It took us Nine Years to Figure this Out?

The M-4 is an updated version of the M-16, and the U.S. military’s workhorse rifle. It has been used in battle for the last 40 years and was designed for close combat in Vietnam. It worked well in Iraq, where much of the fighting was in cities such as Baghdad and Fallujah. It is proving to be an ineffective weapon in many of the combat situations in Afghanistan, where the Taliban are using World War II-era rifles to combat our 21st century soldiers.

m-4 in afghanistan

The problem? A current news story notes:

A U.S. Army study found that the 5.56 mm bullets fired from M-4s don’t retain enough velocity at distances greater than 1,000 feet (300 meters) to kill an adversary. In hilly regions of Afghanistan, NATO and insurgent forces are often 2,000 to 2,500 feet (600-800 meters) apart.

Afghans have a tradition of long-range ambushes against foreign forces. During the 1832-1842 British-Afghan war, the British found that their Brown Bess muskets could not reach insurgent sharpshooters firing higher-caliber Jezzail flintlocks.

Soviet soldiers in the 1980s found that their AK-47 rifles could not match the World War II-era bolt-action Lee-Enfield and Mauser rifles used by mujahedeen rebels.

This isn’t to say that the US is totally incompetent. There is a fierce debate ongoing as to whether a soldier is better off with the more-rapid firepower of the 5.56mm bullets or with the longer range of the 7.62 mm bullets that come with the new M-110 sniper rifle, which fires a larger 7.62 mm round and is accurate to at least 2,500 feet (800 meters). 80-90% of soldiers serving in Afghanistan are happy with their M-4s.

But this isn’t new news. The US Army has known since at least 2008 about the rifles failings. And since this is a problem that the Soviet’s experienced during the 1980s, its a shame that better research couldn’t have been done to understand the needs of the situation on the ground.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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30 Responses to It took us Nine Years to Figure this Out?

  1. Chirol says:

    Great topic. This debate is very old. The US went with 5.56 due to pressure from NATO allies. We preferred .30-06 and 7.62×51. Most people don’t realize that 5.56×45 is basically a .22 caliber.

    There are at least a dozen new rifles that have come out such as the SCAR, and the best of all, the Bushmaster ACR (designed by Magpul). It fixes all the M4 issues and allows the user to quickly swap barrels and calibers. Unfortunately, its crazy expensive right now, $2,300 bucks for the basic civilian version.

    In terms of rounds, the current ‘hot’ round being recommended is 6.8 SPC but it remains very expensive, hard to find much of and infrequently used.

    The issue here isn’t the debate, nor the rifle nor the gun, its the hugely slow process of government change.

  2. Publius Scipio says:

    Range and penetrating power are but two facets in choosing a weapon of choice. I would argue that how one deploys to use it is equal in importance to the first two. Likewise, ease of maintenance and field repair are also decisive qualities for individual weapons. To wit, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of utter despair when one’s weapon jams in the middle of an intense firefight, that is assuming one survives the fight. There are specialized longer range weapons in the squad (lowest level of deployed military unit in the U.S.) that can more than compensate for the bolt-action rifles of the enemy. One “hopes’ that the military powers-that-be are sensible enough to ensure some adequate mix of weapon qualities are embedded in the individual soldier weapons inventory.

  3. hattip says:

    The M-4 is not an “updated version” if the m16, it is a short barreled, close quarters “version” of the M16 rifle. Think of it conceptually as a carbine version of the M-16

    If the barrel is the right length, as per the original design,such as the M16 the USMC carries (and other Army troops as well) it will work fine at that range. On the other hand, you would prefer using the M4 in close quarters combat situations..

    This story keeps circulated around out of context and pouffed up as some sort of “scandal”, or somehow proof that the army is “innept”.

    It proper platoon tactics, BTW, there should be personal in the squad that have different types of rifles, that can hit out at that range.

    This matter is overblown.

