Small Arms Data by Wire (SADW): October 2000

By Nick Steadman

Issue No 38 - July 2000
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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.

SA80 - UK MOD DECIDES TO UPGRADE: in an unimaginative but predictable development, the UK MOD has finally opted to embark on an upgrade programme for 200,000 of its 300,000-odd stock of 5.56mm SA80 weapons, at a total cost (including trials) of around £80 millions, or about £400 each. This is almost exactly the same as the 1989 MOD purchase price for SA80 of approx US$600 apiece (with iron sights).

Note also that the replacement price for an M16A2 quoted by the USMC in May 96 was $586 (now about £390), and that the DoD bulk contract prices from 1986 to 1990 for the same weapon typically ranged from about $479 falling to around $420 each, with one buy as low as $389. The SA80 contract, subject to finalisation, is to go to H&K (UK), otherwise known as Royal Ordnance Nottingham.

However, the MOD still has a requirement on the table for 15,000 Personal Defence Weapons (PDW), though it now looks as if it has abandoned any idea of an off-the-shelf buy of another 5.56mm rifle for some of its rapid reaction forces. But separately the ministry has just ordered a limited number of new M16 clones from Diemaco in Canada to re-equip UK special forces; these weapons are likely to resemble M4A1s.

If you read on, it also appears the MOD has decided not to scrap the SA 80 Light Support Weapon variant after all. The Defence Secretary has also stated that it’s now planned to retain SA80 in service until 2020, which - at 35 years from its 1985 in-service date, would eventually make it one of the more geriatric 5.56mm small arms system around. We omit the M16 from this comparison, since that system has already gone through several major makeovers since the 1960s. Mind you, even the much more ‘modern’ Steyr AUG is, amazingly, now in its 23rd year. Interestingly, comments in the MOD Procurement Agency’s Preview magazine suggested the foreign ammunition interoperability problem had arisen from the fact that SA80 was developed to use ammunition loaded with extruded propellant, whereas other NATO countries used ball powder.

In fact, SA80 was developed using ball powder propellant since, at that time, British 5.56mm ammunition had not yet come on stream at Royal Ordnance Radway Green. Instead, FN ammunition was used. The problem came when the developers switched to new British ammunition with tubular propellant, since this gives a lower gas port pressure and reduces the cyclic rate. In fact, we understand that pre-production SA80s could only be made to achieve the specified rate of fire by bracing the buttstock against a wall.

Though - with further work - performance of the SA80 was finally brought up to UK requirements with domestic ammunition, it is not particularly surprising that switching back to ball powder ammunition for NATO interoperability testing caused new problems, presumably due to overfunctioning, which is a fast route to feed stoppages. As part of its programme to test the latest SA80 modifications, the MOD says two million rounds were fired in cold/hot weather trials in Alaska and Kuwait, using ball ammunition from the UK and two other (un-named) NATO countries, plus blank.

The undue ammunition sensitivity does however suggest that SA80 is an excessively pernickety and poorly-balanced design. This kind of thing doesn’t often happen with FALs, G3s or even M16s, which usually chew up pretty much any ammunition without a glitch. As to the SA80 upgrade itself, the MOD indicates that the work, or at least the majority of it, will be carried out by Heckler & Koch in Germany, where the modifications were designed, while the H&K (UK) small arms line at Nottingham still stands idle (and is now threatened with closure), though which H&K location actually does the job will ultimately be a matter for the company.

The MOD implies it’s doing its best to maximise the number of UK jobs the task will involve, however these seem unlikely to be within Royal Ordnance, but rather at the army’s Donnington base repair organisation, where weapons will be prepared for upgrading. That said, we imagine Nottingham is by now a little out of practice (and staff), so sending the job to Germany is logical, even if Oberndorf is probably fairly well stretched just now by other work for the Bundeswehr, such as the G36 contract.

