HK XM-8: What Was it and Why? (With Larry Vickers)

Larry Vickers has the closest thing most any of us will ever have to a true XM-8 rifle, and has more than a little trigger time on the original XM-8 rifles. So, I asked him to explain what the rifle was and why it failed to become the new American service rifle. It’s a fascinating story that will give you a lot of insight into the state of rifle development over the last 20 years!


  1. Somehow, every time I look at an XM-8, I see a Lazer Tag Starlite;

    BTW, the one I have is white.

    About the best thing that can be said about the XM-8 is that they at least did it with HK’s cooperation, rather than “going it alone” as Mexico did with the FX-05 Xiuhcoatl;

    Which caused some legal problems.

    Mostly, not adopting the XM-8 saved the U.S. government the trouble of un-adopting it, as Germany and others are now going through with the parent G36. (Google “G36 rifle problems” for the whole gory story.)

    Ironically, it was HK the British government turned to to solve the problems of the SA80 rifle. Which, as it turns out, they couldn’t. (See the Osprey book on the SA80 for those gory details.) Today, British infantry are all issued 9mm pistols for when the rifle goes “down”- which in view if the British government’s attitude toward firearms in the hands of anyone but a “select” can only be defined as poetic justice.

    All the problems with everybody’s rifles (yes,including the M16/M4 series) showed up in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whatever did it, the climate or etc., does not seem to inconvenience Kalashnikovs in the least.



    • Eon, I’d like to introduce you to a bunch of people I worked with who had the distinct non-pleasure of trying to train Iraqi and Afghan troops on the AK-series rifles. Their impressions of that gun are not good ones, either.

      The AK-series rifles are magnificent pieces of machinery, when built and operated by people like the Finns. The average actual issued AK in Iraq and Afghanistan…? LOL. Utter and complete POS weapons, whose deficiencies and problems greatly degraded the whole “train the locals” program immeasurably. People decried the US issuing those forces the M16, but the reason behind that was that the AK-series weapons we were trying to use in training them were an abysmal failure, even when we bought brand-new weapons from the Bulgarians and Romanians, along with factory-fresh ammo and magazines. There were huge issues of accuracy, repeatable and reliable performance, and we eventually gave the whole thing up as a really massive waste of time and money.

      I’ll grant you that part of the issues were down to trying to integrate Iraqi Tabuk rifles, which were based off of Yugoslav technology that was slightly different than whatever the AK-standard might be, and half-a-dozen other manufacturers of the AK, but… The weapon is flatly and plainly not what it’s advertised reputation claims it is. There are a couple of articles out there that I think are open-source, which detail all the grief we had trying to make those things work, and it actually wound up being cheaper and more effective to provide the supposedly “high-tech” M16 to the Iraqis and Afghanis. It didn’t help, when conducting training, that the Iraqis could see that our guys were hitting targets at ranges they couldn’t hope to touch with their issued weapons, either.

      I once was of the opinion that the AK was the better rifle, but the question is, what is it better for? Issue to a mass conscript army that you don’t bother to give real marksmanship training to? Probably… Better weapon overall, and better weapon for issue to professional soldiers? Yeah; not so much. It’s a bullet-hose, in most manufacturer’s configurations, especially the ones that have been out in the hands of the various bands of brigands for decades. Sure, it will keep on working, but will you be able to hit what the hell you’re aiming at with it…? That’s the real question; reliability is only one of the characteristics of a good weapon, and while the AK certainly has that, the rest of the equation just isn’t there…

      • “Sure, it will keep on working, but will you be able to hit what the hell you’re aiming at with it…? That’s the real question; reliability is only one of the characteristics of a good weapon, and while the AK certainly has that, the rest of the equation just isn’t there…”
        It must be said AK is over 60 year old and more importantly it was design taking in account experiences of Great Patriotic War and for full-scale conflict, where avtomat fire would take only small part in dealing damage to enemy.

