Tag Archives: resurrected weapons

Resurrected Weapons: M4A1 PIP

The M4 is by no means a terminated weapon. But it could do with some improvements to bring it in line with advancements in the civilian AR-15 sector, and to take advantage of hard won battle experience.

Recall that the standard M4 is an AR-15 configured as follows (there are other features, but these are the salient points):

  1. Barrel Length: 14.5″
  2. Barrel Profile: A2 type (or “Government” type)1
  3. Revised feedramps on the upper receiver (“M4 feedramps”)
  4. A 7″ (“carbine length”) gas system
  5. Round plastic handguards with dual aluminum heatshields
  6. A flat top upper with the MIL-STD-1913 (“Picatinny” rail) on top
  7. A trigger group with capability for semiautomatic and three round burst fire
  8. A four-position collapsible stock (and the necessary receiver extension and buffer system changes for this to work)

Great. Of course, time marched on. And as we became engaged in the War on Terror and deployed troops, soldiers found that they had a bunch of other stuff that they wanted to mount to their rifles. Lights, lasers, that sort of thing. So the plastic handguards were replaced with the Knights Armament Rail Interface System.2 This system is a drop-in replacement for the earlier handguards. It does not require any special tools or disassembly of the upper to install. It is not free-floated however. It is also not very rigid, since it uses the same delta ring attachment method as the stock handguards. Good enough for an IR laser for use at night, but hardly for mounting more precise sights.

I should also point out that Colt rolled a bunch of improvements into some of the small parts of the M4. I will not discuss them much here, but note that they exist. One of them was moving from a “carbine weight” buffer to the “H1” buffer, which is heavier and made the M4 run more reliably.

After a number of battles, the US Army wanted to make some changes to their M4s. The result is called the M4A1. The following major changes were made:

  1. Barrel profile revised to “SOCOM” profile. This is a medium-weight profile, adding mass under the handguards. It adds about 0.25 lbs of weight to the carbine.
  2. A revised trigger group capable of semiautomatic and fully automatic fire.
  3. A heavier buffer for better reliability

The revised, heavier profile was to make the rifle perform better when providing sustained fire. It will also mean that a shooter’s groups will not open up as much after shooting a bunch. Replacing the three round burst with fully automatic results in an improved trigger pull, even in semiautomatic mode, a more useful capability, and more predictable results. The burst cam was an awful idea, and it’s good that it’s gone.

The M4A1 PIP (also known as the M4A1+) was designed to add some more capability to the M4A1. The rifle would be as an M4A1, but with the following additional changes:

  1. A new, more effective flash hider
  2. A longer, free float handguard (likely the Daniel Defense M4 RIS II3)
  3. ‘coyote tan’ coloring on the handguard to break up the outline of the rifle.
  4. A low-profile gas block
  5. A folding front sight
  6. An improved (read: larger) charging handle
  7. An improved trigger

The M4A1 PIP program was cancelled in June 2016 when the Army decided the upgrades were not worth the effort.

Sigh.

That is absolute nonsense. Observe the USMC moving towards getting M27s in the hands of everyone. Most of those improvements are actual, serious improvements on the M4A1 design. While #6 and #7 in the PIP changelist above might not be cost effective, the rest are very good.

A longer, free float handguard is the biggest and most obvious benefit. I finally tried a long (13″) handguard on Bridget, my competition rifle. And I really, really like it. It’s not about looking cool.4 The longer handguard gives you more options for where to put your hand, gives you more room for mounting accessories while still having a place for your hand, and is better to rest on a barricade than a barrel or a non-free-float handguard.

Free float handguards do provide a noticeable gain in accuracy, especially when resting the rifle on a barricade or using a sling. In other words, any time when we might be exerting some pressure on a barrel. Also, on an M4, we can’t get the longer, more useful handguard without free floating, and there isn’t much of a cost difference between free float and non-free float handguards, so there really isn’t a good reason not to go free float.

The low profile gas block makes life a lot easier, and means you don’t have to worry about burning yourself by touching the hot FSB. Daniel Defense does make a version of the RIS II that is 12″ long and has a cutout for the FSB. It’s a bit more annoying to install than one with a low-profile gas block. As long as it’s pinned in place, I’m cool with low profile for issue kit.

An improved flash hider is also welcome. The A2 ‘birdcage’ is a pretty good flash suppressor, unless you’re wearing night vision equipment. Then, it’s still pretty damn bright. So your own rifle is interfering with your vision. And people with night vision can find you easily. Not a problem while you’re fighting Taliban scum. Might be an issue if you fight a more formidable opponent.