  4. M-Bone says:

    Does anyone know what proportion of US casualties in Afghanistan are being caused by enemy fire (as opposed to roadside bombs, etc.)? I did a quick search but didn’t find the answer.

  5. dj says:

    Most squads have DMR M-14′s. Also you did not point out that M-4s became ubiquitous because they were easier to use in vehicles and get in and out of vehicles.

    There have also been articles over the years about Old School Taliban complaining how most young Taliban don’t know how to shoot accurately at large distances. The Enfield’s and .303 are not around nearly as much as there were in the 80s versus the Soviets.

    If you look at photosteams on sites like you will see a lot of SF/SOF using the SCAR-H now.

  6. jim says:

    Brookings does the Iraq Index and Afghanistan Index and keeps track of the % of casualties due to various causes. They seem to have the best data on this.

  7. Jesus Reyes says:

    Man, I’m glad that problem is solved. Now on to some of the others; 1) the ANA is a hustle where the dregs are sent down to get stoned and collect a check, 2) The USG pays $400.00 for a gallon of petrol and the Taliban pays $4.00, 3) the USG pays $6 million a copy for a very fancy Lincoln Navigator (which they seldom get out of), and the Taliban pays $6,000 for used Toyotas, 3) The Lincoln gets 3 miles a gallon, the Toyota 20 mph, 4) The USG fields 200,000 men to face down 10,000 Taliban, and still cant get any traction, 9) This has been going on for NINE years, Hitler and Hideki Tojo should have subbed it out to the Taliban, 10) The president and his brother are running the biggest drug op on the planet and delivering the product on US military planes. Is there anything else? Where’s my list. Yea, definitely need a bigger bullet. Just as long as we find someone to give the contract to who will mark it up 800%. Oh, I remember, Brig. Gen. Stephen Townsend lines the entire 101st Airborne Division
    up on the morning of 04/24/10 and demands that “Suicides on Fort Campbell have to stop now.” Definitely. Good idea. Hey, I just had a brilliant idea. Can we find someone that we can pay a couple of hundreds of millions of dollars to to produce a study on how to increase the suicide rate among the Taliban? Where’s my promotion?

  8. Chief Wiggum says:

    “Does anyone know what proportion of US casualties in Afghanistan are being caused by enemy fire (as opposed to roadside bombs, etc.)? I did a quick search but didn’t find the answer.”

    I can provide some anecdotal information provided by my nephew, who is serving with the 82nd Airborne in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He recently returned on leave. He is his unit’s SAW gunner.

    In his first six months in Afghanistan, he has fired his weapon two times in firefights, for a total of about ten seconds. This is during a time when his unit did daily foot patrols in hostile areas. IEDs are the problem. They patrol to find and disarm or detonate IEDs. They have found over 300 of them.

    My nephew is one of only two men in his original squad who have not been wounded or killed by IEDs. The wounded were badly wounded enough to be taken out of theatre entirely.

    He complained bitterly about the rules of engagement, which is another story.

    One reason the US went to the M16/M4 platform is the weight of the ammo and the weapon itself. These guys are loaded down like mules, walking up and down mountain roads and trails at high altitude. The 7.62×51 platform is considerably heavier.

    One rationale of the M16/M4 system is that it is better to wound than kill. They are like toe-popper mines which are designed to maim and disable, but not necessarily kill. That way, the enemy is forced to devote personnel and resources to remove the injured from the battlefield and then care for them. (One of the rules of engagement is that US soldiers cannot attack Taliban who are caring for their wounded!)

    Where the bullet hits is at least as important as the caliber. Hits to the cranial-ocular cavity or hits to vital organs will usually take the victim out of a fight, but not always immediately. One feature of the 5.56 round is that it is designed to rotate when it enters the body, so it can do more damage than a round that punches straight through. People do die when they are hit in other areas of the body and bleed out.

    I’ve read the Army wanted to go to the lighter 6.5 mm system between WWI and WWII, but the idea was scrapped because they had millions and millions of rounds of 30.06 ammo left over from WWI and wanted to use up their inventory first.

