It's a very good letter, except for this one little paragraph, in which an enduring untruth is repeated:
First, The .223 round which an AR fires was developed not for the military but as a “varmint” round for hunters that was later adopted by the military because (a. it injures rather than kills, in the field of battle an injured solider actually takes out 3 of the enemy, the one injured plus to to care for him whereas a dead soldier only eliminates one; and b. it is small and therefore soldiers can carry more of them than traditional high powered cartridges).The first part is true, the 5.56 nato began life as the .222 remington, a varmint and small game cartridge. The last part is true, the 5.56nato is very small and light, and a soldier can carry a lot of them...
The problem is that middle bit... which is actually also partly true, in that a severely wounded soldier takes three people out of the action instead of just one if he's dead (the wounded use a lot more resources than either the dead, or the healthy). Every good myth, has a lot of truth to it, and this one is no different; it's a very good myth, but it just isn't true. We didn't adopt the 5.56, because it was designed to wound; in fact the 5.56 nato chambering WAS NOT designed to "wound not kill".
I take no exception to the intent of the letter, and I support it; I just need to correct this myth wherever it pops up.
This is one of the widest spread, and widest believed myths in firearms. In fact, a lot of people who should really know better, like a lot of varminters, and a lot of soldiers (who deal with the round quite a lot doncha know).
Actually, for anyone who knows the history of the round, the myth is kind of funny, in a bittersweet ironic sort of way; because when the 5.56 was first created, it was touted as having incredible killing power; far out of proportion to its size. People were said to be shot in the calf and have their leg blown to shred up to the buttocks (this was an actual field report on the chambering from SF in the field in Viet Nam prior to the wide adoption of the M16 rifle).
So, I'm going to talk about how and why the 5.56 nato round was created, and adopted by the U.S. military; and why we forced the rest of the world to adopt it.
It all begins about 70 years ago...
In 1960, the typical deer rifle round was the .30-30 (which was already over 60 years old at the time), pushing a 150gr or so bullet, at about 1800fps. If you were hard core, you might use a .30-06 pushing a 150gr bullet at 3000fps, or maybe a .270 or .308 at about the same energy levels. It was only "crazies" like Roy Weatherby hunting with "high velocity" loadings, like his .257 weatherby; pushing a 75gr bullet at nearly 4000fps, or a 115gr bullet at 3400fps (and producing some truly impressive results by the by).
It was only from the mid 30s through mid '50s that "high velocity" and "hyper velocity" chamberings really started becoming popular, with chamberings such as the .220 swift (designed in 1935, firing 45gr at 4000fps).
Of course I say "only", about 30 year stretches of time here; but you have to understand how generally conservative the firearms world is. The most commonly shot chamberings in pistols in the US today are .45acp, 9mm, .38spl and .22lr; which were respectively designed in 1908, 1903, 1884 (in blackpowder form), and 1857 (in short form).
From the late 1600s, until the mid 19th century, battle rifles fired mostly fired bullets in the .50 to .65 caliber range, mostly moving along at under 1500fps. When the self contained cartridge came along, the bullets shrank a bit in diameter down to the .40 to .45 range, but they remained fairly stubby and conical but rounded.
It wasn't until the invention of smokeless powder, and new hardened but not brittle steels (both in the late 19th century) however, that we started seeing smaller diameter, longer, pointed, aerodynamic bullets fired at higher velocities (the Swiss-German "spitzer" or "spire" point, invented in about 1880-1884 in fact).
Eventually, right around the late 1890s and into about 1900, most countries settled on something in the .30 to .35 caliber range; and then started mass production. Every major combatant in WW1 (and ww2 for that matter) used a round of between 6.5mm and 9mm; mostly in the 7mm-8mm range (.284 to .315). Most of these rounds fired their bullets in the 2500-3000fps range; about twice as fast as the pre-civil war era rifles and muskets fired their large heavy ball ammo.
