Daniel Defense M4A1 – GWOT War Horse by CLAY MARTIN

DD M4A1, SOF standard issue

It isn’t often that a review gun is something I have an emotional attachment too, but this one is an exception. The Daniel Defense M4A1 holds a special place in my heart, as I am sure is true for a great many Veterans. Why you ask? Because we carried one in war. You know you are getting old when a replica of your battle rifle is on the market. But then, replica isn’t quite the right word. Since Daniel Defense actually built our guns.

More than one firebase has been defended just like this

I can still remember the day we got our DD uppers as part of the SOPMOD 2 block of upgrades. Daniel Defense was a much smaller company back then, and I have still no idea how they managed to win this particular contract. My guess is that somebody competent on our side did their homework for once, and found exactly what was needed. Even in Special Operations, weapon procurement can be a goat rodeo. But a few years into the GWOT, we were also gaining some leverage to get better tools. Prior to this, our primary rifle had been the same M4 issued to the entire Army. Albeit with an auto switch instead of a burst setting, a difference so small as to be insignificant.

Period correct EOTECH and VTAC sling

From the moment we put them on, the difference in the Daniel Defense upper was stunning. Part of which you have to look at in historical context. This first major improvement is the RIS II handguard, which is 12.25 inches long. Probably shocking to our younger audience, but just Picatinny rail attachments themselves are not that old. They were not common until the late 90’s, and into the early part of the war were only 6 inches long. The leverage gained by being able to put your hand out further was HUGE for the time.

Legendary RAS II rail attachment

The old rails also interfaced with the standard M4 delta ring rear, and A frame style front sight post. The new Daniel Defense upper was the first ever issued free floating barrel, which would contribute to its accuracy. Also gone was the A frame front sight. Now an A frame is very durable, no question. And you can run optics with one and be successful, we did it for years. But we also shouldn’t deny that having a huge front sight post in the way of your optic is like shooting with a pinky finger in your line of vision. Having it removed was like upgrading from regular TV to HD. Heady stuff in the mid 2000’s.

Grip N Rip charging handle

And oh Lord that accuracy. Daniel Defense is one of the few manufacturers that actually makes their own barrels. You might see another stamped with the gun makers name, but it is actually produced for them. Daniel Defense keeps it all in house, with cold hammer forged straight from Blacks Creek, Georgia. At the time we got the DD uppers, our service issue guns would shoot around 4 MOA on average. 4 inches at 100 yards. The new Daniel Defense guns were so lights out it was hard to believe.

Alt view

I wasn’t smart enough back then to slap a Leupold scope on the DD uppers to see exactly how tight they were. I was in a door kicker unit, so I never tested them with anything other than an EOTECH. Even if I had, I doubt I would remember exactly the group sizes now. But even with just red dots, the accuracy difference was like night and day. We were in love with the Double D’s, which is not probably the first time a Soldier has said that.

Many a tango has been dispatched from this view right here

The new upper would eventually become standard issue for everyone in SOCOM. Ranger Battalion, Special Forces, MARSOC, the Squeels, and whatever the Air Force calls its guys this week. It is arguably the most iconic gun of the War on Terror, having seen service from Tal Afar to Kandahar to Damascus. A fitting tribute to the men who carried it, I was really happy to see Daniel Defense release a commercial version. So how does the version you can buy compare to the version that fought the jihad?

flash hider top
flash hider bottom

Remarkably well, in my opinion. The barrel is 14.5 inches, which is true of the issued one as well. ( A 10.5 inch was also issued, and is also available for purchase.) In order to keep this rifle from being an SBR and requiring a stamp, DD pinned and welded a flash hider to make the overall length past 16. This does mean that you can’t twist off the flash hider and run a suppressor, but for this gun I don’t find that a huge problem. More period correct would also have been a Surefire 3 prong hider, which came with our new suppressors around the same time. But the Daniel Defense model is a good one, and does a fine job of completing the look.

ambi selector lever and grip

The handguard is true to spec, including the dark earth coloring. It has proven durability which few others could claim, and makes the rifle instantly recognizable. While full length quad rails might not be the most modern feel now, it did represent a great leap forward at the time. It is functional and comfortable, if a bit on the heavy side.

