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Small Arms Data by Wire (SADW): March 2001

By Nick Steadman

SADW is a monthly electronic publication from Nick Steadman Features. Nick, intrepid world traveling reporter for much of the arms industry, files this 40,000 to 50,000 word report once a month to his loyal subscribers. Those lucky ones pay a mere $50 (US) £32.50 (UK) per year for the privilege of getting the hot tips and insights from one of the industry’s insiders. Nick’s unique perspective is globally based, as is his wit. Each issue is full of insight and information for those with an interest in Small Arms, as well as his observations on world travel.

METAL STORM IN UAV GUN DEAL: a Flight International report said that Australia’s Metal Storm company, which has developed a variety of concepts based on single & multi-barrel ‘roman candle’ guns, with multiple rounds stacked base to point down the length of each barrel, had secured ‘low-level’ funding of $350,000 from the US DoD’s DARPA research agency to conduct a feasibility study on a new high-rate gun for unmanned air vehicles (UAV). Metal Storm already has a $10.5m grant from DARPA to develop an electronic, multi-barrel sniper rifle, which sounds to us like an entirely inappropriate technology for a weapon of this type, though we were pleased to read that Metal Storm is still pursuing its ideas for last-ditch CIWS salvo systems for protecting ships and vehicles against missile attack - which we still consider to be the most promising area of development for the company.

Reportedly the UAV gun study will also address the use of teargas and smoke ammunition from this type of platform. The article said Metal Storm was already working on a 40mm grenade-firing ground-attack pod to be mounted on fighter aircraft or UAVs. It’s safe to deduce from all this that the reported DoD interest in taking human pilots out of US warplanes is far more than a rumour, though we still worry about all remotely-operated weapons, since poorly-judged button jabbing is far more likely when the enemy - and his uninvolved civilians - are not staring you in the face. The intended rate for the UAV gun, by the way, is reportedly ‘tens of millions’ of rounds a minute, though we must emphasise that such a high cyclic rate does not deliver anything like this many projectiles to the target, since it’s impossible to carry sufficient ammunition to sustain such rates for more than a few seconds.

Footnote: things may, in fact, not be quite as simple as they seem, since Flight International noted in mid-Nov 2000 that the US Air Force had suspended flight trials of an armed variant of its RQ-1A Predator UAV from General Atomics because the Pentagon was still trying to figure out whether trials & deployment of armed UAVs contravened the 1988 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. This agreement was apparently aimed primarily at restricting the deployment of cruise missiles in the 500-5,000km range bracket, but it’s an issue which, if unresolved, could also crimp US plans to field unmanned warplanes. However, we imagine the notoriously creative legal eagles at the Pentagon will soon find a way to weasel round this. Separately, The Economist noted that the DoD was also poised to test operator software for the Boeing X-45A, a genuine unmanned combat aircraft or UCAV, eight metres long with a ten metre wingspan and twin weapon racks. It’s scheduled for flight testing in Spring 2001, though we must assume this is, for the moment, subject to resolution of the same legal glitches affecting the armed UAV trials.

INERTIALLY-STABILISED SMALL ARMS?: the US army has been experimenting with inertially-stabilised reticles for sniping, a ploy intended to take aiming errors out of the equation, particularly when engaging difficult, unknown-distance, moving or fleeting targets, but when we last heard about this project the equipment required was still far too bulky; a Mormon hand cart would have been handy. Maybe this is the reason why, according to National Defense, the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) is now playing with stabilised small arms mounts for light vehicles, aimed at allowing troops to accurately engage targets on the move without ever having to stop or leave the protection of the vehicle.

The idea has reportedly been tried on a Hummer (with a .50 M2 HB) and on a lightweight fast attack vehicle (FAV). Stationary FAV results with an M16A2 rifle were claimed to be equivalent to prone firing, but while driving at only 10 mph initial results against stationary targets at 400 metres were about three times worse. However, after extra bearings & springs were incorporated into the firing platform, results evidently improved dramatically, with ten-shot group sizes claimed to be only 43 to 48cm, over a combination of scenarios with the vehicle and/or target moving, and firing from a variety of angles to the target.

