Fishbreath Shoots: Beretta M9 Review

Is it necessary to review the Beretta M9 nowadays? Given the 92-pattern’s long history of military and police issue, I don’t doubt it’s near the top of the list as far as ‘how many people have shot this?’ goes. Am I going to review it anyway? Yes, yes I am. Will it be a traditional review, where I tell you things you already know? No, it won’t.

The gun in question is a bone-stock, commercial production Beretta M9. It isn’t a 92, so it has the flat backstrap and straight dust cover. It’s neither an M9A1 nor an M9A3, so it doesn’t have a rail, retains the original snowman-style sights, and isn’t finished in Modern Operator Tacticool Desert Tan1. It’s an M9, no more, no less, recently produced but in the very same pattern as the M9 as accepted into US military service in 1985.

Like I said, it’s one of the most widely-shot firearms in history. Like many popular things, the stereotypical view of it is wrong.

If you hang around firearms forums, or if you were recently deployed to somewhere sandy and far away, you may be down on the M9. “It’s unreliable! The fiddly bits inside get clogged with sand. Mine is inaccurate. It rattled when I walked. The slide came off of a buddy’s gun and hit him in the nose.”

None of these complaints are strictly inaccurate, but they don’t capture the full picture. Let’s get nerdy and talk about firearms actions for a bit. The 92-pattern pistol, unlike most modern handguns, does not use a Browning-inspired tilting-barrel design2. Rather, it uses a locking block, which engages the frame by lugs until an internal plunger running up against the frame pushes the locking block down to release the barrel.

Though it’s less common nowadays, the locking block action has some advantages. For one, given the traditional open slide, the ejection on the M9 is absurdly reliable. If the case comes out of the barrel at all, it’s leaving the gun. For another, the skeleton slide makes for a much smaller recoiling mass. The main wear item—the locking block—is easier to fix than worn-out cuts inside a slide. All you have to do is replace the locking block, rather than the slide. The bullet at the top of the magazine can feed directly into the barrel, since its angle relative to the barrel never changes. This makes for simpler magazines and requires no faffing about with feed ramps; as a side effect, it means that the M9 will happily feed any ammunition which is not overlong. It also means that feeding failures3 rarely happen outside of torture tests.

Now, the 92-pattern pistol does have some failings as an issue weapon, which we’ve touched on in previous articles. Mainly, a double-action pistol is not especially well-suited to the role the M9 found itself in, that of a soldier’s sidearm. Shooting a double-action pistol well requires mastering both the double-action trigger pull and the single-action trigger pull. It’s a heavy pistol, only incrementally lighter than the 1911 it replaced, and it’s also quite large. I have average-sized hands, and I suspect my thumbs are somewhat shorter than the norm; the magazine release is out of my reach.

I’m purposefully not mentioning the trigger reach or the safety. The former is obviously a problem, and the latter is obviously not. Do you subscribe to the school of thought which claims the 92’s safety is easy to engage by accident while working the slide? If so, next question: have you ever actually done it? Parvusimperator and I once spent a good ten minutes trying to engage the safety by accident, and wouldn’t you believe it, neither of us managed to. This particular complaint is overblown.

I did say that the 92 has some failings as an issue weapon, and if pressed, I might even admit that a striker-fired gun is probably a better choice (for a secondary weapon, because of easier training). Obviously, it isn’t a great choice if your aim is concealment. That leaves two categories: the duty gun and the competition gun. I think it stacks up well in both of those. Let’s look at why.

For a competition gun in particular, weight is not a bad thing. Even a heavy gun can be comfortably carried in a good holster, and if concealment isn’t a requirement, it’s not terribly hard to make a good holster. Weight means less felt recoil. Less felt recoil means faster, more accurate follow-up shots.

It’s a double-action trigger. By definition, that means it’s better than almost every striker-fired trigger in existence. The first pull is rough, but how often do you have to do that? Once4.

Much like parvusimperator’s favored Glocks, the M9 is, on the whole, a legendarily reliable piece of equipment. Unlike said Glocks, the M9 requires some attention to hold up its end of the bargain. Any firearm with steel riding on aluminum, like the 92-pattern guns, requires lubrication. It also requires occasional replacement—the design life of an M9 is about 40,000 rounds, and combat conditions undoubtedly shrink that figure. Many of the M9’s alleged flaws can be chalked up to pistols nearing their end of life, and to bad maintenance habits5. Carrying an M9 by itself, or shooting it in competition, leaves a gun owner room to solve both problems.

