By Jeff Gurwitch
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July 18, 2014
Well, seeing how I am now halfway through my current deployment, I figure it’s time for a follow-up to this article’s precursor, Tactical AR-15/M4/M4A1 Carbine Aftermarket Accessories for Military Combat Applications: The Competition-to-Combat Crossover. In that original piece, I highlighted my point of view in regards to KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) rifles. In short, I feel that as a shooter, you’re limiting yourself by not taking advantage of modern optics, lights and/or lasers out of fear that they may fail. So, just like in my first article, before I go into the latest and greatest AR-15 carbine/SBR (Short Barreled Rifle)/sub-carbine accessories in use by todays warfighter, I would like to cover a topic that I think will help explain why you see so many M4/M4A1’s in a certain configuration, and that is barrel length.
Given the terrain and distances at which soldiers typically have to engage targets in Afghanistan (500 meters and beyond), one might think the logical choice for your M4 set-up would be the longest barrel possible, and at least the issued 14.5″ barrel to maximize the range of the 5.56mm round. One might think that, but one would be wrong. At least half of Special Operations Forces (SOF) are currently running their issued MK18/CQBR (Close Quarters Battle Receiver) uppers with 10.5″ barrels. Now, many would say, and have said, that running a shorty barrel in this environment and situation makes no sense at all, and guys just want to carry a shorty because they are the “cool guy” thing to carry.
Now for the individual or defensive minded shooter, matching your rifle set-up to the terrain and expected threat makes perfect sense. Why would you not want your rifle set-up to give you the best chance at dealing with threats? Well, to answer as to why short-barreled rifles are so popular with the troops, as with all gear choices, you first have to take into account the tradeoffs, or pros and cons, of using that particular piece of kit (in this case a shorty). And, secondly–and this is key–you have to look at how the U.S. soldier is trained to fight.
The Game Changer
If you had asked me a year and half ago my preferred M4 set up, I would have said a 14.5″ barrel model with at least a mid-length hand guard, with a red dot combat optic like an Aimpoint. While SBR’s are more maneuverable for situations like CQB/CQC (Close Quarters Battle/Close Quarters Combat) and are easier to carry in and around vehicles, I felt the tradeoff of more muzzle blast (flash and noise) typically associated with SBR’s was not worth it. Bottom line, I could run a standard length M4 faster in terms of split times per shot because the felt recoil was softer.
So, what’s changed my mind? Simple: SureFire suppressors! As part of our SOPMOD upgrade to the M4A1, we are now issued the SureFire SOCOM556-RC SOCOM Series Sound Suppressor (Silencer) and their 4 prong flash hider (SureFire FH556-RC 556/223). Now, suppressors have been in use for quite some time. Prior to Surefire, the Knight’s Armament Co. (KAC) SOCOM suppressor (KAC M4/M16 QDSS-NT4 Suppressor) was used. I personally didn’t care for the KAC can (muzzle can, i.e., silencer/sound suppressor). The reason: shooting. I found there is an annoying amount of gas back-blast from the chamber area, and being a lefty, this goes right into my face while shooting.
With the Surefire SOCOM556-RC can, there’s no real noticeable gas-blast increase. Additionally the round count that the SureFire can is rated to take is super high, so you can train with it and not worry about degrading its capability prior to using it on missions. So, how does this play into the preference with using the MK18 over that of the longer 14.5 M4 upper? My reason: I love the benefits of running suppressed (reduced noise to a point), where I don’t have to worry about blowing out my eardrums if I end up in a situation where I don’t have time to EarPro (Ear Protection)-up. More importantly, with reduced noise, and now virtually no blast or muzzle flash, it makes it much harder for the enemy to pinpoint me via my weapon signature, both day and night.
