When the dust finally settled, Army officials sought to put the best face on a sandstorm test that humbled Colt Defense's vaunted M4 carbine.
The tests were conducted at an Army laboratory in Maryland last fall. Ten M4s and 10 copies each of three other carbines — the SCAR from Belgium's FN Herstal, and the HK416 and the XM8 from Germany's Heckler & Koch — were coated in heavy layers of talcum-fine dust to simulate a sandstorm. Tens of thousands of rounds were fired through the rifles.
The M4s malfunctioned 882 times. Bullets that didn't feed through the rifles properly or became lodged in the firing chamber were the biggest problems.
The other carbines had far fewer hitches. The carbine with highest marks was the XM8, a gun with a Star Wars look that the Army considered buying just a few years ago but didn't. The program collapsed due to bureaucratic infighting and questionable acquisition methods.
Despite the testing troubles, the Army and Colt are defending the M4, the rifle U.S. forces rely on in combat. The tests, they stressed, were only meant for research purposes and didn't represent actual conditions.
Military defends results
Dust and dirt are constant obstacles in Iraq, but no properly trained soldier would ever let his weapon become so clogged that it misfired.
"This is not what soldiers encounter on the battlefield," says Brig. Gen. Mark Brown, the officer who runs the Army acquisition office that buys rifles and other battlefield gear. "It doesn't matter if you're firing a flintlock from the Revolutionary War or you're firing the M4, you've got to clean your weapon."
The XM8, Brown adds, had 10 cartridges break apart during testing — a flaw that can injure the shooter. The M4 only had one ruptured cartridge.
In overall scoring, the M4 finished the sandstorm test with a 98.6 — roughly 1 percentage point behind the others, according to Col. Robert Radcliffe, director of combat developments at the Army Infantry Center in Fort Benning, Ga.
"That is good performance," Radcliffe says.
But the M4's chief critic wasn't buying the Army explanation spelled out in Power Point charts.
"What it shows is out of the four weapons tested, the M4 is the worst," says Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. "If it's your son that's the 1 percent that takes a bullet in the head (from the enemy) because his gun jammed, that 1 percent is pretty meaningful."
Colt executives can't account for the M4's poor showing. And they hinted that the M4s sent from Colt's plant in Hartford may have been mishandled after being delivered to the lab.
"There's no way they left the factory like that," says Phillip Hinckley, Colt's executive director of quality and engineering. "It does leave a major question mark in your head."