By Robert Bruce
Editor’s note: Once again we are proud to report that SMALL ARMS REVIEW is at the head of the journalistic pack. On 7 March 2005, Contributing Editor Robert Bruce was given the privilege of being the first civilian reporter to closely examine and photograph in detail one of the prototype rifles as entered by FN in USSOCOM’s uncompromising competition. This was immediately followed by a live fire session replicating some of the evaluations done by the government and military team.
Captions for the photos that accompany this article provide an authoritative assessment of the mechanical design and operating characteristics that bested all rivals and led to selection of the FN SCAR as the basis for a new family of modular battle rifles to arm America’s most elite warriors.
The rifle described and pictured here, while identical to those actually tested, should not be taken to represent subsequent modifications that are being made as a result of requests by the operators and lessons learned in the process. Production version SCAR Light rifles, the companion Heavy versions, and the Enhanced Grenade Launcher Module will be covered in future issues.
This report begins with some important background on why Special Operations Command wanted a replacement for the M4A1. Then, for a variety of reasons including criticism of the official program from sources with varying degrees of knowledge and credibility, it continues with specifics on how the competition was handled.
We’re confident that SAR’s readers will carefully consider the facts.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Old Army saying
While the Colt M4 carbine is said to be performing well in the Global War on Terror, enough criticism has surfaced from many who use it in combat to be cause for concern.
Although suited for its role as a compact, fast-handling and versatile shoulder weapon for mechanized and airmobile troops, this chopped M16 has some limitations that make it less than ideal to many in the Special Operations community.
They do have the advantage of carrying the M4A1 SOPMOD (Special Operations Peculiar Modification) version; a product-improved M4 characterized by a flat-top receiver and a wide range of highly useful accessories that quickly clamp onto numerous Picatinny Rail hardpoints on the receiver and around the barrel. The expanding inventory includes a variety of day and night sights, pointers and illuminators, as well as the workhorse M203 grenade launcher. This modularity allows the operator to tailor his weapon for the demands of any particular mission.
However, the M4A1 SOPMOD is still Eugene Stoner’s forty year old M16, intentionally lightweight through extensive use of aluminum and plastic and utilizing the often criticized direct gas system that inevitably deposits carbon in the receiver.
True, the M16 family has gotten better over the years and still serves well in the hands of American GI’s and those of many other nations. But good is not good enough.
Among the biggest gripes are a lack of durability and attendant problems with reliability. It just doesn’t stand up to rough handling and harsh environmental extremes that characterize the very diverse missions carried out by tip-of-the-spear elements in United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).
Army Rangers are said to be less concerned about weight than the need for anvil-like toughness. Navy SEALs want something that still works after swimming for hours in salt water then crawling inland through sand and muck. Army Special Forces and USAF Air Commandos also do their share of operating and fighting in inhospitable terrain and all kinds of weather. We’d include Delta Force too, but they don’t officially exist.
Other documented complaints lodged against the M4 include loss of velocity from the carbine’s short 14.5-inch barrel that reduces effective range and lessens knockdown power of the already less-than-ideal standard issue M855 ball ammunition. SOCOM’s energetic procurement and generous issue of Black Hills’ MK262 Special Ball 77-grain ammo helps a lot but doesn’t address other issues. Much has been said about the carbine’s very high cyclic rate which affects controllability, leads to overheating and overstresses the moving parts, leading to breakage and radically shortening service life.
SOCOM might have a bit more leeway than the “regular” Armed Forces in making procurement decisions, but still follows prudent procedural steps. The first is to clearly identify the problem that needs to be fixed and outline standards of performance that are likely to bring success. Thus, a formal ORD (Operational Requirement Document) was finalized in September 2003 based on plenty of input from “Operators” - the preferred designation for all personnel among SOCOM’s forward elements. This set the bureaucratic wheels into motion.
What followed in amazingly short order was open to any and all companies that wished to compete. But they did have to carefully examine SOCOM’s public postings at the official websites Commerce Business Daily and Federal Business Opportunities. And everyone was expected to follow exactly the detailed steps outlined there so that no company could be seen as having unfair advantage through special treatment or special status. In other words, play by the rules, gentlemen.
John Pfender and other experienced and savvy personnel at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane, Indiana took the ORD and wrote an ambitious set of standards. These were posted as a Pre-solicitation Notice (PRESOL) on 15 October 2003. All potential competitors were getting the same “heads up” at the same time.
Three weeks later, on 4 November, more highly detailed Performance Specifications, building on those in the PRESOL, were posted for industry review and comment. Again, all potential players had the same opportunity to read what the government required and to request clarification on any aspect of the document.
