The rifle that today’s infantry uses is little changed since the 1960s—and it is badly flawed. Military lives depend on these cheap composites of metal and plastic. So why can’t the richest country in the world give its soldiers better ones?
Robert H. Scales Dec 28 2014, 7:44 PM ET
A custom M4, similar to the one used by infantry today. The M4 is a lighter version of the M16, which killed so many of the soldiers who carried it in Vietnam. (Adam Voorhes)
One afternoon just a month and a half after the Battle of Gettysburg, Christopher Spencer, the creator of a seven-shot repeating rifle, walked Abraham Lincoln out to a grassy field near where the Washington Monument now stands in order to demonstrate the amazing potential of his new gun. Lincoln had heard about the mystical powers of repeating rifles at Gettysburg and other battles where some Union troops already had them. He wanted to test them for the rest of his soldiers. The president quickly put seven rounds inside a small target 40 yards away. He was sold.
But to Army bureaucrats, repeaters were an expensive, ammunition-wasting nuisance. Ignorant, unimaginative, vain, and disloyal to the point of criminality, the Army’s chief of ordnance, General James Wolfe Ripley, worked to sabotage every effort to equip the Union Army with repeating rifles, mostly because he couldn’t be bothered. He largely succeeded. The Civil War historian Robert V. Bruce speculated that had such rifles been widely distributed to the Union Army by 1862, the Civil War would have been shortened by years, saving hundreds of thousands of lives.
Ripley’s bureaucratic victory over Lincoln was the beginning of the longest-running defense scandal in American history. I should know. I was almost one of Ripley’s victims. In June of 1969, in the mountains of South Vietnam, the battery I commanded at Firebase Berchtesgaden had spent the day firing artillery in support of infantry forces dug into “Hamburger Hill.” Every person and object in the unit was coated with reddish-brown clay blown upward by rotor wash from Chinook helicopters delivering ammunition. By evening, we were sleeping beside our M16 rifles. I was too inexperienced—or perhaps too lazy—to demand that my soldiers take a moment to clean their guns, even though we had heard disturbing rumors about the consequences of shooting a dirty M16.
At 3 o’clock in the morning, the enemy struck. They were armed with the amazingly reliable and rugged Soviet AK‑47, and after climbing up our hill for hours dragging their guns through the mud, they had no problems unleashing devastating automatic fire. Not so my men. To this day, I am haunted by the sight of three of my dead soldiers lying atop rifles broken open in a frantic attempt to clear jams.
With a few modifications, the weapon that killed my soldiers almost 50 years ago is killing our soldiers today in Afghanistan. General Ripley’s ghost is with us still. During my 35 years in the Army, it became clear to me that from Gettysburg to Hamburger Hill to the streets of Baghdad, the American penchant for arming troops with lousy rifles has been responsible for a staggering number of unnecessary deaths. Over the next few decades, the Department of Defense will spend more than $1 trillion on F-35 stealth fighter jets that after nearly 10 years of testing have yet to be deployed to a single combat zone. But bad rifles are in soldiers’ hands in every combat zone.
In the wars fought since World War II, the vast majority of men and women in uniform have not engaged in the intimate act of killing. Their work is much the same as their civilian counterparts’. It is the infantryman’s job to intentionally seek out and kill the enemy, at the risk of violent death. The Army and Marine Corps infantry, joined by a very small band of Special Operations forces, comprises roughly 100,000 soldiers, some 5 percent of uniformed Defense Department employees. During World War II, 70 percent of all soldiers killed at the hands of the enemy were infantry. In the wars since, that proportion has grown to about 80 percent. These are the (mostly) men whose survival depends on their rifles and ammunition.
In combat, an infantryman lives an animal’s life. The primal laws of tooth and fang determine whether he will live or die. Killing is quick. Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq reinforces the lesson that there is no such thing in small-arms combat as a fair fight. Infantrymen advance into the killing zone grimy, tired, confused, hungry, and scared. Their equipment is dirty, dented, or worn. They die on patrol from ambushes, from sniper attacks, from booby traps and improvised explosive devices. They may have only a split second to lift, aim, and pull the trigger before the enemy fires. Survival depends on the ability to deliver more killing power at longer ranges and with greater precision than the enemy.
Any lost edge, however small, means death. A jammed weapon, an enemy too swift and elusive to be engaged with aimed fire, an enemy out of range yet capable of delivering a larger volume of return fire—any of these cancel out all the wonderfully superior and expensive American air- and sea-based weapons that may be fired in support of ground troops. A soldier in basic training is told that his rifle is his best friend and his ticket home. If the lives of so many depend on just the development of a $1,000, six-pound composite of steel and plastic, why can’t the richest country in the world give it to them?
The answer is both complex and simple. The M4, the standard carbine in use by the infantry today, is a lighter version of the M16 rifle that killed so many of the soldiers who carried it in Vietnam. (The M16 is still also in wide use today.) In the early morning of July 13, 2008, nine infantrymen died fighting off a Taliban attack at a combat outpost near the village of Wanat in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province. Some of the soldiers present later reported that in the midst of battle their rifles overheated and jammed. The Wanat story is reminiscent of experiences in Vietnam: in fact, other than a few cosmetic changes, the rifles from both wars are virtually the same. And the M4’s shorter barrel makes it less effective at long ranges than the older M16—an especially serious disadvantage in modern combat, which is increasingly taking place over long ranges.
To this day, I am haunted by the sight of three of my dead soldiers lying atop rifles broken open in a frantic attempt to clear jams.
