Published in the December 2020/January 2021 issue – Small arms manufacturers within Europe and the Americas are vying in design and adaptability.
Small arms development trends have for centuries been primarily led by Europe joined much later by the United States. The use of European weapons in an army was once considered the mark of a modern force.
As more international small arms developers emerged, and as a result of private industry or government arsenal initiatives, armies began to adopt a wider range of weapons, not just those developed in Europe or by their home country.
The move to mass production, especially in response to major conflicts, resulted in large numbers of weapons being available at highly economical prices or offered as military assistance by major powers. Yet prestige remains among numerous national arms manufacturers, which is often linked to a particular type of weapon.
Despite this ‘small arms nationalism’, in examining the weapons that are being developed and fielded clear trends become evident that cut across various designs. Examining these influences offers insights not only into the evolving capabilities of individual weapons but on the tactics of units equipped with them.
A small arms manufacturer, over time, can become closely identified with one or more armies. Such companies demonstrate a sound understanding of that army’s requirements, repeatedly winning contracts to supply their various small arms. One such company is Germany’s Heckler & Koch (H&K) which has become the supplier of choice for not only the German Bundeswehr but for a number of other militaries with many of its weapons manufactured under license. H&K has supplied the Army since 1959 with the 7.62mm Gewehr 3 through the 5.56mm G36 which has been in service since 1996. The G36 is offered in over six configurations from a 615mm (24.2 inch) compact G36K carbine to the MG-36, a squad machine gun with a 100 round Beta C-magazine.
Reports of overheating issues with the G36, which by some later accounts appeared unfounded, caused the German Ministry of Defence to issue a tender for a new weapon. However, by 2017 this competition experienced several setbacks when industry candidates failed to meet mandatory requirements. This was considered surprising in that entrants included weapons like the HK416, HK433 and Sig Sauer MCX, arms that had been adopted by other militaries. The HK416 had already been selected by the US Marine Corps (USMC) and French Army among others. A subsequent competition saw a number of manufacturers dropping out and expressing concern over the published requirements. Finally, on 14 September, 2020 the selection of Haenel’s MK556 was announced as the future assault rifle. The weapon is a fully automatic version of the company’s CR223 already used by police forces in Germany and other national law-enforcement agencies. It is 5.56mm patterned in the AR-15 style and includes features such as the accessory rail and adjustable sock that have become expected as standard on modern combat rifles.
The French selected the HK416 to replace their local GIAT designed FAMAS introduced in 1970s while the USMC, initially fielding it as a Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW), then chose to expand this by adopting it as the standard combat rifle for all infantrymen. The HK416 uses an HK-proprietary short-stroke gas piston system derived from the HK G36 (similar to that of the AR-18) rather than the AR-15’s concentric to bore gas piston system. This approach reduces heat buildup and fouling of the bolt carrier which increases reliability. H&K reported that the HK416 fired 10,000 rounds in full-auto in factory tests without malfunctioning. The rail forearm is ‘free-floating’ and does not contact the barrel, improving accuracy. The HK416 uses an adjustable multi-position telescopic butt stock and has a MIL-STD-1913 accessory rail forearm with MIL-STD-1913 rails on four sides. This H&K design is proving to fulfil one of the major desires of the infantry small unit – having a common base rifle able to address the various combat tasks within the squad. The USMC are employing the HK416 for riflemen (as the M27), automatic rifleman, and designated marksman (M29) with adaptions for each role, allowing cross tasking and magazine exchange.
British forces have been using the national Royal Small Arms Factory’s SA80 bull-pup style rifle since 1987. Field use of the weapon revealed some issues which the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is again seeking to correct though a three year 2016 contracted effort by NSAF, a subsidiary of H&K. Conducted under the British Army’s Equip to Fight programme, the weapon is being upgraded to the SA80A3 variant. The upgrade includes a new foregrip, an improved upper receiver, a full length Picatinny rail, additional safety features and enhancements to reduce the weight of the assault rifle. In addition, the weapon with be made compatible with H&K’s AG36 under-barrel grenade launcher while the SUSAT sight has been replaced with a Trijicon ACOG 4x sight or Elcan Specter lightweight day sight. While the S80A3 is continuing to equip most of the British Army some units of the Royal Marines have chosen to acquire the Canadian C8 Colt Canada Carbine, a version of the C8 used by the Canadian Army which is derived from the M16A2.
Berretta has been the principle infantry weapons supplier for the Italian forces for decades with the company and military working closely. The most recent example is the ARX160. Initially launched in 2008 as a commercial venture, it became the focus of the Italian Armed Forces Soldato Futuro (Future Soldier) programme. The design is an evolution of the Beretta AR 70/90 and Beretta SC 70/90, introducing new materials, a length adjustable stock, and other features. The weapon is chambered for 5.56mm NATO round and entered initial production with an Italian Army order in 2008 for field trials in Afghanistan. By 2014, around 30,000 ARX160 A2s had been delivered to the Italian Forces. In 2013, Beretta had introduced the ARX160 A3 with a redesigned hand guard, improved heat ventilation and an extended Picatinny rail on its bottom, as well as a pistol grip.
In a 2014 the Italian Ministry of Defence contracted with Beretta to develop a battle rifle in 7.62mm NATO, the ARX200. After passing a wide range of military and environmental tests the weapon was adopted by the Italian Army where it complements the ARX160 including filling the designated marksman rifle role.
The current main rifle used by the Polish military is the Beryl WZ 96, a local version of the Soviet AK rifle adapted to NATO standard ammunition that has been produced since the 1950s. It is being replaced by the MSBS (Modułowy System Broni Strzeleckiej) GROT C16, a 5.56mm modular design developed by Fabryka Broni.
The GROT is fully compliant with the NATO standards featuring Picatinny rails, compatibility with STANAG magazines, and utilising NATO 5.56 ammunition. A company spokesperson explained that “special attention has been given in the design to maintaining reliable operation even in the most adverse circumstances. Tests have verified its ability to reliability function even with a dirty barrel, when unable to be maintained by the soldier and even firing low quality ammunition.”
The weapon is offered in both a conventional and bull-pup configuration using a common upper receiver. It can be configured as an assault rifle, carbine, designated marksman rifle, or squad automatic weapon. The versatility of the design and responsiveness of the company was demonstrated by its adaption of the GROT to 7.62mm NATO calibre with features to fill the marksman role when the Polish Army chose to replace its Dragonov sniper rifle.
Česká zbrojovka, also known as CZ, builds on the historic Czech small arms manufacturing legacy. Since 2011 the Czech Army has been replacing its vz. 58 rifle which resembles the Soviet AK-47 but is an entirely different design. The replacement is the CZ805 BREN A1/A2, a modular design that allows changing the weapon calibre between 5.56×45mm NATO or 7.62×39mm by changing the barrel with gas tubes, breech block, magazine bay and magazine. In 2016, the Army chose to transition to the BREN 2 which incorporated user recommendations. These improved the ergonomics and function of the weapon including a .5kg (1.1lb) weight reduction, a redesigned ambidextrous cocking mechanism and three different length quick-detach barrels. The calibre adaptability has been viewed particularly favourably by some users as it allows the greater range and penetration of the heavier 7.62mm while gaining the benefits of the advanced BREN design. The weapon, in addition to the Czech and Hungarian Armies, was adopted in 2017 by the special intervention group of the French National Gendarmerie (GIGN).
Kalashnikov, creator of the AK-47, continues to be the dominating influence in Russian small arms. The Russian Army’s move to an intermediate 5.45x39mm calibre, matching the NATO transition to 5.56mm, was accommodated by adapting the AK-47 design to the new ammunition resulting in the AK-74. The weapon was modernised in 1991 as the AK-74M which continues in service with over 30 militaries. One of the critical features of the AK has been reliability in heavy use given its 120rpm sustained rate of fire. Kalashnikov has now introduced a new weapon, the AK-12, as part of the Ratnik soldier programme. The new assault rifle weighs 3.3kg (7.28lb) and integrates the accessory rail, adjustable and folding stock, and new magazine with a ‘witness window’ for gauging its remaining capacity. Firing selection includes burst, two-shot cutoff and single shot with an effective range of up to 500 meters. The Russian news agency TASS stated in April 2019 that Kalashnikov planned delivery of 112,500 AK-12 assault rifles to the Russian troops in 2019-2021.