I also really like coloring rifles not-black for issue purposes. It occurs to me that this could be done easily and cheaply with some Krylon and tape to keep paint off optics and out of muzzles, but the Army isn’t likely to go for that.

Unsurprisingly, I’m a big fan of the M4A1 PIP program, though I might like to see if other handguards are better (maybe one with mlok? It’s on the Army’s new HK CSASS). And buying new upper components and assembling them is a lot cheaper than buying M27s. And if you had a good PIP product, that would get rid of most of the reason for adopting the M27.5

As for the other question, is the M4A1 PIP better than the HK 416/M27, that’s likely to require testing that I can’t do here. And knowledge of what price I could get each for, which I don’t have. But within the confines of “For the US Army”, or another army that has already bought M4s, it’s almost certainly a better idea to upgrade.

Finally, some weight data if you’re interested in considering some of these rifles for your Infantry Kit Challenge.

CarbineWeight
Basic M46.120 lbs.
M4+RIS6.245 lbs.
Basic M4A16.80 lbs.
M4A1+RIS6.420 lbs.
M4A1 PIP6.990 lbs.
HK 416A5-14.5″ barrel7.678 lbs.
HK M277.900 lbs.

Weights in the above table assume no carry handle is mounted and the weapon is unloaded. I used the weight for the Knights Armament 600 m rear sight since I don’t have weight numbers for the Army-issue Matech 600 m rear sight. Both fold away when not in use. ‘Basic’ means with the plastic handguards. M4 assumed to have H1 pattern buffer. Front sight on the M4A1 PIP was assumed to be the Troy folding front sight. For improved muzzle device on the M4A1 PIP, I chose the B. E. Meyers 249F, since it has tested better than the A2 birdcage. HK 416A5 and M27 weights included for reference. Note that the M27 has a 16″ barrel, not a 14.5″ barrel like all others on the chart.

1.) It’s a pencil profile that’s been thickened in front of the gas block. First introduced on the M16A2. It is a stupid profile and I don’t like it.
2.) Later replaced with the KAC Rail Adapter System (RAS).
3.) It’s a 12″ long quadrail that’s free floated, pretty sturdy, and already in the US DoD’s procurement system, so they wouldn’t need an elaborate RFP/Eval/challenge process. It also allows the easy mounting of the M203 with existing brackets, since that lacks rail mount adapters.
4.) Okay, it’s not just about looking cool.
5.) Yes, I know the HK 416/M27 has a short-stroke gas piston. While this is easier to develop, the M4’s direct impingement system has got a lot of development time already sunk in. And I don’t see actual benefits from the data when you compare the 416 to modern M4s (or Mk 18s if you want to talk properly short barrels). More on this later.

Resurrected Weapons: Douglas F6D Missileer

We looked at the long-range, high performance Eagle missile on Tuesday. Now, let’s look at the plane to carry it.

As ever, the US Navy was concerned about saturation attacks on its carrier battle groups. To counter the new threat of bombers armed with large, long-range antiship missiles, the Navy had two projects under development in the late fifties. One was the Typhon long range SAM, with a projected range of 200 nautical miles. The other was the Eagle/Missileer project.

Missileer was, unusually for the jet age, a subsonic fighter. Given that it had to stay on station more than 200 nautical miles away from the fleet, and that more loiter time was significantly better, the decision was made to keep the design subsonic. Long loiter also conveniently sidestepped delays in interception from launching alert fighters, since the fighters could be orbiting and ready. Subsonic design made mounting a large, advanced radar and large, advanced missiles easy. We’ve already talked about the massive, 1,284 pound Eagle missiles. The Missileer was designed to carry six of them. It was also designed around the large APQ-81 radar.

APQ-81 was an early pulse doppler radar. In an era when a fighter radar with a 24 inch diameter dish was considered large, APQ-81 had a dish 60 inches across. It could detect a standard radar target1 at 120 nautical miles, and track sixteen of them simultaneously at 80 nautical miles. It had a track-while-scan mode. It was designed with innovative anti-jam features from the beginning, including a narrow, 3° beam with a 24 kHz bandwidth, both chosen to avoid most available jamming systems.

Unsurprisingly given that it had to carry such a large load, the F6D was fat and ugly. It was 53 feet long and had a wingspan of 70 feet. It was powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney TF-30s, engines that would go on to power the F-111 and the F-14A.

