The U.S. Military's M4 Carbine, M16 Rifle and 5.56mm NATO Cartridge:
A National Disgrace?

By Randy Wakeman

The Army has been eerily silent about it. The shooting sports industry, in large measure, has failed to address the matter. Yet, the best evidence available points to how the United States has failed and is currently failing our young men and women placed in harm's way. It is a matter that should be of great concern, if not outrage, to all Americans.


The troubled old M16 platform has had its problems from the beginning. A design mired in the late 1950's, Jim Sullivan of the original design team has denounced it. Mr Sullivan has commented, �They're right exactly where they were when we gave them the M-16 in 1960. They haven't advanced an inch. That AK-74 out-hits the M-16 by two to one on full automatic.� The U.S. Army's own testing, provoked by the efforts of Senator Tom Coburn, showed that the current M4 finished dead last in sandstorm reliability testing versus three other rifles. The M4 had more stoppages in the November, 2007 test then all three of the other rifles combined!


CBS News, on October 12, 2009, ran the story, �M4 Rifles Causing Problems for U.S. Troops. Independent Study of Wanat Battle by Military Historian Finds Widely Used Gun Can Jam at Worst Time.� Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), a leading critic of the M4, said at that time the Army needs to move quickly to acquire a combat rifle suited for the extreme conditions in which U.S. troops are fighting. Not much is happening and certainly not quickly. However, U.S. Special Operations forces, with their separate acquisition budget and the latitude to buy equipment, have already replaced their M4's.


On October 30, 2009, U. S. Army weapons officials presented the proposed changes to Congress on They include:


� Adding a heavier barrel for better performance during high rates of fire.

� Replacing the direct-impingement gas system with a piston gas system.

� Improving the trigger pull.

� Adding an improved rail system for increased strength.

� Adding ambidextrous controls.

Adding a round counter to track the total number of bullets fired over the weapon�s lifetime.


Still, little has been done despite the widely-reported and well-known issues. Dr. Gary K. Roberts gave a concise presentation for the NDIA in 2008, titled �Time for a Change U.S. Military Small Arms Ammunition Failures and Solutions.� Dr. Roberts wrote:


SALVO, SPIW, 6 mm SAW, ACR, XM29, XM8�even with modern engineering, CAD/CAM techniques, and new materials many proposed U.S. small arms and ammunition improvements cost tens of millions of dollars, years of RDT&E, and then rarely seem to ever actually reach the field.�


Millions of dollars are poured into next generation small arms technologies with no near-term potential to improve combat capability, like caseless, telescoping, and air-burst ammo, while simple innovative incremental advances that can immediately make an impact in combat operations, like barrier blind ammunition and intermediate calibers, get minimal funding or are ignored. DOD replaces computer hardware and software every 3 or 4 years, yet does not offer the same type of incremental improvements for small arms weapons and ammunition, despite similar costs.�


The sacred alter of green ammo has sucked up tens of millions of dollars over many years in the nebulous pursuit of non-toxic ammunition, yet with a few COTS exceptions, has not resulted in any improvements in ammunition reliability, accuracy, or terminal performance--the factors that actually help win fights.�


�The United States made several major missteps in its search for the ideal combat rifle caliber. In the late 1920�s, the U.S. Army selected the .276 Pederson caliber produced by Frankford Arsenal as the best caliber for a new semi-automatic rifle. The .276 fired a 125 gr bullet at approximately 2700 f/s. Ordnance trials determined that John Garand�s new .276 caliber T3E2 rifle was an ideal combat weapon, however, development of the .276 rifle was halted in 1932 because of the large remaining stocks of old .30-06 caliber M1906 150 gr FMJ ammunition left over from WWI; thus the U.S. military threw away an opportunity to adopt the superior performing .276 caliber and the M1 Garand rifle was adopted in the old .30-06 caliber.�


Following WWII the United States Army again made a colossal weapon system selection error when it rejected the British .270 caliber 130 gr and .280 caliber 140 gr ammunition fired at approximately 2400 f/s and instead insisted on the full power 7.62 x 51 mm cartridge that offered nearly identical ballistic characteristics as the old .30-06 it replaced. Given the 7.62 mm�s extremely short life as the standard service rifle caliber, in hindsight, we can hypothesize that both the .270 (6.8 mm) and .280 (7 mm) would probably have been ideal combat rifle calibers and might still be in use today if either had been chosen.


