Firearm Icons of the GWOT

Every major war has given birth to iconic weapons. The Revolutionary War gave us the Kentucky long rifle, and the Civil War showed us the Henry Rifle. World War I had the Vickers, and World War II had the M1 Garand. Most wars have more than one icon, and today, we will examine the firearm icons of the Global War on Terror.


I’ve lumped the M16A4, M4, and MK-18 rifles together because they aren’t that different from one another but are each worthy of being known as one of the GWOT firearm icons. The Stoner series M16 rifles had a really bad rap due to the Vietnam War. A disastrous release created by the Department of Defense had seemingly permanently stained the reputation of the M16 until the GWOT kicked off. It was then that an entirely new generation of servicemen learned that the Stoner design works quite well.


The M16A4 was the last of the true rifle variants of the M16. It served the United States Marine Corps and Army as the front-line grunt rifle for a good portion of the GWOT. The war kicked off with M16A2s in the hands of many, but by the Second Battle of Fallujah, the M16A4 had become the rifle of issue for most grunts. This rifle took the A2 design and added a flat top scope rail and a Knight’s Armament RAS rail system. ACOGs, Aimpoints, various PEQs, and lights became standard on these rifles, and rail systems cemented their place on modern rifles.

The M16A4 was the last of the Stoner rifle designs.


Marine with M4
The M4 is the classic American carbine and one of the firearm icons of the GWOT.

The M4 series, including the M4A1, are carbine variants of the M16 series. These guns feature a shorter 14.5-inch barrel and collapsing stocks. They became the weapon of choice for special operations and would eventually become the dominant infantry arm later in the GWOT. These shorter carbines proved easier to use in the close quarters of urban areas and in and out of vehicles. They also sported RAS rails and flat-top uppers. The famed SOPMOD Block 1 and Block 2 series showed just how modular one rifle can be.


SEAL with Mk18 rifle
The MK 18, or Close Quarters Battle Receiver, was the gun that killed SMGs.

The MK-18 is an even shorter version of the Stoner design with a 10.3-inch barrel. It was designed for special operations forces, namely the SEAL teams, but saw use by numerous Special Operations forces. The MK-18 was the iconic Operator rifle that fired up the imaginations of young men around the country. This uber-short design was also one of the first reliable super short-barreled rifles. Its popularity effectively killed the submachine gun.

Benelli M1014

In 1999, the Marine Corps was tasked with securing the next generation of Joint Service Shotguns. Military shotguns were a big mishmash of different guns. The M1014 Joint Service Shotgun project aimed to standardize a combat shotgun between the four branches. The Marine Corps settled on the gas-operated, semi-auto Benelli M4. A couple of years later, the GWOT kicked off, and the M1014 got its chance to prove itself. In the close quarters of the Iraq urban world, the M1014 provided marines and soldiers with a versatile fighting weapon and one of the icons of the conflict.

Marine firing M1014
The Benelli M1014 is a true fighting shotgun.

The semi-auto action allowed for fast follow-up shots of a decisive caliber that was known for stopping enemy forces quickly and effectively. At night, the M1014 was a great option for moving targets and was used in numerous nighttime raids.

The M1014 was also a master key of sorts for breaching. It was one of the lightest tools to destroy locks and take doors down. While a specialized lock-busting shot could be used, standard 00 buckshot was the most common round available. The gun became rather famous for its use in Iraq and during the GWOT. The reputation it gathered pushed it out into the world of civilian shooters, and it’s become well known as the king of combat shotguns.

Beretta M9

The Beretta M9 faced a lot of hate upon its adoption. It replaced America’s favorite sidearm, the M1911, and America’s favorite cartridge, the .45 ACP. This adoption occurred way back in 1985, but the M9 serves to this day but it has been mostly replaced by the Sig Sauer M17/M18 series. It saw service during the entire GWOT. Handguns are very niche weapons in warfare, but the Beretta managed to stand out with distinction.