It’s no secret I like Beretta’s products. My carry gun, after all, is a Px4 Compact, and I’ve taken to shooting the M9 as my standard competition pistol. It’s plenty competitive, both in 3-Gun Nation Practical division, and USPSA Production division. I have some plans, even, to build a Beretta 96 for Limited competition next season. Watch this space.

  1. A color I actually really like. 
  2. For patent reasons, maybe? Ask parvusimperator. 
  3. Why yes, I did choose a picture of a Glock to illustrate this point. No, no particular reason why. cough 
  4. The match-running mavens at Performance Shooting Sports in Ohio are fond of ‘pistol loaded, chamber empty’ start conditions. Those are my favorite. No double-action pull at all! 
  5. I’m not judging, mind. A soldier overseas has many, many tasks which come ahead of ‘pistol maintenance’, not least of which is ‘rifle maintenance’. 

TTPs: On the Flinch

A few weeks ago I had a good friend come by for a visit. She had never fired a gun before, and was keen to learn to do so. I grabbed a couple guns from my safe, some ammo, and headed to a nice indoor range. She quickly took a liking to my Glock 17 with RMR. As we were shooting, she noticed her shots were moving down the target. From where I was standing in the lane, it was clear she was flinching. Let’s talk about how to fight the flinch.

First, what I did not do:

  1. I did not simply tell her to “Stop Flinching”. It’s not a conscious thing.

  2. I did not break out the snap caps for a bunch of ball and dummy work. Ball and dummy drills are useful if you are trying to diagnose a flinch. Once the flinch is diagnosed (which I had already done), they are worse than useless, because the ball and dummy drill makes you very aware of an unconscious reaction, and your efforts to fight it usually make it worse. Maybe this works for you. It has never worked for me.

Now, on to what I did. First, I talked through what was going on. It’s natural to be a little flinchy. There’s an explosion going off in your hands. It’s ok. We just have to learn to get past that.

I also noticed that she had a backwards lean to her stance, and she had a tendency to pause her trigger press partway through to fix sight alignment. From personal experience, I know this leads to a suboptimal trigger press. Often, we end up jerking the shot when we do this. And this gave me an idea.

I directed her to lean forward a little to help absorb recoil. Then, the gun (even a 9 mm) wouldn’t feel like it was pushing her off balance. I find thinking of a fighting stance helpful for those with martial arts experience. Or, “nose over toes” if that resonates better with the student. This is often counterintuitive for students who don’t think of themselves as “big”. They think they’ll want to lean back to keep balance while lifting the weapon. But the weapon isn’t all that heavy, and they’re not going to be holding it up for hours. Leaning back maximizes the ability of the weapon to push them off balance, which will reinforce the flinch. We don’t want that.

Next, I talked trigger pull. I spent some time on this, and directed her to really focus on not stopping. If you find yourself stopping, take your finger off the trigger, take a couple deep breaths, and try again. Continuous press. Do not stop. I wanted to give her something else to focus on that wasn’t the flinch. I’ve found trying to tell myself over and over to not do something usually makes me do the thing. So it’s easier to work with “Do something else”.

In this case, it worked great. Got a lot of that flinch out, and her shooting improved. So the next time you’re struggling with the flinch, try focusing on something else.

The Five Seven is Stupid

It’s true. The FN Five Seven1 is profoundly stupid. Too stupid to have a good time.

There’s nothing really good about it. If you hold one, you’ll notice that the grip is quite long. The better to accommodate the longish 5.7×27 mm rounds. It’s awkwardly long, and it’s fat at the back, narrowing at the front. So, vaguely egg shaped, if you were to look at it from the top. Nothing else is like that, and there’s a reason for that. They could have made it a long oval like a 1911. People like that. Or even something squarish like a Glock or USP. Both of which work well for people. But no.

The trigger is awful. Apparently you’re pulling the trigger bar across the whole Sahara desert. It’s mushy, gritty, and creepy. Nothing redeeming about it.

The slide release is weird. Like everything else about the gun, it’s plastic. Or polymer. Whatever. But it gives absolutely no feedback. It doesn’t feel like it’s a lever. You press on it, and it feels like a solid molded protrusion. Until you press down like it owes you money. And then it will release the slide. It’s too small. It really doesn’t do its one job.

The safety on the Five Seven is proof that a frame mounted safety can be done extremely stupidly. It’s directly above the trigger. You can reach it with the tip of your trigger finger. Or your weak hand thumb. No one else does this. It’s unintuitive. It’s easy to engage accidentally, and engagement isn’t even positive. If anything, it’s negative. It’s everything a safety shouldn’t be.

