BAMBERG, Germany — Calling it “the biggest overhaul of service rifles in nearly 50 years,” the Army soon will send soldiers to Afghanistan with new M4A1 carbines.
Upgrades to the M4 include a more resilient barrel, ambidextrous controls and a full-automatic setting. Add better ammunition, and soldiers will have a more lethal weapon to fight insurgents, according to Program Executive Office Soldier, which introduced the improvements.
The new carbines are expected to be integrated into the force starting next year.
Soldiers in Afghanistan expressed enthusiasm about the improvements, especially the ability to shoot on fully automatic.
“That would be sweet. You could definitely get more lead downrange,” said Sgt. Aaron Billington of the 10th Mountain Division at Kandahar Air Field.
Billington, 26, of Syracuse, N.Y. — who is on his first deployment to Afghanistan, but also served in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad in 2004 — wasn’t even worried about the extra 5 ounces of weight that comes with the more resilient barrel. The new barrel was needed to sustain the higher rate of fire when the weapon is used in fully automatic mode.
He said the heavier barrel could improve accuracy and give the weapon better stability.
“What we have found with soldiers is that when you give them that capability, they are OK with adding a little bit of weight,” said Col. Douglas Tamilio, the PEO Soldier project manager for weapons.
Spc. Jake Barnhill thinks soldiers will have to carry more ammo as a result.
Going fully automatic would definitely give each soldier more firepower, Barnhill said. But being in a firefight will also use ammunition more quickly.
Today’s soldiers carry 210 rounds into combat. That’s a problem easily solved, said Barnhill, another 10th Mountain soldier.
“Just up the size of our basic load,” he said.
Not everyone is convinced that the upgrades are necessary.
Adding full-automatic fire mode to the M4 is a huge mistake, said Staff Sgt. Lincoln Dockery, a combat engineer stationed in Bamberg.
“The whole purpose of having riflemen is to accurately engage the enemy,” Dockery said. “With full auto, soldiers will stop aiming and just point, shoot and hope, like the enemy does.”
Tamilio, an infantry officer, said it’s up to leaders on the ground to ensure soldiers are trained on when to use the full-auto option.
And Army officials said the ability to fire on full-automatic is less about a higher rate of fire than providing a consistent trigger pull in both the semi-automatic and fully automatic modes — something soldiers had requested.
The upgrades to the carbine are not the only thing making the M4A1 more effective.
In July, the Army began issuing new ammunition because soldiers complained that the old M855 round was not effective at close range. Enemies often would endure several bullet strikes before falling.
But the M855A1 has been designed with more stopping power, no matter the enemy’s distance, Tamilio said.
“The problem with the [old] M855 round was that it was yaw dependent,” he said, meaning the bullet flew in a straight path at close range, lowering its efficacy. If the round is tilted when it strikes the target, it causes the round to break up more quickly, making it more lethal.
“You need the round to fragment to create a large wound cavity when exiting the body,” Tamilio said.
The M855A1 fragments more consistently than the old round, Tamilio said.
The improvement of the more than 500,000 M4s in the Army’s inventory will be broken down into three phases and will take four or five years, Tamilio said.
Most of the troops who will receive the initial push of M4A1s will be in units preparing to deploy, Tamilio said. But the weapons and upgrade kits can be sent to Afghanistan for soldiers if need be, he said.