Special Ops Ammo Spreads to Other Services

By Scott R. Gourley

Nammo MAC photo

After nearly a decade of being fired by U.S. special operators, polymer-cased ammunition is moving into several new calibers and being adapted by other services.

Polymer-cased ammunition replaces the traditional brass cartridge case with a plastic material. Its advantages include significantly lighter weights and greater performance consistency.

Widely fielded on an international basis, recent U.S. military polymer ammunition examples range from True Velocity’s participation on the LoneStar Future Weapons team during the Army’s 6.8 mm Next Generation Squad Weapons competition to multiple designs for a new .338 Norma Magnum medium machine gun for Marine Corps and Special Operations Forces use.

One of the earliest special ops applications involved its use on Special Operations Command’s AH-6 “Little Bird” helicopters. Joe Gibbons, manager of government programs for Nammo MAC LLC, said that about six years ago the company’s .50 caliber polymer ammunition design eliminated the weight tradeoff between fuel and ammunition, allowing the helicopter the ability to carry more fuel at full ammunition loads and spend longer time on station.

The .50 caliber applications are “very close” to expanding into broader use by the Marine Corps, he said. The company has been qualifying the polymer .50 caliber ammo with the service so they can receive a fully approved, or “catalogued,” round.

The Marines are also conducting limited user evaluations at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, by different units and at Camp Pendleton, California, where they are currently doing demonstrations with the light armored vehicle group, he said.

Early reliability testing at Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane Division earlier this year should pave the way to catalogue the round by this fall, he said.

As for other missions, Gibbons said, “We believe — although we don't know for a fact — that some of our polymer ammunition has made it from some of the people that we've supplied polymer ammunition to in Europe into Ukraine, partially because I have an inquiry for polymer-cased ammunition to go to Ukraine. And that’s about all I can say about that.”

In addition to the expanded applications for the .50 caliber rounds, Gibbons said that the company is working on both .338 Norma Magnum and 7.62 mm NATO polymer designs.

Acknowledging that the .338 Norma activities focus largely on the emerging SOCOM/USMC medium machine gun requirement, he said, “We've been working with all the gun manufacturers. We're agnostic. We don’t care. But until SOF and the Marine Corps — primarily SOF — decides on what platform they’re going to go with, we can’t do any fine tuning until we actually get the gun.”

As for the 7.62, he added, “We have a lot of interest from SOCOM on developing the round for the 7.62 mm minigun. And it’s for the same reason as for the ‘fifty’ — taking the weight out of the helicopter.”

In addition to conducting any necessary “fine tuning” of the cartridges for a particular weapon, the company is “always” doing internal technology work on the case itself, Gibbons said. Asked for an example, he stated, “The Marine Corps set the [polymer] operating temperature at minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a little bit warmer than the brass, which is minus 65. And we're working to make those improvements to get all the way to minus 65. Whether we can or not remains to be seen. It's a pretty tough challenge for polymer to work in very hot and very cold conditions.”

Expanding on his characterization of an “agnostic” design for the .338 Norma Magnum, Gibbons emphasized the need for ongoing coordination between ammunition and gun manufacturers, noting, “There's a reluctance by some gun manufacturers to make the minor changes that would be necessary to accommodate a polymer case and still run with a brass case.”

He compared the current environment to what he called “the John Browning days,” when a projectile was developed around a target; a complete round developed around that projectile; and a gun or chamber developed to take that round.

“In our world we have to fit the existing gun,” he said. “Even when they have a new gun that never existed, some manufacturers are not willing to make even minor changes. I think sooner or later some people will come around.

“I keep asking them, do you really want a lightweight cartridge or not? Do you want it to work or not?” he said. “We know that we can make this little change and brass will still run and plastic will run a lot better. They'll come around. It's just slow.”

As for upcoming activities over the next six months, Gibbons highlighted the current work surrounding the .50 caliber polymer cartridges, observing, “We’re not really sure what's going to happen once we get a catalogued round, but that should open up our ammunition to a lot of users that are not special operators.”

Topics: Ammunition, Special Operations

Comments (1)

Re: Special Ops Ammo Spreads to Other Services

I appreciate the need to keep small arms as dependable as possible through the use of discrete cartridges and weapons as simple and robust as possible, but I have often wondered why a greater effort is not directed towards a modular and scaleable family of weapons that separates propellant and projectile and allows easy selection of chamber energy and projectile weights based on needed ballistic performance, perhaps standard and double weight ~0.707 projectiles with 3-5 increments of energy and/or optional quick change barrel extensions, the whole family satisfying the requirements for close quarter carbines through to full range assault rifles and on to light and extended range machineguns, in minimal form, a handgun derivative as well. Probably take a long time to perfect, but certainly would solve the logistic and soldier burden of carrying adequate ammunition.

Juan at 11:21 AM
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