HK 416 in Army Times

It’s better than the M4, but you can’t have one


This will be a familiar story to most who follow military weaponry:

March 4, 2002. An RPG tore into the right engine of an MH-47 Chinook helicopter loaded with a quick-reaction force of Rangers in the Shahikot Mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The Chinook crashed atop Takur Ghar, a 10,000-foot peak infested with al-Qaida fighters.

Enemy fire poured into the fuselage, killing Rangers even before they got off the aircraft. Capt. Nate Self crawled out.

“As soon as I got off the ramp, a burst of rounds fired right over my head,” he recalled.

He joined a handful of his men in the open, exposed to enemy fire. An RPG exploded within a few feet of their position.

“We got up and started firing and moving to some boulders 15 meters away,” he said.

Once behind cover, Self tried to fire again, but his weapon jammed.

Back in the days when we all thought the XM8 was on the way, we hoped that piston-driven assault rifles were on the way to US troops. Of course, the XM8 was scrapped, and additional purchases were of standard M4-type carbines.

The M16/M4 system has proven its value, but two criticisms continue to dog it:

A) The “stopping power” of the 5.56×45 round and
B) The vulnerability of the direct-gas impingement system

The round is not weapon-dependent, and M4s, M16s, XM8s, and SCARs have all been developed in various calibers.

But the direct-gas system, which blows hot gases into the action, is what really sets the M16/M4 apart, and not in a good way.

The HK416 is one of many M4-type weapons that ditches the troublesome system and uses a piston system similar to that of the reliable AK47.

The problems had become obvious enough that at the time of the Afghanistan battle, members of the Army’s Delta Force had begun working on a solution. Today, Delta Force is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan with a special carbine that’s dramatically more reliable than the M16s and M4s that the rest of the Army depends upon.

Members of the elite unit linked up with German arms maker Heckler & Koch, which replaced the M4’s gas system with one that experts say significantly reduces malfunctions while increasing parts life. After exhaustive tests with the help of Delta, the H&K 416 was ready in 2004.

Members of the elite commando unit — formally known as 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta — have been carrying it in combat ever since.

The 416 is now considered in many circles to be the best carbine in the world — a weapon that combines the solid handling, accuracy and familiarity of the M4 with the famed dependability of the rugged AK47.

For the foreseeable future, however, the Army is sticking with the M4 and M16 for regular forces.

The Army plans to buy about 100,000 M4s in fiscal 2008.

Really, as one who has been watching the carbine story for some time, I don’t really know what to say. It’s no surprise that the Special Forces chose and are getting something different. The SCAR should be hitting the field in numbers soon and Delta is already using the HK416.

Meanwhile, not only is the regular Army stuck with the M4 that Special Forces has replaced, but they’re buying 100,000 new ones.

The HK416s, like nearly all piston-driven rifles, seem to be good for 12,000 to 15,000 rounds between failures. What this number would be in the field, of course, we don’t really know. But they can reach this with no lube during endurance firing.

At Colt’s plant in Connecticut, a government inspector pulls samples from each lot of M4s and performs a 108-point inspection to ensure they meet the Army’s specifications. M4s are also routinely subjected to endurance firing, but only to 6,000 rounds.

It’s the Army that sets the standard, Colt officials say.

That doesn’t mean that 6,000 is good enough. Colt points out that the Army’s bureaucratic nightmare of a procurement system is partially to blame, but I’m not convinced that it’s an excuse for a weapon that doesn’t perform as well as an equally-affordable alternative.

Going to an M4-styled carbine with a piston would solve many of the logistical problems that everyone was so worried about as XM8 adoption neared. Except for the piston system itself, virtually the entire weapon is interchangeable with regular M4s.

Look around at arms manufacturers. How many are developing new carbines with direct gas systems? How many are developing new carbines with piston systems? I was at the SHOT Show. Almost everyone has a piston-driven M4-style carbine ready to go or almost ready to go. Even Colt. But hot gas in the chamber is apparently good enough for our boys.

I fired the LWRC SRT in both 5.56 NATO and 6.8 SPC at the SHOT. Before we got our turns, a rep fired six 30-round mags consecutively, then pulled the bolt out of the weapon and handed it over. Warm to the touch, but no more. Try that with a direct-gas system pumping hot fouling into the chamber. That heat breaks down lube and wears out parts.

And what contributes to weapon malfunctions? Well, quite often, it’s poor lubrication and worn parts.