Like the AAM-N-10, he Missileer was cancelled by McNamarra to free up budget space for other things. The aircraft itself would be easy to develop but the radar and systems integration (and the AAM-N-10) would be risky and expensive. Plus, they’re overspecialized for a single mission. The F6D had to be bought in conjunction with another, more conventional fighter, since it could not provide strike escort capability or establish air superiority. It was a project that was somewhat ahead of its time, like Typhon. The US Navy would later get a much more reasonable set of systems with similar capabilities in the 1980s with Aegis and Tomcat/Phoenix.

Verdict: Funding request denied by the Borgundy Aircraft Procurement Board


  1. In the late 1950s, the standard radar target was assumed to have a radar cross section of 5 square meters. This corresponds to the radar cross section of a B-47 bomber. 

Resurrected Weapons: AAM-N-10 Eagle

Let’s continue our look at some vintage projects. The AAM-N-10 Eagle was a US Navy air to air missile program optimized for enemy bomber interception in the fleet air defense role from the last years of the Eisenhower administration.

The problem, evident even by the late 1950s, was that Soviet bombers could mount antiship missiles. So the bombers had to be engaged at long range, because intercepting large numbers of small, high-speed missiles is very difficult. To do so, and to get the fleet defense fighters outside the range of new surface to air missiles under development, the Navy proposed a subsonic, long endurance “fighter” and a high performance missile. This missile was the Eagle.1

The Eagle was developed by Bendix, in conjunction with Westinghouse’s big new APQ-81 radar and the Douglas F6D Missileer fighter. It was a two-stage missile, with a booster stage and a sustainer stage that would fire after a glide period. Both stages were solid-fuel rockets. The booster gave a speed of mach 3.5, and the sustainer could get the missile to peak at mach 4.5. Midcourse guidance updates were to be provided by the APQ-81, and terminal guidance would be an active radar seeker with a home-on-jam mode, much like a modern AMRAAM. AAM-N-10 flew a lofted trajectory, and had a 160 nautical mile (300 km) range.

That’s pretty impressive, but to get that performance in 1959, you needed a big, expensive missile. AAM-N-10 was 16 feet long ready to launch. The booster was 16 inches in diameter, and the second stage was 14 inches in diameter. The booster’s wings folded, and the second stage had a finspan of 34 inches. Weight was 1,284 pounds, with a 110 pound warhead.

The AAM-N-10 and the F6D were cancelled by Robert McNamarra in 1960, to free up money for other urgent programs2 and to establish the authority of him and the new Defense Department over the various services.

So what do I think of all of this?

Well, it’s hard for my opinion to not be colored by my opinion of Robert S. McNamarra, and I hate Robert McNamarra. His decision making process is suspect. And his “commonality” fetish got abused into some mind bogglingly dumb ideas.3 But he did get some good programs to completion/procurement, like the Polaris SLBMs and the M-16 (my favorite rifle). And here, I’m inclined to agree with McNamarra again. The Eagle was very specialized, and very expensive. It was useable from only one platform (Missileer), and for only one mission (engaging non-maneuvering bomber targets at extreme range). Missileer could not do any other mission either. Conceivably the AAM-N-10 could have been launched from the A-6 Intruder, but that would have required a different radar, or depending on an E-2 for all guidance updates. However, the core concept was a good one and we’ll see this become much more refined and sensible in the AIM-54 Phoenix.

Verdict: Funding request denied by the Borgundy Air Ordnance Procurement Board


  1. AAM-N-10 is the old designation system for air to air missiles developed by the Navy. 
  2. viz. the Polaris SLBM program and rebuilding the tiny and useless US Army 
  3. cf. the F-111B. 

Resurrected Weapons: A-6E Intruder

If my father’s generation wanted precision strike from the sea, they’d call up the ugly but effective Grumman A-6E Intruder. Looking like a drumstick with wings, the Intruder had a two-man crew, a radar-navigation system for night/all-weather guidance, and a FLIR system in a small turret under the nose for target identification. It was subsonic, had an approximately 600 nautical mile (a bit over 1,100 km) striking radius, and it could carry up to 18,000 lbs of bombs.

The long strike radius was a direct consequence of optimizations and the choice of subsonic speed. Grumman opted for subsonic speed, because even the big F-4 Phantom was subsonic when heavily laden with bombs. Accepting a lack of supersonic speed meant that more fuel efficient engines could be used, providing a long strike radius.

In the Intruder’s day, there were no smart weapons. The delivery vehicle was responsible for all of the precision (or lack thereof). This alternative is a lot easier, since the plane is a lot bigger and easier to fit sensors and targeting computers into. As a brief aside, this sort of precision-on-aircraft delivery of dumb munitions is still used by Russia, and was the delivery method of choice for the airstrikes in Syria.