The Finnish Army has been using the domestically designed and produced Valmet RK62 in 7.62x39mm form since 1965. In 2015 it introduced the upgraded RK62M which had a number of ergonomic improvements and greater modularity. These included a collapsing buttstock, a more ergonomic selector lever, and an accessory rail for mounting optics. These upgrades added weight with the RK62 M2 and M3 now weighing 4.1kg (9lbs) unloaded. The standard rifle has and has an overall length (with its stock extended) of 940mm (37.5in). The rifle is available in 7.62x39mm, 7.62x51mm NATO, and 5.56x45mm NATO as well as a range of commercial calibres. The modernised versions of the assault rifle are being fielded to the Finnish Defence Forces’ brigade-level units and has also been adopted by Estonia.
The MPT 76 (Millî Piyade Tüfeği/National Infantry Rifle) is a modular rifle family designed by MKEK for the Turkish Armed Forces. It was first fielded in 2017 to replace its H&K G3 and HK33. The weapon is gas operated with the firing rate selector using NATO 7.62×51mm ammunition which was preferred by the Turkish military. A 5.56x45mm version the MPT-55 was also developed but appears not to have been adopted. The basic design draws from the AR-15 but uses a gas piston system similar to the H&K417. It includes a Picatinny rail and can mount either an under-barrel shotgun or grenade launcher. The MPT-76 uses advanced polymer materials with a moulded pistol grip, a moveable angled foregrip and ambidextrous fire controls. The standard weapon uses a 406mm (16”) barrel while there are also compact carbine version with 305mm (12″) barrel and designated marksman KNT rifle with 508mm (20″) barrel.
Israeli Weapons Industry’s (IWI) Tavor was developed to address the Israeli Defence Force’s (IDF) requirements for a individual soldier weapon suitable for both close-quarters use and mechanised infantry. A bullpup design was selected which permits a long barrel giving a higher muzzle velocity while keeping the weapon compact. It uses a long-stroke piston system, similar to the AK-47, and is known for its reliability. The Tavor is offered with three barrel lengths 460mm (18.1”) (TAR-21); 380mm (15.0”) (CTAR-21); 410mm (16.1”) (TC-21) offering total lengths of 720mm (28.3”), 640mm (25.2”) and 670mm (26.4”) respectively. The weapon uses 5.56×45mm NATO ammunition, although both 9×19mm Parabellum and 5.45×39mm Russian versions are available. The 5.56mm TAR 21 has an effective range of 550 meters. The model selected by the IDF is named Tavor X95 (also known as the Micro Tavor or MTAR).
The Tavor is designed primarily as a Close Quarters Battle (CQB) weapon though use of a bipod and optical scope allow for longer range engagements. In addition to the IDF, a number of special force units of other counties have adapted it while the Royal Thai Army has made purchases toward replacing its M16 rifles.
IWI has also introduced a conventional style rifle called the Carmel. A spokesperson explained: “it is a multi-purpose, modular, 5.56x45mm calibre assault rifle that can be customised for various operational needs. The Carmel is, in fact, a wholly new weapon, that is fully ambidextrous, has a high strength impact polymer body, is equipped with military standard 1913 Picatinny rails on all sides and is compatible with any available sights, devices or accessories. It uses a the free-floating quick detachable barrel for maximum modularity. Barrel lengths of 267mm (10.5”), 305mm (12”), 368mm (14.5”) and 406mm (16”) are offered. The stock is both adjustable in length and folds to the right. The short barrel Carmel is only 526mm (20.7”) with the stock folded and weights 3.3 kg (7.2lb)without magazine or sight. IWI is watching the United States Army interest in more powerful alternates to the 5.56mm and is reportedly is considering chambering a Carmel for the 6.8mm Remington SPC.
Fabrique National Herstal (FN) has long been designing and manufacturing small arms, supplying them to much of the world. The FAL rifle was in service with over 66 militaries into and beyond the 1970s. Its current Special Operations Forces Combat Assault Rifle (SCAR) is considered by some as setting a standard against which modern assault rifles are often compared. Dave Steinbach, director of Military Products at Maxim Defence Industries, a former special operator with experience of a broad range of infantry weapons suggested that “SCAR combines many of the features most often sought by fighters including reliability, well thought ergonomics, and adaptability to CQC or longer range engagements.” The 5.56mm NATO (SCAR-L), 7.62mm NATO (SCAR-H) and other calibres including Russian 7.62X39mm can be accommodated by changing the barrel assembly. It also integrates multiple Picatinny rails to support various optics, tactical options, or under-mount grenade launchers. It also is provided with lengths of 254mm (10”) in its CQC, 100mm less than its STD (standard), and also a long barrel 457mm (18”).
