Lighten the Soldier’s Load
ABOVE: Explosively bonded aluminum and stainless steel Model 1911 .45ACP by Uselton Arms Manufacturing offers a weight savings of 33% over a conventional steel frame and slide.
Militaries of the world always are looking for a lighter weapon and improved ammunition lethality, but some firearms and the rounds they fire leave little room for improvement. Gene Stoner’s AR-15 design has been around since the early 1960s and has proven itself to be one of history’s most versatile and modifiable guns ever built. Numerous manufacturers provide the M16 to the U.S. military as its main assault rifle and many U.S. allies around the world have adopted the M16 as well. Since the early days, semiautomatic AR versions also have been built by a multitude of manufacturers for sporting purposes. The semiautomatic sport AR has nearly 98% parts interchangeability with the military’s automatic-fire versions. Can the AR be made lighter without sacrificing performance and reliability? First, consider the following background information.
In the mid-1990s, Program Executive Office – Soldier (PEO – Soldier), the U.S. Army’s lead for acquisition of all small arms service-wide, issued an edict to “lighten the soldier’s load.” Lightening the load a soldier carries into combat became essential as the soldier’s load grew from a rifle, ammunition and a day pack, containing a change of socks and some rations, to include individual communications, navigation, target designation, night vision, etc., along with loads of batteries to power it all. It is no secret that carrying a heavy combat load through the desert and mountains, along with the harsh temperature extremes encountered in the Middle East, is physically demanding. The immediately logical answer was to lighten the load carried. PEO-Soldier began looking at ways to shave off weight in everything the soldier carried and wore, but warfare was evolving.
Technological advancements in sights, lights and communications all require a power source, not to mention the dead weight of the equipment itself. That means the soldier carries more items, and more items have more weight. So, it seems for every ounce of weight that can be shaved off a weapon or a piece of kit, it has been replaced by a new “must have” gadget that, in some way, provides the individual soldier a combat edge. Besides, even if the gadgetry doesn’t provide an actual combat advantage, it looks cool hanging on a Picatinny rail, and that alone is ample justification to carry it.
Excepting the U.S. Marine Corps, gone are the days of honing individual soldier marksmanship skills using basic open sights. Instead of training the soldier to run up a hill and time his shots between heartbeats; target ranging, weapon stabilization, laser spotting and fire control systems are relied upon. The fact that the main battle weapon issued is still launching a 55 or 62 grain, 5.56 round has gone largely unchallenged. All these Gucci gadgets, when hung on the AR’s rails, provide the soldier a “cool looking” assault rifle, but hardly provide him more lethality or knockdown power.
So why not change the rifle and/or the caliber it launches? Given adequate funding, that seems superficially easy to accomplish, but it isn’t as easy as one might believe. A one to one replacement, besides being cost prohibitive, would involve a logistical nightmare. The logistics supply chain, with regard to stockpiled 5.56 ammunition, spare weapon parts, unique maintenance tools and all the other unique AR aftermarket items used like optics, magazines, sound suppressors, rail systems, etc., that are made specifically for AR compatibility and ergonomics, would be destroyed or surplused at a significant loss.
A restrictive legal reality also exists that many are unaware of. Under the terms of the NATO Treaty, the 28 independent nations who compose it must only use battle rifles (and pistols) that fire NATO standard ammunition. NATO-common rounds like the 5.56x45mm, 7.62x51mm and 9mm Luger are examples. Furthermore, in the 1970s during the height of the Cold War and NATO’s finest hour, the U.S. Congress passed a law that required U.S. Forces to be fully interoperable with NATO. At the time it made sense, assuming that U.S. Forces would be fighting beside their NATO allies on the plains of Europe in an all out effort to stop an overwhelming westward Soviet advance. But times have changed and neither the NATO treaty nor the standing U.S. law has kept pace.
Today, several basic realities are being overlooked. Our nation’s future opponents likely will be wearing body armor. Therefore, we need a battle rifle that will defeat body armor. That of course means that any battle rifle that can defeat the enemy’s body armor can be picked up and used against our troops. Therein lies the first conundrum in the puzzle to lighten the soldier’s load. We need a weapon that will effectively defeat the enemy but can’t be used against us.
