Introduction: Right, before I go any further I have a confession to make. Ysee, the thing is, Im not really a big fan of Armalites. Theyve just never grabbed my interest in the way guns such as the P90 or G3 do.
So, why buy one then?
The M4 is a fairly recent evolution of the Armalite M16, originally designed by Eugene Stoner and in service with the US army (and many others as well) in one form or another since 1965.
Since I like my guns to be realistic, metal wherever possible, I didnt even considered any of the Tokyo Marui Armalites. That left Classic Army and ICS. I suppose theres also the Systema PTW but seeing as how it costs more than my car it didnt really get a look in. I was leaning toward the CA M15. My MP5 has been an excellent gun and the reviews Id read suggested the M15 would be equally as good.
First Impressions: A large brown cardboard box arrived in the post. Inside it was some bubble wrap and another brown cardboard box. Upon removing and opening the rather dull box I found my new M4 covered rather shoddily in bubble wrap and a hi-capacity magazine wedged in the corner of the box. After removing the gun from the box I found an instruction manual amongst the cardboard partitions. No cleaning rod, no BBs, no leaflets, no catalogues. There isnt even an Allen key for removing the flash hider. All in all, it wasnt a terribly good first impression. Still, I wasnt buying the box and I already have suitable cleaning rods and Allen keys so I turned my attention to the gun to have a closer look at it.
The first thing that strikes you about the M4 is its size, or lack of it. This is not a big gun at all. To put it in perspective its actually shorter than my MP5 SD2. Its not just the length thats small either. Everything about it is smaller than you expect. I dont have big hands but I found that it was impossible to get my fingers through the carry-handle and the pistol grip felt small in my hand. I should stress that the gun isnt uncomfortable but I was surprised to find that it felt smaller than my MP5.
After a few minutes of familiarising myself with the gun I picked the magazine out of the box and examined it. I’m not a fan of hi-cap magazines. I do use them, on occasion, but I prefer to use lo-cap’s or mid-cap’s if possible. The finish of the ICS hi-cap isn’t terribly good. It’s spot-welded together and the construction isn’t very good, resulting in wavy seams where the welds have pressed the metal halves together. It clipped into place securely, however and I continued to examine the rest of the gun.
On the left-hand side there is a laser-etched Olympic Arms logo, trademarks and an apparently unique serial number. Controls on the left side include the bolt-release which is a dummy and, behind it, the fire-select lever. This operates smoothly, with a positive click, as you move it from one position to another.
At the rear of the receiver, on the carry-handle, is the rear sight, which is fully adjustable for windage and elevation. Below this is the charging handle that operates the ejector cover found on the right-hand side of the gun. This opens to reveal the hop-up mechanism hidden behind the fake bolt. Also on the right-hand side of the gun is the forward-assist knob which is used to release the spring tension before storing the gun or opening the receiver.
It is worth noting the importance of releasing the spring tension before opening the receiver since if you don’t do this then the piston will spring forward and there’s a chance it could damage the tappet plate.
The instruction book, which is in Chinese, doesn’t seem to make a point of this anywhere but it is crucial that you decompress the spring before opening the receiver.
I removed the fore grip and examined the barrel. The outer barrel is attached to the receiver by a 2 pairs of rolled-steel pins. I would have preferred these to have been allen screws but the pins seem to hold the barrel solidly. The barrel is constructed in two separate parts. The join is at a wider section, hidden inside the fore-grip, just behind the front sight assembly. The two parts screw together and there are 2 allen screws to secure the joint. The instructions state that this joint has been designed to allow the outer-barrel length to be altered to replicate different versions of the real-steel gun. I’m not sure how true this is but I can’t see any good reason for altering the barrel from it’s standard length.
The flash-hider is of the bird-cage variety, screws on with a standard CCW 14mm thread, and is held in place with a tiny allen screw. Just behind the flash hider can be seen a chrome washer which covers a spring designed to take up the slack when the flash hider, or silencer, is fitted.
The front sight is typical of Armalite guns. It’s made of metal and ha an adjustable front sight post. It’s held in place very solidly with a pair of rolled-steel pins.
Finally, on the barrel, there is some replica lettering stating “5.56mm NATO 1/7” referring to the real guns calibre and barrel rifling.
The barrel is utterly solid. You can, literally, pick the gun up by the muzzle and hold it out in front of you without there even being a hint of movement.
The final item to be examined was the stock. The stock slides on a metal tube which is fixed to the rear of the receiver and is very solid. The stock, itself, is made of a quite soft plastic which should ensure it doesn’t crack or snap. It has a noticeable amount of play in it although it doesn’t feel worryingly loose at all and the click-stops are very solid.
With its cheap-looking plastic fore grip, a rather second rate looking magazine and its slightly odd colour it might be easy to conclude that I’m not terribly impressed, right?
Well, no. Actually I am very impressed. There’s something about the heavy weight, the solid feel and the look of this gun that tells you that it’s going to be a serious bit of airsofting kit and the only thing to do was go and find out.