How does it shoot? Well, recalling the time I spent on a range renting one, it’s ok. The sucky trigger made me sad. The round has good paper punching ballistics. Very flat shooting. So, that’s a plus.

At least, as long as you’re made of money. It’s an expensive pistol that shoots expensive, hard to find ammo. Terminal performance of actual rounds that have seen service is atrocious. Maybe defensible in the P90 when you can riddle the bad guy’s face with 15 in a second, but not so good for a pistol. You get 20, though, so there’s that. It’s also very loud for what it is. So it’s a poor choice for the recoil-averse, even though there’s no recoil. That bang and flash will induce flinches anyway.

I think the biggest indictment of the Five Seven is that both Fishbreath2 and I should like it, and both of us don’t. At all. It’s a hipster gun that’s ultramodern and grew out of the last years of the cold war. It’s flat shooting. It should be our favorite thing since the 9 mm Luger round. But no. It’s a super expensive curiosity. It doesn’t really do anything well that you can’t get elsewhere.

Except, I guess, be the Ultimate Status Item for drug lords. It’s got that going for it.

  1. No, I’m not going to capitalize it the way the FNH Marketing department wants. That’s stupid too. 
  2. It really is a terrible piece of kit, and something I wanted to like. I just can’t bring myself to it. The controls are awful, and I am this blog’s resident AK shooter. -Fishbreath 

Fishbreath Plays: Starsector 0.8 Kind-Of-Review

I’m a scavenger and salvager by trade. My fleet is half reclaimed ships, free to obtain and cheap to run. Maybe a little less capable, but I have a solid set of four frigates and a combat shuttle. One of those frigates is an armed merchantman. Not only does it have some teeth, it’s hard to kill, and it has a big fuel tank. Refueling the other ships, it can get the fleet out of the core worlds and into the outer sector. I’ve been taking a few scouting and exploration jobs on the side to pay the bills.

The one that landed on my desk last night was a run to Gindraum, a blue supergiant ten light-years from the nearest inhabited world, to scan a derelict ship in the system’s outer reaches. That’s on the edge of my fleet’s range. That shuttle in particular takes just as much fuel as a frigate, but carries less than a third as much as my armed freighter. I left it at Jangala, the world I started out at, along with my shortest-legged frigate.

We set out, stopping briefly to beat up on a pirate fleet which decided to run us down. A week and a half later, detouring around some tremendous hyperspace storms, we came up on Gindraum. By the inner system jump point was a flashing beacon. I brought us closer. It was a message from the Hegemony Navy:

“Warning. This system is known to contain automated weapons systems. Extreme caution is advised.”

Well that’s a little worrying. I turned away from the insystem jump point and headed for the fringe jump point. Hopefully that would drop me a little further from any potential nasties.

We came out of hyperspace in between a ring system and an asteroid belt at roughly a Saturn orbit distance. Turns out that the fringe of this system is really big. I went counterclockwise, finding an awful lot of nothing much for a month and a half. Around a gas giant inside the rings, our sensors found an old frigate carrying a single sleeper pod. Inside was a very confused lieutenant who agreed to join up with me and warned me about some dormant combat drones around the backside of a nearby moon. I kept my distance.

Finally, we found the derelict we were after, in a nebula out beyond the rings by the old hyperspace communication relay. An active drone flew a patrol pattern around it. I’m not averse to a scrap (or the scrap following a scrap), but nobody likes fighting combat AI. At my order, the fleet went dark, creeping through the nebula at low signature while the drone was on the far side of its orbit. We came up on the derelict, ran the scanner package the client gave us, and turned to run, just as the drone came back around. Between the nebula and the silent running, I made my escape. Fuel and supplies running low and money in hand, I set a course for the jump point. Time to head home.

I’ve written about Starsector before. Two and a half years ago, it turns out. That, in part, is the story of Starsector: a game which has been available in pre-release form for at least six years. I first played it in college, in fact; one day, I put it up on a projector and hooked it into the suite’s sound system, and sold several copies on the spot.

Since then, it’s seen little updates: ship fitting, an economy here, a random battle generator there. Yesterday, though, the developer released version 0.8, and finally, we have a closer approximation of what we can expect on that glorious day when release arrives.

It’s spectacular. I’m not given to hyperbole, or indeed to statements without hedging of some kind or another, so don’t miss the import of this statement: Starsector is going to go down in history as a timeless classic. I fully expect it will end up being the best space sandbox game of the decade. It’s that good.

The story above gives you some idea of what’s been added. Surveying and salvage flesh out the list of things to do, and a procedurally-generated outer sector adds an enormous playground in which to do it. (To say nothing of the massively expanded sector core—there’s plenty to do before you start to dip your toes in the outer system.)