The US military has been using the M16 rifle since its introduction during the war in Vietnam. Its use of a smaller 5.56mm calibre initiated a similar move by other world militaries. Subsequently the weapon has evolved to the M4 version which remains the standard issue infantry rifle. Concerns over the combat effectiveness of the 5.56mm have often been widely expressed and have grown given the wider use of personal body armour despite the introduction of new ammunition. The US Army’s Chief of Staff General Milley testified to the US Congress that a new calibre was essential to address this. Following consideration of various bullet sizes the Army selected 6.8mm and directed its use in its Next Generation Squad Weapon (NGSW) programme. The 6.8mm calibre was selected to achieve greater lethality and range.
NGSW requires not only a new 6.8mm calibre but seeks to field both an individual rifleman assault weapon and a squad automatic rifleman’s weapon using the same ammunition. Currently, three industry teams have offered candidates that are being evaluated. Each offers unique features and challenges with not only differing weapon designs but also differing ammunition configurations. Army Lieutenant Colonel Jason Bohannon, product manager Next Generation Weapons explained: “the weapons being offered are capable; yet all are in their own way ingenious or novel.” The SIG Sauer draws from its SIG MCX-SPEAR design chambered in 6.8x51mm using a ‘hybrid’ PPI round configuration. Textron Defence’s weapon uses a telescoped case (CT) round developed from the Lightweight Small Arms Technologies (LSAT) project. The CT has the projectile nested inside a polymer case. Wayne Pender, senior vice president Applied Technology explained: “the CT allows using a unique weapon action where the spent cartridge is pushed forward and ejected by the next round entering the chamber thus eliminating the need to extract the spent cartridge. As a result both the ammunition and weapon itself are lighter with simpler and more reliable operation.” General Dynamics – Ordnance and Tactical System (GD-OTS) RM277 is a bullpup style using a new composite case ammunition from True Velocity. Mark Anderton, vice president of sales at True Velocity stated that “this case accepts higher chamber pressures allowing greater muzzle velocities for tighter accuracy. In addition, our composite case ammunition weights 30 percent less than metal case allowing a rifleman to carry three additional magazines without adding to his load.” The US Army also intends that NGSW will utilise a smart sight/fire control coming through a separate programme, meaning the weapons must consider integrating power to support them. NGWS weapons are being delivered for field evaluation with a final selection planned for 2021.
Brazil’s state-owned IMBEL has taken its license produced FN FNC (essentially the FAL chambered for the 5.56mm NATO round) and is updating it. This includes changing to a side folding polymer stock, redesigning the receiver with the fire selector above the pistol grip; and adding extensive Picatinny rails for mounting optics, tactical gear, and a grenade launcher. The IA2 is the standard assault rifle of the Brazilian armed forces with variants including a battle rifle chambered for 7.62x51mm NATO and a CQB carbine.
Chile’s state-owned arms factory FAMAE has chosen to update its SIG540 licensed rifle by adopting a Picatinny quad rail along its barrel assembly, changing the front and back folding sights, adding a side folding polymer butt stock and a bipod.
The resulting FAMAE 2013 rifle uses stamped steel receivers, which reduce its weight. A shortened transparent magazine is also provided offering visual round count.
The latest generations of individual soldier weapons have remarkable similarities in features driven by their simple practicality. Many of these reflect the application of new materials like polymers in the stock or technologies such as optics rugged enough to withstand day to day use and abuse by the soldier. Others look to provide increased performance. As an example, magnified optical sighting may permit target identification at longer range, which then requires ammunition that is also effective at these ranges. Similarly, there is the push to determine if and how some new electronics and computing technologies can be integrated to expand the effectiveness of the weapons themselves. This larger direction potentially sees the encompassing of ammunition, weapon, target detection/sighting, shooter, and even the interconnection of the soldier’s fellow teammates in an integrated process.