The inertial reticle package itself is said to comprise a laser rangefinder plus a video camera and display unit in the vehicle linked to a ‘positioner’ for the weapon which controls its movement by sensing its relationship with the position of the vehicle, taking into account factors such as pitch & roll. After lasing the target to obtain a range reading, the firer observes the sight picture and the reticle image displayed on a unit resting on his lap. With sensors automatically correcting the equation for range & elevation, according to target distance and weapon/target movement, the display unit indicates an aim point and the firer steers the reticle to it using a joystick. The trigger is then pulled, but the weapon is fired electronically only at the optimum moment necessary to strike the target.

Though one can see some advantages if the underlying rationale is never to expose troops to harm by making them dismount to accurately engage ground targets, we still can’t discount the need to leave the vehicle in certain circumstances. For example, when coming under effective fire in an un-armoured troop carrier it may be necessary to urgently seek cover. It may also be impossible to spot all enemy targets that might present themselves while the firer is closeted away inside a vehicle, possibly with a limited field of view. And to reliably clear enemy personnel troops from dugouts, buildings or strongpoints, troops would again have to dismount and take their chances. There’s no infantry technology yet designed that can guarantee eternal life.

Furthermore, if (as we suspect) the army actually has future armoured troop carriers like the Bradley’s successor more in mind, why bother too much about effective rifle or LMG fire when one can simply rake targets from afar with the onboard 25mm cannon? And what is ‘effective’ fire, after all? Essentially it’s fire that denies movement to the enemy, forcing his troops to keep their heads down while you move; it’s desirable but not strictly necessary to hit anything, just as long as rounds are falling close enough to constitute a perceived threat.

Pondering all the sighting & aiming technology involved here - and it’s certainly imaginative enough - we can’t help thinking it’s also still wildly over-complicated and a lot of bother for no truly pressing reason. It is virtually always going to be more important to be able to lay down an immediate high volume of fire, albeit imperfectly aimed, than to lose valuable seconds going for a series of precision shots. After all, speed is usually of the essence in order to dominate or win any firefight. We feel that if it has a practical application, the inertial reticle technology is probably best reserved for heavier, crew-served, low-rate and characteristically less accurate weapons - the 40mm automatic grenade launcher being the obvious example - firing high-cost ammunition. Bearing in mind the long flight time of 40mm grenades (17 seconds at maximum range), one could (say) fire an initial reactive burst or two without inertial assistance, then establish a more accurate aim point using the inertial equipment while waiting for the first rounds to reach the target.

SULLIVAN BREAKS WITH ARMFORTE: we have recently been notified that Arizona designer Jim Sullivan, sole inventor of the Counterpoise kit for the M16 rifle series, no longer has any connection with ArmForte Inc, in which he was formerly a partner with Mack Gwinn (of MWG). Products affected (in addition to Counterpoise) include Sullivan’s D-ring extractor spring system, regulated gas tubes, long-stroke bolt carrier assemblies, twin bolt piston rings, and quick-change barrel assemblies for M16-series weapons, plus his micro-fluted heat-dissipating barrels and proposed base sabot projectile (see previous issues).We assume Sullivan now plans to market all these products himself through S-Tec, his own firm, e-mail: sstec@northlink.com.

.458x39MM COVERT RIFLE: the Chandler brothers who run Iron Brigade Armory in North Carolina wrote in ‘The Accurate Rifle’ that they have developed a custom, short-range covert sniper rifle in .458x39mm calibre with a novel tubular barrel tensioner. Apparently the new subsonic round, loaded with a 500gr solid bullet, is another variation on the .458 x 2” (aka .458 American) used (for example) by Arms Tech of Phoenix in its own suppressed weapons, and makes neat holes in glass without undue splintering. It’s expected to produce one-hole groups out to 150 yards. The rifle is based on a Remington M700 action, titanium-bedded, with a McMillan hunter stock converted to take-down configuration by a joint in the stock just behind the pistol grip, so it will now fit inside a 30” gun case. Length of the Douglas barrel is 18” and the rifling 1 in 20”. Iron Brigade does not make suppressors itself, and has not tested the system when silenced, but the idea is that the barrel could be drilled and rings placed along the barrel inside the sleeve would serve to baffle & decelerate the gases. The remaining voids could be filled with absorbent material such as bronze wool, and in effect you would then have a wraparound suppressor.

