Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Right Weapon for the Job

Lots of folks hate the AR, or they THINK they hate the AR.

Of those people, probably half just don't care for the caliber, and we'll definitely address that. Another quarter just hate black plastic guns, or the design of the AR specifically (the gas system especially), which I disagree with, but I understand their aesthetic issue, and the gas system IS a pain to clean.

It's the rest of the AR haters I want to talk about. They don't like the AR/M16/M4 either because they don't like the entire concept of the assault rifle, or because the assault rifle was the wrong weapon for the job they were trying to do with it (by choice or otherwise).

So let's get into that; what does our military need in it's individual weapons, and why?

First, we need to limit our scope somewhat: When referring to military individual small arms, it is primary infantry weapons that we are most concerned about; which of course means the infantry rifle. Additionally, there are also secondary and tertiary weapons that we must consider, either for non-infantry missions, or for infantry missions not suited to stasdard long arms. Also important to note, special operations forces will always have needs that will not be met by standard general issue weapons.

One other important distinction: In terms of casualty creation, the primary small arm of the infantry is in fact the full machine gun (either LMG/SAW or MMG/GPMG), but machine guns are limited in number to perhaps as high as 20% of troops. Given this, and the fact that they are used in the fire support role, full machine guns are not properly seen as individual weapons, even if they are capable of, or designed for individual uses , such as our M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW).

Part One - Primary Individual Infantry Weapons

Since world war two, there have been two dominant concepts of primary long arms for infantry operations; the assault rifle, and the battle rifle.

The battle rifle is the evolution of several hundred years of war fighting long rifles. It is designed to be effective out to 600-800 yards, both in caliber, and in the weapon itself. This means a longer barrel, a full and supportive stock, and a high powered cartridge, generally firing a fairly heavy bullet at fairly high velocities.

The battle rifle is highly accurate, and very powerful. It is the ideal tool for a single infantryman, engaging targets at long ranges, and moving in the open field or light cover. In other words, it is the ideal weapon for wars as they were fought up until WW1, and in some theaters of WW2.

The modern battle rifle; as exemplified by the M14, the G3, the AR10, the FAL, the CETME, and the Sig 540 and all their variants; is the best tool for the individual rifleman ever devised.

There are some disadvantages to the concept though: Battle rifles are heavy, long, and have very high recoil. They are not very controllable under rapid fire, and they are awkward to move through tight spaces. Also their ammunition is heavy, and bulky.

More important than these basic physical factors however, is that we don't fight as individual riflemen anymore, and we don't generally fight in the open field.

The way the infantry fights and maneuvers today is in small groups, moving from cover to cover, and rarely engaging in the open field. We cover open terrain by riding in light armor or fast soft vehicles. We often fight in dense cover or in urban environments. Our engagement ranges rarely exceed 300 yards, and when they do, we generally fight with artillery and air support. We also have a combined weapon squad structure that uses light machine guns as integral components. The LMG's are the primary base of fire weapons, making one of the fuctions of the semi and/or fully automatic battle rifle redundant.

This is not to say that battle rifles are obsolete, they certainly have a place on the battlefield, as they are excellent individual killing machines. But we need a primary arm that is appropriate to the majority of infantrymen, and another arm that is appropriate to those who fight in the rear, or who fight from a vehicle, where a full size rifle would hinder their mission.

The assault rifle is a very different beast from the battle rifle. An assault rifle is designed to be effective out to 300 meters. It will fire a medium power round, with low recoil, and if designed properly will be reasonably controllable under rapid fire, and even automatic fire. The ammunition itself will be light, and easily packable. Not only that, but the lower powered round and shorter range means the weapon can be lighter, shorter, and more easily packed and maneuvered.

There are a lot of people out there who really HATE the whole IDEA of an assault rifle. They want a full powered, individual weapon. They want the ability to reach out that 800 yards (whether they need it, or can use it; which most don't and can't). Often they don't like the entire tactical doctrine that the assault rifle is designed for.

Combine this dislike of the assault rifle concept, with decades of bullshit about AR reliability (which was originally born of horrible experience, and yes, it does suffer in comparison to the AK), and the admitedly marginal 5.56 nato caliber, and you get some of the most amazing vitriol.

