M4 (courtesy ammoland.com)
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John Farnam writes [via Ammoland.com]: What we currently call the “M4″ has been, in various forms, our standard Infantry rifle since the 1960s. . .

As with any new piece of critical equipment that is haphazardly rushed into service in the middle of a war (Vietnam), testing was inadequate (much of it glossed-over), and there were thus a number of “start-up problems” when this new rifle hit the field, some of which proved fatal to more than one young soldier.

The episode represents an unsavory chapter in our military history, and many in my generation have not forgotten, and never will.

Over the next sixty years, the rifle and caliber (5.56×45) stuck around. In fact, we still have it. To their credit, the Pentagon has since made many improvements, addressing specific issues. And, our industrial sector, producing M4s for the consuming public, also made changes. Some good; some silly.

As a result, today’s M4 Rifle runs about as well as any military rifle ever has. But, like all military rifles, it has issues that are endemic:

The extractor is small and weak – Tends to break, along with the extractor spring. For that reason, I carry a spare BCG (bolt-carrier group) with me. Replacing the extractor in the field is a little tedious. Replacing the BCG is easy and takes seconds. And like all serious Operators, I have an MGI “D-Ring” installed on all my M4s.

The M4 needs to be wet – We once thought in a desert environment, like Iraq, less lubrication was required. The exact opposite is true. In hot, dry, gritty climates, much lubrication is necessary, in order to keep grit in suspension and keep the rifle running. High-tech coatings and surface treatments alter that formula a little.

But, when you’re carrying an M4 for serious purposes in a hot, dry, windy, gritty place:

1) Keep it wet
2) Keep the dust-cover closed
3) Keep a magazine inserted

When you keep your M4 wet and keep grit out of the receiver, it will run and run.

The positive side of the M4 Rifle:

Weight –  The M4 battle rifle is significantly lighter than any gas-piston rifle, and has fewer moving parts. In battle, every ounce that must be carried is a burden, particularly at high altitude. Light guns translate to more ammunition.

Accuracy – The production version of the M4 is a two-moa rifle, unheard of prior to the arrival of the Stoner System. For all their wonderful attributes, production versions of the M1 and M14 are four-moa guns. Most Kalashnikovs are five, plus.

Heat – The genius of the Stoner System is that, during rapid fire, heat is spread-out over the entire receiver, instead of being concentrated in the gas-piston area. Thus, the rifle heats-up slower than is the case for most gas-piston systems.

Heckler & Koch M27 Rifle

Heckler & Koch M27 Rifle
The Marines, weary of waiting for someone at the Pentagon to actually make a decision, have unilaterally gone over to a gas-piston version of the M4, made by H&K (HK 416). They call it the M27. It’s a sound system, no doubt, but significantly heavier [and 3xpensive at a reported $3000 ea] than the M4 it is replacing.

The rest of our military is still sitting on a fence.

For all the raging debate, it is my opinion that the rifle itself is not our main problem. The Stoner System, while far from perfect, is just fine.

The problem is the rifle caliber with which we have been stuck since Vietnam.

5.56x45 cartridge
The 5.56×45 cartridge (“militarized” version of the 223 Rem) lacks adequate range and penetration for military applications. This range/penetration problem is not soluble within that caliber, and never will be.

For domestic law enforcement and personal defense, the 5.56×45 is acceptable.

But, in a battle rifle, the 5.56 comes up short. I’ve lived through a least half-dozen attempts to “improve” the cartridge, and provide it with satisfactory range and penetration. Each succeeding “wonder bullet,” despite all the promotion, has failed to live up to the hype.

The Pentagon needs to worry less about a new rifle, and more about a new caliber.

We need, once more, a 500m rifle that shoots bullets that actually go THROUGH things. We don’t have anything close to that now.


Defense Training International, Inc

About John Farnam & Defense Training International, Inc
As a defensive weapons and tactics instructor John Farnam will urge you, based on your own beliefs, to make up your mind in advance as to what you would do when faced with an imminent and unlawful lethal threat. You should, of course, also decide what preparations you should make in advance, if any. Defense Training International wants to make sure that their students fully understand the physical, legal, psychological, and societal consequences of their actions or inactions.

It is our duty to make you aware of certain unpleasant physical realities intrinsic to the Planet Earth. Mr Farnam is happy to be your counselor and advisor. Visit: www.defense-training.com

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  1. I’m sure the military is looking at new options all the time. And some special services use different weapon, but it will be a long time before the overall military goes away from the 5.56 because of the ease of shooting and ammo.

    • And like all serious Operators, I have an MGI “D-Ring” installed on all my M4s.

      Operators! Lol

    • I know! Isn’t this the same guy that explained the Coriolis effect with a couple of toy pinwheels situated on the north and south of the equator and claimed one went in reverse???


  2. Well, that settles it. Thanks John.

    If replacing M4 with the HK is an “improvement,” then we should also replace all Humvees with turretless Abrams. Who cares about weight and cost?!

    I vote .224 Valkyrie for the next vaporware battle rifle.

  3. No.

    Better optics on existing weapons and more funding for range time will solve many issues.

    But the author’s lament that there is no wonder bullet is the same lament that there is no wonder caliber. There is currently no caliber that does ALL things well. There are many options for bullet design. Every flavor of 5.56 available does to some extent what is required. Want a penetrator? It exists. Want an expanding bullet? It exists. Want one with improved accuracy over extended range? It exists. None of those is the bullet we shoot in massive quantities at the range… but that is a range bullet.

    It is the never-ending balancing act. We want a bullet that is accurate over the spectrum of engagements ranges, has ample penetration through barriers, expands to cause a lethal wound, and weighs so little that it can be carried in adequate amounts. Which is more important? All of them.

  4. “We need, once more, a 500m rifle that shoots bullets that actually go THROUGH things. We don’t have anything close to that now.”

    This article would be significantly better if you didn’t just throw this claim out there unsupported. Clearly, you have a theater in mind. What theater is that, and why is it that you feel that a different cartridge would benefit our encounters in it?

    What are you considering by way of an optics solution, to allow for target discrimination at 500 yards, and yet not encumber peripheral awareness at closer distances?

