Small Arms Data by Wire (SADW): April 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.

PUNGENT THOUGHTS ON THE M40A3: writing in the US Marine Corps Gazette, former USMC Lt Col Norm Chandler and his ex-US army Master Sgt brother Roy recently argued strongly against the Marine Corps adopting its proposed M40A3 rifle design for sniping. In particular they criticised the planned M40A3 stock (designed by the Corps), a bulky item which it would appear has been poached directly from the match shooting world, plus the non-tapered M40A3 trigger guard and its thumb-operated floorplate release for the magazine.

They considered all the existing M40A1 stock actually lacks is an adjustable cheekpiece, and said that McMillan could easily modify this item to meet their recommendation. We must confess the modern trend to fit over-specified target-style stocks on military sniping rifles is a practice we also abhor. Look for example at the British L96A1 with all those unnecessary square edges, the accessory rail & suchlike. The proposed scope mount also attracted the Chandlers’ attention, because of the relatively low temperature used for brazing it to the scope rings or rail, likely to prove inadequate to the task. And they furthermore considered that larger, more robust bolts should be used for fastening the scope mount to the rifle itself.

As to the 10x Unertl scope, the Chandlers described this as ‘stunningly obsolete’, too powerful for general use, too heavy, lacking waterproofing and with inadequate eye relief. Instead they recommended a 2-3.5x10 variable-power scope, which would give a much larger close-range field of view at lower magnifications while retaining the higher magnification for use at extended ranges.

Also criticised was the Corps’ choice of a selected M14 as its sniper support weapon, issued to the No 2 man in the Scout/Sniper team, because of its weight, 20-shot magazine, high maintenance requirement and the difficulty of satisfactorily accurising this elderly weapon. The Chandlers considered a softer-recoiling, higher-capacity weapon (eg the M16, as was issued before, though with flat top (‘M16A3’) receiver and the full-auto switch restored) would be more suitable, fitted with a 3-4x ACOG scope from Trijicon, but they also allowed the possibility of an M4 carbine, even (only in America!) a 100-round C-Mag.

DU DEFINED: when reports go on at great length about depleted uranium (DU) issues, are we always sure exactly what is meant? Helpfully, the term was recently defined by a nuclear boffin writing in Military Technology magazine. He explained that natural uranium is treated in nuclear enrichment plants to extract the tiny amount (just 0.72%) of the isotope Uranium 235, which is used in the nuclear industry, after which the remainder of the material, constituting almost pure Uranium 238, is discarded. This is depleted uranium. The extracted U-235, not surprisingly, is called enriched uranium, and is much in demand, both from the nuclear good guys and the not-so-good.

BUMBLE BEE - MORE BANG THAN SHMEL: in our Dec 2000 issue we noted the following:-

‘MAFIA’s BALKAN WEAPON BUSINESS: ‘One of the most alarming developments is the range of weapons being shipped through the Balkans to a client list that includes ETA and the Real IRA. The detonators for the Omagh bomb originated in Croatia and the RP-7 rocket fired at MI6 headquarters in London was made in Yugoslavia and almost certainly bought from the Kosovo Mafia. Recently the Italian Carabinieri in Kosovo traced supplies of a Russian weapon known as “Bumblebee”, which fires a form of napalm round from a bazooka tube.’ (Daily Telegraph, London, 15 Dec 00, on Sicilian Mafia-organised activities in the Balkans)

We have since been provided with more information on the device known as Bumblebee, which is actually its old NATO codename. The Russian designation for this weapon, which is redolent of the American M72 LAWS, is the RPO-A Shmel Flame Thrower / Thermobaric System, an expendable recoilless weapon.

It is a fuel-air blastwave device designed to produce severe overpressure, which can reach 7kg per square centimetre in small confined spaces, and will ‘flow’ through trench & shelter systems; it also devours all oxygen in the detonation zone and produces non-survivable temperatures in excess of 800 degrees Celsius. In the open air, at a range of five metres from detonation, overpressure is in the region 0.4 to 0.8 kg per square centimetre.

