Category Archives: Rifles and Carbines

India to choose foreign-designed rifle

This is the LMG version of the unsuccessful INSAS. Its Valmet/Galil ancestry is evident.

This is the LMG version of the unsuccessful INSAS. Its Valmet/Galil ancestry is evident.

In a disappointment for Indian designers, and for India’s traditional Russian suppliers, the subcontinental power is testing a shortlist of Western 5.56 x 45mm assault rifles to replace the Indians’ failed INSAS system that was supposed to replace dated Kalashnikov and FAL battle rifles. The selected design is certain to be produced in-house in India’s state arsenals, as its forerunners all the way back to the nation’s era of British colonization have been.

There are five guns on the short list:

  • The Beretta ARX 160;


  • the Colt Combat Rifle, an M16 revised for Indian requirements;
  • The CZ 805 BREN, now in service with the Czech Republic;

CZ 805 BREN with a CZ 40mm grenade launcher (the GL is not part of the India proposal).

  • IWI’s ACE 1, which we’re trying to ID as a variant of the ACE 21/22/23 improved Galil (the variants differ by barrel length) or the ACE N which we believe to have a polymer receiver.
  • The SIG SG551, offered by the US branch of the firm.

A similar test of CQB carbines reportedly involved only four of the above vendors and their carbine equivalents (odd man out being CZ).

The trials have at least two phases, cold weather evaluation in the Kashmiri mountains this year, and warm weather evaluation in 2014.  Jane’s Defense Weekly explains what befell the native development, the INSAS:

The selected rifle will replace the locally developed Indian Small Arms System 5.56×45 mm rifle, which the army rejected in 2010-11 due to it being inefficient and “operationally troublesome”.

via India to put assault rifle contenders through winter trials – IHS Jane’s 360.

Jane’s writer is being diplomatic here. The INSAS was a decades-long boondoggle that took too long and cost too much to put substandard guns in the hands of Indian troopers. And the gigantic invisible rabbit in the room was that, far from being revolutionary, the INSAS just beat the path to a 5.56mm AK, a path already paved and signposted by Finland and Israel, among others. It had an FN-like grenade-launcher-muzzle-brake and a polymer magazine, but it looks suspiciously like a good old Galil.

Now, the editors of Jane’s must stay on cordial terms with the ad buyers of the world’s defense industry. Writing in India’s Sunday Standard, a general interest paper, N.C. Bipindra felt no such obligation to be diplomatic:

The war that broke out in Kargil next year [1999-Eds.] saw the INSAS put to test, and a spate of complaints about malfunctioning and build quality of the rifle poured out of Himalayan battlefields. The rifle jammed, its polymer magazine cracked in the cold, it would go full automatic when set for a three-round burst. Many jawans [troopers - Eds.] remained unconvinced about the stopping power of its 5.56 mm round; they wanted their heavy 7.62s back. It didn’t help that the Nepal Army, one of the few INSAS customers outside India, had its complaints too. The INSAS glitches were fixed but advancement in firearms technology had rendered the weapons system too obsolete for the rapidly modernising Indian Army by then.

And neither did Indian officers he interviewed:

According to Lt. Gen. (Retd) P C Katoch, a Parachute Regiment officer, the INSAS family were “not the best” of weapons. “There were a number of problems with these rifles,” he said, noting that the “DRDO [Defense Research and Development Organization, whose Armament Research and Development Establishment spawned the INSAS - Eds.] and OFB [Ordnance Factories Board, a weapons-manufacturing bureaucracy - Eds.] could come up with only such weapons after 15 years of work”.

India spends nearly Rs 7,000 crore annually on defence research and development, and has 39 ordnance factories to manufacture weapons for its 13-lakh strong armed forces but, in the words of another senior officer: “The DRDO and OFB have failed to develop one good, modern weapon with which the troops are satisfied. As a result, we had to go in for foreign-made equipment and have issued tenders for these.”

They built a half million INSAS rifles and carbines before discovering the thing was no good. They also seem to have binned their fallback plan for the foreign firms to produce rifles with conversion parts for using 5.56 and 7.62mm x 39mm ammunition interchangeably.

Many nations of the world take up rifle and other small arms development, expecting it to be easy. The question is, compared to what? India’s factories and engineers produce nuclear weapons and Mach 2 fighter aircraft (the latter, admittedly, under license). And it’s no exaggeration to say India’s arsenals have built millions of perfectly good weapons before laying the INSAS egg. So what’s the problem? Designing a gun is pretty hard. Designing ones better than the extremely-well-sorted current world leaders, the AR and AK platforms, is extremely hard. Right up there with fighting in those mountains.

The decision to go to a foreign design even if it means that initial weapons and production technology must be imported, is a sign of realism in Indian military — and fiscal — policy.

It’s also interesting to note who’s ni

FALs of the Libyan Civil War

FN-FAL 'FALO' squad automatic weapon observed near Misrata.

FN-FAL ‘FALO’ squad automatic weapon observed near Misrata. Click to embiggen. Small Arms Survey.

The Small Arms Survey Project has a report on the FN FAL rifles in use during the Libyan revolution. Qaddhafi’s Libya was in some years in the 1970s FN’s largest single customer, and it’s likely that the FALs observed there — and now being exported to jihadis everywhere — came from the vast stocks supplied directly from the Belgian factory. (We’ve previously observed FNCs in Libyan irregular use, and of course they’re copiously equipped with Combloc weapons like AKs and RPGs).

The report is a .pdf: It’s not conclusive science (the author examined FALs in Libya, but only seven of them) but it is  a start.


After Kalashnikov-pattern rifles, Fusil Automatique Léger (FAL) rifles were among the most frequently sighted firearms during the 2011 armed conflict in Libya.1 A number of FAL rifles used during the conflict were subsequently re-circulated throughout the broader sub-region. Indeed, between 2011 and 2013 FAL rifles reportedly smuggled from Libya were seized or documented in several countries, including Algeria, Lebanon, Niger, Syria, and Tunisia.

Although factory markings, serial numbers, and technical characteristics do not provide conclusive proof of the age or end users of Belgian FAL rifles used in the Libyan conflict, they do allow useful inferences to be drawn. This report discusses the basis of such inferences and offers guidance on data gathering with a view to advancing our general knowledge of the use and circulation of Belgian FAL rifles and encouraging relevant authorities to step up tracing efforts.

It’s actually a good overview of the metric FAL in general, and of FN’s serial-number and marking policies. (Do you know when FN’s marking changed from Fabrique Nationale d’Armes de Guerre Herstal Belgique to Fabrique National Herstal Belgium? The answer’s in the link). To be sure, the technical information here seems to all have come from the Collector Grade books on the FAL, but they do have a half-dozen examples of FALs observed in the Libyan wild. It’s also a good glimpse of some basic (crude, maybe) technical intelligence techniques.

These FALs will be turning up for years, if what happened to the tiny supply of FALs bought by Cuban dictator Batista and delivered to Cuban dictator Castro is anything to go by. It’s not unusual to see FALs still serviceable after fifty years of hard use, much like AKs, especially when that hard use is more “carrying” and not shooting copious quantities of ammo on full-auto, which tends to wear out the barrels.

In our experience, FALs in guerrilla and third-world armies tend not to be properly sighted in, as the weapon requires a tool for sight adjustment, and the tools are much more subject to loss, theft or disappearance than the guns themselves. All it takes is one “generation” without the tool (in a draft army, a couple of years) and no one knows it ever existed, or that the sights are adjustable at all. (The manuals don’t even last as long as the tools, unless they’re locked away somewhere, where troop units can’t get them or learn of their existence). It would have been an interesting exercise to fire these Libyan FALs against a zero target.

Hat tip: John Richardson at No Lawyers.

Colt, Split in Two since 2003, re-merges

It’s going to be a windfall for AR collectors 50 years from now: Colt, which split its defense and sporting arms divisions in 2003, is in effect re-merging into one company, with Colt Defense purchasing Colt Holding (which owns, or “holds,” primarily Colt Manufacturing).

The markings on AR-15 and M16 rifles have told the story of Colt’s corporate reorganizations over the years. The first ARs and M16s were marked “Colt’s Patent Firearms Mfg. Co.,” the name it had had since Sam Colt days. Later guns said “Colt Industries,” or “Colt’s Firearms Division, Colt Industries,” and after 2003, the markings diverged: Colts for civilians were marked “Colt’s MFG Co Inc.” like this AR:

Colt Manufacturing Roll Marking


…and Colts for the military and law-enforcement market were marked “Colt Defense” like this:

Colt Defense Roll Marking


All variations of markings noted the city of manufacture as Hartford, Conn. and the USA marking has been used since at least 2003.

You could have a nice little collection just by seeking out different roll markings.

Here’s the raw press release at the Securities and Exchange Commission (does reporting to the SEC suggest that Colt may be looking to go public?). The release has also been posted on Colt’s website, which is still divided into Defense/LE and Consumer sides.

Here’s an insightful post by Andrew Tuohy about why Colt went splitsville 10 years or so ago, and why it’s back together. He suggests that the split was an attempt to shield assets from the legal liability suits that were so popular then, and have since become a non-factor (because of legislative and judicial actions both). A commenter suggests that the split has been injurious to Colt’s one-time market leadership.

We wish the executives and workers of Colt’s well, whatever they’re stamping on their guns (yes, even the UAW workers, because we’re in one of those goodwill-to-men moods).

Hat tip: No Lawyers.

Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week: MegaSword.RU

Vasily Degtyarev (designer of the DP, DShK, and RPD) says go there... or else.

Vasily Degtyaryev (designer of the DP, DShK, and RPD) says go to… or else.

First the bad news — the site is in Russian, so if you can’t read Russian or at least figure out the Greek-based Cyrillic alphabet, you might struggle to make sense of it. But MegaSword.RU has a number of interesting stories and pictures of Russian weapons that we haven’t seen anywhere else, even on Max Popenker’s comprehensive and indispensable (Foreign weapons are covered too, but it’s the pictures of Russian novelties, and the tales of designers less celebrated in the West than Kalashnikov, that will engage the serious scholar of arms).

Now the good news: There’s a number of ways the English (or other native-language) reader can get the benefit of this cool site. (You can also use it to improve your Russian, if you’re interested in guns and know a little bit; we find that reading about things we like improves our skills with forrign languages directly). We’ll translate the menu that appears on the left of the splash page, so that you can  use it.


Russian              Transliterated    Translated
Пистолеты Pistolety Pistols
Винтовки Vintovky Rifles
Пистолеты-пулемёты Pistolety-Pulemyoti Machine Pistols (SMGs)
Автоматы Avtomaty “Automats” (Assault Rifles)
Пулемёты Pulemyoti Machine Guns
Гранатомёты Granatomety Grenade Launchers
Охотничье Okhotnichye Hunting (arms)
Травматическое Travmaticheskoye “Traumatic” (gas guns, rubber bullets, etc.)
Допоборудование Dopoborudovanie Accessories /add-ons (including optics)
Боеприпасы Boyepripas Ammunition
Холодное Kholodnoye “Cold” (Edged weapons).
Пневматическое Piyevmaticheskoye Pneumatic (air rifles)
Оруженики Oruzheniky “Creators” (Designers)
Статьи Staty Articles (assorted)
Арсенал Arsenal “Arsenal” (appears to be missiles and launchers, mostly)
Форум Forum Forum (little used)
Ссылки Ssilky Links

You can also visit the site through Google Translate, but that won’t help you improve your po-Russky. However, we did test-drive it, and while it occasionally stumbles on a technical term, it works alright in general.  It’s a far cry from the early days of AltaVista Babelfish.

Now, don’t be alarmed if GT chokes on some tech term — with some care, you can decode these words. Google Translate usually transliterates words it chokes on, so they’re in the Roman alphabet and you can sound them out. And the word often turns out to be a cognate with an English, French or German gun-technical term: for example “bulpup,” bullpup. Others can be figured out from context; a firing pin might be called “drummer” and a bolt “valve;” and others, well, are more problematic. Because “magazin” in Russian means both a magazine holding cartridges, and an ordinary store or shop, Google Translate goes with the more common meaning and tells you to remove the shop to begin clearing the weapon. If you didn’t know enough Russian to know the other meaning of “magazin,” having it mistranslated as “shop” might throw you.

Here’s the site through Google Translate. Enjoy.

Some of the things that you might find on this site:

Tokarev's 1927 submachine gun design. Not a great picture, but it is a picture. And shows some similarities with the SVT rifle.

Tokarev’s 1927 submachine gun design. Not a great picture, but it is a picture. And shows some similarities with the SVT rifle.


And EM-dva? Nyet, Comrade. Is Stechkin TKB-0146, experimental bullpup. Too bad we can't see the innards, eh?

An EM-Tooski? Nyet, Comrade. Is Stechkin TKB-0146, experimental bullpup. AK mag, AK-74 style compensator… interesting. Too bad we can’t see the innards, eh?

Ah, but we can. And it's an eclectic mix of technological history....

Ah, but we can. And it’s an eclectic mix of technological history… the bolt, AK. The carrier has AK and Garand traits. The receiver in a chassis? Nikonov, we think.

The Stechkin design bureau’s 5.45mm bullpup assault rifle is one of the many Russian rarities on the site. The AKB-0146 appears to have a recoiling receiver and compensator/counterbalance like the Nikonov AN-94; it also has the Nikonov’s fire control options, including safe, semi, 2-shot, and automatic.

Here’s the key to that picture above, from Google Translate, corrected:

  1. Receiver cover with trigger mechanism
  2. Charging handle & spring
  3. Bolt carrier
  4. Bolt
  5. Firing pin
  6. Gas piston
  7. Gas cylinder cap
  8. Recoiling barreled receiver
  9. Action spring
  10. Chassis
  11. Muzzle brake/compensator
  12. Compensator catch
  13. Catch spring
  14. Butt attachment pin
  15. Cleaning rod
  16. Cocking handle retainer
  17. Handguard
  18. Handguard retainer
  19. Magazine
  20. Buttstock.

Finally, there are a number of good reasons for learning Russian besides wanting to read about rare Russian weapons in the original. (Even if you’re not Ed Snowden). There’s a dynamic nation (many nations, actually, because many of the former Soviet republics still have many ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, and several other Slavic lands’ languages can be decoded with some Russian savvy) to learn about, a lot of interesting websites that never break into the Anglonet, and a great (if uniquely wordy) literary tradition, although its greatest authors are accessible in translation. Knowledge is power, and few forms of knowledge illustrate that more directly than knowledge of a foreign language.

It’s not as hard as people think. After all, 150 million Russians learned it, and they can’t all be smarter than us.

Good Blog: The Gun Writer. About a good dealer: Gun Point.

Every once in a while we find a blog we’ve never seen before (a lot of the time, The Gun Wire or The Gun Feed deserves the credit — in this case it was The Gun Wire). One that we really like. The Gun Writer is Lee Williams’s blog at the Tampa Herald Tribune.

One sure sign of genius is that the guy agree with us, and Lee writes in praise of a dealer that we have had extremely good service from: Feliks Yukhtman of Gun Point in Florida.

Feliks and an early AR

Gun Point is a Class III firearms dealer and manufacturer (Class III FFL 07 SOT)  located on the south side of Manatee County. While 98-percent of the business is conducted online, the site has more than 1,100 positive reviews on, they are extremely gracious to walk-in customers – especially those who call ahead to schedule an appointment.   They are authorized dealers for: POF USA, Kriss, Knights Armament, and more.

via Inside the machine-gun vault at Gun Point – The Gun Writer.

Feliks is a trip. He might have been born in the USSR — which is crystal clear two seconds after he begins speaking — but he’s an all-American boy who loves American things like freedom, hot Chevies, and, naturally, guns. (He reminds me of another immigrant who was the USSR’s loss and the USA’s gain, Oleg Volk).

We bought an M12 rifle rack from Gun Point, and when UPS delivered it as a pile of disarticulated aluminum fragments, we got to see what Gun Point was made of. (You never know what customer service is like in most places, because things go smoothly and it’s never put to the acid test). Both Feliks himself and his sidekick Mr. G. (Giancarlo Inocencio) went way out of their way for a guy who had, after all, not bought one of their $5k custom builds, but a lousy $200 rifle rack.

In fact, Gun Point cut us a refund check while they were still working on the insurance claim with UPS. We didn’t ask for that. It’s just the way they roll.

You could do far worse than visit Gun Point for your next AR or AK build, and they have good and reasonably priced SBR/suppressor packages and what not. Their Gun Broker listings are here. And don’t miss Lee’s excellent profile with many shots of their MG room inventory is here.

The continuing adventures of Bubba the Gunsmith

Bubba never sleeps, he just borrows a bigger hammer. Here’s a couple of images from a hilarious post at ARFcom, in which the poster notes that he’s been “doing it all wrong!” because he didn’t remove and replace front sight bases the way Bubba’s been doing — or trying to.


Ow. That’s gonna leave a mark — wait, it already did. Bubba tried Real Dang Hard™ to drive out those FSB pins. This is a time when it would pay to work smarter, not harder. One of the more fundamental conventions in guns in general and ARs in particular is that the pins go in from the right, and go out from the left. That is, to the right. And front sight bases are secured by two tapered pins that fit in precision-reamed grooves in the barrel. (Well, they’re supposed to be. We’ve seen Bubba using wood screws before. But we digress). So as hard as Bubba whaled away at whatever tool he was using — presumably, something found in Mrs Bubba’s kitchen drawer — he was trying to push a tapered pin deeper into a groove it was fully seated in already. Steel pin, steel barrel, steel FSB.

But wait, we’re not done. (Or, technically, Bubba wasn’t). So, what did Bubba do next?


You got it. Flipped it over and mangled it on this side, too. Oh, brother. But he still wasn’t done.


If you look back at the first picture, the flared-out FSB ears are visible in that one from the outside. It’s fugly. In case you ever thought that random blows with some type of striking or hammering tool were Real Gunsmith Techniques, here’s proof you’re wrong.

If he did this to the resilient and tough steel barrel assembly, imagine what his delicate touch wrought upon the aluminum alloy parts. But all the poster had to go on was Bubba’s barrel.

Taking off an FSB is not as easy as pushing the pins for field-stripping, but it should not require overwhelming force. It should require the right tools, including a front sight base block, taper pin starter punch, and brass-faced hammer (also a roll pin punch for removing the gas tube). But in Bubba’s shop, let’s just say everything looks like a nail.

Some of the comments are definitely worth the click. The one that won the thread for us was a simple: “Century Arms?”

But we can say we’re pretty sure Bubba doesn’t work there. As everybody knows, Bubba is a good ole boy, and Century is in Vermont. Their guns are made by Larry and his brother Darrell. And his other brother Darrell.

How they’re improving the M4

Generic M4 as issued in 2013. To be converted to M4A1.

Generic M4 as issued in 2012. To be converted to M4A1 by 2014. (PEO Soldier).

The Army intended to have a two-pronged approach to infantry weapons: a new Individual Carbine, and continuing improvement to the M4, which was “good enough” and expected to soldier on for many years — for one thing, a new carbine would have to be built, and the Army already has more than a half million serviceable M4 and M4A1 carbines. But as we’ve seen, the IC design bake-off cratered when none of the experimental new guns matched (let alone beat) the reliability of the M4 controls. Much like a medical trial is canceled if the experimental group does markedly worse than the controls taking a placebo, the Army called off the IC competition.