At the time of their adoption, these velocities were unheard of; and their wounding mechanism wasn't well understood. Everyone could see that a half ounce ball of lead 2/3 of an inch across would do a hell of a lot of damage; but no-one was quite sure about how exactly these little pointed cylinders, half the diameter and less than half the weight of their predecessors, but moving at two or three times the velocity; actually worked.
They didn't understand how, but they obviously did work, and they worked very well, out to ranges previously thought impossible. For example, the primary official U.S. service rifle of WW1, the 1903 Springfield, is chambered in .30-06 (caliber .30 adopted in 1906) has an effective kill range (not accurate, but still lethal) of well over 1000m; and with a good rifle and a good rifleman behind it, you can hit a man sized target at 800 yards.
The .303 British, and .30-06 killed or wounded about 6 million men in WW1 (most of the rest on the losing side were hit by artillery); and by the end of the war, there was a lot of information about how the cartreidges, and rifles, had worked in combat. In the early 1920s, taking the experiences of and data from WW1, ballisticians and firearms designers in the U.S. and England started looking at the strengths and weaknesses of various small arms cartridges.
What they found out, was that the typical .30 caliber or so rifle rounds, with 2.5" long cases filled with powder, were "too powerful"; in the sense that the average infantryman didnt need to shoot at a man 800 yards away. These rounds required large, heavy rifles to be controllable; and they required a good sized, strong man to carry that rifle, and the ammunition load for it.
So, they started looking at smaller diameter bullets, fired from shorter cases; which were lighter, cheaper, easier to manufacture, and easier for soldiers to control.
The Brits and Americans both settled on experiments with cartridges in the .280 range, in fact both in the mid 20's coming independently to produce very similar 7mm (.284") cartridges, the .276 pederson, and what would eventually (30 years later in fact) become the .280 Enfield (also called the .280 British). Development of these cartidges was somewhat slow however, because both countries were hit hard by economic depressions, and had huge stocks of surplus arms and ammunition from the war.
Unfortunately, on March 16th 1935, Hitler announced that Germany was abrogating the treaty of Versailes; and re-arming. At that point, or soon after, anyone not blind and stupid figured out that there was a war heading this-a-way right quick, and maybe adopting new ammunition wasn't the smartest idea right then.
The British had over 2 billion (yes, thats billion with a b) rounds of .303 lying around; and the Americans had several (I've read 13 billion, but I can't verify that) billion rounds of .30-06 left over from ww1. We WERE going to make use of those surplus stocks, because there was no way to tool up for production of new weapons and new ammunition in a new, smaller chambering, fast enough or cheap enough to be ready for the war that was coming.
So folks, those of you who believe the M1 Garand is the ultimate battle implement (and if it isn't, it's not far off), just remember, it was designed to be, and originally built as, a .276 Pederson rifle rather than a .30-06
Well, "they" say that war is the best incubator of technology, and WW2 proved "them" right in an incredible and unprecedented way. The 10 years of war production (preparation for war started in the U.S. and Europe in 1935, and war production didn't end until 1946) advanced technology faster than any period before it in the history of mankind; a pace which has only been equalled in a limited way by information technology since 1976... and in fact that same information technology revolution was kicked off by the war effort to make computers for calculating artillery trajectories, and bomb characteristics.
Well, relevant to our story, in the middle of the war production years something really interesting happened.... actually two very similar somethings, in two different countries.
The first actually started in a prison in North Carolina in 1928, with a guy named David Williams; and the second in 1941 with a guy in Germany named Hugo Schmeisser.
WW2 saw the first use of the Paratrooper (or Falschirmjager, as the Germans would call them); as assault troops who would jump in behind enemy lines, and attack the enemy from the rear etc.. etc... Anyway, at about the same time some bright guy over in Germany, and some other bright guy in North Carolina, figured out that Paratroopers needed a light machine gun; but that even light machine guns were kinda heavy; and if you made them lighter, they were hard to control.