Brad Kasal with M9 pistol
This famed photo made the Beretta an icon.

Admittedly, the rollout wasn’t great, and the contract for magazines went to the lowest bidder. This resulted in magazines adversely affected by sand…which happened to be quite present in the GWOT. After this was fixed, the Beretta M9 proved to be a very capable handgun. Sure, it was very 1980s in its design and a movie icon, but for the average user, it was a very capable weapon that acquitted itself well in combat. It offered 15 rounds of 9mm and was rugged and reliable in the worst conditions imaginable.

Where the firearm became iconic is in a photograph of then-First Sergeant Bradley Kasal. He’s shown being helped by two Marines, with his arms draped over their shoulders, carrying his M9, and still observing proper trigger discipline. He received six rounds of 7.62 to the legs, but he walked out, gun in hand.

M249 SAW

There are plenty of machine guns that served during the GWOT, but none are more iconic than the M249 SAW. It was the most common machine gun in use during the GWOT and bridged the gap between rifles and medium machine guns. The M249 SAW is a gas-operated, open bolt, air-cooled, belt-fed, full auto-only 5.56 caliber light machine gun. The military adopted the weapon in 1984, and by 2001, it was in nearly every infantry unit.

Shooting M249 SAW
The M249 SAW is one of the most common military machine guns.

The M249 SAW was a machine gun designed for the average infantryman. It wasn’t designed for machine gunners but for riflemen who needed something that spewed discontent very quickly. The machine guns became necessary for maneuver combat and allowed every squad to have one for suppressing the enemy.

The M249 SAW became super common in the media as the big gun. Due to its size and the often-shiny belt of ammo hanging out of it, it stood out amongst a field of plain black rifles. The M249 SAW was an impressive weapon, with most of its problems relating to the gun’s individual age. Many of these guns were run hard and rarely replaced.

HK 416

It’s not a mistake that the final gun on our icons of the GWOT was the gun that arguably helped bring a long chapter on the war on terror to a close. The HK 416 would go on to become the chosen rifle of America’s most elite force at the tail end of the GWOT. This rifle would serve with elite units like DEVGRU, aka SEAL Team Six, as well as CAG, aka Delta Force. It looks like an AR variant. It is a bit different internally.

HK 416 navy seals
This gun is rumored to be THE gun that got Bin Laden.

Instead of a direct impingement system, the gun used a short-stroke gas piston. This ensures better reliability in adverse conditions, and these tend to work better with short barrels and suppressors. While the M4 is reliable, the HK 416 is even more reliable. While Special Operations forces preferred the weapon, the USMC adopted a variant, the M27 IAR, or Infantry Automatic Rifle. The Marine Corps later adopted the IAR across the board for combat arms.

Navy SEALs wielding the HK 416 raided the home of Osama bin Laden. They cleared room to room, eventually killing bin Laden and declaring Geronimo. The weapon fired 77 grain OTM rounds. Since then, it has become a legend and icon of special operations.


The GWOT saw the deployment of guns, both old and new. It saw the rise of optics, weapon-mounted lights, and night fighting with IR lasers and night vision devices. Like all wars, some guns went on to become icons, while others are footnotes in the history of the war. The five firearms above are what I feel are the most iconic of the GWOT. If you disagree, let us know in the comments which weapons you consider iconic.

Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine Gunner and a lifelong firearms enthusiast. Now that his days of working a 240B like Charlie Parker on the sax are over he's a regular guy who likes to shoot, write, and find ways to combine the two. He holds an NRA certification as a Basic Pistol Instructor and is probably most likely the world's Okayest firearm instructor. He is a simplicisist when it comes to talking about himself in the 3rd person and a self-professed tactical hipster. Hit him up on Instagram, @travis.l.pike, with story ideas.

Sign Up for Newsletter

Let us know what topics you would be interested:
© 2024 GunMag Warehouse. All Rights Reserved.
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap