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Metal Storming the Gates: National Defense Industrial Association’s 2001 Small Arms Conference

By Robert Bruce

“This technology is revolutionary. It is functionally different from all previous gun system designs...it has the potential to be the safest and most controllable gun system ever designed.” News release from METAL STORM partner Science Applications International Corporation

Long time readers of Small Arms Review should know by now that my favorite annual gun event is NDIA’s get-together for manportable weaponry enthusiasts, known formally as the Joint Services Small Arms Symposium, Exhibition & Firing Demonstration. I look forward to this in much the same way a kid anticipates Christmas morning when friends and family gather, gifts are opened, and there are lots of great new toys to play with.

This year’s three day fete was held in mid-August in a swanky hotel in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas (insert your own Bill Clinton and Paula Jones joke here), featuring the usual mix of thoughtful technical papers, exciting industry exhibits, and the chance to go out to the range for some earplug-packing, gunsmoke-snorting live-fire fun.

Now, there is much new and improved hardware to report on that is of immediate interest and practical value for military, police and civilian shooters. However, let’s start with something we saw there that may be a year or two away from the hands of freedom’s defenders but has damn sure got the attention of the firearms establishment right this very minute.

METAL STORM

“My amazement is at the process — O’Dwyer didn’t blow up a barrel or kill himself in making it.” SAIC Physicist Adam Drobot, quoted in Scientific American magazine.

I can’t think of a better name than METAL STORM to represent Australian inventor Mike O’Dwyer’s bold new concept in projectile pushing at fantastic rates and quantities. Now with private and government financing in excess of $400 million, O’Dwyers multinational corporation seems likely to brush aside nearly a millennium of warfare’s established launcher and payload technology.

Overhearing mutterings from a number of exhibitors and other conference attendees about some “weird Star Wars stuff”, I hastened to METAL STORM’s booth and wormed my way through the crowd to snag some promotional materials. Retreating to a quiet corner, I skimmed the handouts and zeroed in on the vivid description of its operational principle. O’Dwyer’s inspiration came, we are told, by the speed and precision of an inkjet printer head on his everyday desktop computer. This led him, by trial and error (fortunately not life-threatening error), to have a computer program electronically fire rounds at infinitely tailorable speeds and sequences.

In his METAL STORM ballistic system, the only significant moving parts are projectiles from uniquely designed (also patented) caseless ammunition, loaded one in front of the other as many as practical depending on the length and caliber of the launch tube. Discarded entirely are all the usual mechanical contrivances required by existing multi-shot weaponry for feeding, mechanically firing, extracting and ejecting. Time to reload? Just rip out and replace the pre-loaded, non-metallic barrel cluster.

Does it work? Documented firings of “Bertha,” the thirty-six barrel, 9mm prototype, burping out 180 rounds in about one one-hundredth of a second, have established a new official Guinness World Record. Is it practical? For one thing, this sealed block of bullets and barrels could prove vastly superior to complicated and maintenance-intensive cannon caliber Gatling type systems now protecting many free world warships against EXOCET type missiles.

Advanced Sniper Rifle

Numerous demonstrations of Bertha and other configurations including a handgun have been conducted for high level leaders in military and scientific communities in Australia and the US. This has resulted in a gusher of RDT&E funding including a $10 million contract from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the Holy Grail of America’s defense technology, to develop the Advanced Sniper Rifle.

The cluster of four barrels on the rifle’s conceptual prototype is apparently its only unconventional aspect. Microprocessor based fire control allows the gunner to key in and send the best combination of a variety of projectiles as required for antipersonnel or antimateriel applications. Aiming and related functions are to be optimized using ongoing developments from such official US government initiatives as the very expensive “Objective Individual Combat Weapon” and the very spooky “Project White Feather.”

Electronic Handgun

METAL STORM is also creating quite a buzz in the world of law enforcement with the O’Dwyer Vle (Variable Lethality Law Enforcement handgun). Another Guinness honoree as the world’s first 100 percent electronic handgun, as of this writing it is a single barrel, seven shot working prototype. In addition to a personalization feature that will let only one specific officer fire the weapon (desirable if it’s taken in a scuffle or otherwise lost) its computer chip “brain” also stores additional keypad instructions from the gunner. This allows tailoring of each firing among a number of options including single shot (semi-auto), double tap, triple tap, or high energy modes. This last setting kicks out two shots at a mind-boggling 500,000 rpm so as to drill right through body armor!

Subsequent handgun models forseen by METAL STORM include multiple barrels in a soft recoil mount with different ammo ranging from “less lethal” stuff like stun bags and CS, to conventional kinetic energy terminators.

Dick Tracy take note: The Vle will eventually be equipped, we are told, with any number of optional gadgets like a two-way radio for immediate situation reporting and “advice” from the incident commander, as well as a GPS so everybody knows where the gun and its owner are located. Even “political correctness” can be enforced by a provision for a superior to electronically jam the weapon if a combat-stressed peace officer is about to take out the “wrong” category of miscreant at an embarrassing moment. Try explaining that to the family of the subsequently slain or horribly injured officer...

Other applications of METAL STORM technology cry out for development. According to O’Dwyer in his formal technical presentation at the event, some military initiatives include several already funded programs such as the Area Denial Weapons System (minefield replacement), vehicle self-defense, and arming of unmanned aircraft.

Not surprisingly, much of the muttering about METAL STORM overheard at the show is coming from established gun and ammo makers. Many of those who do not have their heads in the sand are understandably concerned by the potential of the O’Dwyer system for rather quickly putting conventional firearms in the same category as bows and arrows in the atomic age. In response, numerous very legitimate objections and cautions are being raised including danger from exploding barrels and system vulnerability to EMP (electro-magnetic pulse). So, SAR will be watching and reporting as this story unfolds.

Back to Earth

The symposium part at NDIA is like going to school for a highly concentrated series of half-hour lectures on the latest developments in guns, ammo, sights and related things that are of value to the soldier and policeman. This year’s lineup of distinguished speakers presented some 48 technical and informational papers, most well illustrated with computer-generated visuals and some with fascinating video clips. Space does not permit a detailed account here, but what follows are some of the highlights. Those with internet access plus the time and tenacity to delve deeper are encouraged to access the full collection of technical presentations that are thoughtfully posted by NDIA in cooperation with the Defense Technical Information Center for your viewing pleasure at www.dtic.mil/ndia/2001smallarms/2001smallarms.html

Small Arms Master Plan

As should be expected, there is intense interest from many directions in the formal plans that the US military has for research, development and procurement of weapon systems. After all, America’s Armed Forces are the free world’s largest and have the most money to spend. This is well covered each year by a series of presentations from top names in the Joint Services Small Arms Program (JSSAP) who tend to cover everything from improving the old stuff currently in use (now euphemistically called “legacy systems”) to crystal ball projections of at what is possible ten or twenty years out.

Some short-term projects include development of non-lethal ammo that will work the semiauto action of the new M1014 shotgun (which works just fine right now with crowd control loads by pulling back on the charging handle after each shot) plus ways to lighten existing weapons like the M249 Squad Auto Weapon and the M240B Machine Gun. In the mid term, the US military wants an Advanced Medium Machine Gun - presumably to finalize the lingering death of the tin can M60 and replace the ultra-reliable M240 even though it will probably be lighter by then. Finally, programs are well underway to harness various forms of directed energy (real ray guns, sonic blasters, and who knows what else) for use in WWIII.

Interestingly, both the Objective Individual Combat Weapon and the Objective Crew Served Weapon have been bumped up a notch in funding and fielding and are said to be on track for FUE (First Unit Equipped) in 2009. It will be quite fascinating to see if METAL STORM technology has any impact on these programs in the next couple of years.

The Few, The Proud, The Oughta Be Better Equipped...

A bare-knuckled assessment of the current state of US Marine Corps weapons and equipment for amphibious warriors at the spear point was delivered by Lieutenant Colonel James Diehl of Systems Command, with a bit of dry humor backed up with lots of actual instances. For example, don’t tell the bad guys, but after making sure first line guns stay up and running, the Marines don’t have enough maintenance money to repair and recondition the M249’s in wartime reserve!

A later presentation by a top-level guy from JSSAP noted an $11 million shortfall in funding the Army’s small arms rebuild program to keep “legacy” guns working. Yes, they’re all waiting for something to happen from that presidential campaign-promise that “Help is on the way.”

LTC Diehl’s laundry list of the Corps’ initiatives includes dropping the 60mm mortar in favor of a lighter but longer-reaching 81mm, more M4 carbines and their add-on accessories, ensuring all optical devices have laser-proof coating, and painting all those black guns and other stuff “Coyote Brown” for better camouflage. The Corps is also seriously exploring the use of ceramic liners to enhance performance of machine gun barrels, searching for more effective airbursting fuses, and seems to have a healthy skepticism toward Army plans to replace the combat classic M26 “Lemon Frag” grenade with something smaller and lighter so that girls can throw it.

Oh, and by the way, the Marines are once again taking a hard look at and doing live-fire testing of Jim Sullivan’s light, compact and highly controllable ULTIMAX 5.56mm Squad Auto Weapon. Sullivan, by the way, is also the guy who worked on making Stoner’s AR-10 into the M16, designed the incomparable C-MAG, and lots too much more to mention.