Well, both bright guys had a solution in the submachine gun, and the Germans LOVED the things (as did the Russians by the by), but they weren't really powerful enough to sustain an assault; and overall the American war department didn't care for them (though we made a fair few on our own as well, and our troops loved them)
So anyway, the American guy had a bright idea, let's make a light, handy rifle, that fires an easily controlled round, much more powerful than a standard pistol, but much less powerful than a full sized rifle.
The war department asked a bunch of manufacturers to submit designs for a light rifle, suitable for issue to paratroopers, and to tankers and support troops whous duties didn't include carrying a full sized rifle. They considered designs for three years, but didnt find anything satisfactory.
Eventually, Winchester sent in a design that was started by John Moses Brownings brother Ed, and finished by a convicted moonshiner and cop killer named David Williams; what became the M1 carbine.
No folks, this story couldn't have been any better if I made it up. That is seriously what happened, and gunnies still laugh in amazement at it today.
Now, the M1 carbine is a great little rifle; it's very light, very quick to the shoulder, and easy to fire. It's reasonably accurate, and it's basic round is far better than a sub-machine guns pistol round. Unfortunately that round is still not very powerful' it's really a 100yard gun; and the M1 wasn't fully automatic, so it couldn't replace either the light machine gun or the submachine gun.
Of course that didn't take away it's good qualities, and the ordnance department loved the things, ordering about 7 million of them by the end of the war (including about 600,000 in a fully automatic configuration, but it didn't work out too well).
The Germans had a little different idea. The German trooops REALLY loved their submachine guns, and they didn't want to give up that full auto capability, plus they really liked the caliber of their basic infantry round, the 8mm mauser (actually 7.92mm); it was just too powerful to be used in a light weight automatic gun.
So, Hugo Schmeisser (the guy who came up with some of the submachine guns the troops loved so much), figured they could cross a submachine gun, with a light machine gun; and make a fully automatic rifle, that was short, and light; and fired a less powerful round than a full sized rifle or machine gun, but more powerful than a pistol or submachine gun.
They took the 8mm mauser round, cut it down in length by almost half and called it the 7.92mm kurz (short). Then they crossed the operating system of two different SMGs, and a Semi-automatic rifle (the Gewehr 41); and made the design as cheap and quick to produce as possible.
The result was the Machinen Pistolen 1943, which the troops loved; but Hitler didn't like the idea of. He had previously ordered that all small arms production be directed towards making sub-machine guns. So, to get around Hitlers dictum, the clever folks behind the little rifle just called the thing a Machine Pistol (which is what the germans called their SMGs).
Well, eventually enough of these amazing rifles got out there, and the troops loved them enough; that Hitler heard about them. Hitler asked some of his commanders in the field if there was anything he could get them, and they asked him for as many of that new rifle as they could make. Well of course Hitler hadn't aproved any new rifles, so he was confused; until they told him it was the Mp43. At first he was pissed off, but after he saw a demonstration, and saw how effective troops equipped with the thing were, he was thrilled with it, and he insisted on naming it himself. On Hitlers orders, the MP43 then became the StG. '44, or Sturm Gewehr model of 1944.
Yaknow what Sturm Gewher means?
Aaanyway, back to our story.
So, after the war, the ballisticians and weapons designers got back together again, and re-analyzed their data, along with the new data from WW2, coming to the same conclusion: Bullet in the 6.5mm to 7mm range, fired at medium velocities, from medium length cartridges; were just as effective at wounding and killing the enemy; but were cheaper to produce, easier to carry, and easier for soldiers to shoot.
Welll... the Army REALLY didn't like this idea. In fact, they hated it; but they were told by the defense department that they would have to adopt it for their next war rifle.
The Army disliked this idea so much, they decided to come up with a new round, that was indeed shorter than the old .30-06 (by almsot 3/4")... but it would be ballistically identical. By raising the pressure of the round and using better powders then becoming available, the Army could keep their 800yard accurate man killing riflemans round, AND pretend to be adopting the new "intermediate" cartridge philosophy.