Secondly, there are numerous rounds available that out perform the NATO standard 5.56 and 7.62 rounds. The problem is that by treaty and by law new rounds cannot be adopted for general NATO use without the unanimous approval of every NATO member-nation. A real-world example of this erupted in the late 1990s when FN-Herstal, a Belgium arms company, created the FN Five-seveN pistol and the P-90 submachine gun that both fired FN’s unique 5.7x28mm round. This round is impressively lethal and burns through soft body armor like a hot knife through butter. Imagine the ability to defeat soft body armor with a pistol or a sub-gun.
At about the same time, Germany’s Heckler and Koch debuted their 4.6x30mm round as a direct competitor to FN’s 5.7x28mm round. Both Belgium and Germany are NATO members and each blocked unanimous NATO approval of the other’s newest round. That relegated the FN 5.7 round, for example, to the special purpose category as far as military use goes, and a purgatory label that marked it forever as a law enforcement and sporting round. H&K’s 4.6 round never made it into the mainstream even though its performance was similar. Try buying a box of HK’s 4.6 rounds today.
What then does it take for unanimous NATO-nation approval? Perhaps a more basic question is why is NATO still viable today? The short answer is that, for a variety of reasons, it isn’t. NATO was created for the sole purpose of defending Western Europe against Soviet invasion. The Cold War, along with the Soviet Empire, has been over for more than two decades. Some NATO-member nations have provided token troops to the U.S.’s Middle East conquest but only as a token show of support for an ally they grudgingly support in a theater of war they abhor. Yet, NATO nations remain bound to a treaty of mutual support against a common enemy that no longer exists. And they all still continue to arm their militaries with weapons that fire NATO-approved rounds even though those rounds may not meet the future combat challenge.
With the above in mind, there is an exception that allows NATO member-nations to use any rounds they choose (outside the NATO interoperability requirement) and that is known as “special purpose use.” U. S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is well aware of this exception and has taken advantage of it by providing its special operations forces with some of the most lethal bullet launchers, both rifles and pistols, available today. In doing so, SOCOM operates outside the bounds of PEO-Soldier as the lead for U.S. military small arms procurement and the interoperability restrictions binding the NATO treaty.
PEO-Soldier recently announced its quest to identify and ultimately procure a replacement pistol for the Beretta M9. They are seeking a modular, general use pistol that is both lighter and more lethal than the M9. They specified that it be made from metal, immediately disqualifying polymer composite hybrids. The logic in specifying the construction material reflects little to no wisdom, but that’s not necessarily surprising.
It’s a given that PEO-Soldier is already restricted by NATO treaty and U.S. law as to the round the gun can fire (that’s why the U.S. military ended up with a 9mm-firing pistol in the first place). Therefore, assuming that the M9 replacement will also fire a NATO 9x19mm Luger round, increased lethality is a moot point to argue. True, there are some very “hot” 9x19mm rounds available. The problem is they’re not NATO-approved and therefore not available for general use.
Finding a lighter pistol with improved accuracy, maintainability, reliability and life span is achievable but probably not cost effective. The Beretta M9 was adopted as Department of Defense’s service pistol in the early 1980s, replacing the tried and proven Model 1911 .45 ACP, an all steel gun. Beretta, an Italian company, made DoD pistol history by winning the contract with its high capacity double stack magazine, aluminum lower frame, topped with a steel slide M9. The original test guns (test models were the Beretta 92S and 92F) had a billet-machined steel slide and they proved reliable during joint service testing. Once Beretta won the contract and began mass-producing the M9, they changed their slide manufacturing process from using a machined billet to a sintered slide.
Sintering is a process that uses powdered metal that is compressed under tons of pressure in a mold. A part can be molded with very close tolerances that only require minimal machining. Sintering saved Beretta time and money because the slides could be produced faster than billet machining and there was little to no waste. The problem was that the sintered slides were brittle and many times fractured upon the slide’s back recoil stroke, launching a one inch chunk of the slide’s most rearward section
into the shooter’s face.
