Leadership: Magpul Madness

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September 28, 2017: U.S. Army procurement bureaucrats have been, once more, caught deliberately providing inferior equipment to the troops. This is nothing new, except for the fact that the army is providing the inferior gear while forbidding troops from using superior stuff from the same American firm (Magpul) that has been embarrassing army leadership for over a decade. The latest scandal was revealed when test results from a 2015 report were made public. The report detailed the performance of twelve different assault rifle magazines for 5.56mm weapons (M-16, M4 and M27) were tested. While the results were not released to the public all the military services got to see it. The army proceeded to develop and issue a new “Enhanced Performance Magazine” in 2016 but the air force tried the new army magazine and in July 2017 ordered it, and other magazines to be withdrawn from service and replaced with the latest Magpul design which, it was later revealed, was the best performer in the 2015 evaluation.

This was not a trivial issue as the air force actually has a large force of security troops who are armed and trained to perform as light infantry. When the air force makes a decision like this soldiers and marines take notice because the air force has done so before and turned out to have selected the better product. This was most notable back in the 1960s when it was the air force security troops who were the first to receive what became the M16. The army had been resisting such a 5.56mm infantry weapon since the 1930s. But by the 1960s the air force had thousands of its “light infantry” protecting air bases in Vietnam and realized the AR-15 was a superior infantry weapon. The AR-15 was designed by an army veteran who had served in the predecessor of the air force (The Army Air Corps) as a weapons technician and after the war developed the AR-15, which, with a few tweaks (automatic fire, a larger magazine) became the M-16.

Military veterans are still developing better weapons and equipment when they return to civilian life and Magpul has become famous for developing superior accessories for army weapons, especially the 5.56mm ones. But the army procurement bureaucracy has always had a less welcoming attitude to this sort of competition than the air force. In fact the army procurement officials will sometimes go to great (and often questionable, legally and ethically) lengths to avoid letting the troops use the better equipment. For combat troops that is a matter of life or death but that sort of bad behavior has been going on for centuries and at least in the West, especially the United States, the guilty officials are frequently caught and called out on this misbehavior. Few are punished so the bad behavior continues. What is interesting about the latest incident, involving the Magpul Gen 3 PMAG (polymer magazine) is that this is not the first time this has happened to Magpul, and the troops who depend on this stuff in combat.

For example in 2012, just before Memorial Day and without any warning, the U.S. Army ordered its troops to only use the army designed aluminum magazines for their M16s and M4s. This came as a surprise to combat troops, who for years have preferred polymer magazines designed and manufactured outside the army supply system. So popular had these polymer magazines become that the army allowed them to be bought through the army supply system, using government funds, if a unit commanders wanted them. Most infantry commanders, and their troops, preferred the polymer magazines. This included SOCOM (Special Operations Command) troops and its Ranger Regiment. The 2012 decision was mainly aimed at Magpul and the army procurement officials got embarrassed once more.

In 2008, after years of being shown up by superior M16 magazines from commercial firms, the U.S. Army began issuing an improved magazine of their own. By the end of 2010, over half a million of the new magazines had been issued, mostly to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and those headed there. The older army issue magazines were turned and discarded and replaced by the new model. The new army magazine was mainly designed to prevent jams when the round comes up from the magazine and into the firing chamber. This is accomplished with a new follower (a tab at the top of the magazine) design, as well as a new, corrosion resistant, spring. The army was apparently upset that their new and improved design was ignored by most troops, who preferred the civilian (usually Magpul) polymer magazines. The army tried to buy the Magpul patents, but Magpul wasn't selling. The army would not explain itself and the troops accused the army procurement bureaucrats of playing games with the lives of soldiers in combat.

The 008 army magazine design was still inferior to most commercial designs, which are built mainly to keep the crud out. A big problem with the M16 type rifle is that the fine sand and dust found in Iraq and Afghanistan can slip past the magazine and into the magazine and lead to a malfunction. Commercial firms have come out with several generations of magazines that try to seal the magazine well to keep the talcum powder like dust out of the rifle. For example, there is the Advanced Reliability Combat magazine that includes a soft gasket that creates a dust proof seal when the magazine is inserted in an M-4, or similar weapon (like the SOCOM SCAR). These magazines cost $30 each (about 70 percent more than a standard magazine). These high end magazines also, like the new army magazine, have better springs and a follower that minimizes jams. Troops will still buy commercial magazines, with their own money, just to be on the safe side. In 2012 the army tried to compel the troops to stop using Magpul and similar magazines.

It wasn’t just the superior reliability of Magpul magazines that embarrassed army leadership. In 2010 Magpul also introduced a larger 40 round magazine for M16 type weapons. The standard army issue magazine holds 30 rounds. The $23 polymer Magpul magazine had a larger transparent window strip to show how many rounds you have left. Many troops preferred the 40 round magazine but the army procurement officials did not.

Combat troops and their commanders contacted Congress about the polymer magazine and the army and marines position was these were sometimes unreliable. There were cases of troops buying cheaper, and less effective polymer magazines from other vendors. By 2010 the Internet was widely available to the troops, even in combat zones, Congress was unable to ignore the detailed complaints from soldiers and marines who were at risk from decisions like this on a daily basis. The military was forced to relent and the dispute led to the 2015 evaluation study. The army did not like the results of that evaluation and tried to keep the results from the troops, as well as the public. But the air force would not go along and now there is another “Magpul mess” as some procurement bureaucrats like to call it, but not for public distribution.

 


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