The Neverending Discussion

The back and forth over the ineffectiveness of the 5.56 M855 cartridge hit the AP wire yesterday

As Sgt. Joe Higgins patrolled the streets of Saba al-Bor, a tough town north of Baghdad, he was armed with bullets that had a lot more firepower than those of his 4th Infantry Division buddies.

As an Army sniper, Higgins was one of the select few toting an M14. The long-barreled rifle, an imposing weapon built for wars long past, spits out bullets larger and more deadly than the rounds that fit into the M4 carbines and M16 rifles that most soldiers carry.

“Having a heavy cartridge in an urban environment like that was definitely a good choice,” says Higgins, who did two tours in Iraq and left the service last year. “It just has more stopping power.”

Strange as it sounds, nearly seven years into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, bullets are a controversial subject for the U.S.

The smaller, steel-penetrating M855 rounds continue to be a weak spot in the American arsenal. They are not lethal enough to bring down an enemy decisively, and that puts troops at risk, according to Associated Press interviews.

And on it goes from there. Just about everyone without a financial stake in retaining the 5.56 knows and admits that the cartridge is inadequate for the task and wants something at least 6.5mm in diameter, depending on their personal preference.

But, rearming a military the size of ours is something so damn huge that apparently no one wants to deal with it. It is truly sad that it is that way, but government is problematic, US army administration, moreso.

In the latter half of this article, I suppose for “objectivity” reasons, the AP includes part of an interview from a pro-5.56 former combat surgeon.

Dr. Martin Fackler, a former combat surgeon and a leading authority on bullet injuries, said the problem is the gun, not the bullet. The M4 rifle has a 14.5 inch barrel — too short to create the velocity needed for an M855 bullet to do maximum damage to the body.

“The faster a bullet hits the tissue, the more it’s going to fragment,” says Fackler. “Bullets that go faster cause more damage. It’s that simple.”

Before I get to the big reason I linked to this story, I would just like to point out that the good doctor here seems to be exaggerating just a bit. All things relative, a .17 Fireball is not going to do the damage of the standard 7.62.

But back to my main point of contention: I have heard exactly the opposite from what the doctor is saying on this particular branch of the discussion. That the shorter barrel reduces the velocity, slowing the projectile down just enough that it will actually stay within the body of the target and deliver the full energy load to said target instead of delivering the 50-60% of a through and through hit.

To a man, the folks who’ve been on the ground that I’ve spoken with have even gone so far as to request that if they cannot have a 7.62 rifle, then they want the 14.5in carbine.

Am I the only one who has heard/experienced this?

Found at Uncle’s

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17 Responses to The Neverending Discussion

  1. Joe Huffman says:

    I really, really need to make that “energy is irrelevant” post I’ve been planning to do for the last year or so.

    Energy in the body doesn’t matter. Tissue damage matters. If one bullet stops inside the body and another, of the same construction type, passes through the body then the second one damaged more tissue. Also the stretch cavity is larger with the faster bullet. Given “fast enough” bullets the stretch cavity exceeds the elasticity of the tissue and the tissue ruptures rather than just returns to its original location. Tissue rupture is tissue damage which translates to “stopping power”.

    Another thing about a bullet that exits is that it lets more blood out and more air in than one that stops inside the body.

    The only way that a bullet stopping inside the body increases “stopping power” is if it did more damage on the way in that the through-and-through bullet did. Assuming an identical path through the body for the same type of construction bullet this can only happen if the bullet were to tumble or otherwise increase its cross-section as it enters. But this is probably not going to be a function of velocity as much as it is bullet construction and twist rate of the gun barrel.

  2. bwaites says:

    Joe is right, with the possible addendum that the 5.56 projectiles were DESIGNED to tumble and fragment at the velocities encountered with the original barrels, not the 14.5 inch versions.

    Tissue damage is a function of projectile design, projectile mass, and velocity and they all interact. It is impossible to change one without screwing with the others. When the projectile is designed to perform a certain way at a certain velocity and you change that velocity, you may not get what you planned on.

    Push a solid metal jacket fast or slow enough, and you may get a “knitting needle” puncture, without any real tissue damage at all. Push a larger frontal area bullet at a slower speed and you may have massive tissue damage. It all depends on the interaction of the 3 factors. (Big slow bullets are the choice on dangerous game, like African Lion, Buffalo, etc.) The bullets are slow, but have a lot of mass and frontal area.

    When fired out of a 14.5 inch barrel, 5.56 ammunition has neither much speed or much mass, and that is not a good combination when you are trying to stop a committed insurgent or a doped up idiot. (Wait a minute, maybe they are one and the same!)

    Basically, what is happening is that the ammunition used with the M4 is not designed for the M4.

    As for through and through penetration, I tend to agree with Joe, but there are LOTS of others who think that a bullet that stays inside is better.


  3. Phil says:

    I’ll take that as a lesson then, Joe & Bill, though I’m not so sure about the particulars just yet. I need to hire me a few suicidal junkies for testing, I think.

