The M4 Carbine is a family of firearms tracing its lineage back to earlier carbine versions of the M16, all based on the original AR-15 made by ArmaLite. It is a shorter and lighter version of the M16A2 assault rifle, achieving 80% parts commonality with the M16A2. The M4 has selective fire options including semi-automatic and three-round burst (like the M16A2), while the M4A1 has a "full auto" option in place of the three-round burst.
As with many carbines, the M4 is handy and more convenient to carry than a full-length rifle. While this makes it a candidate for non-infantry troops (vehicle crews, clerks and staff officers), it also makes it ideal for close quarters combat (CQC), and airborne and special operations. It has been adopted by United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and is the preferred weapon of the U.S. Army Special Forces and Navy SEALs. M4's have also been fielded by the Australian Special Air Service Regiment. Malaysia purchased M4 Carbine service rifles to replace the Steyr AUG service rifles in its armed forces in 2006 and will be manufactured in Malaysia under license by SME Ordnance Sdn Bhd. It is expected that these weapons will not only be used by MAF, but also will attract other users such as Police, Coast Guard and other enforcement agencies.
The M4 was developed and produced for the United States government by Colt Firearms, which has an exclusive contract to produce the M4 family of weapons through 2009; however, a number of other manufacturers offer M4-like firearms. The M4A1, along with the M16A4, has mostly replaced the M16A2 ; the U.S. Air Force, for example, plans to transition completely to the M4 Carbine. The M4 is similar to much earlier compact M16 versions, such as the 1960s-era XM177 family.
The United States Marine Corps has ordered its officers (up to the rank of lieutenant colonel) and (senior) Staff Non-commissioned officers to carry the M4A1 carbine instead of the M9 handgun. This is in recognition that pistols are largely useless in current conflicts, and is in keeping with the Marine Corps motto, "Every Marine a rifleman." United States Navy corpsmen will also be issued M4A1s instead of the M9, according to the Marine Corps Times.
Variants of the carbine built by different manufacturers are also in service with many other foreign special forces units, such as the Australian Special Air Service Regiment (SASR). While the SASR uses weapons of essentially the same pattern built by Colt for export (Colt uses different models to separate weapons for the U.S. military and those for commercial/export purposes), the British SAS uses a variant on the basic theme, the SFW built by Diemaco of Canada. Although Diemaco was purchased by Colt and renamed Colt Canada, the Diemaco names and related firearms were kept.
Colt Model 925 carbines were tested fitted with the Knight's Armament Corporation (KAC) M4 RAS under the designation M4E2, but this designation appears to have been scrapped in favor of mounting this system to existing carbines without changing the designation. The U.S. Army Field Manual specifies for the Army that adding the Rail Accessory System (RAS) turns the weapon into the M4 MWS or Modular Weapon System.
In the last few years, M4A1 carbines have been refit or received straight from factory with barrels with a thicker profile under the handguard. This is for a variety of reasons such as heat dissipation during full-auto and accuracy as a byproduct of barrel weight. These heavier barrel weapons are also fitted with a heavier buffer known as the H2. Out of three sliding weights inside the buffer, the H2 possesses two tungsten weights and one steel weight, versus the standard H buffer, which uses one tungsten weight and two steel weights. These weapons, known by Colt as the Model 921HB (for Heavy Barrel), have also been designated M4A1, and as far as the government is concerned the M4A1 represents both the 921 and 921HB.
USSOCOM developed the Special Operations Peculiar Modification (SOPMOD) Block I kit for the carbines used by units under its jurisdiction. The kit features an M4A1 carbine, a Rail Interface System (RIS) handguard developed by Knight's Armament Company, a shortened quick-detachable M203 grenade launcher and leaf sight, a KAC sound suppressor, a KAC back-up rear sight, an Insight Technologies AN/PEQ-2A visible laser/infrared designator, along with Trijicon's ACOG and Reflex sights, and a night vision sight. This kit was designed to be configurable (modular) for various missions, and the kit is currently in service with special operations units.
The M4/M4A1 5.56 mm Carbine is a gas-operated, air-cooled, magazine-fed, selective fire, shoulder-fired weapon with a telescoping stock. A shortened variant of the M16A2 rifle with a barrel, the M4 provides the individual soldier operating in close quarters the capability to engage targets at extended range with accurate, lethal fire. The original M4 Carbine has semi-automatic and three-round burst fire modes, while the M4A1 has "semi" and "full auto", with no three-round burst. The M4 Carbine achieves over 80% commonality with the M16A2 rifle and was intended to replace the .45 ACP M3 submachine guns and selected M9 pistols and M16 rifle series with most Army units (this plan was thought to be changed with the development of the XM29 OICW and the XM8 carbine. However, both projects were cancelled.). The M4 Carbine is also capable of mounting the M203 grenade launcher,the M203A1 with a 9-inch barrel as opposed to the standard 12-inch barrel of the M203 used on the M16 series of rifle.
Some features of the M4 and M4A1 compared to a full-length M16-series rifle include:
However, there have been some criticisms of the carbine, such as lower muzzle velocities and louder report due to the shorter barrel, additional stress on parts because of the shorter gas system, and a tendency to overheat faster than the M16A2.
Like all the variants of the M16 assault rifle, the M4 Carbine and the M4A1 Carbine can be fitted with many accessories, such as night vision devices, laser pointers, telescopic sights, bipods, either the M203 or M320 grenade launchers, the M26 MASS shotgun, and anything else compatible with a MIL-STD-1913 Picatinny rail.
Other common accessories include the AN/PEQ-2, Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight (ACOG), and M68 Aimpoint. EOTech holographic weapon sights are to be part of the SOPMOD II package. Visible and IR (infrared) lights of various manufacturers are also commonly attached using various mounting methods. As with all versions of the M16, the M4 accepts a blank-firing attachment (BFA).
Soldiers requested the following changes:
Sales of select-fire or full automatic M4s by Colt are restricted to military and civilian law enforcement. Only under special circumstances can a private citizen own an M4 Carbine in a select-fire or fully automatic configuration. While many machine guns can be legally owned with a proper tax stamp from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, an amendment to the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 barred the transfer to private citizens of machine guns made in the U.S. after May 19, 1986. The only exception was for Special Occupational Taxpayers (SOT): licensed machine gun dealers with demonstration letters, manufacturers, and those dealing in exports and imports. As such, only the earliest Colt M4 prototypes built prior to May 19, 1986 would be legal to own by civilians not in the categories mentioned. However, as US firearms law considers the lower receiver of a M16/M4 type rifle to be the "firearm" (the serial numbered and, in the case of machine guns, registered under federal law, part of the weapon), a registered Colt M16 (much more common than an actual M4) may be configured as an M4 by replacing the M16 upper receiver/barrel assembly with an M4 top half, and replacing the fixed rifle stock with a 4-position telescoping M4 stock.