The RPO-A has a calibre of 93mm, is 92cm long and weighs 12 kg. Minimum and maximum ranges are 25 and 1,000 metres respectively, but the weapon is sighted to 600 metres. Its thermobaric payload is just 1.2kg.

Someone who actually fired one of these devices in Africa reported that the effects were akin to a mini nuclear explosion. Similar fuel-air rounds are already available for the RPG-7 and (JDW noted) have also been developed for the Russian 220mm TOS-1 rocket system (in that case ranging to 3,500 metres), as well as Russia’s Kornet & Metis-M anti-armour missiles.

Definitely not something to be on the receiving end of if you ever plan to play the violin again.

40MM SPONGE GRENADE - NEW OPTIONS: the original 40mm Sponge Grenade - a rather misleadingly-named inert projectile with deformable sponge rubber head for the M203, M79 and similar 40mm launchers, was developed by Picatinny Arsenal as part of the US DoD’s non-lethal weapons programme, and at least one early batch of these 40mm cartridges was manufactured by Knight’s Armament Co in Florida.

More recently we note that Combined Tactical Systems Inc in Jamestown (Pennsylvania) is offering a much wider range of Sponge Cartridge options, not just the basic inert version (Prod No 4557) but also new variants additionally loaded with CN (Prod No 4520), CS (Prod No 4530) or OC pepper (Prod No 4540). All the irritant payloads are in powder form. The Sponge Grenade utilises the standard high-low pressure system of the 40mm low-velocity grenade cartridge and is meant for use in rifled barrels which will impart the necessary stability. Compression of the spongy head during impact serves to squeeze out the irritant contents.

One concern we had about the original Sponge Grenade was the possibility that the head might compress right back to the hard plastic shoulder beneath; we do not now if the design has since been modified, but potential users would be well-advised to explore this aspect.Combined Tactical Systems warn on their website that the Sponge Cartridge should not be used at short range, but no recommended engagement envelope is specified. This is another aspect potential users should investigate before making a purchase decision.

The same company offers a wide range of other less-than-lethal anti-riot munitions, as well as pyrotechnics and launchers. http://www.less-lethal.com/

NOTTINGHAM DISPOSING OF ITS SMALL ARMS MANUFACTURING EQUIPMENT: another milestone in the dissolution of British small arms manufacturing appears imminent, as H&K (UK) (Royal Ordnance Nottingham) is reportedly preparing to transfer the majority of its barrel-hammering presses to H&K headquarters in Oberndorf. It has three of these GFM presses, we’re told, which probably cost about £1m apiece when new, and two are apparently going to Germany, where we’re sure they can make good use of them. Other Nottingham manufacturing equipment is also said to be up for disposal; possibly it may all go to auction.

What a pity that the UK MOD & BAe Systems, which could so easily have directed that all or most of the latest SA80 upgrade work be done in Britain, have seen fit instead to allow Nottingham’s small arms line to simply wither & die. First the RSAF at Enfield closed, and work was transferred to Nottingham, where SA80 was completed - then, only a few years later, it’s goodbye Nottingham. Ah, you might well say, but along the way Royal Ordnance bought Heckler & Koch, so that must surely be progress?

Well, it would be, if Royal Ordnance was not trying to sell H&K too. Were there some competition in this field, it would not be so bad, but Parker-Hale is reportedly now on the rocks too, leaving Accuracy International - itself not a major operation - as the last active military gunmaker in Britain.

BSA & Webley (now apparently the recipient of the Parker-Hale cleaning kit business) long ago quit the cartridge weapons market, though we did hear a while back that BSA CF2 rifles could possibly still be obtained to special order. But maybe we should not be terribly surprised - apparently only a measly one in five of the British workforce is now engaged in manufacturing of any sort. And as far as BAe itself is concerned, we get the impression that if it doesn’t have wings on, it’s not terribly interested.