  4. Tony says:

    I’ve been purposely avoiding the whole M4 5.56 vs. Anything Else discussion because I would read one thing, and then talk to someone who was actually in Iraq, shooting at people with his M4, saying quite another. To the newly educated to firearms, this drove me nuts. There are a number of forums and boards I used to read but I ran screaming from, never to return. This is where being able to read at 1200 words per minute is a detriment to your health. Crap flowing into your brain at that speed is like being on the wrong end of Michael Ironside’s glare in the movie Scanners.

    What a sec here I’m going somewhere.

    Given that: I am very enamored of my M4. Not only am I more accurate with it by orders of magnitude then my personal sidearm, I have debugged the few quirks with the platform and have enormous confidence with the weapon. I will admit that, from a platform perspective, this confidence comes mostly from my training, and that if I was to train with a different weapon, I may obtain the same level of confidence with something else.

    So here’s my question. I use 5.56 M855… as range ammo. As a defensive round, I am using a 50 grain jacketed hollow point. It’s a vicious little fucker, but insofar in shooting offensive range things that are not shooting back at me. But I just pulled that choice out of my butt. I could just as well be shooting 75 grain JHP. I have no idea what to put in there. So what should I be using?

    I suspect from a defensive rifle, it doesn’t matter too much. That is besides my point. It’s a generic all-purpose weapon and I want to keep it that way.

    If the ammunition used with the M4 is not designed for the M4, what should be used?

  5. Rivrdog says:

    No one commenting on this post has gotten it all right.

    The largest factor to be considered when a small, fast projectile enters the human body is what that projectile hits and what it deflects off of.

    All the above comments would be 100% accurate if the human body was composed of uniform-consistency ballistic gelatin, which it isn’t. The body has voids, or cavities, it has dense muscle mass and frangible bone and it has structures in between. Each of those structures, to be damaged enough to end resistance, takes a certain type of projectile, and since we are assuming only one projectile hitting the enemy, it has to be a compromise.

    If you are going to compromise, compromise on the side of imparting the most energy to the body. All of us know that the best way to do that is with a projectile of 260 caliber or better and a weight of 135 grains or better at a speed of 2800 fps or better.

    That lets out the M-4 entirely, since any hope of re-working the rifle to shoot six-point-anything will require it to have a longer barrel than 14.5 inches.

    The M16 platform COULD be used, but that choice has already been rejected.

    BTW, people, the history of warfare of the past 3 centuries is replete with examples of armies handicapping themselves with a less-than-ideal choice of firearm.

    We’re not the first, only the latest.

  6. Tony says:

    See what I mean?

    Anyway, I’ve talked to, not read about, or heard from “my cousin’s girlfriend’s brother”, soldiers who spent time in Iraq shooting bad guys. They went home and spent hard earned money on M4s for their personal firearm. That to me is telling. These are educated men, not people who drink a particular band of caliber dogmatic kool-aid.

    But talking to them leads one down a very interesting path. They all have difference of opinions on what to feed it. Most agree that round #26 or #27 should be a tracer round, so when you see it your brain goes “AHHH! RELOAD! SOON!”.

  7. bwaites says:

    Most of those guys coming home buy M4 clones because they are familiar and comfortable with it, not necessarily because they feel that particular caliber is the best.

    The 5.56 is a compromise of ergonomics, number of rounds easily carried, recoil management, etc.

    Me, I carry a 20″ 6.5 caliber AR that is accurate out to 700 yards, which I proved to my own satisfaction during the Boomershoot clinic.

    I’m not as convinced as Rivrdog that you need 2800fps to make it effective, but faster IS generally better!

    And end results on bad guys still come down to bullet design, mass, and velocity. Design it correctly and it doesn’t matter what it hits, it will still be fatal!


  8. DC says:

    Chris Byrne (“Anarchangel”) did a long detailed post about the 5.56/M4 in recent months. Short version — we won’t see a caliber change soon, of any sort, due to the enormous expense and complexity of changing over the entire 5.56mm supply chain (e.g. ammunition factories, magazines, spare parts, manuals, retraining, new guns). That said, I agree with the above that there’s lots of contradictory info around on the effectiveness of the round. My personal druther is to have a 308 in an AR-style platform that takes FAL mags (and yes! they make one). Good ergonomics, and there’s never been any question w.r.t. 308′s effectiveness (although packing around that WEIGHT of that particular weapon system is bad for the grunts).

    Just my $0.02, ymmv, naturally. ;)

  9. Tony says:

    “Most of those guys coming home buy M4 clones because they are familiar and comfortable with it, not necessarily because they feel that particular caliber is the best.

    The 5.56 is a compromise of ergonomics, number of rounds easily carried, recoil management, etc.”

    That’s exactly why. Almost a direct quote, even. Which leads poor folks like me to…

    If the ammunition used with the M4 is not designed for the M4, what should be used?

