Modern small arms calibres (Update)


In January I wrote about the 5.56 /7.62 mm calibre issue in modern Western armies. It's about time to update that with combat experiences made in recent conflicts and confirmed in the meantime.

Back in January I wrote this as an option of how to arrange these calibres as an alternative to a single standard cartridge:

B) New mix of 5.56NATO and 7.62NATO:
Well-designed bullet designs are
necessary to exploit both caliber's potential, and could fit different
5.56NATO: PDW/carbine, light machine gun (bipod, squad-level support)
7.62NATO: scoped rifles, medium machine guns (tripod, platoon-level support)

This is a bit in conflict with recent experiences:

5.56NATO light machine guns with bipods (=Minimi) got rather disappointing reviews in regard to suppressive fires and penetration of light obstacles.
The latter can be substituted for by 7.62NATO scoped rifles (designated marksman rifles) in the same sub-unit, but the suppressive fire issue is a problem. And the problem is primarily one of dispersion. The bipod is the cause; it takes a proper tripod for satisfactory dispersion in the burst suppressive fire role. There are even recent studies about the role of accuracy/dispersion in suppressive small calibre fires (Mr. Evenden, Jim Storr, UK).

The German army (Heer) has moved towards 5.56NATO assault rifle (G36) with decades delay (90's - pioneered in the 60's with AR-15) and 5.56NATO light machine gun with decades delay (recently; the Minimi came out in '74 and the Stoner 63 LMG in the 60's).

There was 'some' criticism associated with both the move to the new calibre itself (especially with the use of 5.56NATO MG4 on vehicles) and with its delay, but now we've got MG4 and G36 and no major change (more than tweaks like better G36 sights) is to be expected soon. The 7.62NATO G3 automatic rifle has a comeback as a kind of designated marksman rifle (for good reason) and complements the mix.

So what's missing is either a lightweight 7.62NATO machine gun on tripod or a proper tripod (light, small, steady) for the MG4 for accurate suppressing fires.

A new 7.62NATO machine gun is not to be expected; the MG3's reputation is still strong (despite its outdated barrel change and its inability to mount night sights or magnifying optics properly). Furthermore, the Bundeswehr is apparently finally moving towards heavier weapons on armoured vehicles (40x53mm GMW, 12.7x99mm M2).

* The MG4 needs a proper tripod for its mission (maybe the M192?).
* The G3 needs to be modernised for a full-fledged DMR role - it needs to be in the STAN (table of equipment).
* The G36 needs improvements, mostly in regard to the sights. This requires a new production batch of rifles and carbines (for ground combat units). Maybe we should wait with this order till the new NATO standard for powered rails.

There is of course some uncertainty left. A friend of mine (Wilf Owen) stresses the accuracy in suppression up to the assertion hat accurate single shots like possible with a British LSW are enough to suppress if the enemy's position is known while spray & pray against unknown enemy position fails to suppress for a sufficient period of time. His basis are research & lessons learned.

That line of thought could lead to the assertion that machine guns as weapons for mass killing are inefficient suppressive weapons and should not get this role assigned. He's nevertheless a fan of 7.62NATO tripod MMGs, so he's not that extreme. Maybe we'll get a better picture of the whole infantry arms optimization problem once he's finally done with his book project.

We shouldn't forget that small arms - as important as they are for the confidence of the infantry and common soldier - aren't of much importance in major conventional war. The differences between good and poor small arms have rather small consequences in such conflicts because the great killer weapons are usually the indirect fire weapons with fragmenting warheads and the great tools of decision are in most terrains the armoured systems.

It's nevertheless quite disconcerting that the quite minimal extent of combat and OPFOR competence in the recent small wars was able to uncover weak spots in our infantry equipment. It was predictable after decades of peacetime development, but it nevertheless leaves a very uneasy feeling about our general preparedness for major conventional wars.

Sven Ortmann


  1. Sven,

    I trained several hundred soldiers on the M192 tripod while they were qualifying with the 240B machine gun. Our experience was that while it was very light to transport and easy to set up/tear down it was rather delicate, especially when sand, dirt or grit got into the elevation/traverse mechanisms.

  2. Additional reading material.


  3. Hi Sven,

    I had wondered what the results would have been with the new U.S. tripod. Having been a former GPMG gunner (amongst other things), the notion of lightening a tripod (we used a different one with a full 6400-mil traverse and mortar sight, not the old .30 Browning tripod with something like a 140 or so degree traverse - but just about as heavy), while intriguing, struck me as overly optimistic. Just as the Brit MoD seeking a (presumably substantially) lightened GPMG. Like it or not, there are good reasons for the original weight of such kit. Durability and reliability just the start.

    That said, while being partial to the Grendel in particular, and to the arguments for a Squad/Section-level calibre in the 6.5 to 7 mm calibre in general, disposing of the 7.62mm at Platoon/Troop-level, as some advocate, may be going too far, even if the 5.56 was replaced by something much more substantial. I hasten to add my admiration for the old .30'06 as a MMG calibre - however unlikely as that might be, now. Not so sure about .30'06 as a sharpshooting calibre at Squad-through-Platoon-levels, though. Magnum calibres, while awesome in capability, seem a little excessive in the hands of non-snipers, although some (like Wilf) who are more knowledgeable than I in this regard are, of course, rather more favourably disposed.

    And forget tripods for LMGs/ARs at Squad/Section level - unless one intends to equip such levels with calibres that can properly utilize them - such as 7.62mm and above (or at the minimum, at least 7 mm). No point in providing tripods for 5.56mm or similar weapons when paper figures show that while it can penetrate a steel helmet at 1,300 m, it cannot drop a man reliably at a quarter of that range.



    N.B.: While the 5.56mm DM round holds some promise at more modest ranges, and might seem a reasonable compromise candidate, it might well still fail to get the job done comprehensively at Squad/Section-level, obviously at longer ranges.

  4. Norfolk, we've got a brand new MG4 and a still quite new G36. There's no hope for a completely new weapon. Here's no real pressure effective.

    We might sometime switch to an intermediate calibre, but only so if it's a new NATO standard.

    I personally prefer a 5.56-7.62 intermediate calibre plus a 7.62-12.7 intermediate calibre (snipers, vehicle armament).
    That's much less realistic than a simple addition of a bit metal (tripod) to the squad STAN.

    LW tripods certainly have shortcomings, but the bipod is apparently even less satisfactory.


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