19 June 2012

FWS Armory: Commando Carbines

The origin of this blogpost began when I was playing paintball. I was outfitted in my typical Vietnam layout complete with tiger-strip and a Tippmann Alpha Black marker, when some kid, who looked like he was 12 said: "Nice Black-Ops outfit! Love the Colt Commando." I looked down at my Alpha Black and asked, "where do you hear that term?" "From the game, dude." And moved on with his private church party. That got me to thinking about very short assault carbines and the names associated with them. On the drive back home, I thought of little else, giving birth to this blogpost. Personally, I've always been obsessed with these types of even shorter carbines, and if I was in a Special Forces unit, I would carry a commando length carbine. In this blogpost, FWS will discuss what a 'commando carbine' is and how and who uses them in combat. 

Definition for an 'Commando' carbine
An commando length assault carbine is assault rifle that has been cutdown to a carbine length then is further cut down by fitting a shorter barrel on the carbine, normally reeducating an 14inch barrel down to 10 or 11inches. This commando carbine retains most of the design and functional elements of the assault rifle/carbine, including the caliber chambered, to allow specialized units to easily translation from carbine to commando easily. Typically, commandos are not normally assigned to general combat units, but specialized assault units, that engage in counter terrorism operations and/or close-quarters warfare. Other traditional users of the commandos are armored vehicle and helicopter crews, dog handlers, medics, and some officers. Other terms that are used to describe the Commandos is: Sub machine gun (I shit you not), shorty, ultra-short or even stubby, like saying 'the stubby or shorty M16', and compact carbines. 

History of the Assault Commando Carbines
The history of the commando length carbines has been short in the overall firearms history, and it was until intermediate rifle cartridge were developed that commandos came about. These 5.45mm and 5.56mm allowed the shooter to use a smaller framed weapon, without the issues of recoil and power tat more traditional rifle cartridges of .30-06 or 7.92x57 Mauser. From my research, the first commando assault carbine was the 10inch barreled carbine (sometimes called a submachine gun) of the original CAR-15 military weapons system family developed around 1965. For the most part, the newly named CAR-15 11.5inch barreled commando carbine was the only one of its kind, until 1979, when the USSR developed a ultra compact variant of their newly fielded AK-74 with the 5.45x39mm round, the AKS-74U. At the time, the stubby M16s and AK-74s were being used by special units, most of the global armed forces were using the submachine gun for close-quarters warfare. Unlike most global communities, the USA and USSR never really fielded a modern SMG, some units still used the WWII-era M3 Greaser gun, but this gap allowed for the stubby assault rifle to find a niche in their inventory.
It was not until the death of the SMGs coupled armed forces began to adopt family style weapon systems in the mid-1990's, the commandos like the G36C and the FAMAS G2 SMG came about to replace the H&K MP5 with higher powered rifle cartridges. 
Currently, commando length carbines are popular with specialized assaults units, like DELTA, and DEVGRU that pride themselves on CQC tactics. and are a part of great overall modular weapons platform like the M4A1, the H&K 416, G36, TAR-21, and the Colt CM901 allowing for flexible in the field. This picture here is of two NAVSPECWAR operators weapon setups in the Hardigg Storm cases best explains the current role of the commando length carbines: as modular elements to a base weapon. Modular-ability allows for an operator to switch out an upper that fits the tactical situation of the mission. This allows the operator not only the flexible of using the same carbine for different role, but he does not  lose his zero on the aiming devices, because they are fitted to a rail system. Given the trends in firearms, it is likely that a shorty barreled version of the base assault rifle will be an available option for operators.   

