By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2020
“God is not on the side of the big battalions, but on the side of those who shoot best.”
— Voltaire (French writer and philosopher), 1694-1778.
This past year has certainly been a wild ride, crazy and unpredictable in so many regards, because of the terrible, COVID-19 virus pandemic, affecting even the president, rampant unemployment as a result, inexplicable food shortages and hoarding, ravaged, global economies, insanely-divisive politics, outrageous, Congressional antics, social distancing, virtual learning, curtailed, international travel, out-of-control looting, burning, and rioting, record-breaking wildfires in the west, and a whole host of other very serious challenges. With all of that in mind, let’s take a brief look at some of the notable, military or military-oriented, weapons developments that came to national and international attention in this landmark, roller-coaster year. It’s not an all-inclusive list, but these are some of the weapons highlights of the past year:
In April 2020, the People’s Republic of China released footage of its new, QBZ-191 assault carbine, first revealed in a military parade the previous October. Looking very much like an M4 carbine-derivative, this new gas-operated, short-stroke-piston weapon is available as either a 10.5-inch, carbine version, 14.5-inch, standard infantry weapon, or longer-barreled (probably 16 to 18 inches), designated-marksman version, the QBU-191 Precision Rifle, all chambered for the 5.8x42mm cartridge. The existing, standard, QBZ-95 bullpup-configured carbine has been plagued by various problems, so this more-conventional design is expected to resolve any reliability issues for the People’s Liberation Army.
The French armed forces officially adopted the Glock-17 Gen. 5 in 9x19mm as their new, service pistol this year, the “New-Generation, Automatic Pistol” (PANG, in French), with a Coyote-Brown (also called Flat Dark Earth, or FDE) frame, lanyard attachment, and an optics-ready (Modular Optic System, or MOS) slide. There’s also a tactical version with an extended, threaded barrel and raised sights. The contract covers nearly 75,000 pistols with matching holsters, 7,000 suppressors for special operations forces, and 45 million rounds of full-metal-jacket ammunition from Czech manufacturer Sellier and Bellot.
The French Army Light Aviation (ALAT) service is reported to have ordered small numbers of Swiss-manufactured, ultra-short, B&T (formerly Brügger and Thomet) APC556 PDWs (Personal-Defense Weapons) for the 4th Special Forces Helicopter Regiment (4e RHFS), which already employed the excellent, HK416Fshort carbine as an aircrew, self-defense weapon. This is probably because the APC556 PDW, with an 8.7-inch barrel, is an absolute, top-quality weapon with a telescoping stock, which makes it at least seven inches shorter, handier, and more-compact than an HK416, while hanging low over a pilot’s chest, within the tight confines of a helicopter cockpit.
These French Special Forces aviators are currently the most heavily-armed, helicopter pilots in the world, each now sporting an APC556 PDW in 5.56mm, an H&K MP7A1 PDW in 4.6x30mm, and a Glock-17 Gen. 5 tactical pistol (formerly an H&K USP9 service pistol.)
The really big news from Germany is the $286-million, September 14, 2020, contract for their all-new, assault carbine, the Haenel Defense (of Suhl, Germany) MK 556, which somehow, surprisingly managed to beat the very-impressive, Heckler and Koch HK433 in open competition. This gas-operated, 5.56mm weapon will be produced with barrel lengths of 10.5 inches, 12.5 inches, 14.5 inches, or 16 inches, in tan, olive-green, or black finish, looking very much like an HK416 carbine, and it’s designed to replace the current, H&K G36 service rifle, with nearly 120,000 weapons to be delivered from 2023 to 2026. Haenel already provides their bolt-action, RS9 rifle in .338 Lapua Magnum, with suppressor, to the German Army as the G29 sniper rifle.
The brand-new, Mauser 18 Waldjagd (literally meaning “Forest Hunt,” or “Hunting in the Woods”) bolt-action, hunting rifle, produced in far, southern Germany, near the majestic Alps, is specifically aimed at the civilian market, however, its unique features also make it an ideal, top-quality, very simple, proven-design, sniper weapon for nations on a tight budget.
The Waldjagd comes standard with a rugged, hollow (with internal storage area), polymer stock in pine green (for woodland use), a compact, cold-hammer-forged, 20-inch, fluted and threaded barrel, a silent safety system, five-round, detachable magazine, available, iron sights as a backup, black-nylon or brown-leather, Mauser slings, and a Mauser/A-TEC (Norwegian) suppressor (they call it a “moderator”), with sound reduction up to 30 decibels, and recoil reduction up to 50 percent.
