FEEDING THE M14: How a World War I French Machine Gun Influenced American Sniper Ammunition for Decades.
Delving into the history books reveals just how far back the roots of the 7.62mm Ml 18 Match load can be traced. The U.S. military ordered specially-loaded .30 match ammunition at least as early as 1907. American ammunition quality, even for match ammunition, during this time period is not what we would think of today. This can be noted by examining the accuracy of a special lot of ammunition Frankford Arsenal produced for the 1909 National Matches. This load was topped with M1906 150-grain FM J flat-base bullets produced to tight tolerances. When tested by the military, this special run had a mean radius of 4.92 inches at 600 yards. Keep in mind, this is mean radius, not extreme spread, which would have been about 12 to 15 inches. It should also be remembered the scoring ring dimensions of the targets during this time period were substantially larger than they are today. It's also interesting to note the U.S. Army ordered 100,000 rounds of 180-grain match ammunition during World War I. A portion of this was shipped for combat use in Europe, but it is unknown if any was actually fielded.
The general opinion is World War I had little lasting effect on U.S. sniper doctrine or equipment. At first glance, this makes sense, as U.S. military sniper schools were quickly shut down after the war ended, most sniper equipment was disposed of and sniping was soon forgotten. However, the truth is World War I would have a much greater long-term impact on U.S. sniping than most would ever suspect. This stems from American combat use of the French Mle 1914 Hotchkiss machine gun chambered in 8mm Lebel. Yes, as hard as it may seem to believe, a French machine gun would influence American sniping until fairly recently.
When the United States entered World War I, the U.S. Army was very poorly equipped. When the small peacetime army rapidly expanded, it led to shortages of all types, including machine guns. Due to shortages of all types, the American Expeditionary Force fielded various types of French weapons when it first arrived in Europe. This included artillery, airplanes, tanks and machine guns. The U.S. Army purchased and fielded 7,000 Mle 1914 Hotchkiss machine guns during the war, becoming the second-largest user of this design behind the French Army.
The American machine gunners received training by French officers with combat experience in the trenches. One of the common tasks at the time was performing indirect-fire missions at very long range. A typical mission was to have a gun or group of guns sight in a crossroad held by the Germans. The guns would then open fire at random times during the night when it was suspected the enemy was trying to bring reinforcements or supplies up. The guns could be expected to be employed out to the very limits of their range when used in this role. Employed similarly to artillery, they would often fire out to 4,000+ yards. At these very long distances, a section of guns could cover a large piece of ground with plunging fire, thus preventing any enemy movement over it. When employed in this manner, the Hotchkiss guns played a very important role, due to the tactics and methods of the Great War.
Towards the end of the war, U.S. machine gun units began receiving American-produced M1917 Browning machine guns in .30-'06. The M1917 Browning was overall a better design than the Mle 1914 Hotchkiss, and was better liked by the crews receiving them. The Brownings were beautifully made, reliable, water-cooled and fed from a 250-round cloth belt. In comparison, the Hotchkiss was 18 pounds heavier than the M1917 (with a full water jacket and mount) at 110 pounds (with mount), fed from 24-round feed-strips, was air-cooled, and had a slower rate of fire.
American machine-gun crews quickly realized though, the Hotchkiss did have one virtue over the Browning: range. The M1e 1914 was chambered for the standard French 8x50mmR "Lebel" cartridge. The issue 8mm Balle D load featured a machine-turned solid bronze projectile weighing 198 grains. The Balle D was the first military load to be fielded sporting both a spitzer profile and a boattail to improve its exterior ballistics. An extremely well-designed projectile, it featured a G1 Ballistic Coefficient (BC) of approximately .567. Even today, this is very respectable, and it provided the M1e 1914 Hotchkiss with a maximum range of 4,150 yards. The M1917 Browning, on the other hand, fired the standard Caliber .30 M1906 load. This featured a 150-grain FM J lead-core projectile with a flat base. Gl BC of this projectile was about .440 and the maximum range was just over 3,000 yards for indirect fire.
