M
The U.S. Army aims to build a new and improved M4A1 carbine. But who will do the building? Photo: Expert Infantry via Flickr.

In 2013, the gun world changed.

For more than a decade, standard-issue M4 and M4A1 carbines used by infantry in the U.S. Army had been manufactured by just one company -- Colt Defense. A competing bid that significantly undercut Colt's sales price shifted the M4's manufacture to Freedom Group subsidiary Remington Arms in 2011 -- but still kept the weapon under an American brand name.

Two years later, Remington was itself underbid by a foreign operator, Belgium's FN Herstal, which offered to build the M4A1 for the U.S. Army at the low, low price of just $642 per gun -- nearly half what Colt had been charging just a few years before.

And don't look now but the tectonic plates are about to shift again.

Introducing the M4A1+
Earlier this month, the Army Times updated readers on the progress of a new Army program to upgrade the M4A1. The Army intends the M4A1 to replace the venerable M16 as a soldier's standard-issue long gun, and as long as they're doing that, the generals figure why not make the M4A1 better?

File
M4A1 carbine. Photo: U.S. Army.

Enter the M4A1+ program. In an eight-point announcement, the U.S. Army described how they want to take the current M4A1 and make it better:

  • Extending the forward rails to 12 inches, to facilitate straight-arm shooting.
  • Adding room for more attachments on the carbine (e.g laser sights, flashlights, bipods).
  • Making front and rear iron sights removable (to save a little weight).
  • Adding a floating barrel to decrease vibration and improve accuracy.
  • Requiring proof that the new design is more accurate (enabling a five-inch grouping at 600 meters).
  • Adding a flash suppressor.
  • Adding an optional ultra-sensitive, single-stage sniper trigger.

To top it all off, the Army doesn't want to paint the gun black, but a "neutral... color," "dull, non-reflective" -- preferably something in between a "Coyote 498" and "Light Coyote 481."

Might we suggest...?
I know. It's a pretty long laundry list of add-ons. And if that weren't enough, the Army's solicitation for bids specifies that "the M4A1+ components will be evaluated as a system. The system must then install on/interface with stock M4A1 Carbines."

In other words, the Army wants to deal with just one prime contractor to upgrade its M4A1s. They want a turnkey solution.

When you wish upon a star...
Now, as gun enthusiasts -- particularly participants in three-gun shooting competitions -- can tell you, there are manufacturers currently making the kind of add-ons that the Army is looking to use in building its upraded M4A1+ carbine. SureFire for suppressors, Troy Industries for rails, Aimpoint for red-dot sights -- and on and on.

Instead of buying best-of-breed parts piecemeal from these producers, however, the Army wants to find one single company to bundle the improvements and resell them wholesale. That makes figuring out the awardee on this contract a very big deal, as it will be the company through which all revenues flow when reconfiguring the Army's inventory of more than 480,000 M4A1 carbines.

How much revenue are we talking about? Well, the $642 that FN Herstal charges to build the base M4A1 is just the start. A new floating handguard alone can retail for half that. An Aimpoint red-dot site can cost more than $642! Ballpark the whole assortment of Army-desired improvements at, say, $1,000 altogether, and we're looking at a contract potentially worth half a billion dollars -- or more.

Who will star at this gunshow?
At this time, it's hard to say who might win the contract. Chances seem good that General Dynamics (NYSE:GD) and Smith & Wesson (NASDAQ:AOBC), which have teamed up to bid on the Army's Modular Handgun System contract already, will take a shot. Potentially, newly spun-off shooting accessories company Vista Outdoor (NYSE:VSTO), which makes Bushnell gun optics, will compete as well.

With the smallest of these companies, Smith & Wesson, doing $550 million in annual business already, all of them have the size and business scale to handle a contract as big as the M4A1+. At the same time, a win for Smith & Wesson would be a very big deal, potentially doubling annual revenues.

Conversely, General Dynamics or Vista Outdoor (doing $31 billion and $2 billion in annual business, respectively, according to S&P Capital IQ) would see less of a transformative gain from winning a contract of this size -- but their own size and scale of operations might give them an advantage in the bidding.

In short, who will win the M4A1 upgrade competition is a question very much up in the air. But it's a question you can be certain we'll be paying close attention to as news of who's bidding -- and who might win -- begins to emerge.

M
With hundreds of millions of dollars potentially up for grabs, the M4A1+ contract could turn into a real shooting match. Photo: U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/Fifth Fleet via Flickr.

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of, nor is he short, any company named above. Neither does, or is, The Motley Fool. You can find Rich on Motley Fool CAPS, publicly posting his stock picks and pans under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 301 out of more than 75,000 rated members.

Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.