By Jim Schatz
In part two of this three part series, we are exploring the status and existence of the very latest small arms programs that were on display at the annual AUSA Show. Part I in the last issue of SAR described the ongoing U.S. Army small arms initiatives and provided up-to-date status on those efforts. In this issue, Part II will cover new small arms and related items from the industry prospective, both already under contract with the U.S. Government and new commercial offerings.
While many of the small arms exhibited at AUSA show this year were non-developmental, straight off-the-shelf commercial items already or soon to be fielded, there were a number of notable “science and technology” weapon programs featured. One very promising endeavor is the “Lightweight Small Arms Technologies” (LSAT) program, a combined U.S. Army and Defense Department “Technology Objective” first initiated in 2004. AAI is the prime contractor on an industry team comprised ofARES, Inc., ATK (Alliant Techsystems), Battelle Memorial Institute, Omega Training Group and St. Marks Powder. The ambitious goal of this highly experienced team is not a new one. Their task is to lighten the combat load (weapon and ammunition combined) of the U.S. war fighter by using unique, non-conventional ammunition technologies. This writer will touch on the historical background of the effort and what it could mean for the American soldier.
An 8 pound SAW?
LSAT begins life in the light machine gun configuration in caliber 5.56mm. Should this effort prove to be successful, the technology could be applied to other weapon types, to include rifles and carbines and medium machine guns. Lightening the load of the system in LSAT isachieved primarily by using lightweight ammunition and polymer links to realize actual prototype weapon system weight reductions approaching 50% of that of the baseline system, the M249 SAW with 600 rounds of belted ammo, which weighs in at 37.9 pounds. Two ammunition types are being explored; Cased Telescoped (CT) and Caseless (CL). Already with the first fully functional prototypes the system weight falls well under the initial LSAT program goal of 23.6 pounds. The CT overall weight is 21.5 pounds, the CL version 18.6 pounds. This is a huge weight savings and practical advantage to the future machine gunner who will carry, run with, “ready rush”, shoulder fire and generally lives with this weapon and ammunition, even 24 hours a day in combat. This greatly reduced system weight drops the belt-fed light machine gun, for the first time, into the weight category of that of an automatic rifle. The lighter system weight improves the ability of the gunner to move more quickly and more easily on the battlefield, which vastly improves soldier survivability. Current LSAT prototype weapons weigh in at 8.3 pounds for the CL variantand 8.4 pounds for the CL version.
The challenge of course is keeping the weapon weight low as the item enters the more difficult abusive testing such as drop tests, barrel obstruction, climatic tests, and as additional features are added as required by the end user, all of which add ounces and then pounds to the overall final fieldable weight. Case in point is the prototype version of the 5.56mm H&K G36 rifle, originally called “LCR” (Light Combat Rifle) that first weighed in at less than 5 pounds. However to insure the durability of the weapon the weight crept up to over 6.5 pounds in the end when small material reinforcements were added to survive drop testing and multiple sights and accessory attachment points were included. All this being said, the initial results of LSAT are both promising and exciting.
At least two of the members of the LSAT team have had years of experience in this area of lightweight weapon systems. AAI worked on the “SPIW” (Special Purpose Individual Weapon) program during the 1960s and the “ACR” (Advanced Combat Rifle) program in the 80s and 90s, with both caseless and lightweight conventional ammunition, to include rifle launched flechettes. Battelle conducted the initial “Salvo” study for the German government to determine the best means to increase the hit probability of shoulder-fired small arms from soldiers stressed by the effects of battle. This study lead to the decision by H&K to pursue caseless ammunition primarily so a high cyclic rate of salvo fire could be delivered, at least in theory, without disturbing the aim of the shooter. The weight savings was not the primary driver in this choice. Reducing the cycle of operation by two key steps, or 25%, by eliminating extraction and ejection, and thus increasing the rate of fire, was the primary reason for caseless ammo in the G11. The absence of this very elusive hit probability requirement could “allow” LSAT to succeed where ACR “could not” by allowing the use of more conventional, simplified and “fieldable” operating systems.