Shooting: Before you can start shooting this gun a battery needs to be fitted into it. Like most sliding-stock versions of the M4, the battery lives inside the fore grip of the gun. I found that positioning a battery inside the fore grip was rather fiddly and difficult to do with any precision. Any M4 user who regularly changes the battery of their gun mid-game has my utmost respect. Once I had a battery installed I found that the two halves of the fore grip were a rather tight fit and the delta ring barely seemed to hold them in place. I suspect that I’ll be wrapping a neat length of black insulation tape around the rear end of the fore grip, before taking this gun into a skirmish, just to ensure that nothing comes loose in the heat of battle.
I slid open the hatch in the top of the hi-cap mag and filled it with BBs before winding it, ready for use. This, at least worked flawlessly which was better than my experience of the brand new hi-cap for my CA MP5 for which I had to repair the clockwork mechanism before it would work.
Since I was testing the gun at my local airsoft site and I had plenty of room to set up a 15m target. I set the stock to a comfortable position and took aim to fire. It was at this point that I noticed something else about the M4. The sights are not very good at all. There are 2 alternative rear sight apertures which can be interchanged by flipping an L-shaped metal piece from one position to the other. The larger hole is for “short range” and provides you with a hole through which the entire fore-end of the gun can be seen and leaves you to attempt to place the front sight post somewhere in the centre by guesswork. I flipped the rear sight to the “normal” setting. This is a tiny hole which I honestly found that I couldn’t focus through properly. The problem was compounded because more light was getting around the sides of the rear site than actually through it. The hole is simply not large enough to allow a sufficient amount of light through in anything except bright daylight conditions. To be fair I found that by extending the stock another notch I could get enough eye-relief to make use of the smaller of the two holes. I believe, also, that soldiers improve the rear Armalite sight by wedging tiny strips of tape either side of the rear sight aperture to block out any light seepage.
However, since it was an overcast winters day I flipped back to the larger rear aperture and tried to make the best of it.
I should point out that the problem with the sights isn’t ICS’s fault. The sights on the ICS M4 are a replica of the real-steel sights and, as such, anybody using the iron sights on a real M16 or M4 has my deepest sympathy. The iron sights on a H&K gun are in a totally different class.
Once I felt I’d got the measure of the sights I shouldered the gun, moved the fire-select from SAFE to SEMI and squeezed off my first shot. The noise was tremendous. Not the noise of the shot but the mechanical noise from the gun. I’ve never heard anything like it from an AEG. The crack of compressed air exiting the muzzle and the noise of the BB hitting the target are almost completely obscured by the loud whining from the gearbox. I’d read reports that this gun sounded “different” to other AEGs but this was more than I expected. I fired some shots through my chronometer which showed an average muzzle velocity of 285-295 ft/sec. This is reasonably good but still leaves room for useful upgrades.
One thing I found when shooting was that I constantly had to check that the gun was actually firing correctly because it wasn’t really possible to hear the report from the BB being fired or the sound of it striking the target. I couldn’t comment on how far the mechanical sounds would travel but for the shooter this is definitely not a stealthy gun. I then switched to full-auto and was pleased to find that the rate of fire, at 8.4 volts, was at least as fast as my less powerful P90. Very impressive.
I fired about 30 shots and went to inspect the targets. The results were rather disappointing but entirely predictable. The BBs peppered the target with no real grouping or accuracy. I had assumed that this was because of the poor sights but I noticed that a BB dropped out of the muzzle when the gun was pointed toward the floor. I realised that I hadn’t bothered to adjust the hop up and that it was backed-off to minimum. After adjusting the hop-up I tried another 30 or so shots at a fresh target. This time I found that the BBs were grouping much better although the point of aim was low. I was greatly relieved to discover that it looked like this gun was capable of shooting accurately after all. I adjusted the rear sight elevation and fired off more shots at another fresh target. This time I made a ragged hole about 2” wide in the centre of the target. And this was with the iron sights that I still considered poor. Was I happier now? Oh yes!
I decided to fit some accessories and see how they affected the guns performance. I removed the flash hider on the muzzle (using the allen key from my P90) and fitted the SOCOM silencer from my P90 into place and fired off a few shots. The silencer made some difference to the muzzle crack although I’d need to ask somebody 10m away how effective it really was since the loudest thing the shooter can hear is the noise from the gearbox. I also fitted the Aimpoint replica from my P90 after removing the detachable carry-handle. The Aimpoint really completed the way the gun performed. With the Aimpoint in use I could now see exactly where I expected my shots to hit. Another 20 or so shots, in semi-auto, went straight through the bullseye and I flipped the selector to full-auto for some more fun.
I was a little confused to find that the BBs didn’t seem to be hitting the target and I moved my point of aim in an attempt to punch a new hole through the target. Just as I did this I was surprised to see one of the foam inserts pop out from the muzzle of the silencer.
I guess that the silencer isn’t keen on having the M4 shoot through it in full-auto. I’m a little confused about why though since I’ve used the silencer on my P90 in full-auto many times before. Maybe it’s something to do with the higher power creating air currents inside the silencer. I have no idea but, suffice to say, after replacing the foam in my silencer, I won’t risk using it in full-auto again.
