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Assault rifle update.

During the Cold War the focus was on armoured warfare, but today the priority has shifted to infantry operations in urban terrain. The increased importance given to infantrymen has brought about a number of improvement programmes in order to make them more efficient and include them into the networked system through a number of future soldier programmes. While this development is mostly centred on command and control assets, the offensive system still remains the assault rifle.

On examining the various programmes it clearly appears that most base the lethality element on existing rifle models or on derivatives in which engineering is mostly conventional. Replacing current standard ammunition (the world standard being the 5.56 x 45 mm in Nato nations, with some countries still using Soviet 7.62 x 39 or 5.45 x 39 mm ammo) is a no-go issue, as it would entail excessive costs. This does not mean that the 5.56 mm calibre is the optimal solution. In Iraq it is not uncommon to meet American soldiers sporting AK-47 rifles as the 7.62 mm round is widely being considered to be more effective to penetrate both brick walls and foliage. Statistics show that most firefights take place at short range, typically less than 100 metres, which leads to the question of the validity of a high velocity round with more than 400 metres range. As current opponents seldom wear any armour protection, even the penetration notion does not justify keeping such rounds in service. The debate becomes even more heated regarding machineguns. Nevertheless, the standard calibre will quite probably remain the same for many years to come.

This does not mean that the assault rifle world is static. In the past the basic infantryman was equipped with an individual weapon equipped with iron sights but the recent affordability of image intensification (II) devices, the advent of 'red dot' sights and the increasing use of laser pointers (often in the infrared (IR) spectrum and used in conjunction with night vision goggles) have changed the scenario. The standard rifle fire control system is no longer an eyeball Mk.0, but a complex system that considerably improves accuracy and allows soldiers to fight 24 hours a day.

Everything comes at a cost, not only in terms of money, but also in weight and size. Most of such systems must be attached to the front half of the rifle, which considerably shifts the centre of gravity and thereby downgrades ergonomics. The excellent but heavy MIL-STD 1913 rail known as the Picatinny is becoming the standard interface (although a Nato working group is looking for a new lighter rail).

As no major breakthroughs are foreseen in the engineering, mechanical and ballistic fields, the current effort is focussed on producing a weapon that integrates most of the sighting items by considering the rifle as a system, thereby avoiding today's 'Christmas tree' effect.

The current main replacement programme is the US Ground Soldier System. The former XM29 Objective Individual Combat Weapon dual 20 mm and 5.56 mm calibre programme was abandoned. Essentially a semiautomatic grenade launcher with an underbarrel-mounted assault rifle/sub-carbine, it was cumbersome and heavy while 20 mm grenades ran into serious problems with their time-fusing system. The US military decided to opt for a different solution by separating the assault rifle, currently named XM8, from the grenade launcher known as the XM25, but with a calibre increased to 25 mm. However, the latest rumours reveal further doubts and the adoption of the XM8/XM25 duo is far from certain.

US Requirements

The US Army is looking for a nondevelopmental multi-configurable 5.56 mm modular weapon system which shall include four variants: the Special Compact (SC), the Carbine, the Designated Marksman (DM) and the Light Machine Gun (LMG). All need to function in both semiautomatic and automatic firing modes, with the LMG primary firing mode being full auto. The SC variant will provide soldiers with an enhanced close quarter battle arm with effective lethality through to 150 metres. The Carbine will be the standard issue individual combat weapon with an effective range out to 500 metres. The DM variant will provide accurate fire at longer ranges as well as offering an automatic fire capability, while the LMG variant will have a suppressive fire role up to a range of 600 metres. The SC, Carbine and DM versions should have an 80 per cent parts commonality while a 50 per cent parts commonality is required between LMG and the other variants. Different barrels will be available, each variant will include a resident multipurpose sight enabling rapid and effective engagement of stationary and moving targets, both with reflexive fire at close ranges and with precision fire out to the maximum effective range. Back-up iron sights must be available for use without removing the main sight. Carbine, SC, and DM must demonstrate 18,000 Mean Rounds Between Essential Function Failure (MRBEFF) for Class III malfunctions (non-operator correctable malfunctions which cause the loss of essential functionality) and 2300 MRBEFF for Class I and II malfunctions combined (Class I malfunctions are operator clearable within ten seconds, while Class II malfunctions require more than ten seconds to clear but can be corrected by the operator with available equipment). The figures are respectively 18,000 and 1900 for the LMG. The weapons in their respective versions should be smaller and lighter than the M4, M16 and M249 weapons currently in use. The XM8 shall provide attachment points for an Area Suppression Lethality Module (ASLM) such as the XM320 single-shot grenade launcher (an improved version of the H&K AG36), and for a 12-gauge Lightweight Shotgun System.

Currently the XM8 is being designed by the Heckler & Koch facility at Sterling in Virginia and is mostly derived from the G36 5.56 mm assault rifle. It features a short piston stroke and gas-operated action with a rotating bolt locking. According to what was shown at the Shot Show 2004, the weapon will have a quick-detachable barrel system while four types of barrels will be issued: a 229 mm for the SC, a 318 mm for the Carbine, a 508 mm 'light' for the DM and a 508 mm 'heavy' for the LMG.


In the context of current assault rifles the Heckler & Koch G36 is certainly a success story. Developed in the early 1990s with a view to replacing the ageing G3 in the Bundeswehr, and following the cancellation of both the revolutionary G11 caseless round rifle and the more conventional G41, it was adopted by German forces in 1995. The weapon is based on a rotating bolt with seven locking lugs, abandoning the company's roller-delayed system used on earlier H&K rifles. Many parts are built in reinforced polymers, including the receiver, with steel inserts where required. Various trigger groups are available, the standard type including safe, single shot, two-round burst and full auto. Studied for right- and left-handed users, it is equipped with an ambidextrous cocking lever located on top of the bolt carrier. The polymer stock folds to the right, while the carrying handle incorporates a sighting system in the rear. The version adopted by Germany includes two scopes; a 3.5x telescope below and a 1x red dot sight on top, which provide both accurate long-range aiming as well as fast aiming capabilities. A 1.5x telescope is available for the export version. The G36 is equipped with a 30 rounds translucent polymer magazine but can also use a 100 round dual drum C-Mag magazine. Three versions are available: the standard, which can be fitted with the AG36 grenade launcher, the carbine (G36K) and the compact (G36C). In 1999 Spain chose the G36 for all its fighting units.

The most widespread assault rifle of western origin is unquestionably the M16. Colt Defense is currently producing its fourth generation--the M16A4. This newest version is equipped with a removable carrying handle with an integral rail mounting system. When the handle is removed it is possible to mount any type of accessory on the rail. The increase in urban combat situations marked the success of shorter versions of the Colt assault rifle, the Colt M4 Carbine and the M4 Commando, respectively with 370 and 290 mm barrels compared to the 510 mm of the M16A4. Both are equipped with the Picatinny rail on top of the receiver, although a number of foregrips equipped with three or four rails have been developed by many accessory companies allowing one to install aiming aids, and a vertical foregrip to provide a better control of the weapon (although slightly increasing the rifleman's silhouette when shooting in the prone position). The M4 has become the weapon of choice in most special forces units. Similar weapons are also manufactured by Bushmaster Firearms and Heckler & Koch, although Colt is strongly fighting against this practice. On the other hand Diemaco of Canada used to produce and market the M16 (as C7) and M4 (as C8) rifles in Canada and other countries, such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway, under an agreement with Colt; however last February Diemaco was acquired by Colt from Heroux-Devtek and will now operate under the name of Colt Canada.

The most widespread assault rifle on the other hand is the AK-47 Kalashnikov in 7.62 x 39 mm calibre, which was followed by the AK-74 in 5.45 x 39 mm. Numerous derivatives were manufactured in many countries and describing them here would take the whole space of this article. A number of countries have already 'westcrnised' the Kalashnikov design to fire Western calibres; these include Finland with the Valmet M60/62/76/90 and Israel with the Galil. Currently Russian Izhmash and Polish Fabryka Broni produce the AK-100 series and the Beryl Des.96, which are heavily modified versions of the Kalashinkov rifle both in 5.56 x 45 mm calibre.

