The Colt M4 rifle and Beretta M9 handgun were the main guns I used in Afghanistan. The M9 was a standard-issue pistol. The M4 had an Eotech red dot sight with the usual Eotech Advanced Target Illuminator/Pointer (AN/PEQ-15) wired onto the top rail, and a CAA foregrip. They were not customized. They were not named (other than their serial numbers which I memorized). But as I go through photos of my time in Afghanistan, or look at my mission logs, I’ll be damned if I don’t have one of those two on me at all times. The main thing I didn’t like about the guns was . . .
the rounds they fired. Not really the calibers they fired, but the bullet composition themselves: FMJ’s for both the 5.56 NATO and the 9X19 NATO. Both of these rounds poked nice little holes with minimal damage. The rifle and pistol themselves, however, were completely adequate ammunition delivery systems.
The Colt M4 was extremely reliable. I heard so many people complaining about the reliability of the AR platform; how the weapon has to be cleaned constantly to maintain functionality. I never experienced that. My rifle got used. It got covered in dirt. It kept on chugging out rounds. I cleaned it as and when, but not obsessively and not often. At one point, I was firing from underneath an up-armored 1151, with the rifle flat against the ground, the dust cover inches from the dirt. Zero malfunctions.
There was no reason for me to be anything other than super confident that every time I pulled the trigger the weapon would fire. As far as accuracy, I’d say it was just OK. Eventually I got an ACOG. Even with the 4X magnification — an absolute must for southeastern Afghanistan where our average initial engagement distance was 400 meters — the rifle shot no better than 2MOA on my best day. And you know what, that’s good enough for government work.
My only complaint about this weapon platform: the magazines. About 1/4 of all of the ones we were issued were just worn out and worthless. The most common problem was feed lips that would no longer hold in rounds reliably. This is why a lot of guys ended up using PMAGs. I never saw a problem with any PMAG, other than the brass telling us we couldn’t use them. We did anyway. The brass wasn’t actually there to say no.
I was pretty good with my M4. I grew up shooting rifles. My first rifle was a Winchester Model 1894 made in the ’40s chambered in .30-30 Win. I still have that rifle and I still hunt with it. But from the time I was nine to the time I was 27 in Basic Training, that was the smallest caliber rifle I had ever fired. Oh, the joy of shooting my M16A2 and it’s tiny 5.56NATO round. It felt like a toy and was fun and just too easy to shoot. Man, I miss Uncle Sam paying for my ammo.
My Beretta M9 was equally reliable. It was picky with magazines; it preferred Italian-made mags. But it ran great. I never had to shoot my M9 in anger, but it was always on me. There was always a round chambered, and the only difference in condition was safety on or off. Actually on mission? Safety off and in a SERPA holster (unless posing for pics so that we could keep the garrison 1SG from raising hell). All other times safety on and holstered in my pants or shorts.
Unlike the M16/M4’s I used, I was not so great with the M9. At all. I was used to shooting pistols, but not this one. I found the controls cumbersome; I had a hard time getting used to taking the safety off and dealing with the long, not-so-tuned-at-all, double-action trigger, all while keeping the sight on target. The DA/SA thing really messed with my accuracy. Still does.
One day, early in my first tour in Afghanistan, I was telling one of the soldiers on our team, a member of the 5th Special Forces Group out of Ft. Cambell, how much that pistol sucked. “So what?” he said, “that’s the pistol you’ve got. You’d better get real good with it.” He walked me through the manipulation drills he used to overcome his difficulties with the gun.
Starting that night, and every day since for over six years now, I’ve done those drills. By the end of my second tour I was winning friendly competitions left and right with my M9; winning patches, money, and a few bragging rights. More importantly, I was good with the pistol, and confident with it as well.
I don’t think those guns are very interesting because I don’t automatically equate them with combat – even though I used them in combat, even though I killed people with them. The M4 and M9 were purely tools, appliances even. They were completely interchangeable with other tools, just a zero adjustment was necessary.
They weren’t even my most important tool. After spending some time in actual combat, I learned that my radio was a far more useful, and far more deadly tool than my individual weapons. In fact, many of the guys I worked with eventually dropped a magazine or two so that they could carry more batteries for their radio.
But unlike my radio, I had a gun on me all the time. I had a gun on me when I was playing poker, reading, smoking cigars, eliminating. Still do. I don’t association guns with combat any more than I do any of those other things. I feel that way about all of the guns we used, with one exception….
I served my first tour in Afghanistan with a very small group of American soldiers and Afghan interpreters embedded with the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. When I say very small, I mean small. At one point there were four Americans deployed alongside about 100 Afghan Soldiers, 60km away from the nearest American force, down a bombed-out and constantly mined road.
Tactically, it was fantastically stupid. Because of those small numbers, everyone had to get proficient with the crew-served weapons. Officially, I was the team medic. I was also sometimes the driver, and sometimes the gunner. Our crew-served weapons included one M249, a few M240Bs, a couple of M19 grenade launchers, and three M2s. I’m not a big fan of the SAW, but I like the M240s and the M19 is just giddy fun. The M2, the “Ma Deuce” is where my “guns as tools” mantra ends.
The M2 holds a beloved place in my heart. I may love my children less because I can’t let go of my love of that gun. I’m at total peace with that. That gun performs exceptionally well. There is a reason why such and old weapons platform is still in wide use: like the Great White shark, it never had to evolve. I’ve seen M2s run wet and dry, covered in sand, and on one occasion, after an IED blew it off the mount and onto the hood of a now-demolished MRAP. Remounted, it ran perfectly.
Two M2s in the hands of a pair of competent gunners is a terrifying thing. Is that a PKM or an RPK in your hands, local Taliban thug? No matter. I see your belt-fed annoyance and raise you all the angry wrath of hell. Oh, the sound they make! Not an offending snap, but a lullaby of “whump whump whump whump.” It is the most calming sound I know. If I ever get a little spooked by something, or have any “post-traumatic stress,” I can put the sound of those M2s in my head and I will involuntarily smile. Everything is going to be alright as long as those guns are talking. Everything is going to be just fine.
Next to Ma Duece, my M4 just seemed silly. I think the term “assault weapon” is a real term, but when things go well, or maybe even according to plan (which does sometimes actually happen), it’s not the assault team that does most of the killing with their M4s. It’s the support team with their Automatic Rifles (M249, M240B and G) that do the real cleaning up.
When it comes to my weapons assigned in combat, my M4 and M9 were just fine guns. Good enough for the job at hand, although the bullets themselves were not. I own quite a few versions of them today because I am very comfortable with their manual of arms and familiar with their capabilities. But I hold them in no high regard. There isn’t room at the top for anything other than Ma.