    My nephew says his unit has designated marksmen who carry scoped rifles that fire the 7.61 x 51 round.

    My nephew is pretty unhappy about his situation. IEDs/mines are being planted much faster than the soldiers can find and destroy them. He feels it’s just a matter of time until he is killed or maimed. Many Afghan civilians (and animals) are being killed or injured by these weapons, too.

  9. Arcane says:

    These stories are fairly common and are usually written by people who have little knowledge of the subject. Anybody who says that the Islamists, with AK-47 rifles, are shooting accurately at the distances cited have no knowledge of the weapon system’s capabilities. The AK-47 is a carbine just like the M-4.

    Say what you will about the 5.56 mm ammunition, but it is highly effective and proven. The main round now in service is the M855, which at 62 grains is more effective than the 55 grain M193 used in Vietnam – it should be noted, however, that the M193 was greatly feared by the NVA and Vietcong. The Russians were so impressed with its terminal ballistics, weight, and accuracy that they developed their own knock-off of it in 5.45 mm and are phasing out the 7.62 mm round. Numerous news sources of quoted Islamist insurgents who were attempting to acquire 5.45 mm ammunition and AK-74/AKM rifles in larger quantities. The idea that the Army went to 5.56 because they wanted to maim people instead of kill them is an urban myth which has been thoroughly debunked.

    Barrel length plays a large role here: the 14.5″ M-4 is effective out to about 650 meters, which is much farther than most rifleman can shoot. The 20″ M-16 is effective out to about 800 meters. Neither rifle was designed for very long-range shooting.

    The solution to this is the Mk262 round in 77 grains when shot out of a Mk12 rifle with an 18″ barrel by a member trained as a Designated Marksman. More and more units now are being issued M-14′s and M-110′s, but it should be noted that these weapons are heavy and this severely limits how much ammo the individual can carry.

    As far as the ACR is concerned, it has not yet been proven, is significantly heavier than the M-4, and has an inferior barrel. At this time, it is not a serious competitor. The SCAR has been proven, but it would not be any better at the distances being discussed due to its short barrel profile, even if you used the heavy model chambered in 7.62 mm.

    There is *nothing* special about being able to swap out a barrel on a rifle. Sure, the ACR, XCR, and MRP all have barrels that can be quickly swapped out, but the entire upper receiver on the M-4 can be swapped out by just pulling two pins, swapping the receiver, and pushing the two pins back in. It takes about 30 seconds – tops.

    Not only that, nobody is going to carry extra barrels around in their pack when they go out in patrol, and then get into a firefight and think to themselves, “Ah, I need to use another barrel,” and then proceed to tear down their rifle right then and there to put another barrel in. Not only that, at those kinds of distances, the barrel would need to be re-zeroed, a meticulous process for sniper weapons.

    As far as other calibers are concerned, the 6.5 mm and 6.8 mm are probably more effective than the 5.56 mm. The 6.8 mm was developed by Remington in coordination with elements of SOCOM and has seen some use, but it has its issues, too. And again, out of a 14.5″ barrel, it is going to be extremely limited at those distances.

    You could go back to the M-16 rifle with the 20″ barrel, but without a collapsible stock it is very uncomfortable to shoot when wearing body armor.

    The current ROE play a greater role for these distances than the rifles. Army doctrine generally calls for indirect fire when dealing with enemies at that distance in the field, and this has been extremely limited in the latest ROE.

  10. Arcane says:

    Also, this article is sort of bizarre in that they discuss the Mauser and Enfield rifles being used by insurgents. The insurgents using these weapons are trained snipers, and this requires completely different tactics to deal with than what the article discusses. The idea that we should arm all of our troops with sniper rifles because a few are using these is sort of ridiculous.

    What we need is to allow them to have more Designated Marksmen and also allow troops to call in air strikes on sniper positions.

