Featured 20-Years Later: The M16A2 Of Operation Iraqi Freedom Dave Merrill March 20, 2023 Join the Conversation EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was published in Augest, 2022. We're republishing this article because today marks the 20th anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq. The invasion phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom took place not even two years after 9/11 and officially lasted a mere 43 days. While there had been some fighting in Afghanistan as well as a couple of other smaller “police actions” going on at the time, the vast majority of the 160,000-plus strong coalition force had never seen combat, including their training cadres and leadership. We recently reached the realization that babies born during the “Thunder Run” to Baghdad are now old enough to serve themselves, sparking a bit of nostalgia for us. In hindsight, the buildup to war always seems quick, the lessons learned obvious with the patina of time. But gearing up the war machine, especially one that was three decades out of practice concerning large-scale campaigning, takes time and intentional effort. It’s also not without teething problems and growing pains. Direct experience in warfare comes with lasting impressions and hard-won lessons, and this was the first war broadcast live and worldwide on TV. Shortly after the invasion, literal tons of leftover Cold War gear, equipment, and tactics had to be forced out to pasture or shot behind the barn. The invasion phase of Iraq represented the emergence of a new, experienced, battle-hardened military while still clinging to some older vestigial parts, which would be shirked off later. GYPSY WARRIORS One of the definitive features of U.S. troops during the 2003 Iraqi invasion was the absolute jumblef*ck of uniforms, gear, and equipment. Early MOLLE items were mixed with old web gear that wouldn’t have been out of place in Vietnam. CamelBaks mixed with canteens. ALICE pouches were attached to MOLLE vests. M9s rode in Bianchi M12 flap holsters alongside Blackhawk dropleg systems, the latter often seen at knee-height. The beginning of the great interservice camo wars just started the year prior when the Marine Corps introduced their digital MARPAT uniforms, though the use of Desert MARPAT wasn’t yet widespread even among frontline units. The Marine Corps added to the jumble of camouflage patterns with MARPAT before the invasion, though it wasn’t yet widely issued. (Photo courtesy of Adam Earls) Most of the people on the ground had some form of armor in a woodland camouflage pattern, ranging from ancient flak jackets to newer Interceptor vests (which may or may not have included one or two SAPI plates) on top of DCU tricolor desert uniforms. In more well-equipped units, ESS or Oakley goggles were used, while others made do with Gulf War-era dust goggles. And of course, MOPP gear. These woodland-camo full body suits, complete with boots and rubber gloves best suited for fetish work, finished off with M40 gas masks, offered some protection against chem/bio threats — thankfully a threat that never really came to fruition. For most of the people on the ground, the most lethal implement within their grasp was the M16A2. There were other rifles present, namely M4 carbines mostly in the hands of officers and a smattering of the improved M4A1s in Special Forces grubbies, but the M16A2 was by far the most common. The rifle in this article isn’t an exact reproduction of any particular M16A2 during the invasion but instead representative of a typical rifle within that massive operation. HISTORY & DESIGN The M16A2 is a clear evolutionary link in the chain of American rifle development; from a modern viewpoint you can easily see how we got there and why we moved on. In the aftermath of Vietnam, the U.S. government determined that future fighters should be more independent, carrying rifles with larger and more precise potential envelopes of engagement. Three generations: XM16E1, M16A2, M16A4. They started with projectile design in the late 1970s, and weapon development followed. After years of trials the DoD settled on the heavier SS109 62-grain projectile, which performs better at extended ranges than the lighter 55-grain M193 and punches through more new armor. Designated the M855, with the slightly longer complimentary tracer, the M856, it became the basis for the major changes between the two systems, The M16A2 shares the same basic design of the A1, with a 20-inch barrel, carry handle, fixed A-frame front sight, and fixed buttstock. The most obvious visual cue that the M16A2 is different than the A1 are the ribbed clamshell handguards, bisected horizontally, rather than the vertically split tapered triangles of the former. This simplified armorer logistics, as “left” and “right” designations were eliminated, and the new design also better controlled heat from the barrel. Second on the list is the easily adjustable sighting system. Integrated into the fixed carry handle, A2 sights