        • As the phrase goes, “horses for courses”. The AK-series of weapons are great, if you want to arm a conscripted mass with lowest-common-denominator weapons, and intend to throw them up against other mass armies. As a weapon for finesse, for modern combat…? Not so much.

          The design is capable of being very accurate; the Swiss managed to turn out a really accurate weapon using the AK basic design in the Sig 550-series, and the Finns certainly accomplished it in their interpretations of it. Trouble is, whatever the hell the Finns did isn’t a class characteristic across the mass of produced AK weapons around the world. The interaction of production and ammo quality control leads to some very iffy results, when you try to take the things into actual use as weapons in an army you’re training in the Western style.

          To a large degree, it’s not the design, it’s instead the implementation of it, across the board. You take a slightly sub-specification AK, add in slightly sub-specification ammo, and magazines that are slightly out of standard…? You have problems. Sometimes large, sometimes small, but problems nonetheless. Considering the huge amount of “fleet variance” across the board, it’s a wonder the damn things work, at all. The poor bastards trying to run training for the Iraqi police and army…? I can only muffle the hysterical laughter that describing that grief would engender. The AK system ain’t what the fanboys fantasize it is, and the entire system is what you need to look at, not just individual bits and bobs of it.

      • This is not a problem with the weapon design, bro.

        I’m sure those soldiers could have destroyed Mausers and Enfields.

  2. What does it bring to table over At-18? Nothing, other than being styled as dze Shuhe (German for shoe); even that is not very pretty as latest (and uninspiring) IMBEL can kick its proverbial ass any time. Wrapping same old stuff into plastic is also not the smartest and lack of Beretta AR160 sales is indicative of that.

    • If you meant the AR-18 in your first sentence, I got the point. Packaging is not as important as the content within, and if the design is flawed, no amount of cosmetics can hide failures later on. The AK layout was cost effective if built by competent staff but the whole point of it wasn’t accurate long range automatic fire attack more than just having decent performance overall. It’s not a master of anything in particular, but it beats having a pistol caliber automatic long arm at rifle ranges! In hindsight the problem was the quality of workmanship… and I don’t question why Iraq failed to get it right. Just look at the Lion of Babylon tank, so horrible in armor/engine quality and gunnery performance (to say nothing about horrible crew training) that even a much hated M2 Bradley painted navy blue could run around in broad daylight and kill an entire battalion of Lions with missiles and not even suffer one tank shell impact! I could be wrong…

      • You would be wrong, too.

        The root problem in the conflict between the Iraqis and the US wasn’t the equipment; it was the troops, their training, and the leadership.

        Had we paused before battle to swap gear, the results would have been the same. Most of the Iraqi gear was serviceable; used in the manner in which it was designed, in accordance with the doctrine it was designed to support, they would have been successful. Used by the Iraqi military of that period? Nothing could have saved their asses from defeat.

        I keep telling people this, but nobody believes me: It’s not the toys, it’s the men. The toys can help, but the key thing is the training, motivation, and cohesion of the troops using those toys.

        • “I keep telling people this, but nobody believes me: It’s not the toys, it’s the men. The toys can help, but the key thing is the training, motivation, and cohesion of the troops using those toys.”
          Regarding infantry, according to FM 7-5 available here:
          1. DECISIVE ELEMENT IN WAR.-Man is the final and decisive element in war. Combat is moral struggle, and victory goes to side which refuses to become discouraged.
          Numerical factors, armament, equipment, and technical training affect morale but at the same time derive their full value from the moral qualities of the soldier.

          But I must put disclaimer here, that I do not know all field manuals in existence, so it is possible that cited FM 7-5 was superseded by another document, if it so feel free to point most recent Field Manual.

        • One guy I know who was involved in that told me, “You really can’t ‘train’ somebody who’s entire philosophy is ‘in’shallah’.” (“It is- or is not- the will of Allah.”)

          Marksmanship? “If Allah wills it, it will hit.”

          Maintenance? “I am a proud warrior of Islam. That is work for menials.” (Meaning, non-Muslims or Muslims of lower “caste”.) If you think trying to teach someone with that mindset maintenance of an AK is bad, trying teaching them pilot maintenance/monitor procedures on a UH-60 sometime.

