Tactical and Technical

On The Merits Of M4 And EF88 (And More) | PART 5

By Solomon Birch July 19, 2019

This series of articles has been published in five parts:

Article 1 | Context and the Ancient History - The M16 and the Steyr AUG

Article 2 | The Middle History - The M4A1 and the F88SA1/2

Article 3 | The Late History: EF88 and M4 Spinoffs

Article 4 | 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

Article 5 |  The Human Factor Part 2: SF Cast A Long Shadow


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.


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 powerfactor rules caused .38 Super (9x23mmSR +P) to totally eclipse 9mm (9x19mm) in high-end competition until rules caught up, despite its harsher recoil.

In Summary:

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.

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.

End Notes:

[i] Major Jim Hammett, “We Were Soldiers Once… The decline of the Royal Australian Infantry Corps?” Australian Army Journal Volume V, Number 1, 2008

[ii] Captain Greg Colton, “Enhancing Operational Capability. Making infantry more deployable” Australian Army Journal Volume V, Number 1, 2008

[iii] Australian War Memorial, “Task Force Maintenance Area Patrol DPR/TV/1106” dated 20 May 69

[iv] Major Jim Hammett, “We Were Soldiers Once… The decline of the Royal Australian Infantry Corps?” Australian Army Journal Volume V, Number 1, 2008, 42

[v] LTCOL C Smith, “Mentoring Task Force 3 Post Operations Report, Commanding Officer’s Observations” undated declassified 20 Feb 19 by originator (UNCLASSIFIED) 

[vi] Major Jim Hammett, “We Were Soldiers Once… The decline of the Royal Australian Infantry Corps?” Australian Army Journal Volume V, Number 1, 2008, 43-44

[vii] Interview Solomon Birch and Chris Masters dated 13 Feb 19 (UNCLASSIFIED)

[viii] For example, the USSOCOM development of the MK12 Special Purpose Rifle and MK18 Close Quarters Battle Receiver which both initially made use of legacy M16/M4 FOW parts that were in existing USSOCOM inventory

[ix] Special Agent Yvon Guillaume, “Close Quarters Combat Shooting” United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College, Marine Corps University 2010, Appendix C

[x] Interview Solomon Birch and Chris Masters dated 13 Feb 19 (UNCLASSIFIED)

[xi]Neil Grant, “SA80 Assault Rifles” Osprey Publishing 2016

[xii]Military Arms Channel “Lithgow Arms USA F90 Atrax bullpup” dated 19 Oct 16 retrieved 06 May 19 from youtu.be/6847L8aEA6A



Solomon Birch

Solomon Birch is a RACT officer currently posted to the Road Transport Wing, Army School of Transport. Past postings include 1 Sig Regt, 1 CSSB and 1 CER.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.


I can agree with most of the article, but I think the barrel length argument is not as important as it is made out to be. Body armour is at a point where armour piercing ammunition has limited effect and I would personally swap to ammunition that is focused on having better terminal ballistic performance. The EF88 is a fine service weapon but I'd still standardise on the shorter carbine length barrel and only have marksman use the standard 20inch barrel variant.

Hello, Thank you for the opportunity to read the five articles posted to the COVE – On the Merits of M4 and EF88 Firstly, I would just like to state that my view is the Steyr (EF88) is an acceptable weapon platform for the majority of Defence, and the current EF88 is a great improvement on its predecessor. It is adequate for the majority of tasks required of Defence members where their primary role is not combat orientated, yet at times need to defend themselves. However, it is time to consider other options. I also have a view that Australia should be able to sustain two different assault weapons; lets create some extra jobs and encourage Australian made or manufactured. As you mention in one of your articles, Special Forces - and I would include Infantry, Clearance Divers and 4 SQN RAAF, conduct very different roles and therefore require a very versatile combat weapon system – potentially more so than a Steyr can offer in its current configuration. My third view is that we should not be comparing Steyr (EF88) and M4 - it probably should be an AR based platform in general, as FN-SCAR, LMT, COLT, HK416/7, SIG MCX and Omega PV to name a few are all based on the original AR platform. I would like to respond to a number of comments made by the author, not in defence of either weapon but to add the reality of combat experience and mindset to the discussion. I have - and many soldiers I know have, unlike most of Defence, used more than one weapon system in their military career. In fact they are exposed to many differing assault weapons and therefore are able to make objective assessments based on data, practical and combat experience.