feature toolless windage and elevation adjustments; A1 sights require a device to adjust windage on the rear sight (even if that tool was a spare round or knife tip), with elevation adjustment solely in the realm of the front sight, also requiring a tool. A2 sights feature toolless windage and elevation adjustments. Yes, this meant that it was easier for an individual fighter to mess up their sights, but it also gave them more control over their own destiny — if they knew what they were doing. The pistol grip was swapped to a unit with a finger shelf between the second and third digits. Regardless of the original rationale, that rubbin’ nubbin’ remains a complaint to this day. The buttstock of the M16A2 is fixed like the A1 but 5/8-inch longer, which doesn’t seem like a big deal at first but creates problems where body armor is common. Additionally, the A2 buttstock has a latched cavity for onboard storage of a cleaning kit for use in the field. No more digging into buttpacks and backpacks for the parts and pieces. The M16A2 has a storage compartment in the buttstock for a basic cleaning kit. Crowning the muzzle of the M16A1 is a flashhider with flame-fighting vents encompassing the entire unit. The A2 is similar but doesn’t have a vent on the bottom, helping keep the barrel level under recoil and reducing ground effect. Instead of a mere flash hider, the solid bottom designated the A2 a flash hider/compensator combination device. Changes to the barrel itself are less immediately obvious. The twist rate of the barrel had to be tightened from 1/12 on the A1 to 1/7 on the A2 to properly stabilize the new ammunition, especially the tracers. The M16A2 barrel is thicker than the M16A1 from the sight block to the muzzle. The M16A2 barrel profile itself is much thicker from the front sight to the muzzle, giving it more rigidity under recoil and also increasing thermal management. The profiles under the handguards remains the same, in order to maintain the ability to attach M203 grenade launchers if operationally required. The M16A2 introduced the “burst” setting to a wider world, sending out three rounds in a single volley when selected instead of the typical fully automatic fire of the A1. Arguments raged then and now about the utility between the two, but since neither is common doctrine for individual soldiers, when used in combination with the relatively slow selector system it makes little functional difference. Always with precision on the mind, especially since World War I, the United States Marine Corps would be the first branch of service to adopt the M16A2 in 1982, followed by the Army at-large before the end of the decade. The Marine Corps would also hang onto the M16A2 for the longest period of time, not removing it as primary issue for frontline fighters until 2005 and the introduction of the M16A4. The U.S. Army dipped their toes into the M16A4 for a short period at the time but quickly moved onto the lighter, smaller M4 and M4A1 — naturally, it would take the Marine Corps another decade to catch up. KITTING UP It wasn’t just the combat attire and armor that lacked uniformity during OIF 1, but the adornments on weapons themselves as well. Different units and individual fighters furnished their arms based on availability first and need second, and those disparate arrangements were pared down based on results in combat. In time, these were distilled into commonly issued items for follow-on forces. 550 cord, 100MPH tape, and zip-ties may not fix the world but they can fix a lot. With 100MPH tape, 550 cord, and zip ties, you may not be able to change the world, but you can fix an awful lot. Those were also the tools most widely available to all forward servicemembers to this day. SLINGS Though a handful of more advanced sling systems existed at the time, they were either convoluted three-point systems that were largely misunderstood or old parade slings. Parade slings look really nice during performative rifle drills and were perfectly functional for keeping a rifle on the shoulder during rucking and forced marches, but they’re not ideal for modern fighting. Parade slings can become combat-worthy with some spare webbing and paracord. The Marine Corps heavily instructed the use of the parade sling as a shooting aid (including strange loop-sling setups that were physically attached to the support arm) but when it came down to real-world use, these techniques were found lacking. People on frontlines do what they always do, which is to say they modified them to better fit their situation. Rear points were moved to the top/rear of buttstocks and common places for front-attachment became the A-frame front sight or the delta ring assembly just forward of the upper receiver. These modifications allow the rifle to sit flatter and more naturally across the body when slung but could also be used to enhance individual accuracy through the use of the hasty sling technique. If someone was fortunate enough to have access to a Colt M203 sling swivel, which