Once again down that road
During the U.S. Army’s ACR program, which culminated with a 1990 “Field Experiment,” both caseless and plastic cased ammunition types were employed in ACR candidates. The Heckler & Koch G11, under development for the German military for two decades, used the innovative Dynamit Nobel “HITP” caseless round, a rectangular telescopic (wherein the projectile is set back into the cartridge body) caseless cartridge that performed very well during these tests. The Steyr ACR candidate fired a cylindrical plastic cased 17- grain steel flechette. Though there were some fundamental issues with both systems, such as the accuracy of the flechettes, the two ammunition types proved both promising and potentially “fieldable.” The ACR program never realized the unattainable late program goal of a 100% increase in hit probability under combat stress over that attained with an M16 with optical sight, though it did begin life as an effort, like LSAT, to decrease the system weight burden on the soldier. However, it is clear that the data developed during the ACR program was not lost on the folks in the Joint Service Small Arms Program (JSSAP), the developmental small arms team from the Army’s Armament Research, Development & Engineering Center (ARDEC), located at Picatinny Arsenal. JSSAP finds and exploits innovative technology and develops new hardware that, if successful, one day will find its way to the folks in PEO Soldier for possible fielding.
The author was the H&K U.S. program manager for the H&K ACR candidate leading up to and during the ACR Field Experiment. During the ACR testing, it was discovered that hit probability could not be increased markedly even by weapons that fired lightweight flechettes at 6,000 feet per second, duplex (2 projectiles in a single case) or caseless rounds at over 1,800 rounds per minute. However the weight savings of these novel ammunition types live on in LSAT.
Ammunition for the 21st century
The cased telescoped LSAT cartridge is a cylindrical all polymer round with conventional rear-mounted primer. It provides a weight reduction of 35% over a conventional M855 round. The caseless telescoped round is, according to AAI design engineer “Bo” Engel, the same HITP (High Incendiary Temperature Propellant) style round created by Dynamit Nobel in the late 1980s for the H&K ACR (G11) candidate. However, in the case of LSAT, the caseless propellant is wrapped around a heavier 5.56mm bullet. More than 90,000 4.92mm caseless rounds were successfully fired through G11 rifles during ACR testing. With Dynamit Nobel (DN) not participating in the LSAT program, the challenge of taking the original DN HITP caseless round “recipe” (which Uncle Sam helped pay for) falls into the capable hands of the engineers at Alliant Techsystems. Both LSAT ammunition types are linked together by cylindrical “full-loop” polymer links.
LSAT designers very wisely have designed unique and apparently effective weapon mechanisms that take into account the unconventional and potentially troublesome needs of caseless, and to a lesser degree plastic cased ammunition, when fired from fully automatic sustained fired weapons like machine guns. The LSAT LMG employs open bolt firing to reduce heat related problems, such as cook-off and cartridge body deformation, that are of issue with both plastic cased and caseless rounds. “Push through feed and eject” is the term used to describe the proprietary LSAT operating system. This choice makes sense for these ammunition types as they do not have rims for mechanical extraction and the caseless round of course burns completely when ignited leaving nothing (normally unless there is a misfire) behind in the chamber, though remnants of the front plastic cap and interior booster element are discarded behind the projectile. As the LSAT is not trying to increase hit probability by launching single or multiple projectiles without throwing off the aim of the shooter, the primary goal of the ACR trials, the weapon mechanisms have a somewhat easier time transporting and sealing the cartridges and launching the projectiles and thus a greater potential for successful development.
Caseless ammunition’s “bogeyman”
One key point that always infects efforts with any true caseless round is chamber sealing. As the caseless round has no case and thus no airtight seal for the propellant combustion, the critically important sealing of the high pressure, high temperature propellant gases lies completely within the chamber/ breech design. This can be tricky and has been the Achilles’ heel in many other caseless weapon designs, to include to some degree the H&K/Dynamit Nobel G11 caseless ammunition weapon system. When a caseless round “misfires” it can cause all manner of non-conventional issues within the mechanism of the weapon that cannot be cleared as in a normal rifle with a pull on the charging handle to eject the dud round. HITP caseless rounds break into pieces when there is a failure of the booster and/or propellant body to completely ignite as designed. Removing the pieces is not a simple task for the operator unless specific attention to this issue is considered during weapon design and development. The choice of LSAT program engineers to push the misfired round forward and out of the chamber may be the only right answer for the LSAT candidate. The LSAT prototypes are in 28-month fabrication and testing phase to demonstrate and validate design trade-offs and system feasibility. 1,200 rounds of CT ammunition have been successfully fired at the time of writing. Fewer CL rounds have been fired to date. While there is a great deal more work required before LSAT could be fielded (2015 as per the folks at AAI), the technology could transition to PM Soldier Weapons as early as 2010. This is one to watch as it could likely change fundamentally the way weapons, and the troops who carry them into battle, are employed and the way the unique ammunition is produced.