The Colt CAR-15: What is in a Name?
'Colt CAR-15' and 'Colt Commando' are loaded terms in the world of firearms, and are generalized blanket terms for the variety of shortened M16s throughout its nearly fifty year deployment with the United State military. Just mentioning of the name 'CAR-15' or 'Colt Commando' will send any firearms forum in a holy shit-fit, because these terms are used for ever short barrelled AR-15 carbine prior to the M4. Historical speaking, it might greatly surprise people that the Colt Firearms has had a 10-to-11.5 inch barreled carbine version of the AR15 since 1964. Originally, the AR15 was to be a entire family of weapons based on a common design and caliber, similar to the H&K G36 and XM8, and the FN SCAR. The original name for this family-style of Stoner 5.56mm weapons was CAR-15. However, the only one to survive to be fielded in Vietnam was the standard assault rifle and the short barreled version, which later would became known as the CAR-15.  
The original concept behind the shortened carbine within the CAR-15 family was indented by Colt to be a lightweight and compact carbine, taking the place of the WWII/Korean War Thompson M1 and M1 Carbines. The Prototypes that left Colt to the US Army and Air Force were the XM177E1, also known as Model 607/609/610/610 B. Model 607, 609 and 610 were designed to fire single shot then fully automatic, however, the Model 610B was single then tri-burst, similar to the 1980's M16A2. During the tests, these 10inch barrelled carbines had issues with carbon build due to the stick powder, leading to jamming foreshadowing widespread issues with M16. About 3,000 XM177E1s were ordered by the US Army in 1966.
To remedy issue of jamming and carbon build-up, Colt engineers fitted the XM177E1 with an 11.5inch barrel with a new muzzle moderator, and boring out the gas ports,  creating the XM177E2. According to sources, this the shortened M16 that earned the name 'Shorty-16', CAR-15, CAR-15 SMG, and Colt Commando, saw an initial order by the US Army of 510 units for the MACVSOG unit. Other sources (like wikipedia) state that these 11.5inch barrelled carbines were called the Model 629 and  649, the difference was that the Model 649 had a forward assist. Much like the name CAR-15 or Commando, these short-barrelled M16s in the Air Force were known generally as the GAU-5. These weapons were extremely popular with all manner of soldiers during the Vietnam conflict, both for the easy-of-use and the look, making them hard to come by.
Here is a few comments about the Vietnam-era CAR-15:
"The other major limitation of the rifle was one the LRRPs could not control. The CAR-15 was extremely popular with staff officers and other rear-echelon types who liked to look like the warriors they so avoided joining. As a result, the CAR-15s were always in short supply, and the ones that were available were passed along from replacement to replacement. Many LRRPs who served in the final years of the war recall carrying nearly worn-out weapons with barrels so used that much of their accuracy had been lost." (Lanning: Inside The LRRPS, Page: 124)
"The Model 07 CAR-15...was a very handy weapon with a good deal of firepower. We used the original Model 07 CARs in the Teams until they were literally falling apart... the Army had its own versions of the CAR-15 designed, the XM177E1 and E2. Though they had a few more bells and whistles than the SEALs thought necessary, such as a forward bolt assist to help close the breech on a dirty round, the Teams accepted as many XM177s as we could get. Those weapons were also used till long after the Vietnam War had ended, when they were finally replaced with a new version, the M4 Carbine." (Watson & Dockery: Walking Point: Pages: 143-144)
If what this source says is true, that means from the 1970's to the fielding of the Colt M4/M4A1 carbines in 1994, Vietnam-era Colt Model 607s were still be used...amazing. The story of the shortened M16 does not end in the jungles of Vietnam, in the 1970's, the Colt Model 653 with a 14.5inch barrel was used by the US, Israeli, and the Philippines (called Model 653P, which appeared in the 1987 film Platoon). The Model 653 carbines, known as Mekut'zar or Mekut'zrar, were shipped to the IDF during the Yom Kippur War under Operation: Nickel Grass, have been  used since the 1970's, and only now are being replaced by the Israeli made TAR-21. As for the commando length carbines, Colt made two 11.5inch barrel variants out of the M16A2 rifle, the Mode 733 and the flattop Model 933, while the Air Force used the GUU-5/P.
 According to rumor and speculation, GUU-5/Ps,Model 733s and possible Model 653s were used by Task Force Ranger members during the of October 3rd & 4th 1993. In two books that used primary sources for the battle of Mogadishu, USAF Para-Jumpers CCT Dan Schilling and Master Sergeant Timothy A. Wilkinson called their shorty M16s as 'GAU-5', which could mean that the Air Force used GAU-5 as generic term,  much like the Army used CAR-15. From the limited photographic evidence of the DEVGRU and DELTA operators at the time of the battle of Mogadishu, most point to the use of 14.5inch barrelled carbines, which means they were either M727 or M733 or even prototype M4 carbines.
This is all a soup sandwich in reality, and it takes an expert, operator, or a gun designer to identify the different between the vast array of shortened Colt carbines.The underline story of the Commando length M16s since 1964, is that they were never respected by either the wider military administration or Colt, the bulk of them being built out of spare parts, taken by REMFs with no business using the weapon. This all changed when the SOF community and the US military asked Colt, in 1994, to build a modern carbine and later, a Commando version. These became the M4 and the M4 CQBR (MARK 18 MOD 0) respectably.