          Training? “I learned all I need to from the Holy Qur’an.” Fact; few Muslims other than “imams” and etc. can actually read it, because the original is in an archaic form of Arabic that 99% of Muslims don’t speak, read or write any more, and haven’t for over 300 years. so what he means is, “I learned all I need to know from what the imam in the Madrassa said the Holy Qur’an says.” And it doesn’t say a thing about maintaining modern weapons.

          It’s not just a “training” problem. It’s a cultural problem.

          Eon’s Eighth Law

          “Race” is not destiny. Culture absolutely is. Religion and politics are just a part of culture. Culture is the “operating system” of a civilization. Like any OS, it’s a case of GIGO; Garbage In, Garbage Out.

          You were fighting “culture” there, and that’s a losing battle nine times out of ten.



          • I’d have to agree, with regards to dealing with Arab culture in a military context.

            However, the problems with the AK? Wasn’t just with the guys we were training; the people who were running that aspect of the show were US soldiers and civilian contractors, and they were the ones having to try to get everything up and running. Which it mostly did not, thanks to all the issues with the weapons. There were reasons that the problems we experienced led to the mass fielding of the M16, and most of those stemmed from the inherent flaws of the AK design itself. One of the warrant officers tasked with keeping the Iraqi small arms program up and running said it best, when he described the AK as being really only usable if you were tapped into a Soviet-era support system, and getting most of your stuff for free. If you’re stuck trying to keep the collection of misfit toys that was the Iraqi small arms world in a functional state, and then train the troops on them…? Yeah; not so much. As a fleet process, it simply did not work well, nor was it affordable. The numbers actually worked out to be significantly cheaper to simply shit-can the entire AK fleet, and pure-fleet on the M16.

            PKM, different story. Those seemed to be essentially unstoppable, and it didn’t seem to matter who made them or their ammo.

      • ” Just look at the Lion of Babylon tank, so horrible in armor/engine quality and gunnery performance (to say nothing about horrible crew training) that even a much hated M2 Bradley painted navy blue could run around in broad daylight and kill an entire battalion of Lions with missiles and not even suffer one tank shell impact”
        Conclusion is that proud name will not negate lack of quality, on the other hand without alternative, lackluster tank is better than not tank at all.

        • The M2 Bradley was an infantry-carrying fighting vehicle not meant to take on tanks. The Lion of Babylon, in contrast, could easily destroy the Bradley in a face-to-face duel at standoff distance. The problems came down to crew training and whether or not someone remembered to restock ammunition, fuel, food, and water. Given that Iraqi manufacturing standards left much to desire (one could barely hit a barn with a Tariq pistol, much less an angry bayonet-wielding American), I wouldn’t be surprised if the Lion of Babylon tanks broke down a lot (and such breakdowns were probably hidden from public view to make the tanks look MUCH better than they actually were) and also tended not to hit stationary American vehicles with their main guns (until someone finally managed to get the sighting equipment fixed). In one encounter, a Bradley nearly drove on top of a hull-down Iraqi tank (either the T-72 or a Lion). The former backed off in a panic (while shooting the Iraqi tank with its 25 mm auto-cannon) and then killed the latter (who was also backing away in sheer panic) by means of TOW missile to the face at point blank. Ouch.

      • Rifle must be handy first of all; it is a 200m tool after all. The simpler the better. This, the G36 and ARX160 are visually anything but handy. What is my measure and standard to this day is Sa.vz.58. No wonder people are falling over themselves to get its civilian version for ridiculously high price.

        • I don’t think visual appearances count for much, at all. The elegance of good engineering aside, which is usually readily apparent at a glance, the way something looks often has little to do with how well it works. Case in point, in terms of recent military small arms? Look at the StG57, which is about the most ungainly-looking awkward piece of hardware you can imagine… And, yet–The damn thing drives tacks, and I’d bet good money that the full-auto version was one hell of a good light machinegun, at need.

