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U.S. Military Small Arms Renaissance

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Photos by Courtesy General Dynamics and the Department of Defense

We’re living in exciting times. It’s an era of small arms innovation — a renaissance, if you will. Not since the fielding of the M60 and the M16 in the ’50s and ’60s have we seen the potential for such fundamental change in U.S. military issue small arms. At the time, the U.S. military introduced two new cartridges. First, the U.S. selected the 7.62x51mm cartridge and then the 5.56x45mm, both of which became NATO standards. As you’ll see, new calibers are intertwined in these modernization efforts and just as much a part of this renaissance as the new weapons that employ them.

There’s always talk about weapon modernization, and the military seems to perpetually conduct one science experiment after another to find the next wonder weapon. All too often, action is lacking. Now, however, everything is coming into alignment. We not only have requirements from the services, but also solutions already developed by industry, ready to fit the bill. But most of all, we have the will to act, and that’s something we haven’t had in a long time.

In fact, we haven’t seen this level of effort, since the period between the adoption of the 7.62 NATO and 5.56 NATO cartridges that saw the replacement of World War II-era weapons by such systems as the M14 and M16 rifles, M60 machine gun, M203 grenade launcher. Some of this was to counteract perceptions of overmatch by Warsaw Pact Forces in Europe, while other efforts were to deal with the realities of jungle warfare in Vietnam.

Our president is emphasizing defense, the secretary of defense is a retired Marine general, and our congress is actively engaged in hearings to determine what appropriations need to be made to modernize our forces.

The U.S. Army, Marine Corps, and Special Operations Command are all engaged in small arms improvement efforts, either on their own or in conjunction with one another. Additionally, the Navy and Air Force are monitoring these efforts in hopes of mirroring each of its successes.

Lance Cpl. Jose Damoeda, rifleman, Company A, Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force, fires an M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle during a fire team collective skills exercise at Range K509, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Dec. 16, 2014. The assault served as the companyâs first collective skills-level exercise. From October 2014 to July 2015, the Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force will conduct individual and collective skills training in designated combat arms occupational specialties in order to facilitate the standards based assessment of the physical performance of Marines in a simulated operating environment performing specific ground combat arms tasks. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Paul S. Martinez/Released)

The U.S. Army took the lead on a joint service effort for a new pistol. The 9mm SIG P320 was selected earlier this year as the M17/18 and has begun fielding, initially with the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. While an issue was recently exposed relating to a vulnerability in the design of the pistol’s drop safety mechanism, the problem is isolated to the commercial version of the P320, and the model selected by the Army is unaffected, according to SIG SAUER. Interestingly, SOCOM had already fielded the Glock 19 and has plans to add a red-dot optic to its fleet of pistols.

The Army selected a variant of the German 7.62mm Heckler and Koch G28 for the M110A1 compact semi-auto sniper system and has a directed requirement for 6,069 Squad Designated Marksman Rifles based on the same rifle. The Army has gone one step further and also issued a solicitation to industry for 50,000 select-fire Interim Combat Service Rifles in 7.62mm NATO. The Army seeks a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) solution, versus developing a weapon system from scratch, in order to get a weapon in service members’ hands that can defeat updated enemy body armor. Consequently, many of the details are left open in order to cast a wider net. As we go to press, multiple companies are answering this requirement in hopes of supporting this program.

In addition to an ongoing small arms ammunition study by the Army, SOCOM took the bull by the horns, conducting a live-fire 6.5mm family cartridge study in conjunction with the Army. It’s already fired 23 different cartridges on a 2,000-yard radar-equipped range at Aberdeen Test Center to determine the terminal ballistics of each. A live-fire user evaluation is scheduled for fall of 2017. Additionally, multiple government ammunition programs are in the works, developing polymer cartridge cases to lower both weight and cost.

Some of the biggest news is that the U.S. Marine Corps has made significant moves to increase fielding of the 5.56mm M27 infantry automatic rifle, based on the Heckler & Koch HK416. The Marines have also issued a notice through contracting channels seeking sources for a full spectrum of small arms suppressors.

U.S. SOCOM has a requirement for a .300 Blackout personal defense weapon kit for its SOPMOD M4A1 carbines, as well as a 5.56mm suppressed upper receiver group and has stated an interest in improving their existing carbines with a mid-length gas systems, M-LOK handguards, and SureFire WarComp muzzle devices.

SOCOM has been evaluating various rounds in the 6.5mm range including Creedmoor and .260 Remington as well as a new cartridge, the .264 USA, developed by the Army Marksmanship Unit. They plan to take the results of this ammunition evaluation and develop the so-called Sniper Support Weapon/Carbine and the Lightweight Assault Machine Gun systems in whichever caliber proves most effective for its needs.