Advantages of a Commando Assault Carbines
  • SMG sized Assault rifle, combining the power of an AR cartridge with the compactness of an SMG
  • Maneuverability
  • Lighter weight
  • Smaller stowing size for vehicle crews and Airborne units
  • The tacticool look...hey, that is important
Disadvantages of a Commando Assault Carbines
  • Greater fouling from heavy use due to the smaller gas ejection ports
  • Effective distance verse a standard 14inch carbine barrel
  • Flash blindness from the muzzle flash
  • Not suited for freeflowing tactical situations (Example: the1993 Battle of Mogadishu)
Why do Shorter Barrels Symbolize being an Badass?
When researching the history of the shorty M16's of Vietnam, it was interesting to read that Vietnam-era fobbits and officers stealing these short barreled carbines to make themselves to look cool, like the LRRPs of the day. When Oliver Stone filmed Platoon, he used this to set apart Barnes and Elias from the rest of the unit, by equip them with Colt Model 653P carbines, symbolizing their status without saying a word. But why do commando lenght carbines and/or short-barreled guns make one look more cool and more elite than the normal assault rifle? My theory is that this predates modern warfare, and hearkens back to original usage for carbines, for the Calvary units, like the Sharps rifle. Calvary units were seen by many back in the day, to be the more elite troopers with special skills, and carbines were mostly exclusive to their units, separating them from the regular infantry with their very long rifles. This may have been the case during World War II, when specialized military units used the Thompson M1 (like the British SAS and LRDP) and the MP40. The status of the Thompson M1 .45 SMG that it was used by Bonnie and Clyde, and the Chicago Mob. Besides the sub machine guns, the special assigned M1 carbine had a specialized variant, the M1A1 given to Airborne units. 
 This idea must somehow have entered into  the collective consciences of the American people, because by the 1980's action movies, it seems that all them were using pistols, sub machine guns, and short-barreled rifles instead the more classic (and useful) assault rifle, just looked at the heroes of Die Hard, Invasion USA, Mad Max and Snake from Escape from New York. In these works and historical examples, short barrels must translate to something of the skill-level of the individual wielding it, much like how the Heckler and Koch MP5 symbolized SWAT or Counter-terrorism in the 1980's and 90's. In the minds of most people, if you are not using a standard length gun, than you are more skilled than the average GI Joe, and belong to a group of badasses. This also may have something to do with that most shorty weapons are used for close-quarters warfare, and since the time of the Shaolin Monks, closer contact with your target means that you are able to handle yourself.  
This idea was used to separate the DELTA Operators in the film Blackhawk Down for the Rangers, and was even applied to the head of the militia, Mo'alim, who wield a AKS-74U, and in the film Heat where several of the bank robbers use 11.5inch barreled Colt Model 733 while the cops used the full sized rifles. 

My own Commando Assault Carbines
As many of you have read on this blog, I play military-style (MILSIM) paintball since 2003, and one of the great things about my sport-of-choice is that as long as my marker shoots .68 caliber balls, I can play with what I want. And for the last few years, my primary has been the solid Tippmann Alpha Black Tactical Edition, and prior to that, it was an USAPP Viper M1 military with the 10inch barrel.
I've never cared for the long barreled rifles, sniper rifles, or even the tradition speedball markers, and given the conditions on the PB fields, a  short, compact weapons, like the Alpha Black, is right tool for the most conditions.  The only thing I've done with it, is mount a sling, because the Alpha Black is one hell of a PB marker, and the fulfillment of a dream I had since seeing Blackhawk Down in 2001. 
A few years ago, I modified my original paintball marker and former rental gun, my Tippmann PRO/AM into a M4 CQBR with stunning results. However, after a tour of duty at Oklahoma D-DAY 2007 and killing many Nazis, I sold the heavy old girl off to rise some cash for my Tiberius Arms T8 pistol...beautiful marker though.