Here's the thing, the battle rifle concept requires a very highly trained individual of relatively high physical strength and reasonably large size for maximum effectiveness. Even assuming we can build and maintain such a force, it would require entirely different tactial doctrine and training.

And guess what, even then, the full power 7.62n STILL DOESN'T WORK ON TODAYS BATTLEFIELD; or, at least not as the general issue infantry arm.

The battle rifle was born out of the civil war (and in fact the earlier Napoleonic and Crimean wars), was mostly obsolete as a general issue infantry arm by the end of world war 1, and totally obsolete for that purpose by the end of World War 2. There is no place in modern warfare for mass formation of men engaging at more than 300 yards, and therefore, there is no need for a rifle designed to do just that to be in general issue, or for you to carry a weapon like that into combat at all, unless you are a DM, scout sniper, or spotter (which I believe there should be more of).

Let me explain.

The battle rifle is an instrument of individual fighters, engaging other individual fighters at long range, in relatively loose but coherent lines, and light but hard cover. If it helps you to visualize, think of each rifleman as a tank in an armored battle. As different as the medium are, the tactical concepts as relate to targeting and engaging the enemy with fire are similar. The thing is, tanks have armor, and people don't (or at least not very effective armor).

This type of infantry warfare was almost entirely over by WW2, and I don't see it ever coming back as the pirmary infantry warfare mission again.

Infantry warfare since WW2 (with the exception of some Korean War battles) has been almost entirely maneuver war with meeting engagements occuring at 80 yards or less. Soldiers as a group no longer engage at over 300 yards with rifles (though individual marksmen MAY); Tactics have moved on. If a modern soldier sees a 500 yard open space he doesn't cross it unless he can't avoid it. He goes around it, looks for cover, gets armor or artillery, or hops in a softie, puts his cheater plate under his balls, and dashes it.

Yes there are exception (some types of desert warfare for example), but you choose your primary weapons for the general case, not the exceptions. When the exceptions occur, you either adapt your primary arm, you issue alternate arms, or change you tactics to compensate.

There will always be a place for individual marksmen on the field, and there should be a minority element of long range marksmen in any formation, but the age of the majority of the army being long range riflemen is long over.

Unfortunately the era of romanticising individual rifle fire as a form of combat action is FAR from over. It is this unrealistic romance that motivates so many to hate the assault rifle concept (please note I am referring to assault rifles in general, not the M16, or the 5.56n chambering specifically both of which at least have some valid justification for ill will).

We now organize most units into mutually supporting pairs, further organized into fire and support elements containing medium and heavy weapons (LMG/SAW and grenade launchers; possibly recoilless rifles,MMG's, and/or light-medium vehicle mounted weapons). The largest infantry formations you will EVER see Americans in on a modern battlefield are company level, and even then they will be broken up into maneuver elements at the platoon or squad level. These elements generally WILL NOT engage at more than 300-500 yards if they can avoid it; they will maneuver for advantage, they will call in air, or arty, or armor.

Some say we use these tactics because our weapons demand it, and if every soldier had a 600yd gun, he would be more effecive, but this is entirely untrue. Even if you gave every soldier 600 yard capable rifles, they wouldn't use them, because this way WORKS BETTER. Mutually supporting pairs, grouped into 4-24 man fire and support maneuver elements engaging at under 300m works better. This is how we fight today, and this is what we need our general infantry arm to do. Guess what; that sounds to me like that's the very definition of an assault rifle.

Again, this is not to say there aren't situations where 500 and 600 yard shots arent called for, or can't be made, but with a properly structured balance of weapons and training, these situations can generally be handled by the designated maksmen role, not the basic infantry soldier.

Heading down from the abstract for a moment, in todays American military, the AR is our assault rifle. The AR isn't perfect, but it's design is fundamentally sound, and it is a decent compromise weapon for the purpose. The AR is the best example of the American conception of the assault rifle, and its damned good at just that (though it needs a better chambering).

The AR isn't a battle rifle, and it isn't an SMG, and if you try and use it for either, you'll be at best pissed off, and at worst, dead.