Honestly, I don’t want to say too much, because I don’t want to rob you of the sense of wonder you’ll feel when you play through it yourself. Rest assured, though, Starsector was good two and a half years ago, but it’s an incredible experience now, and it isn’t even done. You owe it to yourself to pick it up. You can do so here.

Tesla Motors: Ignoring Facts of Human-Machine Interaction Since 2014

Okay, I’ve had about enough of Tesla’s zombie legion of brainwashed fans reflexively and ignorantly defending them on autopilot grounds, so it’s time for a good old fashioned rant. I have two targets.

First: autopilot itself. Tesla’s autopilot is a nifty technological achievement. In its current state, though, it’s dangerous, and it disregards seventy years of research into how humans interact with machines. This book, on the specific topic of human reliability in transit systems, cites just over two hundred sources. In the world of trains, locomotive cabs usually feature a device called an alerter. If the driver doesn’t flip a switch or press a button every so often, the locomotive automatically stops.

The locomotive, actually, is a good analogue for the specific sort of cognitive load imposed by driving with an assisted cruise control system. If you read my Train Simulator review, you have some idea what I mean. For the benefit of you who did not read it, let me sum up.

Driving a car manually is a task with relatively evenly-distributed (low) difficulty. It takes constant attention to keep from hitting something or driving off the road. It may take more attention at times, but there’s a certain minimum cognitive load below which you can no longer drive a car. Sure, it’s no helicopter, but you do have to be paying at least a little bit of attention. This is materially different from driving a train or a semi-automatic car.

Piloting those two forms of transit requires so nearly zero input from the driver as to be indistinguishable therefrom. In both cases, the vehicle handles the moment-to-moment input required to keep itself from crashing into things1. The driver has no ongoing task to keep his mind focused. A quick sampling of Wikipedia articles on train crashes shows, broadly speaking, two sorts of accident which capture almost every incident: equipment failures causing derailment, and driver inattentiveness causing a train to run into another train2. In fact, the trend with trains is increasing computerization and automation, because—shocker—it turns out that humans are very bad at watching nothing happen with boring predictability for dozens or hundreds of hours, then leaping into action the moment something begins to go wrong. This article, by a self-proclaimed UI expert3 goes into great detail on the problem, using Google’s experience with testing self-driving cars as an example. The train industry knows it’s a problem, too, hence the use of the alerter system I mentioned earlier.

“Well then, you ought to love what Tesla is doing!” I hear you say. Don’t get me wrong, I think they’re making intriguing products4, and the technology which goes into even the limited autopilot available to Tesla drivers is amazing stuff. That said, there’s a twofold problem.

First, no self-driving system—not even Google’s more advanced fleet of research vehicles—is perfect. Nor will they ever be. Computerizing a train is trivial in comparison. There’s very little control to be done, and even less at the train itself. (Mostly, it happens at the switching and signaling level, and nowadays that’s done from a centralized control room.) There are very few instances driving a train where you can see an obstacle soon enough to stop before hitting it, and very few instances where it’s worth stopping to avoid hitting the thing you might hit. Again, though, hitting a deer with a train is materially different than hitting a deer with a luxury sedan. More generally, there’s a lot more to hit with a car, a lot more of it is dangerous, and it’s a lot more difficult to tell into which category—dangerous or no—a certain piece of stuff falls.

Second, there’s a problem with both driver alertness systems and marketing. To the first point, requiring that you have your hands on the wheel is not enough. There’s a reason a locomotive alerter system requires a conscious action every minute or so. Without that constant requirement for cognition, the system turns into another thing you just forget about. To the second, calling something which clearly does not drive the car automatically an ‘autopilot’ is the height of stupidity5. Which brings me to the second rant I mentioned at the start of the article.

Tesla fans.

You see, whenever anyone says, “Maybe Tesla shouldn’t call their assisted driving system Autopilot, because that means something which pilots automatically,” an enormous gaggle of geeks push their glasses up their noses and say, “Actually…”6

I’m going to stop you right there, strawman7 in a Tesla polo. If your argument starts with “Actually” and hinges on quibbling over the definition of words, it’s a bad argument. Tesla Autopilot is not an autopilot. “What about airplane autopilots?” you may ask. “Those are pilot assistance devices. They don’t fly the airplane from start to finish.” Precisely. The pilot still has lots to do8, even to the point of changing speeds and headings by hand at times. More to the point, it’s almost impossible to hit another plane with a plane unless you’re actively trying9. Not so with cars. Cars exist in an environment where the obstacles are thick and ever-present. A dozing pilot is usually a recipe for egg on his face and a stiff reprimand. A dozing driver is a recipe for someone dying.

