The U.S. military has not changed its troops’ primary weapon in 50 years. Efforts to replace the M16 family of infantry rifles with a significantly improved design have repeatedly failed, resulting in soldiers and Marines carrying the same weapon into combat in the 21st century that was first introduced when their parent’s generation was fighting the Vietnam War.
The M16’s streak as the longest-running standard U.S. infantry rifle could be ended later this year when the Army announces results from two years of sorting through candidates for the “individual carbine” competition.
Several companies are awaiting word on the Army’s progress with the individual carbine competition. The companies still in the running are Adcor Defense, Colt Defense, FNH USA, Heckler & Koch, Remington and Beretta USA Corp.
The competition phase has already lasted two years. The IC competition began with a request for proposals in 2011, and sample testing is currently underway. A decision on which rifle the Army prefers is expected in 2013.
After determining the weapon that best meets the requirement, the Army will conduct a cost-benefit analysis. This will determine if it is in the best interest of the Army to procure the winning carbine, and if so, what the ultimate fielding plan will be.
Greg Ulsh, vice president of military operations at FNH USA, said the company remains “curious” about the Army’s intentions. It has been more than 10 months since anyone at his company, which also manufactures M16s for the Army, has had word from the military, he said.
“Of course we are very anxious to find out what happens,” Ulsh said. “We think we have a great gun.”
That sentiment was shared by spokesmen for each of the companies vying for the IC contract. For most, it is the third time in as many decades they have offered the Army an alternative to the M16.
In the 1980s, the Advanced Combat Rifle program produced several prototype weapons, but none that were deemed superior to the M16. It was canceled and revived as the Objective Individual Combat Weapon development project, which again resulted in several widely varied prototypes, but none reached production.
When that was scrubbed, the Army partnered with German firearms manufacturer Heckler & Koch to develop the XM8 system. Development stalled in 2005, then was terminated in 2005 after it, too, was deemed insufficiently superior to the M16.
Soldiers who use the M16, and increasingly the M4, are fairly pleased with the weapon, though it has shortcomings that have been made apparent during the wars of the past decade, an active Army Green Beret told National Defense on the condition of anonymity.
“The main advantage of the M4 is that we already have it,” he said. “We don’t really have to learn to shoot, break down, and clean anything new.”
Manufacturers Colt and FNH have made some improvements to the M4 and M16 based on lessons learned in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The rifles currently in use on the whole have heavier barrels than the weapon’s original design. Heavier barrels improve accuracy, allow a higher rate of sustained fire and prevent corrosion and damage.
Still, the design is vulnerable to dust and dirt jamming its mechanisms, and its gas-blowback operation makes it much dirtier than newer, piston-operated designs that require less cleaning, he said. The Army also wants a weapon with interchangeable barrels of varying lengths, ambidextrous controls and improved accuracy at longer ranges.
The rifles competing to fulfill those needs are the Adcor Defense BEAR Elite, the Colt ACC-M (sometimes called the ACM), the FN FNAC, the Heckler & Koch HK416 and the Remington ACR.
The designs generally follow one of two paths — an evolutionary version of the M16 upper and lower receiver assemblies with modified barrel and accessories, or a fresh-start design that resembles the AR-15 but relies heavily on polymer plastics and tweaks to the weapon’s operating system to improve accuracy, ergonomics and modularity.
All of the contenders incorporate several improvements over the current rifle, many of which are quickly becoming industry standard elements that satisfy the desires of both military and civilian shooters. Those are monolithic upper receivers with free-floating barrels and a piston operating system.
A free-floating barrel is one in which the barrel and stock do not make contact at any point along the barrel’s length. This prevents damage and wear on the outer stock or hand guard from transferring to the barrel. A monolithic upper receiver is one where the receiver, optics rail and forward stock are a single piece of material, whether metal or polymer. This makes the rifle sturdier and more accurate.
The H&K, Colt and Adcor designs are each evolutions of the basic M4 carbine. FNH USA and Remington have taken the latter path, integrating much of the M16 architecture, but using more polymer materials and fine-tuning the rifle’s operating system and ergonomics.
Remington teamed up with Bushmaster and Magpul Industries Corp. to produce its Advanced Combat Rifle, or ACR. The rifle’s barrel, stocks and accessories are modular and can be configured for multiple missions from a short-barrel close-quarters combat carbine to a longer, more accurate designated marksmen weapon system. It features fully automatic fire capability, a non-reciprocating bolt handle, monolithic free-floating hand guard, accessory rail system, and ambidextrous controls.
Like other entrants, the ACR also has a gas-piston operating system. The rifle has been in production for two years and has been accepted into the second round of Army testing for the individual carbine competition, said John Day, vice president for defense and law enforcement at Remington Defense.