�The disturbing failure of 5.56 mm to consistently offer adequate incapacitation has been known for nearly 15 years. Dr. Fackler�s seminal work at the Letterman Army Institute of Research Wound Ballistic Laboratory during the 1980�s illuminated the yaw and fragmentation mechanism by which 5.56 mm FMJ bullets create wounds in tissue. If 5.56 mm bullets fail to upset (yaw, fragment, or deform) within tissue, the results are relatively insignificant wounds, similar to those produced by .22 LR--this is true for ALL 5.56 mm bullets, including military FMJ , OTM, and AP, as well as JHP and JSP designs used in LE. This failure of 5.56 mm bullets to upset can be caused by reduced impact velocities when hitting targets at longer ranges, as well as by the decreased muzzle velocity when using short barrel carbines. Failure to upset can also occur when bullets pass through

minimal tissue, such as a limb or the torso of a thin, small statured individual, as the bullet may exit the body before it has a chance to upset. Finally, bullet design and construction plays a major role in reliable bullet upset. Without consistent bullet upset, wounding effects are decreased, rapid incapacitation is unlikely, and enemy combatants may continue to pose a threat to friendly forces and innocent civilians.�


6.8 mm offers superior terminal EFFECTIVENESS compared to 5.56 mm in all environments, including CQB & Urban, especially when fired from short barrels. Unlike 5.56 mm, 6.8 mm continues to demonstrate good terminal performance even after defeating common intermediate barriers, such as glass, walls, and automobiles, as well as loaded AK47 magazines, like those frequently worn in chest pouches by terrorists.�


The evidence is clear and it is overwhelming. The United States does not equip its troops with the best rifles for the job and the rifles currently in use feature an obsolete, underpowered, fundamentally flawed, comparatively inferior and ineffectual cartridge compared to the 6.8 mm and others.


Politicians and pundits have enjoyed saying that the United States has the best-equipped, best trained, most efficient military on the planet. They are either lying or ignorant. The M4 carbine, despite improvements, is severely lacking in SIX key areas that the Army itself has identified in its report to Congress with its proposed changes. The Army's own tests show the reliability problems of the M4.


The lead designer of the M-16, Jim Sullivan, has stated that the current, 3rd generation (Russian) AK-74 is far superior to what we give our troops to work with and that if his own son was fighting in the sand he would much rather have him use an AK-74 than the problematic M4. U.S. Special Operations Command back in 2004 understood the problems and limitations of the M4, moving away from it with the SCAR. This is of no consolation to the bulk of U.S. Army troops that are forced to rely on inferior equipment.


For over fifteen long years, the sad inferiority and disturbing failure of the 5.56 round has been clearly understood and loudly lamented by wounding ballistics experts. Yet, nothing has been done. We forget that we are a nation engaged in war, providing a great deal of lip-service in the support of our troops, yet failing to provide them with the best tools to get the job done.


We know that, according to Army tests, the HK416 was �3.77x more reliable than the M4,� the FN SCAR �3.85x more reliable than the M4� and the XM-8 was �6.95x more reliable than the M4.� The failure of M4 barrels confirms SOCOM objections from the Feb 23/01 report M4A1 5.56mm Carbine and Related Systems Deficiencies and Solutions, which concludes that the �M4A1 Carbine . . . does not meet the requirements of SOF.�


We know the M4 is a deficient carbine. We know the 5.56 is a deficient cartridge. Aside from Senator Tom Coburn, very few seem to care while our troops are left wounded or dying due to inadequate equipment. Our nation should be outraged beyond words.


While we dawdle, while we ignore, while we debate health care and the economy, while we complain of taxes and partisan politics, we overlook those Americans who are asked to give the greatest sacrifice their country can ask of them.


The current M4 rifle and its cartridge are both an embarrassment and a national disgrace. Our men and women who serve deserve better and they deserve better right now. We are failing America's bravest ever deeper with each passing day.


From the Army Times:


The harsh terrain of Iraq and Afghanistan have served as proving grounds for the U.S. Army, putting to the test virtually all that soldiers wear, carry and operate. One critical lesson has been that the M4 carbine and M16 rifle that regular Army troops carry are dangerously vulnerable to the fine sand and extreme temperatures of those combat zones. Soldiers have had their weapons jam when they most needed them � while under fire. Keeping them clean in the combat zone requires more care than is reasonable to expect from busy, weary soldiers.


Members of Delta Force decided they wanted a weapon more reliable than the M4 and bought a new carbine, the 416, from gunmaker Heckler & Koch. The 416 essentially is an enhanced M4, but with a critical difference: It features an operating system that better cycles the heat and gas created when rounds are fired, reducing both the rate at which the weapon jams and the wear on parts.


Though the 416 is more reliable and comparable in cost to the M4, Army leaders are not considering it for regular soldiers, saying it did not represent enough of a leap in technology. For that, they have focused on developing the XM29 Objective Individual Combat Weapon. After six years and $100 million, the weapon is deemed too heavy for the battlefield and its future is hazy. Army weapons officials say it will be well into the next decade before the Vietnam-era M16/M4 family of weapons has a replacement.�


Another article from the Army Times discussing the 416 from March 1, 2007, is titled �Better Than M-4, but you can't have one.� This isn't vaporware or pipe dreaming at all. We know that that the H&K 416 and the FN SCAR rifles are far more reliable than what our troops are saddled with. The first autoloading rifle to be issued in any quantity to the infantry was the M1 Garand. The M1 Garand was in service from 1936-1957, being replaced by the M14. After 21 years, it was time to move on.


Yet, the hoary M16 has been in service since 1963. In the last forty-seven years, time hasn't stood still and we know that both the fundamental rifle and the cartridge are deficient compared to several other options. Yet, nothing has been done to replace the M4.


All of this inaction comes at a time when the U.S. has had no problems throwing piles of money at the private sector, bailing out Wall Street, buying American banks and debt, throwing billions into a failed automotive industry, funding new Toyota sales with �Cash for Clunkers� and stressing small businesses at the same time. Just recently, one trillion dollars has been committed for health care. The level of federal government involvement and interference in the private lives of Americans is rightly the subject of debate. It is a debate that looks to go on for years.


However, there should be no debate whatsoever about our responsibility to give our troops the best equipment possible. None. Since 2003, according to, some 35,000 American service members have been killed or wounded in Iraq. Reported on March 27, 2010, by the Associated Press:


The number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan has roughly doubled in the first three months of 2010 compared to the same period last year, as Washington has added tens of thousands of additional soldiers to reverse the Taliban's momentum. Those deaths have been accompanied by a dramatic spike in the number of wounded, with injuries more than tripling in the first two months of the year and trending in the same direction based on the latest available data for March.


U.S. officials have warned that casualties are likely to rise even further as the Pentagon completes its deployment of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and sets its sights on the Taliban's home base of Kandahar province, where a major operation is expected in the coming months.�


There is no end in sight. We are a nation at war. Yet, we don't act like it. The United States' great failure in giving our troops the best equipment screams louder and louder every day. It is morally unconscionable, yet our spring to inaction persists.


How many American soldiers are left dead or wounded every year due to poor equipment? This is a question that our President and our Congress needs to address and rectify and it can't be too soon. The lives of American servicemen and women cannot be politics. We cannot be derelict in our responsibility to give our troops the best equipment for the job. We have failed, are currently failing, and we need to fix it. Surely the lives of Americans we place in harm's way is as important than giving out cash for a clunker? We spent $3 billion on cash for clunkers. Outfitting our servicemen with state of the art rifles would cost less than one third of that. This is all a very tiny drop in the bucket compared to the huge piles of money we are spending on so many other issues. Edmunds estimates that American taxpayers spent $24,000 per clunker. Just what is the life of an American soldier worth?


The lead designer of the M16 series, Jim Sullivan, knows it is deficient and has said so. The U.S. Army's own tests confirm it. Members of Delta Force wanted a more reliable carbine and they got it, going with the H&K 416. United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) recognized the problems of the M4, going with superior FN SCAR-L and SCAR-H rifles. The regular soldier has been ignored and bypassed.


It was Martin Luther King, Jr., who used the phrase �remind America of the fierce urgency of now.� The fierce urgency of now needs to be applied to the aged, obsolete, problematic M4 and its puny 5.56mm cartridge. American troops deserve better, we can give them better, and it is a national disgrace that we have not done so.

Back to the Naval & Military History Page

Copyright 2010, 2013 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.