Losing approximately 1,000 yards of effective range handicapped American machine gunners for the rest of the war. It was frequently mentioned in writings of the time. This loss of effective range was not forgotten at the end of hostilities, and it led directly to the demise of the Caliber .30 M1906 load with which U.S. troops fought World War I. After the war ended, work continued on improving the Caliber .30 ammunition, and a new, more streamlined and heavier .30-caliber projectile was developed. The new bullet was a 173-grain FMJ with a nine-degree boattail and gilding metal jacket. Loaded into ammunition by Frankford Arsenal for the 1925 National Matches, it grouped into a mean radius of just 2.3 inches at 600 yards. A similar load (but seated to a longer overall length for the Palma Match) provided a mean radius of just 4.43 inches at 1,000 yards. This new projectile, manufactured to looser tolerances, was subsequently adopted by the U.S. Army in 1926, as Cal. .30 Ball Cartridge, Ml. Subsequent military-match and sniper ammunition was destined to be based upon this projectile design for decades.
The new 173-grain Ml load provided greater range and better external ballistics compared to the old M1906 load. It went on to soldier through the 1920s, and the 1930s. There was one problem encountered with the new load, though. Its range was too long. Or at least, it was too long for safe firing on many of the old National Guard ranges that did not have sufficient safety zones behind them. This created problems. Plus, tactics changed in the years following the Great War, with mortars eliminating the need for machine guns to be tasked with long-range, indirect-fire missions. Then, there was the coming of the gas-operated Ml Garand rifle. All of these eventually led to the 173-grain Ml ball round being replaced by the lighter 150-grain M2 ball round on January 12, 1940.
While it had been replaced as standard issue, the 1920s vintage .30 caliber 173-grain FMJ-BT projectile was simply too good to die. It was subsequently resurrected in the 1950s, during development of the M72 .30-caliber Match cartridge. This load was introduced in 1957 for the National Matches and launched its 173-grain FMJ-BT projectile at 2,640 fps. Highly successful in competition, it went on to serve with MID and Model 70 armed snipers in Vietnam. As issued, M72 Match ammunition came packed either in bandoleers on eight-round Garand clips or in 20-round cardboard boxes.
When the XM21 sniper variant of the M14 National Match rifle replaced the old MID sniper rifle in the 1960s, a new 7.62mm sniper cartridge was needed. Luckily, it was already in place, the new 7.62mm Ml 18 Match cartridge having been developed in 1965. Originally designated XM118, as experimental, it was subsequently type classified as Ml 18 Match. Intended for use in the then-new M14 National Match rifle, it was loaded with the same 173-grain FMJ-BT bullet as used previously in M72 Match ammunition. The major difference between the old M72 and new M118 Match loads was a slight reduction in velocity. Whereas the M72 load clocked 2,640 fps, the Ml 18 ran slightly slower at 2,550 fps. Even at this lower velocity though, the 7.62mm Ml 18's 173-grain slug still remained supersonic past 1,000 yards.
The M118 Match load was to prove accurate with exterior ballistics superior to the 7.62mm M80 ball load, and it performed well in competition. Due to its accuracy, it was soon fielded with the National Match M14-based XM21 sniper rifle (and USMC M40) in Vietnam. There, its heavy, full-metal-jacketed projectile proved a valuable asset, thanks to its accuracy and penetration. Unlike the standard 5.56mm 55-grain M193 ball, the 7.62mm M1 18 penetrated foliage and light cover easily. The 7.62mm M118 Match load went on to be the standard issue U.S. military sniper load for decades.
