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Personal Weapons -- the Choices are Many.

Before entering into detail regarding the rifles and carbines utilised by special forces, it would be as well to highlight a topic usually overlooked, namely the ammunition calibres involved. This provides another example of special forces being ahead of the game for many of them are now wondering if they have selected the correct rifle calibre, well before the more conservative and conventional armed forces are encountering the same doubts.

On logistic grounds it makes sense for special forces to utilise the same weapon calibres as other field formations. Supply is made that much easier and, once in the field, local stocks can be raided to top up ammunition levels. These days most armed forces rely on one of two possible calibres for the bulk of their infantry weapon holdings, namely 5.56 mm within Nato and Western-orientated nations or 5.45 mm for those supplied by the old Eastern Bloc. The rounds involved are powerful and more than adequate for the majority of combat ranges likely to be encountered. Both are utilised by many special forces although suitability doubts are becoming increasingly prevalent.

Rifles and Carbines

There are many reasons why 5.56 and 5.45 mm are under examination. One argument is that they lack power at the longer combat ranges, the counter being that they were never intended to be anything other than limited range, intermediate power rounds. A more important comment is that the small bullets tend to lack power and are too easily deflected by standing vegetation or high winds. There are other technical considerations but the fact remains that many experienced soldiers look back wistfully to the times when heavier bullets were the standard issue. They remember the lethal qualities of the larger, full power 7.62 x 51 mm Nato ball or the all-round performance of the Eastern Bloc 7.62 x 39 mm Model 1943 round fired from the ubiquitous AK-47 and AKM Kalashnikov assault rifle series. Both the latter rounds are still in widespread service. Many armed forces still retain one or the other as they have never adopted the smaller calibre alternatives.

There are indications that some special forces are contemplating a move back to the 7.62 mm rounds, especially in the old Eastern Bloc. They consider that the improved longer range ballistics and striking power of the larger bullets more than compensate for the greater weight that has to be carried for a given number of rounds. Weapon weight does not seem to be a consideration for it does not necessarily follow that the smaller rounds mean lighter or smaller weapons. As but one example, the Russian AK-74 assault rifle weighs marginally more and is longer than the AKM it was intended to replace.

Although the same trend is unlikely to be followed so readily by 7.62 x 51 mm users, there is one hardware indication that the old 7.62 x 39 mm Model 1943 cartridge is coming back into favour with Eastern Bloc special forces, as well as quotes from several Russian gun designers who consider there is plenty of mileage left in the Model 1943 cartridge. Quite apart from the `Hundred Series' of Kalashnikov assault rifles, some of which have been offered chambered for 7.62 x 39 mm (none of which have apparently been sold in any quantity), the appearance of the 7.62 mm A-91M assault rifle series from the KBP Instrument Design Bureau has emphasised the trend back to 7.62 x 39 mm. A compact bullpup design, the A-91M series was developed with special forces specified as the prime customer. The receiver is totally enclosed to keep out dirt and debris, spent cases being ejected forwards through a sprung flap. There is also provision for a special GP-97 40 mm grenade launcher, but more on that topic later.

Another instance of a definite 7.62 mm Russian special forces adoption is the OTs-14 Groza (Thunderstorm) special weapon system, another product with a KBP provenance that was initially adopted by MVD (Interior Ministry) special forces. This is another bullpup model, one that can be altered in the field into a number of combat configurations by the addition or subtraction of combat accessories to suit the mission involved. MVD troops decided to adopt the Groza chambered for 5.45 x 39 mm but when the same weapon was later approved by Russian Ministry of Defence controlled specialist forces (Spetsnaz, airborne units and combat engineers, for example), they specified that the weapon be altered to fire 7.62 x 39 mm. This was no problem as the Groza was designed to be a multi-calibre weapon -- it can also be supplied firing the special 9 x 39 mm cartridge, of which more later. Despite its adoption, the OTs-14 Groza has yet to be procured in significant quantities due to the perennial shortage of defence funding within Russia, but the very fact that it has been adopted for local special forces emphasises the resurgence of the 7.62 x 39 mm cartridge.

To move away from the ammunition topic, more mention of which will arise when specific weapons are considered, the short assault rifle, or carbine, remains the prime weapon of most special forces. The reduced overall length and weight of a carbine compared to the full-size rifle makes it an obvious candidate for special force employment for it can be more easily carried, stowed and handled, the latter factor probably being the most important. It is far easier to swing and aim a carbine within a confined space than a rifle yet the potential firepower performance is only slightly less than that of the comparable rifle and most special force combat encounters are conducted at very close quarters.