High Tech Crap

The irreverent Mr. Sullivan himself was on hand at the meeting to receive this year’s prestigious George M. Chinn Award for his lifetime of high achievement in the small arms world. He delighted many and offended others with pungent remarks during his acceptance speech, decrying such “fribble-frabble of fashion” as full-auto provision on individual weapons and the expensive, heavy, complex “high tech crap” that is likely to break or otherwise be rendered useless in the crucible of combat. Nothing stings so much as the truth...

Sullivan wasn’t the only iconoclast to shake up this gentlemen’s club with frank and pungent opinions. Reed Knight, Mr. SEAL Weapons himself, delivered a lively talk formally titled “Challenge for the Defense Industry.” Noting JSSAP’s commendable and continuing search for weaponry that is more reliable, easier to make and maintain, lighter and more effective, he criticized the often poorly thought out and confusingly written requirements documents put out by the military’s bureaucracy that contractors must bid on. “The customer needs to clearly set goals, challenges and rewards,” Knight said, “and say what you are willing to pay to meet those needs.”

SOCOM

Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has lots of things underway to support Rangers, SEALs, Special Forces and such, but their three big initiatives are the Advanced Light Grenade Launcher (the SACO 40mm showcased last year), a 7.62mm Lightweight Machine Gun (SEALs have pretty much used up all their specially chopped M60s), plus more and improved bells and whistles for the M4 carbine and the Navy’s new Mark 11 Mod O (Knight’s SR 25) sniper rifle.

Step Right Up

Now, unrelated to SOCOM’s presentation but as luck would have it, Knight’s Manufacturing and more than forty other business and government entities were downstairs in the exhibit hall with a whole bunch of exciting hardware. This is a great place to pick up and point exotic guns, eyeball the latest in sighting systems and often be able to talk with the actual person who designed and/or built them.

Taking Knight’s for example, they had brought along not only the SR-25 in various configurations, but a whole array of new and improved items like their Rail Adapter System’s MRE (Modular Receiver Extension with “more real estate”). This is a response to the very critical need of many spec-ops types for lots more space to clamp on any number of devices as dictated by particular missions.

They also offer a bunch of things to clamp on to US military and other small arms including a forward pistol grip, bipod, various suppressors, and the in-line “KnightScope Model 007.” This unity magnification image intensifier is intended for tandem mounting with the customer’s preferred day scope, giving around-the-clock operation capability.

Oh, and if you want a handguard for your M4 carbine in the stylish new “Coyote Brown” or other terrain matching colors such as green or white, Knight’s can fix you right up.

Many other great companies were on hand with cutting-edge products like the Leitz Pocket Laser Rangefinder, AirMunition marking rounds, Armalite Mk 19 blank adapter, and lots of night vision devices.

Free Range Time

This year’s host for the event’s all-important live fire portion was the National Guard Marksmanship Training Center at nearby Camp Joseph T. Robinson. They had set aside Range 13, a classic Known Distance facility dating all the back to WWI, and thoughtfully provided a diverse and interesting array of hard and soft targets to accommodate a full spectrum of weapons from 9mm handguns to .50 caliber sniper rifles. In addition to such classics as swinging steel plate silhouettes and oil drums (empty, of course), there were several old 2 1/2 ton trucks positioned at various distances. Also, Caswell International set up a bunch of their radio-controlled popup target mechanisms complete with stroboscopic hostile fire simulators that are particularly lively in the dark.

Yes, in the dark. This year a significant departure from the usual blistering summer afternoon range ordeal called for the live fire demos to begin about 90 minutes before sunset — right after a speech by Little Rock’s mayor and a tasty barbecue supper. Theoretically, this was going to allow sufficient daylight for regular “shoot and tell” by nine companies, and then as darkness fell the night sight guys would have perfect conditions.

Well, a combination of factors delayed the first rounds going downrange and frequent halts for safe passage of small planes to and from a nearby airport meant that most of the rest of the live fire was done under conditions rapidly progressing from low light to pitch black. But hey, that’s a lot like what the real world imposes on infantrymen and generator-mounted floodlights give sufficient illumination to allow spectators to see what was being demonstrated. Suck it up and drive on.

Oldies but Goodies

Another departure from the norm was conspicuous in the evening’s first demonstration. Distinguished retired soldiers Colonel Tom Brown (now with VT Kinetics) and Colonel John Meloy (now with Benelli) put on vintage US Army uniforms and live fired several of the classic infantry weapons that were used in World Wars One and Two. Taking the microphone while “Private Benelli” stepped up to the firing line, Brown pointedly contrasted these old machined steel and hardwood guns with the sheet metal, cast aluminum and plastic weaponry of the period from the Vietnam War to the present. “These,” he said, “are the guns that actually won wars.”

