A soldier fires an M4A1 during a regional Best Warrior Competition in 2012. The weapon, while used in special forces for years, is now rolling out across the Army starting with 'The Big Red One.' (Spc. True Thao / Army)
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove erroneous information about the M4’s rate of fire.
The first soldiers have begun receiving the upgraded M4 carbine, the M4A1 — the same weapon used for decades in special forces units.
The 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas, is the first to get the converted weapons, Army officials announced Wednesday. The new features of the deadlier weapon include a heavy barrel, ambidextrous fire control and a new fully-automatic drop-in trigger option to replace the M4’s “burst” setting. The barrel’s weight allows the weapon to better resist heat and cook-off, allowing a sustained rate of fire.
“Those piece-parts are part of conversion kits currently being applied at Fort Riley, and that increased capability not only includes an increased rate of fire, resistance to cook-off, but improved ergonomics,” said Product Manager for Individual Weapons Lt. Col. Shawn Lucas.
The Army is spending an estimated $120 million on the program, which amounts to roughly $240 per weapon, with plans to convert the Army’s inventory of 500,000 previously fielded M4 carbines through 2019.
Beyond the “Big Red One,” the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, at Fort Benning Georgia, is tentatively set to receive the upgrade in July, and the 4th Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, of Fort Stewart, Georgia, is tentatively set to receive it in August. Lucas said brigade combat teams are getting the upgrades first, based on the priorities of Army headquarters, readiness cycles and unit buy-in.
The move comes roughly a year after the Army scuttled a competition for an M4 replacement. Officials for the soldier equipment acquisitions office, PEO Soldier, decided none of the offerings were enough of an improvement to justify the cost of fielding a new carbine.
Troops under Special Operations Command have used the M4A1 configuration since 1994.
The 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, was fielded new M4A1s back in 2012. The 1st Infantry Division is the first unit to have their previously fielded M4s converted to the M4A1 configuration.
PEO Soldier Command Sergeant Major Doug Maddi called the changes, “minor tweaks to an already pretty darn good system.”
“In Afghanistan, there are times when a soldier needs an automatic-capable carbine to put down suppressing fires while soldiers are conducting fire movement and the like,” Maddi said. “They’ve asked for that ... and we’re very pleased we’ll be able to field a weapon system that can offer more lethality when they’re in combat.”
At 7.74 pounds, the M4A1 is a tenth of a pound heavier than the M4. The weight includes the heavier barrel, as well as a back-up iron sight, forward pistol grip, empty magazine and sling.
For future upgrades, program officials said they are exploring an improved bolt and bolt carrier, a forward rail for integrating optics, a fold-down front site post, and a match-grade trigger and a suppressor. For now, the concepts are all on the drawing board, officials said.
A team from Anniston Army Depot, Alabama, and Tank-Automotive Command in Warren, Michigan, are performing the upgrades at Fort Riley at a rate of 300 weapons per day, or roughly a brigade per week, Maddi said.
It works this way: The hardware for the upgrades flows into Anniston, which assembles the upper receivers and ships them to the gaining unit, where conversions take place. As part of the conversions, a laser engraving machine changes “M4” to “M4A1” on the weapons and “burst” to “auto.”