The Intruder proved very effective in Vietnam, where it was the Navy’s most accurate bomber. It was also the primary Navy delivery platform for dropping laser guided bombs in Desert Storm, since the -E models had a laser designator in their FLIR turret.

Despite the Intruder fleet getting new wings in the early 90s and having a solid combat record, the Intruders were taken out of service in 1996. There really wasn’t a perfect replacement. It was supposed to be replaced by the A-12 Intruder II, a poster child for bad project management. This project was cancelled1 without anything new being proposed in its stead. In the late 90s, the Intruder’s role was supposed to be filled by F-14 Tomcats with LANTIRN pods, which could not match the payload capacity of the Intruder. In 2005, the Tomcats were also removed from naval service, and their roles were taken over by F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. These could not match the range of the Tomcat or Intruder (both of which have a strike radius of about 600 nautical miles).

I really don’t like the loss of strike radius in the newer platforms. Super Hornets are nice otherwise, but they could really use longer legs. Yes, I know tankers have worked in recent conflicts, but the Navy shouldn’t rely on them. Or else what’s the point of naval aviation? If you can make tankers work, you can probably make land-based strike work. The whole point of naval strike is to be deployable quickly, and to come from additional vectors. In Vietnam, carriers at Yankee Station brought strikes from the east, in addition to the USAF strikes from the west out of bases in Thailand. If they required tankers, that makes life a lot more difficult for the planners, since tankers are fat and vulnerable.

The Intruder was cancelled to reduce the number of airframe types in the fleet. Understandable, but likely premature. The limited wars of the 2000s and 2010s would have been a good match for the capabilities of the Intruder. The A-6E isn’t very survivable in a high-threat environment, but Al Qaeda doesn’t have any serious SAMs. Long range would also make for long loiter time, and adapting a plane for JDAMs isn’t exactly hard.

On the one hand, restarting A-6 production would be silly. On the other, they were taken out of service way too early, and there’s no real replacement out there.


  1. The A-12 is a program that even I think deserved to get cancelled. 

Resurrected Weapons: CVAST turret

In my article on the many Bradley Variants, I mentioned that there have been a number of efforts to upgrade the gun on the Bradley, including utilizing the 35 x 228 mm caliber. One such design was the CVAST1 demonstrator. I found a good bit of detail on it in a 1986-1987 copy of Jane’s Armour and Artillery.

As a brief side note, I can’t recommend old copies of the Jane’s Information Group yearbooks enough. They’re packed with information, much of which you can’t get anywhere else, and while prices on the latest copies are eye-watering, older ones can be had for a song. This one came to my door for under $10, shipping included.

Anyway, the turret. The CVAST Bradley (there was also a CVAST turret on an M113) was designed around an ARES Talon 35 mm gun. This was a dual feed cannon, and it was compatible with all existing Oerlikon stocks of ammo, plus an (at the time) brand new APFSDS round. The CVAST turret was a “cleft turret” design, which put the turret in two separate manned sections with the gun in between. The gun mechanism itself was in a compartment behind the two crewed sections. This allowed the gun to have an elevation range of -10 degrees to + 60 degrees, and not have to worry about the turret roof getting in the way (or making the Bradley taller still) The commander sat on the left, and the gunner sat on the right. Elevation and traverse were all-electric. The 35 mm gun was fully stabilized.

The CVAST turret had an interesting wedge-shaped front and sides, and provided better protection than the then-current M2A1 turret (especially on the side where the TOW launcher took up some space for armor on the basic model). The CVAST turret could still mount the two-tube TOW launcher on the right side, but the launcher no longer folded down. It could pivot 45 degrees for loading, but remained in the horizontal “fire” position of the folding launcher during transit.

The CVAST turret matched the then-current Bradley for electrics and fire control components, having a thermal viewer, integrated laser rangefinder as well as cant, crosswind, air temperature, and propellant temperature sensors. A fully computerized fire control system was also provided. No independent commander’s thermal viewer was fitted yet (the M2 would not get this capability until the -A3 model was introduced in 2000).

Here’s where it gets very interesting. Listed ammunition capacity for the CVAST turret was 500 rounds. Five Hundred Rounds of the big 35 x 228 mm. Outstanding. That’s the same capacity of a BMP-2, but in a much bigger caliber. I’m not quite sure how this was done, since I don’t have internal turret diagrams. But there you have it. 500 rounds. Damn.

And that pretty much spoils what I think of the turret, doesn’t it? More rounds and bigger rounds? Sign me up. Even if we have to redo the optronics to bring them out of the 80s and augment the armor protection. I don’t care.