New Generation

Moving down the firing line as twilight rapidly deepened into purple then black, subsequent presentations of ten to fifteen minutes each were made by VT Kinetics firing the ULTIMAX and the SAR-21, GEMTECH suppressors, HK’s new P2000 pistol, PDW and chopped G36k assault carbine. Knight’s Armament fired several KnightSight equipped suppressed weapons including their 5.56mm SR-15 and 7.62mm SR-25, dramatically closing with a long belt of ball and tracers full auto from a Stoner Light Machine Gun.

Big Boys

These relatively small weapons were followed by several big and spectacular .50 caliber sniper rifles, grouped near the center of the range and all mounting various types of night sights. Mark Westrom cut loose with his AR-50, Jim Owens touched off the FN-PGM, and Ronnie Barrett pumped out a few from his semiauto M82A1. All of these guns use a backward-deflecting muzzle device to help tame recoil and reduce the enemy’s ability to detect muzzle flash and report. Well, as dramatic as this is on firing in daylight when the dust and grass goes flying, you ain’t seen nothing until you stand behind and to one side of these shoulder cannons at night. Wow!

Nowhere to Hide

Well, nearly an hour after it was really, really dark, the night sight guys on the far end of the firing line had their turn and nearly perfect conditions. Moonrise wasn’t going to happen for a while and a crosswind was blowing clouds of smoke from numerous tracer-induced grass fires to completely obscure most targets from 300 yards on back. This is bad news for image intensifiers but just right for thermal imagers. Recent advances in the technologies of thermal imaging including micro-cooling and reduced power consumption have made these previously heavy, bulky and temperamental devices much more practical and affordable for wider use on small arms systems.

Jim Looby and the FLIR team had set up a table with computer and television screens right at the spectator barrier so the crowd could look at real-time color video output from the TIPS-HPC thermal sight mounted on a bolt action rifle. This got really dramatic when the rifle was fired and spectators watching the video screen could see sparks from the bullet’s impact on metal targets.

Raytheon was right next door, similarly feeding the output of a tripod-mounted AN/PAS-13 into table top video screens. This gave onlookers a great thermal image picture of whatever it was downrange that anybody was firing on at any given time.

First Look at the HK P2000 Pistol

Jim Schatz, Director of Federal Operations for Heckler & Koch’s American office, brought along the brand new P2000 semiauto pistol for display at NDIA Small Arms 2001. We caught up with him on the range at Camp Robinson where he was preparing to function test and zero the P2000 along with several other weapons in advance of the evening’s live fire demonstrations. Jim was nice enough to give me a few minutes alone with this interesting new handgun so I could take the detailed pictures seen here, and then he did a little shooting for action views.

Surprisingly slim despite having a 13 round magazine, the P2000 was created at the request of Germany’s federal police for reduced size and weight with greater operational simplicity and human engineered for higher hit probability. Purposely eliminated is any specific mechanical safety that slows getting off that very important first shot. Its innovative double-action-only mechanism can be set in “semi-cocked” mode for a smooth, relatively light trigger release on the first squeeze. Subsequent shots are even lighter and faster as the recoiling slide fully cocks the exposed hammer with each round fired. A polymer recoil absorber and improvements on the classic Browning locking system also contribute to smooth and low-shock blowback operation.

Ergonomics of its ribbed and rough-textured polymer frame and machined steel slide are noteworthy, with all surfaces comfortably rounded and no angular protrusions to hang up when pulling it out of a holster, handbag or shirt. Different sized hands are easily accommodated by a selection of interchangeable back straps and the double stack magazine floorplate comes with or without a last finger extension. Grooves and slots in the frame accept a wide range of tactical accessories like laser pointers or mini-lights.

Both the slide catch lever and mag release are ambidextrous for easy operation and a red insert on the extractor serves splendidly as a chamber loaded warning indicator. The fixed square “U” notch rear sight and post front are marked by big white dots for low light shooting.

P2000 Technical Specifications

Caliber: 9 x 19mm, 13 rounds capacity
System of Operation: Recoil, modified Browning locking system
Overall Length: 178 mm
Barrel Length: 92mm
Sight Radius: 140mm
Height & Width: 128 x 34mm
Weight: 620 grams unloaded

2002

Military, industry and law enforcement and government professionals who need to keep up with the latest in weapons technology are encouraged to join the National Defense Industrial Association and attend the 2001 International Infantry & Small Arms Symposium and Exhibition. This is currently scheduled for 13-16 May 2002 in Atlantic City, NJ, but up-to-the-minute information and registration is available at www.ndia.org or write to NDIA, 2111 Wilson Blvd., Suite 400, Arlington, VA 22201.


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