I think we’re blowing it with the decision to stick with what we’ve got. I was skeptical that a switch to the XM8 at this point was worth the headaches if we were just going to stay with the 5.56 round. But there are an awful lot of alternatives out there that would give us a noticeable improvement with very few of those “new standard weapon” headaches because so little of the new weapon would actually be new.

This isn’t “you go to war with the Army you have”. This is deciding to keep the Army you have even though you’ve learned how to make it better.

See also: Army Times Editorial: Field the best weapon

The HK416 will soon be available in a 7.62x51mm version called the HK417.


  1. Why are we still using shitpiece M16/M4’s? They have proven to be unreliable in every conflict they have been used. The direct gas system was designed for an ultralight survival weapon – not an infatry battle rifle. It needs to go. Do a RFP, field test all the applicants, and give us a better rifle. Is it too much to ask for the men fighting and bleeding for this country. Maybe Kel-Tec could submit this prototype in whatever caliber the Army wants:

  2. Okay, broken record time agan. 7.62NATO is too big for common combat use. I agree the design looks pretty good, but there was another rifle at SHOT that is a conventional layout (for some reason more palatable than a Bullpup to the purchasing PTBs) and uses the load bearing AR-15/M16 parts (Barrel, bolt, and trigger pack. Magpul’s Masada. And since the barrels and bolts are stock AR, use that need quick change barrel lockup to swap out the stock 5.56x45mm barrel for a 6.5 Grendel barrel and swap the bolt 5.56 bolt for an ‘x39mm’ case head bolt face (.445′ case head diameter) and you now have a medium/light recoiling platform with 500 ft/lbs of energy at 800 yards out of a 14.5′ barrel….with existing parts (assuming a standard 123 grain 6.5mm projectile). Or keep the 5.56 and you still have a better platform than the AR IMHO

  3. I’m sure kel-tec and many other manufacturers would be glad to submit samples in whatever caliber the DOD asks for.

  4. It’s better than the M4, but you can’t have one *whines* But I WANT one! The HK416 was on Monday’s Future Weapons and was an impressive looking weapon. Nothing like being able to pop up out of your swimming pool and taking out that poodle that keeps getting in your back yard.

  5. I saw that show too – impressive. I’ve seen similar demonstrations with the G36 which probably has some of the same parts.

  6. All they did was take the gas block and piston rod from the G36/XM8 and adapt them to the AR15/M16, and then change out the gas key on top of the AR bolt carrier for something a little more robust to take the impacts of the piston rod instead of the slightly more gentle (yet hotter) direct gas impingement. POF did something similar with no added springs, and using a reversable first stage piston (one way it works standard, the other way its set up for suppressor use) and an FAL style gas plug up front. Lienter-Wiess and Colt both have similar piston units as well.

  7. So with the HK416 upper and Mk 262 Mod 1 77 grain ammo, the Special Forces Command have pretty much solved the US military’s assult rifle problems. Too bad the rest of the military can’t see the light.

  8. The M-16/M4 direct gas system is over 40 years old, we need to move on. It was good back in it’s day, but we have to face the fact that piston systems are simply more reliable than direct gas systems. I have been humping M-16’s and M4’s for years and they have given me ok service, but I have had many jams when I needed the weapon most. I was lucky and was able to carry an M9 (not a very good weapon either) as a back up.

  9. It’s better than the M4, but you can’t have one: I’m getting one, the norwegian army decided that is the rifle that will replace our current H & K G3 rifles. So by 2008 il be getting my hk416.

  10. the american army has been looking at geting either the hk416 or the xm8 which are both very good rifes, as the xm8 has total interchangablitiy between all its veriants, and the hk416 is very reliabe i would like either one ore even both

  11. The principle behind the HK-416 gas piston system is not NEW or UNIQUE! When you get a chance, check out the gas piston system used in the SKS-45 made by the Soviet Union in 1945! It was a two piston system, however the same principle applies; the gas from the semi-automatic feed is released and the actual piston that controls the bolt assembly NEVER comes in contact with gas from the rounds. The user of the weapon could fire that weapon all day and never have to be concerned with the bolt assembly OVERHEATING or the second piston fouling from the residue of the gases! If the weapon user wanted to clean the residue from the 1st piston after a great deal of firing, then all the weapon user would have to do was release the latch to the 1st piston and its tube, quickly clean just those two items, place them back on the weapon and continue firing until they had a chance to field strip the entire weapon and clean it since none of that stuff ever reaches the second piston. ‘Everything OLD is NEW again’