Is the M4 a lethal weapon (to the user)?

Something Burl wrote in a comment reminded me of this story the other day:

WASHINGTON — In the chaos of an early morning assault on a remote U.S. outpost in eastern Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Erich Phillips’ M4 carbine quit firing as militant forces surrounded the base. The machine gun he grabbed after tossing the rifle aside didn’t work either.

When the battle in the small village of Wanat ended, nine U.S. soldiers lay dead and 27 more were wounded. A detailed study of the attack by a military historian found that weapons failed repeatedly at a “critical moment” during the firefight on July 13, 2008, putting the outnumbered American troops at risk of being overrun by nearly 200 insurgents.

Which raises the question: Eight years into the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, do U.S. armed forces have the best guns money can buy?…

I’ve sort of wondered for years why this country couldn’t simply produce a weapon as simple, as effective, as cheap, and most of all as RELIABLE as the AK-47.

I read part of the recent book by Larry Kahaner about that remarkable weapon (one of the many books I’ve read “part of” while drinking coffee but not buying anything at Barnes & Noble, my favorite leisuretime activity), and it reads like pretty much an indictment of the free enterprise system. The way it developed was this: A soldier in the Red Army, dissatisfied with what guys like him had to rely on in battle, decided to design a multi-purpose infantry weapon that would get the job done, and always work. So he did, the Soviets mass-produced it, and it became the number-one weapon in the world, the favorite of rebels, terrorists, thugs, and child soldiers everywhere.

It’s cheap; it’s ubiquitous. It puts a LOT of high-impact bullets on a target in a big hurry, so you definitely don’t want to go up against one if you can help it. It’s simple, and easy to maintain. It requires so little skill — and upper-body strength — to operate that it makes a child soldier into a particularly dangerous person.

In other words, it’s pretty horrible. But it’s a way better weapon, in lots of ways, than anything we’ve mass-produced.

We’ve heard about the troubles with the M16 since Vietnam, and the M4 is its descendant. The M16 fires a lower-weight slug at a high velocity, so it rips up whatever it enters — although it doesn’t have much knockdown power. (In Black Hawk Down — the book, not the film — a Delta team member gripes about the M16 because when he shoots somebody who’s shooting at him, he wants to see the guy go down.)

Meanwhile, nothing ever seems to go wrong with Kalashnikovs, no matter what you do to them. The story Burl told matches one I’ve heard before:

A friend (now deceased) who was part of the Army test team for the M-16 told me this anecdote.
He thought the M-16 was delicate and undependable, told the Army so, he was told to shut up and buy stock in Colt.
A few years later, he’s in command of a firebase in Vietnam, and they’re clearing a kill zone. The bulldozer uncovers a dead Viet cong who has buried for a year or so, along with his AK-47. Dave jumped down in the hole, said “now here’s a REAL weapon,” and cocked the muddy, rusty AK, pointed it at the sky and pulled the trigger.
It fired.

So — are our soldiers taking unnecessary risks because of inadequate weapons?  I’d be interested in particular to hear from Capt. James Smith and others who have actually taken the M4 into battle (that’s him below getting his ACOG zeroed in on arriving in Afghanistan — at least, I think that’s an M4).


10 thoughts on “Is the M4 a lethal weapon (to the user)?

  1. bud

    So — are our soldiers taking unnecessary risks because of inadequate weapons?

    No. They’re taking unnecessary risks because we continue to send them into unnecessary wars.

  2. kbfenner

    Liking the new comment rules. When you don’t moderate, there’s nothing new, so I have no excuse not to vacuum or fold laundry. My house is going to be soooo orderly!

  3. Brad Warthen

    When I posted this, I thought, “Lee would love this topic,” and I felt a little sad that he had been banned.

    And sure enough, he posted a perfectly good comment under his SCNative alias. But I’m not going to approve it, because that would open the door in case I go (as I may) to the “Comment author must have a previously approved comment” approach. But here’s what he had to say:

    This is a major subject with me, and it is discussed in detail on the military and AR platform shooting forums.

