M-16 Still Hot Enough for Marines

Two years ago when I was in Iraq, I noticed there were essentially two different primary infantry weapons (the M16 automatic rifle and the also-automatic M4 carbine) carried by America’s two primary ground forces — the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Army.

Marines for the most part were carrying the M16. The Army on the other hand was primarily carrying the M4: a shorter, lighter version of the M16 with a collapsible-stock.

Not that there weren’t leathernecks carrying M4s; there were. And soldiers also were wielding 16s.

But slightly different approaches to infantry tactics had led one force to favor one version of the weapon over the other. And experts today at Headquarters Marine Corps and the Army’s Picatinny Arsenal suggest that trend is increasingly reflecting the differing operational philosophies between the two services.

What’s more, there seems to be no new replacement system on the horizon for the M-16 family of weapons, including the current M16A4 and its shorter sister, the M4. Defense contractors like Colt and Fabrique Nationale are always looking beyond current design to come up with a system that outperforms all others. But unlike ships, planes, and tanks, which take years — sometimes decades — from conception to production, a rifle is still a very basic tool of armed combat, and some of the features of almost any rifle are largely unchanged since the Civil War.

This is not to suggest that modern rifles are not incredibly sophisticated; they are. But experts contend rifle technology may have hit a plateau.

Moreover, “we don’t operate in an unconstrained fiscal environment,” Charles Clark, the infantry weapons capability integration officer at Headquarters Marine Corps, Quantico, Virginia, tells HUMAN EVENTS. “We have to focus on where we can make improvements and how we can do that within fiscal constraints, simultaneously supporting our operating forces.”

Clark, who juggles his civilian job at Quantico with his work as a Marine Reserve infantry officer (having had combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan) says the current M16A4 is actually “a great primary service weapon” and there are no plans to replace it for at least another decade. But, he adds, a future Marine commandant could easily come in and say, “Let’s replace the M16,” though it’s not likely, given the M16A4’s solid performance in various post-9/11 operational environments.

“We are always looking to upgrade things like maybe the ammunition and the ancillary equipment we use on the weapon, the rifle-combat optic for instance, and the night vision capabilities with image intensifiers, laser pointers, etc.,” he says.

Though it may be considered a “great primary” infantry rifle today, the M16 — lighter and at a much smaller caliber (5.56 mm) than its heavier forebears — struggled to earn the respect it now holds.

The weapon is far removed from the old World War I-era bolt-action M1903 Springfield that Marines used to knock down German infantrymen at distances beyond 800 yards during the 1918 battle of Belleau Wood. Nevertheless, the M16 has been the primary Marine (and Army) infantry weapon for more than 40 years. And Marine recruits — like their great, great grandfathers during World War I — continue to hone their marksmanship skills at distances up to 500 yards. After all, it was the marriage between a Marine and his Springfield that inspired U.S. Army Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing to proclaim, “The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle.”

That fact has not changed, though rifles have.

During World War II, the semi-automatic M1 Garand began replacing the M1903 Springfield. The M1 began to be replaced by the also-semi-automatic M14 (said to be the last of the large caliber American battle rifles) during the 1950s. And the M14 began to be replaced by the M16 in the 1960s.

The current fourth-generation M16A4 rifle is an exponentially superior weapon to the somewhat problematic first-generation M16 during the Vietnam War (I actually cut my teeth on M16A1s and M16A2s in the 1980s). And the near submachinegun-size M4 is widely considered an excellent weapon for conventional infantry (though modern infantry is trained in both conventional and unconventional tactics), paratroopers, and special operations forces, keeping in mind that 21st-century American ground forces have a far larger variety of standard weapons to choose from than previous generations.

One Marine officer told me, “I understand the Army has in fact considered an M-4 pure fleet, getting rid of all their M16s, and they’ve already done that within their brigade combat teams.”

Indeed, during my time in 2007 embedded with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the Army’s famed 1st Cavalry Division operating out of Baghdad, nearly all of the soldiers were armed with M4s — whereas during my time spent with Marine rifle squads of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit at Al Taqaddum and Regimental Combat Team 2 near the Syrian border, I observed a far greater number of Marines carrying M16s.

The reasons were simple: Army patrols were frequently mounted (in Humvees and other vehicles) at least for a portion of any given patrol. And it is simply easier to get in-and-out of vehicles with a shorter M4.

Marine patrols however were almost always on foot (and for hours at a time).

“We see ourselves as foot-mobile infantry,” says Clark, who adds, “From the Marine Corps perspective, we issue the carbine to folks — vehicle drivers, crews, and infantry officers [tasked more with leading men than physically engaging enemy targets] — who might be impeded by a longer, heavier weapon.”

Like their Belleau Wood ancestors, Marines still pride themselves on being able to kill the enemy at great distances. And rifles are frankly better suited for distance-shooting than carbines. Though Clark adds the capabilities between the two “are very close,” and the M4 is very effective.

U.S. Army Col. Doug Tamilio, project manager soldier weapons at Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey, tells HUMAN EVENTS, “The M4 is [now] the primary infantry weapon in the U.S. Army.”

Asked what the primary infantry weapon might look like in 10, 15, or 20 years, Tamilio says, “Traditional rifle/carbine technology appears to have plateaued and there are no known or anticipated leap-ahead performance breakthroughs. Carbine designs may have different features, however overall performance is similar with no operationally significant differences. As new technology — beyond kinetic energy — develops, the looks and most importantly the capabilities may be wide open.”

What do the troops say? According to Tamilio, “Post-combat surveys indicate 90 percent satisfaction with M4, and the Center for Naval Analyses survey indicates 89 percent overall satisfaction with M4 and 75 percent overall satisfaction with M16.”

What about the unsatisfied 25 percent? Most agree it stems from the occasional jam or misfire. And all, it takes is one jam or misfire at a critical point on the battlefield, and the 99 percent superior performance of any weapon is forgotten.