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Select Fire Carbines vs. Submachine Guns

M4-type carbines are taking the place of pistol-caliber subguns in tactical law enforcement.

May 15, 2012  |  by Nick Jacobellis - Also by this author

The author fires LWRC's M6A2 special purpose rifle. Photo: Alex Landeen
The author fires LWRC's M6A2 special purpose rifle. Photo: Alex Landeen

For several decades most law enforcement agencies preferred the pistol caliber submachine gun as a tactical entry weapon. This was true for federal, state, and local tactical teams. But now many tactical officers are changing their minds.

The pistol caliber subgun was adopted by law enforcement in a day and age when full size M16s with a 20-inch barrel as well as Colt CAR 15 carbines with 16-inch barrels were in widespread service by certain federal agencies and a growing number of law enforcement tactical teams.

One of the first pistol caliber subguns favored by law enforcement was the 9mm Walther MPK, which ceased production in 1985. When the Walther was no longer available, armorers outfitted their teams with a wide variety of select-fire and full-auto weapons, including the 9mm Smith & Wesson M76 and the 9mm UZI. Today the most common subguns used by American law enforcement are the 9mm Heckler & Koch MP5 in 9mm, .40 S&W, or .45 ACP, and the exotic FNH P90 in 5.7x28mm, which is a favorite of the Secret Service and the FBI.

After the infamous 1997 North Hollywood Shootout in Los Angeles where the bad guys were equipped with armor that stopped pistol rounds, law enforcement agencies began adopting M16s, AR-15s, and M4s as "patrol rifles." This meant that an increasing number of regular patrol personnel began carrying a semi-automatic 5.56mm M4.

But many tactical officers stuck by the pistol-caliber subgun. They liked the quantity of fire that the subguns could concentrate on target, and they liked the compact form of the guns.

This started to change in the last five years, as more and more tactical operators began to favor the M4 for its rifle-caliber power and combat-proven performance in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, many officers still wanted compact entry weapons, so they opted for short-barreled M4 variants.

Even though I am a big fan of using semi-automatic and select-fire rifles and carbines in 7.62mm NATO, for certain applications short-barreled M4s chambered for 5.56mm ammo are the best option. This is especially the case when a tactical team or any law enforcement officer is engaging an armed subject inside a dwelling.

According to my resident ballistics expert Rick Batory, who served in law enforcement and also trained U.S. Air Force Special Ops personnel, the loss of velocity of 5.56mm rounds fired from a 10.5-inch barrel as opposed to a 14.5-inch barrel is approximately 200 feet per second. That's not too bad. Even the difference in fragmentation is reportedly only a loss of approximately 20% between a 10.5-inch M4 and a 14.5-inch model.

The bottom line is that even with its disadvantages a short-barreled 5.56 caliber M4 carbine is still a better weapon to deploy in certain situations than a service pistol or a pistol-caliber subgun.

Recently, I had an opportunity to spend some range time with a select fire LWRC International M6A3 with a 10.5-inch barrel. It was easy to carry, easy to wield, incredibly rugged, and flawlessly reliable.

It also proved to be dead nuts accurate. My colleagues and I have used the M6A3 to successfully engage everything from orange clay discs, to pieces of clay discs, to paper targets, and different size metal plates with tremendous precision at various distances out to 50 yards.

According to Larry Kotz, the Class III SOT FFL dealer who owns the test rifle, the LWRCI M6A3 that I field tested has been flawlessly reliable except for two incidents. On one occasion it failed to fire due to a defective round of ammunition. It also experienced one stoppage due to the use of a defective magazine.

Due to its overall compact size and weight the LWRCI M6A3 with a 10.5-inch barrel is also easy to carry for long periods of time. This is a critical factor that needs to be taken into consideration because law enforcement tactical operators are called out to situations where they are required to maintain containment for many hours. Lighter weapons can help them endure such deployments with enough energy to take decisive action when the waiting ends.


LWRC International M6A2 Special Purpose Rifle

Comments (5)

Displaying 1 - 5 of 5

Doug @ 6/17/2012 4:29 AM

"Even though I am a big fan of using semi-automatic and select-fire rifles and carbines in 7.62mm NATO, for certain applications short-barreled M4s chambered for 5.56mm ammo are the best option. This is especially the case when a tactical team or any law enforcement officer is engaging an armed subject inside a dwelling."

I'm in a rural agency, and even though we now have the option of grabbing an AR15 from the trunk, I don't think the AR is THE best choice out there. I've fired some SBR AR's (8 and 11") and while they are much more manuverable than the standard 16", I've come to the realization that a bullpup platform would be even better for rural patrol officers. Especially considering the wide range of potential calls one could encounter: Wide open fields with hundreds of yards between an armed suspect, urban environments and building entries. The bullpup offers a package that's usually under 29" OAL with the same 16" (or more) barrel resulting in the same or better ballistics than AR's. The downside is that bullpups typically cost more than your standard entry level AR, but are probably more on par with SBR select-fire weapons that the article discusses.

My department allows for the use of personally owned rifles, which means that as soon as my funds are ready, I'll be implementing my thoughts here in this comment.

Greg @ 7/3/2012 4:37 AM

I also like bullpups (own an FN2000, Aug)...short and accurate...but they look scarier to the average civilian and while they see AR-15s at the local Walmart and Dicks's Sporting Goods, the bullpups look militaristic and "mean". Way too many politicians care more about PR than officers safety.

James @ 9/11/2012 2:20 PM

I have very little experience with Bull pup style rifles beyond the AUG the Aussie Army uses, was not on par accuracy wise with an AR platform. That being said I am a fan of the fact they maintain compact size without sacrificing barrel length. Also they are often ambitious which is always good.

Greg has a point about the fact that they look intimidating for a police force which can at times work in LEO advantage but in the long run will likely cost more LEO live then save them. I learned a basic rule in counter-insurgency during my time in the military that is applicable here. If you look like a storm trooper you de-personalize yourself and if you do that, you make it easier for people to kill you. If you make yourself more human, they will likely have to think twice about pulling that gun and that second look at it has likely save far more LEO lives then the 4 inches on the end of there rifle barrel.

Will a Bull pup rifle turn you into a strom trooper, not buy itself and often when LEO are deploying patrol rifles it may not matter at all but it is a concept to keep in mind anytime you are interacting with the public.

will @ 4/23/2014 5:16 AM

I am currently keeping a personally owned Steyr Aug a3 in the trunk while working. With the 16" barrel you have the accuracy and ballistic advantage, while the rifle is only as Long as a 10" barreled SBR. The Aug is on par accuracy wise with 14.5" m4 style carbines but it takes hours of training to master the different trigger. As with anything training is the issue as well as the personal preference of the user.

Rustydog42 @ 1/11/2015 10:14 AM

Using Ballistics by the inch as a guide, it is apparent that .223 carbines excel ou to 250-300 meters when velocity is high. In shorter barrel.s, not so much. Stick with carbines with barrels no less than 14 inches in length.
Subguns excel at close range, propelling a bullet more than twice the mass of a typical .223 at supersonic velocities.
In the end, the best subguns with barrels 8"-10" in length provide lethality approaching that of the ,223 in 10" barrels.
Pick your poison.

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