Real Steel examples of Assault Commando Carbines

The IMI Galil MAR (AKA Micro Galil)
Relatively late in the life of the Galil assault rifle, in 1994, a stubby barreled variant was created for use by special Police units and army units. While most of the Israeli Army uses the 14inch barrel Colt M16 carbine, the MAR was used by armored vehicle crews, base staff, some SOF units, and the airborne. Even today, the MAR Galil can still be seen in some units, but will be replaced by the TAR-21.

The M4 CQBR (AKA Mk.18 Mod 0)
Honestly, the M4A1 close quarters battle receiver is one hell of a sexy little weapon, and is one of my favorite weapons. The Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division developed a 10.3inch barrelled upper variant of the M4 carbine in 2000, and was called the CQBR or Mk 18 Mod 0. Up until 2006, the soul users of the CQBR was DEVGRU and DELTA operators for close-quarters combat and VIP protection duty, then became issued to naval and coast guard personnel for VBSS operations, along with EOD and Marine Force Recon units. It was during the September 2, 2002 attempted assassination of Afghan President Hamid Karzai that most of the world got a glimpse at the M4A1 CQBR used by Karzai's DEVGRU close protection detail.
It was not long after this, that these M4A1 based commando length carbines were replaced by the H&K 416 with 10inch barrels for TIER-One units.

 The AKS-74U
When the Zombies come, I want one of these of these sexy Russian AKS-74U, the U means "Ukorochennyj" meaning or "shortened". Much like all cut-down stubby assault carbines, the original purpose of the Krinkov was to serve armored vehicle crews, airborne units, special forces, dog handlers. This 8.3inch barrelled variant of the 5.45x39mm AK-74 saw action in the Soviet/Afghan War with helicopter gunship based Spetsnaz units. This little AK gained worldwide fame with films and games, and infamy as Osama Bin Laden's personal gun for years. This, besides the CAR-15, is one of the best known commando carbines in the world, and is known by many names: the Krinkov, Ksyukha, and Okurok.

Land Warfare Resources Corporation developed their own short-stroke pistol driven AR15 carbine, and was designed to be a modular system with several variants. One of these variants is the Personal Security Detachment presumed to be designed for private security close protection details in Iraq and A-Stan,  fitted with an eight inch barrel and chambers both the 5.56mm and the 6.8mm rounds.

The H&K 416C
According to some (including me), the 10inch barreled variant of the H&K 416 5.56x45mm assault carbine was the tool of the DEVGRU Red Team Operators that sent UBL to hell. The commando length variant of the H&K 416 carbine was developed as an upper part that could be easily swapped about, similar to the M4 CQBR. Interestingly,  the initial order for the H&K 416 placed by DELTA Force for a few hundred units were equipped with ten inch barrel. 

The Olympic Arms K23B
Here kitty, kitty, kitty...
Weapons like the Olympic Arms K23B are a rare variant of the standard commando carbine, these are fitted with a 7.5inch barrel or even extremely short 6.5inch barrel. I have yet to run across any real-steel users of this very cool little gun. However, it was made into a popular Airsoft gun by DPMS Airsoft company who called their extremely short M4 the "kitty kat".

The H&K G36C
The family of G36 5.56mm assault rifles used by the Bundeswehr since 1994 has a shortened variant, the G36C(ompact)  fitted with a nine inch barrel. Due to the very short barrel and the users of the G36C, the upper receiver was modified, replacing the carrying handle for a Picatinny rail. The G36C has proven to be popular with the export market, for both police and special forces units. Most people's exposure to the H&K G36C has come through the vast amount of video games, like the Rainbow Six 3.

