On the heels of the Marine Corps' desire for a new rifle for its infantrymen, the U.S. Army now says it is contemplating a dramatic switch in rifles. The service is considering going back to battle rifles-heavier rifles that can hit targets at longer ranges. The last time the Army fielded such a rifle was in the 1960s.
The story, broke by Soldier Systems Daily, says that U.S. Army troops feel they're "in a street fight with a guy with longer arms." That longer arm is the 7.62x54R cartridge, the cartridge used by the PK machine gun and Dragunov SVD sniper rifle. The PK squad machine gun is extremely common; it's in use by the Taliban, the Islamic State, and most insurgent and terrorist groups worldwide. Longer and heavier than the 7.62x39-millimeter round used in the AK series of assault rifles, a PK with the 7.62x54R round has an effective range of 800 to 1,000 yards, versus only about 350 yards for an AK-47.
On the Army side, the maximum effective range of an M4 carbine against man-sized targets is about 500 yards, depending on the skill of the rifleman, and 700 yards for the M249 squad automatic weapon. Both fire the same cartridge. That leaves a dead zone of roughly 500 to 1,000 yards where the bulk of a nine person infantry squad can't engage individual enemies. In a platoon of 40 soldiers, on average only about six soldiers armed with M249s, marksman rifles, and M240 machine guns have the range to engage an enemy in the dead zone.
U.S. Army troops may have an edge on paper, but guerrilla groups don't adhere to a bureaucratic equipment roster that says each unit can have a certain number of weapons. Taliban and IS groups routinely have a large number of heavier machine guns, and what they lack in skill they often try to make up in firepower.
The Army says it wants a heavier, longer-range bullet in the 7.62x51-millimeter weight category, from which it would later transition to an even more exotic, modern caliber. The Army did once have a rifle that fired the 7.62 round: the M14 battle rifle. Adopted in the 1950s, the M14 was problematic. In addition to manufacturing and accuracy issues, the M14 weighed 10.7 pounds fully loaded. The 7.62-millimeter ammunition also weighed twice as much as the 5.56 millimeter ammunition of the M16 rifle that replaced it, meaning M16 users could carry twice as much ammo into battle. It was also long and unwieldy, making it difficult to use in close quarters combat.
If the Army does go forward with an interim battle rifle, as Soldier Systems Daily suggests, the Army will gain range. With decent optics, a modern 7.62 rifle can reach out to 700 to 800 yards. However, soldiers will once again find themselves up against ammunition weight and length issues. The rifles will be heavier: Properly outfitted with the same optic and a laser/light combination on virtually every M4 carbine, a 7.62 rifle would weigh about 12 pounds. The new rifle will also be more difficult to use in urban terrain, as the longer barrel (which imparts bullet velocity and range) will be hard to handle in caves, inside buildings, trenches, and rough terrain.
Down the road, the Army would rebarrel the rifle for a new round, according to SSD, likely a 6.5-millimeter bullet. That could result in a lighter round, but a longer, heavier rifle is an inevitability to get the desired range.
Although well intentioned, the adoption of a new rifle and round could open up a Pandora's Box of development, cost, and practical issues sealed more than 50 years ago by the M16. One alternative is supplying more infantrymen with better, more accurate ammunition and higher power optics. The relatively new 5.56-millimeter Mk 262 round paired with an 18" barrel (the M4's barrel is 14.5" inches long) would make the M4 effective to 700 yards in the hands of a trained rifleman.
While the Army's project could result in an amazing new rifle that satisfies everybody, that's unlikely as tradeoffs are inevitable. It may just be that the Army is better off modifying its existing weapons and accepting known shortcomings than wandering into new ones.
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