The venerable M16 rifle is a design so old that it qualifies for AARP membership. But nothing is perfect. In its fifty-plus years of U.S. military service, a few suggestions have been made as to how to improve on the old girl. Things like the original rifle being too large and awkward to tote around a battlefield all day long, the need for an adjustable stock, and a preference for an operating system that keeps things a little cleaner than the gas expansion system Eugene Stoner designed for it. In 2005 the Teutonic tinkerers at Heckler & Koch introduced their own updated and more perfect vision for the M16 platform: the HK416 . . .
In the 1990’s, H&K was busy perfecting and promoting their own answer to the modern battle rifle. The German Army had been using the old G3 workhorse since the 1950’s and was in desperate need for an update. What H&K designed as a replacement was an interesting combination of design features from many different platforms combined — the G36 family of firearms.
Around the same time, the U.S. Army’s Delta Force was looking to have H&K make the same kind of improvements to their aging M4A1 rifles. The guns were okay, but the lure of a piston powered rifle and improved barrel were very attractive. Using what they’d learned from the G36 design process as well as some features from the yet-to-be-canned XM8 project, H&K developed the HK416 rifle.
There are a few major improvements that put the HK416 ahead of the standard M4A1 platform.
Improvement #1 is the barrel. The military TDP for the M4 and M16 rifles call for a button rifling process, a manufacturing method that is quick and relatively accurate. However, the HK416 uses a cold hammer forging process for their barrels like that in the SCAR series of guns. The hammer forging process adds durability to the barrels, letting them last longer and endure heavier usage.
The second improvement has to do with the barrel as well, but is more about what surrounds it. The M4A1 platform still uses the plastic clamshell handguard design that shipped with the very first M16 rifles, a design that bolts the handguard directly to the gas block on the barrel. Not only does this limit the options for mounting accessories to the gun, but having handguards that directly touch the barrel tend to decrease the accuracy of the firearm.
The HK416 fixes this issue by using a free-floating handguard system that lets the barrel move independently of the handguard. It also features full-length Picatinny rails on all four sides. This setup not only makes for increased accuracy, but also greatly increases the options of how to mount accessories onto the gun. Some M4A1 rifles are getting the same style “quad rails” added as a replacement, but not the free floating variety.
Another huge improvement: the front sight. With the M4 rifles, the front sight is a fixed affair that can get quite annoying and obscure part of your view if you’re using a red dot optic. With the HK416, the front sight is designed to fold down and out of the shooter’s view when not needed. I realize that a folding front sight might not seem like a major improvement to some people, but it really is. Not only does it improve the field of view, but it also makes the gun more compact for transport and movement.
There’s one more improvement worth noting, and it’s a big one: the operating system.
Instead of using a gas expansion system like the M4A1, the HK416 uses a short stroke piston system. The design is similar to that used in the old M1 Carbine rifles: a gas piston kicks the bolt carrier backwards a short distance, and then the momentum of the moving mass carries it the rest of the way through the cycle.
The primary benefit of a piston system is that the action doesn’t get as filthy. With the gas expansion system, hot carbon gets everywhere and can take forever to clean every nook and cranny of the bolt and carrier. With the gas piston system, all of the gunk is contained within the piston system itself and never makes it into the chamber. The piston still needs some TLC every once in a while, but the action stays much cleaner. It’s a major benefit for those in the military who religiously clean their guns.
There’s another benefit as well, though. When you add a silencer to a gun, you also increase the back-pressure in the barrel. Increased back-pressure means more force acting on the moving parts and subsequently a higher cyclic rate of fire for the gun. That’s great if you want to put a ton of rounds downrange really quickly, but it also means more wear and tear on the parts.
The gas system on the HK416 is designed to allow the end user to change the settings, permitting more or less gas into the system depending on the configuration of the gun. That keeps everything humming along, makes the gun more comfortable for the shooter, and increases the life of the gun.
Out on the range, the gun feels pretty much like any other quality AR-15 or M16 derivative. The controls are crisp and clean, the trigger is excellent for a machine gun, and the firearm is extremely easy to control even on full auto. Minute of bad guy at the very least.
There are, of course, just one or two issues.
I’ve handled my fair share of HK416s, and one thing that they all share is a common hatred of PMAGs. I’m not sure exactly what it is about the design, but the only thing that reliably feeds in the HK416 are either the standard metal magazines or the special EMAGs that Magpul has had to manufacture to keep the guns running. Using the proper magazines the gun runs flawlessly, but if you slap in the wrong bullet buffet, the gun gags after a few rounds.
Then there’s the price. The dealer whose HK416 I was playing with wouldn’t tell me the retail price for the full auto version, but when the list price for the MR556 (the semi-auto civilian version) is nearasdamnit $3,000, you know it isn’t cheap. Compare that price to the less than $2,000 PWS asks for their top-of-the-line 16″ gun or SIG Sauer’s $1,800 sticker for basically the same firearm and there does indeed seem to be a premium attached for the brand name gun.
Overall, there’s a definite improvement over the original. It’s not revolutionary, just evolutionary — taking the AR-15 platform about as far as you can with modern technology. That’s the problem though, this is probably the end of the line in terms of the M16 design. There isn’t much else that you could do to the gun without major design changes to the basic platform. Until those guns start arriving, though, the HK416 a pretty kick-ass solution.
Heckler & Koch HK416
Caliber: 5.56 NATO
Barrel: 11 inches
Size: 31.4 inches extended, 27.6 inches compact
Weight: 6.66 lbs empty
Capacity: 30 round magazines
Ratings (Out of Five Stars):
All ratings are relative compared to the other weapons in the gun’s category.
Accuracy: * * * *
Cold hammer forged barrels and free floating handguards make this automatic rifle a winner.
Ergonomics: * * * *
About the same as a standard AR-15. Pretty good.
Ergonomics Firing: * * * *
The handguards get extremely hot thanks to the gas system, but otherwise very pleasant to shoot.
Customization: * * * *
Tons of options, just not many involving the barrel.
Overall Rating: * * * *
Expensive, but I can understand why it’s the gun of choice for those who can own them.