I also sometimes hear Tesla fans (and owners) saying, in effect, “Just pay attention like I do.” The hubris there is incredible. No, you are not unlike the rest of the human race. You suffer from the same attention deficit when monitoring a process which mostly works but sometimes fails catastrophically as does the remainder of the human race. It is overwhelmingly more likely that you overestimate your own capability than that you’re some specially talented attention-payer.

To quote Lenin, “What is to be done?” Fortunately, we have seventy years of research on this sort of thing to dip into. If your system is going to require occasional human intervention by design, it has to require conscious action on the same time scale on which intervention will be required. Trains can get away with a button to push every minute because things happen so slowly. Planes have very little to hit and lots to do even when the plane is flying itself. Cars have neither luxury. To safely drive an Autopilot-equipped car, you have to be paying attention all the time. Therefore, you have to be doing something all the time.

I say that thing ought to be steering. I’m fine with adaptive speed, and I’m also fine with all kinds of driver aids. Lane-keeping assist? Shake the wheel and display a warning if I’m doing something wrong. Automatic emergency braking? By all means. These are things computers are good at, and which humans can’t do: seeing a specific set of circumstances and reacting faster than humans. Until the day when a car can drive me from my house to my office with no input from me—a day further away than most people think—the only safe way for me, or anyone, to drive is to be forced to pay attention.

Update 04/21/17
I’m not usually one to revisit already-posted articles, but this is just too much. In this Ars Technica comment, a Tesla owner describes “multiple uncommanded braking events” since the last software update. In the very same post, he calls his Tesla “the best car I’ve ever owned”.

If you needed further proof of the Tesla fan’s mindset, there it is.

  1. Whether by advanced computer systems and machine vision, or by the way flanged steel wheels on top of steel rails stay coupled in ordinary circumstances. 
  2. Sometimes, driver inattentiveness causes derailments, too, as when a driver fails to slow to the appropriate speed for a certain stretch of track. 
  3. I like his use of a topical top-level domain. We over here at .press salute you, sir! 
  4. Electric cars weren’t cool five years ago. Now they’re kind of cool10
  5. In a stroke of genius, Cadillac called a similar system ‘Super Cruise’. I’ll be frank with you: when a salesman is going down the list of options for your new Caddy, and he says, “Do you want to add Super Cruise?” your answer is definitely going to be, “Heck yes. What’s Super Cruise?” It just sounds that cool. Also, it has a better, though not quite ideal, solution to the driver attentiveness problem. There’s a little IR camera on the steering column which tracks your gaze and requires you to look at the road. 
  6. Yes, I realize that also describes me and this article. I also just fixed my glasses. 
  7. Never let it be said that our qualities do not include self-awareness and self-deprecation! 
  8. The occasional embarrassed dozing pilot story notwithstanding. 
  9. That’s why it’s always news on the exceedingly rare occasions when it happens, and frequently news when it doesn’t, but merely almost happens. 
  10. If poorly built, but Tesla say they’re working on that. 

M4A1 PIP vs HK 416A5

We talked a little bit about the M4A1 PIP before. Let’s compare it to the popular and successful HK 416A5.

The 416A5 is the latest variant of HK’s version of the M4. It’s available in a number of barrel lengths, but to try to keep this comparison as objective and direct as possible, we’re going to compare carbines with the same barrel length: 14.5 inches.

While the 416A5 is a production weapon, the M4A1 PIP isn’t. So I’ll have to make some guesses as to what it might have looked like in an approved format. In the above article, I made some guesses:

  1. “SOCOM” profile (a medium profile) barrel
  2. Safe/Semi/Full Auto Trigger Group
  3. Daniel Defense M4 RIS II (12″)
  4. Cut down pinned gasblock (as on Colt 6920-OEM2)
  5. Knight’s Armament folding front and rear backup iron sights
  6. H2-weight buffer
  7. B. E. Meyers 249F flash suppressor

Pretty simple. I chose those parts because all of those have NSNs, and are already-approved accessories, and Colt already makes guns with that particular low-profile gas block. I keep going back and forth on the notion of changing the stock, and settled on not changing it mostly to keep things simple. The obvious stock alternative is the SOPMOD stock, however I couldn’t find anything on stock changes, so I opted to be simple and leave the existing stock. The SOPMOD stock weighs 11.5 ounces, which is about 4.4 ounces (0.275 lbs) more than the regular stock.

