The Little Black Carbine

The Little Black Carbine

A look at how the M4 is faring in the war in Iraq.

Sgt. Lohmier of the 3-7th Cav uses his M4's ACOG to scan for insurgents in Baghdad. His M4 carbine is outfitted with a light, IR laser/illuminator, vertical grip, BUIS and SOPMOD stock.

There is much talk lately about the shortcomings of the M16 series, so I was particularly interested to see how it was performing in Iraq. It's popular today, in some circles, to deride this weapons family for its direct gas method of operation. Some claim it's not reliable enough for military use, especially in the dust and sand of Iraq.

Plus many still scorn its small-caliber, high-velocity 5.56mm round. It's common to hear people say the terminal performance of this cartridge, especially in its standard military 62 grain M855 loading, is inadequate. So I was interested to see not only how the weapons were performing but what the troops thought of them.

The standard combat rifle issued to the men of the 3rd Squadron, 7th U.S. Cavalry is the M4 carbine. This is simply a shortened version of the M16A2/A3 rifle and utilizes the same method of operation. However, unlike the full size rifle the M4 wears a short 141⁄2-inch chrome-lined barrel and a collapsible stock. Barrel twist is 1:7 inch to allow use of all standard U.S. military 5.56mm ammunition including tracer, armor piercing and sniper/match loads.

Overall length with the stock extended is a handy 33 inches. Collapse the stock and this shrinks to just 29.8 inches. Loaded weight is only 6.9 pounds, making for a short and handy package. Like the M16A2, the M4 can be fired either semiautomatic or in three-shot burst mode but does not fire full automatic like the old M16A1 (although the M4A1 has this capability). Velocity for the standard 5.56mm 62-grain M855 ball round is approximately 2,900 fps.

To allow use of modern day/night optics the M4 features a flat-top receiver, and all the weapons I saw were outfitted with fore-end rail systems. The 3-7th Cav's weapons were topped mostly with Israeli-manufactured MARS reflex sights. This robust red dot sight somewhat resembles an EOTech but has the advantage of a built-in IR laser.

I saw an assortment of 4x32mm Trijicon ACOGs (usually in the hands of NCOs and officers) and the occasional EOTech as well. Many, but not all, of the weapons had Back-Up Iron Sights. One downside to the MARS, though, is they are too tall to allow iron sights to co-witness.

The railed fore-ends were usually equipped with SureFire tactical lights and vertical grips. Weapons not equipped with MARS sights also had IR laser/illuminators mounted onto the handguards. In addition, some of the carbines had been upgraded by the addition of LMT SOPMOD stocks.

Keeping in mind that the 3-7th Cav is a conventional army unit operating from the confines of Humvee gun trucks and Bradley Cavalry Fighting Vehicles, the M4 carbine is well-suited to their needs. The short length of the M4 is appreciated during a rapid exit from a Bradley or, especially, a Humvee.

It's also a very real aid inside the confines of an Iraqi house when going from room to room. While I was embedded, the 3-7th Cav was operating in the Adhamiya District of Baghdad. Hardly the sandy desert environment that comes to mind when mentioning Iraq, it is rather a densely populated urban area. Engagement distances in this part of Iraq are relatively short, often measured in feet rather than yards.

Concerning the weapon's reliability, the men of the 3-7th Cav had no issues. Sgt. Dustin Chisholm, the Truck Commander of the Humvee gun truck I was assigned to, commented, "You keep on top of it and it will treat you right--simple as that."

Based upon the M16A2/A3 rifle, the M4 carbine has proven to be an effective weapon in Iraq. It's shown here topped with an EOTech and BUIS.

With this in mind, the men of 2nd Platoon, Bonecrusher Troop carefully cleaned their weapons every day. So reliability was not an issue for them with their M4s. Occasionally a worn magazine would fail to function properly. More of an issue was the lack of cleaning supplies of any sort. Any type of cleaning gear or lube was very hard to come by, and many soldiers in the unit resorted to having it sent from home.

Accuracy has never been an issuing with the M16 series. It easily outclasses both the 7.62x39mm AKM, 5.45x39mm AK-74 and most other combat rifles both past and present in this regard. A MARS-topped M4 is quick on target and capable of hitting, under actual combat conditions, at 300 meters. When topped with an ACOG, a skilled marksman can stretch it farther.

Under range conditions I have seen the 3-7th Cav's commanding officer, Lt. Col. Jeffery Broadwater, hit pop-ups at 800 meters from a supported position with an M4 and ball. Members of the Fort Monroe rifle team I competed with at the 2007 All Army Small Arms Championship even posted some good scores with their iron-sighted M4 carbines at 500 yards. So I think any concerns about M4 accuracy are really a matter of better training.

Regarding terminal performance, there is no doubt the M855 ball round is quite lethal out of the M4 carbine. However, many of the 3-7th Cav's veteran NCOs with heavy combat experience in Iraq wished it packed more punch. Fighting room to room, engagement distances are up close. In such an environment, where the insurgents they face may be doped up on narcotics, they wanted a threat to drop instantly--not stay on his feet for a couple seconds still capable of triggering off another burst.

"I shot an insurgent in the stomach with a 7.62mm M14, and it buckled him over," Sgt. John Gibson commented. "Another one I shot with the 5.56 M4 took three rounds to put him down. Sure, he died, but I wished he'd gone down faster."

So while the troops were generally satisfied with the M4's performance, they felt the reduced barrel length affected the 5.56's muzzle velocity enough to diminish its terminal performance. That said, there is no death ray round that slays with every pull of the trigger--not 6.8mm SPC nor even the well-respected 7.62mm NATO.

Is the M4 carbine perfect? No, nothing is. But in the hands of regular army troops it has proven to be a highly effective weapon on today's battlefield.

Help the Cav
Ever wish you could help our soldiers serving in Iraq? Well, you can. The

men of Bonecrusher Troop 3-7th Cav are short on weapon cleaning supplies. They could use 5.56mm and 7.62mm bore patches, bore brushes, cleaning brushes and, most of all, Break-Free CLP. A few of your old gun, car or computer magazines or perhaps a local newspaper tossed into the box would be much appreciated, too. If you are willing to help out send it to Any Cavalry Trooper, C/O SFC Lugo, 2nd Platoon, B Trp 3/7 Cav, Unit 5972, APO AE 09378

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