My choice of the MK18, and why you see more MK18’s and not M4A1 Carbines with Surefire Suppressors being utilized, is due to how the rifle is being utilized down range–and this is where the way the U.S. Soldier is trained to fight comes into play. Whether you are in a team, squad, platoon or other section, one of the fundamental rules we follow is that you always try to engage the enemy with the most casualty-producing weapon you have. If you get shot at by an AK-47/AKM, return fire with a M240 machine gun. If they come back with a PKM, then you respond with a M2 .50-Cal. or 60mm mortar. Whatever they’ve got, you one up them and gain fire superiority!
This is a key separator between the military and civilian, or even law enforcement, shooter. The rifle is seen more as a personal defense weapon (PDW) than as a primary tool to engage the enemy. I could carry a longer rifle, but if it’s mounted with a suppressor, it translates to more weight and a longer rifle (6 inches) added to a 14.5″ barrel. You are now walking around with a very front-heavy 20-inch rifle (not a very forgiving set up for the high-altitude, low-oxygen mountain terrain of Afghanistan). With a suppressor-equipped MK18, you’re back to a 14.5-inch length rifle that is much better balanced and less front-heavy-feeling then a stock M4 due to the shorter barrel bringing the suppressor closer to the receiver. So, now, with the MK18, you get a much better-balanced and slightly lighter platform than a full-size rifle, with all the benefits of the suppressor.
True, running a shorter barrel, you’re losing muzzle velocity, which does equal reduced range and killing power at long range. For me, this means I go from being able to shoot 650-680 meter targets with ease with a 14.5″ barrel to only being able to hit out to about 500 meters with the suppressed MK18. Yes, I lose almost 200 yards, but that doesn’t really matter, because being a member of a team in an engagement, we’re going to use much better platforms like belt-feds (LMG’s and MMG’s/GPMG’s), mortars and larger calibers better suited for that range as our primary weapons to return fire. And let’s face facts: Even with the best long-range 5.56mm ammo (MK262 77gr.) and a 18-inch barrel (the now retired Special Purpose Rifle MK12) although you could reach out to 750 meters with that weapon/ammo combo platform, unless you achieved a head shot, the 5.56 round (5.56x45mm NATO) is pretty anemic in terms of one shot stopping power.
So, many (myself included) find a suppressed MK18 to be the perfect compromise for performing close in work like dynamic CQB/CQC gunfighting, and still effective engaging mid-range targets out 100-300 meters. And, in a pinch, the warfighter can still engage out to 500 meters and beyond. If the threats are out farther, there are better tools for the job; bigger and better calibers.
This MK18 with Elcan is a very popular set up. With Suppressor it’s quiet and not too long or unbalanced. The Elcan in 1-4 power gives you the ability to shoot past 300 meters and what’s just as important, although it might not be the best long range arrangement. The Elcan in 4 power does give you magnification to help spot where the enemy is and direct bigger weapons and assets against them. Note fully deck out with Magpul accessories.
AR/M4 Accessories: What’s hot in 2014!
Now having covered the why behind the preferred use of the MK18 shorty set-up, there are still a lot of plain old shooters out there planning to use their rifle as a primary set-up for the common extended distances. Going along with these set ups for longer range shooting are extended tactical handguards/rail systems that are now more popular than ever.
Tactical Handguards/Rail Systems
Although the Daniel Defense RIS II is now issued for the M4, many shooters prefer narrower non-railed “slick” modular versions that you will find are most prevalent on 3-Gun competition rifles. For the same reason competitors choose slick-sided (minus the MIL-STD-1913 Picatinny rails) narrow handguards for a better grip to drive the gun, assaulters/operators with full-length barrels are going with the same style handguards.
