The Air Force on Monday opened up a newly renovated combat arms range at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas, and is now allowing basic trainees to train on the M4 carbine for the first time.

Until now, trainees at Basic Military Training only got limited experience firing the M16A2 rifle under the weapons familiarization course, and their weapons qualification came later, after graduating from BMT. But repairs and expansions to the range — which closed last November due to rainwater drainage problems — will now allow combat weapons instructors to train 244 trainees each day, four days a week. The instructors could qualify more than 40,000 trainees on the M4 each year, almost 10,000 more than the service is now recruiting.

By providing trainees both firearm training and qualification, instead of just the familiarization course, they can now earn their small-arms expert marksmanship ribbon at BMT.

“As we restore readiness in BMT, we will teach weapons proficiency early on,” Chief Master Sgt. Lee Hoover, superintendent of the 737th Training Group, said in a Wednesday release. “We will expose trainees to the M4 so they can become familiar with the weapon and learn its nomenclature.”

Hoover said trainees will attend the combat arms training course in the seventh week of their 8.5-week BMT process, where they will learn about the M4 in greater depth, including how to safely handle malfunctions and how to fire it while wearing a gas mask and chemical gear.

The Air Force has decided to switch to the M4 at basic because it is the most commonly used weapon at deployed locations, the release said. It weighs less, has a collapsible buttstock, and has a Pickatinny rail system that allows an airman to simultaneously attach a scope or sight, and a flashlight or night vision equipment. Airmen who are trained on the M4 are also automatically authorized to carry the M16A2, the release stated, but not the other way around.

When the range at Lackland’s Medina Training Annex was refurbished to divert water runoff, the base also added 30 more firing points that can be used at the same time across multiple ranges, which increased the number of trainees who can be trained each day. Tech Sgt. Joshua Stearns, the 37th Training Support Squadron combat weapons flight noncommissioned officer in charge, said the improvements also allow for year-round training. Within a week of the range’s recertification, Stearns said, maintenance airmen built 200 new target frames, allowing BMT trainees to start weapons training there Monday.

BMT’s weapons training will now consist of a full training day of four to five hours in a classroom, and three hours on the range.

Special warfare airmen and other career fields, such as Office of Special Investigation agents, combat controllers, survival, evasion, resistance and escape specialists, and explosive ordnance disposal journeymen also receive M4 qualification there, as can other airmen preparing for deployment and assigned across Joint Base San Antonio.

“Instead of providing on-time training for deployers, now we can provide regular qualification intervals for the base populace and JBSA personnel,” Stearns said in the release. “The thought was, if the rest of the Air Force is in a permanent state of readiness, why would our BMT trainees be any different.”

In an interview with Air Force Times in November, Hoover disclosed that Air Education and Training Command was considering adding a full weapons qualification program to BMT and switching to the M4.

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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