Of course, the subtext to the decision is the command climate in Washington, where the SecDef’s view of the Army is something to slash and bleed of a “peace dividend” for higher-priority domestic redistribution. But even the Pentagon’s crack flacks, whose mission brief is to make Capitol Hill and the press believe five impossible things before breakfast, would have a hard time selling Congressional and media skeptics on a new rifle that wasn’t as reliable as the old one.

So. the IC competitors are now, in most cases, back at the drafting station trying to wring more reliability out of their designs (some of which are pretty mature designs selling internationally, some of which borrowed their maturity by being largely M4s anyway, and some of which are both).

Without decimal places, modern US weapons are 100% reliable. Running out  the decimal places, the M4 is 99.983% reliable (the 3 repeats infinitely) in terms of MRBS (1/6000). (The SAW is even better, with “four-nines” reliability: 99.9957% (1/23,400 on stoppages). Any engineer will tell you that those numbers are hard to beat, and in fact, they’re murder to improve. It is much easier to get the gun from one stoppage in 30 rounds to one in 300. It is more difficult to take that from 300 to 3000. To take it to one stoppage in 6000 required decades of work by hundreds of engineers in government and industry, and hundreds of (mostly) minute tweaks to rifle, magazine, and ammo. To get from 6000 to 6100 is going to be tough; by now the graph of effort to result is proceeding nearly vertically.

The rifle is a resonant system, and changing any one component may influence any others. And when your system that reliable to begin with, any random change is more likely to lead to more unreliability. This leads to what academic Charles Perrow has defined as “normal accidents” in the book of the same title. Perrow noted that as systems got more complex, interventions meant to eliminate observed failure modes and increase reliability and safety are increasingly likely to introduce new and unintended failure modes. He points out these unintended consequences in, for instance, the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster. The same mechanisms were at work in the American Airlines Flight 587 disaster in New York City in 2001. Because several accidents have involved inflight upsets, American arranged for its pilots to undergo upset-recovery training in aerobatic airplanes. The pilot flying 587 applied the control forces he learned in the nearly indestructible Extra aerobatic airplane, in a relatively fragile Airbus, with fatal consequences. Nobody saw it coming — but Perrow saw that coming.

M4 Carbine Improvement Timeline. Click to embiggen.

M4 Carbine Improvement Timeline. Click to embiggen.

Despite the difficulty and the ever-present threat of unintended consequences, several interdependent teams of experts continue to work to massage the M4. The manufacturers’ engineers, the Naval Surface Weapons Systems facility in Crane, Indiana (which works, among other things, joint SOF weapons), and the Army’s Ordnance experts and Program Executive Office for Soldier Systems (PEO Soldier) all continue to pursue the combat asymptote, the perfectly reliable weapon.

So what non-random changes are possible, and what are in the pipeline for the individual weapon? Of these various sources of improvements, PEO Soldier is the most forthcoming about its plans. Crane is imbued with SOF reticence, and manufacturers seek to keep proprietary improvements away from their competitors. So let’s look at PEO Soldier’s plans for the M4 series:

The first thing the Army is doing is long overdue: it is dumping the awful Colt-designed (and Army-demanded) three-round-burst mechanism. (The only reason the burst mechanism was specified was to avoid spending money teaching combat soldiers to fire accurately on automatic). The burst mechanism didn’t reset to zero, meaning you could be set on burst and get one, two, or three shots per pull, depending on what your last burst consisted of. And the trigger pull is different depending on where the burst mechanism is in its cycle. The elimination of burst is part of an overall conversion of all fielded M4s to the formerly SOF-specific M4A1. Along with full-auto capability instead of the crappy burst, the principal benefit is a thicker barrel that is slower to overheat (and, unfortunately, slower to cool off. In engineering, there is no such thing as a free lunch). PEO Soldier:

There are several benefits to upgrading M4s to M4A1s. Compared to the M4, the M4A1 has full auto capability, a consistent trigger pull, and a slightly heavier barrel. The heavier barrel is more durable and has greater capacity to maintain accuracy and zero while withstanding the heat produced by high volumes of fire. New and upgraded M4A1s will also receive ambidextrous fire control.

The ambi fire control will be welcomed by southpaws, and will be useful in some urban cover as well. But the best news in Phase I is the banishment of burst.

Along with the conversion of the extant M4s to A1s, the Army is setting up a contract for new M4A1s, with 24,000 in the initial order. The contract is set up so that the other services can also order carbines against it — A1s or the original M4s if they prefer a crappy trigger. The conversion process is going to take place Army-wide, starting in July or August.

Phase II explored two possible areas of improvement — Bolt Carrier Groups and Rails Systems. The Rails component has not had a winner announced yet, but the BCG competition, with 11 firms competing for the prize, ended much as the Individual Carbine competition did, and for much the same reasons: none of the new contenders could beat the current champ:

PM SW completed its best value M4 bolt and bolt carrier assembly competition in April 2012, though the competition was scheduled to conclude in summer 2013. More than six months of testing and evaluation determined that none of the 11 competing designs met the overall requirements outlined in the solicitation. The M4’s current bolt and bolt carrier assembly outperforms the competing designs in the areas of reliability, durability, and high-temp/low-temp tests. The Army saved nearly $2 million as a result of the early completion of the competition.

Not surprising. The only change we’d make to the present M4 BCG, if we were kings, is largely cosmetic: we’d return to a satin chrome finish. That makes it stupid easy to clean the bolt and carrier, an important thing on a gas impingement gun that uses its bolt carrier as a cylinder and bolt as a piston.

Phase III, according to a briefing PEO Soldier presented(.pdf) in 2011 (which has an earlier version of the M4 Continuous Improvement slide shown above), is a further evaluation of the M4A1 operating system.

In other words, they’re institutionally unhappy with a weapon that’s very, very good. Other improvements continue, but PEO Soldier is in a bit of a jam: past improvements to the M4 system have been so successful that almost any further attempt at improvement degrades some aspect of the weapon’s performance. It’s not an entirely bad jam to be in: “Help, our gun’s too reliable!”


The system tells us that this is the 1,400th post on, which launched January 1, 2012. We hope some of them have been of interest and of use to you. Expect more of the same. -your Eds.

How reliable are US small arms?

Thing is, it works: M4 Carbine with accessories used by Big Green. Click to, etc.

Thing is, it works: M4 Carbine with accessories as used by Big Green about 10 years back (the accessories are also under continuous improvement). Click to, etc.

One gets weary of seeing forum commandos and gunshop experts spouting nonsense about current issue weapons. Most usually, this is in the form of bad-mouthing the M4A1, a weapon most of them have never fired, and praising alternatives from the elderly M14 to the HK 416, which is basically a very heavy piston M4 with a nicer finish. Generally, these guys’ knowledge of the M14 and 416 is limited to reading puff pieces in gun magazines, although some of the M14 guys carried them in the early sixties.

We’ve been told that the M4 jams all the time, and that combat soldiers have died trying to clear their jammed M4s as they were overrun, that the M855 and 855A1 ammunition is not lethal at combat ranges, that some M4 features like the forward assist prove its inferiority, and that limited adoption of 7.62mm special purpose weapons like the M14 Enhanced Battle Rifle (EBR), the M110 Semi-Automatic Sniper System (SASS) or the Mk17 Special Operations Combat Rifle – Light (SCAR-L) show that the M4 is obsolete.

Similar vituperation and calumny is directed against the M249 SAW, some of which have been replaced in USMC service but the M27 IAR, an HK 416 variant. The Marines made that decision for tactical reasons, not because of dissatisfaction with the M16 platform (which should be obvious, because the 416 is, after all, 90%+ good old M16).

The M4 (not A1) with standard accessories: Knight's RAS and BUIS. Click to embiggen (wallpaper worthy!)

The M4 (not A1) with standard accessories: Knight’s RAS and BUIS. Click to embiggen (wallpaper size!)

It’s hard to put a finger on why this body of opinion has such lasting power on the internet. It does not square with personal experience of most of these weapons. Some of the stories are not true — the story of dead men with jammed M4s are a recyling of a durable story that actually did occur in Vietnam, but as we’ve previously reported, that happened to a unit that taught their troops that the M16A1 required no maintenance at all. We never experienced an M4 jam (or M16 jam for that matter) that was not due to magazines. Likewise, while basic training and the soldier skill books teach activation of the forward assist as some sort of Santeria appeasement of the Gods of Firepower, we never needed or used the thing, which was added only at the insistence of Army purchasing bureaucrats in the early sixties. They wanted a way to force the bolt closed on an oversize or bulged cartridge, something you could with the op rod on an M14 (or M1 rifle and carbine). This was actually how they killed the US FAL. The forward assist was superfluous then and it’s more superfluous now, with the 60s ammo problems long since worked out.

The units that experienced problems (for example at FOB Wanat) were using M4s as sustained fire weapons in magdump after magdump at near cyclic rate. While it’s understandable why they did that, in that particular circumstance, it’s not a duty cycle within the design envelope of any shoulder-fired infantry weapon and an hour of sustained cyclic-rate firing will cause damage to almost any air-cooled weapon.

As far as jamming is concerned, here’s what the Army says about their reliability requirements versus their results on the M4 series carbines.

The reliability requirement for the M4 is 600 Mean Rounds Between Stoppage (MRBS). The demonstrated current reliability is over 3600 MRBS as a result of our continuous improvement program.

That’s pretty consistent with our experience on flat range, combat range, and in combat operations. That might explain why the Individual Carbine contestants have had such heavy sledding — you not only have to beat those numbers, but you have to beat them by a wide enough margin to justify the costs and logistic stress of a rifle change-over. (Radical rifle change-overs have generally failed in wartime. Britain dropped the superior P14 and went back to the Enfield in WWI, Russia backed off and Germany never went all-in with semi-autos in WWII, Japan and Italy got caught with their logistical pants down in mid calibre-change, the US Army was hesitant on breechloaders and repeaters from 1860-1895 or so).

