Earning Its Keep: The HK416 Within the US Military

By Will Grant

After a typically exhaustive five-year process, the Army may be ready to issue a new rifle to infantrymen for the first time in 50 years. Through what’s called the individual carbine competition, the Army is evaluating five rifles for widespread service as a replacement for the M4. The final product of that selection process will likely mean the end of the M16 family of weapons’ streak as the longest-running standard US infantry rifle.

Of the five rifles submitted to the Army as a replacement for the M4/M16, the Heckler & Koch HK416 is a strong candidate, though many think not likely the end winner. In its own right, the HK416 is amassing a strong reputation in the US military. At the top of its resume is that it’s credited with delivering the rounds that killed Osama bin Laden. Next on the list is that the Marine Corps adopted it as the M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle to replace—not fully, but in large part—the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, which has been in service with the Marines since 1985.

“Early on, the 416 got an almost mythical reputation,” says Larry Vickers, who spent 20 years with the Army’s Delta Force and was instrumental in putting the 416 into the hands of the special operations community. “As far as a CQB gas-piston weapon, it’s about as good as you can get. Very reliable.”

The 5.556-caliber 416 is available to civilians as the MR556A1 at a retail price of $3,295. With an 11-inch barrel and loaded 30-round magazine, the rifle weighs 8.25 pounds. With the same barrel, it will have a muzzle velocity of 2,592 feet per second and can shoot approximately 850 rounds per minute.

When the 416 made its debut in 2005, it was lauded for its proprietary low-maintenance piston system that replaced the direct impingement of the M16. Essentially, instead of the propellant gas being used to cycle the weapon, a piston receives the gas at the front sight post performs the same role. Many thought the technology was new, though such models had reportedly been around since the 1920s. What the new 416 did offer was a refreshing change to the high lubricant needs of the M4. In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, sand and grit have been the culprits of many a jammed, unlubricated M4.

“The piston operation cleans up the system,” says Dan Shea, editor in chief of the Small Arms Defense Journal and owner of the GSA-contract armorer Long Mountain Outfitters. “Remember HK re-designed the M16 platform to utilize the piston operation, and tweaked a lot of things in the process. This is a purpose-designed, piston-operated M16 variant, and that makes a difference over drop-in piston conversion units.”

Replacing the direct impingement system with the gas piston benefited the rifle’s performance in two ways: It reduced internal temperatures, and it reduced fouling. Lower temperatures mean a longer shelf life for all parts involved, and less fouling means fewer cleanings. But there are tradeoffs with the gas piston, and not everyone’s sure it’s a superior system—like the fact that the action, originally designed by Eugene Stoner, wasn’t engineered for a piston slamming into it.

“The move to a piston operation is, in my opinion, a smart move. But that does not come without some negatives,” Shea says. “The tilt-bolt pressures are well accounted for in the 416, but there is still a bit of an issue on breaking lugs after long, hard use.”

There have been other reported problems with the rifle, as well. One complaint voiced by many was that the rifle wouldn’t accept polymer magazines, including the nearly ubiquitous PMAG magazines. At SHOT Show this year, H&K released the A5 variant that can now accept non-metal magazines. Magpul also helped by offering the PMAG 30 M3 and PMAG 30 MagLevel. Other complaints of functionality and compatibility are generally written off to misuse of the weapon or exaggeration.

The 416’s “mythical reputation” contributed to the outcries against it. Because its reliability was so widely lauded, any shortcoming of that was a chance to sound off. One thing has remained clear to the weapon’s proponents: When compared to the M4, the 416 is a more forgiving, versatile weapon.

“The bottom line is that the M4 is a good gun,” Vickers says, “but it has its limitations. Special Operations needed something that could perform outside those limitations.”

According to Vickers, SOF soldiers needed a rifle that could maintain a high rate of fire, function equally well with or without a suppressor, handle a wide variety of ammunition, and have a short barrel for close-quarters combat. The M4 couldn’t quite make that bar, but through extensive testing, the 416 showed that it could.