places the front point on the side of the barrel rather than the bottom, those were used. If not, 550 cord did the trick. Marines from 1/8 with M16A2s in Mosul during OIF 1. (Photo courtesy of Adam Earls) Yes, FSBs get extremely hot when fired, but not as hot as the barrel. Plus, there’s always more 550 cord someplace (check with the platoon cordage nerd who weaves dongles and knickknacks with it in their spare time — it’s usually the same guy who’s in love with the famous rope scene in 1999’s Boondock Saints). Later, slings would come with front attachments that wrapped around the handguard and more optimal rear points were fashioned with the addition of the buttstock magazine pouch. For this build, we rolled with the 550 cord/FSB method, making our own top/rear sling attachment point with spare webbing. WEAPON-MOUNTED LIGHTS Though their use dates back far earlier, in the early 1990s U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) officially identified weapon-mount lights (WMLs) as force multipliers when used in the right circumstances and that they should be standard issue. Like the improved M4 itself, the M4A1, it took some time for this to become a reality for those on the ground. Though LED bulbs existed, they were expensive and had limited distribution. Nearly all of the lights used were broad-spectrum incandescent with some xenon bulbs here and there. The plus of a broad-spectrum light is that a wide frequency is good for cutting through smoke and other particulates, plus they emit IR light so are compatible with IR covers. The downsides include high power drain, shorter lifespans, fragility, and low output (by modern standards). Any light with the word “tactical” in the description made between 2002 and 2005 was definitely mounted to a rifle in Iraq. Pressure switches of this era were universally awful. “Issued” becomes a tenuous term when it comes to accessories of the era in general and regarding WMLs in particular. Gobs of lights were open-purchased on the civilian market and issued in many units with little oversight, while others remained fairly amiable to troops supplying their own kit. Needless to say, if there was a light marketed anywhere in the world with the word “tactical” between 2002 and 2005, it was most definitely mounted to an M16A2 carried in Iraq. The vast dysphoria of WMLs available now didn’t yet exist and indeed greatly expanded specifically due to this conflict. Official government-contracted lights included the Insight VLI-002 and early SureFire M951s. The VLI-002 was large but could eat from six AA batteries or three CR123s — the original “dual fuel” light. M951s were simply 6Ps and proto-6Ps with a different mounting system. The Marine Corps purchased a number of Pentagon lights, leading to their official issue before the company folded some years later with some controversy. Light mounts remained a problem until widespread adoption of quad Picatinny rails. SureFire made numerous mounts, some of which (like the barrel mount pictured in this piece) soon became relegated solely to foreign production. There were also battery extensions for the 6P (and similar) series which added a mount. And then there was good old 100MPH tape. It wasn’t usual to see Mini Maglites, likely first acquired in basic training, simply taped or zip-tied to a handguard. Activation methods remain a debate to this day, but tape switches at the time universally sucked compared to modern, hardened switches. Whether it was an official SureFire or Insight or even some strange Chinese switch didn’t matter at this time — wires broke and activation was tenuous at best. Our M16A2 has a proto-6P directly from the seabag with a barrel mount, cheesy curly cable for activation, and tape to secure it to the handguard. LASERS The AN/PAQ-4C was produced in the early 1990s with lessons learned from the Persian Gulf War, riding on an awful lot of A2s. At nearly a decade old during the invasion, the AN/PAQ-4C was rarely seen on rifles after 2003. Its predecessor, the AN/PEQ-2, also saw extensive use during the Iraqi Invasion and remained useful for a long enough time that they best represent early GWOT lasers. Though many are under the mistaken impression that most troops simply zip-tied or taped their PAQs and PEQs to A2 handguards, that isn’t the case. For use on A2 handguards, a mount was produced that bolted directly to the barrel. The AN/PAQ-4 and AN/PEQ-2 use the same barrel mount that passes through the handguard. Even the airsoft replica seen here was modified to do the same. Two mounting studs pass through a pair of holes in the handguard where the PAQ or PEQ is attached. This mount is less-than-ideal but certainly better than zip-ties — but if you wanted to ensure any sort of consistent zero, the laser device had to be further secured to minimize wobble. Hence the confusion. Seeing that PAQ-4s saw their last real use nearly two decades ago, there are scant few around. Most headed to the DRMO bin, though a handful were snaked away and are now