Additionally, SOCOM has a requirement for the Advanced Sniper Rifle in .300 Norma Magnum and .338 Norma Magnum, which the Army is monitoring and plans to field as its Precision Sniper Rifle weapon system. That .338NM round may also find itself used in what may well be the greatest increase in lethality to the small unit since the introduction of the M2 .50-caliber machine gun a century ago. SOCOM has teamed up with the Marine Corps and issued a sources sought notice to industry in an effort to develop its own Lightweight Medium Machine Gun, also in .338 Norma Magnum. Conceptually, the Army is also interested in something along these lines, although they haven’t developed a requirements document for it yet.

Finally, with so many new weapons under consideration, numerous laser and optics programs are in the Army, Marine Corps, and SOCOM.

While that’s quite a bit of effort across the board, we’re going to take a closer look at two of these initiatives. The Marine Corps plans to field an additional 50,000 M27s and the overmatch capability promised by the .338 Norma Magnum Lightweight Medium Machine Gun.

The introduction of new calibers such as 338 Norma Magnum offer US troops the best opportunity to accurately engage the enemy at greater distances.

The introduction of new calibers such as 338 Norma Magnum offer US troops the best opportunity to accurately engage the enemy at greater distances.

In 2010, the USMC held a competition to adopt a 5.56mm Infantry Automatic Rifle to replace the belt-fed M249 Squad Automatic Weapons in their rifle squads, which the Corps felt were unwieldy for use in urban environments. The Marines chose a variant of the Heckler & Koch HK416, called the M27 IAR, for this role.

Over the past couple of years, the Marine Corps conducted warfighting experiments by replacing the M4/M16s in rifle squads with the M27. According to a 2017 Armament Systems Forum briefing given by Chris Woodburn, a senior executive in the Marine Corps Capabilities Development Directorate, the service also conducted internal reliability testing of the platform and is very pleased with the results.

In February 2017, the Marines asked the industry to identify manufacturers capable of delivering 11,000 rifles. However, the Marine Corps subsequently announced a plan in August to procure 50,000 rifles in a sole source arrangement with Heckler & Koch. This is a lot of rifles, but still isn’t enough to replace the M4/M16 across the Marine Corps.

The Marine Corps is a pragmatic organization; one that knows it has to do more with less. Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Robert Neller has been heard saying, “All Marines are riflemen, but not all Marines are infantrymen.” In fact, he says it so often while discussing his modernization priorities, it has become a mantra among Marines. Based on the current resource-constrained environment, his modernization priorities are the infantry. So, it seems these new automatic rifles are going to select Marines, but don’t be surprised if the Marines purchase more down the road.

Based on their experimentation, the Marines determined the M27 has the longest range in the squad. As an interim measure to the planned fielding of 50,000 additional rifles, it’s outfitting a select number of existing M27 rifles with an optic, fulfilling a Designated Marksman role at the infantry squad level. Additionally, the Marine Corps plans to transition from the M203 grenade launcher, long associated with the M16, to the M320 grenade launcher, coincidentally also manufactured by H&K. Unfortunately, the M320 doesn’t fit on the M4/M16, but it does fit the M27, making it the central focus of the squad-level lethality modernization of the Corps.

When talking about small arms the current buzzword is “overmatch.” The concept is that American troops are outgunned by foes armed with the SVD Dragunov sniper rifle and the PKM machine gun, both Russian weapons, firing the 7.52x54R cartridge. It’s like boxing a guy with longer arms who won’t let you get close enough to get any licks in. The military leadership wants to turn the tide in favor of our troops. The capability the Lightweight Medium Machine Gun provides seems to offer just that. It combines the range of the M2 Heavy Machine Gun in a package carried and employed by a single service member.

Originally adopted by the Marines as a replacement for some Squad Automatic Weapons, the M27 is a variant of Heckler & Koch’s HK416 rifle.

Originally adopted by the Marines as a replacement for some Squad Automatic Weapons, the M27 is a variant of Heckler & Koch’s HK416 rifle.

Back in 2012, General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems unveiled their belt-fed Lightweight Medium Machine Gun, in .338 Norma Magnum. At the time of its introduction, there was no money in the Department of Defense for new programs. The gun was thought of as an efficient way to shoot $10 bills. The concept of precision long-range machine gun fire seemed anathema to the long-held doctrine of low-cost, area fire employed by U.S. Forces. It also seemed like the timing wasn’t right. But now, thanks to this renewed interest in small arms and ammunition improvements, its prospects are looking better than ever.