This is the beginning of the assault rifle vs. battle rifle war that I've written about before.
The basic opposition to the assault rifle concept is simple:
Some people believe the proper way for infantry to fight, is as individual riflemen, taking aimed shots at long ranges, against other individual riflemen. The proper instrument for this is a round that is effective and accurate out to 600-800 yards; and a rifle suited to firing it accurately at those ranges. Automatic fire may be useful under some circumstances, but is mostly a waste of ammunition.
The basic proposition for the assault rifle is also simple:
Modern infantry combat involves small groups, engaging at ranges under 300 yards (in fact almsot all infantry combat now occurs at under 100 feet, never mind 800 yards). It is more useful to be able to lay out a volume of small arms fire from an entire combat element, accurate to 300 yards, with a chambering and rifle appropriate to that purpose. The ammunition should be light and easy to carry, and easy to control in automatic fire, because you are going to be using a lot of it.
These two positions have formed the central controversy in small arms since 1927, before the term "assault rifle" was even invented (yes, really, they've been fighting about this subject since 1927, and there is as of yet no resolution. I told you, gun people are extremely conservative, and equally stubborn).
Anyway, it was in '48 that the Army decided to implement the new "smaller"
round; unfortunately things weren't very settled yet on either the home or international front, and the resources couldn't be dedicated to bringing a new round to production. Also, the British had perfected their .280 enfield round, and were strongly supporting IT as the proper direction for future small arms (along with a radical new concept, the bullpup rifle, but that's another argument altogether).
Well, then we had another little war in Korea from '50 to '53, and there was no time to adopt a new cartridge, so the .30-06 saw service in it's third major war (actually more than that if you count Mexico, Shanghai, Nanking, Nicaraugua, and Honduras... but generally we don't, unless wyou're talking about the marines in which case they remember every one of them, but I digress); and the .30 carbine its second war.
Well, in Korea, once again the .30-06 was too much, and the .30 carbine was not enough. Stories actually went around that the .30 carbine round wouldn't penetrate the heavy winter clothing the Koreans and Chinese wore. They weren't true, but they were widely believed, because the round jsut didnt have a lot of guts, especially at longer ranges (the probable genesis of the stories were reporters watching troops take potshots at the north Koreans, and Chinese from several hundred yards away; far greater than the effective range of the chambering).
After Korea, the Army then decided to put it's "new" round into production; and had Winchester develop the concept into a full production ready chambering. They had been working on it since 1948 (actually Savage had been working on it since 1925 as the .300 savage. Winchester then modified the concept further), and released it commercially in 1952 as the .308 Winchester; which was adopted by the U.S., and NATO as the 7.62x51 NATO in 1954.
Along with the new round, the Army adopted a fully automatic re-design of the M1 garand rifle, the T44 (which they had been working on since 1944 as the John Garand designed T20, and had almost ready to go with a final re-design by Earle Harvey in '48-'50 before Korea broke out) which was re-classified the M14.
When the U.S. officially adopted the 7.62 round, they forced it on NATO at the same time. Of course the NATO allies were all looking at smaller, lighter, easier to control rounds like the .280 enfield, but the U.S. was calling the shots, and everyone had to toe the line, or not recieve U.S. small arms support and ground troops in the event of a Russian invasion.
Strong incentive there eh?
So, everyone scrapped all their true "intermediate" cartridge designs, and rushed wholesale to find, or design rifles chambered for the new round. About 3/4 of the world ended up adopting the Fabrique National Fusil Atomatique Legere (Light Automatic Rifle), or FN-FAL.
