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Size Matters
New rifle, bigger bullets: Inside the Army's plan to ditch the M4 and 5.56, and other Military News with Jeremy Bentham

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“A man can never have too much red wine, too many books, or too much ammunition”

- Rudyard Kipling

“In a man-to-man fight, the winner is he who has one more round in his magazine.”

– Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, “Infantry Attacks”

What the Army would really like is a rifle round that weighs as much as a .177 caliber pellet from an air gun, but hits like the bullet from a .50 caliber Browning Machine Gun (BMG) and still has the recoil of an air rifle to boot. It looks like it may settle for something in the 6.5mm to 7mm range. Given current firearms technology, any weapon the service selects is necessarily going to be a compromise between the factors of power, accuracy, range, recoil and overall size and weight of the weapon and ammunition.

“After carrying the M16 or one of its cousins across the globe for more than half a century, soldiers could get a peek at a new prototype assault rifle that fires a larger round by 2020.”

“…If successful, the new rifle and round combination would give troops a weapon they can carry with about the same number of rounds as the current 5.56 mm but with greater range and accuracy in their firepower — with little change in weight. The new rifle would likely replace the M16/M4 platform, which has been in the hands of troops since the 1960s and undergone multiple modifications and upgrades.”

The 5.56x45mm (AKA .223 Remington) cartridge has been a successful assault rifle cartridge as much because of its light weight as its performance. With a full-automatic firearm you tend to go through a lot of ammo fast in a firefight, so the lighter the ammo the more you can carry and the more you can shoot. 180 rounds of 5.56x45mm for an M16/M4 weighs the same as 120 rounds of 7.62x51mm (AKA .308 Winchester) ammo for the older M14 rifle, or the 7.62x39mm cartridge for the AK-47 and AKM for that matter. The perennial problem plaguing the foot solider is how much his panoply weighs him down and threatens to exhaust him before he can reach his objective, especially in rough or urban terrain. So how much ammunition for his primary weapon the soldier can carry on his body and how much it weighs is a source of no little concern. Despite the controversy surrounding the 5.56mm cartridge since its inception, its performance against unprotected personnel has been satisfactory. The 5.56mm cartridge doesn’t recoil much, this makes it easier for recruits with little experience with firearms to quickly learn to shoot the M16 with accuracy. Easier than is the case with harder kicking cartridges. Nevertheless some in the Army would prefer a rifle that fires a bigger bullet so as to deliver greater penetration at longer range. Penetration for defeating the cover an enemy is hiding behind or any body armor he might be wearing. The nature of the conflict the USA has been engaged in for nearly 17 years against Muslim insurgents has put the weapons and equipment of the infantry soldier more in the spotlight. Nothing wrong with that.

The Army is also exploring the possibility of using a newly developed “case-less” rifle round. That is to say one that doesn’t use a metal cartridge case to hold the bullet, propellant charge and primer. This holds the possibility of providing the infantryman with rifle ammunition that weighs less per round than the current 5.56mm cartridge, but at the same time launches a bigger projectile with greater range, penetration and killing power (as in making a bigger hole in the intended target).

It will be interesting to see which way the Army goes. On the one hand the M16/M4 and the 5.56mm rifle/cartridge combo are both getting long in the tooth after some 50 years of service, which begs the question of whether there isn’t something new and improved on the market today. On the other hand though, they still do the job they are intended for. So unless a new infantry weapon offers a significant increase in capability (particularly in comparison to what our potential adversaries are fielding) it may not make a lot of sense to spend billions of dollars to replace them. At least not until some REALLY new and improved weapons technology comes along. I mean it’s the 21st century so where are the flying cars and ray guns already?

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