  10. Bob1 says:

    Tony — I think part of your confusion lies in bullet selection. Military ammo must be full metal jacket IAW international conventions (Hague or Geneva, I forget which). That limits how a bullet performs in a body (that’s why the M855 relies on tumbling). However, for civilian use here in the US, you’re not so restricted — you can legally use hollowpoint or other expanding rounds. Such ammo performs much differently than military FMJ; it uses expansion to transfer energy to the target. Those troops who come home and buy M4 clones are not only comfortable with the rifle, they know they can use better performing ammo at home.

    Be happy with your choice of weapon and ammo.

  11. Tony says:

    Oh I’m happpy as a clam. Baby is clean and well maintained, and will shoot just about everything.

    I just can’t get someone to speak on what to feed Baby. As I said, I feed her JHP. Which type, well I threw a dart.

    At least we all can agree that no one sticks Baby in a corner.

  12. bwaites says:

    Tony, well…., there isn’t an ammunition designed specifically for the M4, like the rounds which were tested and designed for the M16. It’s that whole logistics thing that has been discussed earlier. The ammunition in the system is what is used in the field.

    BUT….you can use lots of better performing rounds, like the hollowpoint varmint rounds, or the Nosler Ballistic Tip rounds, or several of the other options.

    It was the Hague International Peace Conference of 1899 which outlawed “DumDum” bullets, named for the arsenal in India which manufactured them. (DumDums were actually solid jacketed soft nose bullets.) The US did not sign on to this but has generally acknowledged its value during wartime.

    The US DID sign onto the Hague Convention IV accords of 1907 which stated that “It is expressly forbidden…to produce arms, projectiles, or material calculated to cause undue suffering.”

    Interestingly, both have been interpreted to mean that using hollowpoints in warfare is not allowable if the reason for the hollowpoint is to increase expansion of the projectile. However, if the hollowpoint is the result of a design intended to increase accuracy, then the JAG has stated, “expanding point ammunition is legally permissible in counterterrorist operations not involving the engagement of the armed forces of another State”. The JAG further stated, “The purpose of the 7.62mm “open-tip” MatchKing bullet is to provide maximum accuracy at very long range. … Bullet fragmentation is not a design characteristic, however, nor a purpose for use of the MatchKing by United States Army snipers. Wounds caused by MatchKing ammunition are similar to those caused by a fully jacketed military ball bullet, which is legal under the law of war, when compared at the same ranges and under the same conditions. (The Sierra #2200 BTHP) not only meets, but exceeds, the law of war obligations of the United States for use in combat.”

    Now that the history lesson is complete, use of any of that type of ammunition is perfectly acceptable for self defense, and finding which one works best in your M4 is part of the fun! For home protection, I like the 100 grain Nosler Ballistic Tip and the 120 grain Barnes TSX, but I shoot them from a 6.5 caliber AR.


  13. Tony says:

    Thanks Bill for the thoughtful reply.

    6.5? Why not 6.8? He he he I ked I ked…

  14. bwaites says:

    6.5 vs. 6.8 was tough.

    I wanted a 6.8, but the ballistics on the Grendel were just better. I wanted to learn how to shoot out past 400 yards, and the Grendel is so far superior at those longer ranges that once I found it, the 6.8 went away as a consideration.

    I still think the 6.8 is superior to the 5.56 in almost every way, but the 6.5 is superior to the 6.8 for all the right reasons for ME, but I can understand people liking the 6.8, especially with the more common availability of the 6.8.

    My decision was confirmed by watching the 6.8 at Boomershoot, who was having to use a lot more elevation at 600-700 yards than I was.


  15. GM CASSEL AMH1(AW) USN RET says:

    It all comes down to energy. the energy imparted by the bullet when it hits the target. The bigger the pill, the better the kill. I got that from dad. Korea, 50-51 and Quemoy, 58.
    BTW my hunting rifle of choice is a 1918 SMLE, No. 3 Mk. III in .303 British. I got it when I was 15 and I am now 54. If it worked in the Canadian North, why not. I prefer the Remington Core-Lokt 180 grain bullet. But surplus FMJ in 168 grain is still out there.
    there’s my 2 cents.

  16. Jimro says:

    Dr. Martin Fackler knows what he is talking about, he is the leading authority on wound ballistics. The older m193 55 grain ball is better at fragmenting from the m4, even though we don’t have any m193 issued currently. Unfortunately a doctoral level dissertation on why the 5.56 needs velocity for lethality doesn’t compress well into a news soundbyte.

    When all things are equal, larger caliber bullets make larger caliber holes that allow blood out and air in. Since things aren’t always equal a twelve gauge slug through the chest isn’t always a “manstopper”. Only CNS shots are manstoppers, and those are more about accuracy than caliber.

  17. Brass says:

    I’ve read that the Spec-Ops guys are using the Black Hills 77 grain in their M4s.

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