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The U.S. military’s workhorse rifle — used in battle for the last 40 years — is proving less effective in Afghanistan against the Taliban’s more primitive but longer range weapons.

As a result, the U.S. is reevaluating the performance of its standard M-4 rifle and considering a switch to weapons that fire a larger round largely discarded in the 1960s.

The M-4 is an updated version of the M-16, which was designed for close quarters combat in Vietnam. It worked well in Iraq, where much of the fighting was in cities such as Baghdad, Ramadi and Fallujah.

But a U.S. Army study found that the 5.56 mm bullets fired from M-4s don’t retain enough velocity at distances greater than 1,000 feet (300 meters) to kill an adversary. In hilly regions of Afghanistan, NATO and insurgent forces are often 2,000 to 2,500 feet (600-800 meters) apart.

Afghans have a tradition of long-range ambushes against foreign forces. During the 1832-1842 British-Afghan war, the British found that their Brown Bess muskets could not reach insurgent sharpshooters firing higher-caliber Jezzail flintlocks.

Soviet soldiers in the 1980s found that their AK-47 rifles could not match the World War II-era bolt-action Lee-Enfield and Mauser rifles used by mujahedeen rebels.

“These are important considerations in Afghanistan, where NATO forces are frequently attacked by insurgents using … sharpshooter’s rifles, which are all chambered for a full-powered cartridge which dates back to the 1890s,” said Paul Cornish, curator of firearms at the Imperial
War Museum in London.

The heavier bullets enable Taliban militants to shoot at U.S. and NATO soldiers from positions well beyond the effective range of the coalition’s rifles.

To counter these tactics, the U.S. military is designating nine soldiers in each infantry company to serve as sharpshooters, according to Maj. Thomas Ehrhart, who wrote the Army study. They are equipped with the new M-110 sniper rifle, which fires a larger 7.62 mm round and is accurate to at least 2,500 feet (800 meters).

At the heart of the debate is whether a soldier is better off with the more-rapid firepower of the 5.56mm bullets or with the longer range of the 7.62 mm bullets.

“The reason we employ the M-4 is because it’s a close-in weapon, since we anticipate house-to-house fighting in many situations,” said Lt. Col. Denis J. Riel, a NATO spokesman.

He added that each squad also has light machine guns and automatic grenade launchers for the long-range engagements common in Afghanistan.

In the early years of the Vietnam War, the Army’s standard rifle was the M-14, which fired a 7.62 mm bullet. The gun had too much recoil to be controllable during automatic firing and was considered too unwieldily for close-quarter jungle warfare. The M-16 replaced it in the mid-1960s.

Lighter bullets also meant soldiers could carry more ammunition on lengthy jungle patrols.

The M-16 started a general trend toward smaller cartridges. Other weapons such as the French FAMAS and the British L85A1 adopted them, and the round became standardized as the “5.56mm NATO.”

Source: Slobodan Lekic for Yahoo! News AP.

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