“The theory is that it is a cleaner operating system because the gas from the ignition of the powder is ported out of the barrel versus being blown back into the action,” Day said.
The HK416 is already in use by some Marine Corps and Army Special Forces units. The rifle’s receiver and action are almost identical to the M4, for which it is offered as a conversion kit. That option could shave cost off a large-scale purchase, because existing lower receivers can be used.
Kevin Langevin, Colt’s director of engineering, divulged that the company’s contender is “an evolution” of the M4 it already builds, rather than a from-scratch design.
Colt’s ACC-M is basically the M4 reengineered to fit the Army’s latest requirements. It has a one-piece upper receiver and ambidextrous controls.
Fabrique Nationale’s Advanced Carbine, or FNAC, incorporates both of these design elements. A similar rifle has been used by Special Operations Command for a decade.
In 2002, FN responded to a SOCOM solicitation for a rifle that was a “step ahead” of what the Army was using — something that could be fully maintained and reconfigured in the field for multiple missions and that was durable, lightweight and easy to use. FNH USA is the North American arm of FN Herstal, headquartered near Liege, Belgium.
“The MK 16 offers several advantages to the M4,” the Green Beret said. “Its selector switch and charging handles are ambidextrous. It comes suppressor-ready and it’s a little more ergonomic and shooter friendly. The piston system also makes it cleaner and potentially more reliable. Some have complained that the MK 16 is a little ‘plastic-y’ and not quite as durable feeling, but that’s just shooter preference.”
The MK 17, essentially the same rifle chambered in a larger round, is also available for SOF use. Given the choice, though, special operators don’t always opt for the newer, tricked-out FN rifle.
“It’s not the common option,” the Green Beret said. “Most opt for the M4 still. Fundamentally, the MK 16 doesn’t offer a whole lot of advantages over the M4 unless you’re left handed. The MK 17 is a good alternative because it offers the larger round.”
When first manufactured, the polymer-and-steel rifle with its chrome-lined barrel and gas piston system was too expensive for a major Army buy, but affordable for the fewer special operators that preferred them to the M4, Ulsh said.
Cost is a major roadblock to the purchase of hundreds of thousands of rifles for the Big Army. While the government may be able to afford a smaller amount of higher-quality, precision weapons for Special Operations Command, buying such arms for the entire ground force is prohibitively expensive, Langevin said. While a typical M4 barrel costs about $100, the blank metal rod to make a marksmen’s barrel might cost $300 before it is even milled, he said.
That was the case when Special Operations Forces began using a specialized rifle, the SOF Combat Assault Rifle, or SCAR, a decade ago.
“When we started building these, we were using pretty close to state-of-the-art equipment and materials, which made them very expensive,” Ulsh said. “Now the equipment has come of age, and the price has come down to where we can offer them for the whole Army.”
Redesigning a weapon system like the M-16 is not as simple as replacing a metal component with a polymer copy to reduce weight. There are second- and third-order effects caused by altering any of several dozen pieces that are precisely manufactured to microns of measurement, Day said.
As with most equipment, Army leaders want their next service rifle to be lighter, yet more durable, than current designs. Companies gunning for the IC contract have taken this into account and have used lightweight metals and polymer plastics to shave ounces off their designs. But the advantages of having lighter gear do not always translate to weapons.
“You really have to look at the problem set in total. You can go in and change one thing and say that’s it,” he said. “So I made my gun a pound and a half lighter. Great. But what did I have to sacrifice to get there?”
Ulsh went so far as to suggest that rifle technology has reached the limit of possible physics — that taking any more weight from an M4-sized carbine would yield negative returns.
Langevin, of Colt, agreed.
“The rifle right now is basically just aluminum and steel,” Langevin said. “There’s a tradeoff with taking weight out of it. At just over 6 pounds, the gun is at the optimum weight for controllability.
“Everybody wants a lighter weapon, and you get a lighter weapon, and it becomes harder to control and more recoil is directed into the shoulder of the shooter, the optics and other accessories on the gun.”
Whichever company manages to land the IC contract, if indeed the Army decides to replace its current service rifle, the award will be as much about pride as profit, said Day, of Remington.
“If you ask me, it is the number-one honor a firearms manufacturer can have,” he said. “It’s also a great responsibility, to know the guns you are making will be carried by a man or woman protecting themselves and their country with it. A lot of technological advancements have been made, and it’s time to give that soldier, sailor or Marine the best rifle we can build.”Correction: This article originally stated that five companies are competing for the Army’s Individual Carbine contract. The ARX160 rifle made by Beretta USA Corp. is also a candidate.Photo Credit: Army