Pentagon Takes New Look at Rifles, Ammo

By Connie Lee
M249 light machine gun

Photo: Defense Dept.

As adversaries continue to update their body armor, the Army is examining ways to upgrade its rifles to keep pace.  

The service has been employing its standard-issue M4 carbine since the 1960s while steadily making improvements to the system over time. But now, the rifle’s 5.56 mm round may not be able to penetrate enemies’ newly developed body armor, officials said.

During a Senate Armed Services airland subcommittee hearing last year, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., noted that “everyone from Russia and China, to Hezbollah” and the Islamic State is employing advanced armor that “risks making the 5.56 round essentially obsolete.”

However, the cartridge still has advantages when compared to the 7.62 mm round, which is also being considered as the caliber for a new rifle, Cotton said. Soldiers can carry twice as many, shoot with less recoil and shoot in quicker succession with more accuracy, he noted.

“The key is finding the right combination of weight, recoil, impulse, range and lethality,” he said.

Thomas Spoehr, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, said the M4 rifle is often criticized for its lack of lethality at ranges greater than 300 meters and its tendency to jam when firing a large number of rounds. Soldiers often have to engage at ranges greater than 300 meters when operating in Afghanistan, he noted in an interview with National Defense.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley also marked this as a critically important area of concern in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last year.

He pointed out that purchasing body armor strong enough to counter the 5.56 mm round is affordable for adversaries. However, the Army would be able to replace the M4 “relatively quickly,” he predicted.

But the service must also concentrate on the effectiveness of the bullet, and the Army has already begun developing a solution, he noted.

“The key on any of these things is not so much the rifle, it’s the bullet — it’s the ballistics of the bullet,” he said. “Down at Fort Benning we’ve done some experiment and developmental work. … We know we have developed a bullet that can penetrate these new plates.”

M4 carbine (Defense Dept.)

Although the service has yet to formally announce its plans for new bullets, it did attempt to kick off a formal effort for an M4 replacement last year with the interim combat service rifle project, which was canceled in November.

But Spoehr pointed out that these are not the first conversations about an M4 rifle replacement. During his time on the Army staff, multiple examinations into replacement options yielded no substantial improvements, he said.

“It’s not [a] good value to go after this thing and get something that’s pretty close to what the M4 delivers,” he added.

However, the next-generation squad automatic rifle is more likely to come to fruition and become a program of record because there is more “dissatisfaction” with the M249 light machine gun — the weapon the effort is intended to replace, he said. A FedBizOpps notice announcing the cancellation of the interim combat service rifle did not state why the project was discontinued, but noted that the service was reallocating the funding to the M249 replacement effort.

Daryl Easlick, deputy for the lethality branch at the Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, said the service plans to field a lighter system as the M249 reaches the end of its lifecycle.

It wants a “trifecta of mobility, lethality and protection,” he said. “Weight is the currency of mobility — we know we want to reduce the weight of that weapon system.” At the same time, the service wants to increase its ability to defeat both protected and unprotected threats, he added.

Matt Walker, deputy director of the soldier division at the Maneuver Center, said the intent is for the next-generation squad automatic rifle to provide a large amount of capability all at once rather than follow the process of the M4, which has required many modifications over time. The M249 replacement will be lighter, more accurate and have signature management, he noted.

“What we want to do is …[have] a revolutionary leap in capability in small arms,” he said. “Our next-gen squad weapons … outline how to improve small arms in a revolutionary manner as opposed to the evolutionary manner [where] we keep making little tweaks on the system.”

"The M249 replacement will likely be built from scratch rather than be a non-developmental item."

Easlick said the Army is leveraging results from the recently completed small arms ammunition configuration study, which examined the most advantageous caliber for small arms. Walker declined to provide details about the results of the study.

The M249 replacement will likely be built from scratch rather than be a non-developmental item, Walker said, but noted the Army will officially make a decision at a later time after discussing options with industry.

The Army will determine in fiscal year 2019 whether the next-generation squad automatic rifle will also be used for the squad designated marksman, the medium machine gun and the carbine, according to information released on FedBizOpps.



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Topics: Land Forces, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

Comments (16)

Re: Pentagon Takes New Look at Rifles, Ammo

Why is the Army always do far behind on these issues as they pertain to the infantryman? I jumped the M16 in Vietnam and was plagued by jams. But the lethality of the round was also an issue. And whether I could carry 150 rounds eith sn M14 and 300 with an M16 was not an issue either. If the lack of lethality of the bullet meant that you fired s r round burst rather than s single lethal shot, where is that so called weight advantage?

Bug my biggest bitch is that cermaic levrl four body armor has been around for more than a decade now. Why did it take so long to question thd lethality of the 223 round when itbis nos available to civilians?

