The M-4 and M-5 Rifles:

A Development History

or Why does the US have 2 service rifles?

By Jason Weiser

The M-4 rifle has had one of the most controversial development histories of an American service weapon since the M-16. It was, until 2300, a much maligned and ridiculed weapon, both inside and outside the military, with so-called experts criticizing everything from its reliability to its choice of ammunition:

The M-4 is a bad weapon, plain and simple, I have never seen such a rushed job to get a weapon into service. It’s got a litany of problems, all guaranteed to get a soldier killed, and provided it does work, the damn cartridge won’t stop a charging snow hamster…the thought my boy is going to have to carry one of those (expletive deleted) things… [shakes head], it’s enough to [get] ticked off!
MAJ Jean Kilmer, USA (ret) on CNN’s "America Watch"- "The Army’s new rifle, boon, or boondoggle?" (Airdate: 10/21/2292)

The weapon's troubles began when the Army opened the competition to find the replacement for the venerable and beloved M-2 rifle, which had served US troops well in both the 3rd Rio Plata War and the Central Asian War. It had been hailed as simple, reliable and with few faults. However by 2289, with the development in France of the soon-to-be FAM-90 the fact that Gauss weapons could generate higher muzzle velocities and associated wound traumas became apparent to the Army.

The contest to replace the M-2 opened in August 2289, with three major contenders. First was the Remington-Colt Model 4, (soon to be known as the XM-4) which was everything the Army was looking for. It had 10x Optical Sights, with back-up iron sights, laser sighting in visible, UV and IR bands, under slung 30mm Grenade Launcher and fired the French-developed, ESA standard S70 4.5mm Dart ammunition which improved operability with the French on foreign exchange assignments. It was a bullpup weapon, something else that the Army had wanted for a long time, and its price was projected to be cheaper than any other gauss weapon then in service. However the prevailing political agenda led to Congress demanding that there be a "shoot-off" before the weapon was could be purchased by the Army.

A competition was something that the other contractors, frozen out by the Army’s demand for a Gauss weapon, relished, and had paid for handsomely with their "friends" in Congress. Traylor Arms submitted the XM-5 design, which was basically a modernized M-2 utilising a binary propellant system and although it wasn’t much more capable than the M-2 it was reliable, had a 30mm grenade launcher and was readily familiar to existing users of the M-2. However to save costs Traylor Arms even retained the same aging sighting system that had been used on the later M-2.

Also submitted for consideration, although not taken seriously, was the latest Rhyzanov Arms AS-89 Gauss Assault Rifle, which was also an Gauss weapon, but suffered from the notorious US Congressional and military phobia: NIH (Not Invented Here) Syndrome.

The trouble was; Congress could not order the Army to buy the weapon without good reason. The President had already sided with the Defense Department and the Department of the Army and made it known that he would veto the FY 90 appropriations bill if it didn’t give the XM-4 a fair chance. Congress in turn made noise about the "ammunition not fulfilling the made in America requirement", something of a false argument as the M-4s ammo and magazines were to be license produced in the US, but they soon relented, confident that they could then "influence" the results of the test.

Testing began on 4 May 2290, with the XM-4 soon outpacing the XM-5 in the early testing, especially on range, muzzle velocity and ammunition weight ratio. But, the XM-4 soon had a disquieting trend emerging.

The weapon [XM-4] has a lot of promising qualities, but it suffers from a few problems that could prove fatal to the individual soldier. Namely, the batteries have a failure rate of 5%, and there are wide fluctuations in the power net in the weapon, which means that another 5% of the time, the weapon will not fire, even with a fully charged battery. Furthermore, the integral optical sights have a nasty habit of becoming occluded by moisture in wet climates. If the weapon is immersed in water for any reason, the sights will be effectively useless for hours and must be disassembled to clean them, a process that cannot be performed by the individual soldier…The tuneable laser sight has it’s own problems, in that the polymer knob can be jostled or even snapped off of the weapon far too easily.
SSGT Vincent Termelli, evaluator for the Ordnance Branch, XM-4/5 trials, report of 7 July 2290, pp 34-35

In any event, by December of 2290, the Army had decided to go with the XM-4 and awarded the contract to Remington-Colt. This enraged Congress, who soon hauled in the Chief of Staff of the Army to "explain" why the Army had chosen a problematic, if state-of-the-art weapon .against a weapon that may have had a sound and tried design basis, but for the most part, was only slightly less obsolescent than it’s predecessor. The Army needed a gauss rifle for it’s soldiers and it was going to get one. By January of 2291, the funding had come in and the weapon was standardized as the M-4 Gauss Assault Rifle, 4.5mm. But its trials were far from over.

