Beryl Tantalsson: The Saga of the Polish Kalashnikov Continues

Like Father, Like Son
The 5.56mm wz.91 Tantal rifle and wz.92 Onyks carbine did not differ much from their 5.45mm counterparts, or “parents.”  Basically, the most remarkable changes were a different magazine and all black furniture, with longitudinal AK-74 style bulges on handguards.  Black plastic furniture, including plastic magazines, became a standard at that time, replacing the picturesque medley of tans and oranges of the early Tantal.  Similar black all-plastic furniture was also fitted to the last batches of the AKMS made in Radom.  The reason for introduction of the plastic magazines in all three calibers (7.62, 5.45 and 5.56) was a prosaic one: Wifama of Lodz, traditional manufacturer of sheet-metal magazines for the Polish small-arms manufacturers had gone bankrupt and magazine manufacture had to be started somewhere else and possibly use some different, cheaper, technology.  A different round brought a slight increase in muzzle velocity (Tantal wz.91: 900 mps vs. 880, Onyks wz.92: 710 mps vs. 700) and energy (wz.91: 1620 vs. 1316 J, wz.92: 1010 vs. 857 Joule) ratings.

Extended ‘T-Bone’ magazine release lever of the wz.2007 Beryl.

Apart from the aesthetical modernization, the only few really new features were brought about in accessories for the Tantal and/or a future 5.56 rifle.  The Industrial Optics Center (Przemyslowe Centrum Optyki, PCO) in Warsaw designed prototype optical (LK-4 and LD-6), collimating (CK-1), laser (WL-1) and NV (PCS-5 Gabro) sights for the new rifle family.

The 5.56mm Project is Reborn
Under the PfP, Poland signed an Individual Partnership Program with NATO, stipulating that the country would join the Pact by the end of decade.  Therefore, the General Staff started several radical reforms in hardware acquisition politics.  In small arms ammunition all post-Soviet calibers were replaced with Western equivalents.  The new intermediate rifle ammo was to be the 5.56×45, replacing both 7.62×39 and 5.45×39.  The former was still used in many units, and there were billions of rounds stored, so the M43 ammo was now considered ‘Limited Standard’ while the 5.45mm was rendered ‘Obsolete’ overnight, manufacture closed, and Tantal rifles were to remain in the units only until meager ammunition stocks lasts – and then replaced with either new 5.56mm rifles or AKMS, whichever is available.  At the same time, two crash programs were initiated: one codenamed ‘Granulit’ at the ZA Mesko SA in Skarzysko-Kamienna, to replicate the 5.56mm SS109 round, and the other, codenamed ‘Beryl’ at ZM Lucznik SA in Radom, to design both an assault rifle and automatic carbine chambered for that ammunition.  At the same time, the PCO in Warsaw was ordered to recalibrate their range of optical and optoelectronic sights according to ballistic data of the new round.  Finally, money was found for ammunition to finish testing of the wz.91/wz.92 system, which was chosen as a base upon which to design the 5.56mm Beryl rifle system.  The testing proved that the proposition was viable, but the new rifle needed a stouter butt and stronger receiver to better withstand repeated rifle grenade firing with a more powerful cartridge.

As early as January, 1995 the ‘Tactical and Technical Requirements’ (TTR) document was prepared for the new rifle by the ZM Lucznik SA, calling for “assault rifle chambered for the NATO-standard 5.56mm cartridge, effective at ranges up to 600 meters against troops and lightly armored vehicles” – the latter meaning that the rife grenade capability was again requested – and separate “short automatic carbine of smallest possible size, intermediate between assault rifle and submachine gun, chambered for NATO-standard 5.56mm cartridge, effective at ranges up to 400 meters against troops and lightly armored vehicles.”

5.56mm Polish assault rifle system, top to bottom: wz.2007 Mini-Beryl automatic sub-carbine, wz.2006 Commando-Beryl automatic carbine for special forces, basic wz.1996 Beryl assault rifle.

The TTR required that Beryl would:

• fire both 5.56mm SS109 (STANAG 4172) and the older M193 ammunition;

• have a trigger mechanism capable of single, burst (three rounds) and cyclic fire;

• fire both NATO 22mm boom inner diameter and Polish Fosforyt rifle grenades;

• be capable of attaching optic and optoelectronic sights of the 5.56mm modernized PCO family (CK-3 collimating, LKA-4 optical, CWL-1 optics with laser and PCS-6 NV)

The overall length of the Beryl with butt extended was not to exceed the limit of 944 mm – the AKM heritage still ruling the size of the rifle racks in barracks and vehicles.  The latter limit was used to extend the barrel from 423 to 457 mm by replacing the Tantal’s grenade launching muzzle attachment with a much simpler and shorter one screwed and pinned upon the extended barrel.  Unfortunately for longer-limbed shooters, the stubby butt was left at the same length.

On April 19, 1995 a contract 35/UBR/95 was signed between the Ministry of National Defense and Lucznik in Radom, stipulating that the manufacturer would finish the design, initiate the manufacturing, furnish and test 11 prototypes of the two weapons (rifle and carbine), finish the qualification testing, prepare the blueprints, manual, instructional posters – all within just 9 months.  The short term suggests the extent to which the ‘new’ weapon would replicate the Tantal.

Olive Green 3rd Generation POPC sight rail with Weaver interface (this is a series-produced version with thumb hole giving access to the receiver cover latch – the prototype had solid rear wall) against the black 4th Generation POPC sight rail fitted with Picatinny interface. Note the higher walls of the 4th Gen sight trough to enable sighting through iron sights.

The deadline was very short, and each minor problem would endanger it.  Indeed, it had to be extended until December 20 because of the problems with a timely delivery of the Israeli TAAS ammunition imported for testing.  After the ammo had finally been delivered and cleared through customs, initial qualification testing was performed in Radom between December 1 and 15, 1995, after which the initial batch was handed over to the Military Ordnance Technology Institute in Zielonka near Warsaw where testing was continued.  The final report listed several minor modifications, due to be introduced on January 31, 1996.  On May 20, 1996 the Ministry deemed both new rifle and carbine fully compliant with the TTR, following which on August 13, 1996 another contract was signed between the MoND and Lucznik for pilot batches (18 rifles and 6 carbines) to be delivered by January, 1997.  After these were delivered on January 20, Lucznik started to manufacture components for the series-production.  On March 20, 1997, the Beryl rifle and carbine were introduced into the inventory of the Polish Army as the “5.56mm karabin szturmowy wzór 1996 Beryl” (5.56mm M1997 Beryl Assault Rifle) and “5.56mm karabinek automatyczny wzór 1996 Mini-Beryl” (5.56mm M1996 Mini-Beryl Automatic Carbine), along with Fosforyt rifle grenades and PCO sight family.

Beryl – The First 10 Years
Despite Zaklady Mechaniczne Lucznik SA going bankrupt and being liquidated in 2002, the 5.56mm wz.1996 Beryl assault rifle was still manufactured for the Polish Army.  Out of the rubble of the ZM Lucznik SA a new company emerged, using the pre-war name of Fabryka Broni w Radomiu (Radom Arms Factory) together with the triangular FB logo replacing the Communist era Works 11 logo of ‘11 in oval’ cartouche.  The demand for its smaller twin brother, the wz.96 Mini-Beryl automatic carbine was initially rather far from overwhelming.

In reality, the Tantal and Beryl are distinguished only by an extended barrel in different caliber, a 5.56mm magazine, new buttstock and handguard.  For the Beryl a new optical sight attachment support was devised as an interface between the new rifle and the PCO’s sighting devices family.  This sight rail, called ‘Podstawa Optycznych Przyrzadow Celowniczych’ (Optical Sight Mounting Interface), or POPC for short, was attached over the receiver instead of the customary Kalashnikov’s side rail.

This trooper crouching behind the Hesko-Bastion Concertainer Revetment Module is a member of the Polish 2nd combat tour in Iraq, spring of 2004. His rifle is a wz.96 with only a carrying strap changed. Note gloves, removing the need to use rags worn on the rifles of the 1st tour to reduce the temperature of the sun-baked rifles, which was giving brass the fits on seeing.

