Army, Marines rate weapon success
U.S. forces rolled over the Iraqi military in just weeks.
The plans seemed flawless, and the courage of the soldiers and Marines unflappable.
But with the dust settling — and the adrenaline rush of battle now subsiding — military officials are finding some weapons performed as advertised. Others, however, let troops down when they needed them most.
Army and Marine officials recently released after-action reports compiling what was right and what was wrong about the small arms with which troops squared off against Iraqi forces. Soldiers and Marines rated the rifles and pistols they carried into battle, and not all got perfect scores.
Soldiers and Marines relied on variants of the M-16 rifle. The M-16, in service since the early days of the Vietnam War, was highly criticized then as unreliable, often jamming during firefights. Soldiers who participated in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan also complained the M-4 variant, a shorter version of the M-16, lacked what they needed in combat.
In Iraq, reviews were mixed.
Most soldiers carried the M-4 into battle in Iraq and “were very satisfied with this weapon,” according a report from the Army’s Special Operations Battle Lab. “It performed well in a demanding environment, especially given the rail system and accompanying sensors and optics.”
Marines carried the older and larger M-16A2 rifles, but a report from the Marine Corps Systems Command Liaison Team stated: “Many Marines commented on desire for the shorter weapon vice the longer M-16s.”
One Marine told the team that the shorter rifle would have been better in confined urban battle. Some also said the smaller rifle would have been easier to handle when climbing in and out of trucks and armored vehicles.
“Several Marines even opted to use the AK-47s that had been captured from Iraqi weapons caches,” the Marine report stated. “Others were trading rifles for pistols to go into buildings to allow for mobility in confined spaces.”
Marine Corps officials announced late last year that infantry forces would soon switch from the M-16A2 to the M-16A4, a heavier-barreled version of the long rifle with a rail system like the M-4. Stocks of the weapons, however, arrived in Kuwait too late to be fielded and sighted for battle. Most stayed in storage, but some weapons were delivered to Marines under a plan to initially field one per squad.
A number of M-16A4 rifles, fitted with a 4X scope, were given to Marine rifleman. The combination, Marines said, allowed them to “identify targets at a distance, under poor conditions, and maintained ability to quickly acquire the target in close-in environment[s].”
But not all soldiers and Marines were enamored with the performance of their rifles. Complaints centered on lack of range and reliability problems.
“The most significant negative comment was reference [to] the M-4’s range,” the Army report stated. “In the desert, there were times where soldiers needed to assault a building that may be 500+ meters distant across open terrain. They did not feel the M-4 provided effective fire at that range.”
Safety was another concern. The M-4’s bolt can ride forward when the selector switch is on safe, allowing the firing pin to strike a bullet’s primer.
“Numerous soldiers showed us bullets in their magazines that had small dents in the primer,” the Army report said.
Reliability complaints also found fault with the oil soldiers and Marines used to clean their weapons. In the dusty, sandstorm-plagued battlefields of Iraq, weapons became clogged with sand, trapped by the heavy oil, called CLP.
Several Washington Post articles recalling the night the 507th Maintenance Company was ambushed recounted moments when soldiers in the convoy, including Pfc. Jessica Lynch, battled their weapons to continue fighting Iraqi irregular forces.
“In the swirling dust, soldiers’ rifles jammed,” one article reported. “Pfc. Patrick Miller, 23, from suburban Wichita, began shoving rounds into his rifle one at a time, firing single shots at enemies swarming all around.”
“We had no working weapons,” Sgt. James Riley told The Washington Post. “We couldn’t even make a bayonet charge — we would have been mowed down.”
The Army’s after-action found more soldiers unhappy with CLP.
“The sand is as fine as talcum powder,” the report stated. “The CLP attracted the sand to the weapon.”
Unlike the soldiers’ reports after Afghanistan, Marines in Iraq said the 5.56 mm round fired from the M-16 “definitely answered the mail” and “as long as shots were in the head or chest, they went down.” The Marine reports said many were initially skeptical of the small rounds’ performance against the heavier 7.62 mm round fired from AK-47s. There were reports of enemy being shot and not going down, but most were referencing non-lethal shots on extremities.
Still, “there were reports of targets receiving shots in the vitals and not going down. These stories could not be described, but are of the rare superhuman occurrences that defy logic and caliber of round.”
The report said Marines asked for a heavier-grained round — up to 77 grains.
The M-16 series of rifles fires a 55-grain bullet, a projectile that weighs slightly more than three-and-a-half grams. Some servicemembers believe a heavier-grained bullet would carry more energy downrange, creating greater knockdown power.
Both soldiers and Marines also noted problems with the M-9 9 mm pistol.
“There was general dissatisfaction with this weapon,” the Army report said. “First and foremost, soldiers do not feel it possesses sufficient stopping power.”
Soldiers asked for a tritium glow-in-the-dark sight for night firing.
But soldiers and Marines alike railed against the poor performance of the M-9 ammunition magazines.
“The springs are extremely weak and the follower does not move forward when rounds are moved,” the Marine report stated. “If the magazine is in the weapon, malfunctions result.”
Soldiers complained that even after they were told to “stretch” the springs and load only 10 rounds instead of the maximum 15, the weapons still performed poorly. Lack of maintenance was determined not to be the cause.
“Multiple cleanings of the magazine each day does not alleviate the problem,” the Marine report stated. “The main problem is the weak/worn springs.”
Still, Marines wanted more pistols to back up their rifles, especially in urban environments, according to the report.