Commenter (and blogger in his own right) ExUrban Kevin asks:

The Army is looking to replace the M4/M16, (see Defense Link article here, read the whole thing) , but others seem to think the #1 priority for infantrymen should be upgraded body armor such as Dragonskin.

Which is more important to the infantry, and why?

I’d have to say that a new weapon would be the better investment. Having said that, the US is buying improved body armor. The current state of the art is known as Enhanced Small Arms Protective Inserts or ESAPI. Just this month, the Army signed a $6 billion dollar series of contracts to buy the next generation, called XSAPI. These are not the Dragon Skin vests that made such a brouhaha a couple of years ago. This is an enhancement to the ceramic plates that are inserted into a vest.

Now, as to replacing the current weapon, we’ve taken a peek at that issue before. A lot of what is going on here is political. To replace all the M-16/M-4 weapons in the inventory would cost a lot of money. When there’s a lot of money involved, Congress wants to have more involvement than might be good for the process. In addition, Congress is more than a little peeved with the way the Army has been buying small arms lately.

M-4A1 with M203 Grenade Launcher
M-4A1 with M203 Grenade Launcher

When the M-4 was first designed, it wasn’t thought of as a replacement for the M-16, but rather as a niche weapon for Special Forces. Congress wasn’t going to be upset by a rather small purchase. But then when people in the Army started seeing how handy the M-4 was compared to the M-16, more and more units started wanting it. Pretty soon, the Army was buying more and more M-4s. All without having a major competition open to other defense contractors. Pretty soon, we were talking real money here. Leaving aside for a minute the question of whether the M-4 was the best weapon available, there are always Congressmen who want to see a competition because they represent companies that might be able to get a piece of the pie. That alone gives the Congressmen a vested interest in seeing competition. And often, Congress has a lot to say about how the competition is structured, which has a lot to say about who wins.

While the Army insists the M-4 is a perfectly good weapon, that doesn’t mean it is the best available at a reasonable cost. There are any number of folks willing to give their opinion on what should come next. If you spend any time around gunbloggers, you’ll find out pretty quickly that there are thousands of differing opinions.

From here, we’ll work on the assumption that the M-4 should be replaced. That leaves us with a couple of options. One, we can just replace the M-4 with another 5.56mm weapon, or we can adopt a new cartridge as well. Many folks think the 5.56mm is just too small a round for modern combat. The old 7.62mm round is probably too large for a carbine, but there is a lot of interest in a 6.8mm round.

One of the big knocks against the M-16/M-4 family is that it uses a system called “direct impingement” to cycle the weapon. Gas is tapped by a small hole under the front sight, directed via a stainless steel tube, and then strikes the bolt and bolt carrier directly. This causes carbon to build up rapidly and the weapon needs frequent cleaning and judicious use of lubrication. Most semi-automatic and automatic rifles use a piston system, where the gas instead strikes a piston that drives a rod connected to the bolt to cycle the weapon. While this reduces carbon buildup, it does mean more parts and weight.

One piston powered weapon that has already seen limited use by Army Special Forces is the HK416. Instead of a whole new weapon, they’ve built an upper receiver that can be swapped out with the M-4’s existing upper and viola!, a new weapon.


It is popular, requires little new training for soldiers, and can be in production quickly. Another option would be the FN SCAR, an entirely new weapon that Special Forces is buying to replace their M-4s and HK-416s.


While the video shows the weapon in both calibers, my understanding is that currently the Special Forces are only buying the 5.56mm.

The other path would be to switch to an entirely new round, possibly the 6.8mm SPC. This option gets to be a whole lot more expensive, as you not only replace the weapons, you have to buy a bunch of new ammo as well. And, there is almost no chance that the rifle caliber would change without changing the caliber of the Squad Automatic Weapon. You’d end up having to replace all the M249s, at whatever that cost is. And no one knows what the cost would be. There’s no 6.8mm version of the SAW, and no assurances that a version would work that well. Time will tell.

So, what do you think?