Ronnie Barrett and his home-grown combat proven products and his dedication to the shooter are renowned. Ronnie is a man who speaks clearly and to the point and stands behind his convictions. When the anti-gunners in the State of California banned .50 caliber rifles, he withdrew his support of the California governmental users of his products in protest. Then he created new models and the caliber .416 Barrett to provide, at least in part, the California long-range shooters with what one might label a “West Coast politically correct” .50 caliber equivalent where .50 BMG was banned. It was reported at the Barrett booth that the new .416 Barrett round (that remains supersonic beyond 2,500 meters) is or will be available in all models of the Barrett long-range rifle family. .416 Barrett ammunition is being loaded by premier ammunition maker Silver State Armory (www.ssarmory.com) located in Pahrump, Nevada.
6.8mm SPC. DOA? Not even close.
In addition to the well known models of the semi-auto Barrett “Light Fifty” longrange rifles, the Barrett booth had on display various versions of the 6.8mm SPC Barrett model M468 M4-style carbines to include those with 12.5 and 16 inch barrels. Far from dead, the concept of a 6.8mm, or medium caliber rifle or carbine, has not been totally lost on the military and law enforcement community. Barrett was again a leader in this area having 6.8mm carbines/upper receivers in the field with SOF forces years ago. The 6.8mm Special Purpose Cartridge (SPC) offers the hard hitting terminal performance of engaging targets with projectiles weighing nearly twice that of military issued 62-grain 5.56mm M855 “Green- Tip” ammunition with a trajectory nearly identical to the 7.62x51mm cartridge. All this in a drop-on upper receiver group with unique 6.8mm SPC bolt, barrel and 28-round magazine that can be easily added to the standard M4 or M16 lower receiver by the user in seconds with a minimal penalty for system weight (weapon and ammunition basic load). 6.8mm carbines exhibit only slightly perceived increases in felt recoiland muzzle signature and provide comparable weapon service life of 5.56mm weapons in the same class. There is little or no reduction or change in aspect of weapon handling as one might have if going direct to a 7.62x51mm NATO carbine that generally weighs in at up to 1 pound more than comparable 5.56mm and 6.8mm carbines. Numerous ammunition companies now make various excellent loads for this relatively new round, to include Remington, Hornady and Silver State Armory. Both US special operations, select federal law enforcement and even the U.S. Marine Corps have and are looking seriously at the medium caliber capabilities and advantages offered by rounds like 6.8mm SPC. The U.S. Army and DoD JAG officials have conducted a favorable review of the combat use of 6.8mm SPC when loaded with available “non-deforming” projectiles. While formally Big Army plans to stay with the 5.56x45mm NATO cartridge for the foreseeable future, the jury is stillout and evaluations continue within nonconventional military units on the merits of alternative medium calibers for close combat.
One of the more interesting and useful items at the Barrett booth will be very welcome in the long range shooting community. The “BORS” (Barrett Optical Ranging System) fire control system, mounted on a Leupold & Stevens 4.5-15X telescopic sight, provides calculated ballistic data to increase first round hit probability of the weapon system. Up to 100 drop tables can be programmed into BORS and can be selected by the user as quickly as one changes the chambered round. BORS collects exterior ballistic data to include elevation and temperature and includes a cant indicator and an optical range finder. An onboard computer calculatesthe exact “dope” for the shooter which is then manually dialed into the sight before firing. Completely built by Barrett as a joint development for the U.S. XM107/109 programs, the BORS will be available from series production in November 2006.