          And, actually, I’ve always found the vz.58 rather an awkward-looking rifle, purely from an aesthetic point of view, although your mileage may vary.

        • Considering how true military firearms work, it’s amazing that anyone believes that the army uses guns with a crap-load of accessories attached! I bet that even the bolt-action Type 99 rifle could nail any “tactically-upgraded” ARX 160 would-be-Rambo right in the groin.

          • Give me an ARX 160 with an IR laser, a set of night vision goggles, and I’ll lay you long odds I can account for most of a WWII Japanese infantry battalion before my luck runs out. Been there, done that from the standpoint of being the guy without modern night-fighting equipment, and I have a great deal of respect for what the exponential improvements in the art have been since the era when the Type 99 was considered an acceptable issue weapon.

            Modern weapons against the weapons of even one or two generations ago turn combat into pest extermination campaigns, and without the equipment to even visualize what’s going on, you can’t do a damn thing about it. IR lasers and good goggles are that much of a game-changer.

            So, no. The ARX 160-armed soldier isn’t even in the same sport, let alone league, as a WWII and earlier Japanese infantryman. Same-same with everyone else of that era, as well–The technology has improved that much. Assuming you were to somehow be able to set such an encounter up, the difference in lethality would be akin to having Napoleonic infantry regiment taking on an opponent somewhat less sophisticated than a Roman legion. Walkover, in other words.

          • Kirk, when I said “would-be-Rambo,” I referred to some civilian noob who thought his cool toy would allow him to take on ridiculous odds just because the cool toy is, well, cool. No amount of coolness can save you in that scenario if you’re stupid enough to charge into the enemy’s ranks from the front and constantly fire away at full auto without letting the gun cool down. I was not referring to a true commando, who would do as you just described-take down enemies through stealth.

        • The vz. 58 is a wonderful piece of engineering, sure. It surely beats most 7.62×39 rifes of its era, with (perhaps) the sole exception of Finnish-made AK variants.

  3. I’m going to defer to Mr. Vickers about his reasoning for why the XM-8 failed, politically, but… There are some other issues with the whole procurement process in the US that tie into the whole problem of why we’re still fielding a weapon that was initially procured as a stop-gap, off-the-shelf purchase that was initially thought to just be something to get us through a few years of the Vietnam War.

    The M16/M4 family of weapons are symptomatic of the entire dysfunctional process. Unless things have changed, the M16A2 is still being built off a TDP that hasn’t really been updated since the late 1950s, in terms of basic manufacturing processes and techniques. They are still, for example, specifying button-broached barrels, while the Canadian Forces enjoy the benefits of cold rotary-hammer forged barrels, and FN offers those up, as well. The reason that most of the European buyers of the M16-type weapons have gone with the Diemaco and then Colt Canada weapons? A great deal of it is down to those barrels. Only SOCOM gets those, here in the US, and that’s due mostly to them being able to bypass the system and specify those superior barrels by going through Crane…

    Is it any wonder that the XM-8 got shit-canned by these people? Why hasn’t that TDP for the basic infantry weapon been updated to keep up with the times? That question alone calls the entire procurement system into question, and then when you consider just how many damn times we’ve tried for this “replace the M16” wunderwaffen and failed to do more than some major teasing of the industry’s bigger players…? Yeah. You want a perfect lay-down for the US Army vs. the firearms industry? Look at Lucy playing Charlie Brown with the football–Every damn time, the folks like HK submit, the Army dithers, and millions of dollars wind up being wasted. It would be one damn thing if these testing regimes turned up actual improvements, but about the only thing I can really think of coming out of all of it was Trijicon getting some publicity for the ACOG, which led to SOCOM putting them on top of their M4s. Other than that, what did the millions spent on the ACR program get us, besides some pretty-pretties to put in video games?

    Small arms procurement is massively broken in the US Army. Look at the P-Mag for other examples–The enhanced followers in the issue magazines, which were virtually copied feature-for-feature off of the MagPul design? Yeah; how long has the P-Mag been available, and how long has TACOM been fighting adopting the damn things? How much money did they sink into “alternatives”, before bowing to reality and just buying the P-Mag?