  11. DPT says:

    While I must admit I don’t have sources on this, virtually every book I’ve read about snipers and marksman likes to put out statistics about how the US fired dozens (or even hundreds) of thousands of rounds of ammunition per confirmed enemy kill in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. I recall hearing similar figures for our engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. These may all be fluff to make marksmen and snipers look like vastly more effective weapons of war by comparison, but it seems from those statistics that even if the US adopted a heavier round, the tactics used in firefights, which emphasize suppressive fire, are as much of (or more of) a problem for the efficacy of our infantry weapons on a shot-per-shot basis…

  12. Arcane says:

    That is partially true, but tactics have changed since then. The military now emphasizes accurate, semi-automatic fire with bursts to be used primarily for suppression (unless it’s 3-rd burst, which has some role in CQB gunfights).

  13. DPT says:

    Fair enough. Though I would imagine that since US forces operate mainly on patrol and Taliban operate with more emphasis on ambush, that the US is relatively more likely to be using larger amounts of suppressive fire.

    Of course, this makes the articles conclusions all the less surprising. I would think for US troops, it would be a lot better to be able to carry the large amount of ammunition that makes suppressive fire possible…

    Another thing this article seems to be missing is a perspective of other NATO countries. Do the British, French, Germans, etc have the same complaints about the efficacy of their weapons?

  14. Arcane says:

    The Germans primarily use the G36 and it’s chambered in 5.56 mm, as well, so it’s going to have the same issues as the M-4. The Army rejected the G36 in its trials because the polymer melted during sustained fire. I assume the Germans have tactics that deal with both of these issues.

    Additionally, both the French FAMAS and British SA-80 are chambered in 5.56, so again, same issue.

    The fact that 5.56 is being used by so many countries and that the 5.45 is being adopted by the Russians tells me 5.56 is a good caliber.

  15. Vejadu says:

    Key element is the US forces are not a one-note Charlie. In addition to the basic rifle there are marksmen with longer range rifles, squad automatic weapons. There are grenade launchers. There are smoke grenades to withdraw behind while you call on your RADIO for any variety of airborne assets or indirect fire assets to take down the bad guy at no risk to you and yours. Finally – this is ONE environment. The US forces must be ready to fight anywhere from Seoul to Brownsville to Baghdad to Kigali on no-notice. Odds are on having a mix of weapons systems available that can be adjusted for local conditions.

  16. chirol says:

    Arcane: 5.56 and 5.45 is good for penetrating typical soft body armor, that’s it. 6.8 and 7.62 have much better penetration of both surfaces (metal, glass etc) and flesh.

  17. Isegoria says:

    The word coming back from Afghanistan is that we should forget the fables about Afghan marksmen, because the current crop of Taliban can’t shoot straight. The “kids these days” prefer to “spray and pray” with automatic fire from AK-47s loaded with mixed and matched old ammo of dubious quality.

    Certainly the Taliban can field some old-school snipers — and some machine-guns — so there’s a movement to take back the infantry half-kilometer by training and arming American soldiers more soldiers like the Marines, who qualify at longer ranges using the longer-barreled M16; by training and arming more designated marksmen; and by potentially moving away from 5.56 mm to 6.5 mm or 6.8 mm.

    That brings us back to the question of why American soldiers shoot a glorified .22 in the first place. After WWII, Operations Research showed that soldiers with full-auto weapons were much more likely to fire their weapons at all, that enormous numbers of rounds were fired per actual casualty scored, and that most engagements were at short range — so a light round with low recoil and decent short-range performance made perfect sense.

  18. M Brueschke says:

    No, the isn’t 5.56×45 is basically a .22 caliber.

    Yes, the diameter of the bullets are similar but the energy and bullet’s mass are not “basically a .22 caliber.”

    From the wiki article Isegoria has on the blog link
    Mass 62 gr (4 g) muzzle velocity 940 m/s (3,100 ft/s) muzzle energy 1,767 J

    Here is similar data for a .22 long rifle
    Mass 40 gr (2.6 g) muzzle velocity 330 m/s (1,080 ft/s) muzzle energy 141 J
    For the base .22 long
    Mass 29 gr (1.9 g) muzzle velocity 316 m/s (1,038 ft/s ) muzzle energy 91 J

    So while the M4 and the NATO 5.56 isn’t the best long range round, the NATO 5.56 isn’t in the same class as the .22 at all and it doesn’t help to throw that misinformation around.