Now, there are other parts of that 2009 document that are less impressive (the M4’s cumulative testing amounts to 8 million rounds — not a lot when you consider the tests span some 17 years as of that doc’s date), but there are some interesting facts that you might not have known about the M4. For instance, here’s what went into the product improvement program:

To date there have been 62 improvements to the M4, which include improvements to the trigger assembly, extractor spring, recoil buffer, barrel chamber, magazine and bolt.

That’s the stuff that Big Green’s ordnance shop signed off on (there have actually been 30 more improvements since the 2009 letter). There’s more stuff happening at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Indiana, for the special operations world, and new ideas are often shaken down over on our side before being thrown over the transom to the big Army. The Army with its hundreds of thousands of troops is less inclined to tinker and experiment.

The M249 likewise is performing well, as far as reliability goes.

The M249 SAW, the Army’s Squad Automatic Weapon, has a reliability requirement of 1200 MRBS and yet today demonstrates a reliability of over 23,400 MRBS.

And it, too, has been product-improved in a number of ways. Bottom line: these are pretty darn good guns.

At the time of the letter, in 2009, the Army planned to run contests for several improved weapons. As it is, these contests are being squeezed between the low budget priority given the land forces and the military in general, and the general satisfaction with  present weapons. That’s what just killed the Indiidual Carbine competition dead as a mackerel.

The Army … plans full and open competitions for an improved modular hand gun, a subcompact personal defense weapon, a new individual carbine and a longer range sniper rifle. The individual carbine competition will address current, emerging and future threats.

The Army has since fielded the M2010 .300 Win Mag sniper rifle, and SOF have other long-range options, so that test came off successfully (after all, the 2010 is basically an M24 with a railed chassis and the heavier chambering, and this expansion possibility is why the 24s were built on a magnum-ready long action from day one). Given the weight and compactness of a lightly-accessorized M4, the PDW is most unlikely to find a niche in the US Army. Pistols take up a lot of mindshare in the gun culture, but in the military they are secondary (if that!) weapons; it will be hard to justify replacing the M9, which is adequate to its de minimus combat task..

The letter was signed by COL Doug Tamilo and approved by BG Peter Fuller. Read The Whole Thing™ and expect a follow-up on more recent M4 improvements.

Note to readers: the Tokarev stuff promised this week is taking longer than expected as we wrangle images.

What happens when a .50 fires out of battery?

This photo, from Armslist, appears to show the mishap firearm.

This photo, from Armslist, appears to show the mishap firearm. Click for full-size.

The various .50 caliber rifle and machine gun cartridges are not trifles. One 18B of our acquaintance earned the nickname Nine Fingers in a moment’s carelessness with a loose round. (He’s not the only one. Here’s a gruesome weapons safety-of-use message from a couple of years later – via ENDO). You might expect that from a round that has 200 to nearly 300 grains of powder. With the .50 everything happens in greater volume and under greater pressure, which makes the quality of gun very, very important.


Mishap gun after the accident.

Mishap gun after the accident. Arrows show witness marks where the fast-moving bolt (r.) contacted the receiver and stock.

We’re about to see what happens when a .50 is not well engineered or constructed, and we’ll also cover ammunition as a possible contributing factor.

In recent years there has been a flowering of new .50 designs… 30 years ago it was Barrett or lump it. (That isn’t necessarily bad. The Barrett is a safe, sturdy, and reliable weapon). Now there are many kinds of .50s on the market. Along with the semis, there are bolt action mag-fed guns and a variety of single shots with nearly as many action designs as there are manufacturers. Some of the singles use a Mauser-like bolt with extractor and ejector, but others use a “shell holder” bolt, where a machined slot in the bolt holds the cartridge rim in place before, during and after firing, dispensing with the cost and complexity of an extractor or ejector. The price of this simplicity comes in the complexity of, and time to execute, the normal manual of arms. In a throwback to 1870s breechloader convenience, you remove the bolt from the weapon, slide any spent cartridge out of the shell holder, slide the cartridge into the shell holder in the bolt, and then ram the bolt/cartridge assembly home, turn it to lock, and fire.

That’s an inelegant design, but it’s perfectly safe, if the designers and manufacturers do their job of engineering, substantiation, and manufacture — and if users use good ammo.

Good ammo is hard to come by for .50s. Surplus blasting ammo is reliable and safe but generally falls short of the guns’ accuracy potential. It’s built for machine guns and meant to be fired at planes, vehicles, or groups of troops in a “to whom it may concern” manner.  Match ammo, on the other hand, is usually reloaded, either by end users or small shops or companies. So one risk you take is with reloads, which even in a factory production setting do not get the statistical quality control that, say, ATK applies to their military contract rounds.

And then there’s the quality of gun. This gun is a Vulcan. Vulcan was formerly known as Hesse. Hesse made a series of very low-quality receivers for guns built on surplus parts kits — everything from FALs to ARs to 1919A4s. And every one of these was prone to failures, and the firm’s customer service — under whatever name — was dreadful. So then, Hesse (and later, Vulcan) got into .50 BMG rifles. Their guns sell for a low price point. Unfortunately, that encourages people who can’t operate Google or Bing to buy them. With the results you see here, and some results you don’t.