The cooler chamber temperatures allowed for a higher rate of fire. The shorter barrel of the 416 (available with a 10.4-inch barrel) was better than the M4 for close-quarters use. The 416 could handle the necessary variety of ammunition and worked flawlessly with a suppressor. Some models of the 416 are also over-the-beach certified, essentially meaning the weapon can be safely fired after being submerged and not fully drained. Even the weapon’s staunchest supporters won’t say the gun is for every soldier, but for those who need its capability, there’s nothing better.

But, as is well known, in the military, the best product is not always the winner. The Army likely isn’t convinced every soldier needs the capability of the 416. Which is why many think rifle won’t come out on top of the individual carbine competition and that the Army will announce that the M4 may not be the best, but it’s good enough.

There is at least one man who is not satisfied with the “good enough” stance. Senator Tom Coburn, R-Okla., last summer demanded an explanation as to why finding a superior carbine for soldiers was taking so long. He then put a hold on the confirmation of the Army’s new acquisitions chief, Heidi Shyu.

“She is in charge of $28 billion dollars in expenditures,” Coburn told the Senate. “My objection was due to the Army’s continued lack of urgency in modernizing and fielding new rifles, carbines, pistols, light machine guns and ammunition for our troops for combat.”

While replacing the M4 seems unlikely, especially in light of sequestration cuts, there is the possibility that change is nigh. Larry Vickers, who maintains tight connections within the Special Operations community, points to a discussion he recently had with a friend about the unlikelihood of a new standard carbine.

“The guy said, ‘I hear that, but my theory is that Congressional oversight could change that,” Vickers says. “‘Congress is watching every move the Army makes right now.’”

Dan Shea of Long Mountain Outfitters thinks the M4 is safe in its current position. At least for now.

“Changing a firearm is a very difficult and expensive thing to do for an army, but it’s not as bad as trying to change ammunition,” he says. “I suspect that for now, the 416 and its variants will be in USMC and SOCOM-type use, and Big Army will stay with the M4 due to budget constraints.”

All photographs courtesy Heckler & Koch, except top photograph.

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2 thoughts on “Earning Its Keep: The HK416 Within the US Military

  1. If you research the topic thoroughly enough you’ll see that HK’s vaunted superiority is not as great as it seems. A lot of people mistakenly believe they are informed about the reliability issue because they are familiar with the Fall 2007 Extreme Dust Test 2. What they don’t realize is that the same test was performed performed on the M4 one time prior to the Fall EDT 2 and one time subsequent to the Fall 2007 EDT. In both those other two tests the M4 performed as well, if not slightly superior, to the other rifles tested including the HK416. So what was the difference between the first test that had the M4 carbine perform with 243 class 1 stoppages caused by rifle malfunctions, the second test that had the M4 perform with 882 total stoppages and the final test that had the M4 perform with only 111 total stoppages? Testing personnel is the biggest difference. It seems that the tester in the second test did not understand that there was no “full automatic” setting on the M4, it had a 3 round burst setting instead, meaning that one pull of the trigger would cause a maximum of 3 rounds being shot. If the shooter let up on the trigger before the full three shots were fired the next shot(s) would only be to complete the 3 round cycle thus giving the impression of a stoppage. Furthermore, the M4 carbines tested in the EDT 2 2007 were taken from existing inventory and were not maintained to military specifications after heavy use while the other tested rifles were new sent directly from the manufacturers prepared specifically for the EDT, the one exception being the HK416 which was in existing inventory too but was maintained to military specifications. So another way of looking at all three Extreme Dust Tests is; new or properly maintained M4 carbines will function comparable to new full-sized rifles and M4 carbines not maintained to military specifications will function 98.5 % of the time under Extreme Dust Test conditions. Another thing people generally don’t realize is that at the end of the EDT 2 the new rifles submitted for testing were falling apart from heavy use.

    So why do the elite “tier one” military types use the HK416 instead of the M4 carbine? It isn’t as difficult to use with a sound suppressor or silencer.

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