Hating On The M4 And AR-15

BY Herschel Smith
2 years, 8 months ago

Rowan Scarborough of The Washington Times has written a lengthy piece on the battle of Wanat (or Want), that I covered in so much detail.  Hating on the M4 plays a prominent role in the article.  Part 1 is here, while part 2 is here.  A sampling of quotes follows.

The warrant officer said he and fellow Special Forces soldiers have a trick to maintain the M4A1 — the commando version: They break the rules and buy off-the-shelf triggers and other components and overhaul the weapon themselves.

“The reliability is not there,” Warrant Officer Kramer said of the standard-issue model. “I would prefer to use something else. If I could grab something else, I would” …

In 2002, an internal report from the Army’s Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey said the M4A1 was prone to overheating and “catastrophic barrel failure,” according to a copy obtained by The Times …

A former Army historian who chronicled the infamous Battle of Wanat in Afghanistan, where nine U.S. soldiers died after their M4 carbines jammed, tells The Washington Times that his official account was altered by higher-ups to absolve the weapons and senior officers …

But the gun’s supporters have pointed to a single sentence in the official Wanat history issued in 2010 by the Army’s Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. It blamed the gun’s sustained rapid fire that day, not its design, for the malfunctions.

“This, not weapons maintenance deficiencies or inherent weaknesses in weapons design, was the reason a number of weapons jammed during the battle,” the sentence read.

Higher-ups inside Army command edited that sentence into the history, the report’s author says.

“That was not my conclusion,” said Douglas R. Cubbison, a former Army artillery officer and principal Wanat history author. “That was the Combat Studies Institute management that was driven from the chief of staff’s office to modify findings of that report to basically CYA [cover your ass] for the Army. You know how that works.

“Other soldiers have informally told me of similar problems they had with the M4 at high rates of fire,” said Mr. Cubbison, who is now curator of the Wyoming Veterans Memorial Museum …

Higher-ups made other changes, such as removing much of the historian’s criticism of senior officers for not better preparing the outpost for an attack.

I have a copy of the (I believe unedited version) Cubbison report.  I agreed not to divulge the contents of the report except to comment on the content (rather than reproduce the content).

There were indeed many problems associated with Wanat, such as ensconcing a unit too small to defend the location, Taliban massing of forces (to approximately a Battalion size force), something I had tracked and discussed at length.  There was also the lack of logistical support, lack of (or untimely) CAS, lack of heavier weaponry, and delay of more than one year in setting up the FOB, allowing the enemy to make careful plans for his attack.

I scoured my e-mail thinking that I had exchanged mail with Mr. Cubbison, but I couldn’t find any.  In any case, I found Cubbison’s writing to be clear, well crafted, and well researched.  He is a good historian.  But on the issue of the M4 I disagree with Mr. Cubbison (although I will stipulated that it is extremely bad form to change the prose of another author just because it is uncomfortable to read it).

I’ve heard it all before, this idea that the gas-operated rotating bolt system allows the AK to cool better than the direct impingement system that Eugene Stoner designed.  This isn’t the whole story.  The AK-47 is also a less accurate design, is prone to malfunctions in the field (according to first hand reports I trust), is heavier and fires heavier ammunition, and as one crusty old Marine general said, plenty of Marines have survived a shot by 7.62 X 39.

Any weapon system has its advantages and disadvantages.  Give Soldiers an M14 and they will complain that it’s too heavy (like they did in the jungles of Vietnam).  They will complain that its ammunition is too heavy and they can’t carry as much (and they will be right, considering that kit is now around 80 pounds without ruck, 120-130 pounds for a couple of nights out in the field).

Does this mean that they shouldn’t carry an M14, Remington 700 or Winchester Model 70 for long range shooting?  No.  Should a DM (designated marksman) with the unit be prepared to shoot DM rifles?  Yes.

But shooting uphill should also be taught at the ranges (the report correctly notes the difficulties associated with being in a valley), and fire control should be taught and emphasized for a multitude of reasons.  As my son put it to me, “shooting 500 rounds in 30 minutes means that you’re shooting at everything, and at nothing.  And it also means that you’re making yourself a target.”

Compare the high rate of fire with one lesson learned from this Marine Corps engagement in Afghanistan when faced with massing of troops.

Fire Discipline: Engagements have lasted from two to forty hours of sustained combat.  Marines must be careful to conserve rounds because there may not be any way to replenish their ammunition and it is not practical or recommended to carry an excessive number of magazines.  Marines took a few moments to apply the fundamentals of marksmanship and this greatly improved the ratio of shots fired to enemy fighters killed.  Crew Served Weapons do not always need to be fired at the rapid rate.  Good application of shoulder pressure will tighten beaten zones and lead to effective suppression. Talking guns will help conserve ammunition.

Finally, Travis Haley has shown what can be accomplished with precision fire using a scoped AR-15 with a 20″ barrel.

The Eugene Stoner design is well-suited for CQB and up to 400 meters, firing with low recoil (thus allowing quick target reacquisition), and carrying large quantities of ammunition.  It is also known for the projectile’s yaw in flight and significant tissue damage.