The Beretta booth was well staffed and attended as always. A number of new handguns, some a first for the AUSA Show, were on display for all to see and handle. In addition to the M9A1 with integral MIL STD-1913 rail for accessory attachment, the new “90Two” pistol (first debuted at the 2006 SHOT Show in Las Vegas), was on display in caliber .40 S&W and 9mm Luger. The 90Two might be described as a product improved variant of the M9 pistol and includes many notable user friendly modifications. These include cleverly designed interchangeable grip panels and an integral MIL STD-1913 rail on the dust cover for accessory attachment. A detachable, and one might say discardable, rail cover hides the “unsightly” perpendicular recoil grooves of the accessory rail to insure this Italian pistol retains its sleek and sexy lines. It does. Other enhancements include a one-piece recoil spring guide rod assembly, integral aluminum buffer plate within the frame, dovetailed sights with self-luminous (non-tritium) sight inserts front and rear and re-contoured ambidextrous safety/decocking lever.
New SOCOM pistol candidate
It is believed that Beretta was the first potential bidder to publicly show, at least at the AUSA show, its potential candidate for the now cancelled “Combat Pistol” (CP) program originally started by the US Special Operations Command. Cancelled after repeated delays in solicitation release, the USSOCOM Combat Pistol was intended to replace numerous pistols used by SOF forces to include the Beretta M9, SIG P226, HK MK23 MOD 0, assorted M1911s, Glocks and “you name it, they have it” pistols. As was a mandatory requirement for this new pistol, the potential Beretta candidate is a .45 ACP caliber semiautomatic handgun with a magazine capacity of 8 rounds and the ability to be fired using a detachable muzzle-mounted signature suppressor (flash and sound). Beretta’s Combat Pistol is based on the firms recoil operated, rotary barrel model PX4, but with a number of defining, userspecific features to meet USSOCOM specs.
To successfully address the individual and “unit tastes” common throughout the relatively small (24,000 member) organization that makes up USSOCOM, the handgun had to offer the capability, at least objectively, the means for the user to operate the pistol in a number of different modes, e.g. SA, SA/DA and/or DA Only. The Beretta PX4 .45 ACP offers the user four modes to include SA/DA with manual safety (“F” variant), SA/DA with decocking lever only (“G” variant), DA Only (“D” variant) and the “C” or “Constant” variant with lighter 7-9 pound shorter trigger travel DA Only trigger pull. Like all CP candidates, the frame of the PX4 .45 ACP is light brown (flat dark earth) in color and includes the now common MIL STD-1913 (Picatinny) mounting rail within the forward portion of the frame commonly referred to as the dust cover. User replaceable grip inserts can be fitted to the frame to adjust for various user hand sizes. Like the grip inserts, three sizes of magazine release buttons are also available to customize the handgun to the operator. The magazine capacity of this new .45 is 9+1. In keeping with the “one size does not fit all” tradition in SOF, the Beretta PX4 even offers a standard and low profile slide catch options. Night sights are the highly regarded Trijicon three-dot configuration and are tall enough to allow for firing over a sound suppressor if mounted on the optional threaded barrel.
Colt Defense (www.colt.com)
The Colt Defense booth this year at AUSA was full of new items of great interest to those interested in AR-type rifles and carbines. On display within the booth were various new versions of the M4 Carbine, none of which this writer was allowed to photograph or disassemble. The stakes in the coming years for this iconic American firearms company are huge. As the sole provider of M4 carbines to the U.S. DoD at present, Colt takes this responsibility very seriously, both for its military users and for the future of the company. The sole source U.S. Army carbine contract expires in 2009. Most insiders agree that the Army will then take this opportunity to look for potentially a new rifle or an improved M4-style weapon to serve the U.S. military for the coming decades. It is with this milestone clearly in mind, in this writers’ opinion, that Colt Defense has been busy developing the next generation M4 carbine.
Colt Defense has developed not one but in fact at least 4 different M4 carbine models with piston-operated gas systems, replacing the original hollow tube direct gas system first employed in AR-type rifles in the 1960s with the original AR-15 design. During the SCAR competitive phase, Colt Defense submitted three different M4-style weapons to SOCOM for consideration. It is not well known outside SOCOM that at least one of the Colt candidates performed as well or better than the eventual winning FN candidate. However, the innovative FN candidate was thought to offer greater overall capability to the user and the organization. This being said, Colt has learned from their efforts in SCAR and created a vastly improved M4 for future consideration. Not to be confused with the new Colt Law Enforcement Carbine first announced at the 2006 SHOT Show and in production for the first large but unidentified law enforcement order, the very newest 5.56mm “M5” carbine shows many new and innovative changes to the original, long serving M4 design.
