Editorial Special: Polymer-Cased Ammunition Ammunition Diet Fad
It’s just not right. Someone should do something to stop the bullying. The U.S. government fat-shaming ammunition has got to stop. The messages are loud and clear:
- S. Navy used to cube out ships, now they weigh out ships. Lighten the load fatso.
- 20%-30% lighter ammunition could increase a helicopter strike team by one soldier. One more could mean success or failure on a critical mission. Get lean!
- We need to lighten the load of the soldier, so he can carry other stuff like batteries and electronics!
Ammo is too fat, and it needs to go on a diet!
The ammunition diet fad—aka lightweight ammunition initiatives—has been a key focus for over 20 years within the U.S. government. The recent award of the 6.8 caliber Next Generation Squad Weapon (NGSW) program is downselected to three players with lightweight ammo in mind. To spice things up the government is pushing 6.8 caliber to also add in a little “overmatch” against the 7.62×39 in engagement distance.
The new kid on the block is True Velocity, Inc., with a composite polymer hybrid cartridge. Its weapon partner is General Dynamics (GD). The oldest dog in the game is Textron, with its polymer-cased telescoped cartridge and Winchester as its ammunition load, assemble and pack partner. Textron has been working the Lightweight Small Arms Technology (LSAT) in 5.56 for nearly 2 decades and has been designing ammo for the government for over 50 years. SIG SAUER rounds out the group with a bi-metal cartridge design and will go the battle alone for ammo/weapon design and assembly. These awards are the culmination of decades of work and hundreds of millions of dollars of public/private development funding in ammunition to shave off those unwanted pounds.
Two of the three awardees have a polymer/plastic design. Will they win the competition? Is the future finally here to depart from the solid brass cartridge design as used since Sharps rifles of the 1860s? Can ammo get skinny and still meet the rugged demands of the government? Does the commercial consumer care about fat ammo? Will the 6.8 replace 5.56 as the high-volume caliber of the U.S. Army?
Plastic injection molding was invented in 1872. Plastic ammunition goes back to at least WWII; however, there is not a lot of easy-access information about all the experiments that the government did in this area. There were multiple patents in the early 1950s. One of the first commercial/government endeavors was the Dardick Tround. Dardick Corp. (1954–1962) created multiple calibers in a revolver-like device from .38 to 30mm that was rather short-lived. My father remembers testing rounds in the 1960’s time frame. They worked well; however, they never took off. Plastic shotshell ammunition has been around since the 1960s.
I will credit my father with an accurate prediction from the early 1990s when we consulted with some of the early polymer designs. In his opinion, when you are trying to make plastic act like brass, you are going to have problems. A redesign of the weapon chamber with significantly thicker neck walls would allow plastic to function with less technical issues. The three winners have held to this principle with both polymer designs not having a traditional neck and the SIG SAUER design sticking with a brass neck.
The initial technical challenge with most of the early plastic ammunition was the splitting of the case neck wall. Plastic is not as strong as brass or steel when only .008-inch thick. The latest generation of polymer materials has performed much `better; however, they still can be an issue. All three of the NGSWs seem to have a handle on this issue, with kudos to True Velocity for the design departure from having a neck at all, while still looking close to a traditional cartridge case.
The challenge of the last decade is how the ammunition handled the extreme temperature ranges of Department of Defense (DOD) testing. MAC, LLC, and its polymer body and brass head have been very successful in this area with the USMC. MAC has not been able to meet 100% of the U.S. Army’s requirements, therefore it has not been able to make the jump outside of the .50 caliber for adoption. I’m not 100% convinced that interagency politics are not a significant factor in MAC not being fully fielded. The future will tell how the three players fair in the temperature battle.
The government’s success record on these experimental programs in small/medium caliber is very good but not 100% successful. The Objective Individual Combat Weapon (OICW) from the early 2000s was not successful with over $772M in funding. The departure from traditional cartridge case manufacturing technology and equipment has been of questionable success on the Setpoint case cells at the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant. Setpoint is basically out of the business and appears to not be in consideration for any future equipment. Insider scuttlebutt is that if the government had to do it over again it would not have chosen Setpoint. The 40mm day/night thermal impact/marking improvement program is pushing $500M in funding and was recently placed under a “stop-work” order due to increased occurrence of range fires. Range fire prevention was one of the key performance criteria, and chemiluminescence with ZERO potential of range fires lost out to pyrophoricity, which had a high probability of causing range fires and other round/weapon safety issues. Therefore, the probability of the NGSW beginning successfully is not a lock. All of the three efforts could fail or the government could run out of funding (it happens) before a final solution.
The funding for these programs has been enormous; however, not enough to get the items into full fielding. The cost to get to a Total Readiness Level 9 is beyond expensive. The NGSW had nearly a dozen bidders to be down-selected to three. It is estimated that each of the original bidders spent at least $1M to $30M of their own money to get to the place where they could bid. This does not include prior U.S. government funding they might have received.
The weapons will also be a funding challenge for the government. Funding will limit the speed at which it can purchase the two different proposed weapons once selected. The cost of the accessories on the weapons will cost money. The cost of the ammo will be more expensive than 5.56, which it will replace. This will also limit the rate at which the government can field the weapons and ammo.