Eventually, though, time began to catch up with this old warhorse. By the 1980s, due to worn bullet-making machinery and poor quality control at Lake City Army Ammunition Plant, accuracy had dropped noticeably. It eventually lost its Match designation and was redesignated simply Ml 18 Special Ball. A new match load, the M852, had to be developed to keep the military rifle teams competitive. Unlike previous military match loads, the M852 was topped with a commercial 168-grain Sierra MatchKing Hollow Point Boattail (HPBT). Although extremely accurate at shorter ranges, the M852 did have one shortcoming. It would not reliably remain supersonic to 1,000 yards. Worse still, accuracy dropped off when the bullet went transonic. So, the Ml 18 Special Ball soldiered on for sniping.
Dissatisfaction with the inconsistent accuracy of Lake City's Ml 18 Special Ball's 173-grain FMJ projectile eventually led to the USMC pushing for a new 7.62mm sniper load. Using the experience gained from the M852's commercial HPBT projectile, a new bullet was developed. Designed by Sierra, the new projectile weighed 175 grains and was similar in profile and Ballistic Coefficient to the old 173-grain FMJ-BT projectile.
The biggest difference though, was in how the bullet was manufactured. Whereas the Lake City 173-grain slug was a Full Metal Jacket Boat Tail design, the new Sierra projectile was termed an Open Tip Match (OTM). The difference between the two being how the jacket is formed in the die. A full-metal-jacket projectile is formed from the front, with the base open for the lead core to be inserted. An open-tip bullet, on the other hand, is formed from the rear, with the lead core inserted from the front. Due to this method of manufacturing, the all-important base of an open-tip bullet can be made much more consistent, leading to superior accuracy. In the case of an open-tip match bullet, the tiny 'hollow point' in the nose is a by-product of the manufacturing process. It is not for expansion, as is the case with a hunting bullet. Due to this, the new design was considered land warfare legal by the U.S. military.
The new bullet design was subsequently added to Sierra's highly regarded commercial MatchKing line. When put to the test, it provided accuracy superior to the 1920s vintage 173-grain FMJ-BT out past 1,000 yards. Adopted by the U.S. military in the late 1990s, this new sniper load was designated 7.62mm Ml 18 Long Range. It was subsequently fielded in combat with various 7.62mm sniper systems, including the M14/M21, M24, M40A3, SR-25 and M110. Overall, it performed well in combat, providing a good combination of long-range accuracy and terminal performance. Only just recently has U.S. Special Operations moved to replace the 7.62x51mm NATO as a sniper cartridge, replacing it with the 6.5mm Creedmoor. So, after all these decades, the influence of a French machine gun on American sniping will no longer be felt. The 6.5mm Creedmoor is an excellent cartridge for this role, due to its exterior ballistics. Performance, though, is really not that different from the 6.5x55mm Swedish Mauser first fielded in 1891. But that is a story for another time.
Acknowledgements: I'd like to thank my friend and colleague Gus Norcross for helping to make this article possible.
RELATED ARTICLE: THE TOP SNIPER IN VIETNAM.
HE WASN'T A MARINE, AND HE DIDN'T USE A BOLT-GUN
Due to the USMC's impressive PR campaign, I'm sure many readers would just assume the top sniper during our war in Vietnam was a Marine wielding an M40. However, the truth may surprise you. Not only was a relatively unknown U.S. Army Staff Sergeant the highest-scoring sniper in Vietnam, but he did it with a semi-automatic M21. Credited with 109 kills, Staff Sergeant Adelbert Waldron proved an M14based sniper rifle could run with the USMC's Model 70 Winchester target rifles and newer Remington M40 sniper rifles in actual combat. As a member of Company B, 3d Battalion, 60th Infantry Regiment of the 9th Infantry Division, he found himself hunting with the 'Brown Water' Navy in the Mekong Delta. His feats included nine kills in one night using an AN/ PVS-2 Starlight scope and a 900-meter shot from a moving naval vessel.