Verdict: Approved for Production by the Borgundy Armored Systems Board

1.) Combat Vehicle Armament System Technology

Resurrected Weapons: YAGM-169

You may have noticed some logistical inefficiencies in current missile procurement. I’ll use Western examples, but there are similar Russian ones. We have several missiles that are about the same size and have about the same role: engagement of a visually (possibly with the help of infrared) acquired target. These missiles include the BGM-71 TOW, which might be launched from helicopters or ground vehicles; the AGM-114 Hellfire, which might be launched from helicopters or UAVs; and the AGM-65 Maverick, which might be launched from fixed wing aircraft or fixed wing aircraft. The Maverick’s warhead is quite a bit bigger, which contributes to its larger size. Otherwise, they’re all used for about the same sort of fire mission. Could we replace all three with a single missile?

Enter the YAGM-169. Quit snickering in the back. This missile weighs 49 kg and is 177.5 cm long. This matches the weight, but is a bit longer than the Hellfire missile, which is 163 cm long. This is, however, smaller and lighter than the Maverick. The big difference between the Hellfire and the Maverick, aside from platform-induced range variations, is the larger warhead. Here is where some compromises come in. The standard target for the Maverick and the Hellfire is an armored vehicle. The toughest armored vehicle is the MBT. If a Hellfire can kill any tank you please, why have the heavier warhead? The Hellfire can get this done with a large and powerful tandem shaped-charge warhead, delivered from above. Adding a fragmentation jacket provides some measure of multipurpose capability. We have our warhead, and hence, our Hellfire-like size.

What about heavier targets? Since the development of the Maverick, we’ve developed a number of precision-guidance kits for conventional bombs. Combine with a glide bomb kit and some altitude, gives us equivalent range. Alternatively, for well-defended targets, we can get significantly better standoff range from a longer range cruise missile like the AGM-158. Plus, we can carry more of the lighter YAGM-169s.

Okay. So we’ve perhaps accepted the smaller warhead size. What about range? Well, we have more advanced rocket motors, plus it’s hard to compare the range of the Hellfire and the Maverick, since the aircraft that launch the Maverick do so from a higher altitude and higher airspeed than that of the helicopter launching the Hellfire. Still, we can improve the range with a variable-thrust solid-fuel rocket motor.

What about guidance? Well, the TOW uses an old school SACLOS wire guidance system. Which is outmoded, and will be difficult to integrate onto a fast-moving aircraft. So forget it. Beyond that, the Hellfire has a couple different guidance options: a semi-active laser homing seeker and an active millimeter-wave radar seeker. The Maverick is currently available with a semi-active laser homing seeker, an imaging infrared seeker, or an optical CCD seeker. You might expect different versions of YAGM-169 with different seekers, but you’d be wrong.

YAGM-169 was designed with a triple-mode seeker that combined imaging infrared. semi-active laser homing, and active millimeter-wave radar homing in one unit. This is the one part of the missile that I’m concerned about, at least as far as cost. Still, it’s easy enough to build versions with separate seekers if cost becomes an issue.

That said, the YAGM-169 was (shockingly) on time and on budget. But the US cancelled it during Operation Iraqi Freedom because of budget pressures.

So what do we think? YAGM-169 was on budget, and tested from both fixed- and rotary-wing platforms. Awesome. Large production runs should help keep costs down. I’m wondering if it can also replace the TOW as a missile on e.g. Bradley, but we could press Spike LR or Javelin into this role, and those would be much easier for troops to reload in the field, being lighter.

Veridct: Approved for immediate production by the Borgundy Ordnance Procurement Board

Resurrected Weapons: Marder 2 IFV

Ah, another wonderful late Cold War vehicle that didn’t survive peace. As a bonus, it’s super confusingly named. Do not confuse this vehicle with the Marder II tank destroyer of World War II. Thanks, Germany. I’ll use Roman numerals when referring to the tank destroyer, and arabic numerals for the IFV.

Anyway the Marder 2 is a look at what the Puma might have looked like if the Germans weren’t so hell bent on shoehorning the thing into a damn A400m. Let us suppose we worried about a proper, conventional war, and let us suppose we don’t care about overrated air deployability with a bunch of massively overpriced transports that have been consistently plagued with problems. And that we don’t have. Let us also suppose that we are German designers, and we love our armor properly heavy.1

We’d get the Marder 2. It weighs 44 tonnes kitted out. Hey, just like the Puma with the full armor kit. Unlike the Puma, the Marder 2 had a more conventional armor layout. It could withstand 40 mm APFSDS rounds on the frontal arc, and 20 mm APFSDS everywhere else. Pretty hardcore. Armor was composite right out of the gate, so it was also quite effective against HEAT rounds and ATGMs.