Part Two - The caliber question

The primary concerns in designing a cartridge for an infantry arm, specifically for an assault rifle are as follows, and in rough order

  1. Stopping power and range (out to 300 yards)
  2. Killing power and range (out to 300 yards)
  3. weight and packability
  4. Controllability under rapid fire
  5. Accuracy at range (out to 300 yards)
The primary advantages of the 5.56n are that it's easy for anyone to shoot, and you can carry almost twice as much as 7.62n for the same weight and about the same space. In a "typical" modern warfare scenario; if I'm a basic leg squaddie, I'd rather have 200 .223 than 100 .308 (actually in my case it'd be more like 400, vs 200; or even more likely I'd be the guy with the Para Minimi, and 4 pods, and I have been, but I'm a BIG guy).

Unfortunately, experience has shown that while the .223 is a good killer, it is not a good stopper. One properl placed shot from the .223 is just as likely to kill someone as any other major caliber rifle, but it will do so slower, and leave the subject more functional while they are dying. This is unnaceptable in an infantry weapon. Also the performance of the 5.56 against light cover is unpredictable at best and unacceptable at worst.

So what does that indicate? We need a much heavier bullet.

Honestly, I think 7.62n is a great battle rifle caliber, and given a choice in battle rifles it's what I'd carry (I own an M14, not an M1a, and I love it), but that same experience that indicates the 5.56n is a poor battle choice, has shown the 7.62n is far more than necessary for a man sized target at less than 300yds, and is not very controllable in rapid fire.

Really, the 7.62n, and the weapons chambered for it arent all that useful in CQB situations, and the main advantage they provide over lighter calibers is at ranges in excess of our target for assault rifles.

Combine these two lessons and what do you get?

For the mission facing our soldiers today, the primary infantry arm should be in a caliber with a much larger and heavier bullet than the .223, but with a lower powder charge and shorter case than the .308.

This makes the various .243, .250, .260, .270, 6.5, 6.8 etc... solutions look pretty good to me, but even some of them may be more than necessary.

Personally I'd prefer to see a short cased 7 or 8mm round be the primary infantry arm caliber.

Good quality 7.62x39, is to my mind the ideal assault rifle round around today, but I'd like to see it's performance maximized for modern metallurgy and powder technologies to give it some more speed and power. Not a lot more power, but another couple hundred FPS should give a useful power boost, and possibly an accuracy boost, wthout losing too much controlability. Maybe a 125gr pushed up to 2450 fps?

Even in stock form, I think it's a decent choice. Yes you give up accuracy and range to both the 5.56, and the 7.62n, but at 300yds or less, and especially at 50 yds or less I'd rather have the heavier bullet at lower velocity. When 7.62x39 is chambered in a good gun, and manufactured to US/NATO standards, it's just good a round as any of the other proposals, and it has the added advantage of allowing us to standardize on one single bore size for accessories like cleaning jags and brushes, across our entire line of individual weapons.

The thing is though? This is NEVER going to happen. The chances of the US adopting a soviet caliber are essentially nil. There may be a possibility of adopting a short cased version of the 7.62n, say 7.62x39 or 7.62x45, based on the 7.62x51 case and firing shorter OAL bullets, perhaps in the 140gr range; unfortunately as far as I know, no-one is developing this concept as a serious military cartridge (though there are a couple of hunting cartridges of a similar concept).

So what looks good out there right now? Well the 6.5 Grendel, and the 6.8 SPC are probably the best fit with the needs of todays infantry, and our current generation of infantry arms. This is borne out by the Armys repeated flirtation with the 6.8, and it's pilot use by various special operations groups. It's a decent compromise between weight, velocity, and recoil, and it chambers in existing weapons very easily. It's also a far better choice as an LMG round than the .223 (though some say the 6.5 is an even better one).

The priamry effect of these choices would be to increase the effective range and stopping power out from the current 100 or so yards at high percentage; and 300 yards at low percentage, to 300 yards high percentage, and 500 yards low percentage, neatly bridging the gap between the assault and battle rifle platforms.