The Mauser 18 Waldjagd is available only in Europe so far, although it may be special-ordered from the United States for a minimum of $1,375, and in comes in nine different calibers, including .223 Remington, .243 Winchester, .270 Winchester, .308 Winchester, .30-06 Springfield, 6.5x55mm SE, 6.5mm CRD, 8x57mm IS, or 9.3x62mm.
Russian Special Forces are always at the forefront of military weapons technology, and they are now receiving several advanced, new weapons as the Russian Federation pushes forward with its plans to eventually replace all of their existing, standard, AK-74M assault rifles, Yarygin PYa pistols, and Dragunov SVD sniper rifles in the very near future.
The new, Kalashnikov AK-12 assault rifle in 5.45x39mm, with 16.3-inch barrel, is slated to become their next official, service rifle, with the AK-19 variant in 5.56x45mm NATO, just unveiled this year, designed for international export customers. Russian SpetsNaz commandos prefer the shorter, AK-12K carbine, with 9.8-inch barrel. Alternative variants, the AK-15 rifle and AK-15Kcarbine, are produced in 7.62x39mm for those who prefer the longer range and harder-hitting firepower of this battle-proven, AK-47 cartridge. There’s also a brand-new, ultra-compact, Kalashnikov AM-17 mini-carbine in 5.45x39mm, with 9.1-inch barrel, and the suppressed, AMB-17 version in 9x39mm, with 7.9-inch barrel, the new replacement for the combat-proven, AS Val.
Russia’s new, military service pistol will apparently be the TochMash SR-2 Udav (“Boa”), an advanced, polymer-framed weapon holding 18 rounds of 9x21mm ammunition, equivalent in power to a hot-loaded, 9x19mm +P cartridge at 1,300 feet-per-second velocity. SP-10 armor-piercing loads are the preferred, military round, and the Udav can be fitted with raised, tactical sights and a high-technology, spiral-pattern, carbon-fiber suppressor for special operations missions. There’s also a less-powerful version of this same pistol produced, chambered for 9x19mm, called the Aspid (“Viper”), which is designed for the civilian market and for law-enforcement personnel.
The all-new, semiautomatic, Kalashnikov/Chukavin SVCh-7.62 (or SVCh-308) and SVCh-8.6 (or SVCh-338), with barrel lengths ranging from 16 inches to 22 inches, are slated to eventually replace the longer, more-cumbersome, Dragunov SVD as Russia’s standard, sniper rifle in coming years. President Putin himself recently test-fired the shorter, less-powerful SVCh-7.62 (with a suppressor) on September 20, 2018.
The ultra-long-range, ultra-expensive ($30-34k), Lobaev SVLK-14S Sumrak (“Twilight”) with a fixed, carbon-fiber stock, and the folding-stock, Lobaev DXL-4 “Sevastopol” (the capital of the recently-annexed, Russian Republic of Crimea), both chambered for .408 CheyTac, have been photographed while on display for recent, combat testing in the separatist, Donbass region (eastern Ukraine.)
The Russian Navy is currently refurbishing all of their Ka-29TB Helix-B naval helicopter gunships for use on the new, Ivan Gren-class, amphibious-assault ship (Project 11711), and the sleek, stealthy, ultra-modern, Vasily Bykov patrol ship/corvette (Project 22160) series. 59 of these unique helicopters were built, originally entering service in 1985, but by the year 2000, all but 15 had been retired, due to a lack of amphibious operations in Russia’s many wars, leaving each of the major fleets with just three or four dedicated gunships.
The Ka-29 is short, fat, and ugly, but it carries machine guns, 23mm cannon pods, 80mm rocket pods, and anti-tank missiles, with impressive firepower rivaling the best Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships, and the navy has decided that it is once again needed to protect territorial waters, counter smuggling, and combat piracy and terrorism. The fully-upgraded and improved version of the Helix-B is designated the Ka-29M (“M” for Modernized.)
Norma Precision, of Åmotfors in southwestern Sweden, now offers their innovative, new, 9mm or .380 ACP MHP (Monolithic Hollow-Point) solid-copper, hollowpoint (SCHP) ammunition, which is designed in Sweden, but actually manufactured in Hungary, and is advertised as, “The most-expanding, 9mm bullet in the world.” This round has a very small, visible cavity at the nose, which peels back quite a bit into four large petals, like a copper flower, expanding very dramatically. The brass casing is dark gray (black-oxide coating), with a shiny, nickel-plated bullet.
This author personally tested the 108-grain, 9mm MHP cartridge in 2019 by firing it into two blocks of wet, modeling clay to simulate the terminal-ballistics effects of a real, shooting incident. Even from a very short-barrel, Ruger LC9s Pro handgun, the muzzle velocity was 1,031 feet per second, and the bullet produced a temporary, wound cavity a full four inches wide, penetrating 9.5 inches (which equates to about 10.5 inches in ballistic gelatin), and bullet expansion was a jaw-dropping, .937-caliber. Wow!!! Needless to say, this is now my preferred, 9mm, concealed-carry load.