The sniper rifle he carried was an M14 National Match topped with a 3-9x Adjustable Ranging Telescope (ART). This combination would later be designated the M21. The M21 was developed during the Vietnam War and remained the standard U.S. Army sniper rifle until replaced by the bolt-action M24 in 1988. The M21 sniper rifle itself, though, was little more than an M14 built to National Match specifications topped with a scope. An offshoot of a straight competition rifle, the U.S. Army sniper program benefited directly from technology developed by the 'yellow glasses' Selected rifles received: match-grade barrels, unitized gas systems, trimmed handguards, reamed flash suppressors, modified triggers (adjusted to slightly over 4.5 pounds), fitted National Match sights, and glass-bedded actions.
Mounted to the side of the receiver was a unique sniper scope, the ART. Designed by Captain James R. Leatherwood and manufactured by Redfield, this optic allowed a sniper to easily range a man by zooming the magnification in or out until he fit between two marks on the reticle. Simultaneously, the magnification ring cammed the scope up or down, automatically adjusting the range. So all the sniper had to do was bracket his target (which automatically adjusted the elevation), adjust for wind/lead and fire. It proved to be a very fast and simple system to use under actual battlefield conditions.
Caption: The 7.62mm M118 series is the longest-serving and perhaps best-known sniper load fielded by U.S. forces, but did you know its Genesis is due to a French machine gun?
Caption: While the Browning M1917 and BAR get the credit, Doughboys of the AEF fought most of World War I with French weapons like the Hotchkiss MIe 1914 seen here and the Chauchat.
Caption: The French 8x50mmR Lebel Balle D load with its 4,150-yard range left a lasting impression on U.S. machine-gun crews, which led to the demise of the Cal. .30 M1906 load.
Caption: The MIe 1914 Hotchkiss was a big and heavy air-cooled machine gun fed from feed-strips, and, while the Browning M1917 was a better gun, the Hotchkiss had a longer range.
Caption: Adopted in 1957, Caliber .30 M72 Match ammunition utilized a 173-grain FMJ-BT bullet, originally developed in 1926, pushed at 2,640 fps.
Caption: Members of the USMC Rifle Team compete at Sea Girt, N.J. The match ammunition they are using would eventually evolve into the famous 7.62mm M118 Match load. (Photo courtesy USMC.)
Caption: M72 Match ammunition saw action in Vietnam with M1D- and Model 70-toting snipers. M1Ds stayed in inventory for a shockingly long time, into the 1980s, with some Guard units.
Caption: The M72 Match load was superseded by the 7.62mm M118 Match load. The M118 utilized the same 173-grain FMJ-BT bullet, but at a lower velocity.
Caption: The evolution of U.S. 7.62mm Match/Sniper loads: early experimental XM118 Match, official M118 Match, M118 Special Ball, and today's 175-grain M118 Long Range.
Caption: Many M14 rifles were recalled from retirement and teamed with M118 LR for use in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Caption: The heart of the M118 Long Range load is a 175-grain Open Tip Match bullet developed by Sierra specifically at the request of the USMC. This new projectile greatly improved long-range accuracy.
Caption: A comparison of projectiles L to R: 147-grain M80 ball, 173-grain M118 Match and 175-grain M118LR.
Caption: Accuracy of the 175-grain M118 LR load can be excellent, as these Marine snipers show. (Photo courtesy USMC.)
Caption: The 7.62mm M118 series has served U.S. snipers for decades; with SOCOM's adoption of the 6.5mm Creedmoor, it will be interesting to see what the future holds.
Caption: While it's not well-known, U.S. Army Sergeant Adelbert Waldron, seen here with his M21 sniper rifle, was the highest-scoring U.S. sniper of Vietnam. (Photo courtesy U.S. Army.)
U.S. MILITARY MATCH/SNIPER AMMUNITION Caliber Load Projectile Projectile Velocity Type Weight .30-'06 M72 Match FMJ-BT 173 grains 2,640 fps 7.62mm NATO M118 Match FMJ-BT 173 grains 2,550 fps 7.62mm NATO M118 Long Range OTM 175 grains 2,550 fps
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|Author:||Fortier, David M.|
|Date:||Jun 10, 2018|
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