1. The author mentions reliability and that most of the initial problems with both weapon systems have now been eliminated, which is a good thing so this point is probably not an important argument. I would note, that the EF88 has some interesting peculiarities, where I have regularly seen spent casings, after ejection rebound of casing deflectors, slings, helmets and the ground, directly back into the ejection port causing a serious stoppage, I have never witnessed this with the M4 or any other AR platform. Many soldiers I talk to mention that the new bolt release system regularly does not function correctly, the cocking handle position is still not ideal and the trigger operation is still one of the worst on the market and needs improvement, there are options out there to rectify this. 2. Non-master side, reactionary side, non-dominant side, off hand side, weak side (what ever you choose to call it) is one of a number of areas that is not well understood. I am well aware that Steyr is difficult to shoot well on the non-master side and pro-active steps are being made to assist with improving this, which is a great thing. The author touches on this and is tempted to support the easy path of finding reason why you would not train this potentially life saving skill. A thorough survey was conducted several years ago of members from SASR, which once trained in using their non-master side did in fact use this to good effect during combat operations, with some siting that they believed it saved their life… a. You could argue that training non-master side shooting is time consuming, hard to train and potentially of limited value but you would be wrong. A short period of Reality Based Training using paint on basic skills and drills will quickly demonstrate the advantages of being able to shoot on you non-dominant side. b. Granted, rarely will an individual attain equal skill on both sides of their body when it comes to complex motor skill. However, if introduced early and trained for a short period regularly, any soldier can become quite efficient at weapon manipulation and shooting. Combine this with good combat behaviours, teamwork and sound tactics and you will give yourself and your team of soldiers a big advantage over any opponent. This is an essential skill for Australian combat soldiers and it is dangerous in this day and age to suggest otherwise. c. Being able to shoot well on you non-dominant side is about giving soldiers an advantage in the close range fight, it is about giving soldiers more options to be unpredictable and make better use of cover, it is also about keeping yourself in the fight if you find yourself in a tight spot until your mates are able to work other angles or develop alternate plans, this also assist in making use of all available firepower if required. d. I would also caution against benchmarking with the regular Israeli soldiers, as the vast majority are young conscripts spend two years at a very basic level. Our soldiers especially Infantry are a full time professionals and if being able to shoot on your alternate side gives you a slight edge in lethality and survivability why wouldn't you train your soldiers in this skill.

1. Finally I wanted to touch on ergonomics of assault weapons. While there are quite a few that could be discussed, the main one I wanted to touch on is the ‘bullpup’ system itself. The major criticism of this system especially in the Steyr is the fixed length butt. Due to a number of technical requirements, this is one area it cannot change and this can cause a number of small problematic areas that when combined they are less than desirable. a. One concern is if you are either very tall or very short - correct eye relief can be a real problem and for some will never be optimal. If we take a soldier that is of shorter stature, with the current Elcan Spectre DR, which has 70mm of eye relief, much better than the previous sighting optic – it can still be extremely difficult for a shorter person to attain correct eye relief. This may seem trivial, but if unable to gain correct eye relief you then need to change body position, you then alter trigger manipulation and you will never shoot as well as you should and will be unlikely be able to use the weapon out to its maximum capability. Even if you put the sight all the way at the back of the rail system in many cases it is still not enough. For the taller people the opposite is true as you are usually too close to the sight and it is difficult to get an optimal firing position. b. Due to its unique design, the width and length of the Steyr butt can be problematic for soldiers to achieve optimal weapon placement in the shoulder when wearing body armour, again there is little you can do about this due to the weapon design. However, AR platforms have literally dozens of varying shapes and sizes as well as adjustable but lengths to ensure every soldier can maximise use of their personal weapon to its full potential. c. The last area I will touch on is the magazine position and the release mechanism. Due to the magazine being close to the butt of the weapon, when conducting stoppages, even after training many soldiers will look at the magazine area instead of keeping their eyes up towards the threat. This is exacerbated due to the technical nature of the magazine release catch, which is not simple. Put yourself in a complex, pressure situation of conducting a combat reload, trying to get your weapon back into battery due to the enemy trying to kill you…if you then have to look down and perform a complex magazine removal under immense pressure you could be at a distinct disadvantage. Compare that to an AR platform, where the magazine is situated central to the weapon and the magazine release catch allows for a free fall release, both allowing you to maintain situational awareness of the threat but also being able to conduct current activity by releasing the magazine and reaching for a new magazine simultaneously gives you a better chance of survival. These skills are easier to teach and retain as a neural pathway when under pressure compared to the Steyr. 5. On a personal level, I agree with the authors comment that the existence of robust discussion is beneficial and should assist when considering a replacement for our current in-service weapon. However, I disagree that there is not a strong set of core reasons for an alternate point of view. Considering the amount of access to various weapon types, the depth of weapon testing that occurs, to inform Infantry soldiers of the pros and cons, I believe our soldiers are educated enough to make informed choices, with minimal bias. 6. It is all too easy to compare weapon test statistics in a siloed view, hence arriving at a conclusion, which does not take into account the holistic nature of all the elements - of not only the combat weapon system but the actualities of war fighting with that weapon. I am unsure of what the next major personal weapon system advancement will be, however one weapon platform is supported by a multi-billion dollar industry, the other is not.

Did anyone who writes about what a great weapon the F 88 is ever actually use it outside of DOWRs in the breezeway? Us poor bloody Infantry will be rid of that design soon, thankfully. You are welcome to talk up the F 88 design all you like, but after using it since 1988 I wish it had of gone in 1989, new sight or no new sight on the latest version. The first time I fired one was off the back of HMAS Tobruk and I immediately wanted my old M16 back! Oh great, it had/has a long barrel that gives it a few extra metres of muzzle velocity, but a trash trigger like a sponge, shiny cheap metal, ratty plastic fit and hilarious 'donut' sight that was an obsolete concept the day it was adopted. The ridiculous remove the barrel drill we did for years and the world's most fiddly magazine mechanism, that it still has! Did I mention the cocking handle that constantly broke? That thing was designed as a constant test for infantrymen. Dumb, dumb, dumb. I put up with that crappy, Eurotrash, conscripts weapon for 30 years, it owes me an apology for every time I never threw it in a creek. Now because they put a new sight on it and painted it black I m supposed to forgive it? Fail! Thanks for the horrible memories F 88. May all of your various sub types rest in pieces. The sooner the better.

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