Recent Trends in Small Arms Development
Jul 15, 2009

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had a significant impact of the development of small arms in this first decade of the 21st century. The daily routine of “Close Quarter Battle” (CQB) fights with insurgents has spawned a host of developments in military small arms, ranging from major re-engineering, modifications to, in some cases, new infantry weapons.

These developments have also had an obverse effect as some analysts now argue for a turning back of the clock to a more powerful infantry weapon that provides for not only long range engagement but also significant improvements to lethality. ­Decisions over the next few years as to the capabilities of all national armies to respond to the wider panorama of modern threats, rather than the current role of counter-insurgency, will no doubt prove to be ­decisive in the context  of a global future.

The Bullet Battle
There is a growing debate among the combatants of the Iraq/Afghanistan conflict over the effectiveness of the standard 5.56 mm ammunition is current use. Senior U.S. Army officials, as well as officers from other Allied forces, have expressed dismay over the lack of “Stopping Power” of the 5.56 mm round. Extensive, albeit anecdotal, information indicates that Taliban insurgents have sustained multiple gunshot wounds before being finally stopped by a round to a vital area. Many of these ­multiple-wound dead insurgents were found to have been given opiates to dull the pain of nonlethal wounds.

The U.S. Marine Corps came under scrutiny for having their targets die of “Head Shots” – some reporters suspected executions of the Taliban. However, as the Marine leadership pointed out, the average Marine realized that the only way that he could guarantee his adversary was dead was to shoot him in the head. Their extensive marksmanship training was thus invaluable in saving their lives.

This realistic assessment of the 5.56 mm round reinforced the views held by many veterans of the Vietnam War. Many sought to hold on to their M14s because they could be sure of the 7.62 rounds penetrating the jungle foliage and killing the NVA and Viet Cong troops.

Many Vietnam veterans describe using the M16 in a “spray and pray,” where they would simply fire at targets using the “rock and roll” mode – full automatic. This led to the average “grunt” carrying between 1500 and 2000 rounds of ammunition, compared to the 250 rounds carried for the M14. There was also a greater reliance on the use of supporting weapons such as artillery and close air support from “fast” air and ­helicopters to counter the lethality of the Vietnamese weapons which fired the more powerful 7.62 mm Russian rounds.

Debate Heats Up
There is now a major debate underway among various military forces as to the appropriate caliber of rounds to be used in future conflicts.

With its proven lethality and range, a number of NATO nations are contemplating a return to the 7.62 mm as their standard combat round. However, there has been no clear consensus of opinion on the appropriate round for the new family of small arms that is in the offing.

Some European agencies are proposing the use of a hyperkinetic 4.76 mm round in the new family of assault weapons, while others think that the 5.56 mm could be modernized by using an improved propellant and longer and heavier projectile.

Some firearms experts have recommended the 6.548 mm round, used until quite recently by a number of Scandinavian military forces. The Barrett firearms company has developed a modification kit that would enable the U.S. military to use the existing M16 lower receiver, and many of the other components, by simply putting a new 6.548 mm upper receiver on the lower portion of the weapon.

Weapon Development
In keeping with the emerging debate on weapon lethality, there has been a companion debate surrounding the next generation of assault weapons or even if there is going to be a next generation. Some military small arm experts are calling for the return to the “Battle Rifle” as the soldier’s mainstay weapon. Assault rifles would only be used when the battle is in urban areas.

In the past decade, small arms development has primarily followed three main avenues. Setting the unique and specialist development as the main thrust has led to research and development of small, easily concealed micro-weapons.

The second ­initiative has been to create “carbine” versions of existing assault weapons and to develop new “Bull Pup” assault weapons which have been designed to shortened assault rifle without a significant lack of potency.

The final, and most recent, development has been the renewed search for a new infantry battle rifle that allows the ­soldier on the ground to extend the 300m kill range to 600m. The general drive for this need was the higher casualty rates in ­battles where combatants were in close proximity. Military commanders want to reduce casualties by using superior stand off ranges of the battle rifle to decisively deal with enemy forces with less risk to their own soldiers.

