Newer carbines outperform M4 in dust test
By Matthew Cox - Staff writer
Posted : Monday Dec 17, 2007 9:25:16 EST
The M4 carbine, the weapon soldiers depend on in combat, finished last in a recent “extreme dust test” to demonstrate the M4’s reliability compared to three newer carbines.
Weapons officials at the Army test and Evaluation Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., exposed Colt Defense LLC’s M4, along with the Heckler & Koch XM8, FNH USA’s Special Operations Forces Combat Assault Rifle and the H&K 416 to sandstorm conditions from late September to late November, firing 6,000 rounds through each test weapon.
When the test was completed, ATEC officials found that the M4 performed “significantly worse” than the other three weapons, sources told Army Times.
Officials tested 10 each of the four carbine models, firing a total of 60,000 rounds per model. Here’s how they ranked, according to the total number of times each model stopped firing:
• XM8: 127 stoppages.
• MK16 SCAR Light: 226 stoppages.
• 416: 233 stoppages.
• M4: 882 stoppages.
the results of the test were “a wake-up call,” but Army officials continue to stand by the current carbine, said Brig. Gen. Mark Brown, commander of Program Executive Office Soldier, the command that is responsible for equipping soldiers.
“We take the results of this test with a great deal of interest and seriousness,” Brown said, expressing his determination to outfit soldiers with the best equipment possible.
The test results did not sway the Army’s faith in the M4, he said.
“Everybody in the Army has high confidence in this weapon,” Brown said.
Lighter and more compact than the M16 rifle, the M4 is more effective for the close confines of urban combat. The Army began fielding the M4 in the mid-1990s.
Army weapons officials agreed to perform the test at the request of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., in July. Coburn took up the issue following a Feb. 26 Army Times report on moves by elite Army combat forces to ditch the M4 in favor of carbines they consider more reliable. Coburn is questioning the Army’s plans to spend $375 million to purchase M4s through fiscal 2009.
Coburn raised concerns over the M4’s “long-standing reliability” problems in an April 12 letter and asked if the Army had considered newer, possibly better weapons available on the commercial market.
John Hart, a spokesman for Coburn, who was traveling, said the senator was reviewing the test results and had yet to discuss it with the Army.
The M4, like its predecessor, the M16, uses a gas tube system, which relies on the gas created when a bullet is fired to cycle the weapon. Some weapons experts maintain the M4’s system of blowing gas directly into the firing mechanism of the weapon spews carbon residue that can lead to fouling and heat that dries up lubrication, causing excessive wear on parts.
The other contenders in the dust test — the XM8, SCAR and 416 — use a piston-style operating system, which relies on a gas-driven piston rod to cycle the weapon during firing. The gas is vented without funneling through the firing mechanism.
The Army’s Delta Force replaced its M4s with the H&K 416 in 2004 after tests revealed that the piston operating system significantly reduces malfunctions while increasing the life of parts. The elite unit collaborated with the German arms maker to develop the new carbine.
U.S. Special Operations Command has also revised its small-arms requirements. In November 2004, SOCom awarded a developmental contract to FN Herstal to develop its new SCAR to replace its weapons from the M16 family.
And from 2002 to 2005, the Army developed the XM8 as a replacement for the Army’s M16 family. The program led to infighting within the service’s weapons community and eventually died after failing to win approval at the Defense Department level.
How they were tested
The recent Aberdeen dust test used 10 sample models of each weapon. Before going into the dust chamber, testers applied a heavy coat of lubrication to each weapon. Each weapon’s muzzle was capped and ejection port cover closed.
testers exposed the weapons to a heavy dust environment for 30 minutes before firing 120 rounds from each.
The weapons were then put back in the dust chamber for another 30 minutes and fired another 120 rounds. This sequence was repeated until each weapon had fired 600 rounds.
testers then wiped down each weapon and applied another heavy application of lubrication.
The weapons were put back through the same sequence of 30 minutes in the dust chamber followed by firing 120 rounds from each weapon until another 600 rounds were fired.
testers then thoroughly cleaned each weapon, re-lubricated each, and began the dusting and fire sequencing again.
This process was repeated until testers fired 6,000 rounds through each weapon.
The dust test exposed the weapons to the same extreme dust and sand conditions that Army weapons officials subjected the M4 and M16 to during a “systems assessment” at Aberdeen last year and again this summer. The results of the second round of ATEC tests showed that the performance of the M4s dramatically improved when testers increased the amount of lubrication used.
Out of the 60,000 rounds fired in the tests earlier in the summer, the 10 M4s tested had 307 stoppages, test results show, far fewer than the 882 in the most recent test.
in the recent tests, the M4 suffered 643 weapon-related stoppages, such as failure to eject or failure to extract fired casings, and 239 magazine-related stoppages.
Colt officials had not seen the test report and would not comment for this story, said James Battaglini, executive vice president for Colt Defense LLC, on Dec. 14.
Army officials are concerned about the gap between the two tests becaus the “test conditions for test two and three were ostensibly the same,” Brown said.
There were, however, minor differences in the two tests because they were conducted at different times of the year with different test officials, Brown said. test community officials are analyzing the data to try to explain why the M4 performed worse during this test.
Weapons officials pointed out that these tests were conducted in extreme conditions that did not address “reliability in typical operational conditions,” the test report states.
Despite the last-place showing, Army officials say there is no movement toward replacing the M4.
The Army wants its next soldier weapon to be a true leap ahead, rather than a series of small improvements, Brown said.
“That is what the intent is,” he said, “to give our soldiers the very best and we are not going to rest until we do that.”
Col. Robert Radcliffe, head of the Directorate of Combat Developments for the Infantry Center at Fort Benning, Ga., said the test results will be considered as the Army continues to search for ways to improve soldier weapons.
For now, he said the Army will stick with the M4, because soldier surveys from Iraq and Afghanistan continue to highlight the weapon’s popularity among troops in the combat zone.
“The M4 is performing for them in combat, and it does what they needed to do in combat,” Radcliffe said.
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