Let’s compare them. Both carbines are capable of semiautomatic and fully automatic fire. Both carbines do not have a burst feature. Both carbines have collapsible stocks. Both carbines offer quadrail handguards. The M4A1 PIP has a 3″ longer handguard (12″ compared to the 416A5’s 9″ handguard), but both are longer than the 7″ RAS/RIS handguard currently present on the M4.1 Both fire the same 5.56×45 mm round.

Doing a weight comparison, the M4A1 PIP weighs 6.99 lbs as above, unloaded and without optic. The 416A5 weighs 7.68 lbs unloaded and without optic, which comes to a weight difference of 0.69 lbs. Where does the weight difference come from?

Both rifles have medium-profile, 14.5″ barrels. The 416 also has a short-stroke gas piston system and a heavy handguard, both of which add weight. The stock of the 416 is also a bit heavier.

Carrying more weight sucks. But weight can also bring advantages. Bearing in mind the following destructive tests had a sample size of one, let’s see what weight helps with.

On a standard M4, firing 140 rounds rapidly and continuously will raise the temperature of the barrel to the cook-off point. At this temperature, any live round remaining in the chamber for any reason may cook-off (detonate) in as little as 10 seconds.

What if you keep going cyclic? What if you’re desperate? Colt tested this in 1996, and discovered that the barrel on a standard M4 (with full auto trigger group) will burst after 596 rounds fired cyclic. That’s just under twenty magazines worth of rounds. That is a lot.

The M16A2 (also with a full auto trigger group) was also tested to destruction. Its barrel burst after 491 rounds. That’s also a lot, though less than the M4.

The M4A1 with the heavier SOCOM-profile barrel will fail after it has fired 840 rounds cyclic. In this case, the barrel won’t burst, but the gas tube will fail. If this was a problem, you could conceivably use a beefier gas tube. Or accept that this is good enough, since a soldier’s basic load is 210 rounds.

Unfortunately, I can’t find much in the way of good data on when the HK416 (or the M27 for that matter) fails if it’s run cyclic until it chokes. I do know that it’s “more than 900 rounds” but that’s the best I’ve got. This makes sense: the barrels are similarly beefy, and eventually the op-rod/piston will fail. Or the barrel will. Waste heat sucks.

So what do I think? Well, a good part would depend on what price you could get both guns for. But if you could get the M4A1 PIP as a package from Colt for any price that isn’t exorbitantly over that of the 416A5, I’d probably go with the M4A1 PIP. I like less weight, and I really don’t think the piston system gets you all that much for your trouble.

That goes triple if you already have M4s/M16s in your procurement system, since you can just swap uppers (and trigger groups if you have that infernal burst mechanism).

  1. We could have used a 9″ quadrail on the M4A1 PIP, but that would have increased its weight advantage, and we would have had to pick a handguard that isn’t currently in the inventory. The DD M4 RIS II 12″ handguard is already in the system, as the handguard for SOPMOD Block II upper. Also, note that I don’t have a weight figure for a 416 with an extended handguard. 

OpenTafl v0.4.6.2b released

OpenTafl has seen some major development work for the first time in a while, culminating in the recent release of v0.4.6.2b.

This version adds some major features which have been on my to-do list for some time. First, the in-game and replay board views now support keyboard input, a major usability enhancement. No longer will mistaken command entries torpedo your games!

That feature, however, was merely a happy piece of good fortune, falling out of the true headline feature for the v0.4.6.x releases: a variant editor. That’s right. OpenTafl is now the best tool available for designing tafl rules, bar none. Not only can you individually tweak every rule described in the OpenTafl notation specification, you can also edit the board layout to look any way you like.

If you’re interested in playing a few games with the new UI or experimenting with rules variants all your own, you can, as always, get the latest version from the OpenTafl website. I haven’t promoted v0.4.6.x to the stable release yet, but I expect to do so soon.

With these features done, I turn my attention next to a few network-centric things for v0.5.x. OpenTafl’s network play server has not, to date, seen much use; now that is getting close to its new architecture, I hope to write a PlayTaflOnline front end for OpenTafl, so you can use OpenTafl to play games at PlayTaflOnline, with all the rich support for replays, commentary, and analysis from OpenTafl. OpenTafl’s network server mode and self-contained network play will continue to be a supported mechanism for remote games, but won’t see new features. v0.5.x will also contain an automatic updater, to simplify the end-user updating process.

Looking further into the future, I’m running out of OpenTafl features I want to do. With luck, 2017 will see a v1.0 release.