(A funny aside, for years I've been thinking in meters, but the last few months I've been thinking in yards again as I spent a lot more time explaining gun stuff to non-military types on various online forums).

Part Three - Secondary Individual Weapons

There is another category of long arm entirely, and that is the intermediate arm, sometimes called a secondary weapon.

The intermediate arm is a very short, very light, and maneuverable shoulder arm, with a short range (100 yards or thereabouts), intermediate power, and preferably full auto capability. The intermediate arm is what you arm those non-infantry folks I talked about above with; the loggies, the techs, the tankers and the rest.

There are two common incarnations of the intermediate arm, the assault carbine, and the SMG.

The assault carbine is in essence a shortened assault rifle (like the M4). It will fire the same round as its larger brother, use the same acessories etc... it will just be shorter. This has it's advantages and disadvantages; the weapon will be easy to train on and supply for, since the main infantry long arm is essentially the same weapon; and in theory will retain much of the power and capability of it's parent weapon. Unfortunately, there are performance issues; mostly because the very short barrel of the assault carbine results in poor performance with intermediate rifle calibers.

The M1 carbine was the first American example of the assault carbine, and it was a very good concept, but the execution left a little something to be desired. It proved mostly unsuitable for full auto fire (the M2 variant), and the .3o carbine cartridge is marginal for an assault carbine, being more suited to an SMG. That being said, second line troops loved the thing, as did smaller stature troops, it was only when it was substituted as a primary infantry arm that it developed a poor reputation.

Moving to the case of our armed forces today, the M4 has a 14.5", very light profile barrel, and the 5.56n caliber has what could be charitably called suboptimal performance with barrels shorter than 16", and really with barrels shorter than 18-20" depending on the load used. Even worse, the M4 has become the general issue arm, so when soldiers are in situations requiring a rifle rather than a carbine, they are left short (literally). We started to make this same mistake with the M1 carbine, but caught ourselves before major disaster.

The real problem with the M4, is that it is a compromise gun. It isnt really useful at much over 100 yards, and it isn't as short or handy as an SMG. In the effort to be more versatile, the compromise has gone too far, and I cant think of a single situation where either an SMG, or a full rifle wouldnt do a better job in general issue. Under 100 yards, from a long barreled SMG a good high powered pistol cartridge will be almost as effective as a .223, and under 50 yards it will be more effective, with less recoil, muzzle blast, weight, cost, really everything all down the line. Over 100 yards you dont need the compactness offered by the M4, and the factors working against its accuracy and stopping power add up very rapidly (especially the short light profile barrrel)

Which brings us to the SMG, which is specifically designed to be used by support personnel, by those who move in restricted spaces, and by those who fight at short ranges. It will generally shoot a standard pistol round, but it will have a barrel long enough to take full advantage of the round, resulting in 40-50% higher velocities than from a pistol. Also being shoulder mounted, and heavier than a pistol, a well designed SMG can be easily controlled in full auto. Even with the longest useful barrel (10-14" depending on the chambering, or 8" for some suppressed models), an SMG will generally be shorter than an assault carbine. Additionally the ammunition for an SMG will be smaller, lighter, more packable, and often has the added advantage of being compatible with sidearms. Additionally, SMG's are more easily suppressed, for signature reduction and covert operations.

Really, the only disadvantage to an SMG, is it's reduced power and range due to chambering a pistol cartridge (thus the preference for the assault carbine in general issue). My contention is that for many troops, the SMG is precisely the weapon they need for their mission. which doesn't involve engaging the enemy on foot at over 100 yards.

Part Four - Tertiary Individual Weapons/Personal Weapons

The final weapon type I want to talk about here are personal and/or tertiary weapons; specifically, sidearms, and shotguns.

A sidearm is there for you to fight at the shortest ranges, to fight where you can't maneuver (enclosed spaces and the like), and to fight back to a situation where you can call in aditional supprt and/or bring your long gun in to play. If you are in a situation where you KNOW you are going to be in tight quarters, you should have an assault carbine, or preferably an SMG as your long gun; the pistol is only a weapon of last resort.

