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.

Topics: Armaments, Gun and Missile, Defense Department

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