The FAL was originally designed by Dieudonne Suaive (the same guy who co-designed the Browning Hi-Power with John Moses Browning) in 1947, to fire the first assault rifle round, the StG. 44s 7.92 Kurz. Then in 1949, it was redisgned to fire the .280 enfield round, and submitted to the British as a possible service rifle. Finally, in 1951, they rechambered it for the new 7.62 round the U.S. was going to adopt (yes, it was out before the U.S. officially adopted the M14, or the 7.62 nato round was even officially announced); and when we made our announcement that everyone in NATO would have to switch to the new round, basically everyone bought the FAL.
No, I'm not kidding, almost everyone all around the world adopted the FAL. Basically every U.S. ally except Germany and Spain (who had their own rifle design already, the CETME/G3) used the FAL for at least a few years. It was the first automatic rifle sold on the world market chambering the new 7.62 nato round, and it was a very good rifle, so it pretty much took over the world. In Africa, it became known as the "right arm of freedom", because it was the weapon that equipped most of the armies of the newly independent colonies; and is in fact still by far the most common military rifle seen in non-communist countries other than the U.S. (the commie countries of course are dominated by the AK-47, as are most of their neighbors, friends, relatives, acquaintances... hell, the AK is like the plague; it spreads with the rats, and seems to reproduce itself as if by magic).
So, every country in the west is forced by the U.S. to adopt this new cartridge in 1954; and by 1959 at great expense they all managed to do so.
There's still this little problem. See, all these rifles are fully automatic, and they're a bit lighter and shorter than the rifles of WW2; so they should be handier and easier to control and use that fully auto capability right?
Thing is, they're all firing what is essentially the ballistic equivalent of that same WW2 battle riffle round.
Same bullet weight, almsot the same velocity... but with a lighter weapon... that means that they are even LESS controllable. In fact, unless you're on a bipod, or have arms like a gorilla; firing a 7.62 nato rifle in fully automatic mode is damn near useless.
Not everyone is a corn-fed Iowa farm boy, 6'2, 185lbs and with the upper body strength of a linebacker.. Actually though that may be the image the Army wants to project of the American soldier, not even our boys are like that for the most part. Certainly the troops over in Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia aren't.
The countries adopting these new rifles all figured this out pretty quickly; even the thus far boneheaded US. In fact, many of them disable the fully automatic capability of the rifles, and almsot all of them train their soldiers not to use it, except for suppressive fire.
In the mean time, ballisticians and weapons designers are still working on the intermediate rifle cartridge concept that the Germans had come up with in 1941. They've figured out that you can make a round MUCH lighter, much smaller, and much FASTER (which means both accuracy and power), without giving up killing power. The tradeoff is effective range, but they know from their studies that infantry combat doesn't happen at 800 yards anymnore, in fact it doesn't even happen at 300 yards anymore.
As early as 1948, research boards such as the U.S. Army Operations Research Office, were recommending moving to a fully automatic 5.5-6.5mm intermediate chambering; in a light weight rifle designed to be fired in fully automatic mode.
The ORO projects final recommendation, issued in 1952, was that a 5.9mm round firing at 4000fps be developed for the armed forces.
Of course as I said, the Army hated this conclusion, and they kept it buried, until 1958; when the realization around the world that the 7.62 nato cartridge wasn't working as planned had become apparent to almost everyone, except the Army Ordnance Board.
Now, let me take a moment here to talk about the M14, and 7.62 nato.All that aside, we needed an assault rifle, which is by defnition, a short, handy, light weight automatic or select fire rifle, firing a cartridge of intermediate power.
I personally believe, that there is no single greater choice of rifle and chambering, for an individual marksman firing against an individual enemy at medium to long ranges, than the M14 in 7.62x51 nato. It is an incredible weapon; accurate, reliable, and having great killing power.
What it isn't is an assault rifle; and our infantry as it is trained and organizaed today, requires an assault rifle.
Some may argue that we shouldn't be organized that way, they the marksman concept is better, and that we should be using it as our general infantry philosophy; but argue as much as they want, it's not what we do today, and so long as we use assault infantry tactics and training, the M14 and the 7.62 nato cartridge, will not be the appropriate issue weapon to the mass of our infantry (for designatd marksmen, definitely, but not for mark one mod zero grunt).
