From pistols and personal defense weapons to next-generation machine gun systems, one company currently supporting myriad U.S. and international special operations forces (SOF) requirements is SIG SAUER, Inc. Special Operations Outlook recently visited the company’s manufacturing and range facilities for a hands-on experience with several representative systems as well as in-depth discussions with some of the company’s program managers and industry thought leaders.
SIG SAUER is now headquartered in the United States, where approximately 2,200 employees are currently working at nine manufacturing facilities scattered across three states.
Drawing on more than 250 years of Swiss and German engineering experience, the company’s early military programs tended to be small pistol contracts organized under the law enforcement division.
According to Tom Taylor, chief marketing officer and executive vice president for sales, the milestone event for military programs occurred on “the Thursday of SHOT Show [January] 2017,” when the company got a call with the official word that they had received the U.S. Army’s M17/M18 Modular Handgun System (MHS) program.
“At the time, we were practically neophytes in the defense arena,” Taylor said. “We were not the favorite to win the M17 contract and when we did, it was incredibly game-changing and exciting news for SIG.”
Noting that the MHS competition had included nine separate elements, he added, “Based on performance across those nine factors, the program was actually ended a year early, with SIG winning on five of those factors, tying on three and losing on only one.”
Referencing the company’s marketing tagline of “Never Settle,” he said, “We will always innovate and we will always improve.”
Evidence of that belief can be seen in the growth and increasing momentum of complete systems for both special operations and broader force requirements. Representative examples for unspecified elements within U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) include the Suppressed Upper Receiver Group (SURG), MCX “Rattler” and P320X5 pistol, Tango6T Squad-Variable Powered Scope (S-VPS), and new .338 Norma Magnum (NM) medium machine gun with ammunition. In parallel with those USSOCOM programs, the company has also supported broader U.S. Army and U.S. Navy requirements with the manufacture of Mk248 MOD1 and MOD0 [.300 WinMag] sniper ammunition, providing a separate variant of the Tango6T for the Army’s Squad Designated Marksman Rifle and U.S. Army/U.S. Air Force Direct View Optic (DVO), and as one of three candidate designs now being tested as a potential Army Next Generation Squad Weapon (NGSW).
Representative examples of international SOF support during the same period have included the embrace of the MCX with additional system components by unspecified police or military components in the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Norway, Italy, Denmark, Poland, France, Finland, Israel, Australia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Germany.
COMPLETE SYSTEMS PROVIDER
Reflecting on the portfolio, Jason St. John, director of strategic products, observed, “Part of the vision we have at SIG is that we are a complete systems provider. And one of the things that has helped us to be successful in that vision is our internal review process, which focuses on what we believe will be important to our customers in the future.”
The ability to develop and deliver complete systems is also supported by expertise in the company’s electro-optics division, ammunition manufacturing capabilities, and suppressor developments.
Established in Oregon in 2014, SIG SAUER Electro-Optics was built on decades of industry experience, creating one of the fastest-growing electro-optics facilities serving defense customers today. Evidence of its rapid growth can be seen in the 2018 expansion to a 37,000-square-foot facility where more than 150 employees operate on a four-shift 24/7 schedule, assembling systems like the Tango6T noted above as well as products like the Romeo4T/ Romeo1Pro (for U.S. Department of Homeland Security) and Romeo8T/Juliet4 (UK Ministry of Defense).
Growth also can be found in the company’s ammunition facility, which was originally located in Kentucky before shifting operations to Arkansas in 2017.
“I would estimate that in the next three years, it will double in size and even get greater within its footprint,” offered St. John. “Today the plant has a capability to produce around 400 million rounds a year in its existing footprint, but we believe we will be able to scale that up to close to 1 billion rounds a year.”
SIG SAUER’s complete system approach frequently includes a range of suppressor capabilities.
According to suppressor product manager John Tamborino, SIG’s suppressor activities initially started around 2015 with the goal of offering another key element to an entire weapon system.
“The division really started with a traditional machined cone baffle welded design that encompassed both steel cans and titanium,” he explained. “But, while they were great products, they might not have been as innovative as they needed to be. So, fast forward to 2017 and the Suppressed Upper Receiver Group became something of a pivot point for suppressor design.”
The SURG program is an upgrade to the M4A1 5.56mm carbine that originally entered service in 1994. Replacing the upper receiver with the new design will optimize those weapons for continuous, suppressed battlefield use.
SIG SAUER announced its receipt of the SURG contract award in August 2018. Following several rounds of extensive operator feedback, the first 500 SURG units are projected for delivery in the October 2021 time frame.
“The SURG award represented one of the first times for us that two of our entities – rifles and suppressors – got together as a team and provided a system to the government,” Tamborino said. “That was a pretty big step for us, and it reflected a lot of project collaboration. In addition, SURG had some pretty extreme requirements that we met in areas like durability and life cycle of parts.”
He also credited the SURG program as introducing the company to “low tox[icity]/ low blowback” suppressor designs, where collaborative test efforts with the Naval Surface Warfare Center-Crane Division combined with SIG SAUER’s application of additive manufacturing techniques to set the stage for a new generation of rifle and pistol suppressors.
One of those new designs is the MODX-9, which the company competed in the recent USSOCOM pistol suppressor solicitation. As of this writing, the company is one of two finalists awaiting the government contract decision.
Along with optics, ammunition, and suppressors, another capability that facilitates the complete system approach is recently expanded internal production capabilities in areas like rifle barrels and other critical platform components.
Pointing to the example of the MCX, Mike Joslin, rifle product manager, said, “From the roots of one early defense contract, we now have our own rifle barrel line. Before that was established, we were forced to source, buy, and make various components. But now, 100 percent of the parts for MCX for defense contracts are either made in house or finished in house.”
MCX also provides the basis for Rattler, which has been examined for both U.S. and international SOF applications.
USER FEEDBACK DRIVES DESIGN
In achieving the company’s goal to be a complete systems provider, St. John was quick to emphasize the criticality of so-called “soldier touchpoints,” where engineers and designers receive early and direct feedback from potential users from diverse skill levels.
“Obviously, there are several small items or suggestions that surface here and there,” St. John acknowledged. “But one of the biggest recent changes stemming from touchpoint feedback was the movement of the charging handle on our Next Generation Squad Weapon Automatic Rifle candidate from the right side to the left side. It had been on the right, like traditional weapon systems, but we moved it to the left based on feedback. We received that feedback in January and we had the new design integrated and delivered to the next soldier touchpoint in June.”
A modified selector switch provides another example. While many traditional selectors rotate 90 degrees from safe to fully automatic and then another 90 degrees to semi-automatic fire, operational ergonomic feedback led to a new design that still rotates 90 degrees to fully automatic but then only 45 degrees farther for semi-automatic fire.
User feedback has also contributed to the development of pistol modification packages that exploit the “modular” design concepts and allow tailoring the weapons for personal preference.
Cory McQuilkin, defense product manager for SIG SAUER’s pistol line, offered the example of a full-sized version of an X-series P320 pistol that is already carried within some SOF community elements, with multiple modification options ranging from a flat trigger to a beveled magazine well that speeds the reload process.
EXPLORING THE MACHINE GUN MARKET
At the opposite end of the weapon spectrum from pistols are SIG SAUER’s efforts in new machine gun designs.
“We have a willingness to look a decade into the future,” stated Ron Cohen, chief executive officer of SIG SAUER. “And in 2016-17, we started to look at the machine gun category. And, just to be very clear, when we started, there was no program of record.”
Less than three years later, the company has two machine guns: a medium machine gun (MMG) firing the .338 Norma Magnum cartridge and a co-developed light machine gun (LMG) firing a 6.8 x 51mm “hybrid” cartridge design.
Josh Shoemaker, machine gun product manager at SIG SAUER, summarized the company’s entry into what was a new market category.