One rail style slowly making its way onto rifles are KeyMods. When I first saw a Keymod rail, my initial thought was that it’s unnecessary since there are plenty of slick rails out there. However, what’s making the Keymod popular and causing it to gain ground in tactical use is the method by which you can mount attachments. Before KeyMod, the way to add attachments to a slick hand guard (forward grip or light) was to first bolt on a section of Picatinny rail. The beauty of the Keymod is that now the item you want to add just slides and locks right onto the rail with no need to add Picatinny sections to turn your slick rail into a railed version. My only issue is that all my extra add-ons (angled foregrips, lights, sling mounts, etc.) are built around Picatinny rails. For someone like me who has numerous rifles, I have a mountain of Picatinny rail stuff. For me, going Keymod means basically starting over. Since, I’ve already received some vertical foregrips from BCM (Bravo Company Manufacturing) to try, now I just need my own Keymod rail to which I can attach them [Editor’s Note: The BCM KeyMod Rail, or KMR, would of course be an appropriate and excellent choce for this. Click here to visit the BCM KMR product page.]!
M4A1 Rifle equipped with full length barrel and Keymod rail. Not the scope I believe 3- 8 power, also Vltor stock and Ergo Grip. This rifle is a prime example of a set up giving the shooter the capability of putting accurate fire out to the extended ranges needed.
Pistol Grips and Buttstocks
While Magpul stocks and grips are still probably the most numerous additions to rifles, Bravo Company Manufacturing (BCM) products are making their way onto a lot of rifles. The BCM Gunfighter’s Grip (GFG) pistol grip and BCMGunfighter Vertical Grip and BCMGunfighter KeyMod Vertical Grip stubby vertical foregrips are becoming popular. For buttstocks, new additions are the Mission First Tactical MFT BattleLink Stocks, Troy Industries GPS NAV Stock, the ARK Defense Enhanced SOPMOD Buttstock (ESB) and the B5 Systems B5 Enhanced SOPMOD and B5 Bravo SOPMOD stocks.
Another rifle set up for the long range fight with Troy Industries NAV stock, BCM Gunfighter grip, Magpul BAD Lever and narrow slick 3gun style rail. Also notice a touch of old school with the Knights Armament suppressor (which has been in service with SOF since about 1998).
Below: Two more M4’s accessorized to give the shooters maximize ability to drive the gun. Both have narrow slick rails born out of 3-Gun competition. Top rifle; Samson Evolution rail, Ergo grip, bottom rifle; 3-Gun or combat, this rifle is set up is light weight and built for speed; Battle Link stock, Magpul BAD lever, Mission First Tactical Engage pistol grip, 3D-printed vertical foregrip, later replaced with BCM Gunfighter foregrip (not shown in photo), Troy VTAC Delta rail and Inforce WML light. Also note the Magpul 40 rd magazine and Geissele SD-C trigger.
In addition to stocks and grips, ambi-charging handles are still very popular, with the Rainer Arms Raptor ambi-charging handle and BCMGunfighter standard and ambi-charging handles being particularly popular [Editor’s Note: Let’s also not forget the Teutonic-looking Phase 5 Tactical Ambi Battle Latch (ABL) ambi charging handle.].
Tactical rifle slings-wise the Viking Tactics (VTAC) two-point tactical rifle sling by Kyle Lamb is the most prevalent one in use. I’ve personally switched from a single-point to a VTAC two-point sling. The main reason? With the two-point sling, the rifle rests a lot better when hiking around the mountains here (Afghanistan). While a single-point is very maneuverable, if you have to go hands free, the rifle will always end up hanging in front of you, right between your legs. With a two-point, you can rotate around to your back, and the sling will usually stay there, even under rapid movement.