Shotguns are a specialty weapon in military terms. There is no more effective close quarters weapon than a short, light, and handy shotgun. They clear a room, and bust a lock better than anything short of explosives. Also, shotguns are often mountable as a secondary weapon under the barrel of a primary (as in the master key system), and are light and handy enough to be slingable or packable as a secondary weapon.

Though the military value of the shotgun in conventional battle is limited, in urban combat, and general CQB, the shotgun is a devestating weapon, and an advantage not to be taken (or discarded) lightly. I don't believe we put enough value on the shotguns use in combat in our forces today. It is primarily relegated to being a security detail weapon, and to entry gun duties. I believe it is the ideal weapon for those soldiers who have serve in areas with lots of short range open spaces, and it's the ideal support weapon for CQB.

Part Five - The Right Weapon for the Job

Ok, lots of exposition so far about the roles and funtions of various military weapons, let's translate this into practical terms. What is the right weapon for the job?

I've been coming to the opinion over the last few years that we need to revamp our small arms structure, training, and qualification in the armed forces.

I believe we need to have a hierarchy of arms something like this (some of this is already in place, or is being developed now):

  • We need to up the number of MMG/GPMG gunners in our larger formations and support elements.

  • We need to increase the percentage of accurized battle rifles in our infantry squads. Each fire team should have at least one, and preferably two. It would be useful if this weapon had a similar method of operation and ergonomics as the assault rifle, the SAW, and the SMG, but this is not necessary.

  • Our battle rifle, and MMG/GPMG should share the same chambering, and function adequately with all loadings available for that chambering, in all configurations of both weapons.

  • We need to increase the percentage of LMG/SAW gunners in our formations, and chamber the SAW in a more effective, and longer range round, hopefully without very much more recoil.

    Ideally this new SAW will be lighter in weight, and less complicated than the current M249 so that it may be carried by one or more men on each fire team. It should have an easily adjustable gas regulator system, and a gloveless quick change barrel system. It is not necessary for the weapon to feed from the same magazines as the assault rifle, but this would be useful. It would also be useful if it could share ergonomics and basic operating controls with the other infantry weapons discussed here, but it isn't necessary.

  • We need a larger and more effective caliber primary infantry arm, with a non- direct gas impingement operating system (op-rod, tappet, or delayed blowback). This infantry arm should be convertible from a full assault rifle, to assault carbine configuration in no more time than it takes to details strip and clean the weapon. This weapon should have good aperature/diopter type sights with tritum inserts , and be readily convertible to use various optics. It would be very useful if this weapon had a similar method of operation and ergonomics as the battle rifle, and the SMG.

  • Our primary infantry arm and LMG should share the same chambering, and function adequately with all loadings available for that chambering, in all configurations of both weapons.

  • We need a lighter weight, and more effective underslung grenade launcher (HK has a fine example). This launcher should be able to be detached, and have a stock and grip attached, and used as an individual support weapon.

  • We need a short barreled (14-16"), 4-6 shot, 12ga pump shotgun with a pistol grip and effective folding or telescoping stock. This weapon should have tritium ghost ring sights. This weapon should be modular in nature, and be able to be dismounted from it's stock and underslung on the basic assault rifle with the proper bracket. It would be a plus if the weapon were fed by a detachable quick change magazine (box or tube), but that isn't absolutely necessary; however if there is no quick change, it should be at least six shot, and speedloader compatible.

  • We need to standarize on a sidearm capable of firing either .357SIG or .45 super, or something with similar performance. Some folks have suggested the 10mm is an appropriate solution, and to some extent I would agree. I am a fan of the 10mm in general but there aren't many suitable arms in that chambering right now (I can only think of one, the G20). High pressure, hard penetrator loadings of any of these rounds should defeat most soft body armor at 15-25 yards (which is why the .40 is unsuitable), but to my mind the .45 super is preferred as it both has a higher basic wounding potential (especially in hardball), and it carries the inherent ability to use .45 acp, which is easier to control, easier on the weapon, and easier to suppress.