Britain is steadily becoming a nation of service industries, though the pitfalls of this are clear - in times of economic downturn, it’s services that are the first to suffer cutbacks. An economy increasingly based on ‘dot.com’ speculation and funny money is not exactly rock-solid.

UK MOD BUYS MORE HI-POWERS: The UK MOD has recently ordered from FN Herstal Qty 2000 9mm L9A1 pistols (Browning Hi-Powers), plus 4,000 magazines and 2,000 cleaning rods. No price was released. We assume this is a normal maintenance buy. The rumour’s been going around that the MOD might be planning to ditch its Hi-Powers altogether in favour (like the UK special forces) of SIG pistols, but this buy certainly suggests otherwise.

FN LESS-LETHAL PAINTBALL GUN: JDW reported in Jan 2001 that FN Herstal had developed a less-than-lethal paintball gun, powered by compressed air, firing 12-gauge projectiles weighing eight grams apiece. The ammunition range is said to provide impact, marker, illuminating and ‘malodorant’ (nasty niff) capability, with a range of 100 metres. A special fin-stabilised rubber baton round is also available. The US army is reportedly testing the system as the XM303, which can be provided as a 2.3kg discrete launcher with integral buttstock or a 2.2kg underbarrel M203-style attachment for the M16-series rifle.

Magazine capacity is 15 shots and the MV 300 fps. Judging from the illustration, the weapon is made largely from plastics. Apparently the US requirement for devices of this type is 70% hit probability on a man-sized target at 100 metres, which the XM303 reportedly exceeds. FNMI reports interest not only from the military but also law enforcement organisations.In our experience, 100 metres is at the outer edge of range capability for most baton guns (and rarely needed, since it’s beyond normal stone-throwing range). It’s quite possible with (say) the 37mm ARWEN, but definitely not in a strong crosswind. Smaller projectiles such as those fired by the XM303 may well fare better by dint of providing less wind resistance.

MERCENARY REGULATION DEFERRED: a Financial Times report at end-Nov 2000 said that UK Foreign Office plans to introduce new legislation regulating private military services companies were likely to be deferred until after the Spring 2001 general election in favour of promoting new arms export controls.Under the FO measures, already substantially drafted, mercenary providers could either be subjected to self-regulation, registration or have to secure UK government approval for each mission they wanted to embark upon (the current US and South African procedure), ruling out help to anyone other than recognised foreign governments.

It’s all part of the FO’s much-derided ‘ethical foreign policy’ initiative that still refuses to lie down. Of course, it also entirely misses the point. Mercenary forces are often most needed when a minority movement somewhere wants to overthrow an oppressive, unjust or plain illegitimate regime which just happens, at the time, to be the only ‘official’ government thereabouts. Confining mercenary support only to recognised governments, regardless of how morally bankrupt (if not positively genocidal) they might be (and many are), would be robbing liberation movements around the world of vital assistance they need in order to try to create the kind of democratic societies which the US and the UK (to name but two) claim to support as a political ideal.

Fixing elections, knocking off awkward customers and rearranging governments was a policy the CIA enthusiastically pursued throughout Latin America for many years. It also bolstered the Afghans against Russia (sowing the seeds of Osama bin Laden’s buddies, the fundamentalist Taliban movement) and still quietly involves itself in this kind of thing in the Middle East, supporting insurgents in Iran and Iraq, for example.

With all this hypocrisy surrounding the subject, small wonder then that so much mercenary activity is forced underground or headquartered in obscure countries. It’s mighty ironic too, since private military companies are ideally placed to perform a wide range of overseas tasks that Western governments nowadays find distasteful or politically sticky, handy casualty-avoidance being just one factor. The Sierra Leone mission, for instance, is one where regular British forces simply don’t belong.

The Blair administration could stop playing power politics with the British forces and bring the guys home tomorrow if Sierra Leone solely used mercenaries (which the UK could covertly fund), enabling the government there to stop pussyfooting around, winnow down as many of the RUF wild men as ammunition stocks permit and bring the problem to a speedy conclusion.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V4N7 (April 2001)
and was posted online on June 20, 2014


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