Enfield L22A1 and FAMAS G2 SMG and the X95 MTAR
Unlike the majority of real-steel weapons mentioned above, the following three examples are all cut-down bullpup assault carbines. Normally, one of the great advantages of the bullpup is that carbine-sized weapon can be fitted with an assault rifle barrel, but some military units cut down that even further to bullpup commandos that have 13 inches barrels, like the IMI X95 TAR-21 variant.
This is similar to the FAMAS G2 SMG (12inch barrel), the Chinese QBZ-95B (13inches), and the British L22A1/A2 (17.4inches), all were developed for armored vehicle crews, special forces units, and aircarft crews. From my research, the British L22A1 and A2 were especially assigned to Royal Armored units, and the famed SAS generally uses M4s and G36Cs. Most of these are rarely used, even the already compact nature of bullpup assault rifles 

Applications of Commando Carbines in Military Science Fiction
FWS is devoted to military science fiction, and supplying information to writers/creators of the genre. I would hope that these  firearms posts could be used to develop more realistic futuristic weapons, among them specialized weapons used by special forces. Commando length carbines could be used to illustrate the different between special forces and regular infantry, or to be used by special assaulters during VBSS and/or hostage rescue. In one of my other books (being edited at the moment), I used an custom constructed commando carbine to demonstrate the different between different groups of soldiers. One is later used by my main character as a war trophy and object of pride, but it does get her into trouble. 

Assault Commando Carbines in Sci-Fi
Commando length carbines are extremely rare in science fiction, and to my knowledge there is one honest commando length variant of a standard rifle. Most are often placed into science fiction visual works by happy accident or used as a base weapon for a futuristic prop gun. Here the reasons why a commando appears in sci-fi:
  • Real-steel gun is used as a base prop weapon
  • An honest commando variant of a base gun
  • Done for "tacticool' reasons
  • Happy accident
Examples of Commando Carbines in Sci-Fi 

The "Carter Custom" from Stargate SG-1
One the more interesting commando carbines comes from season seven of Stargate SG-1 and was used by Major Samantha Carter over a few episodes. The base gun appears to be a Olympic Arms K23B, equipped with a beta-c magazine, all manner of other goodies and mounting rails. This was one of those guns specially built by an prop master, and is often the case, it is just by luck that the base gun is an commando, not by design. This commando prop was crafted to counter the production cost of 5.7mm blanks.

The MA5K from HALO: The Ghosts of Onyx\
This is the only honest commando carbine, according to my definition above, because it is a short barreled variant of the MA5B, and is used for the classic roles of a commando.The MA5K appears only in the book Ghosts of Onyx and HALO: Legends DVD. From the HALO wiki page, it was issued to UNSC Marine Shocktroopers, SPARTAN-III units on specific missions, and armored vehicle crews. Generally, SPARTAN II/III soldiers do not use the K over the other UNSC assault rifles due to limited range and lower ballistic power. The 'K', presumed to stand for '"kurz' or German for short.

The BlasTech E-11  from the original Star Wars films
Much like the Colonial Marines M41A1 Pulse Rifle of ALIENS,  the BlasTech E-11 is not easily placed into a firearms category. Some Star Wars source material, like the West End Games technical manuals, called the E-11 blaster a pistol, others, a rifle, and others, a carbine. From the way that blaster is used, mostly by elite special force assaulters in close-quarters conditions, and given it does have a wire stock and the stubby barrel, I would christen the E-11 an commando-length DEW, but it was a happy accident by the prop-master. Much like other Star Wars weapons, the prop-master developed these blasters around real-steel weaponry, the E-11 blaster started life as a Sterling 9mm L2A3 SMG.

The DC-17m  IWS from Star Wars: Republic Commando and DC-15s from the Clone Wars era
The Delta Squad of the Republic was an elite special assault clone army unit, and used specialized gear. Their primary directed energy weapon was the DC-17m, and the base weapon was a short barreled, folding wire stock rifle.It seems that the creators were definitively linking the DC-15S to the E-11 of the Original TrilogyThe S variant of the DC-15 blaster rifle was used for close assault, vehicle crews, and oddly, as a secondary armament.
It is canon that the DC series of blasters, the 15S and 17m base commando carbine are the fathers of the later used E-11 blaster by the Imperial Stormtroopers, particularly, given its design and magazine placement. So, were the DC-17m and DC-15S developed to be commando carbines? I think the DC-17m is trying to be tacticool and similar to modern special forces usage of SMGs. But, the DC-15S, which is a short-barreled carbine descanted from a large, longer base directed-energy rifle, the DC-15A.

Tyr's Gun from Gene Rhoddenberry's Andromeda

One of the main characters, Tyr Anasazi, used a compact. bullpup, short-barreled Guass assault commando carbine during his run throughout the show, and was especially seen in the excellent season one finale:, it's hour come 'round at last. From visuals clues, this little carbine fires a blue DEW bolt, but according to the Andromeda wiki, it was a Gauss KEW.  