Another rifle produced in many countries was the Fal, Fusil Automatique Leger, from FN Herstal of Belgium. This company is currently offering the F2000 Integrated Weapon System, which follows the current trend of integrating most of the accessories in an ergonomically coherent system. The F2000 is a modular system that comprises the rifle per se and add-on modules that can be quickly installed and removed without any tools. The rifle is gas operated with rotating bolt and has a bullpup configuration (in which the bolt carrier group is placed behind the pistol grip, allowing to retain a long barrel while reducing the overall length); the weapon is fully ambidextrous as the ejection port is located at the front of the weapon and cases are ejected forward. Standard rails are available on top of the receiver as well as underneath. The upper rail normally hosts the standard 1.6x optical sight, which can be easily replaced with other types, while the lower rail is covered by a hand guard when not used. Hand guards with integrated tactical lights or laser pointers are available. A hand guard with a triple-rail is also available, while the guard can be replaced by a purpose designed grenade launcher. The latter can be used without changing the firing hand position. When the grenade launcher is used a computerized fire control module with laser rangefinder can be installed on the weapon.

FN Herstal is developing the new rifle for the US Special Operations Command. Known as the FN USA Scar (Special operations Combat Assault Rifle), it was officially chosen by the US Special Ops Command in late 2004. The Scar is based on the 5.56 mm FNC assault rifle with a gas operated short stroke piston and a rotating bolt. Two models will be available, the Scar-L (light) chambered for the 5.56 mm round, and Scar-H (heavy) chambered for the 7.62 x 51 mm round but easily adaptable in the field to the 7.62 x 39 mm cartridge. Three versions with barrels of variable lengths will be produced under the names of Standard (S), Close Quarters Combat (CQC) and Sniper Variant (SV)--all with single shot and full auto firing modes. A series of Picatinny rails will be available, the one on top of the receiver having full length to allow the installation of both optical and night sights. Following the tests of the first prototypes a number of adjustments were requested. No military designation has yet been adopted.

While many future soldier programmes use existing weapons, Italy made a different choice. Beretta is developing a new assault rifle which will integrate most of the accessories on the weapon itself. The weapon prototype should appear soon. Even though the last model seen was pretty conventional its shape was studied for ergonomic comfort, numerous parts were made of composite materiel. The rifle was the base for a system which included a Galileo Avionica purpose-designed Individual Combat Weapon System (ICWS) with a daylight black and white TV/night IR channel, an optical sight, two laser emitters (one visible and one IR) and a red-dot sight placed on top of the system. The weight with the Stanag 4179 empty magazine and without optronic sights will be lower than three kilos while the length with full extended butt will be around 840 mm. A 40 mm grenade launcher can be attached under the barrel as well as a Grenade Launcher Fire Control System that is based on a firing computer and a laser rangefinder allowing easy aiming.

The French Giat Famas bullpup rifle was the subject of a series of modifications, as the original weapon used proprietary magazines and was not equipped with suitable interfaces for aiming sights. The current Famas G2s, the base for the Felin future soldier program headed by Sagem, accepts Stanag magazines and is equipped with a Weaver or Picatinny rail mounted on a modified carrying handle. All Felin Famas G2 will be equipped with a 10[degrees] field-of-view sight which will also include a 50[degrees] field-of-view video camera, the latter will send images to the soldier's helmet-mounted display. The other bullpup assault rifle currently in service within Nato is the British SA80, officially known as the L85. The current version, the L85A2, has improved mechanical components and will remain the British Army assault rifle for the Fist programme.

Among weapons of recent design, two of them adopt the bullpup configuration: these are the Israeli Tar-21 and the STK Sar-21. The Tar-21--Tavor Assault Rifle 21st Century-which is based on accurate ergonomic studies, is becoming the Israeli Defense Force rifle of issue. Gas operated with a rotating bolt, it makes comprehensive use of composite materials and is one of the lightest rifles available on the market. The upper receiver is equipped with a Picatinny rail, it accepts 20- and 30-round magazines and can be equipped with an M203 grenade launcher. The Tar-21 is available in different configurations, carbine (TC-21), ultra compact (Micro Tavor Mtar-21), commander (Ctar-21) and sharpshooter (Star-21), with barrels of different length.

In 1999 Singapore Technologies Kinetics showed its Sar-21. In the standard version the loading handle is located above the housing and under the scope-carrying handle, and folds forward when not in use; the rifle is equipped with a patented Constant Recoil Principle that increases weapon accuracy, even in full-automatic mode. In the Sar-21 P (Picatinny rail) and Sar-21 Ris (Rail Interface System) versions the handle has been moved to the left side to allow the installation of the rail. Unlike most other modern bullpup rifles the Sar-21 has a right-side only extraction, which makes its use difficult for left-handers.