This is incompetence at the very top. Period. Maybe thd decision makers could get out therd and shoot the damn round.

Bill at 8:02 AM
Re: Pentagon Takes New Look at Rifles, Ammo

I’m sure someone has thought of this already but the 5.7 FN seems like a reasonable choice. Lightweight as to be able to carry a reasonable load out and with armor piercing potential when used in long guns. Just my two cents

Bo Bolin at 8:07 PM
Re: Pentagon Takes New Look at Rifles, Ammo

Interesting. 243, creedmores?

Dan at 12:11 AM
Re: Pentagon Takes New Look at Rifles, Ammo

Change from 5.56 to 25-45 Sharps! It only takes a barrel change and that round only has a 7" drop at 300 meters! It is a hard hitting round at 87 grain and up, it will definitely take an assailant down in one hit! The DoD should take a serious look at it.

Everett at 12:17 PM
Re: Pentagon Takes New Look at Rifles, Ammo

Well, it’s not that Tungsten is “rare” necessarily, rather it is not mines as vigorously as it could be. England just reopened a mine in Dartmoor that has been shuttered since WWII. It is mined in large quantities in China (the largest extractor in the world) . But it can be found in large quantities in Canada, England, and I am sure it’s in Alaska and the lower 48 as well. We just haven’t “looked” for it because it was so cheap to trade with willing partners. The US has a 150,000 ton reserve and we continue to import it. If it became the main ammunition element, we undoubtedly would start to look for our own supply.

Jaybe at 9:26 PM
Re: Pentagon Takes New Look at Rifles, Ammo


Jim at 6:56 PM
Re: Pentagon Takes New Look at Rifles, Ammo

Why are the Army and the Marines choosing different rifles?

John Ahlstrom at 3:50 PM
Re: Pentagon Takes New Look at Rifles, Ammo

Just put a coating on the bullet to make it penetrate .....

Don't throw the baby out with the bath water

Larry Bogins at 6:08 AM
Re: Pentagon Takes New Look at Rifles, Ammo

American armed forces don't need to pay to develop a new service weapon. The M-14 works just fine, no matter what MacNamara thought. What's more, when you're armed with an M-14, you won't need no teenage queen.

Les at 11:34 PM
Re: Pentagon Takes New Look at Rifles, Ammo

“everyone from Russia and China, to Hezbollah” and the Islamic State is employing advanced armor that “risks making the 5.56 round essentially obsolete.”

= pure stupidity, both 5.56x45 M855A1 EPR and 7.62x51 M80A1 EPR do NOT penetrate LVL4 ceramic composite armor.

BOTH 5.56x45 M995 AP and 7.62x51 M993 AP do penetrate it. But require rare tungstencarbide. This means a standart issue round CANNOT be made to magically pierce LVL4.

Even 7.62x51 M80A1 loaded to extreme pressure with 3400fps (instead of 3000-3100) resulting in 4525Joule does NOT pierce LVL4 at all.

So with a standart issue (steel penetrator) round, actually 5.56x45 has the advantage aganist armor.... because it has 1/3rd the recoil, and 10+ rounds per mag, resulting in higher % hit propability at unarmored areas. Also the rifle is lighter and shorter for the same barrel lenght.
Also armor is really small afterall, it just covers the heart and lungs, aiming a few inches further down gives you a really big target of stomache+hip+upper legs. That few inches save MILLIONS of dollars spend in tungstencarbide (and tungsten mines would be empty after a few years of war).

And afterall the armor is presented basicly ONLY at point blank range which happens extrem rarely. At normal range ANY sane combatant will only present the head and rifle behind thick cover, and with such a small target making 7.62x51 a POS with its high recoil. If you want to pierce LVL4 with a steel round you need to go to .50bmg or maybe .338LM is enough but that would be a complete waste in 95% of actual combat, and just give immense disadvantages, also result in just like 60rounds to carry... propably even less when counting in the immense weight of the rifles.

And btw 5.56x45 gives you 210 rounds instead of 100, drastically increasing fire superiority which can save lifes when ambushed.

Also because 7.62x51 is an aerodynamic potato, it literally only has nearly the same supersonic (supression) range as 5.56x45...
And has HALF the energy/recoil efficiency, which is incredible poor.

The main flaw of 5.56x45 (just like 7.62x51) is its shape, which makes it unaerodynamic and perform much less than it could.
So 5.56x45 has to go, but not against a stupid bulky 7.62 or 6.5 which reduce fire superiority and increase recoil drastically. Rather an aerodynamic 5.8 to 6mm CT.