    The M-4 is just an M-16 with a shorter barrel and collapsible buttstock.

    If you read the actual report, only one soldier complained to a reporter, out of 89 soldiers. The other weapon which was shown jammed on TV was a M-240, built here in Columbia at FN Mfg on Clemson Road.

    A lot of things besides the weapon can cause such jams, including bent ammunition casings, dirt, mislinked belts on a machinegun or magazines improperly loaded on a M-16 or M-4.

  4. Brad Warthen

    And thanks to Lee, I realized I had failed to paste in the comment from Burl that got me thinking about this to start with.

    It is now there in the original post. The Kahaner book mentions that U.S. troops in Vietnam found a Kalashnikov buried in mud and it still works. Burl actually knew the guy who was there and fired it. (Not that that was necessarily the only time it happened.)

    I think Lee’s probably right, that if you take care of the Colt it works, and the failures are rare. The thing about the AK is that yeah, you should take care of it, but you actually don’t have to. That’s why people who are not trained to Western military levels of discipline love them. However you neglect and abuse them, they still work.

    I think that’s one reason Harry Turtledove chose the Kalashnikov for his time-travelers to take back to the Confederates in “Guns of the South.” It was more believable that technically unsophisticated men who had never seen anything more complicated than an Enfield would be able to maintain them and use them effectively in battle.

  5. Burl Burlingame

    My friend was David Hackworth, author of “About Face.”

    Hack’s point was that perfectly clean weapons aren’t always available in combat. And that weapons reliability makes a difference in combat prosecution — if your soldier doesn’t believe in his weapon, they are less aggressive.

  6. Burl Burlingame

    Another point is accuracy. The M-16 round has very little drop over distance compared to the AK, and can be used for sight-shooting. American and UK soldiers are taught to shoot accurately, to aim at targets, whilst most other countries, particularly third-world nations, use a garden-hose approach to fire cover. The AK is not a weapon for sniping. It’s perfect for getting a lot of lead in the air in the general vicinity of the target — and most combat situations degenerate to exactly that!

  7. Brad Warthen

    Here’s another comment from Lee, a.k.a. “SCnative,” on this subject:

    The US military has not issued a FULLY AUTOMATIC FIRE M-16 or any of its variants, including the M-4, to regular troops, in over 20 years. The trigger has a 3-shot burst fire limit, then must be released to reset it.

    I don’t want to be misinterpreted to blaming alleged weapons failures on personal lack of maintenance. No one knows that. Besides, the troops who brought a lot of the complaints were US Army 75th, which is Special Forces. No one is more highly trained or attentive to maintenance of their weapons.

    Special Forces do use some M-16 variants with full automatic capability.

    I see all sorts of armchair theories about the shorter barrel and gas tube being the problem. There are engineering downsides associated with moving the gas port, but we have been issuing 16-inch, 14.5-inch, 12-inch, and even 10-inch barrel carbine versions of the M-16 (20-inch barrel) since 1964.

    I will post more detailed discussion of the M-16 and it suggested replacements in a forum of and for combat infantry officers and weapons engineers.

    Military historians and immediate review officers of the battle at Wanat are more focused on the strategic errors of positioning small isolated garrisons to interdict border incursion, and the tactical errors of extracting those soldiers so slowly as to give the enemy time to plan an attack for the weakest moment and pre-position machineguns, mortars, and rocket launchers in firing positions over a period of weeks.

  8. Brad Warthen

    By the way, just to be clear — I was referring to the Kalashnikov when I mentioned a tendency to pull up and to the right on full auto, not the M16 or M4.

  9. Steve Gordy

    The M-14, M-16 and M-4 are all children of Gen. S.L.A. Marshall’s studies of WWII combat veterans. These showed that when infantrymen have the ability to “hose down” an area, they’re more likely to actually fire their weapons in combat. Both the Germans and the Soviets relied on this in their allocation of weapons to infantry outfits. The U.S. didn’t, except for paratroop units.

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