Guns of Iraq
By W.B Storey

When US troops invaded Iraq and toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein, they were armed with a array of small arms that represented over 100 years of firearms development in the United States. In terms of variety of function and sheer firepower, this expedition was most probably the heaviest armed force America has ever fielded. With fresh updates in ammunition and optical technology, they were also probably the deadliest. Time and again, while Iraqis “sprayed and prayed,” American troops placed aimed fire on target and trounced the enemy in one engagement after another.

The weapons they carried proved themselves admirably on the battlefield, in some of the worst, dust choked terrain the world has to offer, from off the shelf M16A2s to Barrett M82 BMG sniper rifles. Speaking with innumerable soldiers in the field, I was told over and over again; weapons stoppages were not a major problem during combat. When kept clean, even the much-maligned 5.56x45mm NATO rifles functioned well. Problems arose; I was told, not with the small arms, but with heavier, crew served weapons, the MK 19 grenade launcher in particular.

My own experience with the 101st Airborne proved the devastating effect that well aimed, concentrated small arms had on the irregular attacks of the Fedayeen militia. In one ambush, the Fedayeen attacked a Ground Assault Convoy from the 3/187th “Rakassans” of the 101st Airborne, mistaking their LMVT trucks for another supply convoy. Before they had time to realize their mistake, they were literally vaporized by a blizzard of 5.56x45mm M4 fire.

As you saw on CNN, between the Bradlees, the M1 Abrams, the A-10s and a hailstorm of 5.56x45mm and 7.62x51mm, Americans were unstoppable, even in terrain that did not favor mechanized forces. In short, American gun makers need to stand and take a bow; another tyrant has bitten the dust.

US M203 Grenade Launcher

Lead Photo, above: The 40mm grenade developed during Vietnam proved to be a most formidable weapon, but the M79 that fired it had one major drawback; it only fired the grenades and left the gunner vulnerable in the close confines of the jungle. To remedy that, the Army developed a way to hang the tube underneath an issue M16 and hence, the M203 was born. A gunner now had two options: blast them with the “40” or shoot them with a 5.56x45mm. Capable of firing a mixture of rounds ranging from standard high explosive, to illumination flares to rubber riot control buckshot, the M203 is one of the most versatile weapons in the US arsenal.

Manufacturer: Colt Manufacturing, Hartford, CT.
Caliber: 40mm high/low pressure grenade.
Feed: single-shot, breech loading.
Sights: fixed battle site on fore stock or quadrant mounted on upper receiver.
Range: 350 meters.

US M4 Carbine

The latest in a long series of innovations and evolutions around the M16, the M4 Carbine is perhaps the pinnacle of the M16 series. Simply put, it is just the sweetest “16” out there. It is light, compact, has more bells and whistles than a fire engine, and can reach out and hit accurately at most reasonable, modern firefight ranges. The best feature the M4 has is its system of MIL-STD-1913 rails located on the upper receiver and the fore stock. Upon these rails are mounted everything from infrared aiming lasers, optical sights, Tac Lights of various makes, night scopes, Aimpoints and M203 tubes. Another feature to seen on SPEC OP versions is a quick mount suppressor. When kept clean, this is the handiest AR series weapon around.

Manufacturer: Colt Manufacturing, Hartford, CT.
Action: Gas-operated, semi or full-auto.
Caliber: 5.56x45mm NATO (.223 Win).
Magazine: 30-round, staggered-column, detachable box-type
Sights: fixed battle sights or a host of Aimpoints, Elcans and Trijicons and other optical packages.
Range: 500 meters.
Cyclic rate: 700-950 rpm.


The US M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, or SAW, is the US military’s first, belt-fed automatic in 5.56x45mm NATO. This came about due to a logical conclusion that an infantry unit would be better off if everyone carried the same caliber ammunition, as they did in World War II. Hence, the SAW, in addition to being belt-fed, can also accept magazines for the M16 service rifle. Another product of the venerable Fabrique Nationale line, the SAW incorporates a gas-operated, piston action with a rotating bold assembly. The belted ammunition can be fed into the weapon loose, or from a detachable plastic box that fixes to the bottom of the weapon. While most SAWs have a full size synthetic stock, outfits like the 101st Airborne have been issued models with a retractable, metal stock. This makes for easier handling when getting in and out of helicopters. It has held up well in the sands of Iraq, provided the operator is religious about cleaning it.

Manufacturer: FN Manufacturing, Inc. Columbia, SC.
Action: Gas-operated, full-auto ONLY.
Caliber: 5.56x45mm NATO (.223 Win).
Feed: Disintegrating belt link.
Sights: Adjustable iron sights or M145 Elcan 3.5x scope.
Range: 600 meters.
Cyclic rate: 725 rpm.

US M240 7.62x51mm GPMG

The M240 started life in the US inventory as a machine gun on armored vehicles, but has quickly risen to replace the M60 as a squad automatic. Based on the famous Fabrique Nationale MAG 58, it fires the 7.62x51mm NATO cartridge from a disintegrating link, as did the M60. While it retains many of the features of the M60, it is much easier to maintain and more reliable. It has been seen in Iraq in every conceivable configuration, from a coaxial mount on the Abrams M1A1 tank to a bipod mounted infantry weapon at the squad level. It has performed admirably in Iraq’s worst natural condition: sand and dust.