    Units in the GWoT have been supplemented with M-14s for the Marine Corps as the M14 Designated Marksman Rifle and M39 Enhanced Marksman Rifle and the US Army uses and accurized M-16 and M-14EBR in Designated Marksman roles.

  19. Arcane says:

    Of course they have more penetrating power… but they also are heavier and have more recoil. The time consumed putting the muzzle back on target using heavier ammunition is a liability in and of itself, which is one of the reasons they opted for the 5.56.

  20. Isegoria says:

    When I called the 5.56 mm (.223) a glorified .22 — with tongue in cheek — I didn’t think anyone here would take that to imply that there’s no meaningful difference between the high-velocity assault rifle round and the venerable .22 long rifle round used in target shooting and squirrel hunting.

    That said, the 5.56 mm round is small and has roughly half the muzzle energy of the 7.62 mm (.308) round, a bigger bullet more in line with what we’d expect from a classic main battle rifle or a modern deer-hunting rifle.

  21. Chief Wiggum says:

    According to a NYT article dated May 24, 2010, a total of 188 American troops have been killed in Afghanistan by gunshot wounds. I recently read in my local paper that total American deaths in Afghanistan just went over 1,000.

    From the article:
    “Now and then over the years, there have been reports of well-trained Taliban marksmen in different parts of the country. But credible reports have been few. Taliban rifle fire, in the main, has been largely ineffective. How ineffective? Through April 3, the number of American troops killed by gunshot wounds in the entire war in Afghanistan, according to the casualty summaries compiled by the Defense Manpower Data Center, had reached 188. That includes wounds caused not just by rifle fire, but also by the more powerful PK machine guns and any other firearm present in the war.”

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  23. Bud says:

    Few thoughts; the muzzle energy is relevant if you are shooting at indoor distances, but at long ranges light little bullets with low ballistic coefficients like the 5.56 have lost so much energy from friction that they are literally glorified 22’s. Take home message is that if you want to hit something hard way out there you need a big gun, says physics. In regard to suppressive fire I once asked a special forces soldier if he ever used his rifles full auto capability and he said “No, why would I?” I said suppressive fire. He said that if you want to suppress an enemy shoot the guy in front in the head.

  24. Calvin says:

    I wonder why the Soviets were not using AK-50 or even the
    AK-76 in the 1980s

  25. Chirol says:

    Here’s a great presentation from a British source on changing the standard NATO rifle and cartridge. Very detailed but easy to follow

  26. Bud says:

    That is an interesting article, but the .30’06 didn’t get a fair shake. The velocity listed for a 150 grain bullet is about what is typically achieved with 180 grain bullet.

    I am not sure why everyone thinks a single rifle should do everything. Why not carry an MP5 and a long barrelled 7.62 version of an AR?

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  28. SergueiK says:

    Just to clarify: the US did not went to with 5.56 due to pressure from NATO allies.
    The decision was took by all the allies, with special encourage from U.S. The official policy is that nowadays the main interest is to wound and not to kill or, at least, try to wound and not to kill.
    The main interest of the US in this case was the logistic advantage of the 5.56.
    Many NATO allies are not happy (just OK) with the change.
    Germans and British are using 5.56 because it’s the official caliber of NATO but they are using it, as well as Spanish, in deployment missions.
    The 7.62 is still used in fire test ranges in their HQs and training (mainly due to the huge amount of stock left).

  29. foreign legionnaire says:

    -To Bud-

    why? in one word only?


  30. foreign legionnaire says:

    oh, and all of you should also read non-U.S. press about the war too. There have been killed more (far more) than 1000 US soldiers in Afghanistan.

    Just to have another point of view. Just to be sure nobody’s fooling you.