The Norma MHP is also marketed in Germany as the Geco Action Extreme cartridge since March 2019, which is an exact, licensed copy, now available to the GSG 9 police counterterrorist unit and other European police units.
Within the next two years, by Fiscal Year 2022, the U.S. Army plans to begin replacing its M4A1 carbines and M249 squad-automatic weapons in 5.56mm with the Next-Generation, Squad Weapon (NGSW) and NGSW-Automatic Rifle (NGSW-AR) in 6.8x51mm. The three companies competing for this contract are SIG-Sauer, with a fairly-conventional, classic, M4-style design (they call it the MCX Spear) with a 13-inch barrel and 20-round magazine, using hybrid (part-brass, part-alloy, for lighter weight), .277 SIG Fury cartridges, General Dynamics, with a bullpup design using a 20-inch barrel for greater muzzle velocity, and composite-cased cartridges, and Textron Systems, using advanced, case-telescoped cartridges.
At this point, it seems that SIG-Sauer is the most-likely to win, because they already hold the Army contract for M17 and M18 service pistols, and their new Spear rifle is the least-radical candidate, and the simplest to produce. Special operations forces will certainly be high on the list to receive these powerful, new rifles as soon as they are available.
In April 2020, the U.S. Army also introduced the new M110A1 Squad Designated-Marksman Rifle (SDMR, actually an HK417A2/G28 variant) in 7.62x51mm NATO, with a 16.5-inch barrel, produced in Flat Dark Earth finish, with a 10-round or 20-round, translucent, polymer magazine, rifle scope, available bipod, and suppressor. A total of 5,851 weapons will be delivered, at a hefty price tag of over $6,100 each.
The U.S. Air Force recently began fielding the new, SIG-Sauer M18 (P320 Compact) service pistol in 9mm, with 3.9-inch barrel and 15-round magazine, as a replacement for the current Beretta M9. The U.S. Army has adopted both the full-sized M17 and compact M18 pistols, while all of the other services are receiving only the M18.
The Air Force has also adopted the Colt M4 carbine, with 14.5-inch barrel, three-round burst capability, and Aimpoint M68/CCO red-dot, optical sight as its new, standard weapon this past year, replacing the M16A2 rifle. The Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) will continue to use the M4A1 carbine, instead, with selective-fire, fully-automatic capability.
The Air Force also began fielding the all-new, GAU-5A Aircrew Self-Defense Weapon (ASDW), a highly-modified, M4 carbine variant, to be included in the ACES II ejection-seat, survival kits of all A-10C Thunderbolt IIs/“Warthogs,” B-1B Lancer bombers, B-52H Stratofortress heavy bombers, F-15C Eagle fighters, F-15E Strike Eagles, F-16CM/V Fighting Falcons, and F-22A Raptor stealth fighters. The purpose of the new weapon is to provide downed pilots with a medium-range, self-defense capability for just a few hours, until heavily-armed, rescue forces can arrive on-scene.
A total of 2,137 GAU-5As are being built, each featuring a number of existing, M4 carbine components, but adding a quick-release, 12.5-inch, Bravo Company Manufacturing (BCM) barrel assembly, an Israeli-made, folding pistol grip, free-floating handguard, forged-aluminum, upper receiver, and Magpul folding, iron sights. Each ACES II survival kit will contain one disassembled, ASDW weapon, which the pilot can quickly reassemble on the ground in less than one minute, and four loaded, 30-round, M4 magazines, in either gray finish or Flat Dark Earth. See my article, “Arming Air Force Pilots: The GAU-5A Aircrew Self-Defense Weapon,” in Gunpowder Magazine, January 10, 2020, for more details about this unique, new weapon.
Meanwhile, just this past year, the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) selected the FN Mk. 20S(SCAR 20S) rifle in 6.5mm Creedmoor (6.5x48mm) as its new, long-range, sniper rifle. American special operations forces have already procured the Mk. 17 SCAR-H battle rifle and Mk. 20 and 20S sniper rifles. During extensive testing, the 6.5mm Creedmoor, compared to the 7.62mm NATO round, had less recoil, one-third longer, effective range, and at a range of 1,000 meters, it had 30-percent more energy, 40-percent less wind drift, and double the hit probability, so for special operations sniper rifles, at least, it appears to be the wave of the future.
The special operations community is also in the process of converting its Knight’s Armament Company (KAC) M110A1Semi-Automatic, Sniper Systems (SASS) from 7.62mm to 6.5mm Creedmoor, re-designating them as the M110K1. KAC is providing the conversion kits.
