As highlighted in last year’s Special Operations Outlook United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) acquisition planners continue a tradition of supplementing a range of traditional field experiments, technology demonstrations, and SOFWERX prize challenges, with an annual range event timed and located to coincide with the annual Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show, held each January in Las Vegas, Nevada. The range event, which was held on the Nevada Test and Training Range, took place the weekend immediately prior to SHOT Show 2020.
This year’s technologies of interest were highlighted in a Special Notice published on Aug. 9, 2019. Identified as “USSOCOM SOF Range Event,” the request for information was designed “to solicit technology experimentation candidates from Research and Development (R&D) organizations, private industry, and academia for inclusion in future experimentation events coordinated by the U.S. Special Operations Command. … The intent is to provide participants with the opportunity to gain special operations forces (SOF) insight/perspective on participant technologies.”
Specifically identified theme categories included target engagement, visual augmentation systems, and demolitions and breaching.
Target engagement elements of interest identified in the USSOCOM notice included a Lightweight Medium Machine Gun in .338 Norma Magnum (NM), a Lightweight Assault Machine Gun in 6.5 Creedmoor (CM) caliber, and a Personal Defense Weapon in .300 Blackout (BLK). Several examples of applicable industry target engagement designs were in the spotlight during SHOT Show week.
LIGHTWEIGHT MEDIUM MACHINE GUN
According to the initial notice, the Lightweight Medium Machine Gun (LMG-M) in .338 NM is envisioned as a weapon to fill “a capability gap for dismounted operations between the M2 HMG [Heavy Machine Gun] and M240 MMG [Medium Machine Gun].
“This capability will supplement but not replace the HMG chambered in .50 caliber and MMG chambered in 7.62 NATO,” the announcement explained, noting “desired threshold performance criteria” ranging from the ability to outperform the current MMG by delivering effective suppression on a point target at 1,200 meters to outperforming the current HMG by delivering effective suppression on an area target at 2,000 meters.
This LMG-M capability has been an identified USSOCOM interest for several years, and one of the first companies to address the apparent capability gap was General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems (GD-OTS). The company has been highlighting and demonstrating its .338 MG Lightweight Medium Machine Gun for several years, with weight and maximum range specifications that seem to match the defined government descriptions.
In addition to the GD-OTS design, another system highlighted during private firing demonstrations immediately prior to SHOT Show was the SIG Sauer MG 338 machine gun. Along with the demonstrations, on Jan. 15, 2020, the company announced completion of USSOCOM safety certification on the new weapon design, with the completed deliveries of “multiple systems” to the command.
“SOCOM issued sort of an RFI for a .338 lightweight machine gun,” explained Robby Johnson, vice president, Defense & Law Enforcement Product Management at SIG Sauer. “And, at the time, we had entertained doing a .338 machine gun. It was always ‘on the drawing board.’ But that really pushed us into it.”
“At that time there was also some ‘verbal interest’ from some groups out there, along with [SIG Sauer leadership] vision of this lightweight machine gun,” added Steve Rose, executive vice president, SIG Sauer Defense Strategies Group. “Of course, what we were hearing verbally from the soldiers, together with our experience, drew us into the decision that we were going to move forward [on development].
According to Jason St. John, director of government products in SIG Sauer’s Defense Strategies Group, “the SOF community as a whole” got their initial glimpse of the gun design at ISOF Range Day in January 2019.
“Some important context is that, up until this time, SIG Sauer had not developed a machine gun or ventured down this path before,” he said. “So the call to work into this system was a significant one for the company.”
Johnson added that the company had worked closely with USSOCOM and conducted several user demonstrations prior to delivering 11 guns “for what we call a combat evaluation.”
LIGHTWEIGHT ASSAULT MACHINE GUN
The Lightweight Assault Machine Gun in 6.5 Creedmoor caliber (LMG-A) is seen as a replacement for the Mk. 48 assault machine gun chambered in 7.62x51mm NATO. Desired threshold performance criteria range from effective point target engagements at 800 meters or greater to effective suppression on area targets at 1,500 meters or greater. Additionally, it should weigh 25 percent less than the current M249 5.56x45mm squad automatic weapon (SAW).