The weapon was procured on a limited basis to see if the kinks could be worked out of it and the Army gave Natick and Aberdeen a year in which to do it, otherwise, it would have to go with the congressionally beloved M-5. After six months the same disquieting problems continued; many of the same things observed in the trials of the weapon began to emerge with a vengeance in the new rifle. Dead batteries, dead rifles, occluded sights, broken laser knobs, all of these problems were still not worked out after a year. Some issues, like the sight problem and the bad cells were fixed by the simple field expedient of industrial sealant in the case of the sight and by jury-rigging a port for an extra battery in the case of the bad cells. However the power net itself could not be fixed very easily, and it seemed no field expedient would remedy the problem.

By 2292, it became apparent that the M-4 had a lot wrong with it, and the weapon soon became a favorite target of the press and opposition politicians. In particularly the charge was raised that Remington-Colt were making the M-4 "on the cheap" with shoddy components to meet the unit price. In May, Congress held hearings on the entire decision to procure the weapon, and why their "advice" to purchase the M-5 had been ignored. Needless to say, Congress relished the chance to impose its decision on the Armed Services, and ordered that all M-4s be pulled from service and that the M-5 be purchased as an "interim" weapon until such time as that the M-4 could be made to work. Fact was, Congress had every intention to make sure that the M-5 was around a lot longer than on an interim basis. They under-funded efforts to fix the M-4 and meanwhile, funded efforts to speed the M-5 into troop service which occurred in 2293.

Meanwhile while Army troops liked the M-5, they felt as if they could get more out of a more modern weapon. It was a good, if obsolescent design, but that didn't help the USMC's supply problems during their foreign service with the French in the War of German Reunification. The French didn't use 9mm binary and try as they might, they couldn't retrofit surplus FAB-62 propellant bottles to fit in the M-5, worsening the logistical crunch. However the weapon did have some good points and excelled in MOUT operations. It remains a no-nonsense favorite with Marine units who often protest vigorously when equipped with the M-4. Interestingly the only other nation to go with a widescale adoption of a binary 9mm weapon are the Germans who developed their SK-19 independently from the M-2.

The M-4 during all this was upgraded, better sealing of the sights, polymer knobs and catches replaced with carbon fiber switches and the power net's optic fiber connections hard-wired into the weapon rather than the "modular network" that had been the case. Furthermore, the jury-rigged carry point for the battery was made type standard and was hooked into the power net of the weapon, which made it possible for there to be an auxiliary power source for the weapon. Weight increased by a kilogram, but the weapon was now more controllable on full automatic to boot. Thus, the improved M4 (now known as M4A1) was ready to be re-issued to a grateful US military by 2297.

The M-4A1 soon vindicated its maligned reputation in another set of trials with the nearly obsolescent M-5. This time it passed handily and the M-4A1 was re-issued beginning in March of 2298 to EXSOLFOR first and then the US 2nd Army. However large stocks of M-5s remained in service and on-issue to the USMC who dragged their feet in replacing the weapon system, managing to retain many for close quarter battle roles.

The M-5’s story certainly wasn't finished however. The German Army was not the only military organization to adopt the concept. The US Special Operations community liked the idea of the M-5, but wanted something more modern and especially, lighter. So, they asked Remington-Colt to bring the weapon up to M2A2 standard with better sights, integral silencer/suppressor and shortened length. The result was the M5A1 Special Operations Carbine, which was purchased by SOCCOM in 2299.

23 July 2003

Copyright Jason Weiser, 2003

Thanks to Dan Hebditch.