The Column, No. 72:

The Developmental Direction of the Infantry Rifle

By David Tong


In a recent (July 2011) article, I wrote that the American shooter has traditionally embraced the development of the infantry rifle for use as a hunting rifle, the latest iteration being the popular semi-automatic derivatives of the Stoner/Colt M16. Previously of course, the bolt-action rifle had pride of place in U.S. commercial sales. However, there are latter-day changes in the development of the infantry rifle to become a multi-role “system,” as opposed to a simple bullet launcher. If implemented, this will spell the end of this nearly century and a half infatuation.

Up through the late 1970's and prior to the huge expansion of the use of the computer in the armed forces, even though modern warfare’s “firepower tactics” were firmly in place, the military rifle’s essential characteristics of stock, iron sights, mechanical trigger, metallic cartridge and individual action by its wielder had not changed.

As a recent point of reference, the Army Ordnance Board has recently stated repeatedly that the costs of fielding a new rifle to replace our current issue 5.56x45mm M16 and M4 Carbine are so great as to make them unnecessary unless substantially greater capabilities are offered. What does this mean?

In the West for the past 30 years or so, attempts have been made to improve the small unit’s lethality on the modern battlefield. This has generally involved improving hit probability through burst fire control, the fitment of red dot sights, tactical white and infrared lighting, lasers and grenade launchers. These are simply added onto the basic rifle, usually to some form of Weaver-style M1913 Picatinny rail system. This can be seen in the so-called “SOPMOD” (Special Operations Peculiar Modification) M4A3 Carbines, currently fielded by a high percentage of our troops in the Sandbox.

Small unit actions are probably the wave of the near future and our country is unlikely to field the large forces, such as those used in the first Gulf War. There have been several developments, both economic and technical, that suggest that the digitizing of the battlefield to increase smaller unit combat effectiveness will accelerate.

One should note that the U.S. government is in a financial crisis of its own making. Besides the escalating spiral of civilian entitlement programs, other evidence of this is the cost of all raw materials, including common metals, skyrocketing in value. Most of the copper content of our pennies and “cupro-nickel clad” dimes, quarters, half-dollar and dollar coins made since 1969 (replacing silver content coins) has disappeared. In May 2011, the percentage of (speculated) value acceleration per ounce of copper exceeded that of silver, in an ironic turnabout.

This has ramifications in terms of small arms ammunition, as copper is a primary compositional component in bullets. Brass as well is now of strategic importance. Note recent hearings in Congress regarding the sale of expended casings to civilians for target practice versus retaining and recycling them for future military use.

China has been busy divesting itself of U.S. Treasury Bonds as “investments” (to service our national debts, which they own more of than any other nation) by using them to purchase metal mining corporations and strategic minerals operations worldwide. There is new economic collusion between them and our other buddies, the Russians, to remove the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency for commodity trading purposes. The dollar has held this position for nearly 70 years, since the end of WWII, when it replaced the British Pound Sterling. There are severe future implications for our country if or when that happens, just as happened to Great Britain and its financial meltdown in the 1970's.

The German firm of Heckler & Koch developed the G11 assault rifle and its caseless ammunition in the early 1980's. I believe this was intended to not only lighten the weight of small bore ammunition, but also due to concern with strategic metals usage. This project rifle went nowhere when NATO announced adoption of the infernally underpowered 5.56x45mm cartridge. Caseless ammunition also has a lack of traceability aspect that certain governmental or law enforcement agencies would find troubling.

The Army put forth a proposed “Advanced Individual Combat Weapon,” or AICW, in the 1990's. This proposed weapon system incorporated a “smart” 20mm grenade system to allow a soldier to program the air burst of the projectile based upon a laser range finding based target solution. This would allow the soldier to use this grenade to shoot into building apertures and kill enemy combatants without relying on the simple kinetic energy and (lack of) penetration of a small 5.56mm NATO bullet to do the job.

Other future developments include more digitized and interlinked small unit participants through helmet or eyepiece-mounted real time video, as well as communication satellite uplinks for better firepower, movement coordination and intel for the command echelon. There is no doubt that the recent operation to terminate bin Ladin incorporated some of these technologies. The American military’s interest in “jointness,” e.g. coordinated cooperation between the branches, means that the individual soldier is going to be as much intelligence-gatherer as combatant.

While the technologies are very expensive per soldier, the perception in terms of individual effectiveness in a smaller overall military makes it attractive from an overall cost perspective. Whether that plays out in reality remains to be seen. While the former Soviet Union and its allies have largely kept their analog technologies in mass numbers in place, their espionage and surreptitious acquisition of our technologies continues and their own small arms are morphing into more modular formats. This includes the new Chinese bullpup design in 5.8mm caliber.

Because of these military-only type scenarios, I believe that the use of infantry rifles for sporting purposes is inexorably going to be reduced. As stated above, this diminution in importance of the service rifle will accelerate. The technologies being postulated are not legally permitted for hunting, or even needed during daylight hunting hours. Hence, there is as much political as technological movement that will prevent our use and enjoyment of military-derived rifles in the sporting field. It is an open invitation for the anti-gun forces to expand the definition of and prohibit “non-sporting use” weapons.




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