The M5 acronym is a “place holder” title and will likely change later, according to Colt officials. The M5 incorporates a piston rod gas system that is all the rage in the AR market at the moment. Various manufacturers have introduced M4-style rifles and carbines with solid “pusher rod” gas operating systems. However, according to a Colt official at the booth, the proprietary gas system employed in the M5 is different than that used in the Colt SCAR candidates and Colt Law Enforcement Carbine. No additional details were offered. The M5 also sported a two-piece (top and bottom) free-floating 4-quadrant modular rail system that reportedly can also be utilized on the standard M4 and Colt Law Enforcement Carbines providing a single, continuous top MIL STD- 1913 rail platform on the same horizontal plane. Also on display with the Colt carbines was a right side-folding butt stockfor the M4 that will allow the overall length of an M4 to be reduced by approximately 6-8 inches. This development likely existsat least in part to address the Army’s plans to look at smaller, more compact 5.56mm carbines for a “PDW” (Personal Defense Weapon) role.
Colt is also reportedly building M4s in caliber 6.8mm SPC to respond to SOF requests for M4 uppers in a proven medium caliber for evaluation and has shown a quick-change barrel version of the famous Colt AR design that would allow user level reconfiguration of the basic carbine for other roles such as that of a automatic rifle or confined spaces weapon. Colt is clearly listening to the needs of the user community and is responding with new hardware to address those needs.
Dillon Aero (www.dillonaero.com)
Dillon Aero was once again present at this year’s Army Show and had on display its usual assortment of ultra-modern motorized Gatling guns for all to see. Of particular note was the new “Hardback Mount” developed to allow easy and quick attachment of a stand-alone 7.62mm M134 MiniGun pod to external aircraft NATObomb racks. This new product fully integrates the weapon, feed system and power supply into a single self-contained package. The location of the magazine is at the discretion of the user. Reliable feeding of the linked ammunition, regardless of the length of the feed chute or the rate of fire of the weapon, is assured by the use of an integral booster motor.
ELCAN Optical Technologies (www.elcan.com)
This Canadian company is a long-time producer of innovative, quality, combat rugged optical sighting systems for military applications. The ELCAN M145 Machine Gun Optic has been provided as a component of the PEO Soldier Rapid Fielding Initiative for use on the U.S. M249 and M240 machine guns for years. Well known for the use of large diameter objective lens on their weapon sights to increase the downrange field of view and low light capabilities for the operator, the latest offering by ELCAN may be their very best if you listen to the opinions of many of the worlds’ small arms experts.
Glass For All
The ability of fighting men and women to more quickly engage targets under stress and while on the move using individual weapons fitted with reflex sights versus mechanical sights is well documented. Today, almost every single U.S. soldier, airman or Marine who carries a rifle is issued (or has purchased with personal funds) some type of reflex or optical sight. Eliminating the need to align front and rear sights, and the target, as part of the integrated aiming process improves response and engagement times and helps preserve the situational awareness of the operator as most reflex sights allow the shooter to keep both eyes open while aiming at the target, a task that is difficult if not impossible for most with “iron” sights. Today, it is very common, if not the norm, to see military and law enforcement personnel using reflex sights as their primary aiming device with iron sights filling a roll only as “back-up” sights.
One disadvantage of the early reflex sights, like mechanical sights, was the lack of available magnification within the sighting device to allow the operator to find, identify and/or engage small targets or targets located at longer ranges. Thus many special units had two sights in their kit bag, or at a very minimum a set of compact binoculars for this purpose. One sight for use in close quarters combat wherein the speed of the engagement was paramount and a second magnified optical sight for use when engaging targets at extended ranges, say those in excess of 300 meters wherein the aiming “dot” of the conventional reflex sight would easily and completely obscure the target. The perfect solution then might be a single sight with the capabilities of both sight types. That is what the folks at ELCAN have created.
