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Magazines for the M-4 carbine and M-16 rifle are notorious for jamming. The culprit is the internal mechanism, including the spring and the green plastic plastic “follower” that feeds cartridges into the weapon.
Magazines for the M-4 carbine and M-16 rifle are notorious for jamming. The culprit is the internal mechanism, including the spring and the green plastic plastic “follower” that feeds cartridges into the weapon. (Lisa Burgess / S&S)

ARLINGTON, Va. — The Army’s M-4 carbine came in last in a head-to-head “extreme dust test” against three carbines used mainly by the special operations community, Army officials said Monday.

Of a total of 60,000 rounds expended in the sandstorm-like test, the M-4 carbine racked up 882 misfires, or about one misfire for every 68 rounds fired, according to Brig. Gen. Mark Brown, commander of the Army’s Program Executive Soldier.

The German-made Heckler & Koch XM8, which the Army had been developing as a replacement for the M-16 until 2005, racked up 127 stoppages, the best of the group.

FN Herstal USA’s Special Operations Forces Combat Assault Rifle, or “SCAR,” developed by the U.S. Special Operations Command, logged 226 stoppages. And the H&K 416, which the Army’s Delta Force uses instead of the M-4, logged 233 stoppages.

The test, which was held at the Army Test and Evaluation Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., stressed the weapons under laboratory-created conditions that would not be replicated in even the worst desert combat environment, Brown told Pentagon reporters during a Monday briefing about the test.

Despite the extreme test conditions, the fourth-place M-4 sent “98 percent of the rounds ... downrange, as they were supposed to go,” compared to “99 percent or better” for the other three weapons, Brown said.

Although the one-percent difference is statistically significant, Brown said, “It is not an operationally significant difference.”

The tests were held at the request of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who in July asked the Army to check the M-4’s effectiveness in dust environments against the other three weapons.

This is the third time the M-4 has undergone the extreme dust test, and “eyebrows were raised” by the “puzzling” drop in performance of the weapon during this most recent challenge, Brown said.

Brown said he could not recall the M-4’s stoppage rate in the first test, held in summer 2006. But during the second test, which was held this summer, the M-4 registered just 307 stoppages in 60,000 rounds fired.

Army experts are still analyzing the data to try and determine the reason for the differences in the most recent test, which was held from late September to late November, Brown said.

Despite the test results, the M-4 remains “a world-class weapon,” with an 89 percent satisfaction rate among M-4 users, Brown said.

Army working on fix for magazine malfunctions

ARLINGTON, Va. — During the recent “extreme dust test” of the M-4 against three special operations weapons, 239 of the 882 weapon misfires were caused by problems with the magazine, not the actual carbine.

That news will come as little surprise to soldiers who have wrestled with “bolt over cartridge base” misfeeds — when the back of one round jumps over its partner, instead of staying parallel — or nose-diving malfunctions, when the front of the round dips instead of staying flat.

Either problem can jam a weapon, and jams can be deadly in combat.

Army small-arms experts said Monday that issues with the 5.62-caliber magazine — common to both the M-4 and the M-16 rifle — have been on the Army’s radar for a long time, and that a fix is on the way as soon as this fall.

“We know that we have a problem,” said Col. Robert Radcliffe, director of the Infantry Center’s Directorate of Combat Developments at Fort Benning, Ga.

Army researchers have determined that “the guilty party is not the magazine (body) itself,” Radcliffe said. Instead, “it’s the guts of the magazine.”

That includes the spring and the small elevatorlike shelf where the rounds rest, called the follower.

The Army has developed improved “guts” for the 5.62 magazine which will ensure smooth operation, Radcliffe said. The program is almost finished, and subject to the results of more testing the improved magazines will start making their way to troops as early as next fall, starting with deployed soldiers.

Troops will know they have the improved magazines because the plastic follower — which is now a very pale green — will be a different color, still to be determined, Radcliffe said.

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