in the hands of collectors. While there are some legal ways to own a PEQ-2, the vast majority on the secondary market are stolen. With no way to ensure provenance combined with high prices commanded by restricted lasers, we went with a cheap, non-functional PEQ-2 airsoft model. The bottom of the dinky plastic box was cut out and the unit stuffed with clay. This allows for some additional bump resistance but importantly allowed us to use the original barrel mount. And yes, there’s a big honking white zip tie, because that’s what was available at the time. SMALL STUFF Most issued magazines were long in the tooth by the time OIF 1 rolled around, with some troops issued magazines that were older than they were. The institutional knowledge about how and why magazines go bad and what failures they caused when they did was neither deep nor widespread during the invasion. Extremely worn magazines with black followers that hadn’t been issued since the late ’80s were commonplace, and even newer green-follower magazines could be a decade old at that point. In later years, gaps were first filled with HK magazines followed by Magpul PMags. During the invasion, it wasn’t uncommon for soldiers and Marines to be issued magazines older than they were. It wasn’t until 2009 and the release of the tan-follower magazine, some 20 years after the last bulk military purchase of black-follower magazines, that older magazines were officially and actively removed from circulation. Optics wouldn’t normally be included in the “small stuff” category, but since they were relatively rare on carry handles in general and on A2s in particular, here we are. If an optic was mounted, it would most likely be a 4x Trijicon TA01, Aimpoint M68 CCO, or Trijicon Reflex II. Mounts attached directly on the carry handle, with some higher-speed “gooseneck” mounts allowing for cowitness with iron sights. Warfighters learned the hard way that obstructed bores cause problems before rifling was even developed centuries ago. Shoot-off muzzle devices help keep rifle bores free of moondust — and they also live up to their name. There have been numerous solutions from condoms to tape, but the issued shoot-off muzzle cover for the M16 first appeared in Vietnam. These black plastic covers were prominent in Iraq, and along with the dust cover, helped seal the internals of the rifle from the fine moon-dust sand in Iraq. And yes, they absolutely do fly off when fired. While any M16 bayonet will work on the M16A2, the issued bayonet at the time was the M7. It can’t be attached with a barrel-mounted flashlight without considerable effort, and it’s not compatible with the shoot-off muzzle cover either. ROLL YOUR OWN RIFLE The most difficult part to obtain for your own M16A2 build is the upper receiver itself. It wasn’t too terribly long ago that you couldn’t even give them away. Because of the popularity of Nodak and Brownells Retro line, new production M16A1 uppers are more readily accessible than the M16A2. Twenty-inch barrels and fixed stocks have come back in style in some circles, and it really comes down to how “correct” you want your clone to be. For the M16A2, you don’t want a barrel extension with M4 feedramps, though that isn’t a deal breaker in terms of function. It turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks, with the proper application of zip-ties. The invasion of Iraq was the swan song of the M16A2, and this is a love letter. Front sight blocks bring their own peculiarities to the table. We recommend you have someone else install it unless you have access to good tools — while nearly every part of the modern AR is interchangeable, the FSB is not. The FSB and the barrel are drilled in tandem for tapered pins, and it’s extremely unlikely that one can simply swap them from barrel to barrel. Furthermore, there are a couple types of A-frame FSBs. “F”-marked FSBs are taller than those on the M16A1/2 to accommodate the increase in height gained from the addition of a removable carry handle. Non-F-marked FSBs will be harder to source. KNS Precision sells a taller front sight post to make a non-F FSB usable with flat-top uppers, but the reverse doesn’t work. You might be able to get away with turning the front sight post all the way down on an F-FSB with a carry handle, but the sight picture is weird, and it’s definitely not a sure thing. The M16A2, along with all rifle-length M16s, uses a triangular endcap with a hole matching the barrel profile (0.750 inch for an A2). A2 handguards are specifically designed to accommodate this legacy part. Speaking of handguards, though they’re all tapered from the receiver to the FSB, you want “round” handguards not “oval.” Oval handguards are fatter, and at least on the M4 they contain additional heat shielding, but they weren’t standard on the M16A2. Any modern production tapered delta ring assembly will suffice. The real PITA comes when putting together a pre-A1 rifle with a now-rare straight delta ring. The easy button is to buy a complete upper. Colt