It’s Not Just the M16

Longtime Readers will remember when I bagged on the reliability of the M16, the primary service rifle of the U.S. armed forces. Though newer versions have improved the situation somewhat, the M16 has been legendary since Vietnam for how easily it will jam under combat conditions.

Now it turns out that the M4 carbine — the short-barreled version of the M16 that is commonly carried by support units and special operations troops, who need portability more than sheer stopping power — has jamming problems too:

M4 Carbine Fairs Poorly in Dust Test [sic]

The primary weapon carried by most soldiers into battle in Iraq and Afghanistan performed the worst in a recent series of tests designed to see how it stacked up against three other top carbines in sandy environments.

After firing 6,000 rounds through ten M4s in a dust chamber at the Army’s Aberdeen test center in Maryland this fall, the weapons experienced a total of 863 minor stoppages and 19 that would have required the armorer to fix the problem. Stacked up against the M4 during the side-by-side tests were two other weapons popular with special operations forces, including the Heckler and Koch 416 and the FN USA Special Operations Combat Assault Rifle, or Mk16…

Though Army testers and engineers are still evaluating the data, officials with the Army’s Infantry Center based in Fort Benning, Ga., said they planned to issue new requirements for the standard-issue carbine in about 18 months that could include a wholesale replacement of the M4. But the Army has been resistant to replace the M4, which has been in the Army inventory for over 18 years, until there’s enough of a performance leap to justify buying a new carbine…

[O]ne congressional staffer familiar with the extreme dust tests is skeptical of the service’s conclusions.

“This isn’t brain surgery — a rifle needs to do three things: shoot when you pull the trigger, put bullets where you aim them and deliver enough energy to stop what’s attacking you,” the staffer told in an email. “If the M4 can’t be depended on to shoot then everything else is irrelevant.”

(Emphasis mine.)

So the M4 has problems under desert conditions. Thank God we’re not sending soldiers into battle in the desert these days, right?

The Army Times has more details on how the dust tests were conducted. The story notes that this rate of jams means that the M4 would experience a jam every 68 rounds fired.  Compare that to the carbine that did best in the dust test, the Heckler & Koch XM8, which would jam every 472 rounds fired.  The Army says that even in the worst firefights the average soldier would fire no more than 140 times — but if the dust test’s findings are accurate, that means the soldier carrying an M4 can expect her weapon to jam at least once in nearly every engagement.

This is only the most recent story highlighting the problems of the M4. In March, the Army Times examined how the Army was still buying M4s, even though a better alternative developed in conjunction with Special Forces units was available.  The Army says that these newer carbines don’t represent a big enough leap in technology, preferring to wait for the arrival of the XM29 — an experimental weapon in testing that isn’t expected to hit the field for another decade.

Why do we have so much trouble getting reliable weapons into the hands of our fighting men and women?