The M16 rifle has been the primary assault rifle of the U.S. military since the 1960s, but has a checkered track record. Is it time to consider replacing the M16 rifle with something else?
Adopted by the various branches of the United States military over five decades ago, the M16 rifle was the subject of a great deal of controversy from the very start.
While the reputation of the rifle has generally improved over the past few decades, there are still many who think that we should replace the M16 rifle as the primary assault rifle carried by the members of our military.
While it performed very well in initial tests, the M16 rifle, and its accompanying 5.56x45mm cartridge, developed a poor reputation in Vietnam.
Because it uses direct gas impingement, instead of the more common piston system used in many other rifles, such as the AK-47, it blows gas from a fired cartridge directly into the chamber.
Not surprisingly, a direct gas impingement system results in the chamber and bolt assembly becoming dirty much faster than they would in a piston-operated rifle. This, combined with the fact that cleaning kits were not initially issued with the M16 rifle, resulted in a very high malfunction rate early in the war.
Fortunately, the M16 rifle received several modifications which dramatically improved the reliability of the rifle. Though it still is nowhere near as reliable as the AK-47, the M16 rifle variants in service today are significantly more reliable than the version of the rifle that was first adopted in the 1960s.
That being said, the M16 rifle is still relatively finicky and must be clean and well lubricated for optimum reliability. Obviously, this is difficult for members of the military engaged in sustained combat.
Unlike the M9 pistol, the variants of the M16 rifle that are currently used by the military in combat operations, such as the M16A2, the M16A4, and M4 carbine, generally receive high marks from service members who have used them in combat.
However, there have been a few reported instances in Iraq and Afghanistan (such as at the fights at Wanat and COP Keating) where the rifles used by members of the military began to suffer malfunctions after several hours of use in heavy, sustained combat.
Even if clean and lubricated at the beginning of a firefight, these are examples of firefights that lasted long enough that the rifles became too hot and dirty to function reliably over the course of just one battle.
Obviously, this is unacceptable.
Lack of Stopping Power
Another problem that many people have with the M16 rifle is the lack of stopping power possessed by the 5.56x45mm cartridge. The cartridge fires a high velocity, lightweight bullet which is considered too light to use legally for deer hunting in many states.
With this in mind, it should not be surprising that the cartridge has a reputation for a lack of stopping power. This problem became especially pronounced when the military switched from the M193 to the M855 cartridge in the 1980s.
The cartridge also tends to perform poorly at ranges in excess of 300-500 yards (particularly when using the short barreled M4) and when shooting through barriers.
These issues are magnified when the 5.56x45mm cartridge is compared to the 7.62x51mm cartridge (below) used in the M14 rifle (which the M16 replaced).
These shortcomings became very apparent when soldiers and marines experienced problems with engaging targets at long range (especially in Afghanistan) or when trying to engage an insurgent inside a vehicle.
The new lead-free M855A1 cartridge that the military started using in Afghanistan in the last couple of years addresses the problems that the 5.56x45mm has with stopping power, effective range, and barrier penetration to a certain degree. However, the jury is still out on exactly how effective it will be over the long term.
Cartridges such as the 6.5mm Grendel and 6.8mm Remington SPC (among others) are touted at possible alternatives that would have a longer effective range and more stopping power than the 5.56x45mm cartridge. At the same time, both cartridges would only require minimal modifications to existing 5.56x45mm rifles in order to work.
While the M16 rifle was considered state of the art when it was first introduced, this is no longer the case. The fact that members of the Special Operations Forces community typically use rifles like the H&K 416 and the FN SCAR instead of the M16 rifle speaks volumes about what they think about the M16.
Fortunately, there are a number of good solutions out there. Besides the H&K 416 and the FN SCAR, the Steyr AUG and the H&K XM8 are two more examples (among many possibilities) of possible alternatives that promise better reliability and performance than the M16 rifle.
The AUG and XM8 are also modular weapon systems that may be quickly customized and serve as the base platform for several different specialized weapons, such as a designated marksman rifle, a close quarters battle (CQB) rifle, or even a squad automatic weapon.
Especially when compared to extremely expensive projects that the Department of Defense spends money on, such as aircraft carriers or modern jet fighters like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, spending $1,000-2,000 per rifle to replace the M16 rifle with a more modern and reliable weapon doesn’t sound too expensive.
What do you think? Should we replace the M16 rifle?
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