An MOD Parliamentary Answer on 7 Jun 00 explained the decision to use Oberndorf as follows:

‘Royal Ordnance submitted a bid to the Ministry of Defence on the basis that the bulk of the modification programme should be carried out at Heckler and Koch’s Oberndorf facility where the original modifications were designed and implemented. The company has indicated that to carry out the modification work elsewhere would require it to invest in the acquisition of new specialist tooling equipment and the transfer of technical expertise from Oberndorf, and maintains that conducting the modification work there represents the lowest risk to the timescale and cost of the programme. Equally, early indications are that work on stripping and refurbishment of weapons, prior to modification could most sensibly be done in the UK.’

Official aim is to have the first 22,000 SA80 weapons upgraded by the end of 2001, with initial deliveries as early as next January. The ministry describes the project in these terms:-

1. The decision (to upgrade) follows Heckler & Koch (UK) Ltd.’s report into the causes of the reliability problems and potential modifications. Comprehensive climatic trials were conducted in 1999 with the final design authority report received in December 1999.

2. The proposed modification package represents a system approach to improving the reliability while maintaining the weapon system’s overall effectiveness. The work comprises both modification of the existing weapons and a number of replacement components.’

Items to be modified (in MOD’s own terminology) are:-

• Barrel Extension (one and a half lugs removed to allow for revised extractor shape)
• Bolt Head Carrier (polish contact surface to reduce friction)
• Hammer Stop (strengthened)
• Receiver (ejection port enlarged to allow clean ejection).
The following new components will also be incorporated:-

• Magazine (re-designed for improved feed)
• Firing Pin (improved tolerances and extended life)
• Hammer (increased mass to overcome bolt bounce)
• Gas Plug (radiused at collar to prevent shearing)
• Gas Cylinder (greater tolerances)
• New springs (to optimise performance - including recoil springs, ejector springs, extractor spring) (nb: the MOD also confirms a new, stronger magazine spring will be adopted which would be logical to help reduce stoppages if the gun tends to overfunction with ball powder)
• Bolt Assembly/Extractor (improve extraction pattern)
• Cocking Lever (revised shape to deflect cases)
• A new barrel for the LSW (but not for the rifle) (increased life).

Considering the number of brand-new 5.56mm weapons which could be bought with the additional £80m now to be spent on upgrading SA80, we consider this programme will be a shocking waste of taxpayers’ money.

With the benefit of hindsight, but without any doubt, SA80 has turned out to be the worst small arms system the UK has ever adopted. That’s not to say that other British army weapons, mostly minor adaptations of well-established foreign designs, have not had their own problems, but nothing on this scale. It’s significant however that, with the exception of the rather crude Sten gun and the ill-fated EM-1 & EM-2 bullpups, Enfield had little recent experience of designing small arms from scratch, which is - as far as we can see - at the root of the problem. Since 1985 the SA80 system has simply staggered from one crisis to another, with no decisive outcome, and it is regrettable, to say the least, that the MOD still doesn’t have the courage to ditch the thing altogether and cut its (or rather our) losses. We imagine that the National Audit Office may well have fun with this one sometime down the line.

BODYGUARDS NEED TO MERGE A LITTLE: a photo, run by the Guardian a while back, showed an impish-looking British Defence Staff chief General Sir Charles Guthrie, apparently soon after his arrival in Freetown (Sierra Leone), chatting as he went with local British commander Brigadier David Richards, and accompanied by a Captain who was presumably the General’s aide. All were in camo fatigues, as one might expect, with at least a couple of pistols between them, plus two heavy-duty pilot’s bags, the kind of thing that usually contains the ‘duty-frees’.

However, behind the Captain, and sticking out like a sore thumb, was one of those athletic and overly intense-looking close protection types, usually from the Military Police, that we’re familiar with seeing whenever British ambassadors unwisely stray outdoors in other equally God-forsaken hotspots around the world. Wearing a light-coloured fisherman’s vest and similar-hued trousers, and armed with a 5.56mm HK53 ‘SMG’ on an assault sling, all the CP guy lacked was a flashing neon sign on his head saying “Yes, I’m the bodyguard - shoot me!”.

