As an enlisted U.S. Army soldier and later an Infantry officer, I was expected to be familiar with and an expert on several small arms. The leader sets the example, so shooting has to become second nature.
The M16A2 and M16A3: Old School Standard Issue
Since I enlisted in 1999, the standard rifle that I learned to shoot on (aside from when I hunted as a civilian with shotguns and deer rifles) was the M16 and its variants the A2 and A3. The A2 has a fire mode selector that enables you to shoot in semi-automatic and three-round bursts, while the A3 allows you to fire fully automatic. Both shoot the 5.56mm NATO round.
During Basic Combat Training, at Fort Knox, Kentucky, soldiers were assigned a weapon about midway through the course and you do everything with it, give it a nickname, and even sleep with it. My nickname for my rifle was “Lucille” after B.B. King’s guitar. Yes, I loved the blues.
What I Liked
So, the M16A2 and A3 was like a warm blanket for me. This was before the days of optics, and we shot iron sights at the range. I loved range days and always shot well with the A2 and A3. I used the A2 mostly in basic training and the A3 during ROTC officer training. The M16 was great. It fit me well. I loved the slight recoil, and it was easy to assemble and reassemble. I was good with the A2 and A3 out to 300 meters with iron sights on the range.
The Story of My Experience with the M4 (Before 9/11)
After getting MOS qualified to my Army job, I was attached to a Special Forces battalion. Now, how did that happen? I certainly wasn’t Special Forces qualified, far from it, but I had an exotic MOS that the group and battalion commanders wanted. My job was Military Journalist / Broadcast Journalist (46Q/R). The Army Special Forces was going through a transition from absolute secrecy and anonymity to becoming more public and allowing for media relations. It used to be that any photo of SF guys had a black mark over the eyes. Nobody wanted to be outed in any public image.
The Army Special Forces Used M4s
This was 2000 and the special ops guys knew they were going to be in the Middle East for a long time and that they couldn’t hide from the prying eyes of the media. So, my job was to educate the Special Forces operators on how you give an interview to the press and what they could say and not say to reporters due to classified material. I also used to photograph the SF guys when they parachuted out of airplanes, and they loved that. We went on a National Training Center rotation at Fort Irwin to play wargames in 2000 and the SF guys used to take me on night ambush duty training after my public affairs work was done for the day. That was a thrill.
I Stayed with the Trusty M16
This was when I first saw the SF guys with M4s. I had seen the old AR-15 carbines in Vietnam in historic pictures, and the M4 looked really cool. But I stayed with the M16A3 at the time. The SF operators thought that it was old school with the iron sights and let me choose what I liked.
M4 in Korea Before 9/11
I used the M16A2 and A3 through ROTC and infantry training for officers. Then I was assigned to serve in the Republic of Korea at Camp Casey in 2001 near the DMZ with the 1/503rd Infantry Regiment (Air Assault), Second Infantry Division (the 1/503rd is now back with the 173rd Airborne Brigade). That was the most forward deployed unit before 9/11. The standard rifle was the M4 carbine. I didn’t like shooting it and missed the M16. I have longer arms, and the M4 never felt right. It had a different muzzle velocity, and I didn’t like the recoil.
What’s to Like About the M4
Now the M4 has many advantages, to be sure.
The shortened rifle is lighter and easier to carry, whether at the ready or the patrol carry, high ready, and low ready. It is also better for close quarters to clear buildings and rooms. The close combat optical is good. It is also easy to clean.
But if I had my choice, I would have gone back to the M16 in a minute, even with iron sights.
The other problem was range. I felt the M16 could take out targets at longer ranges than the M4. So, I used to say to anyone that would listen that each squad in a rifle platoon should have one soldier armed with an M16 for longer shots. It took many years, but the Army finally agreed with that assessment, and I was right all along. There is now the Army Squad Designated Marksman Rifle for your best shooters for long-range accuracy. It’s an excellent complement to the M4.
How About Those Machine Guns?
My next favorite weapons were machine guns, such as the older M60 and the newer M240B. I shot well with both. The M-60 was heavy, and I have to admit, it wore me out carrying it, but shooting the Pig was a lot of fun and you felt like you were in a combat unit after firing it. But my favorite weapon in the Army was the M240B machine gun. This thing was awesome. It felt better than the M-60 and was just a great all-around machine gun. I was more accurate with the M240B because I had more confidence in it.
No More Shooting Military-Style Weapons
So, I preferred the M16A2 and A3 to the M4 and the M240B to the M-60. This was a mix of the older and the newer. One thing that surprised me after my Army service was the proliferation of AR-15-style carbines (similar to the M4) with civilians. I would never have guessed that AR-15s would be so popular with the general public. I now only own a Winchester Model 1300 12-gauge shotgun and a Remington Model 700 .270 deer rifle – both for hunting.
Bonus: Meet the M4 Carbine
My days of firing military weapons are long over. As I like to say, unless I am getting paid by the government, I won’t shoot anything that reminds me of the Army.
Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.