WASHINGTON — 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 M-14. 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 M-4 carbines and M-16 rifles that most soldiers carry.
“Having a heavy cartridge in an urban environment like that was definitely a good choice,” said 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 M-855 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.
It does just what it’s supposed to do
Designed decades ago to puncture a Soviet soldier’s helmet hundreds of yards away, the M-855 rounds are being used for very different targets in Iraq and Afghanistan. Much of today’s fighting takes place in close quarters; narrow streets, stairways and rooftops are today’s battlefield. Legions of armor-clad Russians marching through the Fulda Gap in Germany have given way to insurgents and terrorists who hit and run.
Fired at short range, the M-855 round is prone to pass through a body like a needle through fabric. That does not mean being shot is a pain-free experience. But unless the bullet strikes a vital organ or the spine, the adrenaline-fueled enemy may have the strength to keep on fighting and even live to fight another day.
In 2006, the Army asked a private research organization to survey 2,600 soldiers who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly one-fifth of those who used the M-4 and M-16 rifles wanted larger caliber bullets.
Yet the Army is not changing. The answer is better aim, not bigger bullets, officials say.
“If you hit a guy in the right spot, it doesn’t matter what you shoot him with,” said Maj. Thomas Henthorn, chief of the small arms division at Fort Benning, Ga., home to the Army’s infantry school.
At about 33 cents each, bullets do not get a lot of public attention in Washington, where the size of the debate is usually measured by how much a piece of equipment costs. But billions of M-855 rounds have been produced, and Congress is preparing to pay for many more. The defense request for the budget year that begins Oct. 1 seeks $88 million for 267 million M-855s, each one about the size of a AAA battery.
None of the M-855’s shortcomings is surprising, said Don Alexander, a retired Army chief warrant officer with combat tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Somalia.
“The bullet does exactly what it was designed to do. It just doesn’t do very well at close ranges against smaller-statured people that are lightly equipped and clothed,” said Alexander, who spent most of his 26-year military career with the 5th Special Forces Group.
The rules of war
Paul Howe was part of a U.S. military task force 15 years ago in Mogadishu, Somalia’s slum-choked capital, when he saw a Somali fighter hit in the back from about a dozen feet away with an M-855 round.
“I saw it poof out the other side through his shirt,” said Howe, a retired master sergeant and a former member of the Army’s elite Delta Force. “The guy just spun around and looked at where the round came from. He got shot a couple more times, but the first round didn’t faze him.”
With the M-855, troops have to hit their targets with more rounds, said Howe, who owns a combat shooting school in Texas. That can be tough to do under high-stress conditions when one shot is all a soldier might get.
“The bullet is just not big enough,” he said. “If I’m going into a room against somebody that’s determined to kill me, I want to put him down as fast as possible.”
Martin Fackler, a former combat surgeon and a leading authority on bullet injuries, said the problem is the gun, not the bullet. The M-4 rifle has a 14.5 inch barrel — too short to create the velocity needed for an M-855 bullet to do maximum damage to the body.
Is bigger really better?
In response to complaints from troops about the M-855, the Army’s Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey assigned a team of soldiers, scientists, doctors and engineers to examine the round’s effectiveness. The team’s findings, announced in May 2006, concluded there were no commercially available rounds of similar size better than the M-855.
But Anthony Milavic, a retired Marine Corps major, said the Army buried the study’s most important conclusion: that larger-caliber bullets are more potent.
“It was manipulated,” said Milavic, a Vietnam veteran who manages an online military affairs forum called MILINET. “Everybody knows there are bullets out there that are better.”
Officials at Picatinny Arsenal declined to be interviewed. In an e-mailed response to questions, they called the M-855 “an overall good performer.” Studies are being conducted to see if it can be made more lethal without violating the Hague Convention, they said.
Larger rounds are not necessarily better, they also said. Other factors such as the weather, the amount of light and the bullet’s angle of entry also figure into how lethal a single shot may be.
The M-14 rifle used by Joe Higgins was once destined to be the weapon of choice for all U.S. military personnel. When switched to the automatic fire mode, the M-14 could shoot several hundred rounds a minute. But most soldiers could not control the gun, and in the mid-1960s it gave way to the M-16 and its smaller cartridge. The few remaining M-14s are used by snipers and marksmen.
U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., is buying a carbine called the SCAR Heavy for its commandos, and it shoots the same round as the M-14. The regular Army, though, has invested heavily in M-4 and M-16 rifles and has no plans to get rid of them.
It’s training, not gear
A change in expectations is needed more than a change in gear, said Col. Robert Radcliffe, chief of combat developments at Fort Benning. Soldiers go through training believing that simply hitting a part of their target is enough to kill it. On a training range, getting close to the bulls-eye counts. But in actual combat, nicking the edges isn’t enough.
“Where you hit is essential to the equation,” Radcliffe said. “I think the expectations are a little bit off in terms of combat performance against target range performance. And part of that is our fault for allowing that expectation to grow when it’s really not there at all.”
The arguments over larger calibers, Radcliffe said, are normal in military circles where emotions over guns and bullets can run high.
“One of the things I’ve discovered in guns is that damned near everyone is an expert,” he said. “And they all have opinions.”