    Small caliber hypervelocity rounds such as the FN5.7are entirely unsuitable for sidearms. They have excellent performance against armor, but against unarmored individuals they have extremely poor wounding and stopping performace (they are suitable for SMG's however, as a large number of small wounds from a controllable full auto weapon is a decent wounding mechanism if youn dont mind expending lots of ammo).

    This sidearm should be DA/SA, with a three position safety (Safe, Fire, Decock) allowing for all modes of operation. Some say they would prefer a DAO (or safe action such as in Kahr and Glock pistols) with no safety, however I prefer the flexibility and operating feel of traditional DA/SA pistols.

    I believe this weapon should be a "compact" pistol, which conventionally means a 4-4.5" barrel; and a slightly smaller grip circumference and frame height than a "full size" pistol or current service pistol, with a capacity of 8-12 rounds. This will make it more flexible for carry, and less intrusive in most missions. Importantly this will also make it more confortable for those with smaller hands (a major problem with the M9), while only giving up a few rounds of capacity. This pistol should have highly visible, snag free, low profile sights with tritium inserts.

  • We need an SMG in the same caliber as our sidearm. It should be capable of both three round burst, and full auto fire (as well as semiauto of course). It should have a 20-30 rounds capacity, a barrel length in excess of 8" (I would prefer 10-12" to take full advantage of the cartridge), and an effective collapsible or folding shoulder stock. It should have good aperature/diopter type sights with tritum inserts, and be readily convertible to use various optics.

  • In an ideal world, all of these weapons would be provided by a single manufacturer, to maintain a commonality of parts, suppliers, maintenance techniques etc...
There are in fact two companies who can provide the entire list of weapons above from their existing (or development) inventory, HK and FN (though FN doesn't offer a competitive .45, they do offer pistols in .40 which can be converted to .357SIG).

The Army apparently agrees with me in this, because HK is looking like the front runner for the new SAW contract, the new assault rifle contract, the new .40 and/or .45 pistol contract (depending on what sources you believe), the underslung shotgun and grenade launcher contracts, and they already supply the SMG's.

Part Six - Training and Qualification

In addition to the material changes we need to change our training and qualification systems. I believe we need to transition to a forces training doctrine that focuses far more on small arms; and on close quarters battle, and personal defense/force protection.

In this day and age of fluid combat, behind the lines engagement, and the constant need for vigilance, I think everyone should qualify with, and be issued a sidearm. Our standards for qualification and training should emphasize that the pistol is a 15-25 max yard weapon, and that it should only be used to fight your way back to an effective weapon, a radio, or in last ditch personal defense.

All personnel should recieve basic instruction in the pistol, SMG, shotgun, and assault rifle during induction/basic training. Once basic instruction is given, they should be required to qualify with the pistol and basic rifle

Those personnel who score in the top 25% (or perhaps as high as 35%), and have an infantry, or infantry related MOS should be offered designated marksmen training on the battle rifle, or if they are physically strong enough for the weight of the weapon and ammo load (which are considerable, believe me), SAW training.

Once they have recieved basic qualification and training, they should be requried to select (or be assigned based on MOS) the shotgun or SMG for an alternate weapon. All DM and SAW gunners should qualify with the SMG as their alternate weapon.

Very important, ALL personnel should be required to qualify, and maintain currency with the basic rifle, and sidearm, as well as their alternate weapon. This should apply to non-combatant personnel as well as combatants. In the case of DM and SAW gunners, they should be required to re-qualify with their individual weapon, the basic rifle, the SMG, and their pistol.

Essentially what I've described is treating the entire army as I would a special operations force. Each operator is expected to know at expert level, their primary and secondary operational specialties, their primary and secondary wepons, and their personal weapon/sidearm.

This method, and philosophy has proven itself to be extremely effective, no matter what the soldiers occupational area is; in that this much practice with all these types of small arms reinforces proper marksmanship and weapons handling, and just general combat alertness and readiness; more than any other single method we can use in training. Yes, this is about four times the current level of small arms training and qualification we do currently, and yes it will be extremely expensive and time consuming, but I believe it is what we need to have the most effective fighting force reasonably possible.

UPDATE: I discuss more specific choices on weapons in the next part of this series "Getting Down to Specifics"