Ridiculous counterinsurgency strategy and stupid flag and staff officers are responsible for the failures at Wanat.  Cubbison’s study is correct about that.  But the M4 (and AR-15) still stands out as a superior weapon system for all but extreme distance shooting.

As one last comment (and this one is perhaps the most interesting to me), take note of the post date of my article on Cubbison (it was four and a half years ago).  The Washington Times is just now getting around to writing about this, or perhaps just learning about the Cubbison study.

Main stream media really should pay more attention to blogs.  It makes them look very out of touch and slow to respond when they are so unaware of things going on with their competitors.

  • Andrew E.

    Minor point: A bullet that yaws in flight will do very little damage, because it probably won’t hit the intended target. In-flight yaw is the cause of keyholing.

    Almost all spitzer-type bullets, having a center of gravity aft of the fore-aft midline, will tend to yaw on encountering a denser medium than that for which it is stabilized.

    .30 M2 Ball (and AP) will yaw after striking a target or barrier. 7.62×39 yaws, as does 5.56×45.

    The thing that established the 5.56 reputation for close-range lethality is that its velocity was so high, the bullet’s yaw force (which is dependent on impact velocity, usually) overcame the jacket’s integrity and the bullet tended to fragment after penetrating the target. Fragments would then create secondary wound channels, making some of the temporary stretch cavity a bit more permanent. This tends to be most likely at impact velocities of 2700fps and up, which means a 20″ M16A1 with M193 would produce it out to a couple hundred meters or so, and an M4 with M855 would produce it to about half that, because of the combined effect of the shorter barrel and heavier/longer bullet on the muzzle velocity.

    A slightly dated look is at ammo.ar15.com (I’m not an author, nor do I have any stake in the site or its sponsors, just to be completely sure on that aspect)

  • McThag

    500 rounds in 30 minutes is also not fast enough to break anything on an m4. 3.6 rounds a second is, like your son notes, unaimed pull the trigger as fast as you can semi-auto fire. There are YouTube videos of people doing this without breaking their guns. Carbine classes rise to this level of “abuse”.

    Plus, a single M4, as issued, starts the fight with 210 rounds. To get to 500 the firer has to get more ammo than his basic load. Seems that there’s at least one other gun not being used here to switch off to even if the first one fails catastrophically.

  • Nathan Dolan

    The never ending debate on M16/M4 vs Ak platforms is getting really old. As are the caliber wars. The best weapon is the one you train with and shot placement is much more important than caliber.

  • Paul B

    Having never been in battle with either platform I can, at best, be an arm chair devotee. I would say that the most effective ammo for the M4/M16/AR15 platform cannot be used by the military due to the Geneva convention. The guide lines proposed there precludes bullets that do not come apart when hitting something. that is considered to be too cruel of a bullet. we as citizens are not bound by that and can and will load the platform with the most devastating ammo we can get.

    I would also argue that 95% of all combat seems to occur at less than 200 meters. If it was longer we should all be carrying the 30-06 round and a rifle that can throw it. That round handled all the theaters of combat we where in during WWII.

    308 is a good substitute, but you still have to deal with weight and then the 95% off all combat.

    No, I would say the the M4/M16/AR15 platform meets the requirements.

    I have 30-06 and 308 in bolt guns and the autos are 5.56. If I had to run today, I would grab the AR. But that is just me.

  • http://captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Look again at the link I provided. I didn’t say the bullet keyholes. I said it yaws in flight, and it does. It rocks back and forth, even boat tail ammunition.


    Nathan, I’m not trying to continue the caliber wars or the AK vs. AR debate. I brought it up since it was in the Washington Time in order to respond to it.

  • Andrew E.

    Fair enough. I guess I misinterpreted the “yaw in flight” bit.

    Good to see another voice of reason in the seemingly perpetual off-and-on debate, though.

  • Josh

    I don’t really know anything about the battle of Wanat, but if there was a problem involving a battalion size force of insurgents, wouldn’t that have been a great time to drop a lot of bombs? Right on their heads?

  • http://captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Yes. But they were put out there to die without CAS or any other kind of support (arty). As I said, the problems weren’t related to the M4. The problems went far deeper than that.

  • DirtyMick


    I disagreed with the use of the M4 in Afghanistan. It’s a great weapon for fighting in Iraq but it was lacking in Kunar. Most of our engagements were out to 400m. We relied on Mk19s, 50s and fire missions (we were mounted most of the time). The dismounts we did go on we made sure to take plenty of fire power such as LAWs, AT4s, a machine gun team, SAWs, and long rifles. Granted Wanat is a different story but they’re should’ve been more fire discipline and NCOs enforcing that.

  • Ned Weatherby

    The M4 looks pretty reliable to me:


  • Pat Hines

    Another key issue is the fact that the M4/AR-15 is the de facto standard weapon in the US. Any defense against “those people” who will be carrying ARs should include the fact that those weapons, when dropped, will furnish a stockpile of spare parts. That’s not true for any other weapon, regardless of caliber.

You are currently reading "Hating On The M4 And AR-15", entry #11907 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) AR-15s,Battle of Wanat,Firearms,Guns and was published February 24th, 2014 by Herschel Smith.

If you're interested in what else the The Captain's Journal has to say, you might try thumbing through the archives and visiting the main index, or; perhaps you would like to learn more about TCJ.

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