and FN surplus uppers can sometimes be found on GunBroker and similar sales sites, or you can go with new-production from TNTE, which we did here. From TNTE, you can order a number of configurations, from the M16A2 Mil-spec (shown here) to DMR variants, and even strange upper/barrel combinations. The appropriate lower for an M16A2 isn’t a difficult hurdle, as any modern Mil-spec lower without garish markings will work. If you have a hankering for appropriate M16A2 markings, Palmetto State Armory has released them in the past (along with M16A4, M4 Carbine, and M4A1 marked receivers). NoDak Spud, known for their retro lowers, has become a part of the PSA family, and we anticipate seeing new-production receivers under their Harrington & Richardson (H&R) label soon. PARTS LIST TNTE M16A2 Upper Receiver Group, Complete$700 PSA A2 Lower Receiver Group, Complete$230 AmmoGarand Web Sling$24 Airsoft AN/PEQ-2$25 AN/PEQ-2 Barrel Mount$19 M16A2 Buttstock Cleaning Kit$19 M7 Bayonet~$100 Vintage SureFire 6P~$90 Flashlight Switch + Mount$20 Muzzle Cover$1 OTHER REQUIRED ITEMS 550 Cord 100 MPH Tape Zip-Ties UNIFORMS & ACCESSORIES Uniforms can be a problem, depending on how much dress up you plan on playing. Many of the older surplus items have been purged from garage seabags over the last 20 years. Sometimes you can find them at surplus stores or garage sales, especially if you live near a U.S. military base. For the rest, you may have to duel it out with collectors on eBay. EASY BZO The BZO or Battle Sight Zero can be achieved several ways on the M16A2 and is subject to much debate — it doesn’t help that even in military publications within the same branch of service there are disparate methods detailed. We found this method to be widely approachable because it can be done at most any indoor range which allows rifle fire and is at least 25 yards long. Though the M16A2 is calibrated for 62-grain M855 ammunition, if this zero is performed with 55-grain M193 ammunition the difference between a hit and the miss with typical combat targets is negligible within 400 yards. Especially since we’re talking about iron sights. WITH A TARGET AT 25 YARDS: Set your rear sight to mechanical center. Make sure you’re looking through the smaller peep sight rather than the larger “0-2” sight. Turn your elevation knob counterclockwise until it bottoms out. Dial back to 8/3, plus one more additional clockwise click so you’re at “8/3+1.” Centering the front sight within the rear, with the top edge of the front sight post as your point of arm, fire a five-round group. Adjust windage if required. Every windage click on the A2 sight drum is approximately 1/2 MOA (0.477 MOA), or about 1/8 inch at 25 yards If elevation adjustments are required, during this BZO process they should be performed only on the front sight. If the group needs to move up, press down on the locking detent and move the front sight in the marked “up” direction and the reverse for down. Every click on the FSP is 1.375 MOA, or about 1/3 inch (0.3438 inch) at 25 yards Reshoot a group. When you have completed the process and are POA/POI at 25 yards, for a BZO with the equivalent of a “50-200” zero, rotate the rear sight drum counterclockwise three clicks to 8/3-2, and flip open the larger 0-2 sight. Confirm your zero at a known-distance range. While there are elevation marks on the M16A2 for known-distance targets, it’s much faster to learn your holds rather than dialing. Spend some time with a ballistic chart and your ammunition of choice and use your noggin’ a bit. LOOSE ROUNDS The bulk of ground combatant commitments in U.S. military history during the 1980s and 1990s is characterized by lower-intensity conflict (with a big-assed asterisk for Operation Desert Shield/Storm). Regardless of your feelings on GWOT in general or Iraq in particular, the M16A2 played an early pivotal role in that conflict and is emblematic of the guys on the ground. Though designed as weapons, the primary use of both the bayonet and Ka-Bar was opening MREs. With large conflict comes hard lessons, and the Iraqi Invasion M16A2 demonstrates both compromise and problem-solving within the means and capability of those with their dicks in the dust. As a veteran of the Iraqi Invasion, the M16A2 reminds me of where we started and how we adapted, providing great contrast to where we are now. It holds a prized role in my collection — right next to the M16A4, carried and used in later years of the Iraq War. Personal experience and emotional attachment or not, clone rifles like this fall more onto the “fun” side of the spectrum rather than the practical. But while this M16A2 likely wouldn’t be your first weapon of choice if faced with a problem best solved with a rifle, it certainly can still fill that role if you know what you’re doing. A piece of history in your hands, even one you put together yourself, can give great appreciation of the challenges faced by those who had to do it in real-time. 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