Per the Army’s Program Manager–Maneuver Ammunition Systems (PM-MAS), the NGSW ammunition will be built at Lake City Army Ammunition Plant. This is going to require multiple pools of funding to make this happen. There will need to be facilities funding to build a new building complex, which I estimate at $200M–$500M depending on the size of the effort, and falls outside of the PM-MAS funding pool. [Jay’s edit:] There will need to be new production equipment at Lake City to manufacture any of the current three possible winners. The U.S. government will need to scrap/decommission some to all of the existing equipment since they will not be used to manufacture these rounds. This will cost an estimated $50M–$500M depending on the initial ramp-up time frame, type of equipment, number of lines, final design and long-term requirements. There will need to be testing equipment that might require some facility money to modify buildings, test weapon money and probably a few areas I am forgetting.
All of these areas need to be funded in conjunction with one another to have this program proceed at a reasonable pace. If you have the ammo manufacturing equipment funding without the weapon funding, the program will drag on without success. In short, we have a long way to go, even if all the designs passed all the gates.
Pro and Cons of Each Team
Each of the cartridge designs has its own niche. The tough questions are: What does the Army want for the ammo and the weapons? What is a key criterion right now that may be waived or reduced later? Is the Squad Automatic Weapon version more important than the carbine? Is weight more important than function? Here are this author’s opinions:
SIG SAUER—SIG is the least experimental and least deviated from traditional brass cases. SIG has the best chance of meeting all the cartridge functional criteria since there is no plastic. The cartridge should be easier to manufacture. It seems to offer the least weight savings. SIG has been on a roll with the win in the Army Pistol competition. It has decades of know-how to make outstanding weapons, and it seems to know what the customer wants and can get close enough to win a competition. SIG is large enough to support dumping a bunch more of its $228M in annual revenue into the program. It is the small guy on the block in terms of revenue. Is there enough defense revenue to support a win if needed?
True Velocity—It has the most experimental design, as this iteration of their ammo only came out just in time for the competition. The lack of a thin neck wall problem is averted with the new design; however, does it create other problems? How easy is it to manufacture repeatedly? Right now the cartridge wins the “cool factor;” however will the momentum last through the competition? Their claimed 30%-plus weight savings, heat reduction and tighter standard deviation are advantages. True Velocity claims GD is not known for wildly creative weapon designs, and it doesn’t make the volume of weapons that SIG does. True Velocity is individually the low man on revenue, estimated under $20M. Its partnership with GD Ordnance & Tactical Systems brings True Velocity into the $2B-plus range (GD total revenue is $36B); therefore, depending on the relationship, the private funding might be there to support the program, if needed.
Textron—Its ammunition design is not experimental, but it has never hit full-rate production. We (MAST Technology) did a run of around 300,000 units in 2012, and to the best of my knowledge, there has not been another run of this size. How easy will the round be to manufacture for Winchester? One functional issue could be that the cases could be mistaken for the top or bottom of the round in the dark with gloves on. Can Textron fight off Murphy ’s Law to win? On the weapon side, Textron does not have the small-caliber weapon experience of SIG or GD. The revolver-like design seems sound; however, can it stand up to the other rigors of U.S. government testing? Textron does have an extensive background in the design and development of experimental ammunition for the U.S. government going back to the 1960s. Textron is $13B in revenue, so it can contribute significantly more than the other players, if needed.
Below is my ranking system. It does not correlate with the government evaluation criteria. Common sense may or may not be a factor in the final decision. I will not declare a winner, because it only matters what the government wants in the end and what sacrifices it is willing to accept or not accept. Mere mortals may not fully understand all the evaluation factors.
|Ammo – SIG SAUER Weapon –SIG SAUER||Ammo – Winchester Loading
Weapon – Textron
|Ammo – True Velocity
Weapon – General Dynamics
|Least Experimental Cartridge||1||2||3|
|U.S. Government Small Cal. Weapon Experience||1||3||2|
|U.S. Government Ammo Experience||2||1||3 – GD not on ammo|
|Ammo Design Experience||2||1||3|
|Ammo Program Risk||1||2||3|
|Weapon Program Risk||1||3||2|
If the 6.8 program succeeds, the 5.56 usage would be reduced. There would need to be another major decision to replace the 5.56 with the 6.8. Several years ago, the Army was saying it needed to reduce the number of round types to reduce the inventory, and then a couple years later it wanted to add “training-only,” small-caliber ammunition. They seem to change their minds quite a bit. In addition, when 5.56 and 7.62 NATO rounds became the calibers of choice in the late 1950s/early 1960s, .30-06 was still in production until the mid-1970s at Lake City. So, we will probably have 5.56 for a long time even if it all goes perfectly.
Weighing in on all the factors discussed above, my gut says that SIG SAUER is in the best position to win the NGSW; however, it depends on what the Army wants. A sexy new design that can pass the entire evaluation-criteria lower threshold could easily win, too. If the design just passes the threshold criteria, it might not matter that the SIG passes at a much higher level. Overall I give the Army program a 91% chance of success. My main rationale is there are too many cooks in the kitchen to bring the program to a quick finish and get the ammo skinny. I don’t believe consumers care. They want cheap ammo and will not pay for expensive plastic ammo.
On the other hand, I am surprised that 100% steel or stainless steel solid cases were not in the mix. They have been around nearly as long as brass. There have been trillions of rounds of steel ammo built and successfully fired in the 100 million-plus AK-47s that have been built since 1946. The cartridge manufacturing equipment could be converted to run steel rather than re-inventing the wheel in the manufacturing process. The raw material is cheaper. I believe the negative connotation that steel gets is largely not supported by fact, rather opinion. The average American gun enthusiast or U.S. soldier does not want to admit that Uncle Joe Stalin does ammo and guns better than Uncle Sam. Such heresy would be un-American.