Beretta’s immediate solution was to provide extra slides with a safety notice that recommended a new slide replacement every 2,500 rounds. That meant every few days at the range required a slide replacement. As impractical as this was, it bought Beretta time to resolve the annealing problem in their slide sintering process. Since that time, Beretta has proven its oats, as has their M9 pistol.
What might PEO-Soldier find today? It’s now 2015 and sintering metals for weapon applications are perfected and proven in combat conditions. The main detractor remaining is that sintering doesn’t shave weight off the firearm. The weight saving cutting edge of firearms metallurgy today revolves around exotic metal alloys like titanium and magnesium and the explosive bonding process (bonding aluminum or titanium to stainless steel) that has only recently come to light for use in firearms.
Explosively bonded metal billets appear to provide a best available, weight-saving solution at a cost just slightly more expensive per billet than the all steel counterpart. The explosive bonding first was observed around the late 1800s with the advent of high (velocity) explosives. The explosive bonding process is used to bond two dissimilar metals together at the molecular level, e.g., aluminum and stainless, that could not otherwise be permanently bonded. It is achieved by simply placing the two dissimilar metals in contact with one another on an anvil. A measured quantity of high explosives is placed on top of the metal stack and detonated. The extreme pressure (hundreds of thousands of pounds per square inch) created by the explosives slamming the two metals together creates an inseparable molecular bond (not a weld).
One U.S. arms manufacturer, Uselton Arms Manufacturing, Inc. (www.useltonarms.com), located in Franklin, Tennessee, currently builds explosively bonded aluminum and stainless steel Model 1911 .45 ACP pistols. These pistols are machined from explosively bonded aluminum and stainless billets so that the slide and lower frame wear surfaces meet on stainless steel and the rest of the slide and lower frame are aluminum alloy. This affords the Uselton Arms, Model 1911, a 34 percent weight savings without sacrificing even the slightest reliability or life expectancy associated with an all steel gun. Better yet, conventional 1911 parts are still fully interchangeable with Uselton’s explosively-bonded 1911 lower frame and slide.
The use of exotic alloys like titanium and magnesium in firearms save weight but they’re generally expensive metals compared to steel, and some require exotic casting, machining and fabrication processes. That said, when ceramic coating is applied, their wear characteristics approach steel with almost half the weight.
Mag Tactical Systems (www.magtacticalsystems.com/) and Uselton Arms recently achieved exciting metallurgical advancements by producing a proprietary AR magnesium alloy upper and lower with significant weight saving. Here’s a comparison. A standard 7075 aluminum upper (stripped) weighs 8.7 ounces and a standard 7075 aluminum lower (stripped) weighs 8.4 ounces for a combined weight of 17.1 ounces. The MagTac/Uselton magnesium alloy upper (stripped) weighs 3 ounces and their magnesium lower (stripped) weighs 3.2 ounces for a combined weight of just 6.2 ounces. That is a significant weight savings without sacrificing performance or gun life expectancy.
This unique proprietary magnesium alloy contains a fire retardant to prevent the ignition hazard conventional magnesium presents. Fully built like an M4, the MagTac/Uselton magnesium alloy AR weighs only 4 pounds compared to the 6.5 pound conventional aluminum AR.
The application of these alloys for significant weight saving could be applied across nearly every man-portable weapon, in addition to most hardware in the war fighter’s inventory. By simply substituting the materials of construction, significant weight savings on two well-known weapons (Model 1911 pistol and the M4 assault rifle) could be applied to most weapons in the inventory in a cost effective manner. Another true advantage is that the weapons remain fully interoperable with all currently available spare parts (and build kits), as well as all the other aftermarket “cool stuff.”
PEO-Soldier seriously should consider alloy and explosive bonding for material construction of all future weapons. As MagTac and Uselton already have proven, the ability to make a combat weapon essentially “dishwasher safe for cleaning” without sacrificing performance and material life expectancy, while simultaneously reducing the soldier’s load, is achievable today at minimal cost.