The Crossbox Podcast: Episode 18 – Monsters Among Us

In this October-themed episode for April, we talk monster hunting, monster-size reference books, and monstrous failures, with a side order of cheap beer and cheap Glocks.

Further reading
Spoilers on Resident Evil 7 from about 32:00 to 35:30.
Predictably, John was correct and Jay was not on a point of firearms trivia: the Remington R51 is a modernized Remington Model 51, an early-20th-century pocket pistol.

Continue reading

Unmanned Autocannon Turrets

There’s a big interest in remote weapons stations for machine guns, since they let you use the guns without exposing yourself to enemy fire. Their bigger brothers, unmanned autocannon turrets, are also increasing in popularity, because they’re a cost effective way to add firepower to vehicles. Let’s look at some options. Alas, costs are unavailable, so you’ll just have to guesstimate.

First, Russia’s Epoch turret. It’s used on the T-15 Armata Heavy IFV, plus the Kurganets IFV, and could probably be retrofitted on to other things. It’s got a 30×165 mm autocannon with 500 rounds of ready ammunition (dual feed with one 160 round box and one 340 round box), a 7.62x54R mm machine gun with 2,000 rounds of ready ammo, and four Kornet-EM ATGM tubes. The gunner has a day/thermal sight with laser rangefinder. The commander has an independent day/thermal sight with laser rangefinder as well. I do not have information on whether or not these are Gen 3 thermal sights. No secondary remote weapon station is fitted for the commander. Epoch is not protected against autocannon fire. It is fully (i.e. biaxially) stabilized. Eight smoke grenade launchers are fitted. It is capable of high-elevation fire. It does not appear that reloading the turret is possible from under armor. Also, even though it lacks armor, given it’s bulk and ammo reserves, I would expect it to be heavy. Also, relatively expensive. But it does have the most firepower of any turret on our list.

This is the turret that the US Army is fitting to some of its Stryker vehicles for more firepower. It’s made by Kongsberg, out of Norway, and it has a lot of options. The gun is a 30×173 mm autocannon, with 150 rounds of ready ammunition (dual feed with a pair of 75 round boxes). There’s also a coaxial 7.62×51 mm machine gun with 600 rounds of ready ammo. ATGM launchers are available as an optional extra. The gunner’s sight is the usual day/thermal with laser rangefinder. An independent commander’s sight, or a Commander’s Remote Weapons Station, are available as optional extras. The basic turret has negligible protection, but the turret can be provided with protection against up to 30 mm autocannon rounds (STANAG Level 6) as another optional extra. High-angle fire is another optional extra feature, as are threat detection systems and active protection systems. All versions can be reloaded from under armor. We’d expect weight and cost to vary significantly based on desired feature set. It’s not a bad turret, but we wish it could accommodate more autocannon ammunition. A pity that’s not another optional extra. Full stabilization is standard.

Samson RCWS-30
This is an Israeli turret, currently in use on the Czech Pandur II. It’s very barebones, without any kind of protective shell. It comes with 200 rounds of 30×173 mm (in a 140 and a 60 round box), a 7.62×51 mm machine gun with a 460 round box, and a pair of tubes for Spike ATGMs. The turret is fully stabilized and a commander’s independent sight is available. A commander’s remote weapon station is not available. There are no protection options available for this model. On the other hand, it’s only 1,400 kg ready to fight. Also, since it’s an exposed gun and feed systems, it can be fitted with any other autocannon system. Conceivably, one could also increase the ammunition capacity, but that might require more powerful traverse and elevation motors. It is capable of high angle fire as well. This is probably my favorite turret from an ‘add more firepower’ standpoint, since it’s light, cheap, and provides balanced firepower.

The unmanned version of the German Lance turret, the -RC variant is very nearly identical to the turret mounted on the Puma. It comes with a 30×173 mm gun with 200 ready rounds (dual feed, but I haven’t found box sizes), a 7.62×51 mm coaxial machine gun (probably about 650-700 rounds based on the Puma’s capacity for 5.56), and the option for a pair of Spike missiles. It’s got STANAG Level 6 protection out of the box, and excellent optics for the gunner and an independent sight for the commander. It can also be fitted with additional cameras to improve situational awareness or a laser-based jamming system as part of a soft-kill APS. As you might expect, it’s heavy and expensive. But it’s also very nicely equipped.

Of the NATO compatible turrets, what you’re trying to do will determine which you buy. Platform and transportability requirements will also impact your decision.