Various directed-energy weapons from Star Trek: DS9
The Klingons, the Bajorians, and the genetic lapdogs of the Dominion, the Jem'Hadar all use short barreled weapons, and seem to be designed for close-quarters VBSS operations, which would make sense from the combat seen in the series. However, the Klingon and Bajorian DEW base platform are the pistols, not full-sized assault rifles. Energy beam weapons of the Star Trek universe operate diffidently than conventional firearms, making barrel lengths, and how much of the barrel extends out of the weapons more about design than function.
Most of the weapons in the ST universe would be considered commandos simply based barrel length and limited stock, but none are variants of an longer base rifle, this particularly true of the hostile-alien-species-of-the-week reused and redressed prop-guns. This seems to be a case of a prop-master designing futuristic rayguns without consideration of real-world firearms design


  1. It is a pity that we civvies can't get short barreled carbines. This, like the restrictions on full-auto weapons, can be largely blamed on the gangsters in the Prohibition years. I've heard that they use to saw the barrel of a 30-06 hunting rifle down really short, and then use it as a close range weapon during hits. Thus, SBRs were targeted by anti-gangster gun laws, and we can't put ten inch barrels on our AR-15s.

    Short barreled carbines might be popular in spaceships, space stations, and space colonies where the environment is cramped. SMGs may not be able to penetrate future body armor reliably, but a full size carbine will be somewhat unwieldy, so space troops may be issued short barreled carbines instead.

    As for the various directed-energy small arms from SF- it is difficult to group them according to modern day firearms terms. We differentiate between SMGs, PDWs, and short barreled carbines based on the cartridge they fire, but ray-guns don't shoot bullets. If we are using ray-guns, it is likely that we will build a compact ray-gun to fulfill the general use of a SMG or shorty carbine. It is possible that someone might call such a weapon a "laser submachine-gun", much as we still refer to blueprints although we don't actually use actual blueprints anymore, but it isn't entirely accurate.

    One problem with fictional ray-guns is that some prop designers just model them on real-world guns without considering the differences between a ray-gun and a slugthrower. A ray-gun will work very differently from real guns- for example, a real ray-gun might not need a long barrel, or indeed need any barrel at all. All a useful ray-gun really needs is an ergonomic design and some sights, details that are often omitted by SF weapons.

    Christopher Phoenix

    1. Well, you know, you technically can, you just gotta pay the gubmint a $200 fee and wait two months for them to approve it.

  2. I've recently thought about joining a tactical shooting group in Fort Worth, they require a 9mm and an AR15, the 9mm is not an issue, SIG Sauer all the way. But, most civilian AR15 are 16inch barrels, I would love to tactical shot with an HK or SIG piston-driven AR15 with an 10inch. All of this is too rich for my blood, the tax stamp on a 10inch is about $200.
    One of the throwback designs for a raygun that wasn't based on a modern firearm was the Drac raygun from 1985's Enemy Mine.

  3. Another excellent article you've written, William. Thumbs up, mate :D.

    In regards to the Blastech E-11 from Star Wars, it's safe to say that the E-11 IS a blaster rifle as its the standard issue blaster rifle of the Imperial forces to replace the DC-15A blaster rifle and the DC-15S blaster carbine the Republic clone troopers used during the Clone Wars.

    On another note re. the E-11 blaster rifle. When I look at the E-11, I can't help but compare the E-11 to the Colt Commando/XM-177 series carbines and the current M4/M4A1 series carbines in terms of appearance (if you look at the E-11 and the M4A1, you'll see what I'm talking about ;) ) as well as their role as a compact battle rifle for troops fighting in different terrains and environments.

  4. Ah! Yes, I do see what you are talking about with the M4 and E11, and how popular the E11 (like the M4) became popular with the all troops. The E11 is one of the most iconic lasers weapons in all of sci-fi, and it is an odd one to me...it was based off an SMG, used as a rifle, but used like an carbine.
    Thanks for reading and commenting

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  6. Neat article, but the photo of AKS-74U does NOT show an actual AKS-74U. Instead, it's a 7.62x39 carbine model of AKMS, most probably a Zastava M92.

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