Marder 2 also had a proper manned turret for two. The main gun was a big 35 mm autocannon with a whopping 177 ready rounds, and another 110 stored in reserve. That’s some serious firepower. More than twice as many ready as a CV9035. I like it. I like it a lot. There was also the usual MG3 coax machine gun. As a further bonus, the cannon and feed system was designed to accommodate 50 mm Supershot with only a barrel change. A never-was round for a never-was vehicle.

There is something missing though. You guessed it: ATGM capability. I still really like having it.

The rest of the Marder 2 is pretty conventional. It had just under 1,000 hp in a V8, letting it keep pace with the Leopard 2. It also matched the Leopard 2’s road range of 500 km, which is nice. It had a crew of three and seven dismounts, just like the Marder 1 IFV. Not terrible, but not great either.

Some other numbers: It was 7.31 m long, 3.48 m wide, and 3.05 m high. It had a fuel capacity of 890 L. The commander had an independent, stabilized thermal sight. The gunner had all of the fancy fire control systems you’d expect from the early 90s, plus the ability to shoot at low flying aircraft.

Interestingly, the dismounts sat on seats in the middle facing outward. Each man had a vision block. No firing ports were provided, which is good. Those never worked as advertised, and just compromised protection. I’m not sold on the merits of this seating arrangement with the vision blocks. I’d much prefer benches along the outer sides of the troop compartment rather than in the middle. It simplifies the rear hatch setup, and ends up using the passenger compartment space more efficiently. This is one place that the Puma does well with its repeater displays. Small cameras are a lot less disruptive to armor too. Note that this is nothing that can’t be fixed. Most early IFVs, including the Bradley and later model BMPs, had firing ports plated over. We have much smaller breaches to deal with. And the original Bradley had a pretty goofy seating layout that was later made sensible. And a more conventional seating arrangement would give us some room for those ATGMs we like.

Unsurprisingly, we’re a big fan of this vehicle. Even with it’s 1991-vintage design, it’s almost exactly what we’d want. It’s got tons of firepower, great protection, good mobility, and good capacity.

1.) Or at least, German designers in certain eras. Early WW2 designers didn’t favor particularly heavy armor on Panzers. This of course changed with later models. And the Leopard 1 was reasonably armored, but not heavily like a Chieftain. The Marder 1 was well armored for it’s size, however, and the Leopard 2 is about the equal of the Abrams. Modern German armor is loaded with armor, as is good and proper. (Leopard 2A6/2E: 63 tonnes, Leopard 2A7: 69 tonnes, Puma: 42 tonnes, PzH 2000: 55 tonnes)

Resurrected Weapons: LRAC F1

There’s a relatively unsexy class of weapons out there that are critical, but don’t get any of the cool press of ATGMs. Behold, the humble rocket launcher/recoilless rifle. The HE Projector. They’re super useful, because there are plenty of targets on the battlefield that need a healthy dose of prescription HE, but don’t necessarily warrant the trouble of a guided round. Bunkers, for example, have a habit of not moving out of the way in time. These weapons are unsexy because there’s not a lot of room for whiz-bang gadgets. It’s a bazooka. Plain and simple.

A bunch of the use cases are conveniently used by disposable rocket launchers, like the AT4 or the M72 LAW. These tend to be lighter than the traditional recoilless rifle/unguided rocket launcher designs, and a lot less trouble. But they’re not reloadable. And you’re stuck with whatever round is in there; usually it’s a HEAT round. Which would be fine, except that these weapons aren’t going to punch through the front armor of a vanilla T-72, let alone a modern T-90 with ERA on the front. Other rounds might be more desirable. And here, the old recoilless rifles and rocket launchers still shine. Let’s look at one you might not be too familiar with: the French LRAC F1.1

The LRAC F1 is a reusable 89mm rocket launcher. The tube is mostly fiberglass, which keeps the weight down. It’s a 1970s-vintage design, but the launcher and sight weighs only 5 kg. This is very good, even compared to the modern versions of the venerable Carl Gustav recoilless rifle. The sight is a pretty simple fixed 3x optic with a stadiametric reticle. Gunner does his range estimation and chooses the point of aim by himself and fires. Pretty typical for this class of weapon. Rockets weigh 2.2 kg.

Available warhead types include a HEAT round, rated for 400mm of RHA penetration, which scares exactly no one these days. Oh well. We have Javelins for tank-killing. There’s also a HEAT-Frag Dual Purpose round, a smoke round, and an illumination round. These days, the most useful are the smoke round and the dual purpose round. The major use cases for this are first as a portable, short-range assault gun for infantry support, and second as a way of quickly throwing obscuring smoke a reasonable distance to break contact or hide an attack.

