This will be a familiar story to most who follow military weaponry:
March 4, 2002. An RPG tore into the right engine of an MH-47 Chinook helicopter loaded with a quick-reaction force of Rangers in the Shahikot Mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The Chinook crashed atop Takur Ghar, a 10,000-foot peak infested with al-Qaida fighters.
Enemy fire poured into the fuselage, killing Rangers even before they got off the aircraft. Capt. Nate Self crawled out.
“As soon as I got off the ramp, a burst of rounds fired right over my head,” he recalled.
He joined a handful of his men in the open, exposed to enemy fire. An RPG exploded within a few feet of their position.
“We got up and started firing and moving to some boulders 15 meters away,” he said.
Once behind cover, Self tried to fire again, but his weapon jammed.
Back in the days when we all thought the XM8 was on the way, we hoped that piston-driven assault rifles were on the way to US troops. Of course, the XM8 was scrapped, and additional purchases were of standard M4-type carbines.
The M16/M4 system has proven its value, but two criticisms continue to dog it:
A) The “stopping power” of the 5.56×45 round and
B) The vulnerability of the direct-gas impingement system
The round is not weapon-dependent, and M4s, M16s, XM8s, and SCARs have all been developed in various calibers.
But the direct-gas system, which blows hot gases into the action, is what really sets the M16/M4 apart, and not in a good way.
The HK416 is one of many M4-type weapons that ditches the troublesome system and uses a piston system similar to that of the reliable AK47.
The problems had become obvious enough that at the time of the Afghanistan battle, members of the Army’s Delta Force had begun working on a solution. Today, Delta Force is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan with a special carbine that’s dramatically more reliable than the M16s and M4s that the rest of the Army depends upon.
Members of the elite unit linked up with German arms maker Heckler & Koch, which replaced the M4’s gas system with one that experts say significantly reduces malfunctions while increasing parts life. After exhaustive tests with the help of Delta, the H&K 416 was ready in 2004.
Members of the elite commando unit — formally known as 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta — have been carrying it in combat ever since.
The 416 is now considered in many circles to be the best carbine in the world — a weapon that combines the solid handling, accuracy and familiarity of the M4 with the famed dependability of the rugged AK47.
For the foreseeable future, however, the Army is sticking with the M4 and M16 for regular forces.
The Army plans to buy about 100,000 M4s in fiscal 2008.
Really, as one who has been watching the carbine story for some time, I don’t really know what to say. It’s no surprise that the Special Forces chose and are getting something different. The SCAR should be hitting the field in numbers soon and Delta is already using the HK416.
Meanwhile, not only is the regular Army stuck with the M4 that Special Forces has replaced, but they’re buying 100,000 new ones.
The HK416s, like nearly all piston-driven rifles, seem to be good for 12,000 to 15,000 rounds between failures. What this number would be in the field, of course, we don’t really know. But they can reach this with no lube during endurance firing.
At Colt’s plant in Connecticut, a government inspector pulls samples from each lot of M4s and performs a 108-point inspection to ensure they meet the Army’s specifications. M4s are also routinely subjected to endurance firing, but only to 6,000 rounds.
It’s the Army that sets the standard, Colt officials say.
That doesn’t mean that 6,000 is good enough. Colt points out that the Army’s bureaucratic nightmare of a procurement system is partially to blame, but I’m not convinced that it’s an excuse for a weapon that doesn’t perform as well as an equally-affordable alternative.
Going to an M4-styled carbine with a piston would solve many of the logistical problems that everyone was so worried about as XM8 adoption neared. Except for the piston system itself, virtually the entire weapon is interchangeable with regular M4s.
Look around at arms manufacturers. How many are developing new carbines with direct gas systems? How many are developing new carbines with piston systems? I was at the SHOT Show. Almost everyone has a piston-driven M4-style carbine ready to go or almost ready to go. Even Colt. But hot gas in the chamber is apparently good enough for our boys.
I fired the LWRC SRT in both 5.56 NATO and 6.8 SPC at the SHOT. Before we got our turns, a rep fired six 30-round mags consecutively, then pulled the bolt out of the weapon and handed it over. Warm to the touch, but no more. Try that with a direct-gas system pumping hot fouling into the chamber. That heat breaks down lube and wears out parts.
And what contributes to weapon malfunctions? Well, quite often, it’s poor lubrication and worn parts.
I think we’re blowing it with the decision to stick with what we’ve got. I was skeptical that a switch to the XM8 at this point was worth the headaches if we were just going to stay with the 5.56 round. But there are an awful lot of alternatives out there that would give us a noticeable improvement with very few of those “new standard weapon” headaches because so little of the new weapon would actually be new.
This isn’t “you go to war with the Army you have”. This is deciding to keep the Army you have even though you’ve learned how to make it better.
The HK416 will soon be available in a 7.62x51mm version called the HK417.