DD rail with a KAC rail section on top. Difference in length was a huge plus

The other minor change to the upper receiver is the new DD charging handle. Called the GRIP-N-RIP, it is fully ambi. It is beefed up from a mil spec model, with a rubbery type texture to the handle. It also has a an anti gas feature, which directs gasses away when using a suppressor. Not helpful on this model, but the charging handle is a nice upgrade.

Original Gangster as it gets

To fully complete the period feel, I had to put an EOTECH 512 on the rifle. This would be the double A model that was the SOF standard back then. I absolutely love this optic. I had one all through training, and in all my operational time in Special Forces. Not only was this door kicker optic of choice, but it wasn’t uncommon to see them on 50 cal machine guns, or even the Carl Gustav recoilless rifle. My Bravo taught me that one!

keeping it fed

I also reached out to our friends at Gun Mag Warehouse for period-correct magazines. While the SureFeed brand name is new, the magazines are made by Okay Industries. Which has been a military supplier for decades. As expected, they ran in the DD without so much as a hiccup.

Daniel Defense brand buttstock

The lower, as you can imagine, couldn’t be made to replicate the issue one. ATF something something class III. But DD did the best they could here. The safety is also ambi, and what I would call historically accurate as well. The right side is a full-size lever, with a big beefy screw holding it in place. I wouldn’t swear to it, but it looks a faithful recreation of the ones lefty’s would have used at the time of issue. The trigger is also mil-spec, which I don’t love. While it is also period correct to have that, most Daniel Defense rifles ship with a Geisselle. We did get those later, but while this upper was still the standard issue. Rounding out the package is Daniel Defense furniture, which I like enough to have bought and put on other guns in the past.

Accuracy testing with Accutac Bipod, Leupold MK5, and Hornady 75gr Match

What kind of accuracy do you expect from what is billed as a service rifle? I wasn’t quite sure how this was going to go. I remember the DD’s being WAY more accurate than the big Army uppers they replaced, but I couldn’t put a true measurement on that. I also know Daniel Defense barrels in their other guns to be insanely accurate. The M4V7 Pro I reviewed 4 years ago was so accurate as to be nearly unbelievable.  For the M4A1 model, I would have been happy with 1 MOA. That is still a high mark for an AR-15, and I thought maybe DD would have cheaped out a little on a “military-grade” model.

1/2 inch 5 round group

And I would have thought wrong. The M4A1 was incredibly accurate, just as good as any other DD rifle. Which is a high compliment. Apparently, when they cold hammer forge those barrels, they only make one grade. Excellence few others can match. My test gun turned in groups on par with any custom barrel you can make, and there may actually be more accuracy in this gun. I am still recovering from an injury, so I am shooting left-handed. And I did the accuracy testing with the mil-spec trigger and lower, no special fixed stock ringer to squeeze every millimeter of accuracy out.

Staggering 1/4th inch 3 round group

Using Hornady Match 75 Grain and a Leupold MK5, the M4A1 averaged ½ MOA. And it turned in a 3 round group that was right at 1/4th of an inch. I won’t BS you, I quit on that 3 round string because I was shocked to see them all touching in the scope. I should have gone for 5, but I knew my odds of tossing one with my current shooting status was high. But I would say it is a safe bet that is closer to the actual mechanical accuracy than the ½ MOA average. Which would make it exactly the same as the M4V7 Pro I tested 4 years ago, that gave a .27 when I was at full capacity. That is absolutely stunning accuracy from an AR-15, something you could only dream about 20 years ago.

All in all, this is an absolutely fantastic gun. I can’t even look at it without getting warm fuzzies remembering riding hot breeches all over Baghdad in the middle of the night. Or riding the skids of a Blackhawk on the way to go hand out some vengeance. This gun is an absolutely perfect tribute to the men who carried it, and all the stories they could tell. The M4A1 gets a highly recommend.


Clay Martin is a former Marine and Green Beret, retiring out of 3rd Special Forces Group. He is a multi-decade and -service sniper, as well as 3-Gun competitor and Master ranked shooter in USPSA Production. In addition to writing about guns, he is the author of “Last Son of The War God,” a novel about shooting people that deserve it. You can also follow him on twitter, @offthe_res or his website, Off-The-Reservation.com