Rifle on top (above): 2012 M4A1 set up. Rifle on bottom (immediately above): 2014 set-up. What’s changed” 14.5″ upper to MK18 10.5 suppressed. Magpul butt stock swapped out for ARK Defense Enhanced SOPMOD. It’s slightly lighter and has better cheek to stock, plus it’s the same one on my 3-Gun rifle so I have the same feel. Magpul vertical grip has replaced the issued Knights Armament. Also swapped out pistol grip for a BCMGunfighter Pistol Grip. I prefer Ergo grips the most, I like the angle but this BCM grip has grown on me through the deployment. Single point sling swapped out for VTAC. What has not changed; Arredondo extended mag well still in place, this makes its 4th deployment on a rifle, extended bolt release and Blackhawk Gladius light, (I first used the Gladius on a 2005 trip Iraq around the time they first came out). This is the 4th deployment using it, thousands of rounds have been fired with the Gladius mounted on various rifles still the same bulb. Matt Burkett Predator offset mount, 3rd deployment, this time fitted with newly issued EoTech mini red dot (uses same mounting plate as Doctor sight). New for this deployment BCM ambi-Gunfighter charging handle. Also note Samson flip up front sight, the rear is on my 14.5 upper (pictured at the top of the article). I only have the front on here because to get proper eye relief with the Elcan it left no room for a backup. (My plan if the Elcan were to go down, just use my 45 degree red dot offset sight. If that goes down use the Elcan sight housing itself as me rear aperture aligned with the flip up sight). All in all a good set up for me that I trust.
In 2012, the new improved GI magazine with brown follower was just making its way into mainstream service. I would have to say that compared to the older green-follower magazine, I prefer the green-follower version. I’ve seen many “improved” brown follower version mags (some are marked Brownells on the side) fail via double feeds and jams over the last two years, more than any other magazine (GI issue or commercial). Plus I’m still slightly annoyed by the fact that on a fully-loaded brown-follower mag, the top round sits on the left, which is counter to every other AR magazine on the planet.
My go-to loadout; The Magpul Emags on the left I received back in 2007 when they 1st came out, the Lancer Advanced Warfighters in 2010, all still going strong. On the bottom IMI polymer magazine, despite that it’s not reinforced like the Lancer I have had no issues with it going on 9 months now.
As far as commercial magazines, I’m still using the same batch of Lancer L5 Advanced Warfighter Magazines (AWM’s) and Magpul EMAG’s. Head-to-head, I’d have to give the Lancer AWM mags a slightly higher rating. I’ve seen more issues with PMAG’s (usually Gen II’s) in terms of double feeds or having problems. I would like to point out, though, that Magpul PMAG’s are still the most prevalent magazines I see. So, their being used more could be a factor in why I see more of them go down.
One new magazine I would like to mention is the Israel Military Industries Defense (IMI Defense) polymer mag. I was given one by DefenseReview (DR) to test last fall. So far, I’ve had no issues with it, at all. In fact, it’s the primary magazine I keep in my rifle.
The Wrap Up
During World War II (WWII), Marines in the pacific found that their issued M1919 .30-cal machine guns with tripods (some water-cooled) were too cumbersome for what they needed in jungle warfare and beach assaults. One solution to plus up their firepower, was to take aircraft M1919 .30-cal. Browning machine guns (ANM2 models), adding bipods and other attachments to turn them into lightweight assault versions known as Stinger LMG’s (Light Machine Guns).
Today’s warfighter is no different. When going into harm’s way, he’s going to take advantage of the latest’s tools and accessories in order to give him the winning edge on the battlefield. Technology/hardware meets training and tactics.
About the Author (Jeff Gurwitch):
– Currently serving with U.S. Army Special Forces
– Competitive shooter: USPSA, IDPA, and 3-Gun.
Company Contact Info:
18300 Mount Baldy Circle
Fountain Valley, CA 92708
Toll Free: 800-828-8809
Customer Service Email: [email protected]
International Sales Email: [email protected]
Magpul Industries Corp
400 Young Ct., Unit #1
Erie, CO 80516
Toll Free: 877-462-4785
Email Info: [email protected]
Email Orders: [email protected]
Email Government/Military: [email protected]
Geissele Automatics (Triggers)
1920 W. Marshall Street
Norristown, PA 19403
Phone (610) 272-2060
Fax (610) 272-2069
Email Contact Form: http://geissele.com/contact-us.aspx
Diamondhead USA, Inc. (Back-Up Iron Sights/BUIS)
622 Union Street
West Springfield, Massachusetts 01089, USA
Email: [email protected]
© Copyright 2014 DefenseReview.com and Jeff Gurwitch. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without receiving permission and providing proper credit and appropriate links.
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