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Weapon Programs 

Army, Marine Corps Succeed in Rapidly Fielding Specialized Individual Weapons (UPDATED) 


By Dan Parsons 

U.S. troops have given their individual weapons poor performance marks during the past decade.

While Defense Department officials wrestle with replacing hundreds of thousands of rifles and pistols, two weapon systems used in Afghanistan suggest fielding a new firearm doesn’t have to be arduous.

In February, the Army began arming troops with the M26 Modular Accessory Shotgun System, which can be fitted to the underside of an M4 carbine barrel. It offers troops the ability to carry one gun with the power of two. The M203 40mm grenade launcher is configured in much the same way, using the rifle’s magazine for a grip.

Likewise, the Marine Corps has begun fielding its new M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle, based on the Heckler & Koch 416, which is similar in size and construction to the M4 carbine.

The new weapons are lighter and more capable than the ones they are replacing, officials said.
The MASS will replace the long-serving Mossberg 500 12-guage shotgun, which weighs a full two pounds more than its modular replacement. In service since 1961, the M500 is primarily a breeching tool, used to shoot out hinges and door locks prior to a raid. The MASS will serve the same purpose, but integrates breeching capability into a soldier’s primary weapon.

The MASS has a lower magazine capacity than its predecessor at five rounds versus eight. But it uses a box magazine that can be dropped and replaced whereas the Mossberg requires a soldier to load each individual shell into its magazine tube.

“The MASS enables soldiers to transition more quickly between lethal and less-than-lethal fires and adds shotgun capability to their M4 without carrying a separate … weapon,” reads a statement from Program Executive Office, Soldier. “Tests have determined the M26 to be the most reliable, durable, rugged shotgun in the Army inventory.”

Troops from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division were the first to use the new shotgun after it was officially fielded at Ft. Campbell, Ky., in February. The units’ engineer and military police battalions are carrying the weapons in theater in both its mounted and stand-alone configurations.

The Army is approved and funded to procure approximately 9,000 M26s for engineer and military police units.

The weapon fires a variety of special-purpose cartridges, including door-breeching and less-than-lethal shells. It weighs 3.5 pounds when configured to attach to an M4 carbine and 5.5 pounds as a stand-alone weapon.

Soldiers were known to saw off the buttstocks of their Mossberg shotguns to make them easier to handle in tight spots and to reduce weight. That is no longer a problem with the MASS, as it adds no length to the standard M4.

Shotguns aren’t the only new weapon to hit the battlefield in recent years. The Marine Corps has introduced an automatic rifle that has caused some officials to question the role of rapid-fire weapons in small unit maneuvers.

Marine leaders began looking for a replacement for its M249 light machine gun in 2005. A sizeable field of competitors was cut to three before German firearm manufacturer Heckler & Koch was awarded a contract in December 2009. The other three finalists were FN Herstal and two designs offered by Colt Defense.

Each was awarded a five-year production contract in 2008 for sample weapons. The four contracts totaled $79.5 million. HK netted the final award, which calls for orders of up to 6,500 weapons.

The Infantry Automatic Rifle is a lightweight, magazine fed rifle capable of automatic fire, meaning that when the trigger is depressed, the weapon will continue firing until it is released.

The Defense Department’s request for proposals call for a weapon that will “enhance the automatic rifleman’s maneuverability and displacement speed while providing the ability to suppress or destroy not only area targets, but point targets as well.”

Unlike traditional light machine guns that are primarily for suppressing enemy fire using difficult-to-aim bursts of automatic fire, the IAR incorporates rifle-level aiming capabilities.

It is replacing a portion of the Marine Corps’ M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, or SAW, inventory. Those automatic weapons are in use by infantry and light armored reconnaissance battalions. At least 8,000 SAWs will remain in service, according to Marine Corps documents.

“The IAR has the potential to be exactly the fight breaker that it was designed to be, delivering sustained, accurate fires via a magnified optic, with the option to provide fully automatic fires as required, while minimizing weight and handling concerns from which the M249 SAW suffered,” Marine Corps Maj. John A. Custis, wrote in a 2011 article published in the Marine Corps Gazette. Custis was then the executive officer of the Advanced Infantry Training Battalion at School of Infantry-West.

With the IAR, Marines give up the SAW’s expansive magazine capacity and volume of fire in favor of improved accuracy and longer range. Marines worried that switching to the new rifle would reduce a unit’s ability to lay down suppressing fire. Supporters of the design argue that a lighter, more accurate weapon can do the M249’s job of firing rapidly to keep the enemy pinned down.

After action reports circulating on the Internet suggest the weapon is earning positive reviews in Afghanistan.