Leclerc Review

The Leclerc is a very underappreciated tank. For better and for worse, it got its design completed just before the end of the Cold War. On the one hand, this is bad, because order numbers were slashed, and there weren’t large quantities of surplus tanks to drive the price down in the 90s, when no one in Europe thought tanks were cool.1 On the other hand, it meant it got a lot of really innovative design features pretty early. It’s still a formidable and competitive tank today, held back only by the lack of upgrade budget.

The Leclerc was designed to (finally) replace the venerable AMX-30, after a joint Franco-German project and the AMX-40 project had both failed. The French were the first western power to put an autoloader in a production tank. It’s a ‘belt-type’, and is contained in the turret bustle. It has a capacity of 22 rounds. A further 18 rounds are stored next to the driver in the front of the hull. The bustle is provided with blow-out panels. All ammunition is marked with a barcode, so that the autoloader knows what round types are where.

The gun is a 120 mm L52 smoothbore, developed in France. At the time of introduction, this was the most powerful tank gun in production. It can keep up with the newer Rheinmetall L55 given appropriate ammo design. The gun is fully stabilized.

In a reverse from other western designs, the coaxial machine gun is a 12.7×99 mm HMG, and the commander’s gun is a 7.62×51 mm GPMG. In its original design, the commander’s machine gun was pintle mounted. More recent improvements have replaced it with a remote weapons station mount.

The Leclerc was an early adopter of the Commander’s Independent Sight, giving the commander the ability to use optics to look in a direction other than where the turret faces. The Leclerc was also one of the first tanks to give the commander his own laser rangefinder in the sighting unit, an ability still not found on the Abrams or Leopard 2.

Leclerc came with a battle management system from the factory, though it initially did not have a video display. This was rectified on later models. Just like on other modern tanks, a battle management system provides a huge coordination bonus to vehicle crews and unit commanders, and just like on Abrams, the BMS on Leclerc is integrated with the communications suite.

Leclerc’s protection hasn’t been as upgraded as much as its contemporaries, and here it suffers. The best estimates I can find give it a protection somewhat less than an M1A2 SEP or a Leopard 2A6/2E. Given the era, it’s not terrible, but it could use some work today. It’s an interesting armor array because it uses a lot of materials chosen to reduce weight but are somewhat more costly to work with.

The protection of Leclerc is somewhat improved by the inclusion of the Galix combat system, which is a computer controlled array of 14 smoke grenade launchers. Current modernization plans increase this to 24 launchers. These are capable of launching the usual smoke grenades in quick-blooming and long duration versions, but can also launch antipersonnel grenades. While this system would make an excellent soft-kill component of an active protection system, I do not know of any plans to link it with a missile approach warning system.

Leclerc’s powerplant is my favorite part of the tank. It’s a diesel engine, but it’s a little bit different. Instead of a conventional V-12 diesel with twin-turbochargers, it has a 16.4L V-8, called the V8X, and its equipped with a hyperbar system. The hyperbar system is neither a supercharger nor a turbocharger. Rather, it’s an externally-powered compressor, driven by a small gas turbine engine. This yields absolutely massive boost pressures of 32.1 bar mean effective boost pressure, no turbo lag, and no loss of power at the driveshaft. It also yields big gains in horsepower. For comparison, the V8X generates 1,500 hp, and the same basic engine with a conventional twin-turbocharger instead of the hyperbar system generates 1,000 hp.

This come at a cost of course. You might have guessed the V8X engine is expensive, and it is. The hyperbar system adds quite a bit of bulk, though the gas turbine can also be used to drive an integrated APU quite easily. Finally, there’s the question of fuel consumption. The then brand-new Leclerc didn’t fare so well in the Swedish tank trials, though GIAT hadn’t really done much optimization of the engine settings. Once they had, the result was probably about what you might expect: better than gas turbines, worse than diesels.2

So what do we think? Well, that depends on the timeframe. Today, the Leclerc is good but in need of some upgrade funds, and the reduction of orders from 1,400 to 460 didn’t do anything kind to the price. But at its debut it was extremely modern, introducing a number of new features that were on the Want List of every modern tanker.3

  1. Looking at you, Leopard 2. 
  2. The numbers I have are about 4.5 L/km in M-1 and T-80, >3 L/km for more modern experimental gas turbines like the LV 100-5, about 2.8 L/km for the V8X, and 2.2 L/km for Leopard 2A6. I think newer diesels are supposed to get a bit under 2 L/km. Of course, I don’t have acceleration data for any of these vehicles. A drag race would be very illuminating. 
  3. Look at some early 90s vintage issues of ARMOR magazine, especially the ones from 1993. Plenty of great tank designs in there. Or look at K2.