FN America utilized SHOT Show 2020 to highlight the prototype for the latest variant of its Mk. 48 machine gun: the Mk. 48 Mod 2, chambered in 6.5 CM. Features on the prototype include a stock adjustable for length of pull and cheek height; improved, locking charging handle; improved, double-notched sear; improved handguard with 3-, 6-, and -9 o’clock positions; improved bipod; and a more robust feed tray latch designed to ensure that the feed tray cover locks into place during reloads. The company notes that, once development is complete, existing Mk. 48 Mod 1 models could be configured at the armorer level to the Mod 2 variant with the addition of an upgrade kit and barrel conversion.
The 6.5 CM machine gun design parallels the company’s introduction of the Mk. 20 SCAR Sniper Support Rifle (SSR), which releases state was first prototyped in the 6.5 CM cartridge “when USSOCOM announced plans [in 2019] to explore the cartridge for future adoption.”
In addition to the 338 MG noted above, SIG Sauer’s St. John pointed to recent company efforts in 6.5 CM, offering, “If you look at our Next Gen Squad Weapon systems, one of the extensions of our automatic rifle [one of three current candidates for a ‘Big Army’ 6.8mm replacement of the current SAW], that weapon system is also available in 7.62 and 6.5 Creedmoor.”
In fact, the company used its own private range day immediately prior to SHOT Show 2020 to debut the “MG 6.5” for the law enforcement/military /international community.
“That gun is 12 pounds, 650 rounds per minute – basically it’s an identical version of our next-gen machine gun, just in 6.5 CR,” St. John said.
PERSONAL DEFENSE WEAPON
The fall 2019 USSOCOM announcement also identified interest in a Personal Defense Weapon (PDW) in .300 BLK, describing it as “a highly concealable .300 Blackout upper receiver group (URG) and buttstock kit solution for the M4A1 platform,” and adding, “PDW solution should consist of .300 BLK URG, 7.62 suppressor, folding buttstock, 5.56 training solution, reconfigurable ergonomic components, and 300 BLK magazines.”
One of the companies working toward a PDW solution to match that requirement is Maxim Defense, which used the SHOT Show timing to highlight its full family of MDX weapon systems – consisting of the MDX:505/PDX (5.5-inch barrel), the MDX:508 (8.5-inch barrel), and the MDX:510 (10.3-inch barrel) – with company literature noting, “The entire MDX line in 5.56 NATO is sponsored by The Maneuver Center of Excellence and part of Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiment [AEWE] in 2020. Maxim is also attending Force-on-Force experiments with the U.S. Army, U.K. Army, and the Australian Army January through March 2020.”
Additionally, it stated that the PDX, “Born from the SOCOM PDW solicitation,” was now available in .300 BLK.
While unwilling to offer any comment regarding government solicitations or information requests of any kind, C.J. Dugan, a business development director for Maxim Defense, pointed to the company’s extensive analysis of ballistics in extremely short-barreled weapons.
“People will build these PDWs or short-barreled rifles – and then they will grab ammo off the shelf that was designed for a longer barrel,” he said. “And that just didn’t make sense to me.”
“But where we went with our ‘300 Blackout’ design is, about a year-and-a-half ago, actually through Kris [Tanto] Paronto [part of the 2012 CIA annex security team in Benghazi], I met with Fort Scott Munitions. And they had a very interesting projectile that’s patented, trademarked, everything, and that’s a ‘tumble upon impact,’” he said.
“What’s really interesting about that projectile is the ogive is centered more towards the rear, which is kind of uncommon,” he added. “It’s a full copper or brass CNC spun projectile, and the design of it actually tumbles all the way down to [projectile speeds of] 500 feet per second.”
He went on to cite Maxim Defense’s work with Fort Scott Munitions and their subsequent introduction of their own line of .300 BLK ammunition that provides those lethal effects optimized for a PDW design.
USSOCOM SNIPER RIFLES
Along with industry responses demonstrated during USSOCOM’s range event, the SHOT Show itself provided an opportunity for some companies to spotlight other domestic and international SOF weapons efforts.
Representative examples were evident in the Barrett Manufacturing exhibit, where the company displayed two different sniper rifles that it is providing to different USSOCOM elements.