Manufacturer: FN Manufacturing, Inc. Columbia, SC.
Action: Gas-operated, full-auto only.
Caliber: 7.62x51mm NATO (.308 Win).
Feed: Belt-fed, disintegrating M13 link.
Sights: M145 3.5x Elcan scope or adjustable iron sights.
Range: 1,500 meters.
Cyclic rate: 650-900 rpm.

US M60 7.62x51mm GPMG

First accepted into service in 1960, the M60 GPMG has had perhaps the longest life of any of America’s .30-caliber machine guns. It has been configured in every way from aerial door gun on helicopters, to squad automatic on a bi-pod, to medium machine gun on a tripod or vehicle mount. Its feed system is based on the German MG42 of World War II fame. It has a gas-operated, rotating bolt design with a self-regulating gas piston and churns out a consistent, and characteristic, 550 rounds per minute. While having been largely replaced by the M240, it is still widely used on aircraft and vehicles. The only complaint; keeping it clean.

Manufacturer: Saco Defense

Saco, Maine USA
Action: Gas piston, full-auto.
Caliber: 7.62x51mm NATO (.308 Win).
Magazine: Disintegrating belt
M13 link.
Sights; Fixed blade front,
adjustable rear.
Range: 1,100 meters.
Cyclic rate: 550 rpm.

US M24 Sniper Rifle

The granddaddy of US sniper rifles, the .308 M24 is based on the Remington 700 action that has seen service in every conflict since World War II. You just can’t say enough good things about this rifle. It is accurate, smooth and robust. Mounting a 10x Leupold or night scope, there are few if any complaints. The weapon consists of a hammer forged, 24-inch stainless steel barrel and a bolt-action, carbon steel receiver mounted on a Aramid fiber synthetic stock with adjustable buttplate.

Manufacturer: Remington Arms Co. Madison, NC. and various US Military internal custom shops.
Action: Bolt-Action, forward locking lug.
Caliber; 7.62x51mm NATO (.308 Win).
Magazine: Five-round, staggered-column, integral box-type.
Sights: 10x Leupold optical sight.
Range: 800 meters.

Barrett M82 .50 Cal. Sniper Rifle

Issued to scout sniper teams at the battalion and company level as well as Special Forces teams, the Barrett M82 .50 caliber “Anti-Material Rifle” has provided a long range, accurate punch to Infantry and Marine units in Iraq. It has been employed against everything from the light trucks used by Saddam’s Fedayeen militia to unexploded ordnance. It has, however, suffered from failure to issue match-grade ammunition and Army snipers have complained that the Leupold scope that comes with the rifle is not robust enough to handle the recoil of the .50-caliber BMG cartridge. It does retain enough accuracy, however, to nicely drill the aluminum engine block on a Toyota or Nissan pickup using AP tracer. The short-recoil, 10-round magazine-fed action of the Barrett has proven reliable even in the fine, gritty dust that seems to coat everything in Iraq.

Manufacturer: Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, Murfreesboro, TN.
Action: Magazine-fed, Semiautomatic.
Caliber: 12.7x99mm - .50 Browning.
Magazine: Ten-round, staggered-column, detachable box-type.
Sights: 10x Leupold on MIL-STD-1913 rail or adjustable iron sights.
Range: 1,800 meters.

US M16A1 & A2

(Photo unavailable. My battalion only had M4s.) Perhaps the most debated rifle in US history, the M16 has a full host of supporters and detractors. Everything from its basic action design to its caliber has been hotly scrutinized since it was first introduced during Vietnam. It has undergone numerous modifications and in Iraq proved to be resilient against jamming when kept clean, despite the micro fine dust that coats everything. Not one soldier I spoke to about this rifle had anything bad to say about it. It has light recoil, fires full-auto and doesn’t weigh as much as either an AK-47 or an M14. But it must be kept clean. The only word of caution heard was from troops who had served in Afghanistan and Somalia, where the malnourished condition of the fighters there led to problems with over penetration. No such problem was encountered with stouter Iraqis. Adaptation of a heavy barrel with 1:7 inch twist rifling and the new M855/M856 ammunition have extended its range and accuracy as well as reliability.

Manufacturer: Colt Manufacturing, Hartford, CT. & FN Manufacturing, Inc. Columbia SC
Action: Gas-operated, semi or full-auto.
Caliber: 5.56x45mm NATO (.223 Win).
Magazine: 30-round, staggered-column, detachable box-type
Sights: fixed battle sights or a host of Aimpoints, Elcans and Trijicons and other optical packages.
Range: 550 meters.
Cyclic rate: 700-950 rpm.

US Mossberg Model 590 12 Gauge Shotgun

Sporting the dual steel action bars and anodized aluminum receiver of it’s predecessor, the M500, the M590 neatly fills the requirement for a close in scattergun at the platoon and squad level. In Iraq it has been issued to medics and squad leaders for both close-in protection (in the case of the medics) and as a door-breaching tool by squad leaders (00 Buckshot). As firefight ranges have rarely been close enough for a shotgun, the Mossberg shotgun has proven very useful as a “Skeleton Key” for removing door hinges during sweeps for Baath Party hardliners. At close range, its heavy 12-gauge punch is deadly against any who resist the entry team.

Manufacturer: Mossberg and Sons, North Haven, CT.
Action: Slide-action.
Gauge: 12 gauge (up to 3-inch Magnum shells).
Magazine: 8-round tubular-type.
Sights: single front bead or front blade with ghost ring rear sight.
Range: 50 meters.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V7N2 (November 2003)
and was posted online on October 4, 2013


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