USSOCOM in general, and Delta Force in particular, has recently adopted modest quantities of the new, SIG MCX Virtus (“Truth”), also affectionately known as the “Black Mamba,” with an 11.5-inch barrel (in 5.56mm) and gas-piston operating system, the SIG MCX SBR (short-barrel rifle) with nine-inch barrel (in .300 BLK), and the ultra-compact, SIG MCX Rattler personal-defense weapon (PDW), in both 5.56mm and .300 BLK chamberings, with a 5.5-inch barrel and overall length of just 16 inches. The Rattler “is the shortest rifle that’s on the market today...shorter than any M4 ever produced,” according to SIG officials. Any of these three weapons may utilize the quick-detachable, SIG SRD556 or shorter, “SRD556K” suppressors, and they have definitely been photographed in the hands of Delta Force operators in Afghanistan and Syria.
The MCX Rattler or longer MCX SBR are currently used by Australia (Police Special Operations Group), Poland (Grom Special Forces unit), the United Kingdom (Special Forces), and the United States (Delta and USSOCOM.) The U.S. has already purchased 100 MCX SBRs with nine-inch barrels, 100 MCX Virtus SBRs with 11.5-inch barrels, and an unspecified amount of MCX Rattlers with 5.5-inch barrels, in .300 BLK.
DillonAero (the manufacturer of the M134D-H 7.62mm Gatling gun) currently offers the brand-new, 503D Gatling gun, designed to replace the .50-caliber, three-barrel, GAU-19/B weapon that is currently standard on the AH-6M Little Bird helicopter gunship in service with the U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne.) The 503D is 21-percent lighter and 6.5-percent faster-firing than the already-lightweight GAU-19/B, which has been in service since 2012.
DillonAero is also producing a brand-new, five-barrel, .338 Norma Magnum Gatling gun for the U.S. Special Operations Command, firing at a rate of 2,500 rounds per minute (42 rounds per second.) This weapon could eventually replace the DillonAero M134D-H 7.62mm Gatling guns currently in use on special operations gunships, providing much longer range and hard-hitting firepower in a comparable-sized package.
The innovative, Raytheon Pike guided munition is a rocket-powered, laser-guided, 40mm grenade less than 17 inches long and weighing only 1.7 pounds, with a range of 2,200 yards (1.25 miles), accurate to within 17 feet, and with a 9.6-ounce warhead with a lethal radius of 33 feet. When employed with a skilled, laser-designating operator, it literally cannot miss its targets! The Pike can be launched from a standard, M203 grenade launcher, FN SCAR (FN40GL) Enhanced, Grenade-Launching Module (EGLM), or H&K 320 grenade launcher, and is already in active, military service with the Canadian Special Forces.
Finally, MD Helicopters of Mesa, Arizona, is in the process of delivering a dozen small, brand-new, MD-530GBlock II Light Scout Attack Helicopters this year, including six to the Malaysian Army Aviation service, and six to the Lebanese Air Force. It’s essentially an upgraded MD-530FCayuse Warrior gunship, as used by the Afghan Air Force and Kenyan Army, with a FLIR targeting sensor under the nose, and four weapon stations instead of two.
The MD-530G is an export model, offering capabilities similar to the U.S. Army’s tiny, AH-6M Little Bird gunship, but using a different family of weapons. The Little Bird’s standard armament consists of one GAU-19/B Gatling gun in .50-caliber, one M134D-H “Minigun” Gatling gun in 7.62mm, and a seven-shot, rocket pod, holding either unguided, 70mm rockets, or AGR-20B laser-guided missiles.
By comparison, the MD-530Gis usually armed with two FN RMPs (Rocket and Machine-gun Pods), each containing an M3P heavy machine gun and three laser-guided, Raytheon Talon missiles, plus a pair of M134D-H Miniguns. The tradeoff is that the MD-530G has two fast-firing, heavy machine guns instead of one, but with 100 fewer rounds of total ammunition, and six rockets or missiles instead of seven, but two Miniguns instead of just one. Overall, they’re pretty evenly matched, with the Light Scout Attack Helicopter holding a slight lead in weaponry.
The AH-6M Little Bird, however, uses a special, six-blade, main rotor assembly, and a four-blade, tail rotor, whereas the MD-530G has a five-blade, main rotor and two-blade, tail rotor. This makes the flat-black Little Bird the quietest attack helicopter in the world, a capability and advanced technology that the U.S. is definitely not offering for international export.
As we can clearly see, it’s been quite an interesting year, in countless, different ways, but thankfully, in this crazy, uncertain world, most of the recent, military weapons developments appear to have taken place right here at home in the United States. We must certainly continue to maintain our technological edge in this critical area if we are to remain feared by our enemies, and respected by our friends and allies.
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.webs.com.