The M16 started out as a stroke of genius by one of the world’s most famous firearms designers. In the 1950s, an engineer named Eugene Stoner used space-age materials to improve the Army’s then-standard infantry rifle, the M14. The 5.56-mm cartridge Stoner chose for his rifle was a modification not of the M14’s cartridge but of a commercial Remington rifle cartridge that had been designed to kill small varmints. His invention, the AR‑15, was light, handy, and capable of controlled automatic fire. It outclassed the heavier, harder-recoiling M14. Yet the Army was again reluctant to change. As James Fallows observed in this magazine in 1981, it took the “strong support” of President Kennedy and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to make the Army consider breaking its love affair with the large-caliber M14. In 1963, it slowly began adopting Stoner’s invention.
The “militarized” adaptation of the AR-15 was the M16. Militarization—more than 100 proposed alterations to supposedly make the rifle combat-ready—ruined the first batch to arrive at the front lines, and the cost in dead soldiers was horrific. A propellant ordered by the Army left a powder residue that clogged the rifle. Finely machined parts made the M16 a “maintenance queen” that required constant cleaning in the moisture, dust, and mud of Vietnam. In time, the Army improved the weapon—but not before many U.S. troops died.
Not all the problems with the M16 can be blamed on the Army. Buried in the M16’s, and now the M4’s, operating system is a flaw that no amount of militarizing and tinkering has ever erased. Stoner’s gun cycles cartridges from the magazine into the chamber using gas pressure vented off as the bullet passes through the barrel. Gases traveling down a very narrow aluminum tube produce an intense “puff” that throws the bolt assembly to the rear, making the bolt assembly a freely moving object in the body of the rifle. Any dust or dirt or residue from the cartridge might cause the bolt assembly, and thus the rifle, to jam.
In contrast, the Soviet AK‑47 cycles rounds using a solid operating rod attached to the bolt assembly. The gas action of the AK‑47 throws the rod and the bolt assembly back as one unit, and the solid attachment means that mud or dust will not prevent the gun from functioning. Fearing the deadly consequences of a “failure to feed” in a fight, some top-tier Special Operations units like Delta Force and SEAL Team Six use a more modern and effective rifle with a more reliable operating-rod mechanism. But front-line Army and Marine riflemen still fire weapons much more likely to jam than the AK‑47. Failure to feed affects every aspect of a fight. A Russian infantryman can fire about 140 rounds a minute without stopping. The M4 fires at roughly half that rate.
During the Civil War, General Ripley argued, among other things, that infantry soldiers would have trouble handling the complexity of new repeating weapons. We hear similarly unconvincing arguments now. Today’s grunt has shown in 13 years of war that he can handle complexity. He’s an experienced, long-service professional who deserves the same excellent firearm as the more “elite” Special Operations forces, who have the privilege of buying the best civilian gear off the shelf if they want to.
What should a next-generation, all-purpose infantry rifle look like? It should be modular. Multiple weapons can now be assembled from a single chassis. A squad member can customize his weapon by attaching different barrels, buttstocks, forearms, feed systems, and accessories to make, say, a light machine gun, a carbine, a rifle, or an infantry automatic rifle.
The military must change the caliber and cartridge of the guns it gives infantry soldiers. Stoner’s little 5.56-mm cartridge was ideal for softening the recoil of World War II infantry calibers in order to allow fully automatic fire. But today’s cartridge is simply too small for modern combat. Its lack of mass limits its range to less than 400 meters. The optimum caliber for tomorrow’s rifle is between 6.5 and 7 millimeters. The cartridge could be made almost as light as the older brass-cased 5.56-mm by using a plastic shell casing, which is now in final development by the Marine Corps.
The Army can achieve an infantry version of stealth by attaching newly developed sound suppressors to every rifle. Instead of merely muffling the sound of firing by trapping gases, this new technology redirects the firing gases forward, capturing most of the blast and flash well inside the muzzle. Of course, an enemy under fire would hear the muted sounds of an engagement. But much as with other stealth technology, the enemy soldier would be at a decisive disadvantage in trying to determine the exact location of the weapons firing at him.
Computer miniaturization now allows precision to be squeezed into a rifle sight. All an infantryman using a rifle equipped with a new-model sight need do is place a red dot on his target and push a button at the front of his trigger guard; a computer on his rifle will take into account data like range and “lead angle” to compensate for the movement of his target, and then automatically fire when the hit is guaranteed. This rifle sight can “see” the enemy soldier day or night at ranges well beyond 600 meters. An enemy caught in that sight will die long before he could know he was seen, much less before he could effectively return fire.
But infantrymen today do not use rifles equipped with these new sights. Hunters do. In fact, new rifles and ammunition are readily available. They are made by many manufacturers—civilian gun makers and foreign military suppliers that equip the most-elite Special Operations units. Unlike conventional infantry units, top-tier Special Operations units are virtually unrestricted by cumbersome acquisition protocols, and have had ample funding and a free hand to solicit new gun designs from private industry. These units test new guns in combat, often with dramatic results: greater precision, greater reliability, greater killing power.
The Army has argued that, in an era of declining resources, a new rifle will cost more than $2 billion. But let’s say the Army and Marine Corps buy new rifles only for those who will use them most, namely the infantry. The cost, for about 100,000 infantrymen at $1,000 each, is then reduced to roughly $100 million, less than that of a single F-35 fighter jet. The Army and the Marine Corps can keep the current stocks of M4s and M16s in reserve for use by non-infantry personnel in the unlikely event that they find themselves in combat.
From the time of General James Ripley to today, the Army has found reasons to deny its soldiers in the line of fire the safest and most efficient firearms. It doesn’t have to be this way. A few dollars invested now will save the lives of legions of brave infantrymen and -women for generations to come.