The Vulcan, also, has a chamber that, while it varies from gun to gun, is tighter than the military specification for machine-gun chambers. What this means is not all surplus ammo will chamber; max-milspec-length rounds may fail to chamber, like a no-go gage.

Vulcan and Hesse bolts, oldest to newest. Source: Outlaw Performance .50 Vulcan page.

Vulcan and Hesse bolts, oldest to newest. Source: Outlaw Performance .50 Vulcan page. (Click for +)

The bolt in this particular gun is at least the fourth design of the the Vulcan/Hesse .50 bolt. The first one had two lugs, oriented at 90 and 270 to the side you slide the cartridge in the shell holder. The second had the same 2-lug bolt head and an improved rear area. The third, which was in early Vulcans, used an interrupted thread, but the fine thread doesn’t seem to have been sufficient for safety. The fourth and current bolt head has three lugs much like the ones from the early Hesse bolt, but arranged equidistant from one another (120 apart) around the bolt head. Vulcan says the bolt is machined from 4140 rod stock, but the surface finish of one we examined looked like a casting.

But the bolt itself didn’t let go. What appears to have happened in the latest case is that the gun fired out of battery. The firing pin free-floats in the bolt, and when the shooter rammed the bolt home, the pin’s own inertia was enough to fire the cartridge in the chamber, before the luckless shooter could turn the bolt and lock it. We haven’t seen even a picture of the inside of the mishap gun’s chamber, but we’ve seen other Hesses/Vulcans, and there’s a lot of tool marks and roughness in there.

In the current accident, the bolt firing out of battery exposed another limitation of the Hesse/Vulcan design (and all shell holders that we know of, really): there’s no secondary bolt retention. If the gun fires out of battery, the bolt is coming back with half the energy that propels the .50’s usual ~700-grain widow makers, and that’s exactly what happened here. The bolt struck and seriously injured the shooter. The blast, flash and burn from the uncontained powder and fragmented cartridge case also injured him; he was left blind and missing several fingers, although his blindness seems to be easing and they are cautiously optimistic he will recover his sight. Several fingers from his left hand were a different matter, as they couldn’t be found. (It is possible, but not known for a fact, that he was resting his left hand on top of the Vulcan’s stock, and the fast-moving bolt tore his fingers off on its way to breaking his shoulder).

Why did the gun fire out of battery in the first place? What none of the four bolt designs did include was one simple, five-cent component that would have prevented this accident: a firing-pin return spring. This spring is especially important if you’re going to fire ammunition that’s loaded with more-sensitive commercial primers than if you only plan to shoot surplus ammunition. Without one, it’s possible for the firing pin to jam in the forward position, like the fixed firing pin on an open-bolt submachine gun. Well, open-bolt subguns can be set up like that, because (1) they’re chambered for low-powered pistol cartridges, and (2) many of them are designed to use advanced primer ignition, where the gun fires as the bolt is closing. Again, no harm done in a gun that’s designed to be “locked” by the weight and inertia of the bolt. In a gun that absolutely, positively must be locked to fire, it’s a mortal error.

As veterans of Special Forces, still involved with the community today, we can assure you that this promotional claim is a great calumny. We never would use this garbage.

As veterans of Special Forces, still involved with the community today, we can assure you that this promotional claim is a great calumny. We never would use this garbage.

In the mishap Vulcan, the base of the .50 casing remains in the shell holder of the bolt. The rest of the casing became shrapnel, and the bolt itself became a deadly projectile. This man is extremely lucky to be alive, and he’s luckier yet if he recovers his vision.

Yes, a Barrett is four times or more what one of these things goes for, and even other single-shots like the McMillan cost much more money. What are your eyes worth? Your life? This guy very nearly answered that question, inadvertently.

Other Vulcan/Hesse .50s have blown up before, apparently. So have other makes of .50, but none of the top-name guns, as far as we know. This one at ENDO also looks like an out of battery fire, and seriously injured its shooter. It’s interesting because it was an AR-style single-shot bolt gun, that was not a shell holder design. On the other hand, it was made by an outfit we haven’t otherwise heard of, called “BOHICA Arms.” (BOHICA is an ancient military acronym for “bend over, here it comes again.” Not exactly a confidence-building company name. But hey, they’re not Vulcan/Hesse/Blackthorne).


ARFCOM thread (as usual, a thin layer of genius floating on a lake of retardation).

Vulcan Armaments. The same Bubba the Gunsmiths that comprise Vulcan also appear to have operated as Hesse, Blackthorne, Frozen North, and probably other names. Name changes for the same reason that Chevy’s small shitbox car has a new name every few years: the public gets wise. Vulcan claims to be a supplier of guns to Special Forces. It is not. And you have to love their warranty policy: KMAGYOYO. (“Based on the Magnuson-Moss Warranty act, Vulcan Group Inc. offers no warranty on its product line.”)

Armslist ad with this rifle for sale in 2010.