At the time, ballisticians were absolutely fascinated by hypervelocity "shock", created by small, very fast bullets. In 1952, there was a project, headed by Gerald Gustafson, to create what they called an SCHV round (Small Caliber High Velocity).
This team started by looking at the .220 swift, and .22-250 cartridges; both of which were originally developed as varmint cartridges, but which had through the experimentation and advocacy of several very motivated individuals (notably Frank Chamberlain, and J.B. Smith), developed a reputation for producing highly destructive and disabling wounds in larger game, while still having low recoil and toher desirable characteristics.
These “hypervelocity” rounds were thought to do massive amounts of lethal damage, because of their “shock” capabilities. We now know that for most bullets (those that impact their targets at less than about 3500fps) this was an incorrect wounding model, but it’s one that many people still believe today.
The basic idea, is that at very high velocities, light weight bullets can transfer a large amount of energy into the tissue of their target on impact. This energy transfer creates a large temporary "stretch" cavity in the wound, and sends shock waves through the tissue surroudning the impact.
This much is true.
It is further believed, that these shock waves cause extensive tissue, organ, and systemic neural damage in the target; causing immediate shock and death.
Unfortunately, though this CAN be true in some cases, this is not consistently true; especially at impact velocities of under 3500 feet per second.
At the same time as Gustafsons team was working on the SCHV concept, the chief of the ballistics division for the ORO Norman Hitchman, was developing what he called the "burst fire" concept; believing that the most effective means of producing a rapidly disabling wound, was firing three high velocity rounds into the target in rapid succession.
From these two lines of research, the SALVO project was founded.
At first, the project came up with a lot of strange concepts; like three barreled weapons, shotguns firing flechettes etc... but in 1953 they came up with a .224 bullet in a shortened 7.62 nato case. They tested it and liked the reults, so they applied for funding to develop the concept further.
Well, their fundig was turned down, with the note that they werne't in the business of developing new cartridges... which gave Gustavson et all some ideas.
Basically, what they were doing was taking 55 to 68 grain bullets, and firing them at 3200-3600 feet per second right? Well, there were already commercial cartridges that could do that; why not invesitgate those as a possiblity.
Now, at this same time, fairchild Armalite was trying to sell its AR-10 rifle to the Army. I've recounted that saga elsewhere on this blog before, but suffice it to say, the results were not pretty.
Well, in 1956, the SCHV SALVO team approached the Fairchild AR-10 team, and asked them to chamber their rifle in a commercial chambering approximating the performance they were getting with their experiments.
The fairchild people settled on the .222 remington; which fired a 55gr bullet at 3000-3200fps. That wasn't quite fast enough, but remington also had a .222 remington magnum, which was basically the .222 with the shoulder blown out for more powder capacity. Unfortunately the magnums shoulder geometry didn't feed well in the automatic rifle design, so the SALVO team and Fairchild went to Remington with their design, asking them to slightly stretch the .222 to match the performance of the magnum version; which they promptly did, initially calling it the .222 special, or the .22 nato.
After two and a bit years of testing, various changes to requirements, bullet weights, pressures, velocities, people, rifle designs etc...the SALVO team releases their report, which made some rather wild claims of effectiveness, far beyond what the data justified; based on their wounding theory, of hypervelocity shock, and burst fire effectiveness.
In 1959, the .222 special offically became the .223 Remington, which the company began selling commercially as a vermint round (and it is probably the most commercially successful varmint round of all time).
In the mean time, the Army had continued building up a good head of hatred regarding these various small caliber projects. In fact, the army ordnance board offically declared the .223 unsuitable as a replacement for the 7.62 nato THREE TIMES.
