Solomon Birch is a logistics officer who is currently posted to CIOG and in the process of transferring to the reserves. The author would like to thank Chris Masters, Darren Christopher, Mark Richards, LTCOL Mathew Brookes, LTCOL Cameron Fraser, and Major Yong Yi, as well as the large number of unnamed individuals, for their assistance in gathering information for these articles. Finally, if anyone knows the location of a surviving F88-S, could they please raise it to the attention of the Australian Army History Unit, as no examples are currently thought to exist.
The Human Factor: Part 2
SF cast a Long Shadow
The M4 is a super-rifle because SF use them and SF are super-soldiers. Over the same period valid reasons to prefer the M4 to the F88 FOW emerged, Australian Special Forces obtained a mystique they had never before enjoyed amongst regular forces. In wars prior to Afghanistan, regular Australian troops had been the primary forces used to seek out and destroy enemy combatants and positions[i][ii], and even logistics soldiers would conduct clearing patrols, standing patrols and ambushes as a matter of routine[iii]. In Afghanistan, for Australia, these functions were almost exclusively fulfilled by Special Forces[iv], and the equipment, clothes, weapons and habits of Special Forces became fashionable and desirable in regular forces[v] who largely lacked their own sense of credibility, purpose and achievement[vi]. The disparity of combat experience and training resources between regular and Special Forces also manifested in training, where special forces were seen as the undisputed experts of all forms of infantry tactics and shooting, with their methods gradually but surely being adopted by wider Army through the excellent All Corps Urban Operations packages and the later Combat Shooting Continuum. The M4, along with other SF artefacts and ideas, thus came to be symbols of status, authenticity and combat prowess, not entirely undeservedly. The very simple argument, that Special Forces use it and so it must be better, is probably the most common argument used even today – but it’s not a very good one.
The reasons that SF use the M4 are not particularly relevant to the debate. Australian SF have a tremendous ingrained dislike of the F88 family of weapons that goes back all the way to teething problems SASR experienced with the rifle in the early 1990s[vii]. Special Forces are not so special that they can’t generate subjective cultural biases for and against things like any ordinary group of people might, but there are very good reasons why an M4 based rifle makes sense for them in ways that it doesn’t for the regular Army.
The use of STANAG compliant magazines and a common manual of arms is potentially important for organisations that integrate with M4 equipped coalition Special Forces below the section level and who may be deployed without a substantial Australian logistics footprint. Access to the vast AR15 and M4 aftermarket industry in the US is similarly compelling for organisations which purchase equipment in smaller numbers for more specialised tasks. The ability to rebuild rifles for more specialised functions using interchangeable parts already in inventory or on the market also offers potentially useful opportunities to forces who operate small fleets of specialised equipment[viii]. The forward placement of the magazine permits the inclusion of magazine release functionality, a well-placed bolt release catch, a conveniently placed fire selector switch and a tame case ejection pattern far from the shooter’s face when shooting off-hand. The weapon has the option for adjustable stocks and adjustable triggers for different roles and different protective/load carriage equipment. These features combine to create a weapon system with a very high skill cap that will reward shooters who are going to practice handling it for hours every day and shoot thousands of rounds every month with better practical accuracy in a wider variety of circumstances under pressure and quicker reloads while retaining better situational awareness than many other designs.
These advantages are just not directly relevant to the regular Army. Due to its scale, it is unlikely to ever be in a position where it could accept the configuration management challenges that accessing the US aftermarket to customise rifles would bring, or even to want to give soldiers the ability to customise their firearms. It is unlikely to ever be well enough resourced to train regular soldiers to anywhere near the skill cap of either the EF88 or the M4 (which is an exceptionally resource intensive and highly perishable skill[ix]) and even if it were there would be far more urgent ways to spend those resources, while it is not at all clear that the higher skill cap translates to a higher skill floor. It will seldom integrate its soldiers with a coalition partner (or vice versa) to such a low level that a common manual of arms and common magazines would be important, and it would be forced to deploy a logistics tail for a conventional deployment such that access to coalition repair parts and magazines would be mostly irrelevant. In other words, there are many reasons that the M4 is a weapon exceptionally well suited to Australian special forces, but these reasons tend to apply very poorly to the Australian Regular Army.
One weird trick insurgents don’t want you to know: the particular issue of the difficulty of firing an F88 from the non-master side, a shooting technique inherited from Special Forces, is brought up with incredible frequency but is of unconvincing merit on balanced consideration. It remains unclear how useful this technique is in practice for regular forces (the Israeli Defence Force, who very successfully operates in almost habitual urban warfare does not train in non-master hand firing and allegedly consider it an inefficient use of training resources to attempt to do so, while conversation with special forces operators with multiple high intensity tours often reveals that they’ve never actually adopted a non-master side stance on operations[x]). It also remains unclear just how impractical it is to do with a bullpup (elements of the British Army train a technique for doing so with their L85, which even has a reciprocating bolt-handle, by tilting the ejection port of the weapon downwards when firing from the non-master side[xi], and case deflectors are absolutely a viable option to largely negate the need for such a technique[xii]). The initial existence and spread of this objection seems to be a manifestation of the fact that our combat shooting practices are derived from our Special Forces (which is a good thing, but comes with baggage that we need to keep in mind) who don’t employ any bullpups in combat and so don’t have any combat techniques specific to the use of bullpups. This tends to imply that further regular forces development and innovation may be required. The manner in which this issue is presented, as a warstopper and with its narrow scope and potential solutions conspicuously omitted, gives the strong impression of post-hoc reasoning based on an existing premise that we should adopt the M4.
Wikimedia Commons / Israel Border Police
A Final Aside – Civilian Use. The AR15 is overwhelmingly the most popular modern sporting rifle platform in the largest shooting community in the world (the USA) and there are a lot of very good reasons for that which I mostly won’t go into. In discussing bullpups on the civilian market in America, one of the questions always brought up is why competition shooters ('power users') basically never use bullpups. The answer seems extremely simple to me – the rules create no good reason to use a barrel any longer than you need to, and that’s basically the whole reason for the existence of bullpups. If everyone using a carbine length barrel got half the points for targets at 100-200m compared to those using full length barrels, I strongly suspect that there would be a lot more 2 and 3 gun competitors using bullpups despite the fixed lengths of pull, poorer triggers and slightly slower manuals of arms. This is certainly what we saw in IPSC, where power factor rules caused .38 Super (9x23mmSR +P) to totally eclipse 9mm (9x19mm) in high-end competition until rules caught up, despite its harsher recoil.
There were absolutely some valid reasons from about 1993 – 2015 to think that the M4A1 was a better service rifle than the F88, F88SA1 and F88SA2 (but also some very valid arguments the other way). Most of those reasons simply don’t exist or exist only in a much weaker and poorly applicable way if the comparison is instead made between the EF88 and the M4A1 (or HK416 or MARS-L etc) while many of the arguments the other way have grown stronger. In the absence of a core set of very strong reasons, the argument has adopted a life of its own and persists, seemingly fed off the cultural biases of certain in-groups and personalities. The existence of this discussion is good because it promotes vigorous debate on what we want out of a service rifle that has the potential to help inform the user requirements for our next SARP, but to realise that potential our discussions as soldiers and officers must be better grounded in facts than they often have been.