You would have thought it might be a good idea at least to have him wear the same uniform as his charges, and merge a little. We wonder what the life expectancy is in that job. That apart, we note that the handy little HK53 still remains the close protection tool of choice, and not only in the Military Police. It’s a noisy, flashy little blighter, but at least has a sporting chance of defeating body armour, which the MP5 will not. It also looks ‘bad’, which we guess is half the battle.

ISRAELI ‘MOUSE BALL’ AMMO STILL CAUSING INJURIES: we’ve mentioned several times in the past the deaths caused by the allegedly ‘non-lethal’ rubber-coated steel balls used as anti-riot ammunition by Israeli forces, launched from muzzle dischargers on their rifles. In May 2000 riots in the West Bank, Reuters said that ‘at least 11’ more Palestinians were wounded by these projectiles. This is the same kind of system, remember, manufactured by IMI, that the US army wants to introduce as one of its own new non-lethal weapons. Frankly, the rubber coating (which is very thin) is almost irrelevant; they might just as well simply fire plain steel balls. Either way, this is just not a safe system for riot control.

CANUCKS GETTING NEW M203s: JDW noted that the Canadian DND has ordered Qty 2,145 40mm M203A1 grenade launchers from Diemaco in Ontario for use on Canadian forces C7A1 ‘flat-top’ M16A2 clones, also made by Diemaco. The M203 deal is valued at $C2.9m, and is a reduction (after review) from an original bid for 2,524 launchers. Defense News said deliveries will start in Sep 2000, extending till Aug 2001, and that the deal included spares, tooling, support kit and initial training. Also that Diemaco was making deliveries to another NATO customer of another 450 M203s, but the company wasn’t cracking on precisely who the customer was. As we recall, the Canadian M203 bid has now been in the works for some considerable time; we seem to remember Diemaco first mentioning it several years ago when we visited their plant in Kitchener (a press ‘first’, by the way).

MILKOR 40MM UNDERBARREL LAUNCHER: Asian Military Review noted that Milkor in South Africa has introduced a new underbarrel 40mm grenade launcher to accompany its well-established 6-shot MGL. Called the MK40, the single-shot launcher is intended for mounting on a wide variety of rifles using what’s described as a ‘euro rail’ interface, and (unlike the pump-action M203), the barrel swings to the left or right for loading, which is claimed to be an easier system to operate in the prone position.

There is an ergonomic finger-grooved grip (presumably made of rubber) around the barrel, which appears to be quite short. Effective range is claimed to be 300m, rather less than the 400m normally stated for the 40mm low-velocity grenade cartridge - which is of course also made in South Africa.

It’s not known whether the MK40’s chamber is (like that of the M203 PI) also compatible with the longer pyrotechnic, riot control and other special-purpose 40mm cartridges. Though the single-shot systems have their downside, most obviously the slow rate of fire, the fact that new 40mm launchers keep appearing suggests this is a class of weapon which remains very popular. Cynics might well ask why the UK MOD decided to adopt the heavier, bulkier and less flexible rifle grenades for use with SA80, rather than 40mm cartridges, though admittedly rifle grenades don’t require a launcher to be kept on the weapon.

RUGER BRINGS BACK THE .44 CARBINE: after several years of teasing us, Ruger has finally reintroduced a .44 Magnum semi-auto carbine to match the model first offered in 1961, though the new version is a rather different design. The Ruger Deerfield, as it’s called, has a modified Mini-14 gas system, bolt and Mini-14-style woodwork, with (instead of the original’s tubular magazine) a four-round rotary magazine. Receivers are equipped with integral bases for Ruger’s high-mount scope rings (supplied).

An adjustable folding aperture rearsight with gold front bead are also provided, zeroed to 50 yards using 240gr loadings. Barrel length is 181/2” and length overall 36.9”. Weight empty is 6.2 pounds. The carbine comes with a crossbolt safety and hold-open catch on the cocking handle. Standard finish is blued steel. Price was not stated.