    Small arms procurement is fundamentally broken, here in the US. Don’t even get me started about training and everything else–Stories I could tell you about interacting with the assholes at the Infantry School who were supposedly “subject-matter experts” on the M249, and who published not only erroneous, but known-to-be-unworkable zeroing procedures for night-vision devices in the Field Manual, and who merely laughed out loud at end-users out in the field who called them asking why the procedures in the manual didn’t work…

    Yeah, I’ve got some animosity for the whole crew of incompetents. Mr. Vickers may actually be the only guy whose name I know that isn’t a complete dumbass. The rest of that lot I only know by working with their products, and I’m not impressed one damn bit with them or the results of their taxpayer-financed “labor”. I think we’d do better to fire the lot of them, and have procurement handled by a bunch of randomly-selected senior SF weapons sergeants…

    • “Look at the P-Mag for other examples–The enhanced followers in the issue magazines, which were virtually copied feature-for-feature off of the MagPul design? Yeah; how long has the P-Mag been available, and how long has TACOM been fighting adopting the damn things? How much money did they sink into “alternatives”, before bowing to reality and just buying the P-Mag?”
      I am wondering how much time would they need to introduce 60-round magazine, like 6Л31, see 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th images from top here:

    • Bureaucrats live in their own little world, where nobody questions their motives and methods. By their standards everyone should live in a picture perfect world!
      I happen to be a victim of “middle class elitists.” One day over ten years ago our phone line quit. My mother asked the next door neighbor if she could use the telephone to call our phone company for help. The neighbor slammed the door in my mother’s face. In fact, nobody in the neighborhood wanted to help us because we hard-working immigrant-descent folks weren’t “good enough to get help from ‘proper Americans’.” Mom had to drive to city hall to call for a repairman and the guy spent 4 hours fixing the phone box on our house, as it was totally smashed by the previous home owner’s bad manners. The neighbors had the nerve to start spreading rumors that Mom had some kind of affair with the phone guy. How rude of them!

      • You’re a victim of poor neighbor selection; were that to happen to you in many of the places I’ve lived, your mom would have gotten way more help than she really wanted or needed.

        It’s strangely class-indifferent, as well–I’ve known some remarkably gracious wealthy upper-class people who would give you the shirt off their backs, and some really poor people who were of a similar nature. Bad manners are similarly without class markers; you will find jackasses at every point of the socio-economic scale, and in every neighborhood. Regrettably, nobody has figured out a way to mark them so as to make it easy to avoid them, although I think experimenting with indelible paintgun markers has some potential…

        • My dad was working like a maniac ever since the post 9/11 recession. His employer’s company had gone bust, so he was forced to juggle 2 part-time jobs simultaneously while our phone line was in danger. And Dad was no telephone expert, even though he had graduated with his Master’s Degree in mechanical engineering. He said this about the bad state of our phone lines: “If you don’t know how the previous home-owner messed up the lines were before we moved in, DO NOT TRY TO UN-MESS THEM UNLESS YOU WANT TO GET ZAPPED!” Mom had to ask the neighbors for help while Dad was out working like crazy (and I was likely at school at the time). I suppose the neighbors said “if your husband can’t fix it, you worthless dirt-digging scumbags had better move back to the crappy country you came from and kill your own kids while you’re at it!” How would you respond to that!?

  4. Ian I think some of the comments alone on your posts are really insightful, and that speaks to a great draw. I had seen and heard of the XM-8 a few times over the years and then suddenly, that ended. Now I get why.

  5. Horses for courses. Now: This isn’t a horse for any course “M4 attachments” then, maybe it was. G36… Bit, crap? Really: Good, business; short term profit, modern business… Crap though really, probably catches up- German diesels gassing everyone, down went Germanys reputation for good products (faking it) like everyone else.

    • Excellent video however, and I think I can see the run around “grenade launcher split etc” sure it’s a fantastic piece to own, and have worked on etc.

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