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U.S. Marine Rifle Squad (21st Century)

Updated: Aug 23, 2019

Timeframes Included: 1998-2011 | 2011-2015 | 2015-2019 | 2020

The following is an in-depth look at the evolution of the U.S. Marine Corps rifle squad from the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in 2001 to recent developments estimated to be implemented in 2020.


It should be noted that this is the nominal layout. Often units will lack enough Corporals to fill out the fire team leader billets for example, instead by substituted by senior Lance Corporals. Likewise, many of the billets intended to be filled by Lance Corporals are often filled by Private First Classes or Privates depending on how new the Marines are to the Corps and what rank they received at the end of recruit training.


The general layout of the rifle squad layout from the late 1980s to 2019 can be seen in the manual "MCWP 3-11.2 Marine Rifle Squad." As it is vague in terms of the specific personal weapons, news articles on equipment changes and personal consultation with veterans has been used.



Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom (2001 - 2014)


For Marine infantry units following the adoption of the M16A4 in 1998 - just before the start of Operation Enduring Freedom (2001) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003) - the nominal rifle squad composition was as follows:


U.S. Marine Rifle Squad (1998-2011)

  • Squad Leader, a Sergeant (OR-5), armed with an M16A4* rifle. The squad leader controls the squad, directs the fire team leaders, and carries out the orders of the platoon leader.

3x Fire Teams Consisting Of:

  • Fire Team Leader, a Corporal (OR-4), armed with an M16A4* rifle and M203 40mm under-barrel grenade launcher. The fire team leader controls their fire team and carries out the orders of the squad leader.

  • Automatic Rifleman, a Lance Corporal (OR-3), armed with an M249 SAW.

  • Assistant Automatic Rifleman, a Lance Corporal (OR-3), armed with an M16A4* Rifle.

  • Rifleman, a Lance Corporal (OR-3), armed with an M16A4* Rifle. Acts as a scout for the fire team.


*Although the U.S. Marine Corps adopted the M16A4 as its standard service rifle in 1998, the transition from the M16A2 to the A4 was not complete until the first years of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), approximately 2004 to 2005. Thus, a large amount of the legacy M16A2s in addition to the newer M16A4s were used during the first years of OEF in Afghanistan (beginning in 2001), as well as in supporting missions elsewhere, such as in the Horn of Africa (beginning in 2002). However, by the time of significant actions a year into the Iraq War - such as the First Battle of Fallujah in 2004 - the M16A4 was the almost exclusive service rifle for infantry units deployed to combat zones. However, based on consultation with a Marine veteran who was stationed in Okinawa with a Marine Expeditionary Unit that was primarily training at the time, the M16A2 remained in service with infantry units not deployed.


The rifle squad organization often deviated from the official organization in the field. This is not a new concept, as under-strength and under-equipped units have often adapted by modifying the standard TO&E (table of organization and equipment) throughout military history. Variations of the official layout included the substitution of the M249 SAW (FN Minimi derived) for the M240 (FN MAG derived) adapting to longer engagement distances often encountered in Afghanistan’s rural and mountainous regions. Another was the habitual attachment of an M240 machine gun team and assaultman team (equipped with the 83mm Mk 153 SMAW rocket launcher) on patrols from the company’s weapons platoon. As with the official squad layout, the fire team leaders leaders received 40mm M203 grenade launchers, although at times this could have been true for the riflemen or squad leader as well depending on the unit.


By the mid- to late-2000s, M4 Carbines had started being commonly issued to some Marine combat units at the squad level. However, the M16A4 remained the staple of the Marine rifle squad. If issued, M4s would commonly only be issued to squad leaders and/or team leaders, while the remainder of the squad would retain the M16A4 or M249 SAW. However, this of course can vary depending on the unit.


In 2011, the M249 SAW was officially replaced by the new M27 IAR for Marine infantry and light armored reconnaissance units. The M27 is a variant of the Heckler & Koch HK416 rifle which the Marine Corps began testing on in 2009. Limited fielding of the M27 in the squad automatic rifle role began in 2011 with units deployed to Afghanistan, preceding the full phase-out of the M249 SAW.


Thus, following 2011, the nominal squad layout for the U.S. Marine Corps rifle squad became:


U.S. Marine Rifle Squad (2011-2015)

  • Squad Leader, a Sergeant (OR-5), armed with an M16A4 rifle, sometimes substituted by an M4 Carbine in the field.

3x Fire Teams Consisting Of:

  • Fire Team Leader, a Corporal (OR-4), armed with an M16A4 rifle and M203 40mm under-barrel grenade launcher.

  • Automatic Rifleman, a Lance Corporal (OR-3), armed with an M27 IAR.