Ruger cautions against using .44 Special and all aluminium-cased .44 ammunition, which it says may not cycle the weapon, or .44 Magnum rounds exceeding 1.61” in length, which may not fit in the magazine. It also says non-jacketed bullets should be avoided, since lead fouling might result in the gas port being occluded.

ISRAELI 5.56MM AMMO FOR FRANCE?: TTU Europe reported in Jun 2000 that the French MOD was considering buying 5.56mm ammunition from IMI in Israel as part of ongoing Franco-Israeli industrial and procurement co-operation. It might be more cost-effective than buying French, but going offshore raised the obvious question of security of supply. It seems the French MOD now risks being as cavalier with its domestic defence suppliers as the UK MOD was prior to the recent ten-year ammunition procurement partnering deal with Royal Ordnance. Unusually, French-issue 5.56mm ball ammunition for the FAMAS bullpup is steel-cased, by the way, not something we were aware that IMI - which has high-volume SCAMP production plant as used by US military arsenals - has ever made.

UK SMALL ARMS DISPOSALS: in answer to a Jun 2000 Parliamentary Question on the UK MOD’s policy regarding sale of army surplus self-loading rifles, the Defence Secretary replied:

‘Our policy is that small arms (other than automatic weapons which are routinely destroyed) which are declared surplus by the Ministry of Defence are available only to Governments, including acceptable military, paramilitary and police organisations (either directly or through duly licensed entities authorised to procure weapons on their behalf), to meet their legitimate defence and security requirements. All such transfers are assessed on a case by case basis against the UK national export licence assessment criteria and the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports.

In practice, few inquiries are received for the purchase of surplus small arms and the reality is that most are destroyed.’

What this doesn’t tell us is what quantities of these weapons (7.62mm L1A1 FALs) are still held by the UK MOD after re-equipment with the 5.56mm SA80, starting in 1985. From the ease with which sizeable tranches of L1A1 rifles have recently been found to send to Sierra Leone, we guess the answer is ‘quite a lot’. Presumably they’re being kept as mobilisation reserves, as Canada has done with its 7.62mm family of weapons.

GALE McMILLAN PASSES AWAY AT 69: we’re sorry to report that Gale McMillan, father of brothers Rock & Kelly McMillan, died on 29 May 2000, Memorial Day, at the relatively early age of 69, after a struggle with cancer of the bladder. We only met him once or twice, but have visited his companies a number of times.

The Fifty Calibre Shooters’ Association (FCSA) said that Gale, a native of Gilbert (Arizona), served 20 years in the USAF from 1948 and afterwards went on to pioneer the use of fibreglass stockwork and develop a number of innovative sniper & target weapons which sold to US special forces and federal agencies as well as competition shooters. McMillan and H-S Precision (in that order) still appear to be the only two real choices for high-tech stocks amongst serious rifle users today.

The Arizona Republic said that Gale’s original company, G McMillan & Co, was sold in 1987, but he then founded the McMillan Optical Gunsight Co which developed day and night scopes for rifles. The McMillan Rifle Barrels business was separately sold to Bill Wiseman.

Gale was also a keen and successful competitive varmint & benchrest shooter. His pioneering work is now continued by his sons Rock and Kelly McMillan via the two family companies McBros (the riflemakers) and McMillan Fiberglass Stocks, both in Phoenix. If you ever get to see the movie Kit Carson, look out for a young Gale McMillan; the Arizona Republic said that when it was filmed, in the Kayenta area, Gale secured a bit part at five bucks a day as one of the kids on the wagon train. Immortality comes in many guises.

RUGER DIVESTS ITSELF OF UNI-CAST: Firearms Business reported in mid-Jun 2000 that Ruger was to sell its Uni-Cast investment casting division in New Hampshire to an unspecified buyer, but would retain ownership of the land & buildings, plus the rights to - and equipment for manufacturing metal matrix composites. The company would henceforth purchase its aluminium pistol frames from Uni-Cast’s new owners. We assume the purpose of the deal is to reduce overheads and liberate some spare cash.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V4N1 (October 2000)
and was posted online on December 5, 2014


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