The selection of a carbine length variant in place of the standard service rifle is now made considerably easier by the current practice of developing small arm `families' in which a service rifle has heavier-barrelled support weapon and attenuated carbine counterparts developed at the same time. One recent example of this is the Israel Military Industries (IMI) 5.56 mm Tavor where there are no less than five possible variants. The Tar-21 Tavor is the base model yet there is a short-barrelled Ctar-21 Commando, and the ultra-short Mtar-21. The latter is very much a special forces weapon, being only 480 mm long overall, even without a folding butt stock. It is available chambered for either 5.56 x 45 mm or 9 x 19 mm Parabellum pistol rounds, the latter choice adding a sub-machine gun variant to the Tavor family. As yet the Tavor has not found a customer, the Israeli armed forces being well supplied with new (and virtually free) M16A2 rifles, although there are indications that Croatia will be the first nation to adopt the type.

While the Tavor has yet to find a definite niche, two carbine models dominate the special forces scene. They are the US Colt 5.56 mm M4 Carbine and the Eastern Bloc 5.45 mm AKS-74U short assault rifle.

To deal with the AKS-74U first, it is really a specialised design rather than a `shorty' AK-74. Still available from KBP at Tula and Izhmash at Izhevsk, the AKS-74U is also manufactured in Bulgaria (Kintex, who can supply several locally-devised variants), Poland (Zaklady Metalowe Luczink, who has two models, the Onyx and the Mini-Beryl) and the former Yugoslavia (Zastava). It is noticeable that some of these manufacturers also offer the AKS-74U chambered for 5.56 x 45 mm Nato ammunition to boost potential export sales. There were plans that the Izhmash 5.45 mm AK105, part of the `Hundred Series' of Kalashnikovs, would replace the AKS-74U but there are no signs of this happening yet.

The short overall length of the AKS-74U (only 490 mm with the butt stock folded) has led many to regard it as a sub-machine gun, especially as it is almost always employed as a short range weapon. However, it fires the 5.45 x 39 mm rifle cartridge and can accommodate combat accessories such as night sights and a 40 mm grenade launcher.

The US AKS-74U equivalent is a longer design, being a `shorty' variant of the widespread Colt M16 rifle series; there is also a Colt Commando, a commercial model with a 290 mm barrel. The Colt 5.56 mm M4A1 Carbine is the main special forces model as it has a MIL-STD-1913 Picatinny sight mounting rail over the receiver to mount all manner of optical and night sights, as required. The metal butt stock is collapsible to reduce the overall length. However, the base M4A1 is capable of being `customised' to suit specific special forces needs.

US special forces units of all hues have decided to adopt what is known as the M4A1 Close Quarters Battle (CQB) weapon. This is a somewhat misleading designation for it is really a modified M4A1 Carbine combined with a CQB combat accessory kit that includes a variety of items to cater for just about every combat eventuality likely to be met. The kit contains enough components to equip four M4A1s and was developed by the Crane Division of the US Naval Surface Weapons Center. Contained in the kit are sights, from the basic iron pattern to rapid-aim reflex and mini night sights, laser and visible light target indicator devices, a sound suppressor, an M203 40 mm grenade launcher and what is known as the Knight's Armament rail adaptor system.

Developed and produced by the Knight's Armament Company of Vero Beach, Florida, the latter is at the heart of the CQB system as it consists of a number of aluminium mouldings forming Picatinny rail mounting points onto which combat accessories from the CQB kit can be firmly and rapidly attached.

US special forces may have adopted the CQB system but there are indications that they are not entirely satisfied with the system as it stands. The main source of discontent seems to be the modified M4A1 Carbine, for it is apparently unable to withstand the surprising numbers of rounds fired through the weapons during prolonged training. Apparently barrels wear rapidly or distort. Although it cannot yet be confirmed, there is a requirement for a replacement carbine capable of enduring the hard use the CQB system will have to tolerate in US special forces hands. Several candidates have been put forward, some of which will be mentioned later.

It is noticeable that the UK special forces have recently selected a version of the M4A1 Carbine for their purposes. It is the Canadian 5.56 mm Diemaco C8, a licence-produced version of the Colt model but with the significant difference that the barrel is cold forged and chrome lined to reduce long term wear. For the UK special forces, the C8 can be combined with an underslung and modified Heckler & Koch HK69A1 40 mm grenade launcher. The C8 Carbine has also been selected by Danish and Norwegian special forces.

Other available carbines suitable for special force applications are several. Mention has already been made of the Israeli Tavor family candidates. Singapore Technologies Kinetics has its 5.56 mm SAR21, which is another compact bullpup assault rifle just short enough to fall into the carbine category (it is only 805 mm long overall). What will probably interest the special forces community most is that the SAR21 is now available in a so-called Modular form with MIL-STD-1913 Picatinny rails liberally provided over the receiver and in place of the usual ergonomically-moulded forestock. The rails enable the SAR21 to be configured in as many forms as the M4A1 Carbine; it is one offering for the US carbine replacement project.

Giat Industries considers that its 5.56 mm Famas G2 rifle forms an ideal special forces weapon due to its small size and weight, while Heckler & Koch continues to offer its 5.56 mm HK53 short assault rifle along with its 5.56 mm G36K. The latter is the carbine version of the G36 assault rifle family. It has already been adopted by German special forces who, it is reported, combine it with a 100-round C-Mag magazine in place of the usual 30-round curved box normally employed. The high capacity C-Mag, produced by the Beta Company of Tucker, Georgia, can be fitted to many other assault rifles and carbines.

The South African Vektor 5.56 mm CR21, a much-modified AKM, also has yet to enter full scale production although development is complete. The Vektor 5.56 mm R6 compact assault rifle, a short version of the R4 assault rifle, is deployed by local special forces -- it is only 565 mm long with the skeleton butt folded.

In Switzerland, SIG Arms offers its 5.56 mm SG552 Commando. The Commando, one variant in the SIG Arms SG550 assault rifle series, is manufactured to very high standards and is capable of accommodating numerous types of sight unit. Although hard data is not forthcoming, it would be surprising if the SG552 Commando was not already in special forces service. When it comes to consideration of the likely special weapons developed within the old Soviet Bloc, matters are more complicated. Not only have Russian and other designers decided to develop special weapons for special forces but they have also developed special ammunition. Typical of such weapons are two essentially similar silenced rifles, the 9 mm AS silent assault rifle and the VSS silent sniper rifle. Both, produced by Tsniitochmash at Izhevsk, are based around the same Kalashnikov-derived receiver but differ in detail, The AS, or Val (Rampart), fires a special 9 x 39 mm SP-6 cartridge through a dual-chamber suppressor that completely surrounds the barrel. The tungsten carbide-cored bullet can penetrate most body armours at long ranges. The AS has a folding stock and is not normally fitted with anything other than iron sights.

By contrast, the VSS, or Vintorez (Thread Cutter), also known as the 6P29, was originally developed specifically for Spetsnaz units. The rifle forms part of the VSK silenced sniper system together with optical and night sights, all normally carried in a special neutral-looking briefcase, with the VSS stripped down to three major components. The VSS fires the same SP-6 cartridge as the AS as well as the subsonic SP-5 armour-piercing round and the less costly but almost as effective PAB-9. The SP-5 can penetrate two mm of steel plate at 500 metres.

A more conventional short assault rifle, the 9 mm 9A-91, not to be confused with the already-mentioned 7.62 mm A-91M, also fires the special 9 x 39 mm SP-5, SP-6 and PAB-9 cartridges. There are several models in the base A-91 series from Tsniitochmash, chambered for just about every standard rifle cartridge extent, including the 7.62 x 39 mm Model 1943, but the 9A-91 is very much a special forces anti-materiel and body armour penetrating weapon that can extend its utility by the addition of a 40 mm grenade launcher, a suppressor, night sights, and so on. Once the butt stock is folded the 9A-91 is only 385 mm long and it weighs a mere 1.75 kg without its 20-round box magazine.

Another `shorty' assault rifle firing the 9 x 39 mm SP-6 cartridge is the Vihkr (Whirlwind), or SR-3; it also uses the same 10- or 20-round box magazines as the AS and VSS silenced rifles. It was designed by the Central Institute of Precision Machinery Construction at Klimovsk as an easily concealed special forces weapon for its overall length, with the butt folded up-and-over, is only 380 mm. Its main combat role seems to be as a close range anti-materiel weapon to smash up high value targets such as electronic communication or control systems at close ranges as the maximum effective range is stated to be limited to about 200 m.

Not content to providing Russian and allied special forces with the above-mentioned rifles, the well-established, gas-operated 7.62 mm SVD Dragunov rifle has been adapted by Izhmash to meet the demands of airborne and special units. The result is the SVDS firing the full power 7.62 x 54R rifle cartridge, the oldest in-service rifle cartridge available anywhere for its origins date back to 1891. For the SVDS, the overall SVD length has been reduced by cutting back the barrel and introducing a side-folding tubular steel butt stock. The SVDS, along with the original SVD, is often referred to as a sniper rifle, thanks mainly to its permanently-installed PSO-1 x4 telescopic sight. It is perhaps better to regard it as a specialised marksman's rifle intended to deliver accurately aimed fire to long ranges, rather than the more precise fire demanded by true snipers. To assist in long range aiming the SVDS can be fitted with a bipod.

Perhaps the oddest of all current special forces rifles/carbines is the 5.66 mm APS underwater assault rifle, another Izhevsk product. Intended to be used by frogmen against enemy underwater swimmers, the APS is the best known of a group of specialised underwater weapons produced in several countries, about which very little, if anything, has ever been released. The APS is unusual in many ways, not the least factor being the strange ammunition. It consists of a 5.56 x 45 mm Nato cartridge case propelling a long, needle-type, drag-stabilised dart, the complete round being 150 mm long. The maximum range in water will vary according to the depth involved. At a depth of 20 metres the maximum effective range is limited to 30 m, although at that range the dart will retain sufficient energy to penetrate a face mask or underwater suit. The long round means that the bulky 26-round APS box magazine has a distinctive profile while the rifle itself has no butt stock. Apparently, the APS can be used operationally out of the water but the maximum resultant range is limited to about 100 metres.

One Russian special forces rifle remains to be mentioned, again an oddity from Izhmash for it is the SV-99, a bolt action sniper rifle firing the 0.22LR (Long Rifle) cartridge. The combination of a light cartridge and a manual, straight pull bolt action was deliberately selected for special missions where it might be necessary to eliminate targets such as guard dogs or sentries without attracting the attentions that could result when firing a larger calibre round.

The Big Rifles

Over the last decade or so most special forces have added anti-materiel rifles to their armouries as they extend their capabilities considerably. The ability to stand off from a distance of 1000 m or so from a high combat value target, such as a command centre shelter or a weapon system launcher, and place a destructive single round through its closely-packed contents just when required, is something that behind-the-lines warriors once only dreamt about. Now it is possible.

All manner of targets are vulnerable to the anti-materiel rifle, from helicopters to soft-skinned vehicles, but personnel are not usually included, especially at the longer ranges as the ammunition usually involved is not capable of delivering the standard of precision required. Large calibre machine gun ammunition, from 12.7 mm 0.50 upwards, was never meant for precision firing. Special match standard rounds are now becoming available, such as the Sniper Elite rounds from SNC of Canada, but for some while to come firers will have access only to ordinary machine gun rounds meant for the Browning M2 or the Eastern Bloc NSV series heavy machine guns. Some specialised rounds do exist. For instance, Nammo Raufoss produces the multi-purpose NM140 in 12.7 x 99 mm, combining armour penetration with a fragmentation and delayed incendiary effect.

There is no need to develop anti-materiel rifles specifically for special forces for they fall into the bracket by their very nature. To outline every model now available would be repetitive and unnecessary so an overview of just a few is provided here.

The anti-materiel rifle market leader has for some time been the Barrett Manufacturing Company of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The 12.7 mm 0.50 rifles have been widely adopted in several models, one of them, a variant of the bolt-action Model 95, having been selected for the US Army as their M107. There is also a revised and updated model of the famous Barrett Model 82, the Model 82A3 with a more rigid barrel design to increase accuracy.

French special forces have adopted the PGM Precision 12.7 mm Hecate II, a product now marketed by FN Herstal of Belgium. As with so many of its type, the Hecate II is a heavy weapon at around 13.5 kg, being a bolt action rifle with a seven-round box magazine. Again, as with many others of its type, the Hecate II is not constructed along orthodox lines but is built with all the various parts secured to a central metal chassis. This leaves the heavy fluted barrel free-floating to enhance accuracy. Numerous adjustments, from trigger pressure to butt stock length and cheek pad height, are available to suit individual users, while recoil forces are reduced by the provision of a large, single port muzzle brake. Maximum effective range is stated to be 1500 m in the right hands and with suitable ammunition.

On a heavier scale, the South African Mechem NTW 20/14.5 rifle is one of the largest available. It was designed to operate using one of two calibres, 14.5 x 114 mm or 20 x 83.5 mm MG151, the latter including several types of HE. To convert the rifle for each particular calibre all that is required is to change the barrel and other calibre-related components. Using the powerful 14.5 x 114 mm API rounds the maximum effective range is stated to be up to 2300 m.

The NTW 20/14.5 is a heavy item (29 kg in its 14.5 mm form) so for transport the entire rifle can be stripped down into two back-pack loads. Firing recoil is reduced by the entire receiver sliding in the chassis frame against recoil dampers, as well as by the large muzzle brake. Rounds are fed from a side-mounted, three-round box magazine.

As yet the former Eastern Bloc has displayed few signs of developing large calibre rifles. Their one offering shown to date is the KBP 12.7 mm OSV-96 firing the 12.7 x 107 mm cartridge and a development from the earlier V-94. This gas-operated, long rifle (overall length is 1.7 m) is claimed to have a maximum effective range of up to 2000 m.

One big rifle remains to be mentioned, although it is no larger physically than an M16. It is not an anti-materiel rifle for it falls within the rough definition of a `smasher' firing a heavy projectile imparting sheer force to overcome its target. It is the LW15.499 from the Leitner-Wise Rifle Company of Alexandria, Virginia, firing a special 12.5 x 40 mm cartridge. The heavy, blunt-nosed projectile is intended to smash down doors or act as a last resort against opponents wearing body armour. Against the latter, the sheer impact of the bullet will impart so much trauma shock that the recipient will take no further part in proceedings, even if the bullet does not penetrate the body armour. Apart from the barrel the LW15.499 looks like a standard M16 with a Picatinny rail over the receiver and a tubular forestock. The magazine can hold up to 14 rounds.

Sub-machine Guns

As many special forces firefights take place at very close ranges, the submachine gun firing pistol calibre ammunition remains a viable weapon for many. In recent years the fortunes of the sub-machine gun as a front line combat weapon seem to have been on the wane, for the small calibre carbine in its many forms seems to offer an alternative with better striking power combined with a longer range performance. As mentioned above, the transition to the 5.45 or 5.56 mm carbine has already taken place within many special forces. Yet for many others the submachine gun is still retained and new models continue to appear.

Two sub-machine gun models predominate the scene, the Heckler & Koch MP5 and the Israel Military Industries (IMI) Uzi. Both weapons fire what is now the universally-accepted sub-machine gun cartridge, the 9 x 19 mm Parabellum. That is, except in the USA where the larger and more powerful (and more difficult to master) 0.45 ACP continues to be preferred, while the old Eastern Bloc continues to retain their 9 x 18 mm Makarov.

The MP5 is perhaps the most numerous sub-machine gun extant, having been licence produced, both officially and unofficially in many countries. It remains in widespread series production and is available with a fixed or telescopic butt stock. There is also a suppressed MP5 SD that is still much favoured by many special forces personnel for its remarkably silent action and its reliability.

Heckler & Koch is also offering the Universal Machine Pistol, or UMP, a recent sub-machine gun innovation based around the receiver of the G36 assault rifle. The UMP carries over many features of the 5.56 mm G36, such as a MIL-STD-1913 Picatinny rail over the receiver and under the forestock, composite materials for much of the construction and a polygonal barrel profile. As yet the UMP has not long been in the market place but it is already being series produced to fire either 9 x 19 mm Parabellum, 0.40 Smith & Wesson, or 0.45 ACP. Perhaps the one major change from the MP5 on the UMP is that the roller-locking feature has been replaced by a straightforward blow-back system.

The 9 mm Uzi retains its attractions within many special forces mainly due to its compact nature and, once again, reliability. Various magazine capacities are available and models may have either fixed or folding butt stocks. Uzi dimensions are reduced further for the Mini-Uzi, only 360 mm long with its rudimentary folding butt stock turned forward, while the Micro-Uzi, much favoured by several special forces and bodyguards, can be reduced to an overall length of only 282 mm once the stock has been retracted. All these models fire the 9 x 19 mm Parabellum cartridge.

Another European special forces favourite is the Italian Beretta Model 12, a sub-machine gun also widely used throughout South America. Although being entirely conventional and firing the 9 x 19 mm cartridge, the Model 12 and the later Model 12S are constructed to very high standards and never seem to go wrong. All models can mount a sound suppressor.

There are numerous other types of sub-machine gun still available throughout the world although few of them have any particular connection with special forces. Yet there is one nation that continues to develop submachine guns specifically for special forces, namely Russia and its associated states. From there comes a proliferation of sub-machine gun designs. Some of them require special ammunition, not necessarily the usual 9 x 18 mm Makarov round, the standard local pistol cartridge since Stalinist times.

One of the best known of these is the Bizon (Bison) from the Kalashnikov JSC at Izhevsk. Easily recognisable by its underslung tubular high capacity magazine, the Bizon is available in no less than seven forms. Two of these are semi-automatics for security personnel while three are for odd calibres (two for 9 mm Short and one for the old 7.62 mm TT pistol round, the latter model doing away with the tubular magazine by using a 35-round curved box magazine). The two main special forces models are chambered for either 9 x 18 mm Makarov or 9 x 19 mm Parabellum, and even they have sub-marks according to the butt stock arrangements and other differences.

The Kiparis can perhaps be categorised as a machine pistol, while two other more recent weapons most certainly can. They are the Kedr and Klin, although their present production status remains uncertain. The main difference between the two is that the Kedr fires only the standard 9 x 18 mm Makarov round while the Klin can also accommodate the more powerful 57-N-181SN cartridge. Both are compact enough to be carried in a holster.

Unusual among Russian submachine guns is the OTs-22 designed by KBP to fire 9 x 19 mm Parabellum ammunition from the outset. The overall design of this compact weapon (only 250 mm long with the butt folded) follows that of the Israeli Uzi but with stamped metal construction. The OTs designation implies that the OTs-22 is intended for special forces use but for exactly who has yet to emerge.

Perhaps the most unusual of recent Russian sub-machine guns is the PP-90M from the KBP Instrument Design Bureau at Tula -- it was also available from Enterprise Metallist of Uralsk in Kazakhstan. The 9 mm PP-90M is very much a special purposes weapon for it can be folded away to fit into a coat pocket. Apparently based on a US Ares design of some years ago, when folded the PP-90M looks more like a rifle magazine than a weapon. Unfolding the weapon clicks a 30-round box magazine into place and the weapon is ready to fire, the procedure taking but a few seconds. The flip-up sights are rudimentary for the PP-90M is primarily meant for close ranges, firing from the hip.

The PP-90M fires 9 x 19 mm Makarov ammunition while the less common PP-90M1 was developed for export, firing 9 x 19 mm Parabellum.

Before leaving the sub-machine gun scene, mention must be made of the recent category of automatic weapons known as Personal Defence Weapons. Firing ammunition with a power between pistol rounds and the small calibre rifle rounds, personal defence weapons are primarily meant to be issued to second line personnel who, thanks to their activities, are unable to carry something as bulky as a rifle but for whom a pistol would have little combat value. Personal Defence Weapon rounds may be small but they can demonstrate a remarkable ability to penetrate body armours at close ranges. This is one feature that has attracted the attentions of several special force units from Peru to Saudi Arabia.

The only weapon in the personal defence weapon class produced and sold on any scale to date has been the Belgian FN Herstal 5.7 mm Pg0. Firing a 5.7 x 28 mm cartridge, the ergonomically-outlined P90 has a magazine capacity of 50 rounds. The standard 5.7 mm Ball round is designed to transfer its maximum energy potential when it strikes a target as it tends to tumble to inflict maximum impact shock at combat ranges up to 200 m.

The P90 `Flat Top' model has numerous Picatinny rail mounting points for all manner of combat accessories and sights and it can also have a quick-attach sound suppressor. All these attributes render the P90 very suitable for the special forces role.

Pistols

Pistols are no longer as important as military weapons as they were once thought to be but they retain a niche within special forces. Not only do they provide a valuable auxiliary personal weapon but they are often the only weapon that many special forces operatives might be able to carry once they are loaded with radios or other equipment. Pistol selection is always a topic for heated discussion although models intended specifically for special forces personnel are few, but they do exist.

One of the most recent is the pistol designed and produced for the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) by Heckler & Koch. Known as the Mark 23 USSOCOM pistol this bulky semi-automatic is chambered for the 0.45 ACP cartridge. US special force personnel continue to believe that `bigger is best' and so continue to favour the retention of the powerful 0.45 ACP at a time when the rest of the US military establishment has adopted 9 x 19 mm Parabellum. The end result is by any terms a bit of a handful weighing 1.92 kg complete with a full 12-round magazine and the optional quick-attach sound suppressor; a laser pointer is an optional extra.

The USSOCOM pistol may be big but it is reliable. Before acceptance, trial examples had to endure severe testing that required a minimum of 6000 rounds between stoppages. Despite all this, some US special forces personnel still prefer their trusted Colt M1911 and M1911A1 pistols, many of which have been rebuilt several times over the years due to wear and hard use. US Marine Corps special forces units retain M1911A1 pistols that have been `customised' in Marine armouries to meet their particular requirements.

Once again, Russia has developed several special forces pistols. To continue the silent pistol theme, Tsniitochmash and the Tula Ordnance Plant developed the 7.62 mm PSS. This small pistol was derived using experience gained with an earlier silent pistol, the MSP. The PSS fires the same 7.62 x 42 mm SP-4 cartridge as the NRS scouting knife. On firing, the propellant charge forces forward a piston plate that propels a blunt-nosed slug through the barrel. A shoulder at the head of the cartridge case arrests the further progress of the piston plate, sealing all the firing and sound signatures within the cartridge case. The result is a soundless shot, the only noise detectable being the semi-automatic slide operating.

The PSS is a very basic pistol manufactured to a standard that anticipates each weapon will have a limited service life. However, the slug fired has sufficient power to penetrate a steel helmet at 25 m, denoting that the PSS has considerable special forces utility for tasks such as eliminating sentries or deliberate `wet work' (assassinations).

To return to more conventional pistols, the 9 mm P-9 Gurza is used by several Russian internal special forces, including the Military Intelligence Directorate (GRU), who consider they require something more powerful than pistols chambered for the standard 9 x 18 mm Makarov cartridge. The P-9 Gurza uses a special 9 x 21 mm cartridge, the same as that used with the SR-2 sub-machine gun, capable of producing enough muzzle energy to defeat body armour and the exteriors of motor vehicles.

On the smaller calibre side, the OTs-23 Drotik (Javelin) is one of the more remarkable special forces pistols. Another KBP product, it fires the lethal little 5.45 x 18 mm MPTs cartridge which, despite its small size and weight, has a remarkable penetration performance against the Kevlar plates used in body armour. The potential of this round has been utilised to the full in the Drotik for it is in effect a machine pistol with a three-round burst limiter that goes far to check the ammunition-wasting tendencies of most machine pistols. Two features add to the Drotik's potential as a weapon worthy of respect. One is the three-round burst, fired at a cyclic rate of 1700 rds/min. The second is the 24-round magazine capacity, more than enough for most firefights, even if the burst feature is selected (it is also possible to select semi-automatic). It is known that the Drotik has been accepted as a MVD weapon and no doubt other local special forces have it as well.

The MVD also have the OTs-33 Pernach, another machine pistol but this time chambered for the 9 x 18 mm 57-N-181SN cartridge. There is no burst limiter and the cyclic fire rate is 800 rds/min so handling the Pernach is no doubt an interesting experience. Partial control of the muzzle rise that inevitably occurs with machine pistols can be at least somewhat introduced by screwing an optional folding metal shoulder stock onto the base of the pistol grip. The Pernach can take 18- or 27-round box magazines while a laser target indicator can be attached to slots in front of the trigger guard. A suppressor is another possible option.

Several other Russian pistols of recent origin could no doubt fall into the special forces category but there is one that deserves special mention. It is the pistol counterpart of the APS underwater rifle, namely the 4.5 mm SPP-1M. The SPP-1M has four barrels fired in succession by a hammer mechanism that indexes to a fresh barrel every time the trigger is pulled. The long 4.5 mm SPS rounds with their needle-like, drag-stabilised darts, are smaller versions of those used with the 5.66 mm APS rifle and are manually introduced directly into the barrels, once the breech has been opened shotgun-fashion, in four-round clips carried on the person in waterproofed containers. Once again, range and lethal striking performance vary with below-surface depth, a typical figure being 17 metres at a depth of 5 metres. The maximum range when fired out of the water is only 20 metres.

Machine Guns

As a general rule, the machine guns adopted by special forces differ little from standard service issue. They tend to be of the lightest models available for portability but if a vehicle-mounted machine gun is required there is usually a low weight restriction so any standard model can be used unaltered.

However, there is one particular light machine gun that has been converted specifically for special forces issue, the Belgian FN Herstal Minimi. The US armed forces have adopted the Minimi as their 5.56 nun M249 Squad Assault Weapon (Saw). Weighing in at 6.65 kg, many would have thought that this would be light enough for any field application but the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM again) considered otherwise and asked FN Herstal to modify the Minimi to meet their requirements.

The result: the SPW, of which an initial total of 2506 will be procured. The SPW has a telescopic butt stock to reduce the overall length and various items used on the base M249 Saw have been omitted. These include the carrying handle and tripod mounting points, while the usual provision for the Saw to feed ammunition from M16 pattern box magazines as well as belts has been omitted on the SPW. One major change on the SPW is a revised gas-operating system with fewer parts. Other modifications include the provision of three MIL-STD-1913 Picatinny rails on the forestock in addition to the rail over the receiver. The overall weight of the SPW is reduced to 5.7 kg.

The main combat role of the SPW will no doubt be that of `get out of trouble fast' by delivering masses of firepower when things get rough. It will also provide a light and handy alternative to another heavier machine gun known to have been issued to the US Navy Seals, namely the 7.62 mm M60E3. Essentially a lightened version of the venerable M60 machine gun series, the M60E3 was a Saco Defense product until it transferred to US Ordnance of Sparks, Nevada. A lightweight barrel is available in addition to the usual sustained fire alternative and various other items, such as a foregrip, have been added to make the weapon more convenient to handle and fire. An M60E3 kit can convert any standard M60 gun to an M60E3.

Grenade Launchers and Grenades

The introduction of the low velocity grenade has given armed forces the ability to project a lethal fragmenting body to a range of 400 m or so, a considerable improvement over the 25 m or thereabouts of the hand grenade. The early stand-alone projectors, such as the M79, are now regarded as obsolescent, apart from policing and similar duties, as they have been replaced by the far more convenient underslung rifle-mounted launchers such as the M203, as they do not require a dedicated user/carrier. One or two M203 pattern launchers scattered among any infantry or special forces squad considerably enhances its firepower potential at little cost in weight or bulk.

The grenade launcher is a universal special forces weapon but the patterns involved remain unchanged from the usual issue. While the M203 is dedicated to the M16 rifle series, similar models such as the M203PI from R/M Equipment of Miami, Florida, can be secured to just about any assault rifle or carbine by the introduction of an interface mounting rail. In addition, just about every nation, East and West, with a pretension to a small arms industry produces their own grenade launcher.

The Western Bloc 40 mm low velocity grenade was once available in a wide array of types, from smoke marker to various forms of HE. These days the accent is on the HEDP pattern based on the US M433, even though the anti-armour performance is such that it is viable only against the more lightly armoured vehicles. While Western Bloc grenades rely on the original US pattern with their propellant cases, the Eastern Bloc relies on the VOG-25 series 40 mm grenades with their integral propellant for both propulsion and in-flight spin-stabilisation. The usual Eastern Bloc launcher is based around the GP-25 Kastyor, although some variants, such as the GP-97 used on the 7.62 mm A-91M rifle, are special to type.

Special forces hand grenades also happen to be of the standard patterns, although it is noticeable that they tend to make more use of attacking grenades, with their flash/bang and minimal fragmentation. At all times any special forces unit will retain at least a few coloured smoke grenades to denote their location or for target marking.

Rifle grenades have made something of a comeback in recent years as launching methods have been revised to avoid placing too much stress on the host rifle. Only a relative few manufacturers continue to offer rifle grenades although those that do offer a wide range of products, including HE, smoke, illuminating and even anti-armour grenades. It has to be accepted that the small warheads, all that can be accommodated on rifle grenades, may not be as effective as warheads carried by other systems but they do provide users, including special forces personnel, with an extension of stand-off attacking and defensive firepower potential.

FN Herstal offers its Bullet-Thru rifle grenades that can be launched safely using ordinary ball rounds. Mecar of Belgium also produces a rifle grenade family that includes the Claw, a grenade for 5.56 mm rifles combining HE fragmentation with an anti-armour shaped charge. Perhaps the largest manufacturer of rifle grenades is IMI of Israel, while Instalaza of Zaragoza, Spain is another prolific manufacturer.

One Israeli rifle grenade oddity deserves special mention. It is the Rafael Simon, designed specifically to `open' doors during internal security and special forces operations. Simon has a long stand-off rod extending some distance forward of a specially-shaped disc of explosive. After launch from a range of up to 40 m, as the standoff rod strikes the door the explosive disc directs a sharp blast wave forwards to force the target door off its frame and leave the way open for an attacking team to enter. Blast effects to the rear are minimal. Simon has been purchased by the US Marine Corps.

Other Weapons

Explosives are very much a part of the special forces weapon holdings. They are used for just about every aspect of demolition activity that can be conceived but, apart from a few very specialised long range ignition control devices, the components involved are usually standard explosive demolition blocks, connectors and other associated items.

However, one US special forces item deserves mention, the Selectable Lightweight Attack Munition (Slam). Developed by Alliant Techsystems (ATK) the Slam is a multi-purpose munition with one function involving demolitions, either self-timed or using an orthodox command device and blasting cap via a cable. As it contains a heavy metal plate transposing into a pre-formed fragment on firing, by turning a switch to the appropriate position the Slam can also function as an anti-armour mine under the control of a magnetic fuze or as an off-route anti-armour mine using a trip wire. Weighing only one kg, the Slam has many attractions for special forces, especially as it has a self-neutralising function after a preset period. After self-neutralisation the Slam remains available for reuse.

Another ATK product that falls into the mine warfare bracket is the M86 Pursuit Deterrent Munition, the PDM. This is based on single anti-personnel mine `wedge' from a 155 mm Area Denial Artillery Munition, normally dispensed in quantity over an artillery target area. For special forces applications the PDM is coupled with a hand grenade pattern fuze, to be scattered in the path of pursuers during a rapid withdrawal. Once the fuze functions, after a one minute delay, seven trip wires are deployed out to a radius of seven m. Deflecting any one of those tripwires will cause a small metal sphere to be launched upwards from the wedge, to detonate and scatter lethal fragments. The future of the PDM may be in doubt in view of the anti-personnel land mine treaties now in force but it would be surprising if munitions like it are not retained by some special forces.
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Publication:Armada International
Date:Feb 1, 2001
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