The Mk. 22 Mod 0 is the designation for the Advanced Sniper Rifle, a program that Barrett won with a version of its Multi-Role Adaptive Design (MRAD) system in March 2019 [See “Barrett MRAD Expands to Grab Advanced Sniper Rifle Contract,” Special Operations Outlook, 2019-2020].
The rifle can be configured in three different calibers: a .338 NM anti-materiel solution; .300 NM anti-personnel solution; and 7.62x51mm training/urban combat solution. Significantly, some early program briefings have indicated desired options of 7.62x51mm, .300 Winchester Magnum, and .338 Lapua Magnum, and the evolutionary change to different anti-personnel and antimaterial cartridges seems to reflect a broad embrace of the two Norma Magnum designs by USSOCOM.
In addition to the Mk. 22 Mod 0, Barrett also displayed a separate sniper rifle that the company is providing to “another USSOCOM element.” Also a variant of MRAD, the “MRAD DOD 300 PRC” is a single-caliber design utilizing the .300 Precision Rifle Cartridge (PRC), developed by Hornady Manufacturing.
With a carbon-fiber barrel, the DOD design fires a 225 grain ELD-M [Extremely Low Drag – Match/Hornady] bullet with a muzzle velocity of 2,850 feet per second, slowing down to subsonic speed at approximately 1,650 yards.
According to Neal Emery, senior communications manager for Hornady Manufacturing, the .300 PRC was developed to address what some feel to be “inherent issues” in any of the other “big thirties.”
“The .300 PRC was an attempt to basically fix that and create something that doesn’t suffer from shoving the bullet down into the case; doesn’t suffer from a case that’s so big that there’s not a powder that fills it up well enough to get really low [standard deviations] and things like that. That is what we’re after. The goal is to have something that will easily handle the long, heavy, high-performance style, .30-caliber bullets with the greatest consistency possible for extended long-range shooting,” he said.
“There are inherent problems with a lot of the ‘big thirties,’ there just are,” echoed Scott Javins, military product manager at Hornady. “One of them is barrel life. With the .300 PRC, the barrel life on it is over 2,000 rounds with a quality barrel. The end users on that actually tested past 2,000 rounds, and they were still shooting sub-MOA [minute of angle] with over 2,000 rounds. So that becomes a big factor, since you’re not constantly swapping out barrels. You know, if it takes 150 rounds to break in a good barrel, what does that leave me? In some cases that may only leave me a thousand rounds plus or minus. So that was a big one.”
Javins emphasized the bullet weight flexibility of the .300 PRC design, citing the ability to load it anywhere from a lighter weight .30-caliber bullet all the way up to the 250 grain Hornady A-TIP bullet.
“Actually, the 250 grain A-TIP out of the .300 PRC is actually even more efficient than our .338 with the 285 [grain bullet] in it,” he stated. “That gives you the ability to truly fine-tune it according to what you want to do with it. When you compare it against things like the [.300] Norma [Magnum], for example, with the 215 [grain bullet], because I think that’s the selected round right now, even though the Norma is starting out 150-200 feet [per second] faster, that velocity actually burns off. That’s because it’s all about the bullet. So if you compare it against the 225 [grain], at about 400 yards plus or minus, depending on starting velocities of both cartridges, the .300 PRC will overtake it, because the [ballistic coefficient] is that much higher with the 225 than with the 215.”
In addition to the weapon designs and bullet caliber options, another area of growing USSOCOM interest over the past few years has been ammunition weight reduction through the introduction of so-called “polymer” cartridges.
One of the companies highlighting their efforts in this arena at SHOT 2020 was Texas-based True Velocity.
“We refer to the cartridge case as composite,” explained Patrick Hogan, chief marketing officer for True Velocity. “There is a polymer component to that, but it’s not the only thing. It’s a propri- etary blend of materials that we use to build our cartridge case. And that material and its behavior is what allows us to withstand the significant chamber pressures you need, not only in 5.56 but all the way up to .50-cal.”