    • Theater is an important point, because many of the arguments for a new caliber come from our experience in Afghanistan. Problem is our next big war probably won’t be in Afghanistan. It’s going to be in Europe and/or east Asia. The areas of conflict that 5.56 was developed out of (WW2 and Korea). I’d suggest if long range mountain warfare is such a concern, we go back to the WW2 concept of having one or more dedicated mountain divisions to fight there, equipped appropriately with heavier calibers. We still have a 10th mountain division, but, as a veteran of that division, I can tell you the mountain tab is purely symbolic. There isn’t a mountain anywhere near Ft Drum. But, it does get cold as a motherfucker there.

      • Another triumph of military intelligence. I’ve met Americans from the mid west, and they have trouble understanding that the world is not actually as flat as their landscape.

      • By east-coast standards, upstate New York *is* mountainous.

        Out west, we call those ‘foothills’.

        • I drove through the smokey “mountains” once (moving east from the northwest) and I honestly missed where they started and stopped. I recall saying wait was that it?


  5. I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Farnam. This is the approach I have since I began building my own rifles. As it is a money driven “hobby”, I chose the AR platform and the 5.56mm caliber due to the reasonable pricing, availability, and interchangeability across the board. Fortunately for our Military, their continued use of the 5.56 is still strategically viable since their opponents are comparably equipped. Advances in ammunition also have helped. And when there is a need for a “better” gun, they build as needed such is the case with the Marines and Special Ops Group. When you’re buying millions of rifles and gazillion rounds of ammo on the tax payer’s dime, I don’t want them to all be set up with HKs and 308s. Lastly, this new Valkyrie round does have my attention.

    • I love how there’s now all this talk of replacing 5.56 after it has FINALLY received an optimized round (actually, there have been several, SOST, Brown Tip, etc.). There’s nothing wrong with the 5.56 as a standard round. In spite of all the vitriol directed at the M16, it is the longest-serving service rifle in US history. With good reason.

      If any round needs replacing, it’s the 7.62X51. Fat, inefficient, heavy. Its time has more than come. Which is why I laugh at those advocating for the return of the Worst Service Rifle Ever, that dumpster fire M14 POS. Sure, the Garand was a decent rifle in its time (in spite of op-rod problems), but it could have been better if it had been chambered in .276 Pedersen. .30 caliber is pretty much crap for anything but coax. Oh, and how long did the M14 last in service before being chucked (rightfully) aside?

      And the new Fanboi cartridge .224 Valkyrie…sure. As long as it fits in existing Pmags. Otherwise, it’s no better than the Turdtastic 6.8 StupidPieceofCrap. Keep the M4, optimize it with the SURG tech, and replace the 7.62 with the 6.5CM. A simple barrel swap is all that is required for all of the current 7.62 weapons, and you get a lighter, more effective round.

      And don’t even get me started on the CSAT garbage. I predict we will be transitioning from cased (brass or polymer/brass/aluminum composite) rounds to directed energy weapons. Translation: cased, full-length ain’t going anywhere any time soon.

      NO, we don’t need a heavier standard rifle. NO the Garand or the M14 (or the FAL for that matter) should not be brought back. Unless you think Kpots should be replaced by the old Steel Covers, M60s should replace our Abrams, and F-105s should be swapped in for our Vipers. Technology moves forward, not back.

      Improve what we have.

    • NATO isn’t REALLY a problem. If we have leadership with balls, they will tell NATO to jump and NATO will ask “how high?” if they know what’s good for them. The entirety of every other nation’s contribution to NATO barely equates to the United States Marine Corps.

    • Wasn’t the 5.56 M193 adopted only a few years after the rest of NATO finally adopted 7.62 NATO firearms?

  6. This article couldn’t have been timed better. Just arguing with some idiot on reddit, i know i know. He was trying to tell me how much the “5.56” has improved and is a great round and doesnt need replacing. This article made my day as I was able to use it for my argument. thanks gents!

    btw i fully agree with the viewpoints in the article. cheers!

    • Too bad it’s all a bunch of 50+ year old talking point nonsense based on a 1800’s view of military troop engagements.

      • That’s it Stereodude… find “evidence” to suit your argument. Surely, there can’t be any flaws to either! 😉

        The logic used for the argument of the article is flawed in a multitude of ways. This has been proven by many with far more knowledge than this author. We’ve heard all these complaints and criticisms before.

        If anything will drive weapon development in the coming years, it is advancements in body armor. As has been shown clearly, 7.62×51 is no better at penetration than 5.56.

        The author seems heavily influenced by Afghanistan. We definitely learned some lessons there. A true Mountain Division with heavier rifles would be one solution. Another would be better MGs with increased range. Another would be more DMRs. But no one with any acceptance of reality actual thinks all 5.56 rifles will be replaced with “X.XX”. The fact is, most users will be unable to exploit extended range of a new weapon. The most direct solution would seem to be more DMRs on the ground in such a theatre.

        Not “replacing 5.56”.

        I look forward to a time when we can stop with these endless debates where one side simply repeats old history and science, as though nothing can change or be improved with time. Hilariously sad.

  7. Beyond ignorant how often does a soldier need to shoot anything beyond 500m much less need to penetrate it that far, I sure as hell never did. There is a Forgotten Weapons clip about the 7.92x41mm CETME Cartridge that was supposedly supersonic at 1000m thanks to German Engineers but that was soon dropped as soon as NATO adopted the 7.62. The M855A1 is more then adequate for the military’s needs and still lightweight and would have better performance if they adopted a 20″ barrel in a bullpup. Few soldiers can even hit out to 300 meters anyway so why have a super rifle for regular troops that will fight it out in mostly urban settings. The issue is not the bullet its the stupid old AR.

    • Few soldiers can even hit out to 300 meters anyway so why have a super rifle for regular troops that will fight it out in mostly urban settings.


  8. Ok, so Mr. Farnam has convincingly stated a problem with the status quo as he sees it. And his suggested solution to said problem is…What, exactly?

    One of my first (and in hindsight best) bosses in my career taught me early on that if you’re going to voice something you see as a problem, you damn sure also come with an idea for a solution. Whether it’s the right solution or not can be discussed and debated, but if you only state the problem and don’t propose a solution, you’re just whining…

    • I wouldn’t necessarily agree that stating a problem without having a solution in hand, even an unripened solution, is a bad thing. After all, virtually every problem solving methodology out there ephasizes stating tge problem in detailed terms at the outset.

      Never race to a solution, even a tentative one, because that risks crafting a solutuon that doesn’t fit the problem. Massive waste can result from problem solving that neglects problem definition. Still, whining is a thing.

      What distinguishes it from legitimate surfacing of a problem is more the person’s willingness to understand it and develop a solution, than his already having some idea of a solution. Then again, even whining has its virtue.

      Think about it: companies solicit feedback every day from their customers, vendors, employees, focus groups, the general public on the street, and more. All of these people are sought out, invited, sometimes even compensated, to complain and voice problems. To whine. Tips, suggestions, solutions may be welcomed, but just learning of the problems is often sufficient. Then we can get our team back at the lab, the plant, the ad agency, wherever, to work on that problem.

  9. The discussion takes on a totally different perspective if we first establish whether a standard issue “battle rifle” for every pair of boots is even necessary. We don’t line troops up and have them march toward each other. Is the battle rifle even a viable concept for modern warfare?

    Do the vast majority of the boots on the ground even need a “battle rifle”? Sure they need something more powerful than a handgun for the occasions they’re engaged by small arms fire, but are rounds from a “battle rifle” intended to be the primary item the Army/Marines use to kill bad guys in modern combat? Seems to me it’s not. Seems more like it’s a defensive weapon in many (most?) scenarios and that artillery, mortars, airstrikes/drone strikes, etc… are intended to be the way of eliminating the enemy with precise overwhelming force.

    Sure, but M4 / 5.56×45 maybe isn’t the greatest battle rifle combination, but I’d argue it’s not intending or trying to be a battle riffle.

  10. We’re $20 Trillion + in debt… We don’t need to spend more money on anything, especially replacing a 98% solution with a 99% solution.

  11. When I got to Vietnam in 1968, we Marines had just swapped out our M-14s for M16A1s – Vietnam was a jungle war and that we did not need the long-range 7.62mm cartridge was obvious. Our enemies were armed with 7.62x39mm weapons for the most part, so it was a short-range war with short sight-lines. The pros/cons of the 5.56mm cartridge (short range, lack of penetration, could carry LOTS of ammo) were noted, but we had 7.62mm machine guns to punch through the growth and for longer ranges. After the war ended and the Marine Corps’ training shifted to Europe, I thought that the M-14 might be brought back, since a European war would obviously require a longer range cartridge. But I guess DOD had so much tied up in the 5.56mm ammunition and weapons, that it couldn’t see switching yet again, so we have had the cartridge and its weapons variants for 50 years, even though Iraq and Afghanistan were 500 yard wars. Somebody mentioned the NATO influence on DOD’s caliber choices – I believe that is true. These days, I doubt DOD will want to invest the money and time to switch back to the 7.62mm round (or some other wonder cartridge) unless NATO or our other allies go along with the program. I personally would like to see a 7.62mm (or equivalent) infantry rifle brought back into the inventory for the long-range wars (and keep the 5.56mm around in case we get into another jungle war).

    • Same goes for 9mm. California will fall into the Pacific Ocean before NATO gets away from 5.56 and 9mm.

        • If we quit acting like we were part of the Hague Convention, then we just could use JHPs. There’s some more than fine rounds, like the 124gr HST, that kick .40 and .45 butt (according to the LuckyGunner tests). YMMV.

        • @OmnivorousBeorn: The Winchester Ranger-T in .45 is all the more nasty.

          Please note, I’m not claiming they should dump 9mm for .45 ACP.

      • The difference between 9mm and 45 are negligible, ( how often are people shot in warfare? and how often by a pistol.)
        5.56 is good for general use, no PDWs just issue M4s.
        I do think we need to issue more 7.62 rifle and maybe look again at BAR/Bren gun type weapons. Then we are not challenging the NATO supply chain
        Next wars? Europe, Cities. General issue of a 7.62 battle rifle would be wrong.
        Apend the money on things that blow up

  12. While it’s true there are better weapons and rounds available, it simply won’t happen. Wether right or wrong, however you may see it, Infantry small arms just aren’t seen as pivotal to the overall war effort anymore. They’re considered secondary to things like dominating air and naval power, stealth technology, night vision, new body armor, and new armored vehicles. You may disagree but that’s simply how the pentagon sees it. Want to engage targets out to 1,000m? That’s what artillery and air is for. The stoner system and 5.56 are here to stay for another 50 years or more. It’s simply too expensive to replace for minimal gain. I’ll even go so far to predict that the M16 system and 5.56 is the last rifle/ammo combo the US military will use, as it will be in use up until firearms are superceeded by energy weapons.

    • After I put all my skill points into small guns and now we’re switching to energy weapons?? Dammit!!

    • Ive thought the same thing. I used to be very indifferent to the whole platform, but the more I shot them, manipulated them, and built them, it started to dawn on me that it really is an extraordinary design, and it was developed in the 50’s! Seems to me that the complaints of lack of range/penetration/effectiveness can mostly be traced back to the shorter barrel on the M4’s. I think a change back to the original 20 inch barrel would solve a lot of those issues.Though with the prevalence of mechanized infantry these days it may not be all that practical. I personally feel like the M16A2 style fits me perfectly and have built several. My current go to rifle is an 18 inch with a lightweight faxon barrel.

    • Energy weapons? Won’t happen. Short of a room temperature super-conductor based capacitive system, you simply don’t have the power to generate useful yields in a portable form. I can see some form of energy driven mass driver, but even that still runs into the transportable energy density problem, just not as fast.

      Simply put, chemical powered slug throwers have reached the pinnacle of what’s possible with our current materials science and power generation. Once we develop some form of high density energy storage and power generation, we’ll be ready for the next revolution in small arms. Until then, 5.56×45 is here to stay.

      • Agreed. Until something the like the “fusion cell” from fallout is developed, energy weapons are far off. I’d say 50 years minimum, maybe 100, maybe longer. I’m fairly confident if my future grand children (and I’m 30), serve in the military, they’ll be using a AR type rifle and 5.56. What is also amazing is the M2 service record. It’s also possible that will still be in service by then.

        • “Energy Weapons” will be used by robots to wipe out those pesky humans.
          Military cartridge development should concentrate on anti-robot warfare.

        • Ollie, what I never understood is why would machines want to shoot people with anything. Why waste time with Terminators, shooting humans one by one, when they can simply poison the air and water? Biological warfare is another easy way of wiping out human race. Robots don’t care how poisonous or contagious their environment is.

  13. I feel that more money/time should be spent on range time. I was a SF/MP in the Air Force, and we got to shoot 1 time a year for qualifications (about 100 rounds out of the AR, and 40 rounds out of the m9 Beretta) That is it! Also, there was no opportunity to get extra range time unless it was on my own dime (and off base). It is unacceptable to put troops in that situation, without giving them the necessary skills to be proficient in shooting. Another caliber will not fix that.

  14. Somewhat agree, but mostly not. I am a Marine grunt converted to the InRangeTV WWSD Project/concept. A 6.5 pound M4 with 1-6x optic that issues with a magpul 60-round drum and six spare PMAGS – there really is a THERE there. The ballistics are well beyond being in on the 5.56, and the data shows that the cartridge is bullet dependent with both M855A1 and the 77gr SMK(now TMK) both EXCELLENT performers out to 300 and still able to hit even out to 700ish if you can see that far. But he’s correct in that while you can hit things out to 500 yards with both loads, the physics are not really on your side out that far and beyond.

    Enter the DMR. The Russians cracked this problem all the way back in, what, the 1960’s? They just gave the guy with the best rifle scores an SVD and called it a day. One guy per squad gets an AR pattern 1000+yard gun chambered in something like 6.5 Creedmoor or .300win-mag or even .338 lapua. PROBLEM SOLVED.

    The average rank and file grunt isn’t going to be able to hit anything that far out in field conditions anyway, so maintaining a CQB focused intermediate cartridge is CLEARLY the way to continue. That one guy in every squad that can actually shoot should get something that allows him to make full use of that talent, but why would we go to the expense of retooling the logistics, training and squad makeup when we just don’t have to?

    As for continuing problems with the Stoner rifle, they really are MOSTLY sorted. KE Arms SLT-1 SEALED drop in trigger(inspired by the HK416 trigger) gets as close as is physically possible to removing the fire control group from the list of failure points to the rifle. One down, one to go – the BOLT…. which was actually upgraded to as good as possible by LMT something like 15 FRIGGIN YEARS AGO at the request of SOCOM. It’s not just extra QC or a special coating, it’s a COMPLETE REDESIGN. If you have a carbine length gas system or shorter, buy an LMT Enhanced BCG because it’s literally better in every single way complete with redesigned stronger extractor that doesn’t work as hard due to the increased dwell time caused by the redesigned carrier. Mid-length and longer just go with the LMT enhanced bolt without carrier. There. Done.

  15. During the 50’s (1951) the British army actually put into service a bullpup rifle chambered in a nice little .280 calibre. The EM-2 https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/EM-2_rifle . By accounts it was an excellent cartridge and weapon system, but discarded for the NATO 7.62 in order to comply with standardization pushed bt the US who had a boner for the M14. The idea was a medium range (500yd) bullet. However, British army doctrine has always been dominated by a strict marksmanship requirement at the level of each individual Soldier, without which a 300 yard plus cartridge doesn’t make much sense.

    • Please quit spreading the “British marksmanship standard” myth. Post WWI, their training was about the same as everyone else’s.

        • It is interesting that in The UK they are happy with the 5.56 for general issue, maybe because they use a longer barrel which increases velocity.
          They are issuing 7.62 rifles for DMR, not enough in my opinion.
          Marksman was great in 1914, probably not much better than other countries now. They have the same argument about lack of practice.

  16. The problem as mentioned by other posters is the M16 as its always been very much of an absolute failure on the battlefield and not because of its caliber. The U.S. in its ignorance and arrogance should have adopted the AK 47 or a variation of its excellent gas system that has a 6 to 1 piston ratio to the carrier.

    The 5.56 has been improved and could be further improved simply by going to a heavier bullet but in actuality the ammo being used today is more than adequate for the job at normal combat ranges and as mentioned in the other post the average recruit is lucky to hit anything anyway ranges much over 200 meters.

    Its simply a totally ignorant stirring of the pot in regards to the old caliber debate and that is bigger is always better when history as long ago as back in 1900 proved beyond all doubt that it was not bullet diameter that killed but shot placement and penetration. Actual blood and guts shooting results in big game hunting proved this over 118 years ago. The lions share of big game slaughter in Africa was done by small bore and medium bore rifles and most were rattle trap worn out ex-military rifles that were used to vertually exterminate the lions share of big game in Africa and they used nothing more than surplus fmj ammo. As recently as a couple of years ago their was a program on TV that showed game Rangers once again totally annihilating a herd of elephants with nothing more than one shot out of a FN Fal. 7.62×51.

  17. The article is interesting, but I’m not seeing very much about the actual 5.56 cartridge’s shortcomings, in terms of the round’s specifications. I get that the author finds the outcomes of this round’s use to be lacking, but what about the round drives this performance? What qualities need to be enhanced, added, or removed to achieve the outcomes desired?

    Is it not heavy enough? What’s the performance difference between 55gr and 77gr? Is the round fine, but the carbine length too short for it to reach its potential?

    Is the round’s basic design? Would making holllow point rounds legal im warfare solve the problem? Poor penetration was mentioned as a problem. Well, there’s an enhanced 5.56 round out there that fits a 19gr steel penetrating tip atop a 62gr bullet. Does that solve the problem(s)?

    Without being clear on what the problems are here, and what features of the 5.56 are inadequate to address them, I’m not convinced a change is necessary. Neither am I saying a change isn’t necessary, just that I’m not seeing even a rudimentary case being made here.

  18. Ahh, hmm, sounds like someone is thinking like, well, every army general ever. Needin some more of that glorious overmatch.
    Because why would anyone need lightweight ammo if all we do is supressing fire and let the airforce/mortars/rocket launchers deal with everything else anyways?

  19. “We need, once more, a 500m rifle that shoots bullets that actually go THROUGH things. We don’t have anything close to that now.”

    I go back and forth on this. Previous commenters have covered various reasons why we may not need a rifle that is devastating at 500 meters. If we decided to provide such a rifle to at least some of our troops, what caliber should it be? I am thinking .243 Winchester might be a good solution since it has substantially more oomph than 5.56x45mm NATO, it is straight-forward to chamber an AR-10 in .243 Winchester, you can shove 25 cartridges in a standard magazine, and the cartridges are still relatively light-ish in weight. (Cartridges in .243 Winchester are obviously heavier than 5.56x45mm NATO cartridges — and yet they are notably lighter than 7.62x51mm NATO and significantly lighter than .30-06 Springfield.)

    The only question in my mind is ballistics at 500 yards. I don’t really see any caliber providing outstanding ballistics (for penetrating barriers) at 500 yards unless you are willing to consider .270 Winchester or the Magnums — which doesn’t seem doable since the size and weight of the rifle increases significantly as well as the weight of the ammunition. As it stands, the tried-and-true .243 Winchester cartridge is still zipping along at almost 2,000 fps at 500 yards, which is an advantage over many other calibers that are below 1,800 fps at 500 yards.

  20. Follow Israel and move to the Tavor. Now IwI has a version in 7.62 NATO to reach out & touch something at distance. Like the 1911, the time has come to move on from a 60+ year old designed rifle.

  21. One of the things that this article skips is the reason why the M14 (and it’s cartridge) was replaced.

    One of the key factors, like it or not, was that the government discovered that the M14 was too heavy and too powerful for most service members to reliably put follow-up shots on target rapidly (to be fair in the government lit that I’ve seen they never really define how rapidly they wanted that to happen) in the firefights/ranges they were seeing.

    Those “lessons”, by and large, came from Korea, not from Vietnam. This is obvious since the Korean War was 1950-53 with the first advisers placed in Vietnam around 1955 while the while Stoner and Sullivan designed the M16 style rifle in 1956 with the rifle entering service about 10 years later. The SCHV program that developed 5.56 from the .222 started in 1957. At that point in time there is no way that the US had enough data on jungle warfare or the firing of the M14 in Vietnam to have made such a decision based on that data and, in fact, the decision to make a switch based on the inability of soldiers to make rapid follow-up shots had been made before we even had a significant number of advisers in Vietnam. They knew they had a problem as early as 1953/4, which is before Vietnam even started.

    Long story short, it’s a question of balancing capabilities in term of penetration (The CONARC/SCHV program demanded full penetration of .135″ steel plate at 500 yards for a round to be deemed “acceptable”.), ammo weight, ballistics and what your average military trained shooter can actually do with the round in terms of putting multiple rounds on target in a reasonable amount of time. 5.56 meets the minimum requirements across the board where other rounds have failed in certain regards.

    Could a new round replace the 5.56 cartridge? Sure, others have pointed out that it’s possible. It is however, as most of those same posters have noted, unlikely due to cost and the unnecessary nature of fixing something that isn’t really viewed as broken by the DoD.

    • The dark irony of the M14’s issues is that no less an expert on weapons design other than John Garand told the US Armory that a full-auto Garand rifle would be uncontrollable. Garand told them that even 9.5 pounds (empty) was far too light for a full-power/full-auto rifle – the BAR is controllable mostly because of its weight (18+ pounds).

      • That’s true. The ultimate irony of the BAR, since you mention it, is that it was issued to the smallest guy in a squad/fireteam in WWII.

        At that time the Army issued/assigned jobs in a squad or fireteam based on your position number which was dictated pretty much solely by your physical size. The last position was the smallest guy and also the person issued the BAR.

        So that small guy was probably the last dude you wanted to pick a fight with in a bar since he had to hump the BAR around with him all the time…

        Also, amusingly, the Europeans found out what you’re saying here in relation to the FAL. Even up into the 1980’s Brit soldiers wanted full auto FAL’s and would take them from from Argentinians during the Falklands War. They rapidly found that on full auto they were pretty much good for one thing: cloud hunting. That’s what… five decades to learn what was already known?

    • Korean war. The standard round for the US was the .30-06 in various weapons. The m1 rifle was a fine weapon and the round was excellent.

      I served with men that had used the m1 in ww2 and Korea. And the m14 and then the m16. One of the men that schooled me had been at the Chosen Reservoir. He told me that his unit had to give ground, retreat, because they could not kill the Chinese fast enough. The m1 held 8 rounds and then you had to reload. Supported by belt fed mg’s and mortars they were still overwhelmed and had to run because they couldn’t reload and shoot fast enough to deal with the swarms of chinese. Penetration was not the issue. Number of rounds between reloads became the issue.

      These guys liked the concept of the m16. Just not the execution.

      • I don’t want to get way, way too far into this as it would become pages long. Suffice to say, what your regular soldier wants and what the Government wants/thinks that soldier needs are often different.

        One of the major issues the government wrestled with from the end of WWII was that heavier rifles are heavier and the era of the 10lb bolt gun was drawing to a close meaning the advantages of the M1 were starting to come to an end. A major concern of the War Department was that under recoil, when heavier rifles come off the target, they’re slower and harder to get back onto the target. Even strong guys get tired and start to suffer problems with quick, fairly precise follow-up shots. A lighter rifle with a lighter, yet acceptable, cartridge does a lot to alleviate this problem. This concern continued after the dissolution of the War Department in 1947 but continued to be a consideration for the Department of the Army and Department of the Air Force and ultimately the DoD when it was established in like 1949.

        This problem was, in the Government’s mind, exacerbated by the changing nature of war in Korea. The problem you note, namely relatively “close combat” requiring a volume of fire that’s fairly accurate, were considered problematic due to testing that indicated that over time people became less and less accurate with a heavy rifle and that a lighter rifle served to alleviate this problem significantly. The problem at the time was that there wasn’t a cartridge that would incapacitate a person with the reliability the US government wanted. Enter the SCHV program to solve this issue.

        Basically the government considered the M1 to be obsolete during Korea due to a lack of detachable magazine but had nothing to replace it with. Testing started for a replacement in 1954 and actually included the AR-10 prototype (which had a barrel Stoner didn’t like, a barrel which burst during a torture test and basically killed the rifle for consideration even though it was considered the best lightweight automatic rifle ever made to date). The military went with the M14 as a 7.62 replacement for the Garand due to it’s larger mag capacity/removable mag but was still looking for something better (lighter) as early as 1956, which is why the SCHV program was started in 1957 even though the M14 had been “adopted” that same year and would become widely fielded by 1959 (and “replaced” by the M16 in like 1964) or so. Testing for what would become the M16 was very, very favorable.

        In 1961 the Air Force did some serious marksmanship testing based on what I call the “heavy rifle theory” the findings were significant and lent credence to the theory. 22% of those given an M14 achieved a score good enough to earn an “Expert” rating while 43% of those given an AR pattern rifle did the same. This was attributed mostly to the reduced weight and increased ease of handling of the rifle as compared to the M14.

        Side Note: I’m not sure if the DoD knew this or not but if you look up the weapons the Commies used in Korea you’ll find that most of their infantry rifles were 1-4 pounds lighter than an M1 Garand.

        OK, I’m gonna stop nerding out here before this becomes a book.

        • The reds used a lot of different weapons in Korea. Mostly recycled ww2 stuff. Which is what the US also did. My mosin nagant is longer than an m1. But a solid 1-2 pounds lighter.

          In boot camp we had, as all units do, a wide range of people. Different races, religions. City kids. Country kids. Some with shooting experience. Some with none.

          The best shot in our outfit in boot was a black kid from NYC. He had never touched a firearm before basic. His explanation as to why he did so well. ‘I listened to the instructor’. We used m16s.

          I have avoided Stoner’s design since I came home. More than 4 decades, now. Of the rifle as it was then I always said it was a decent rifle on a clean stateside range.

          But a miserable failure in the field.

    • The 5.56 is not a military grade round. The AR-15/M16 was meant for military and security police, special forces, rear area troops, etc. It was meant as a personal defense weapon to replace the M-2 carbine. It became the default chice when the M-14 failed as a fully automatic weapon. By the end of the Vietnam War the Army had recognized that fully automatic fire was oversold and for the most part less effective than aimed semiautomatic fire. The M-16 lost its reason to exist as tbe infantry rifle but not it’s place.

      The advantages of the AR platform over the Garand patterned rifle are mostly theoretical. A lot of it depends on the operating conditions. It took many years for the AR platform to equal the reliability of the Garand. I don’t think there much difference between the two in practical use.

      The 20″ barrelled M-16 is a 500 meter rifle. The 16″ carbine is not. The M-4 became standard issue because of the cramped quarters of the Bradley. While it is true that most combat takes place at ranges less than 300 meters, a 500 meter rifle is more accurate at shorter ranges. But the problem is the round itself. It is a varmint round that lacks penetration and wounding capability. Yes, it’s lethal but so is 17HMR. The problems with the round were not exposed in Vietnam because little combat took place in hardened urban areas or at ranges in excess of 200 meters. No matter what you do with it a 5.56 round has limited effectiveness in built up areas and the M-4 gets out ranged in open areas. The Army doesn’t necessarily need platform but they do need a more effective round.

      • tdiinva,

        Your commentary sounds like solid analysis to me.

        Now matter how you slice it, I believe our military would be more effective if their “standard” cartridge was a little bit larger than 5.56x45mm NATO. Hence my suggestion that .243 Winchester (which would be 6.17x52mm) is the “optimum” solution.

        .243 Winchester definitely has more “wallop” than 5.56x45mm NATO. And bullets would have notably higher velocities (therefore better penetration capabilities) out to 500 meters. Yet it would only increase ammunition weight about 25% (or reduce ammunition capacity by 25% for the same weight). And while recoil is greater than 5.56x45mm NATO, it is still significantly LESS than .308 Winchester (and a LOT less than .30-06 Springfield). Of course it is a cinch to make an AR-10 in .243 Winchester which is a big deal in terms of logistics as well as troop familiarity with the platform.

        The real question is whether or not reducing ammunition capacity by about 25% is a liability. If inflicting minor wounds to your enemies is good enough, then any reduction of ammunition capacity is a definite liability. If your cartridge has to incapacitate your enemy, then the 5.56x45mm NATO round is a liability, especially at ranges beyond 200 meters.

        I would suggest that 5.56x45mm NATO is acceptable (with proper bullet selection) for combat when 95% of your engagements will be at ranges of less than 100 meters. And if you expect most of your engagement will be at ranges between 200 and 500 meters, then .243 Winchester would be the optimum solution. Finally, if you expect engagements at everything from 5 to 500 meters, then field blended squads/platoons with maybe half of your guys carrying .243 Winchester and half of your guys carrying 5.56x45mm NATO. (Obviously, the guys with .243 Winchester rifles would concentrate their fire on long range targets and the guys with 5.56x45mm NATO rifles would concentrate their fire on short range targets.)

  22. You change the caliber and you’ll be adding weight to each soldiers gear loadout. Double the weight of the 62 grain green tip ammo to 124 grains and you have a better battle projectile, but you’ve also double the weight of the ammunition the soldier carries and added weight to the rifle.

    For standard infantry ground forces, I could see a 6 or 6.5mm being the next caliber, but for special forces, 10th mountain division, other light infantry, etc. can still use the 5.56.

    • So what? Marines and Soldiers humped around the 10 lb M1 Garand in WWII and Korea, and it’s .30 cal ammunition, and they did alright. As a Marine Infantry 81mm Mortarman Ive carried not only my rifle, ammunition, and full combat gear, but also a 35 lb mortar barrel, or 28 lb bipod or baseplate, and three 10 lb mortar rounds in my pack, on 20 to 30 mile hikes. A machine gunner, specifically one who carried a 240, will have to carry that 26 lb beast and .30 cal ammunition belts, and so does his A-gunner.

  23. Garand designed the M1 for a .276/6.8mm round. Had MacArthur not made one of his many blunders to “upgrade” the Garand to 30-06, solely on the basis of “that’s what we already shoot”, we’d probably have saved many soldiers lives by greater capacity (10 rds in the M1?) and more ammo carried in WWII and Korea. Like Col. Cooper, I’ve never had a love for the “poodle shooter” .556 round. I would like to see a change to a 6.5-6.8 mm for our standard round.

  24. Wasn’t one of the issues with the 5.56 that it over penetrated at building to building fighting, with little to no tumble in air, resulting in a shot that goes ‘clean’ through a target, but doesn’t drop them unless shot placement is dead on? Is replacing a cartridge with a heavier one going to increase the penetration rates at close distances, and still not drop the target in one shot?

    Think that the above posters may be correct in the ‘more training is needed’ statement.

  25. M-1 Garand. Shoots a real bullet out to 800 yards with battle accuracy, runs when coated in mud/frost/dust, and can bash the livin’ sh** out of anyone you hit with the butt. When you gripe about the weight, look at the size of the GIs who carried it in WWII and Korea – 5’7″ products of the Great Depression, and they didn’t wuss out. Georgie Patton was right. [That should get the comments flowing.]

    Realistically, however, we will continue to use the 5.56. If you want to have an effective round, load it with 68gr HPBT from Sierra (for non-body armor targets), and please note the Geneva Convention applies only to fighting conventional armed forces wearing recognizable uniforms, NOT robed insurgents and guerrillas. Have you seen the videos of the 68gr Sierra going through ballistic gelatin?

    • The Geneva convention with regard to expanding bullets is only binding between signatory countries and refers to military use. By the way, the USA never agreed to or signed that particular clause (the Convention is agreed to by clause, you don’t sign the convention, rather each individual clause).

  26. 223 is fine in a 69-77 grain bullet, no need to change. Don’t even know why we need foot soldiers anyway. We can murder brown peoples’ wedding parties from space all day long from northern Virginia.

  27. This guy assumes most soldiers could shoot accurately out to 500 yards while under an adrenaline dump… 5.56 is just fine.

  28. .308
    I’ve had both and .30 cal is the way to go. Sure it’s heavier and mags are smaller but it does the job better.

    • Sure. Don’t need actual facts to support your claims. Just use vague statements like “better”.
      Very effective method of persuasion.

  29. One wonders at the tactics being taught if the problems cited are the issue.

    Why are you engaging the enemy at 500 yards when most soldiers can’t hit anything beyond 200-300 yards, if that?

    Why are you engaging the enemy behind solid cover instead of fire and maneuver to outflank him or heavier weapons to defeat the cover?

    Why aren’t you using snipers with heavy caliber, longer-range weapons that they know how to shoot?

    Why do you need to carry ten to sixteen magazines worth of ammo? Why do your engagements last long enough to use up your ammo before bringing in more and/or using artillery or airstrikes?

    Here’s the reason: Soldiers are cowards. They don’t want to engage the enemy at a range where the enemy can engage them. Reasonable enough – no one wants to die. So perhaps you need to change your tactics rather than searching for the “impossible bullet” that kills anything at any range and weighs nothing.

    Lasers, perhaps? Good luck getting the power requirements down pat. You’d need to discharge a laser with killing power at least 300 times before recharging. Not gonna happen this century, most likely.

    Based on Farnam’s discussion, clearly what the US Army needs is an AR rifle in 7.62.x39. It goes further, penetrates better, only weighs a bit more, and has the bonus of being able to seize ammo from most of the US enemies we’re likely to fight. Then put a sniper in each platoon with an AR-10 in .308.

    Better optics and more marksmanship training on an *ongoing* basis should resolve most of the other issues.

    And some better tactics.

  30. Looks like the author over looked the improvements made to the 5.56×45 62 gr M855 round in the form of the new non-lead 5.56×45 62 gr M855A1 round used by the US Army since 2010. The M855A1 bullet has yielded better accuracy (almost match like), better bullet yaw, and significantly better barrier penetration at farther distances with M4’s and M16A2’s. The Army has also replaced the 7.62×51 M80 round with the newer 7.62×51 M80A1 using the same bullet improvements, with plans to do this with rounds up to the .50 cal. No one is complaining about the M855A1 round like the M855 round. The Marines have adopted the M855A1 round also.

    You only need a plus 600 meter round and rifle in the desert, which is were we have been for the last 16 years. Deserts are the geographic areas where most talk for a new .30 cal rifle and round discussions have been focused on to support our troops in open and long distance areas. Put us in a mid-temperate European environment or Southwest Asian Jungle environment someone will say we need something else.

  31. Cliche much? We’ve all heard/read hundreds of better arguments against 5.56 than this. Not to mention there are probably a million other things the military could spend resources on, all to greater benefit than ditching the 5.56.

  32. *Puts on Veteran cap*
    The problem isn’t really the 5.56. The problem falls squarely onto 2 problems that the Army fails to fix.

    First, the Army tries really hard to push the idea that every soldier is marksman, while adopting small group tactics that push “more rounds sent opposite your direction=battlefield dominance. Battlefields are no longer static. You’re moving, you’re in a 3-d battlefield, and you’re often not presented the nice neat silhouette that is so prevalent in movies. The Army (and the USMC) want to play the old “we ALL are weapons experts”, when in fact training, and current battlefields don’t reflect that in MOST cases.

    Second, the Army spends very little time in actually teaching marksmanship. I served in combat arms, and we usually got to the range for actual trigger time about 3 times a year. Working out 3 times a year won’t keep you thin, let alone, make you a PT stud. Not to mention that most guys coming in have not touched a rifle, let alone were proficient with them.

    Many years before I got in, Army brass decided that wounding an enemy was far more costly than killing him. Wounded men require effort getting them out of the immediate fight, transporting them off the front, getting him to surgeons, and then getting him home-all this while paying him. If mass volume of fire is what they’re going for, then the 5.56 is sufficient. I’ve seen the 5.56 take ’em down.

