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M4 vs. M16: I Used Both in the U.S. Army and Have a Favorite

What If Afghanistan
A Marine with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit's female engagement team fires an M4 carbine during an advanced course of fire on Fort Pickett, Virginia, Feb. 18. The course of fire, known as Table 3, requires Marines to pivot and move laterally while shooting at targets at known and unknown distances.

I may be in the minority, but I am likely one of the few former soldiers who prefer the M16 over the M4.

I did about half my Army service before 9/11 and the other half after 9/11. And that was a transition period for the Army when it began moving away from the M16A2 and M16A3. The M4 was issued first with Army Special Forces and Ranger units and then made its way to infantry platoons pre-9/11 and during the early days of the war on terror.

Here are my reasons for why I like the old M16 over the M4.

M4 and Airborne Ops

One reason the M4 went to elite troops was because of airborne operations. The M4 is shorter and lighter, with a collapsible stock that allows for easier parachuting compared to the longer and heavier M-16.

M4 Has Advantages in Close-Quarters Combat

The M4 was also better for close-quarters combat and clearing rooms. The long barrel of the M16 is clumsy and could get caught on walls or door frames. The M4 was valued for its effectiveness in hostage rescue or snatch and grab operations to capture bag guys. It was seen as a better weapon for the war on terror.

My First Experience with the M4

I first used the M4 on a range in South Korea in 2001 right before 9/11. The M4 was beginning to proliferate to light infantry units that were forward deployed. Most other Army units, especially rear echelon troops, were still using the older three round burst M16A2 or the fully automatic A3.

Not Good Shooting   

The first time shooting the M4 was not a successful one. I barely qualified. The weapon felt like a toy. I was using iron sights and could not aim very well. My eyes became tired, and the targets were blurry. I couldn’t get a good sight picture. The M4 was too short for my long arms. Maintaining proper cheek to stock weld was a problem because the collapsible stock had heated up since August in South Korea and was deathly hot, which distracted me from shooting. The recoil was different than the M16 and the muzzle velocity was not the same. I could tell something was off. Yes,

That sounds like many excuses for foul shooting, but that was my experience.

Don’t Forget the Batteries

Another problem with the M4 was that some of the accessories required batteries, at least at the beginning of the war on terror. Soldiers invariably would forget to include extra batteries in their kit. They were also supposed to bring iron sights into combat. Without the fallback batteries or iron sights the weapon and the soldier were combat ineffective.

M4 Would Not Leave the Scene

I wanted my old M16, but there was no turning back. The M4 had staying power. It became popular because of the rail system that allowed for close combat opticsred dot/ holographic sights, and grips. Everyone liked the smaller size. The long barrel of the M16 seemed like something out of Vietnam or Operation Desert Storm – what your dad or grandad used. Troops thought the M4 was more modern, looked better, and operated at a higher level.

Keep It Simple

I yearned for the days of simplicity – just an M-16 with iron sights – so that everyone could be a rifleman without complications.

Not Every Soldier Should Carry an M4

The other problem that irked me was having the whole rifle platoon outfitted with M4s. They have a shorter range than the M16, at least for many soldiers. I used to tell my guys that it would be better to have one M16 in each squad to address longer-range targets. But for many years, everyone carried the M4.

M16 Army

U.S. Army Reserve Sgt. 1st Class Harrison Brewer, G4 Chief Movements Supervisor for the 335th Signal Command (Theater), fires an M16 rifle on a range at Fort Gordon, Georgia, March 8, 2019. Soldiers from the 335th Signal Command (Theater) headquarters completed warrior tasks and battle drills to include weapons qualification, grenade practice and roll over training during a four-day training designed to increase their warfighting abilities. (U.S. Army Reserve photo by Staff Sgt. Leron Richards)

U.S. Army Private 1st Class Andre Matthews fires an M16A4 rifle during the Squad Designated Marksman Course instructed by the New Jersey Army National Guard’s 254th Regiment on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., July 20, 2017. The course teaches the Squad Designated Marksman to directly support their squad with well-aimed shots at ranges slightly beyond the normal engagement distances for riflemen, up to 600 meters. The 254th Regiment is based out of the Regional Training Institute, National Guard Training Center, Sea Girt, N.J. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Matt Hecht/Released)


M16. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

A Better Rifle for Long Shots

Finally, the Army wised up. Just like I said, they conceded that a marksman rifle could engage targets further away and this was a military necessity. So now the new squad designated marksman rifles can take on targets as far as 600 meters away and they fire the stronger 7.62mm round. That’s a longer range than the M4 with a more powerful cartridge.

I finally became used to the M4, but I prefer the M-16 and probably would have enjoyed shooting the squad-designated marksman rifle. Now the M4 will be replaced by the Sig Sauer XM5 rifle that is starting to turn heads with its 6.8mm round.

It will be interesting to see what the troops have to say in the future about the change from the M4.

US Military’s 5 Top Guns Ever

A Soldier assigned to U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, Africa engages pop-up targets with an M4 carbine during marksmanship training at Cao Malnisio Range in Pordenone, Italy, Jan. 26, 2021. (U.S. Army photo by Davide Dalla Massara)

Colt Individual Carbine

M4 Rifle. Image Credit- Creative Commons.

Civil War M4 Carbine

A Class of 2023 new cadet familiarizes herself with the M4 carbine as part of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point’s Cadet Basic Training July 9, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by Matthew Moeller)

US Army

A Soldier assigned to U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, Africa engages pop-up targets with an M4 carbine during marksmanship training at Cao Malnisio Range in Pordenone, Italy, Jan. 26, 2021. (U.S. Army photo by Davide Dalla Massara)

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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.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, 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.