SOCOM’s 5.56MM Mk46 MACHINE GUN: a JDW report noted that, having tested a variety of candidates, the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is to adopt a Special Purpose Weapon (SPW) variant of the 5.56mm M249 squad automatic, otherwise known as the FN Minimi. The decision was actually made back in June. The SPW will be known in service as the Mk46, and - though JDW is silent on this point - since this is a US Navy designation it’s fair to assume the primary recipients will be the SEAL teams. A potential 2,506 weapons are reportedly required, over four years, though the initial order is only for about 400 guns.

New features include a 15” fluted barrel and a monobloc gas regulator, eliminating easily-lost parts, which can be cleaned externally. Bolt and bolt carriers are also plated with electroless nickel to allow the SPW to fire up to 1,000 rounds without lubrication. The M249 feed box has gone, but the SPW incorporates the feed cover mounting rail for optical sights recently adopted as a late M249 modification, and the buttstock is non-adjustable. We saw no mention of a bipod. There are also four Modular Weapon System accessory-mounting rails around the front of the receiver, and the bottom rail is provided with a forward vertical handgrip - this option is nowadays quite popular for the M4 too.

Six SPWs were reportedly delivered for ‘first article’ testing (to include salt-spray tests - read SEALs again!) at the end of Sep 2000, and each apparently fired 50,000 rounds. Series production is scheduled for Feb 2001. The SPW shown was fitted with one of the 100-round Picatinny Arsenal soft ammunition packs, basically resembling a zip-up camo washbag with rigid top, into which a 100-round belt is placed from beneath. Gun weight is listed as 5.72kg, which is a 1.8kg saving on the M249, and length overall is 90.8cm.

Coupled with the stubby barrel, 750 rpm rate of fire and the unlubricated 1,000-rd endurance requirement, we guess that - in practice - the SPW will be used primarily as a ‘machine rifle’, with greater tolerance for abuse than (whatever anyone tries) the M4 carbine can provide. It plainly doesn’t meet the calibre or range criteria for a textbook LMG or GPMG; for these the trend is now switching back to 7.62mm NATO. Furthermore, having tried both, this author still feels the basic operating mechanism of the 5.56mm Ares/Stoner LMG with the very long recoil stroke offers much greater firing stability and control than that of the Minimi.

FAVOURITE BIN LADEN GEAR: a 1998 AP photo recently run by the Financial Times showed top Washington bogeyman Osama bin Laden chatting to reporters in Afghanistan. It appears from this image that his personal weapon of choice is the stubby little 5.45mm AKS-74U. One of these rifle-calibre ‘subguns’ was against the wall of the tent right behind him, resting on the cushions, fitted with one of those maximum-capacity 45-round RPK-74 LMG magazines. So be warned; the man is clearly ready for anything......not just awkward press questions. And just to annoy the hell out of the Feds, he doesn’t look much like his picture on the FBI’s famous wanted poster either. Despite all Washington’s attempts at demonising the man, he appears positively beatific. Nutty as a fruitcake, quite possibly (we’ve read some of his strange idealogical observations), and definitely not the world’s greatest fan of the US, but never underestimate the opposition; nowadays they have spin-doctors too.

ITALIANS DEVELOP ENGINE-STOPPER GUN: TTU International reported in Nov 2000 that CISAM (Centro Interforze di Studi per le Applicazione Militari) in Italy had developed & tested an electromagnetic ‘ray gun’ which could be used to stop injection engines. TTU speculated that one target could be speedboats used by smugglers to get to Italy from Albania and Montenegro.

BRITS GIVE SWAZIS WEAPON DESTRUCTION KIT: MRB noted in Oct 2000 that the British High Commissioner in Swaziland had presented so-called Euro-shear equipment to the police chief over there for use in the destruction of confiscated weapons and other ‘proceeds of crime’. The equipment is valued at more than Euros 60,000. Up till now the Swazis have relied on the South African police to do this job for them, but it’s hoped that destroying the weapons in situ will prevent any ‘leakage’.


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