Rocket technology really hasn’t changed since the 70s, so the LRAC F1 is still a competitive system. Or it would be, if the French still used it.2 What changes would we want to make to update it?

Honestly, not many. Mostly produce new rockets, maybe integrate night sighting options. The launcher is plenty light already. The existing rockets aren’t very reliable anymore because of age, of course. Production should focus on the dual purpose rocket and the smoke rocket. Reformulating the smoke round to be infrared screening as well isn’t very hard, and would be very useful. Also, a thermobaric rocket would be an excellent idea. I’m a huge fan of the type. The tubes are rated for 130 launches, so they’d need to be made too. Pretty simple, and we can easily keep the cost down. No guidance system, no exotic materials. No gold plating.

There’s no good reason why the LRAC F1 can’t be successful on the arms market with good marketing. There’s plenty of demand for these systems, and not a lot of types that are still in production. Weight is a constant complaint, especially with the closest western competitor, the Carl Gustav. This does the same thing for about half the weight.

Verdict: Approved for production by the Borgundy Ordnance Procurement Board

1.) Also known as the LRAC 89 or the ACL STRIM.
2.) It’s been replaced by the AT4, a good (though somewhat limited) single-use rocket launcher, and the Eryx, which I’m not a fan of.

Resurrected Weapons: XM-8

And now time to examine another futuristic weapon, the XM-8. This was an offshoot of the failed XM-29 project, where some in the US Army tried to get a more direct replacement for the M-16.

The XM-8 was a carbine firing 5.56 mm rounds. No fancy caseless ammo, no airburst grenades, just bullets. The same bullets that cranky guy up the street shot in Vietnam, even. What was different here?

The XM-8 was designed to be lighter and more reliable than the M-16. Reliability would be improved in a number of ways. HK built the XM-8 around it’s highly successful short-stroke gas piston system that had been used in their G-36. The body of the weapon was entirely polymer, with easily swappable components, and design by the Udelhoven Design Studio.1 Plus, while there were a number of ergonomic and internal design improvements over the stock G-36, they used the G-36 magazine.

Let’s talk feed devices. Recall that the original AR-15/M-16 magazine was a 20 round box magazine with no curvature. The magwell was designed to accommodate this, and is also not curved. Army desires for a 30 round magazine required some amount of curvature to accommodate the taper of the 5.56mm cartridge. But the magazine had to be compatible with all M-16s, so the top had to be kept straight. So there’s a kink in the 30 round magazine where the curved section meets the non-curved section, and this can cause problems. The G-36 magazine has a continuous taper, and is made of translucent polymer, so you can see how many rounds are left.

The G-36 is pretty “European” with a paddle magazine release, and most bolt work being done with the charging handle, which is atop the gun under the raised sight rail. It can fold to either side for ambidextrous use, and can be locked to either side for use as a forward assist. The XM-8 made some improvements here too. A shoe, sort of like what’s on an HK pistol, was added to the mag release so you could press a lever on either side of the trigger guard with your trigger finger to release the mag. Bolt release was in the front of the trigger guard. The selector was the usual ambidextrous affair, with safe/semi/full auto on the trigger group.

The XM-8 also tried to improve accessory attachment methods. Picatinny rails are expensive to machine, and add weight to the weapon and height to the accessory mount. For the same reasons that we would see the development of Keymod and Mlok in the civilian world in 2014, HK and Picatinny came up with PCAP. Just like Keymod and Mlok, PCAP uses a bunch of negative attachment points2, but it was designed to totally replace Picatinny rails. Specifically, it was designed to be a superior sight attachment system. PCAP naturally mounts things in the same place each time, so sights naturally will hold zero when mounted and dismounted.

Further, the XM-8 had a new sight. The XM-8 had to be lighter than an M-16, so a sighting unit was designed to integrate a red dot sight and an infrared laser sight. This gives day/night capability in a single unit, with one battery, that’s lighter than the two separate units with two batteries and two sets of mounting hardware. Plus, the sight was synchronized so that sight adjustments to the red dot also adjusted the infrared laser sight. The military version was called the ISM-IR. If you’d like one with a visible laser sight, the civilian version is so equipped, and is the ISM-V.

Of course, then politics intervened. No army requirement was actually listed, so Congress started asking questions. HK’s competitors started asking why they hadn’t been given a shot to deliver something new if the army wanted that. Plus, some people had spent money earmarked for OICW on the XM-8, and that brought up more questions. In the end, the XM-8 was cancelled for being too expensive for what it was. At the end of the day, it was more reliable, but still fired 5.56 rounds downrange.