Unfortunately, by 1960, as I have recounted in "Who's at fault for the m16", the AOBs credibility was shot with the defense department. Fomr 1960-1964, the AOD was ordered by the DOD to test various lightweight automatic rifle concepts in smaller calibers.
The AOB deliberately dragged their feet on tehse tests; and in many ways pout their thumbs on the scales. They eventually legitimately concluded, that the proper choice for a replacement for the 7.62 nato was a 6.5mm cartridge, firing a 100-120gr bullet at approximately 3,000fps; but by then, it was too late. They had wasted all their credibility and good will sabotaging the .223 and the AR15; and the defense department ordered them to adopt both, unchanged, immediately.
This was a disaster; because as regards what became the 5.56 nato, they were correct. The round wasn't a suitable replacement for the 7.2 nato. It had been denegrated as a varmint round, not even big enough to hunt deer with in msot states, and they were right.
So if the army was right, how did the SALVO peopl, the .220 swift people, and the .22-250 people get it wrong?
Well, the big assumption was the shock wounding theory. It turns out, that although sometimes a target will see shock effects, sometimes they wont. The crossover point for 55-68gr bullets seems to be at about the 3500fps mark. If the target is hit in the right location at or above 3500fps, and the bulelt doesnt disintegrate, then the shock effects will tend to produce disabling wounds. A three round burst multiplies this shock, as well as increasing the chances of a vital area hit.
The problem is, the .223 as finally reached production, isn't capable of hitting above 3500fps from an m16. In fact a 20" m16 will typically hit 3270-3390fps from standard NATO ammo, at the muzzle. At 250 yards, that same bullet is going to be just about 2500fps; and if you make the barrel shorter, you lose between 25 and 50 feet per second of velocity, for every inch of barrel, as well as about 25 yards of effective range.
So then why were there such great results with the initial testing of the round?
Well, at this point the 5.56 wounding mechanism is now well understood. At the time, the assumption was that hypervelocity wound shock was the primary wounding mechanism, but we now know the actual primary wounding mechanism is high velocity fragmentation.
At or above impact velocities of 2500fps in human flesh, the 55-68gr 5.56 bullet tends to penetrate 4-10″; then break up into several large high velocity fragments, similar to small shotgun pellets. This creates very bloody, very messy wounds, and may cause vital damage.
With a 20" barrel, the standard NATO loads stay above 2500fps well past 200 yards, and will fragment on penetrating a body; but below 2500fps, this doesnt happen, and the 5.56 has about the same wounding capability as a sharp pencil.
The thing is, even if fragmentation occurs, it isn't a reliable mechanism for producigng disabling wounds. If hit near the face, throat, heart, lungs, or liver it's very likely that the target will go down; but in other locations, even fi fragmentation occurs the reuslt will usually jsut be a loss of mobility. In burst fire modes, where there are multiple impacts, those impacts are usually spread around the body, resulting in far greater potential for a vital hit, and more overal shock from blood loss etc... but that is counting on multiple hits, which is only likely at short range, ro when time is taken to establish proper aim.
This is why the 5.56 rounds is a very good killer, but a poor stopper (the enemy dies, but they may be able to shoot back at you for several minutes before they do); and why our short barreled assault carbine, the M4, has a problem at long range. The bullet starts out with a lot less velocity to begin with (about 2700-2900fps), and loses it faster than the same bullet would fired from a longer barrel.
Thus, the problem with the 5.56 is one of consistency. If hit with three rounds above 2500fps, a target is going down quick. Just one or two rounds, or below 2500fps… maybe yes, maybe no.
So, what about the myth?
Actually, near as I can tell the myth originated as a slander against our troops in Viet Nam. It was made up by a reporter to portray the U.S. as cruel heartless baby killers. The Russians even filed protests, saying we were using ammunition that was designed to cause undue suffering.
But it wasn't at all true.
The reason the 5.56 was adopted wasn’t this inconsistent wounding mechanism, designed to wwound not kill; it was because the 5.56 is light weight, compact, cheap, and has very little recoil.