“If you look at some of the legacy systems out there, like the M240 7.62mm, it was designed in the 1950s, fielded in the 1970s,” he began. “And, depending on configuration, it weighs between 22 and 27 pounds. The M2 Browning .50-caliber was designed in 1918 and weighs over 80 pounds. They’re great systems, but they’ve been fielded for a very long time. Not surprisingly, they include some really outdated technology. So, as manufacturing has gotten better, and as technology has improved in the industry, there was a need for some innovation in machine guns. And, talking with some different end users and customers, specifically working with USSOCOM on some of their capability gaps, we found a niche market in the .338 Norma Magnum machine gun. Essentially, we have a system that weighs as much as an M240 that offers better ballistics than a .50-cal.”
Shoemaker said that the development of the MMG also opened the company’s eyes to the broader machine gun industry, with resulting efforts coupling SIG SAUER innovation toward myriad current and notional weapon mounting options and design enhancements like “butterfly grips” now under development.
It is believed that a small number of the SIG SAUER MMGs are also being evaluated by an unspecified military organization.
The LMG system, unofficially dubbed “the little brother” to the MMG, is one of the industry platforms currently being explored by the U.S. Army’s Soldier Lethality Cross-Functional Team as the potential automatic rifle element of the Army’s NGSW architecture.
Each of the three participating NGSW industry teams is incorporating a different ammunition technology for the government-provided 6.8mm projectiles, with longer-range plans calling for the government to produce the complete cartridge once down-selection to a specific technology has been made.
SIG’s NGSW designs utilize a 6.8 x 51mm hybrid two-piece cartridge that features brass and steel combined by a 20-ton press.
“Hybrid ammo started out well before ‘next gen’ [NGSW],” St. John asserted. “At SIG, we were looking at ways to push performance and wring a bit more out of traditional firearms design. And I felt, when I was first briefed on the potential of hybrid ammunition, that it was really – and I don’t want to use this term lightly – a paradigm shift in modern ammunition capabilities. It overcomes the shortcomings of traditional brass, providing a 20 percent weight savings while allowing double the amount of pressure.”
The hybrid ammunition was originally based on a three-piece design that included a lock washer that has now been eliminated.
THE BEGINNING OF SOMETHING
Reflecting on the “hybrid” ammunition design, Cohen stressed that the same design can enhance the ballistic performance of other calibers as well.
“This is the beginning of a revolution,” he declared. “And it will be relatively easy for the ammo factories to absorb it, because the technologies are similar to what they have done in the past. Forming steel and brass uses the same equipment. So literally, if you own the factory, you would not blink. And it’s easy to make it backwards compatible.”
He concluded, “I think this is the beginning of something; not the end game.”
SIDEBAR: USSOCOM Seeks “Game-changing” Machine Gun Capabilities
The Medium Machine Gun design developed by SIG SAUER is one industry response to publicly identified USSOCOM and U.S. Marine Corps desire for enhanced battlefield capabilities in near-peer or peer environments.
You can not only rip up the enemy infantry, but you can rip up the armored personnel carrier they rode in on as well.”
Presenting his equipment portfolio at the virtual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC) in May 2021, USSOCOM Program Executive Officer for SOF Warrior Col. Joel Babbitt emphasized the “game-changing” nature of the .338 Norma Magnum (NM) cartridge, acknowledging that it is one of the options being fielded for both special operations sniper rifle programs and broader U.S. Army sniper applications.
“Along with that, when you take a sniper rifle and turn it into a machine gun, you get some very interesting and very lethal effects,” he stated.
Babbitt identified that expanded application by the slightly awkward USSOCOM program designator Lightweight Machine Gun–Medium, stating, “The .338 Norma Magnum machine gun has better effects on target than a .50-caliber [machine gun]; better penetration. This is a gamechanger at absolutely the most tactical level. Instead of suppressing the target, its accuracy is such that you are killing the target. The No. 1 piece of feedback we have from the operators is, ‘Hey, I need a single shot mode, because I’m hitting the target with the first round, every time.”
Babbitt continued, “Think about it like this: A .50-caliber machine gun is 89 pounds. An M240 Bravo, which is the current 7.62 weapon squad machine gun, is around 21 pounds. The [.338 NM] prototypes that we have seen so far are 22 to 25 pounds. So essentially what you are doing is putting .50-caliber effects in an M240 Bravo squad machine gun package. That’s huge. You can not only rip up the enemy infantry, but you can rip up the armored personnel carrier they rode in on as well.”