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The American Infantry Rifle and 25 Years of Lessons Learned

This article originally appeared in RECOIL Issue 39

Photos by Iain Harrison

Hot Wash: The American Infantry Rifle and 25 Years of Lessons Learned

About the time this issue hits the newsstands, the U.S. Special Operations community will likely be taking a look back at one of the most high-profile operations in their history: Operation Gothic Serpent, which included the infamous Battle of the Black Sea, made famous by the book-slash-movie Black Hawk Down. That mission, which took place in October of 1993, is officially 25 years old this fall.

Several veterans of that operation are currently active in the firearms industry and have given their historical accounts of the mission to various media outlets. Instead of trying to retell someone else’s war story, we wanted to take this anniversary to examine the progress of America’s everyman rifle over the ensuing two-and-a-half decades, and perhaps reflect on just how good we have it now.

operation gothic serpent

Blast From the Past

As the rise of the retro rifle continues to gain momentum, several companies are now producing period-themed AR-pattern rifles to commemorate past iterations of Stoner’s most famous design. Troy Industries was one of the first to offer an out-of-the-box solution to collectors and enthusiasts wanting a “period” rifle with their My Service Rifle line, commemorating famous military operations, and the associated rifles used to win the day.

Their recent release of the M16A2 SFOD-D carbine made an all-too-appropriate cornerstone for this project. This no-frills rifle was state of the art at the time it was used by small-team elements of the U.S. Army and Air Force in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It’s a 14.5-inch barrel, carbine-length gas system affair with traditional CAR handguards, iron sights, and an A2 carry handle upper. The gun ships with a length of rail mounted on both the carry handle and the 6 o’clock position at the forward end of the handguard.

This carbine was considered state-of-the-art around the time Meatloaf topped radio charts with “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That).” If that doesn’t make you feel old …

As a preface to all of you firearm historians out there, please note that this was an “in the spirit of” build and does features accessories in the style of this period, as opposed to the actual items. Attempting to procure the actual lights, sights, and mounts from two-plus decades ago was hardly conducive to deadlines or production budgets. So, in several cases, we had to make do with “close enough.” Good enough, as the saying goes, for government work. This particular Gothic Serpent sample is outfitted with a SureFire 6P, complete with a whopping 60-lumen incandescent bulb, mounted on a single scope ring with their push-button tactical tail cap. The optic is an Aimpoint 9000, which uses the longer tube style of the older 5000 with updated electronics.

While the idea of mounting a light to a weapon isn’t exactly new, the technology to do so in a manner that’s both convenient and ergonomic is a relatively recent development. As late as the early years of Operation Iraqi Freedom, line units were using duct tape and hose clamps to hold D-cell mag lights onto their rifles. The SOF community, having a larger budget and more time dedicated to R&D, found that you could use weaver scope rings to mount the then-new smaller lights made by SureFire onto their guns. Certainly better than the methods used by conventional units even a decade later, this small measure of convenience came with two primary pitfalls — actuating the light and lumens.

Though night vision, and the earlier starlight technology, dates back to Vietnam and somewhat before, dedicated night-fighting gear isn’t a catchall for “intermediate” lighting situations. Think about entering a dark room in the middle of a bright desert afternoon in Africa. You need some kind of artificial light to see your target, but early night vision goggles — prone to washout or permanent damage from ambient light through a window or hole in the ceiling — were the wrong answer. So weapon lights became the best compromise.

Even though any advantage is better than no advantage, less than 100 lumens doesn’t buy you much reaction time. As your eyes are rapidly adjusting from bright light, to no light, to a little bit of light the “increased” ability to identify friend from foe is marginal at best. Tape switches were available at the time, but far from universal and far from reliable. They had to be taped on and, if you’ve ever had a piece of tape peel off something in the heat, you know that taping things together isn’t the most ironclad attachment method.

Once you get the light mounted, you have to be able to actually turn it on. With the light at the bottom of the handguard, thumb activation is out of the question. To make this placement work, we had to shift our support handgrip to just past the magwell and use the index knuckle of that hand to trip the light. It works, but not well. While firing, we had trouble keeping enough pressure on the switch to keep it on. The other option is to twist the tailcap for constant-on, but then you run into the fairly obvious issues of battery life, and of giving away your position between engagements.

Synergistic advances in handguards, lights, and forward grips provide a support-hand hold that’s more ergonomic and offers better control over the weapon.

Once you can see your target, you gotta hit it. The early electro-optical sights, also of Vietnam vintage, were a huge boon for rapid shots under tight constraints. The optics themselves, to include the Aimpoint 3000s and 5000s of the Black Hawk Down era, didn’t have the kind of battery life or reliability that we now expect from any red dot worth its salt. But mounting them on an A2-style receiver created an additional issue: height over bore.