[polldaddy poll=1011461]

15 thoughts on “Priorities”

  1. I guess the question is how much bang for the buck are there options. This is a time we all have to cut costs so unless the reason is significantly compelling to cut other military spending I think it’s logical to go for a low cost improvement.

    As much as testing weapons is important it’s only decent scale real world use that reveals all it’s qualities and flaws properly.

  2. PLease! No more about the Dragon Skin. When the Army testd it they showed an X-ray of Dragon SKin after it had been heated up to 140 deg F. that is the LOWESt temp you’d get in an ISU 90 over in Iraq. The disks fell apart, pooling at the bottom of the armor. Its heavy and cumbersome.

    Now the Chinese with their rifles (and the heavy round they use for their SAW and sniper rifles),. in theory at least, can punch through our vests w/plates. that should motivate some one at DA yo get us a new rifle

  3. I was gonna say, the Dragonskin been declared inferior to the Interceptor armor they’re currently using. As I understand it, stuff weighs more, angled shots tend to slip the scales. Straight on it might be effective, even better than Interceptor, but there’s no guarantee that a straight on shot happens when someone is shooting at you.

    Notice that whenever you see the impressive looking displays of Dragonskin on TV, they only show the stuff getting hit straight on, never at an angle, I’d wager that’s intentional, and meant to show the stuff in it’s ideal situation. People that make the stuff are good at marketing. Oh, and like chockblock noted the issue with the scales slipping apart in extreme weather.

    There’s a reason that warriors went from scale mail to plate mail in Ye Olde Days.

  4. Go back to Pennsylvania Long Rifles. The longbows choice actually made me think of the PA Long Rifle. Benjamin Franklin actually argued that we should use longbows, but it takes a long time to develop the strength and skill to effectively use one. Anyone could use a rifle or musket.

  5. I like the 416 (no personal experience with it) but I hate HK. It would seem that the best interim solution would be to replace all of our uppers with a 416-like upper.

    I think we need to upgrade our caliber for the next Gen battle rifle.

    5.56 is not effective enough. There are better calibers out there.

  6. I can’t speak for thebronze, but I’ve heard numerous horror stories about HK’s customer service. Their weapons are well designed and manufactured, but unless you’re a government agency ordering thousands of firearms at a time, you’re just an insignificant little speck not worth their time.

    Maybe not relevant to this discussion since we’re talking about a government purchase, but that’s why I don’t particularly care for HK.

    As for the topic of the post, you know my feelings on the matter…get rid of direct impingement and go with a piston system, and get rid of 5.56 and go with 6.8. Other than that I don’t particularly care.

    Oh, and I should mention that when you mentioned Longbows in your poll, my first thought was that you were saying we should get rid of small arms altogether and buy more Apaches.

  7. Mike, the longbows mention was a reference, an inside joke if you will, to a political thread over at Ace of Spades that got derailed over longbows and the battle of Crecy. Ace went ballistic and threatened to ban people over it.

  8. looks like I was working the same case on a different end. A little history and a poll over at my blog.

  9. The armed forces should drop the 5.56 and adopt a heavier round like the 6.8. The main concern should be safety for the troops, not cost. Maybe a 6.8 version of the FN SCAR or HK 416 would be sufficiant?

  10. Wow this thread has been dead forever but I ran across it while doing research for an economics paper on the defense industry of all things…

    If you guys ever read this, how do you feel about the Xm8? To my understanding, it was lighter, more accurate, significantly (or notable) cheaper, and better in harsh conditions then the M16 (maybe slightly faster rof?). I’ve talked to marines that really liked test shooting it. Of course we all know the political and financial drama that sunk that boat, but still, it seemed like a dang good replacement.

    Only real concern I can think of is the 5.56 round, I understand the debate for larger bore ammunition, so I won’t go into that whole thing, but in some cases to you guys 5.56 is a disadvantage, although I believe there are some good advantages to having the ammunition as well. Ok well I’m just curious what you guys think if anyone reads this.

  11. The XM8 wouldn’t have been that great a leap over the M4.

    Same round, shorter barrel, not that much lighter, overheating problems, and not likely to cost much less.

    As for accuracy, the real problem is usually the user, not the weapon.

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