“This specification covers the requirements for the SOF Combat Assault Rifle Light (SCAR L), 5.56x45mm assault rifle. The SCAR L will serve as a baseline weapon from which a SCAR Family of Weapons will be developed. It is the intent of the SOF Combat Assault Rifle (SCAR) Program to procure for the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) the most reliable, rugged, accurate, safe and ergonomic weapons available.” PS/4081/C03/1337 Draft Performance Specification, SOF Combat Assault Rifle Light, 30 October 2003.
So it wasn’t just the M4A1 carbine that was on the shopping list. Operators were using a variety of rifles for various missions from close combat to long range sniping. Since the M16 and its variants are quite different from various bolt action sniper rifles and the self-loading M14, it was natural to want maximum mechanical and functional commonality throughout a “family” of weapons. This was formalized right up front in the specifications: “The SCAR Family of Weapons shall share ergonomic commonality and the highest degree of parts commonality possible. SCAR Light...is a 5.56x45mm semi-automatic and full-automatic shoulder fired weapon...the first increment in the...program’s Spiral Development process...not required to be modular for variation in caliber...shall have the ability to interchange different barrel configurations to form three variants: Close Quarters Combat (CQC), Standard (S), and Sniper Version (SV). SCAR Heavy...shall possess the ability for caliber modularity (open architecture platform) while still designated around the baseline caliber of 7.62x51mm (alternate calibers are known to be 7.62x39mm). Future enhanced calibers will also be considered.” PS/4081/C03/1337
Thus, the SCAR Family with three sizes of barrels and any number of calibers has the potential for replacing a long rack of different rifles in SOCOM including the M16 in standard, chopped and accurized versions, as well as the M14 and Mk11. SCAR Heavy, initially chambered for NATO standard .308 caliber, is all but certain to be issued in a version using the ubiquitous Soviet M43 round used worldwide in all those millions of AKs with the probably of using “battlefield pickup” AK magazines as well.
Pay close attention to the phrase “future enhanced calibers.” This gives hope to proponents of a whole range of hot new loads like the 6.5 Grendel and 6.8 Remington SPC. Plus, all sorts of interesting experimentation continues to be done with cutting-edge ammunition concepts. The possibilities are seemingly endless and “open architecture” ensures that the heavy branch of the SCAR Family can be adapted when they’re ready for fielding.
Additionally, a 40mm EGLM (Enhanced Grenade Launcher Module) with computerized fire control became an important part of the program, a long-needed replacement for the venerable M203.
Safety certification is a big deal for all the right reasons but this was apparently going to take too much time if done through the usual government channels. Accordingly, competitors were allowed to conduct their own back at the factory but strictly within government standards.
The first is the drop/no fire; where a weapon with the bolt forward and locked on a primed cartridge case in the chamber gets dropped from five feet above a steel plate from five different attitudes including muzzle and butt straight down. The weapon must not fire and it must not be damaged to the point of affecting its performance.
They were also allowed to do their own obstructed barrel test (lodge a bullet halfway down the barrel then fire a round without “catastrophic failure”) and blue pill test (firing one extreme high pressure M197 proof load) followed by a magnaflux inspection.
Written certification of success in all these critical safety tests was submitted upon delivery of the weapons to Crane.
Designated Hitter Rule
Competitors provided their own shooters for key parts of the formal Preliminary Evaluation. This makes sense on many levels, not the least of which is that none could then claim their weapon didn’t get a fighting chance because of uneven performance by government testers.
Conducted on the ranges at Crane during June and July, each competitor had a maximum of two hours and got no more than two tries at each of three taskings to demonstrate minimum standards of accuracy and, inherent in the tasks, mechanical reliability as well as efficiency of operation.
Probability of hit in semiautomatic was fired against an E type silhouette at 300 meters from prone with bipod, iron sights and MK262 ammunition. A GO required at least 21 hits out of a total of 30 fired within two minutes.
Full automatic capability - actually burst fire - was also with iron sights but this time from prone unsupported at 50 meters and using M855 ball. Each of four E silhouettes had to be engaged in turn with a five round burst followed by a magazine change. Minimum performance was at least 2 hits on three of the four targets, all within one minute from start to finish.
A third requirement was to swap out the standard barrel or upper receiver assembly for the CQC (Close Quarters Combat) barrel within twenty minutes. Headspace on the conversion had to be between 1.465 and 1.471 inches.
Any that didn’t make it over these first hurdles were to be immediately packed up and sent home. For the ones that did, the easy part was over. Factory reps left the rifles behind in the care of Troy Smith, program manager for special operations weapons, and his no-nonsense staff of veteran small arms tormentors. Smith’s regular team was supplemented just for this occasion with some real-world operators from various components of USSOCOM. They immediately went to work on the rest of the series of requirements formalized in the Performance Specifications.