This means that a soldier can carry a lot more ammunition for less weight (more than twice as much as with 7.62 nato), and less money; and they can fire their weapon a lot faster, and more controlably (especially in full auto). Also, the weapon itself can be shorter, lighter, and cheaper; because it doesnt have to resist the forces of a larger, more powerful round.
Yes, we adopted the 5.56 with a flawed wounding model, but in fact McNamara and the DOD didn't care about the counding model at all. What they were concerned about was that the 5.56 was light, and cheap. A soldier could carry 2.55 times as much 5.56 as 7.62 nato, but they cost the same.
Combined with the incorrect wounding model thought to apply to the round at the time, and the defense department (though not the military itself, especially the Army Ordnance Board), thought it was a win-win situation.
Well, it turns out they were wrong; and they knew they were wrong pretty quickly.
The DOD forced the army to adopt 5.56 as the official service round in 1964; also forcing it on NATO that same year; jsut ten years after foring our allies to adopt the 7.62 round they didnt want.
Well, our allies in the main refused to change to the round (except for Japan and Taiwan, who had the most trouble with the 7.62 round and their smaller statured soldiers), until the early to mid 80s.
In fact, even then most of them didn't want to adopt the round, preferring to redevlop the intermediate chamberings they abandoned when they were forced to adopt the 7.62 in the first place; or to concetrate on developing even smaller, higher velocity loadings for use in personal defense weapons with very high rates of fire, that depend on large numbers of hits for their wounding mechanism.
By 1968, the U.S. had already gathered enough data to know that the 5.56 wasn't working as advertised. In fact, starting in 1974, we began looking for a replacement. We've been looking every few years ever since.
Recently, the Army has been testing the 6.8spc round; a development off the old .35 remington cartridge, by Remington, for special operations forces. They've found that their MK262 heavy 77gr high pressure loadings in 5.56 were quite effective, and wanted to follow that trend a bit farther to see where they could balance out the needs of an assault rifle for power, range, wounding capability, light weight, and ease of controlability.
By all reports the 6.8spc, and a similar round the 6.5 grendel, are nearly ideal for an asault rifle. Both have significantly lower recoil then the 7.62 nato, and are more controlable; but they have superior ballistic (both external and terminal) performance to the 5.56 in all areas (and in fact sometimes superior performance to the 7.62).
Oh and remember that report the Army came up with, about a 6.5mm bullet at 300 or so fps being near ideal? The one that got crushed by McNamara and the DOD? Yeah, I'm guessing Remington and Alexander arms might have taken note of that conclusion at some point.
The only problem is the sunk cost. As with the .30-06 in ww1, ww2, and Korea; we have billions of 5.56 in the pipeline, as well as billion of dollars worth of parts and accessories to support the 5.56. At this point, changing to a different chambering is nearly impossible. It would require an outlay of hundreds of billions of dollars, while we're trying to fight a war, and that jsut isn't going to happen.
In the mean time, our guys are out there fighting with what can be a very effective chambering, but just isn't consistently so. I find that worrisome myself (and I did when I carried one for that matter, knowing it as a great varmint cartridge that was too light for deer, never mind people).
Now, I've written before here many times about what I think we should do; but it just isn't going to happen, until there is a high enough penalty for the failure of the 5.56 to get the politicians to spend the billions.
Maybe we'd be better off, if the myth were true...
NOTE: yikes, 6,400 words, and the last third needs to be re-written; probably longer by ANOTHER 1000 words.
Please note guys, I am leaving out a HELL of a lot of detail, and summarizing or glossing over a lot more; or this thing would be 20,000 plus words. There are entire collections of books written on this subject.
In the last third, I started rushing a bit because it was 4:14 in the morning by the time I finished this, and I want to go to bed. I wrote 10 words at 7:30pm, saved it as a placeholder, and then started really writing at 11:07 and publsihed at 4:14)