The US Army’s New Rifle

The US Army’s New Rifle

Zach Dunn

The Rifle Being Replaced

US M4 Carbine

US Army Soldier Fires M4 Carbine

The US M16 Rifle and M4 Carbine have seen almost 60 years of service in the US Army. An extremely long service life compared to many other contemporary service arms. Even the Soviet/Russian Amy has seen their standard rifle change 4 times over the service history of the M16/M4 family (SKS, AK-47, AKM, AK-74 and now the AK-12). The M16 and M4 have soldiered on, but not without controversy.

The AR-15, which stands for Armalite Rifle model 15, from which the M16 and M4 are derived from, was invented in the mid-1950s by Eugene Stoner. It’s gas impingement system and light recoil made for a very easy to shoot and accurate rifle. The US Air Force was so impressed that they ordered 80,000.  The AR-15 soon caught the attention of the rest of the Department of Defense and the rest was history.

When the M16 was introduced as the XM16E1 to soldiers fighting in Vietnam, they were told that the new rifle was self-cleaning.  In fact, cleaning kits and rods weren’t even issued to troops.  In addition to not issuing cleaning kits, the Army had changed the powder used in the .223/5.56x45mm cartridges from DuPont stick powder to a ball propellant made by the Olin Corporation.  Stoner’s original design had called for the use of stick powder. The results were disastrous.

It is believed by many that the Army was responsible for the early XM16E1’s issues and near disastrous introduction, on account they never wanted the M16.  The US Army had spent millions of dollars on the purchase and building of the M14 rifle, which itself was plagued by production and reliability issues.  When the M16 was ordered for Vietnam, Army brass hated the little plastic “toy” as it was not a ‘proper’ .30 caliber rifle made from traditional forged steel and wood and designed to engage enemy troops at hundreds of yards in the fields and hills of Europe. The brass was still enamored with the M1 Garand which had been instrumental in World War II and from which the M14 was derived.

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Whatever the reason for its early failings, the issues of the XM16E1 were fixed by the late 1960s, as the M16A1 was adopted with a chrome lined barrel, forward assist, and some other minor improvements.  The M16 and the later M4 carbine went on to serve well in Grenada, Panama, Gulf War 1, Somalia, and the Balkans.

With the War on Terror, the situation changed. Soldiers found themselves engaging the enemy at longer distances. 5.56x45mm NATO cartridges fired from the M16 and M4 and other coalition weapons were struggling to achieve kills past 500 yards. This has led to the reissue of the M14 as a designated marksman rifle alongside other 7.62x51mm rifles such as those derived from the AR-10. But the Army hates providing two types of rifle and machinegun ammo to a squad or platoon.

Body armor is becoming a great concern as well. As tensions rise with Russian and China, fears of a new war with near-peer adversaries raise the reality that those we fight will most likely wear body armor similar to ours.  5.56 has a hard time punching through level IV armor unless you are using special tungsten ammunition.

The New Rifle

Textron Next Generation Rifle Prototype

Textron Next Generation Rifle Prototype

The Army has tried and failed, to replace the M16/M4 at least 6-7 times. All attempts have previously puttered out, often because of Army Beurocracy and the tangled web of the current procurement process. But I digress.

The US Army seems to have finally settled (just like the last time they finally settled), on a new rifle.  The Next Generation Rifle utilizes a new 6.8mm cased telescoped cartridge that uses a plastic shell casing and has been compared to hitting with the same pounds pressure per square inch as a 120mm gun off an M1A2 Abrams tank. Sounds impressive. But in reality, there are many cartridges that equal the same pressure, including the venerable .308/7.62x51mm NATO round.

Next Generation Squad Automatic Weapon

Next Generation Squad Automatic Weapon

According to the Army, this rifle will enter service alongside a new light machine gun chambered in the same cartridge, the Next Generation Squad Automatic Weapon.  The Army has said it will need to order 250,000 of these weapons and have them delivered over a 3-10 year period.

The Army also plans on introducing an advanced rifle optic for the weapon. According to a recent article from the Army Times:

Researchers are simultaneously working on advanced optics, targeting software and augmented reality to build a fire control that vastly increases target acquisition, discernment and hit probability over what is currently available.

The first submission must include a fire control system that includes a laser range finder, ballistic computer and disturbed reticle. That’s the first wave.

And that first round must be compatible with the Army’s newest piece of optics tech, the Enhanced Night Vision Goggle-Binocular and Family of Weapons Sights-Individual.

One thing is for certain, these new rifles and optics will be expensive.  Much more expensive than the systems we are currently fielding. And that’s only if the systems are even built. Remember, the Army often cancels new small arms.  Especially if they are more expensive than the system they replace.  The US Military has a knack for shutting down small arms research or settling for a cheaper option with proven technology.  Case in point the recent adaption of the M17 pistol to replace the M9.  It’s still a 9mm handgun, and the M17 can’t do that much more than the M9 it replaced. In fact, the only thing the M17 has going for it is that it is lighter.  

The US Army has also recently placed huge orders for M4 carbines from FN and Colt, at least 150,000 new rifles but it could include as many as 300,000.  With other defense programs such as a light tank in the works, I would not be surprised if the new Next Generation Rifle gets the axed.

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