Enter Specter DR
While not the first adjustable magnification reflex sight in the industry, the ELCAN “Specter DR” (Dual Role) represents what may be the zenith of the current crop of dual role sights. Its unique design provides for near instantaneous adjustment of the sight’s magnification from a unity (1/1), or no magnification for close quarters use, to a magnified mode of 4 times magnification for use to view, identify and engage long range or smaller size targets. Employing an ELCAN-trademark large objective lens of 32mm and an exit pupil diameter of nearing a full 8mm, the Specter DR sight can be instantly switched between modes with the flip of a centrally located lever found on the left side of the unit. When actuated, the lever moves the magnifying lens assembly within the scope into or out of alignment with the non-magnified sight body. Thus a shooter can switch to a magnified mode with ease at any time without the need to rotate the dial magnifier as found on most conventional magnified optical sights. According to ELCAN Business Development Manager Peter Chesire, there is little or no zero shift when switching from the unity to 4X modes of view and the eye relief is identical in both modes of operation.
Adjustment from mode to mode also automatically changes the aiming reticle from a 6 minute red dot to a 1.5 minute dot within a 600 meter ranging 3-plex reticle pattern with fine center and top vertical crosshairs. For use during low light conditions, the ELCAN Specter DR employs a proprietary digital electrical illumination system that uses a single and very common DL123 lithium battery to illuminate the LED reticle for up to 700 hours of continuous operation. The sight provides the options of illuminating just the center dot, the entire reticle pattern or nothing at all and of course there are various settings for use with night vision devices. Unlike many of the competing red dot sights on the market, the illuminated Specter DR aiming dot is actually round and well defined with clean outer edges, without the annoying nonsymmetrical “flares” found on many red dot sights that disturb accurate aiming, especially on smaller or distant targets. As back-up, integrated and fixed “iron” sights are mounted on the top of the Specter DR sight housing and a three sight arrangement on a special USSOCOM variant allows the host weapon to be grossly canted left or right when the operator is shooting around corners so that his or her silhouette can be reduced. A 12 o’clock mounting interface for the miniature red dot “Docter” sight allows the SOCOM operator to always have a CQB sight at the ready on the sight all the times should the primary sight be down for some reason (an example of the SOF mentality of have a plan, and a second plan, as the first one will surely fail when the first bullets begin to fly).
Adjustments for zeroing are made in the sight base and not within the sight itself. This unique feature of ELCAN sights in general makes for a rock solid product. 1/ 2-minute external adjustments for windage and elevation are standard on the A.R.M.S. throw lever sight mount.
SOCOM Contract Award
The Specter DR sight was one of three sights selected by the U.S. Special Operations Command recently for use with SOF rifles, carbines and machine guns. Resulting from a 24 month effort, ELCAN Optical Technologies received a contract for 6,500 units with first deliveries expected in December 2006. With a commercial unit price of $1,450 (USD), and a U.S. Government contract price of approximately $800, ELCAN reports they can’t make a sufficient number of Specter DR’s fast enough to meet all demands. The sight is also being evaluated by special operations units from around the world.
Next month in Part III, we will continue to examine what is exciting and new from the likes of FNH, General Dynamics, Glock, H&K, iRobot, Milkor, Universal Chemical Technologies Defense and Unitech.
This writer would like to thank COL Carl Lipsit, PM Soldier Weapons, COL Richard Hansen, PM Soldier Warrior, Mr. Andy Cline, Chief, Airburst Weapons Division, PM SW, Ms. Kathy Roa, Media and Public Relations for PM Soldiers Weapons and Ms. Catherine DeRan, PEO Soldier Strategic Communications, and the many industry representatives for their time and assistance in preparing this article.
About the Author
Jim Schatz has been a contributing writer for SAR, and other defense and small arms periodicals, for more than a decade. A former Army airborne infantryman and member of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, Schatz was, until May 2006, a key member of Heckler & Koch for more than 20 years where he initiated and/or managed countless new small arms programs to successful user fielding to include the USP line of pistols, HK/Benelli M1014 Combat Shotgun and more recently the COTS family of HK416/HK417 and GLM weapons. Runner up to Ronnie Barrett for the 2004 NDIA Chinn award and recipient of the NDIA Professional Service Award, Jim Schatz is now an independent consultant for industry and the U.S. Government in the area of small arms technical support.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V10N7 (April 2007)|