The Future of Small Arms

Years ago, I satisfied my writing urges by writing short stories. These were typically military-themed, and were almost always in some subset of science fiction. At the time, my backup career field was going to be game design. I wrote several game design documents, detailing all manner of plot lines and imaginative equipment. To this day, I have several friends in various design studies making AAA titles. In one of my stories, I wrote about a rifle with a system of moving counterweights and gyros that allows the user to fire large caliber rifles with a minimum of recoil. I was quite proud of myself for that idea.

Why do I bring this up on a blog about marksmanship? Well, Nathan at The Firearm Blog mentioned an Army-sponsored conference about the targets for development in the coming years. As I read through the various presentations, I came across something very interesting. One project, presented by Terence Rice of the Advanced Small Unit Small Arms Technology (ASUSAT) Research Program, involves placing a M4 carbine into a Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 12.07.37 PMhousing that utilizes mechanical means to stabilize the rifle. In this case, however, it’s not just for recoil. This system actually stabilizes the rifle during the aiming process, reducing the “wobble zone” of a standing shooter to that of one shooting supported prone. The intended purpose here is to help shooters land first round hits faster by reducing, or eliminating, the need to stabilize before a shot. The initial testing shows that an experienced shooter in the offhand was able to replicate similar sized groups to another shooter from a supported prone.

This is a pretty awesome development. I have concerns though. Whereas a system like this could help an already experienced shooter become even faster and more accurate, I Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 12.10.25 PMfear that the existence of such a system will come at the expense of those training dollars needed to get a shooter up to high levels. Instead of a new class of skilled shooters with weapons that enhance that skill, we will be now have not-so-well trained shooters relying on technology to reach the same level of proficiency we already have today. In effect: we don’t really gain anything for the average joe. What happens when the stabilization technology fails when the shot counts and the shooter has never learned and practiced fundamentals?

Other interesting developments are in the ammunition category. Many of the briefs advocated for changes to the standard cartridge from 5.56×45 to some new cartridge in the 6.5-7mm category. Their justification for this change centers around the overmatch capability of likely adversaries in the future. A presentation by Mr. Jim Schatz was probably the most informative of these.

The general push seems to be  not counting on some new revolutionary ammunition technology to arrive in thirty years and replace our current weapons. Rather, we should be working incrementally with slightly heavier bullets (with better ballistic coefficients) paired with polymer cases right now. This shift, the claim goes, would enable the soldier to carry a similar amount of ammunition with no change to weight requirements, and give the soldier several hundred more meters of effective range. The experimental .264 USA cartridge makes several appearances in the presentations.

My reading is that a lot of folks are frustrated with the speed of the bureaucratic acquisition system when it comes to big projects, and feel that it is more important to start closing capability gaps with potential adversaries right now. Taking advantage of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology in the short term will enable that incremental transition more effectively than “scheduling a technology breakthrough” for the future.

Also of interest in Mr. Schatz’s presentation was the focus on the role of skilled marksmen in the modern and future battlefield. I certainly agree with his points. Future dollars should be more focused on proper training of marksmen. That training better allows them to take advantage of those new developments in small arms technology that the Army wants so badly.

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Lastly, I saw a brief discussion on the future of optics from Army Lieutenant Colonel Terry Russell, the product manager for individual weapons. He basically outlines the three phases of combat optics. Generation I optics have all but become standard. These include ACOGS, Aimpoints, EOtechs, and anything else that fixed magnification and ruggedized for field usage. Generation II optics appear to be things like Trijicon’s VCOG and other variable magnification optics that have also been ruggedized. Generation III is the most interesting, as it includes the fusion of computerized displays with ruggedized optics, similar to what Lothaen mentioned last year with a joint project between Trijicon and Kopin.

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