New Wine in Old Bottles

Apart from new developments, which are few and far between, numerous older rifles have been updated to allow the mounting of optronic accessories. Steyr Mannlicher of Austria modified its Aug bullpup rifle, originally equipped with a 1.5x scope, into the Aug A2 version, where the optical sight can be removed allowing the quick attachment of a MILSTD 1913 rail. This was followed by the Aug A3 version with a series of Picatinny rails and the possibility of mounting an M203 type grenade launcher under the foregrip. The Aug A3 is produced with three barrel lengths, namely 455,508 and 600 mm.

Among the most recent newcomers in the bullpup world is the iranian KH-2002 which was unveiled at Defendory in 2004. Gas operated with a rotating bolt, it is provided with three interchangeable barrels of different lengths and is chambered for the 5.56 x 45 mm Nato rounds, which are hosted in 20 or 30 rounds magazines. A top rail allows the use of different types of sights. The weapon looks very similar to the QBZ-95 chambered for the 5.8 x 42 mm round also developed by China but with performances akin to the Nato version. The Chinese rifle is offered in a 5.56 x 45 mm guise for export and named QBZ-97. Even Russia has developed its own bullpup. The most recent design of the Tula Instrument Design Bureau (KBP) is the A-91--a gas-operated, rotating-bolt rifle in bullpup configuration. Provided with an integral 40 mm grenade launcher, a rail over the carrying handle allows the installation of optical sights. Although originally developed in 7.62 x 39 mm, it is now offered by KBP only in 5.56 x 45 mm guise with a non-standard polymer magazine.

Short Assault Rifles vs. SMGs

With the possible advent of a new calibre for personal defence weapons to replace the current 9 x 19 mm, submachine guns are falling out of favour and many forces are shifting to 5.56 x 45 mm weapons--usually short versions of military assault rifles. Swiss Arms is strongly aiming at this market with its SG 551 and SG 552 rifles. These have been equipped with a series of accessories allowing the adoption of a variety of aiming aids. The same applies to the H&K G36 in its C compact version and to the M4 Commando. Greater stability, better penetration against body armour and the fact that police force opponents are now often armed with assault rifles explain the trend. At the opposite end, when very compact and light automatic weapons are required, the choice goes to new SMGs developed in 5.7 x 28 and 4.6 x 30 mm calibres, although the lack of standardization regarding a Nato decision on personal defensive weapon calibres does not constitute an incentive to invest in such new weapons, which, as a consequence, remain in a niche market.

Stanag vs. Proprietary

Standardised magazines allow soldiers to use those they find in the field. However, the properties of Stanag 4179 aluminium magazines have often been questioned. Their upper lips, which keep the top round before being rammed into the chamber, are relatively weak and distortions can induce stoppages. A stoppage after having loaded a full magazine in the middle of a firefight is a worst nightmare for a soldier. Moreover, to link together Stanag magazines, special clips must be used, which add weight, while their opacity does not allow the checking of ammunition status at a glance. This motivated some companies, such as Steyr Mannlicher, FN Herstal and Sig to use proprietary magazines made of translucent polymers. Not only are they 'see through' but some also can be linked together in order to carry a few magazines in ready position under the weapon. Another advantage of transparent magazines is that their state is just as transparent: any crack of fault is immediately noticeable.
Nation Germany USA

Manufacturer Heckler & Koch Colt
Model G36 M16A4
Calibre 5.56 x 45 5.56 x 45
Type of action GO/RB GO/LB
Magazine [rounds] 30/ pro or 100 drum 30/ ST 4179
Modes of fire S, 2, F S, F
Rate of fire [rpm] 750 700 to 950
Stock Folding Fixed
Barrel length [mm] 480 510
Overall length [mm] 998/758 1000
Weight [kg] 3.60 (2) 3.40 (2)
Accept grenade yes yes

Nation Russia Poland

Manufacturer JSC Izhmash Fabryka Broni/Radom
Model AK 101 kbs wz. 96 Beryl
Calibre 5.56 x 45 5.56 x 45
Type of action GO/LB GO
Magazine [rounds] 30 30
Modes of fire S, 3, F S, F
Rate of fire [rpm] n/a 700
Stock Folding Folding
Barrel length [mm] 415 457
Overall length [mm] 924/704 943/742
Weight [kg] 3.40 (2) 3.35 (2)
Accept grenade ?? yes