So what do we think? If you’re looking for a new carbine system, because you’re finally joining the 5.56 train or your previous issue carbine is old and busted and you want some new hotness, the XM-8 makes a good choice. Though, it does require new accessories because of the new attachment system.

Honestly, that might be one of the better parts of the XM-8. We really like PCAP, and we especially like the ISM-IR. That can be had in Picatinny railed form too if you want. Plus, at some point, you have to accept some development costs to get something better in the system. We’re seeing some forces go to Mlok3, and PCAP is better because it gives you a sight solution too. On the other hand, we’d really like to compare it to some of the more refined AR-15s and similar that have come out since the XM-8 program was cancelled.

Verdict: Funding Approved for program testing by the Borgundy War Department Ordnance Procurement Board

1.) They also do design work for Audi.
2.) Also known as holes. Precisely cut and aligned holes.
3.) Including Canada.

Resurrected Weapons: XM-29

The saga of attempting to improve the effectiveness of the average infantryman continues today. Now it’s the turn of the Americans. In the late 1990s, the US Military wanted to try to replace the M-16. Again. And the conclusion of the experts was that bullet-launching technology had peaked with the M-16, and there weren’t any good ways to improve it further. So more lethality would have to come elsewhere.

Considering the problem of an enemy behind cover, the committee decided that the right answer was to have some kind of man-portable airburst munition. And this led to the design of the XM-29 OICW.1

The XM-29 had three components. The critical one was the grenade launcher. It was a bullpup-looking affair, firing 20mm grenades from a six-round detachable box magazine. These were quite a bit smaller than everyone’s favorite 40 mm grenades, so as to be workable in a magazine, but there still weren’t many of them. Which led to the second component–the “KE Module”, which was a 5.56 carbine made by HK. It had a conventional configuration, and only an 8″ barrel. Further complicating things, the one trigger on the carbine had to also work the grenade launcher, but you had to be able to separate the two modules and use them individually (after a trigger unit was added to the grenade launcher. Plus, there was a massive thermal sight/laser rangefinder/fire control computer unit on top to coordinate the airburst over the head of the enemy. The idea was that the operator would use the rangefinder to determine range, manually program in the distance for airburst, and then fire a grenade.

Unsurprisingly, the result was big, heavy, and very expensive. Fully loaded, the XM29 weighed 8.2 kg, or a hair over 18 pounds. That’s ridiculous. It was big and unwieldy. Oh, and did I mention the cost? The XM-29 was projected to costvover $10,000 per unit. Plus, airburst grenades are roughly ten times as expensive as regular, contact-fused grenades.

All this might be forgiven if it worked. It didn’t. Oh, the carbine bit fired ok. But there were tons of problems with the airburst mechanism. And when it worked, it was judged insufficiently lethal. The 20mm round created fragments that were too small, there was insufficient explosive for a very large kill radius, and a whole bunch of fragments and energy are going to be directed upwards, away from the target. I can’t imagine that it would have been all that combat effective to have to manually program in airburst distances when enemies were firing back either.

After dumping a whole bunch of money into the airburst 20mm rounds, it was finally decided that they were unworkable. The only way to get sufficient lethality was to up the caliber. 25mm was settled on, but this would mean an even bigger grenade launcher unit. Between the ballooning weight and rapidly escalating cost, the project was terminated, and split into the XM-25 (which I’ve talked about here) and the XM-8 carbine (which I’ll talk about later).

So that’s the overview. What do we think of this project? Well, the basic concept might be sound, since I’m all in favor of raining death upon my enemies, but the execution is terrible. It would be much better if the grenade module could attach to an existing rifle to reduce costs, like the Korean K11 program. This also uses a 20 mm grenade module though, and I share the US Army’s concerns about inadequate killing capability of the 20 mm grenades.2 The 25 mm grenades of the XM-25 are more effective, and a 25 mm launcher is far too big to mount on a rifle.

An even better solution would be to get airburst 40 mm grenades. There, the launchers and the grenades are already in the system. Lethality has already been proven, and there’s already cheap grenades in the system. You simply have to work out the guidance and fusing, but you’d have to do that anyway with an XM29-type weapon.

Verdict: Funding Denied by Borgundy War Department Ordnance Procurement Board

1.) Objective Individual Combat Weapon. They chose the stupidest name they could.
2.) I have no idea if the South Koreans are satisfied with the performance of the 20 mm, or if they’re banking on the enemy being unarmored, malnourished North Koreans who are also easily frightened or something.