America’s 21st Century Rifle

The fourth-generation M-16 and its M-4 carbine cousin have seen extensive combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. With modernized design, optics and ammo, it has been wielded with lethal effect.


Today’s M-16s may resemble those of the 1960s, but that familiarity is only skin deep. Along with its ammunition and optics, the M-16 has evolved considerably in the past 50 years.

A decade after the Vietnam War, the U.S. Marine Corps—and later, the U.S. Army—significantly modified the rifle as the M16A2. In addition to employing a heavier barrel and round forearm, a new brass deflector flipped ejected rounds away from a left-hand shooter’s face. As well, the 2 version incorporated a precise rear sight and three-round burst setting to improve full-auto fire.

The ammunition changed, too, with a heavier 62-grain bullet containing a metal penetrator to pierce Soviet body armor and puncture thin-skinned vehicles.

This is the version that went to war in 1991’s Operation Desert Storm.

Within the past decade, the major development has been optics and accessories for the newest “flattop” M16A4 and M-4 carbine. The distinctive M-16 “handle” has been shaved away, replaced by a NATO standardized mount developed at the U.S. Army’s Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey. Thanks to this Picatinny mount, the M16A4 and M-4 can employ an expanded family of lights, lasers, sights and scopes.

The full-size M16A4 flattop is widely issued in the Marine Corps, while the U.S. Army is converting entirely to the shortened M-4 carbine for combat infantrymen. According to Army Col. Doug Tamilio, former project manager for soldiers’ weapons at Picatinny, “The M-4 is now the primary infantry weapon in the U.S. Army.”

This carbine evolved from the Vietnam War’s CAR-15—officially the XM177E2—which incorporated a collapsible stock and shortened barrel. The new M-4 has a six-position stock, which allows adjustment for body armor and GIs of different statures.

Due to its collapsible stock and short, 14-1/2-inch barrel, the M-4 is 10 inches shorter than an M-16, making it handier in close quarters and for exiting vehicles and aircraft. Like the M16A4, the M-4 carbine has a three-round burst setting, while another version, the M-4A1, is fired full-auto.

Some special operations units have extremely compact M-4s, with 10-inch barrels. Remington Arms, which had produced only bolt-action sniper rifles since WWII, recently won the contract to manufacture the Army’s M-4 carbines. (Since 1994, when it was adopted, the Defense Department has purchased 700,000 Colt M-4s.)


Of necessity, 5.56mm ammunition has evolved, too. When Cold War era 5.56mm bullets sometimes failed to incapacitate enemy personnel at close range, researchers developed new loads. The most effective appears to be the 62-grain Mark 318, which has become the Marine standard in Afghanistan and the preferred round for special operations units. No longer is the green-tipped M855 round used by combat troops.

Meanwhile, optics have become a major feature of today’s M-4 and M16A4, both as magnifying scopes for precise shooting and electronic red dot scopes for quick, close-range engagements.

The ACOG—or Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight—a rugged, four-power riflescope, has become the Marine Corps’ mainstay, with more than 100,000 sights in service. Marine recruits today learn basic marksmanship with the ACOG scope, which has boosted considerably their qualification scores. Iron sights, of course, are taught as well.

The modern infantryman’s other optic has no magnification, but its lightning fast for close-range shooting. These reflex or red dot sights—the Aimpoint Comp M-4 or EOTech— mount like a riflescope. But the shooter uses both eyes when firing; as long as he can see that electronic dot, that’s where his round will go. These scopes are compatible with night-vision goggles.

Another night capability is the laser sight, whose infrared beam— invisible to the naked eye—allows precise shooting via night-vision goggles.

The M-4 SOPMOD—Special Operations Peculiar Modification, developed by the Naval Surface Warfare Center—offers special operations warriors great operational flexibility with an array of sights, lights, scopes and lasers. It allows the M-4 to be tailored to combat situations.

In addition to other M-16 variations, the Army and Marine Corps have fielded an accurized, scoped rifle for squad-level designated marksmen. Featuring a match-grade barrel and firing match-grade 77-grain ammunition, these marksmen can provide accurate, lethal fire to 600 meters, well beyond the normal range of a 5.56mm rifle.

Overall satisfaction with today’s rifle and carbine is high. A 2006 Center for Naval Analysis report found 75% of riflemen satisfied with the M-16; 89% with the M-4. However, an Army report on the July 2008 Battle of Wanat in Afghanistan cited complaints about jamming and overheating in M-4s.

The M-14, too, has seen combat in Southwest Asia. This “Enhanced Battle Rifle” and its 7.62mm round have proven itself in the hands of Army and Marine designated marksmen.


It has been a half-century since the M-16’s adoption. Yet these evolving models have proved their worth in the hands of courageous Americans.

During the 2003 Iraq invasion, Marine Lance Cpl. Robert P. Kerman, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, sprang from his vehicle and with two other Marines assaulted down an occupied enemy trench. “As enemy soldiers fired at him,” his Silver Star citation reads, “he fearlessly plunged toward them, firing his M-16 with lethal accuracy.”

Repeatedly coming under enemy fire, he took “well-aimed shots that had devastating effects on the enemy.”

When the Klamath Falls, Ore., native and his comrades expended their rounds, they assaulted a further 250 meters to capture even more ground.

On Sept. 5, 2004, a U.S. Army combat medic, Spc. Andrew J.J. Lamkin with the 2nd bn., 5th cav regt., 1st cav Div., demonstrated he could handle an M-16 as well as a scalpel. While rescuing two wounded GIs in Baghdad’s Sadr city neighborhood, Lamkin braved a gamut of enemy fire.

“With accurate rifle fire,” his Silver Star citation relates, he shot dead two enemy gunmen on a facing rooftop to evacuate his first patient. An hour later, he rescued a second critically wounded GI, again under heavy rifle and anti-tank rocket fire.

Reaching a point of relative safety, Lamkin spotted two insurgent gunmen about to ambush the medevac vehicle. He took quick aim, “and killed them both with accurate rifle fire.” His award rightly attributed the wounded men’s survival to Lamkin’s “expert marksmanship, medical skills and conspicuous gallantry.”

On May 3, 2006, during a ground attack on outpost 293 in Ramadi, Iraq, Sgt. Joseph Proctor, an activated Indiana National Guardsman, witnessed a dump truck ram an entrance gate, then advance on his compound.

Alone, Proctor stood his ground and —as the truck rumbled toward him—let loose over 25 aimed shots from his M-16. Peppering the cab, he killed the driver and halted the vehicular bomb, but was consumed by its detonation.

As his posthumous Silver Star citation notes, “Sergeant Joseph Proctor saved countless lives that fateful day” with his act of “selfless courage.”

In these and many other fights going back to our nation’s founding, some shoulder arms have been more accurate or more effective than others. But it has not been the muskets, Springfields, M-1s or M-16s that made and kept us free. It was the patriots who employed them with conviction and resolve.


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