Noting that the company’s “chief ballistician” is Jimmie Sloan, designer of both the .300 NM and .338 NM cartridges, Hogan said that the .338 NM is “a focal point for the company right now,” with ongoing efforts to support both the GD-OTS Lightweight Medium Machine Gun and a new prototype .338 minigun unveiled at SHOT Show by Dillon Aero (see below).
Returning to the technology behind their ammunition, Hogan noted, “When you look at the way that a traditional brass cartridge works, you’ve got to crimp it in order to get the neck tension to make the bullet do what you want. But we’re not necessarily bound by that constraint. That’s why we’re able to remove that bottleneck configuration and utilize our proprietary manu- facturing technology to build a case that’s more efficient, while capable of withstanding signifi- cant chamber pressure. We can generate optimal velocity while maintaining a low chamber pres- sure. That’s really what’s key here.”
In his message for warfighters, he began by saying that the company’s overall goal is to make life easier for them while simultaneously making them more operationally effective.
“The narrative for True Velocity so far has really surrounded weight reduction,” he said. “And obviously that’s a critical component of our product, where a loaded cartridge case, depending on caliber, is on average 30- to 32-percent lighter than a comparable loaded brass cartridge. The empty case itself is more like 50 percent lighter than a brass case. So weight reduction is key.”
Converting that to a tactical scenario, he continued, “You look at a basic combat load of 210 rounds of 5.56mm – seven 30-round magazines. With this ammunition, you could keep that basic combat load weight the same and allow your Army or Marine infantryman to carry 90 additional rounds. Or they can keep the same amount of firepower and reduce the weight by 30 percent.”
He observed that the same type of weight savings could also be applied to special operations air platforms like the AH-6 series “Little Birds.”
“The Little Birds are typically outfitted with two M134 machine guns and carrying 6,000 rounds of 7.62mm brass ammunition. If you trade in that brass for our composite case, you reduce the weight of that ammo payload by almost 100 pounds. Take that weight savings, put it in the fuel tank, and all of a sudden that bird can fly for 30 additional minutes. Talk to the guys on the ground who rely on that air support: If you give them an additional half hour, it’s a big deal,” he said.
Another aspect of the True Velocity narrative involves heat transfer.
“Heat is the nemesis of any weapon platform,” Hogan said. “But, where brass is a conductor of heat, our composite case is an insulator. So we’re directing that heat where we want it to go rather than allowing it to transfer to the chamber or bolt face. We reduce the heat transference to those components of the weapon, and you have less wear and tear on the weapon – hopefully to extend its life cycle.”
A final benefit noted by Hogan centers on the accuracy of the company case design.
“The way we build these cases is different than brass,” he explained. “You look at a brass cartridge case and the internal geometry is dictated by the external geometry. But that’s not the case with our product. We can do some proprietary things inside that case that allow us to be more efficient on powder burn and generate really consistent velocities – you’re talking single-digit standard deviation in muzzle velocity. And when they’re all flying at the same speed they tend to go to the same place.”
As noted, one of the emerging products being supported by True Velocity is a new .338 NM minigun from Dillon Aero. The prototype for the new “experimental Gatling gun” was unveiled at SHOT Show 2020.
Although not on the show floor, another minigun design was displayed in a corporate suite in a nearby hotel. According to Kyle Fagin, a product manager at Arizona-based Profense LLC, significant user interest is being directed toward the company’s “556 product,” a minigun prototype in 5.56x45mm.
He noted that the company has displayed the design for the last couple of years, including at the Association of the U.S. Army annual meeting in the fall of 2018, where its mounting on a Polaris MRZR platform drew interest from both Army Special Forces (SF) and 75th Ranger Regiment attendees of that meeting.
“They all commented on how they liked the idea of the 5.56 vs a 240/249 [M240/M249] solution,” he noted. “We have visited a few Ranger and SF units and there is interest. On top of that, we had a last [minute] invitation to visit with some USAF Guardian Angel folks, and they were intrigued with the concept of mounting them on their new BC Customs vehicle. Basically anyone who requires lots of firepower in a small concealable package is interested at some level.”
Although there is significant interest in the 5.56mm design, he acknowledged that the company is “investigating other caliber options based on what our conversations have been with SOCOM, ‘big Army,’ and even international customers.”
This article originally appears in the following edition of Special Operations Outlook: