Quick Thought on the Marines Switching to the M4

For the last year, I’ve been a pretty big fan of the 20″ AR-15. I’ve recommended it to many new shooters, and I’ve written quite a bit about its advantages here. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I also always remembered that the Marine Corps still preferred the 20″ M16A4 due to its inherent ballistic advantages.

I have to admit, I was a little disappointed that news is coming out reporting that the Marines may decide to go the route of the Army and issues M4A1s to all front line combat personnel, and the M16A4 will be issued to support personnel. Part of me snickers a bit at the irony, since the M4 was originally supposed to be the issued weapon of support personnel, and the M16 was for combat personnel.

I’m not disappointed in the Marines, mind you, but rather that I’ve lost my “talking point” about the utility of the 20″ AR. Do I think that the decision to switch to M4s means that the M16 is destined to for the scrap heap for civilian shooters as well? Absolutely not.

The Marines, like the Army, are simply letting the mission dictate the equipment. They have always been a bit behind the curve due to funding and political issues. The truth is, though, that the M4A1 makes a lot of sense if you spend a lot of time getting into and out of vehicles, or are spending time in urban combat and house clearing operations. Those things characterize the environments that we’ve been operating in for over ten years now.

“But not in Afghanistan!”

It’s true that Afghanistan is different; the engagement distances are routinely beyond 500 meters. While the M16 may be better suited to those ranges than the M4, they are both equally capable of putting a bullet on a target. The sad truth is that at 500 meters, the average combat shooter is not really trying to land hits on a point target anyway, regardless of the rifle used. Remember, the Hitchman Report (which is one of the key instigators that resulted in the M16 and 5.56 cartridge) stated that most conflict happens within 100 yards, and aimed fire beyond 300 yards was impractical and ineffective for most infantrymen in combat, as the marksmanship skill at that point is dismal and hits are essentially as random as grenade fragments or artillery shells.

A key difference between the average civilian shooter and a military shooter is the addition of squad tactics and combined arms in the latter. One person on that squad will be carrying a rifle suited to making effective aimed hits at 500 meters and beyond (probably a semi-automatic 7.62×51 rifle). In addition to that, another member of that squad will probably be carrying a light machine gun capable of effective suppressive fire at that distance. In this situation, the requirement to issue a full size rifle to every member is diminished, and the carrying of lighter carbines (especially given the amount of auxiliary equipment being carried) makes a lot of sense.

I still advocate for the 20″ musket because it is still the easiest shooting, most reliable, and ballistically effective variant across the spectrum. If it’s just you and your rifle, why not get the most ballistic bang for your buck? If you’re not employing squad tactics with a variety of weapons, not jumping into and out of Humvees all day, not clearing buildings room to room, and you’re not carrying 100+ lbs of equipment, then why carry a weapon designed for those situations?

Let the mission dictate the configuration.

All of that said, a collapsible stock on a 20″ barrel makes for a mighty fine (and fun) shooter. I know the Marines had been experimenting with the concept (effectively the Canadian C7A2 configuration) for years, but never approved it. The Army apparently had approved it, but it’s not widely used. In any case, don’t let what the military does be the end-all-be-all for how you choose to make your purchases.

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