Smaller weapons
We should consider the thrust by some companies to develop smaller, lethal weapons. The first country that openly pursued miniaturization of combat weapons was Israel. They discerned a need to have smaller, more concealable weapons for their special forces and security services. They led with the development of the Mini-Uzi which is based on their highly successful submachine gun. This progress was closely watched by the Warsaw Pact forces. Czechoslovakia, as it was then known, led the Warsaw Pact efforts and produced the effective “Skorpion” which was then quickly incorporated into the arsenals of their eastern allies. The United States followed with the Ingram M10 submachine gun.

This initiative has been carried on by FN Herzog with their P2000 series of personal defence weapons, and by Heckler & Koch with their close protection weapon system. However, none of these innovative weapon systems has gained traction with general military forces. The main customers for these weapons have been close protection forces and some special forces. Their restricted range, special design features and construction has also been cited as reasons for their restricted use.

Bull Pup Weapons
With the increase in terrorism and military actions taken against rogue nations, major combat action has shifted from open field operations to “Fighting in Built Up Areas.”

Most nations recognized that their standard size assault rifle was often too bulky to employ in “CQB” operations. The U.S. redesigned their venerable M16A3 to produce the M4 Carbine which is now in extensive use within the American and other military forces.

Similar operations in Gaza also convinced the Israeli military to produce their own “CQB” infantry assault weapon. The resultant weapon the “Tavor” (a 5.56 mm “Bull Pup” design) has proven to be both effective and very popular with the troops. It is extremely accurate with a sighted and locked optic system that gives this infantry weapon a lethal range of 300 m. Wherever the red dot in the sight lands, the round will go. It requires a minimum amount of training and is highly accurate.
The Russian Federation has been experimenting with a number of “Bull Pup” designed weapons destined for their ­Special Forces.

Both France and the United Kingdom produced their own “Bull Pup” assault rifles in the 1980s. The French Army “FAMAS” assault weapon has served them extremely well, and is expected to be employed by the French military for some time to come.

The British “Bull Pup” assault weapon is the SA80 system. Issued in the late 1980’s, it suffered significant problems and was initially mistrusted by the soldiers. The Government then engaged Heckler & Koch, a German weapons manufacturer, to correct all of the weapon’s faults and to, in essence, re-manufacture all of the SA80 weapons. The re-engineering and re-manufacturing resulted in an extremely efficient and effective battle assault rifle for the Brits. Heckler & Koch has also produced an ­efficient assault rifle, the HK416, which has proven to be a leader in every category while undergoing field testing in new weapon contests. Some analysts have suggested that, if national ­military forces stick to an assault rifle, the HK 416 will likely be the standard weapon for NATO and other collegial defence organizations.

R&D Continues
The search for a new Battle Rifle has led to a number of new developments in military weaponry. New products range from shot guns to .50 cal rifles. The AA12 automatic shotgun provides a personal weapon that has enormous potential.

Manufacturers have designed more than 50 different types of rounds that can be used by the infanteer. They range from a single projective to 12 gauge grenades that are lethal up to 300 yards. This weapon has several magazine sizes that range from 20 to 50 rounds that make the soldier on the ground a veritable one-man assault force.

In continuing the search for a new rifle, a number of manufacturers have proposed upgrades predicated on the M16 lower frame or a major updating of the venerable M14 by reducing its weight through the use of carbon fibre materials to replace the weapon’s furniture and by adding sophisticated new electronically enhanced optics. Other nations, such as Italy, Germany and Switzerland, have also begun research on updating their 7.62 mm battle rifles.

The main thrust of Russian development has been continued improvements in the quality of the Kalashnikov basic design. Newer weapons still have the basic design of the older AK47’s, but the firing mechanism has been refined and the barrels made of higher quality steel. Some of the newer AK series have new carbon fibre stocks and electronically enhanced optic systems. But, despite the deluge of new models, the “new” weapons remain basically the children of the “long in the tooth” AK47.

The Russians have also adapted this system to a wide range of special weapons that are designed for use by their Special Forces. There are silenced weapons for assassination, others designed to function under water and even a ballistic knife that uses two cartridges – one to propel the knife blade up to 11 m, and the other to take out the target should the blade miss.

This flurry of development has produced many innovations and, no doubt, more remain to be revealed. We look towards the next decade with anticipation as to what trend will dominate.
Rob Day, a military historian and analyst,  retired from the Canadian Forces in 2007.
© FrontLine Defence Magazine 2009