Since late last year, At War has looked at issues surrounding small-arms choices and performance in the Afghan war, by American units and insurgents alike. We’ll continue this theme with two quick posts in the next few days: one serving as a follow-up to the continuing conversation about American rifle reliability, the other a closer look at the small arms that Afghan fighters have been wielding against Marines and government forces in Marja.

First, that perennial subject: the reliability of modern American infantry rifles. Throughout the Afghan and Iraq wars, questions have circulated about the performance of the principal rifles issued to American troops. The arms in question – both M-16 assault rifles and their shorter offspring, the M-4 carbines — are descendants of rifles first introduced to American service in Vietnam. They are the longest-serving general-issue rifles in American military history, and yet they have not quite fully shed some of the poor reputation that the original M-16 earned during its bungled introduction in the 1960s.

Are latter-day concerns about the rifles warranted?
It depends on what you mean about concerns. We previously examined complaints about M-16 and M-4 performance that had circulated on blogs, in news stories and in government reports, as well as in an independent survey of veterans (See “How Reliable Is the M-16 Rifle?” and “The M-16 Argument Heats Up Again”). And we visited Colt Defense L.L.C. (See “The Making of the Military’s Standard Arms,” Part I and Part II), the world’s principal manufacturer of the M-16 line, and watched the rifles being made. The complaints about Colt’s rifles have been varied. Some covered reliability (accounts of a tendency of the rifles to jam or overheat during extended firing), others covered range (concerns that the rifles are not effective at the longer distances between combatants in rural desert fighting), and others criticized the weapon’s lethality (the so-called stopping power of the rifles’ bullets, as in, their ability to incapacitate a struck man).

The Reliability Question
The reliability questions interest me most, for two reasons. First, a rifle’s range and lethality are moot points if the rifle will not fire when a soldier needs it to fire. And second, effective range and lethality are related in part to allied cartridge choice for all NATO forces and to bullet composition — two decisions that are beyond a manufacturer’s purview.

So far this year, the photographer Tyler Hicks and I have spent roughly three months in the field in Afghanistan with American troops, many of whom are engaged in some of the most regular and intensive fighting of the war. As part of our work, we have been observing rifle performance and querying soldiers and Marines about their experiences in combat with what is arguably the most important piece of equipment they carry.

The question before us was simple: How do the reliability complaints about M-4s and M-16s we hear in the States line up against what we see and hear in the field, where the war is being fought? Put another way, could we verify the troops’ reported dislike of the rifle because of its reliability, and demonstrate the nature of any problems behind the reported disaffection?

The answer was a surprise: The M-4 and M-16 were not seen to be suffering from reliability problems, at least not among people whose paths have crossed ours.

Simply put, in observations in many firefights in harsh conditions, and in the experiences of Army and Marine grunts queried this year, the issue of rifle reliability seems much less pressing than it has appeared in accounts of widespread worries about or dislike of the M-4 and M-16.

Read the rest of C.J. Chivers article at The New York Times.

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