A few things have happened since 2012 to make the idea of a long-range, precision machine gun much more actionable. First off, the development of polymer-cased ammo has progressed to the point that it’s now viable. Second, there’s now a military requirement. In fact, the 75th Ranger Regiment conducted an evaluation of the General Dynamics LWMMG last year. Based on its experience, the Regiment asked SOCOM to fast track the program as the LWMMG offers an overmatch capability that promises to change how the infantry fights.

In a rare case for crew-served weapons, the LWMMG was developed outside of a published military requirement. Developed via internal research and development dollars, General Dynamics identified a capability gap between the M240 and M2 machine guns.  It designed a machine gun offering similar handling characteristics as the M240, yet rivals the reach of the venerable M2. Combining the .338 Norma Magnum cartridge and the company’s “Short Recoil Impulse Averaging” recoil mitigation system, the LWMMG can engage targets out to 1,700 meters (some of the company’s literature says it’s capable of reaching targets as far as 1,900 meters) with 300-grain Sierra HPBT, FMJ, or AP projectiles. That round offers five times the energy of a 7.62mm projectile at 1,000m.

While GD chose the .338 Norma Magnum over the .338 Lapua Magnum because it’s less tapered case feeds better in ammunition belts and promises longer barrel life, the LWMMG is convertible to use the .338LM cartridge.

At the 1,700-meter range, the performance of the M2 machine gun’s .50-caliber round relegates the Ma Deuce to area weapon use, while the .338NM is able to hit point targets at that range. This capability more than adequately overmatches the Russian PKM, an overwhelming concern for any American service member facing its receiving end.

The LWMMG weighs 22 pounds, placing it well within the weight class of the 27-pound M240 machine gun and rivals the weight of the new M240L machine gun. The LWMMG also features a quick-change barrel with fixed headspace and timing, as well as integrated MIL-STD-1913 rails. Additionally, there’s a collapsible stock and GD has been offering the weapon with a 6x optic.

Larger calibers equal a greater weight burden on the infantry. One way to deal with it is the introduction of polymer-cased rounds, such as the 338 NM cartridges (left) seen here beside standard brass (right).

Larger calibers equal a greater weight burden on the infantry. One way to deal with it is the introduction of polymer-cased rounds, such as the 338 NM cartridges (left) seen here beside standard brass (right).

Fielding larger-caliber weapons means the issue of ammunition weight is going to be a factor. This 2012 chart provided by the National Defense Industrial Association depicts the weights of the M240, LWMMG, and M2. The loaded weapon weight of all systems includes the weight of conventional, brass-cased ammunition. In addition to weapon upgrades, polymer case technology is going to further lighten that load or, better yet, increase the amount of ammunition a machine gunner can carry.

Each small arms program has an associated suppressor requirement. The LWMMG is no different. General Dynamics demonstrated its candidate with a suppressor, and the recent Sources Sought Notice required the capability to use an integrally suppressed barrel.

While General Dynamics is way out front of the development of this capability, the Sources Sought Notice published by SOCOM opens up the competition to all manufacturers of weapons in this caliber and class. Now that there’s a requirement for this capability, let’s see what the industry can do to offer the U.S. warfighter, a capability unparalleled anywhere else. Imagine a weapon that has the reach of the .50 cal, laser-like accuracy past a kilometer, and light enough to be carried by a single service member. That’ll surely keep those PKMs at bay.

Despite all of this effort, the M4A1 carbine, a close relative of the M16 first fielded over five decades ago, will remain in service for the foreseeable future. If you disagree, consider how long it’s taking to transition from the M16 to the M4. In its latest budget request, the Army continues to seek the funding from congress to complete its full transition to the M4. Even SOCOM, which has a lot of small arms modernization efforts underway, remains committed to this venerable platform. Instead of replacing it, it seeks to increase the carbine’s reliability by modernizing components. Its strategy is to field new, additional weapon systems to be used in concert with the M4A1, which will remain the core weapon of the SOF Operator.

Aside from the selection of the M17 Modular Handgun System, contracts for none of the other capabilities discussed have yet been awarded. However, combine these weapons with advances in target acquisition and fire control, along with more accurate and lighter weight ammunition — even if only a few of these key programs are fielded, we’ll see a fundamental shift in the lethality of the American military. Add to that the ingenuity of the American service member to employ these capabilities, said lethality will be unparalleled. It’s indeed an exciting time for U.S. small arms.

The proposed Lightweight Medium Machine Gun in 338 NM offers the weight of a 7.62 NATO Medium Machine Gun with the range of the .50 Heavy Machine Gun.

The proposed Lightweight Medium Machine Gun in 338 NM offers the weight of a 7.62 NATO Medium Machine Gun with the range of the .50 Heavy Machine Gun.


Eric Graves

A retired US Air Force Officer, Eric Graves writes about military issues and serves as the editor of Soldier Systems Daily.

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