The Human Factor: Part 1

The reason these articles exist: Why there is a group of regular soldiers who like the M4 and hate the F88

For better or worse, there is a substantial and vocal minority of Australian Regular Army soldiers and officers who fiercely advocate that the AUG is a horrible platform that should be replaced as our service rifle with something like the M4A1, yesterday. This is a complex social phenomenon and includes some individuals who demonstrate a very poor understanding of strengths and weaknesses of the various weapons and provide invalid or indiscernible justification for their view, as well as some who have a very good understanding and who tend to legitimately very highly value certain characteristics in a weapon that the M4 possesses. This section will attempt to explain the existence of the phenomenon and to validate the assertion in the preface that in a majority of use cases relevant to the Australian Army that M4 derived designs aren’t particularly better than the EF88.

Totally valid reasons; the M4 is really light, really customisable and handles really well. At the time attraction to the M4 began, the regular Australian Army was engaged in predominantly low intensity counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and all parts of the weapon system they employed were nearly identical to US forces and special forces – a Trijicon TA31 sight, SS109 clone ammunition and the option of mounting an M203 grenade launcher – except the rifle itself, which weighed nearly twice as much as some M4 based rifles (the M4 in Australian service weighs as little as 2.7kg unloaded and without attachments). Soldiers in this period were critically overloaded[i], and the high weight of the rifle compounded this problem: loaded F88SA2 weighs almost exactly the same as the full power 7.62x51mm SLR that the F88 replaced, and even more with attachments. The rifle was also not more accurate in practice than the high-end AR15s that were beginning to proliferate in military and civilian use. While the AUG had been significantly more accurate than the M16A2 during SARP, new AR15 designs had adopted free floated barrels that made those systems slightly more accurate than the F88 in theory, but these rifles had options for the installation of better triggers, adjustable stocks, bipods and adjustable foregrips that made them much more handleable and accurate in practice.[ii] In Afghanistan, engagement ranges and characteristics tended to either be so short that a short barrelled M4 would be adequate, or so long that even a full length barrel F88 was inadequate, with unusually little engagement in the intermediate distances for which assault rifles are intended[iii]. Soldiers carrying an F88 would also only be exposed to the increased stoppages (inherent to all small arms) in adverse, dusty and sandy conditions for that rifle and would not necessarily be aware of the (more serious and more frequent) stoppages of the same type on M4 based weapons. It seems certain to me that these completely legitimate reasons were a large part of the cultural capital that formed the foundation of the (ongoing) preference in some circles for the M4 over the F88 FOW.

A fully accessorised F88SA1

Totally invalid reasons: absolute furphies. Having acknowledged the legitimate reasons, it must be pointed out that military personnel can be incredibly adept at formulating reasons to complain if no valid ones are apparent to them. Digging into the Centre for Army Lessons database yields a fantastic spread of primary sources from soldiers and officers on, or recently returned from, operations in the period that raise a variety of criticisms of the F88 compared to the M4 that have no basis in reality. Soldiers have claimed the M4A1 is variously: more powerful[iv] (the opposite is true), more accurate[v] (the opposite is true), more reliable[vi] (the opposite is true) and a quarter the price of an F88[vii]. The last is an understandable guess based on Wikipedia, some non-milspec M4 clone prices, and some bad currency conversions, but it’s mostly incorrect. In reality we could buy something closer to 21 MILSPEC M4A1s for the price of 20 F88s of a given variant (but we’d also have to spend many tens of millions of dollars retraining and replacing magazines, tooling and repair parts, making an M4 acquisition almost certainly more expensive overall)[viii]. Furphies and rumours such as these have remained largely uncontested and have spread widely throughout the diggernet, popping up in Facebook memes, comments and ordinary discussion regularly.

A US SF operator in Afghanistan

The grass is always greener. Through the same period that many Australian soldiers and officers began clamouring to swap their AUG based rifles for AR15 based rifles, many US soldiers and officers began clamouring to replace their AR15 based rifles with a rifle that used the operating mechanism of the AUG. This provides a clear demonstration of the fact that there is at least an element of the grass always being greener at play here. For those unacquainted with the gist of the arguments against the M4 in the US arms and military establishment or the ferocity with which they’re put, I would encourage you to read a 2008 presentation given by the very well respected former paratrooper, firearm industry elder and H&K employee Jim Schatz.

The final article looks at the argument most often made for the M4, which perversely has almost nothing to do with the rifles at all: Special Forces.