For the uninitiated, height over bore is exactly what it sounds like. Mounting your scope several inches above your barrel creates the need for both mechanical offset when you zero as well as for manual holdover when trying to make precise shots — like headshots, which are a common point of training for hostage rescue units. Furthermore, these high-mounted optics require a “chin weld” on the stock, which is unnatural, uncomfortable, and offers a floating sight picture at best, particularly while shooting on the move.

Latest and Greatest

As a demonstration of the technical progress that’s been made in configuring the AR or M4-style rifle, we contrast Troy’s My Service Rifle SFOD-D gun to their own cutting-edge carbine, the SOC-C. The SOCC (Special Operations Compatible Carbine) also sports a 14.5-inch barrel chambered in 5.56mm — which is squarely where the similarities end. The SOC-C features a mid-length gas system. Recent testing by USSOCOM has proven what the commercial market has known for years —that the longer gas tube makes for a cleaner and softer shooting weapon.

The SOCC covers that gas tube with a 12-inch M-LOK handguard. This single feature offers the warfighter a level of modularity that hasn’t been known since the M16’s introduction six decades ago. Now you can mount your lights and any other accessory wherever you want. In our case, we used SureFire’s new 600DF weaponlight attached to the rifle by way of an Arisaka Defense inline mount. The 600DF produces 1,500 lumens, which not only restores small rooms to broad daylight conditions at the push of a button, but can probably be used to signal low-flying aircraft or heat up your MRE.

When Super 6-4 went down near the Bakara Market in Mogadishu, soldiers had to mount a rail to the handguard, a scope ring to the rail, and the light into the scope ring. This system creates poor ergonomics and multiple points of failure for your light to shoot loose or fall off completely. With the 600DF/Arisaka combo, the mount is screwed directly into the body of the flashlight, and then attached directly to the handguard. Not only is this a simpler system less prone to mechanical failure, but the advent of modular handguards provides adjustability in where the light is placed, both lengthwise along the fore-end and around its circumference. The biggest single benefit to come from this advancement is that, now, you can configure the gun around the operator’s natural stance and hand placement instead of changing how you fight just to accommodate a flashlight.

Things like lower height-over-bore and shorter overall length give the SOCC carbine a distinct edge over its partner. Internals and fire controls are also highly improved over Mil-spec.

Optics have gotten smaller, smarter, tougher, and more diverse in the last 25 years. Our SOCC sports an Aimpoint Comp M5. It’s their smallest and most efficient rifle-mounted red dot. With battery life measured in years and a slew of brightness settings that include night vision compatibility. The move from carry-handle upper receivers to full-length top rails provide a laundry list of benefits on a fighting rifle. The aforementioned height-over-bore issue all but disappears. This simplifies zero. It also simplifies unconventional shooting positions like shooting over or under a barricade and allows a proper cheek weld. Additionally, the full-length top rail allows end users to utilize different types of optics. The vast increase in mounting space means that force multipliers like variable-power glass and clip-on thermal or night-vision units can be mounted quickly and securely with no tools, as the mission changes.

All the Small Things

While lights and sights were our two most obvious observations, there are other less prominent improvements that are equally important. One is the advent of ambidextrous controls. While, statistically, the number of left-handed shooters is pretty low throughout the ranks, if you happen to have one on your team you want them to reap all the same benefits everyone else in the stack does. Ambi selector levers, charging handles, and mag and bolt releases all create a perfectly mirrored manual of arms, regardless of which hand is pressing the trigger. But it’s not only southpaws who get something out of it.

The advent of urban warfare has forced U.S. soldiers to enter a battle space full of walls, windows, and hard angles. Being able to transition your carbine from strong side to support side as you adapt to available cover offers a very real increase in soldier survivability. Ambidextrous buttons and switches allow all shooters to switch-hit off of barriers without having to change anything about how they drive their gun.

The last, but perhaps most critical upgrades we’ll discuss come in the form of the almighty bang switch. After executing proper stance/grip/sight alignment/sight picture, trigger press is the shooter’s last physical input into the weapon before that round leaves the barrel. Sloppy or harsh trigger press can throw a shot even if you do everything else right. This becomes a literal matter of life and death for units that fight in very close quarters where hostages and innocents are all in play.

The M16A2 SFOD-D sports a standard Mil-spec trigger that was delightfully rocky and inconsistent. By comparison, the SOCC comes out of the box with a Geissele G2S trigger. While not marketed as a match trigger per se, it offers a gliding smooth take-up with a consistent break that snaps like a carrot each and every time. It’s this consistency and predictability that gives a shooter an opportunity to improve their marksmanship more quickly, as well as imparting a confidence that the trigger will do exactly what you want it to every single time — a not insignificant comfort when entering situations measured in tenths of a second.

Newer shooters, and older ones who have embraced progress, get quickly adjusted to the ease with which a modern, properly configured rifle can be run hard under demanding conditions. While the events of Operation Gothic Serpent can be labeled as both tragic and heroic, the lessons learned from those units and their experience cobbling together a “best possible” solution with the parts they had set in motion a ripple effect that helped birth the cutting-edge carbines we now use to defend our country and our homes.


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