The cold-forged, hard-chrome lined 457 mm (18 inch) barrel had six grooves, right hand twist, of the universal 228 mm (9 inch) pitch, enabling it to use both the SS109/M855 NATO standard or older M193 ammunition.  Up to this date, the Polish Army didn’t have an opportunity to use that feature, as the Polish 5.56×45 ammunition (RS steel-cored ball and SM tracer) were fully SS109/L110 compatible.  In view of the recent deployment of the Polish troops to Chad, where their logistical support would be provided by the French, it would be an interesting opportunity to test the Beryl’s ‘universal-pitched’ barrels in actual firing the M193 ammunition, as France still has the M193-only FAMAS F1 rifle as their basic infantry weapon.  The muzzle device combining flash hider, rifle grenade spigot and muzzle compensator is much shorter than the Tantal’s, and it is permanently fastened (pressed onto and secured with pins) to the barrel.  The actual muzzle of the muzzle device is threaded to attach the blank firing attachment.

The receivers are differing with small details only.  The stock hinge was beefed-up and modified to take a new model stock, fitted with the POPC anchor point, and riveted with an additional, third rivet, to make up for stronger ammunition.

The ash-poker buttstock of the Tantal was dispensed with in Beryl, replaced by a much more elegant twin tube design resembling the Galil stock.  It folds to the right side of the receiver just like in Tantal.  The stock struts were initially (until 1999) covered with shrinking plastic tubes, giving much better thermal insulation, both from cold in the winter and – as painfully realized at the beginning of the Polish troops deployment in Iraq – from the heat as well.  The two tubes are connected with a steel buttplate covered with a thick rubber shoe.  The stock latch is much improved upon as compared with the Tantal.  The new model latch was copied from the Swiss SIG SG-550, which also influenced the G36 stock hinge.  The stock is no longer positively latched when folded.  In Beryl, one does not have to press the button to extend the stock.  All one has to do is grab and pull, or give it a slap with left hand.

The short-lived civilian-legal version of the wz.96 rifle. Note the folding front sight post and sight rail extending to the rear.

The POPC sight rail is one of the most extraordinary points of the Beryl rifle, being complicated to the point of denying the very purpose of its existence.  It is attached in a very stable way by inserting two front prongs into the grooves milled at the sight base and latching the rear end with an eccentric latch over the special pin provided on the stock hinge.  Unfortunately, the POPC was fitted with PCO’s own proprietary rail interface, which precluded mounting any aftermarket sight.  As a further point of note, the PCO sights had no means of moving the aiming mark.  To zero the weapon, it was the POPC that got fitted with internal, eccentric controls for windage and elevation, going back to the times of the Civil War-vintage Malcolm Telescopic Sights with its sight base micrometric regulation.  These were obviously designed by some dyed-in-the-wool artillerymen, the scales being marked in mils.  This was definitively not a user-friendly design, requiring as many as two tools to set (a flat screwdriver and a hexagonal wrench) and requiring fast mathematics from the poor guy trying to zero his rifle.  And he had to constantly re-zero it, after each field stripping, as one had to remove the whole contraption any time the weapon was cleaned.  And it was only zeroable to one and only one distance at a time – there were no stadia signs provided at the sighting mark.

All of these drawbacks were initially hidden, as POPC and optical sights on a mere assault rifle were few and far between in the Polish Army.  But after Poland joined NATO and started to implement NATO procedures and take part in the overseas missions, this was to change rapidly.  Starting with the first Polish contingents to the ISAF in Afghanistan (March, 2002) and Iraq (as of May, 2003), the troops started to flood the General Staff with requirements for optical and red dot sights.  Very soon it was obvious that the original POPC was not compatible with the Mil-Std-1913, or Picatinny rail attachments.  Ironically, the POPC was early on designed to have one of both interfaces, but as the export plans for Beryl were shelved, so was the Picatinny-compatible POPC.

The handguard was modified to allow attachment of the 40mm wz.74 Pallad grenade launcher on each rifle.  In Tantal, a special grenade launcher-handguard was required to attach one.  Handguard, gas tube and upper handguard attachments were left as they were in late Tantal.  The rifle was fitted for rifle grenade launching, and Polish rifle grenades (275 gram ‘GNPO’ HEDP grenade, 320 gram ‘NGOs-93’ parachute flare, 220 gram ‘NGZ-93’ incendiary grenade and ‘NGD-93’ smoke) are all fired with a ball cartridge.

The only big difference in the actual individual rifle kit is the cleaning rod: no longer carried under the barrel the AK-way, but now carried in two sections inside the magazine pouch.

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