is being used today in Afghanistan and Iraq as a Designated Marksmen weapon..only now a telescopic sight has been added. Hard to maintain? Not at all. I carried that weapon for over 6 months in Vietnam in rain, mud, dust and dirt. Never a jam, never a failure to fire. Heavy? Yeah, about 9 pounds w/o magazine. Considering what they're hanging off the M16 and M4 platforms today, I'd imagine they weigh about the same.
Expensive? The cost of the M1 during WWII got down to just under $40 a copy. By the mid-50's it was $80 a copy. Over 6 million were made. The M14 production was just ramping up to around 1.5 million made when the contracts were canceled. The per unit cost never went down because the initial tooling costs were not stretched out over several years of production.

Is there an 'idiot proof' weapon? Not unless you go back to the rock. But troops on the line need a weapon that doesn't need to be babied. Maintenance needs to be simple and easy, without having to break a weapon down to small parts. Think of the Springfield M1903. Pull the bolt, wipe it down. Run a bore brush and patch thru the barrel. Replace the bolt, you're done.

As for stopping power, we're hung up on the Geneva Convention and the full metal jacket bullet. The field studies done after WWII and Korea showed that troops invariable hold fire until the 'enemy' is 200-300 yards away. That was before NVG and other optics. They wanted to be sure of the ID before opening fire in order to preclude 'friendly fire' incidents. People in battle try not to stand out in the open and battles do not always occur on bright sunny days in wide open areas. A weapon designed for close combat in a city is pretty much useless in a long range fire fight. Praying and spraying gets you no where fast. In battle, distance is your friend. Especially if the opposition is armed with the AK. Unfortunately, if you're not taught to fire at 600 yards, you won't.

Oddly enough, a study was done in the 1920-30's using live pigs and goats (try that today!). The optimal FMJ bullet was found to be the .276 Pedersen (MV 2400 f/s). The testing was a comparison of the damage done by cartridges then in use by the Brits, French, Germans, Russians and the US. Unfortunately for us, MacArthur was Army Chief of Staff at the time and decreed that we'd stay with the 30-06.

Oh, one last thought. There was a lot of problems with control of the M14 in full auto. Seems no one wanted to talk to the Italians, especially Col Rene Studler, who was in charge of the M14 program. They'd converted their M1's to the BM59, firing a 7.62 Nato round w/ 20 round box magazine and muzzle stabilizer. They had no problems with muzzle climb or loss of control.

The Garand, and m14 were cr... (Below threshold)

The Garand, and m14 were crap? What planet are you living on? Patton said the garand won WWII. M 14 crap? Have you ever heard of Carlos Hathcock? Guess not. But I guess your and expert?

I've heard of Carlos Hathco... (Below threshold)

I've heard of Carlos Hathcock. His longest range shot was with a Ma Deuce with a scope mounted on it. But I'm not sure why Carlos matters for this discussion, he didn't use an M14, he used a Winchester Model 70 in .30-06 with a scope.

Most of the original article is junk. That many weapons going down at the same time suggests to me that maintenance wasn't a high priority, and they were at the end of their deployment when weapons tend to be worn out anyway. My brother and his unit had no reliability problems with their M4's during their deployment to Iraq, he DID prefer an M14 for the heavier throw weight.

And I've fired a lot more than 88 rounds in competition without cleaning, and the only failures to feed I've had were because I was using the wrong lubricant which caked up and kept the bolt out of battery, that was after several days of competition, including shooting in the rain. The most I'd do most days was run a patch through the bore and wipe down the bolt, I now make a point of cleaning out the bolt carrier (and using a lighter weight lube, I had been using a heavy grease).

FWIW, a report I read from someone who spent some time with an unnamed military unit that carried SIG 226's and referred to their weapons as Mk whatever said that they weren't particularly happy with the FN SCAR's they'd been issued.

Too bad we can't have somet... (Below threshold)

Too bad we can't have something foolproof AND powerful, like an FNFAL. My bushy .308 is great, but alas, prone to getting the locking lugs too dirty and jamming, but that is rare. I'll keep it around anyway, thanks, but I can run a four minute mile while toting a thousand rounds. I can also lift the front end of a D9 tractor with my wee-wee.

your exactly right about cl... (Below threshold)

your exactly right about cleaning the bolt Garand.fired many rounds through mine and Never had a misfire or jam.also its very deadly at 200yrd w/open sight.

COL. Tamilio of PM Soldier ... (Below threshold)

COL. Tamilio of PM Soldier Weapons posted some facts about the M4's reliability and the improvements that have been made over the years.

You can get the information at:


Listen to be honest yes the... (Below threshold)

Listen to be honest yes the M-16 has had alot of problems And the 5.56mm is really effective on small game but not much else. Now H&K built one hell of a gun. the problem is when Germany reunified it was way too expensive to mass produce for the new German Army. It's still a great weapon. I'm referring to the H&K G-11K2 4.73mm Caseless. in three round burst mode it could fire so fast the it would literally fire three round on a single recoil stroke putting three bullets down the barrel at once. it had a point and shoot range of 300 yards and the 4.73mm round could punch 1/4 of steel plate. Check it out for more Information. But the New G-36 family is a decent weapon. How ever the 6.8mm is a good round But to be honest I'm sorta biased. I love the most widely distrubuted cartridge in military History. And no I'm not referring to the 7.26x39mm Russian
I'm referring to the 170gr. 7.92x57mm Mauser.






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