Light at 3:16 PM
Re: Pentagon Takes New Look at Rifles, Ammo

BTW in therms of lethality at range, 5.56x45 M855A1 EPR does penetrate TWO LVL3a kevlar panels at past 760meter and remains lethal... Also atleast one at 1000m. All "300m" claims are absolute nonsensical and plain stupid.

At 400m it equals getting shot by 9mm point blank range. At 640m /700y it equals .380 apc at point blank range.

Light at 3:27 PM
Re: Pentagon Takes New Look at Rifles, Ammo

I'd like to see the .243 Winchester studied as a potential replacement cartridge. It would make a strong contender, with its light recoil, high ballistic efficiency, and lethality. That or a .30 caliber with a shorter combat range (which is appropriate for an individual battle rifle) a la the .300 Blackout. Longer range weapons such as SAWs could use a .243 with it's larger case, while the battle rifle could use a smaller cased 7mm -.30 cal. Lots of good options exist, and it is time for a nex-gen caliber.

Luke at 9:24 PM
Re: Pentagon Takes New Look at Rifles, Ammo

I wonder if the .224 Valkyrie will come in to play here, it arguably makes the most sense depending on terminal ballistic testing and SBR testing as well

Nathan at 6:12 PM
Re: Pentagon Takes New Look at Rifles, Ammo

The line about making it the squad weapon, carbine, designed marksman, and medium machine gun right at the end was the same goal they had made for the M14 back in the 50s. Army please stop recycling bad ideas. Get a couple rednecks give them a million bucks and watch the wonderful options come forward. We keep getting these over paid nerds that didn't grow up hunting and shooting push forward with small arms ideas and they don't realize a medium machine gun isn't a good carbine. What makes one great makes the other terrible. And being able to magically change a weapon by swapping out barrels, stocks, and such "m18/m17 pistol" does mean a damn thing when you only actually issue one set up per system. Plus it reduces overall durability. So 5.56 or similar round for general troops. 7.62 if fighting in mountain ranges. And a dedicated squad automatic that doesn't automatically convert into a sniper, toaster and telephone. Kiss Keep it simple stupid

Nick at 11:59 PM
Re: Pentagon Takes New Look at Rifles, Ammo

You keep saying 7.62x51. Which is .308. I think you are trying to say 7.62x39 which is the AK47 round. Because 308 WILL penetrate ceramic armor but has pretty good amount of recoil. And I have seen 5.56 go Thru ONE panel but not 2 of them. Even green tip (steel core) won’t penetrate 2 panels. But I never really understood why we use 5.56 in the first place. Because it’s basically a .22 caliber round under extreme pressure. What is needed is a heavier bullet. If there was a good high velocity heavy grain round. Back in WWII we used just about every round ever made in numerous types of rifles. However. With the 308 and the 30-06 which are both very good rounds, you get high velocity heavy rounds. But you also have more weight for the soldier, more recoil, and less rounds in the magazine. But if someone could develop a high capacity 308 round that could be tamed I think that would be our enemies demise. 308 is a long range high velocity flat trajectory perfect round. That’s why it’s used and one of the most popular rounds for hunting. It’s able to kill anything that’s huntable in the United States. But if you were to fill a 30 Round magazine with it, and soldiers typically carry about 8-10 maybe 12 mags on their vests, it becomes a lot of weight. Which will fatigue the soldiers quickly. That’s why I say if somehow we could re-develop that round so it’s not so heavy. Whether it’s to shorten the casing but have a hotter powder or somehow shrink the length of the bullet. But have the same weight grain. Or just develop a new round altogether like a Heavy grain .40 but make it longer and pop it in a rifle casing. I don’t know. But I agree. Something needs to be done. I know somewhere out there, there is a perfect high velocity round that can be developed into a rifle round that can be light weight (to carry) and have the power to punch Thru several ceramic plates of armor and yet be able to have 30 rounds in a magazine, Someone that does R&D can invent this mystery, magical round. If I had the tools I could develop this round I’m sure. It may take me a while but eventually I could make a round like we need. I’ve been involved in firearms for over 30 years. Amd I used to reload but since I have moved to where I am now I am unable to do this. I don’t have the equipment anymore.

Qhorse13 at 12:49 AM
Re: Pentagon Takes New Look at Rifles, Ammo

Agree with Nick. Much time and money has been wasted on Swiss Army Knife solutions. Close combat weapons are not sniper rifles nor machine guns. The Coast Guard LW15 .499 Leitner Wise is a prime example.

If you study the bullet weight versus energy figures is that speed is more of a factor than weight. If you double the weight of a projectile for a given velocity you only double the energy. However, if you double the velocity of a projectile for a given weight, the energy is multiplied by a factor of four.

Robert at 12:02 PM
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