This is some pretty big excerptimizing ( is that a word ?) Of a series of articles where an Australian Army officer writes about comparing their service rifle( bullpup) to the M4 which everyone likes better, even the Australian Army. I post it here for discussion and interest for those who wonder what allies think of their service rifle compared to ours. He gives a very good try at convincing his fellow Aussies that their service rifle is “just as good” but his reasons are less than convincing to anyone who has actually used an M4/Ar15. His reasoning and argument gives a pretty good chuckle. No offense to our esteemed readers and commenters from Down Unda who we love.
The purpose of this series of five articles is to provide a succinct and accessible resource for members of the Australian Army engaging in conversation about the relative merits of the EF88 and M4 in order to improve the quality of discussion on small arms. The method of this article is to outline the context of both rifles’ design development, to dispel common misconceptions in the area and to try to understand the social phenomenon of some soldier’s preference for the M4 FOW over the F88 FOW. In doing this, several documents have been declassified or collated and made publicly available so as to help to improve the factual basis of discussion on the topic. In short, all of the weapons in discussion are very good and have a variety of subtle strengths and weaknesses that tend to be overstated in general discussion.
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.
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 (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.
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 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). 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. ( because it would defeat his entire argument) 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. So yeah, he just talks out his ass.
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.
Clearly a small arms expurt