Correction: The original article misstated the number of M26 modular shotguns the Army plans to buy. The service is authorized and funded to purchase 9,000 M26s for engineer and military police units.

Photo Credit: Defense Dept.
Reader Comments

Re: Army, Marine Corps Succeed in Rapidly Fielding Specialized Individual Weapons (UPDATED)

I have no idea why the M4 is even really being issued anymore...Forget cost issues. All US troops should either get to choose the M4A1 or the HK416 (especially the newer compact 10" versions, I think) at this point. There is no need to stick to traditional weapon standards anymore. The 416 is seeing such great success among the SOF units using them, that to me, it is downright ridiculous not to replace most of our troops' individual primary weapon systems with either the HK416 (if they don't mind the weight, which I find to be a bit heavier than the M4) or at least give them those newer variants of the M4A1 (so that full auto is back in availability again). There are too many reasons to do this, and not enough to try to stop it. Colt is a great company, but HK should be the next choice down so that at least our troops would entrust their weapons with their lives in the worst dust pits in the world....especially now that we're in Africa more than the middle east.

TaskForceOrange on 01/27/2014 at 03:28

Re: Army, Marine Corps Succeed in Rapidly Fielding Specialized Individual Weapons (UPDATED)

I second Mr. McEachern's suggestion of offering Soldiers and Marines with a wider selection instead of a standard issue. While Fireteams, Squads and Platoons are arranged with a combination of assault rifles, grenade launchers, light/medium machine guns and precision rifles specifically engineered to generate the greatest amount of fire superiority and mobility, the tools constructing those arrangements do not always provide the potential necessary during asymmetrical warfare.

While all of the weapons in our armories undergo extensive testing before adoption, modern combat has reminded us the importance of tactical flexibility. Riflemen report the inadequacy of the M16/M4, Automatic Riflemen report the questionable reliability of the M249, Machine Gunners report the maneuverability restraints of the M240 and everyone complains about the impossibility to maintain weapon cleanliness and functionality in arid, sandy theaters.

Curiously, during my time in the Infantry, I became aware that outside the Special Operations Community, the only soldiers granted a variety of weapons are Scout Snipers and their teams. And while I completely understand that their missions often require a diverse range of weapons at their disposal, I find it confusing that a similar logic isn't applied to Infantry units. The spectrum of environments and situations we face may not equal that of SSTs or other SOFs but is substantial enough to highlight a serious need for either a more modular and flexible tool or an entirely new tool kit.

I understand the nightmare something like this would cause to Acquisition Committees and Logistics elements, but we should bear in mind that we had more weapons issued to soldiers during WWII, each requiring its own ammunition.

Perhaps restrictions concerning weapon options could be agreed upon. Allow only those adopted by NATO military's, for example. Another could be permitting qualification and deployment of non issue firearms only to those personnel achieving higher than average mastery of in service weapons. Or maybe make each Soldier/Marine personally responsible for the acquisition, maintenance, upkeep and repairs of their weapon.

I know that this is something that will never gain acceptance or even consideration with the Powers That Be, but it is something to think about. I can't help but wonder if the combat effectiveness of myself and my brothers in arms might have been increased if we had weapons we'd specifically selected with which to perform our duties. Personally, I'd have just about given anything to have handed in my sensitive M16A4, temperamental SAW and unwieldy 240B for the opportunity to go into the field with a G36 rifle or better yet either the Mk43 or the Mk48 machine guns available to the more elite units.

But we definitely need a capable, well rounded weapon considerably less than we need tools and the associated training that will provide unequal fire superiority in any environment we might find ourselves in the course of fulfilling our mission.

Rodent Soldier on 07/12/2013 at 05:26

Re: Army, Marine Corps Succeed in Rapidly Fielding Specialized Individual Weapons (UPDATED)

thats what i loved about being active duty , you got to see and test all these great new systems coming out . now I just get updated , :-(

william on 12/24/2012 at 18:19

Re: Army, Marine Corps Succeed in Rapidly Fielding Specialized Individual Weapons (UPDATED)

223 & 12ga will make a great combo for the troops.

Larry on 12/24/2012 at 09:36

Re: Army, Marine Corps Succeed in Rapidly Fielding Specialized Individual Weapons (UPDATED)

I've been having the same trouble trying to find one truck to do multiple tasks. The old adage that a tool that will do everything, will do nothing well.Give the soldiers and marines a choice, and let them select the weapon they want to carry, within limits. They will be happier and do a better job. They've been doing a great job, from what I see. I'm a vietnam vet.

Robert McEachern on 12/24/2012 at 08:54

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