  • Assistant Automatic Rifleman, a Lance Corporal (OR-3), armed with an M16A4 Rifle.

  • Rifleman, a Lance Corporal (OR-3), armed with an M16A4 Rifle.


The Current Layout (2015-2019)


In 2015, the Marine Corps announced the replacement of the M16A4 rifle with the M4 carbine as the standard service rifle for line infantry units. The former would remain in service in training units (including the Marine Corps Recruit Depot and the School of Infantry) and non-infantry units. The benefits of the M4 Carbine, which the U.S. Army had been fielding since the late 1990s and almost exclusively so by 2005, include a lighter weight and lower profile than the M16A4 with negligible degradation in ballistic performance. As of early 2019, this is the current organization of the U.S. Marine Corps rifle squad:


U.S. Marine Rifle Squad (2016-2019)

  • Squad Leader, a Sergeant (OR-5), armed with an M4 Carbine.

3x Fire Teams Consisting Of:

  • Fire Team Leader, a Corporal (OR-4), armed with an M4 Carbine and M203 40mm under-barrel grenade launcher.

  • Automatic Rifleman, a Lance Corporal (OR-3), armed with an M27 IAR.

  • Assistant Automatic Rifleman, a Lance Corporal (OR-3), armed with an M4 Carbine.

  • Rifleman, a Lance Corporal (OR-3), armed with an M4 Carbine.


Future Developments (2020)


In late 2017, the Commandant announced that the Marine Corps intended to replace all weapons in the rifle squad with the M27 IAR effective FY 2020. In addition, the core structure of the squad with its squad leader and three four-man fire teams would change for the first time since its adoption in 1944 (with the minor aside of a dedicated M79 grenadier during the Vietnam War). The transition to this new organization is intended to take place in FY 2020. Following then, the nominal U.S. Marine Corps rifle squad composition will be as follows:


U.S. Marine Rifle Squad (Projected 2020)*

  • Squad Leader, a Sergeant (OR-5), armed with an M27 IAR.

  • Assistant Squad Leader, a Corporal (OR-4), armed with an M27 IAR. Assists the squad leader in the command and control of the squad.

  • Squad Systems Operation, a Lance Corporal (OR-3), armed with an M27 IAR.

3x Fire Teams Consisting Of:

  • Fire Team Leader, a Corporal (OR-4), armed with an M4 Carbine and M203 40mm under-barrel grenade launcher. The fire team leader controls their fire team and carries out the orders of the squad leader.

  • Automatic Rifleman, a Lance Corporal (OR-3), armed with an M27 IAR.

  • Grenadier, a Lance Corporal (OR-3), armed with an M27 IAR and a standalone M320 40mm grenade launcher.

* Each squad will be allocated an M3 MAAWS (84mm Carl Gustav recoilless rifle) and an M38 Squad Designated Marksman Rifle (a slightly different version of the M27 IAR. The issue of both will likely come down to the situation and the discretion of the squad leader or platoon leader.


With the the issuance of an automatic rifle to every squad member, it is thought that the resulting increased collective volume of fire and the dispersed suppression capability makes the new rifle squad more versatile. Whereas before, each fire team would have the entirety of its automatic fire capability centralized on its SAW gunner, in the new layout, any member of the squad - or potentially entire fire teams - could lay down an automatic base of fire and switch off between each other during reloads or movement. Whereas each fire team would have carried approximately 600 rounds of ammunition in three 200-round belts (a total of 1,800 rounds for the squad), each fire team will carry 22 30-round magazines for their designated automatic rifle (a total of 1,980 rounds for the squad not including the standard load for the other members of the squad). Only time will tell whether the newfound advantages of the M27 will compensate for the removal of the M249 from the rifle squad.


With the new changes, the fire team will be reduced from four men to three men. The assistant automatic rifleman position will be discontinued, while the rifleman will be replaced with a dedicated grenadier armed with an M27 and a separate M320 grenade launcher. Additionally, an assistant squad leader will be added to aid the squad leader in command and control of the squad, as well as a squad systems operator who will be in charge of the adapting the squad to new technologies. It is assumed that the squad system operator’s duties will include being a quadcopter drone operator.


Additionally, each squad will be issued an M38 Squad Designated Marksman Rifle (essentially an M27 IAR with a different optic and a suppressor) and an M3E1 MAAWS (an 84mm Carl Gustav recoilless rifle). The MAAWS in particular has been fielded by USSOCOM and is effective out to 1,000 meters with smoke or high-explosive ammunition, or up to 500 meters against a stationary point target. These weapons will not be issued to a specific member of the squad and would likely come down to the situation and the leadership's discretion.



"The secret of all victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious."

      - Marcus Aurelius

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