    If the Army decides that it wants a round that is more lethal, then you better start setting aside funds to get men to the range and let them shoot more than a few times a year. Develop the most lethal round you want; doesn’t mean shit if men can’t hit shit.

    TL;DR Decide on mass volume of fire or individual marksmanship. This mix and match shit needs to go.

  33. I think that advances in metallurgy will yield the next level shift up in small arms. Imagine hypersonic rounds driven by ultra high pressure propellants that would demand inordinately heavy steel firearms, but which may be viable with arms made of some yet undiscovered material.

    Any real gun engineers in the house have a perspective on this?

  34. If, as some seem to think, all an infantryman has to do is direct artillery/air onto the target, then all any of them need is a pistol. Save one round for themselves. Rifle and ammo too heavy to carry? Then ditch all that and roll up in body armor like an armadillo. Any rifle/round should be able to take out an enemy from 0 to 500 meters even if mostly used at 300 or less. If the average recruit can’t hit anything much pass 200 meters, he/she needs more time at zeroing in their firearm and then more practice shooting. If weight were a problem and I had a choice, I’d ditch the armor and keep my rifle and ammo. Of course, we didn’t have body armor to start with.

  35. John Farnam is so cute…to wit…

    He doesn’t know when the M-16 was first fielded in Vietnam…”middle of a war”…no, just no.

    He considers all users without a fancy rubber d-ring under the extractor “not serious operators”. The crane o-ring does just fine for this AFSOC veteran.

    He doesn’t know that the “battle rifle” went out of style right at the end of WWII. Sorry Johnny but the small caliber assault rifle isn’t going anywhere.

    He doesn’t understand that the M16 was screwed up by the army after Armalite sold the rights to Colt and that it wasn’t a “rushed” job.

    I’m sure there is more but these failures alone lead me to think nothing of Farnams opinions.

    • “He doesn’t know that the ‘battle rifle’ went out of style right at the end of WWII.” Yeah. The repeated laments about what a terrible “battle rifle” an assault rifle is was annoying. It’s like complaining that a pistol is a bad rifle or vice versa. They ain’t the same thing.

      “Battle rifle is a post-World War II term for military service rifles that are fed ammunition via detachable magazines and fire a full-powered rifle cartridge.” – The Great Wiki, citing Charles Karwan (December 1999), “Military Guns Of The Century”, Guns Magazine, archived from the original on 2012-07-12.

  36. Science never sleeps: I expect that more big jumps in powder performance are coming soon. Something that will boost the existing platform performance. Next, a depleted uranium core bullet in .224? I can dream, can’t I?

  37. We should note that the Marines have changed their whole infantry doctrine with the M27. Everybody in each squad has an M27. There is no SAW! There is now the same arm for everybody. Only 1 set of spare parts needed. No belted ammo require. A lot less to carry.

  38. 1. The Air Force chose the M16, and Robert McNamara, an old air winger himself, forced the rifle onto the other military branches.

    2. Army and Marine Corps Infantrymen who had been using the the 7.62mm chambered M14 in Vietnam, hated the m16 and its 5.56mm cartridge. Not only were they not reliable (at the time), but they complained the 5.56 cartridge didn’t have the range, penetration, or stopping power of the 7.62mm.

    3. There are modern documented cases, in Iraq and Afghanistan, of the 5.56mm being inadequate as a service cartridge.

    4. As a former Marine Corps infantryman myself, who thought the M16A2 I was handed in boot camp was a fake plastic training rifle, due to it’s squirrel gun bore size (this country boy was used to .30 cal hunting rifles and 12 gauge shotguns), and a current LEO, I still think the 5.56 mm cartridge is weak sauce. I carried a 240 G for a time in the Corps, and didn’t mind the extra weight for the increased firepower. And the only reason why I own an AR chambered in 5.56mm is because, well, why not? But I also own a .58 cal. rifle musket and a .22 cal. squirrel gun, and many others in between.

    So, in conclusion, based on the experiences and opinions of combat veterans who have used both 7.62mm and 5.56mm chambered service rifles, the reports of the 5.56mm cartridge inadequacies in modern combat, and my own experiences as an Infantryman and LEO, I believe the 5.56mm cartridge is weak sauce, and only liked my mindless fanboys and Chair Force air wingers. That is all.

  39. 6.5 Grendel can replace 5.56mm. This is a 600 to 1000 meter cartridge (depending on barrel length) that can be used in the current M4, M16, and AR-15 by swapping the barrel, BCG, and magazine. Not only is this a vast improvement in lethality and range over the 5.56mm, but it can even exceed the 7.62mm at 1000 meters, when used in DMR rifles with longer barrels.
    6.5 Creedmoor can (and should!) replace 7.62mm. This is good for over 1000 meters, and is much more lethal than the 7.62mm at 1000 meters, as well as lower recoil, lighter weight, flatter trajectory, better penetration (due to high sectional density), etc.
    I won’t bore you with detailed ballistics stats, but both of those rounds (especially the 6.5 Creedmoor) are about as close to a “magic bullet” as you’ll ever get!

  40. All i have to say is that if i was going into battle i would damn sure want something more than a puny little .223 to fight with.

  41. If it’s factual that most soldiers can’t hit a target at 300yds or meters, then that’s a damn disgrace. I thought our military men and women were suppose to be the best trained armed force in the world. Also, some of what Mr. Farnam speaks of has factual data in regards to the 5.56 Notenough caliber. I carried a SAW when I was in service and I was trained to use it effectively, yet I always wished it had been a more effective round and a larger round. From Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq the facts are in the memories of troops who used this round and on the paperwork of the reports in the pentagon. An individual armed with this caliber in a combat environment is greatly underpowered. As a combat team, underpowered. There’s just no getting around it, whether you like the 5.56 Notenough or not facts bring the truth to the forefront. The 5.56 has never been the right tool for the job. I don’t have much faith that the top brass tasked with finding the right tool will succeed in that endeavor as history up to this point has proven that. Some bureaucrat will force some other POS down our throat that his or her buddy comes up with. It won’t matter to them that it’s not adequate for our troops since they’re not the ones who’s life will depend on it. They’ll make millions at the expense of our troops and taxpayers. Makes me sick to my damn stomach!!!

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