“The SCAR L shall operate effectively, without damage or degradation of performance, in all climates and geographical areas that include sand, swamp, tundra, grasslands, forest, jungle, urban areas, maritime, riverine, and mountainous environments. The SCAR L shall also operate at high and low temperature extremes (-40 degrees F to 140 degrees F) as well as other hostile (ice/rain/sand/dust/dirt/mud/surf/salt/fog) environmental conditions. The SCAR L shall operate at altitudes ranging from sea level to 12,000 feet.” PS/4081/C03/1337
As big as this iceberg is, that’s only the tip. Other requirements included suitability for parachute operations, over the beach/surf zone and salt water immersion, and everybody’s favorite — nuclear, biological and chemical operations.
The “over the beach” part is obviously keyed to how SEALs operate and the threshold (minimum) standard called for repeated cycles of full immersion in water followed by firing after only two seconds of drain time. The objective is no drain time - even with suppressor in place.
“Acceptance shall be based on the ability of the SCAR L system to meet all threshold and expressed objective requirements as well as Operators’ determination of operational suitability and effectiveness. Factors are increased live-fire hit scores, decreased live-fire engagement times, improved speed/accuracy of engagement and function, controllability in semi-automatic and full-automatic fire, improved handling qualities, ease of operation, weight, and snag free movement through vegetation and battlefield obstacles.” PS/4081/C03/1337
When the dust of field testing settled, and the engineering types finished their detailed technical evaluations, and the business specialists judged each competitor’s ability to meet the long list of administrative, financial and manufacturing quality standards, word leaked out at the end of November 2004 that FN’s rifle had come out on top.
Lots of amusing speculation immediately began flying around on the Internet fueled mostly by rumor but also by some remarkably detailed studio shots of the prototype Light and developmental Heavy rifles. Official confirmation of the award came a few weeks later.
“January 10, 2005, MacDill AFB, Tampa, FL - The United States Special Operations Command today announced that it has awarded the contract for the Special Operations Forces Combat Assault Rifle (SCAR) to FN Herstal. The USSOCOM awarded an Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity contract after conducting a full and open competition throughout ten months beginning in January 2004. The program will provide the first 21st century modular assault rifle designed and built from the ground up for the finest fighting forces in the world. The SCAR will be made in the United States. The $634,000 (FY05) contract is set to begin immediately....” USSOCOM News Release
As this is being written at the beginning of April, FN Manufacturing in Columbia, South Carolina, is well along in tooling up for its first production run of the “new and improved” SCAR L; based on lessons learned in the testing and operator requests submitted as Engineering Change Proposals during Critical Design Reviews. They are also charged with responsibility for finalizing the SCAR L Sniper Variant. This outfit has an excellent reputation based on years of supplying Uncle Sam with M240s, M249s and even M16s.
Conversations with key players in the program reveal that the Heavy version in 7.62mm NATO caliber is nearing finalization. Also well along is FN’s EGLM (Enhanced Grenade Launcher Module) with its ranging and computing fire control system.
This “Spiral Development” ensures that SOCOM’s operators don’t have to wait for everything before getting something.
SAR has learned from inside sources that FN plans to offer the whole family of weapons to law enforcement as the ARM (Assault Rifle Modular). As for the burning question of a semiautomatic SCAR, we are told, “that hasn’t been ruled out.” Stay tuned for further information on this exciting new family of small arms.
SCAR Thresholds (T) and Objectives (O)
Words have meaning, at least to the literate layman and certainly to engineers and lawyers. Consequently, writers of official performance specifications need to be extra careful to say what they mean. Pfender’s specs are clear in setting Threshold (minimum) and Objective (push the envelope and give us more) standards. Some highlights include:
- Shall weigh no more than 7.25 lbs. unloaded (T), less than 6.6 lbs. (O)
- Barrel length change shall be accomplished either by upper receiver or by barrel change at the unit level (T) or by the operator (O).
- Barrel/module change shall be accomplished within 20 minutes (T), 5 minutes (O).
- Parts are to be corrosion resistant (T), corrosion proof (O).
- Under severe firing schedules (300 rounds in 5 min.), the operator should be able to operate the weapon while grasping the hand guard with an unprotected hand (O).
- Achieve a sustained rate of fire of 25 rounds per minute (T), 50 rounds per minute (O).
- Have a functional barrel life of 15,000 rounds (T), 35,000 (O).
- Have a fully functional service life without overhaul for a minimum of 15,000 rounds (T), 90,000 (O).
- Shall not cook-off after firing 210 rounds at 70 degrees F (T), 210 rounds or greater at 125 degrees F (O) using fully automatic fire, continuous bursts, with no cooling time between magazine changes.
- SCAR L (S & SV) shall not increase dispersion by more than 1.0 MOA measured at 300 meters (T), .25 MOA measured at 300 meters (O) to baseline ammunition performance.
- Capable of being submerged in salt and fresh water to a depth of 66 feet for a minimum of 2 hours without operational degradation (T), 8 hours (O).
USSOCOM hasn’t yet released information on how many and which firms made the deadline and qualified for the first round of testing.
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