Nation Belgium France

Manufacturer FN Herstal Giat
Model F2000 FA Mas G2
Calibre 5.56 x 45 5.56 x 45
Type of action GO/RB DB
Magazine [rounds] 30/ ST 4179 30/ ST 4179
Modes of fire S, F S, 3, F
Rate of fire [rpm] 850 1000 to 1100
Stock Bullpup Bullpup
Barrel length [mm] 400 488
Overall length [mm] 694 757
Weight [kg] 3.60 (3) 3.80 (3)
Accept grenade yes yes

Nation United Kingdom Israel

Manufacturer unknown IMI
Model SA80 Tavor Tar-21
Calibre 5.56 x 45 5.56 x 45
Type of action GO/RB GO/RB
Magazine [rounds] 30/ ST 4179 30/ ST 4179
Modes of fire S, F S, F
Rate of fire [rpm] 650 750 to 900
Stock Bullpup Bullpup
Barrel length [mm] 518 460
Overall length [mm] 780 720
Weight [kg] 4.13 (4) 3.60 (5)
Accept grenade no yes

Nation Singapore Austria

Manufacturer ST Kinetics Steyr
Model Sar-21 Aug A3
Calibre 5.56 x 45 5.56 x 45
Type of action GO/RB Gas operated
Magazine [rounds] 30/ PP 30 PP, 42 optional
Modes of fire S, F S, 3, F
Rate of fire [rpm] 450 to 650 680-800
Stock Bullpup Bullpup
Barrel length [mm] 508 455
Overall length [mm] 805 740
Weight [kg] 3.82 (2) 3.70 (2)
Accept grenade no yes

Nation Iran China

Manufacturer Defence Ind. Org. Norinco
Model KH-2002 QBZ-95
Calibre 5,56 x 45 5.8 x 42
Type of action GO/RB GO/RB
Magazine [rounds] 20 or 30 30
Modes of fire S, 3, F S, F
Rate of fire [rpm] 800 to 850 650
Stock Bullpup Bullpup
Barrel length [mm] ?? 520
Overall length [mm] 780 760
Weight [kg] 3.70 (3) 3.40 (2)
Accept grenade ?? yes

Nation Germany USA

Manufacturer Heckler & Koch Colt
Model G36 C M4 Commando
Calibre 5.56 x 45 5.56 x 45
Type of action GO/RB GO/RB
Magazine [rounds] 30 PP 30 AT 4179
Modes of fire S, F S, F
Rate of fire [rpm] 750 700 to 1000
Stock Folding Sliding
Barrel length [mm] 228 290
Overall length [mm] 720/500 760/680
Weight [kg] 2.80 (1) 2,44 (1)
Accept grenade ?? no

Nation Israel Switzerland

Manufacturer IMI Swiss Arms
Model Mtar SG 552 Commando
Calibre 5,56 x 45 5.56 x 45
Type of action GO/RB GO/RB
Magazine [rounds] 30 ST 4179 5/10/20/30 polymer
Modes of fire S, F S, 3, F
Rate of fire [rpm] 750 to 900 720
Stock Bullpup Folding
Barrel length [mm] 250 226
Overall length [mm] 480 730/504
Weight [kg] 3.20 (2) 3.2 (1)
Accept grenade no

Nation Russia

Manufacturer JSC Concern Izhmash
Model AK 102
Calibre 5.56 x 45
Type of action GO/LB
Magazine [rounds] 30
Modes of fire S, 3, F
Rate of fire [rpm] 600
Stock Folding
Barrel length [mm] 314
Overall length [mm] 824/586
Weight [kg] 3.20 (1)
Accept grenade

Notes: GO = gas operated, LB = locking bolt, RB = rotating bolt,
DB = delayed blowback, ST = Stanag, pro = proprietary S = single shot,
2, 3 = two or three-round controlled burst, F = Full auto: (1) with
magazine, (2) without magazine, (3) with empty magazine. (4) with Susat
sight and no magazine, (5) with optical sight, 30-round magazine and
carrying sling
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Title Annotation:Small Calibre
Author:Alpo, Paul V.
Publication:Armada International
Date:Aug 1, 2005
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