I decided to remove the Aimpoint and silencer before taking the gun into a skirmish. After a couple of games I began to find that the iron sights were reasonably useable after all. I still reckon that the sights aren’t anywhere near as user-friendly as H&K iron sights though.
After the first game I noticed that the delta ring had, indeed, been knocked backwards and was no longer holding the fore grip in place. I was very glad I’d taped the fore grip halves together.
I noticed was that I often found myself accidentally knocking the fire-select lever from semi to full-auto. It seems that as soon as the lever moves past the semi setting, even by a couple of millimetres, the gun fires in full-auto. This can be quite a surprise if you are lining up for a stealthy shot and, instead, unleash a volley of fire. Lastly, I felt that it was far easier to thumb the fire selector between the safe and semi-auto positions than it was to move it to full-auto. I suppose this is a safe system for a real gun but it can be quite annoying to have to adjust your grip in order to move between semi and full-auto.
Having skirmished this gun I guess I am bound to compare it to my MP5. The sights aren’t as good and the fire selector isn’t as comfortable but, even so, this gun has a greater presence to it and, unless there is a very good reason not to, it’s going to be my default gun for most games in future.
Technical: Maybe I’m too critical but sometimes little things just leap out at me and I just can’t help myself. I’ve got to try to fix them no matter how hard it turns out to be. Such was the case when I first examined the ICS M4. As I picked the gun out of its box the ejector cover flipped open. I pressed it closed but it flipped open again almost immediately. Hmmm.
I removed the rear receiver pin (after operating the forward assist, to release spring tension) and tilted the upper receiver forward. It was a straight-forward task to remove the upper gearbox and hop-up/barrel assembly before examining the area where the ejector cover catch grips the receiver. It appeared that there was a small amount of casting residue around the ejector port on the receiver and this was stopping the cover catch from clipping into place properly. Using a small file I soon removed the excess metal and found that the ejector cover now shut with a far more positive click.
I’d already decided that the gun looked rather drab painted in its dark grey and black livery so I took the opportunity to remove the black paint from the fake bolt in order to make the gun look a bit brighter. Apparently early M4 bolts were chromed and more recent ones were anodised black so my modification is not completely unrealistic.
With the gun partially disassembled I took the opportunity to examine the internal construction. The first thing I noticed is that the design of the split gearbox is very well thought out. My one initial reservation regarding the split design was that it would place even more stress than usual on the upper receiver tabs as the spring pressure attempts to force the upper and lower receiver apart. I am happy to see that ICS have addressed this problem, however. The upper and lower halves of the gearbox interlock and are held together by the rear receiver pin, thus the receiver tabs are not responsible for holding the two halves of the gearbox or receiver together. Broken receiver tabs are the curse of Armalite replicas and having the internal gearbox frame assist with holding the receiver closed is a clever solution. Perfect!
The wiring inside the gun is very neat and of the type with a flexible textile sheath, rather than less durable PVC sheath. The various mechanical components visible all seemed to be of good quality and an attempt to scratch the side of the sector gear with a scriber suggested that the gears are made from a reassuringly hard material. The only weak point of the standard gearbox appears to be its use of nylon bushes rather than metal ones.
It was an easy task to replace the barrel assembly and upper gearbox before closing the receiver and replacing the pin which holds the two halves together. At this point I began to realise the potential for ease of upgrading this gun. The price of a complete upper-gearbox assembly is very reasonable and I would have no hesitation in buying one and upgrading it, safe in the knowledge that I could swap between a stock piston/cylinder and an upgraded one in a matter of seconds.
Conclusion: I’m not sure why but I feel as though I had a hard time getting to like the ICS M4. Besides the problems with the first few shots, caused by the wrongly-set hop-up, I haven’t really had any problems with the gun. I suppose it’s just that it’s so different to the previous guns I’ve owned (2 HKs have been my previous primary gun) and I’ve had a hard time adjusting to the differences. I suppose I was expecting some sort of epiphany after finally taking ownership of the same type of gun which so many other people rate so highly.
The overall finish of the gun is also somewhat misleading. The black plastic and grey metal finish isn’t very inspiring. An inferior gun with a more impressive exterior might well be more appealing until a closer inspection was carried out.
Upon examining and shooting the gun it becomes apparent that it is a very powerful, very accurate and very innovative airsoft gun. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s probably one of the most important AEGs to be released since Tokyo Marui first released the FA-MAS more than ten years ago.
If you haven’t already got an Armalite replica of any sort and you’re considering buying one then the ICS M4 truly is a fantastic example of the breed. Just don’t expect it to impress you at first sight.
UPDATE (12/01/05): After 2 months use the power of the gun seems to have increased significantly. I recently chrono’d the gun again (in order to find out whether a silencer reduced the power or not. It did but only slightly) and found that it is now shooting at between 320fps and 325fps with 0.2g ammo. This is right on the legal limit for an AEG, here in the UK, so any plans I had for upgrading the gun have been shelved.
External links: Links to external sites of interest.
By Simon Crewe (aka Hissing Sid)