May 31, 2005

All That's Old is New Again

During WWII, the Germans developed what is considered to be the first true assault rifle.

The idea was to replace the large and heavy battle rifles if the time with something smaller and lighter. Magazine capacity was increased from an average of 8 rounds to 30. The new rifles would also be capable of both semi- and full-auto firing. This would result in an uncontrollable weapon if it was chambered for a traditional full power cartridge, so an intermediate round which had about ½ the power and recoil was developed.

The Germans found them to be very effective. The volume of fire that a squad of men could put out would overwhelm lesser equipped opponents. Fortunately for us, they didn’t start producing them in significant numbers until after they had lost any chance of winning the war.

All of this firepower really burned up the ammo. Luckily the intermediate round mentioned previously was lighter than a traditional battle round. The troops could not only carry more ammo because the rifle was lighter than previous front line weapons, but they could also haul more cartridges for the same weight.

Whether they won the war or not, the Germans and their new rifle certainly impressed the Russians. The next big advance in assault rifle technology was the AK-47, which is the most successful rifle design in history if you’re only interested in numbers produced. These guns were very reliable, very rugged. They also were chambered for a .30 caliber (7.62mm) round that still had a respectable punch. The only real drawback to the AK was that it was rather inaccurate.

The United States decided to go one better. If the big advantage to assault rifles was the amount of firepower that could be generated, and if weight determined how many rounds a soldier could carry, why not make both the rifle and the round as light as possible?

Enter the M16, which was chambered for a round that has garnered a great deal of criticism for being too weak. Underpowered or not, the M16 certainly met its design specs. It was light, and there were an impressive number of rounds in a standard combat load. Another advantage was that it was significantly more accurate than the AK-47.

Like I said, lots of people weren’t happy with the effectiveness of the 5.56 cartridge. It would appear that none of them were Russians, since they came out with a version of their venerable AK chambered for a new round that was comparable to the M16 round. This new Russian rifle was the AK-74, and the new round was even smaller at 5.45mm.

The AK-74 is currently the standard issue rifle for the Russian military, and that probably won’t change any time soon. But reports that the Russians are exporting an upgraded version of the old AK-47 to Venezuela. (Post from May 31, 2005.) This rifle, named the AK-103, goes back to the old 7.62 round that was abandoned when the AK-74 was adopted. (I have no idea if the 103 is more accurate than the 47.)

There’s plenty of interesting stuff at the SP post, so click on over and read the whole thing. But I just wanted to point out that, judging by the way that the Venezuelans are going for the 7.62 over the 5.45, the criticisms of the 5.56 might just have merit.

Posted by James Rummel at May 31, 2005 09:24 PM

The 5.56 round is very effective, when properly constructed, and used within its design limits. For a good read, and authoritative information as to why this is so, check out

I will be the first to admit that there are many missions that fall outside those parameters. Perhaps the 6.8 SPC will address that. Personally, though, I think that's why the M14 should be readily available. Maybe there should be one in every squad, just as there is a SAW.

Posted by: Brerarnold at June 1, 2005 06:08 AM

Actually, the Army could have had a round with performance very similar to the new 6.8 rounds way back in the 1950s, in the form of the British 7x43mm. Army brass didn't quite get the assault rifle concept, however, and went with what became the 7.62NATO and the M-14. Didn't help that the Brits packaged their round with an oddball bullpup design, either.

Oh, and each infantry squad has 2 SAWs, one in each fire team. Infantry squads sometimes (depending on the exact unit type) have a Squad Designated Marksman who may have an M-14 or may have just a scoped M4/M16.

Posted by: Heartless Libertarian at June 1, 2005 01:46 PM

A couple of points:

(1) Special Ops guys can use what they want. The switch back to .45 calibre from 9mm shows that they don't have to use a cartridge that they feel doesn't do the job. They seem to use 5.56mm a fair amount, which suggests it's not totally useless.

(2) The 5.56mm was adopted for a conscript army. We now have a professional army. A combat load of fewer but more powerful cartridges might make sense, if you rely more on aimed fire and less on spray-and-pray. Even if the 5.56mm isn't toally useless.

Posted by: Bob Hawkins at June 1, 2005 04:43 PM

Publicola has had nothing good to say about the M-16 in my conversations with him. i can just imagine what he'd think about the 5.45 mm.

Posted by: annika at June 2, 2005 01:28 AM

A nice fast summary of the history. Although it is a bit partisan, I'd add that the m16 has superior handling features (magazine release, safety, and bolt hold open) over the AK.

I'd also be wary of reading too much into the Venezuelan decision. They have a bunch of worn out FAL's at the moment, manufactured locally, and they make their own 7.62x51mm for them. (Its nasty, nasty stuff with soft brass). Sticking with a 7.62 caliber helps simplify the logistics of their ammo industry (they only have to switch a 3 thousands on their bullet diameter, and knowing the quality of their ammo, they probably won't even bother). This is sort of a page straight out of the russian and german play books with the 7.92x57 to 7.92x33 and 7.62x54R to 7.62x39 switches. Going to 7.62x39 makes a lot of sense in their political circles, as its sort of a sign of NOT being an american client state, combined with the ability to supply weapons and ammo to the FARC and similar organizations.

Finally I think there's always a role for a bit of spray and pray...noone wants to do MOUT planning entirely on aimed 7.62 shots out of battle rifles. Then again, I think we should just issue more than one caliber as situations dictate, though I have to say, I think the AR-10 or AR-16 would make much , much more sense than producing more m14's at this point.

Posted by: Bob Golding at June 2, 2005 11:56 AM

Also interesting to note that the Chinese have developed their own assault rifle round, after using the Soviet 7.62x39mm for years. Their new round is 5.8mm. Not sure of the weight or casing length.

Posted by: Heartless Libertarian at June 3, 2005 08:10 AM
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