Tag Archives: history


There are two consistent complaints about the Bradley. One is that it doesn’t carry enough dismounts. The other is that it’s not well protected enough. The US Army has made several attempts to rectify both of these issues. Today, we’re going to look at an alternative design to fix the latter problem: the Special Armor IFV, which dates to around 1978. Continue reading

The 1920s Screening Force

Having finished Shelby Foote’s excellent three-volume Civil War set, I’ve switched over to some more recent naval history: A History of U.S. Cruisers, by Norman Friedman. One of the cool bits of naval history in it is a breakdown of expected US Navy fleet screening requirements, circa 1920. This posited a main body consisting of seventeen battleships and six battlecruisers. These were considered separate elements, and as such, each had its own screen. There were separate screens for dealing with submarines and dealing with torpedo-armed light assets (the so-called “attack” screen). Each force also had its own scouting assets. Let’s look at the breakdown of what they expected to need to screen the main body in a future war at sea.

TypeBattleship ScreenBattlecruiser Screen
Light Cruisers10
Destroyer Leaders21
Attack Screen
Light Cruisers11
Destroyer Leaders318
Scouting Forces
Light Cruisers11
Destroyer Leaders32

Quite the force. The large number of destroyers is fascinating, as is the relatively small number of cruisers employed in the screen. Cruisers were called for elsewhere, of course. Also of note is that while the term ‘light cruisers’ appears in the plans, ‘heavy cruisers’ does not. Presumably light cruisers were cruisers that weren’t battle cruisers; questions of guns and tonnage would not be relevant until the various naval treaties of the 20s and 30s.

Witness Protection Shotgun

There are a number of shotguns released today designed to avoid classification as a “short barreled shotgun”. For our international readers, under the complicated and confusing US law, a “short barreled shotgun” has to be registered with the ATF, which means a $200 fee, fingerprints, photos, and a six month wait. But a short, “stockless” gun like the Tac-14, Shockwave or V3 Tac-13 is not legally an SBS, and so you can buy it and take it home with you immediately, with no extra fee.1

Now, lots of people will debate the utility of such a weapon. I think the utility might be best understood with a little history, not that every weapon needs to serve a practical purpose. Some guns are fun guns, and that’s awesome. But this weapon has good applications. For one, shotguns with slugs are good bear repellent, and a very compact, stockless shotgun can be strapped to or thrown in a backpack pretty easily.

What many may not know is that the US Marshals had a professional gunsmith make something an awful lot like the Tac-14 back in the 80s. They called it the Witness Protection Shotgun. Being law enforcement, the US Marshals could buy what the NFA would call “Short Barreled Shotguns” with 14″ barrels and stocks no problem. But that’s not what these were.

The Witness Protection Shotgun started life as a Remington 870. It had a 12.5″ barrel, which was as short as they could cut the 870’s barrel given how it attaches to the rest of the gun. It also had a cut, shaped, and refinished “bird’s head” grip of wood, shaped a lot like you’d see on the Tac-14. They also added a sling plate at the front, much like the Wilson Combat vertical sling plate. The idea here was to both attach a sling and provide a handstop to make sure that the support hand didn’t end up in front of the muzzle. Magazine capacity was four 2 3/4″ shells.

You may have figured out the intended role from the name. The idea was to have a tremendously powerful, concealable weapon for use in the witness protection program. With a very short barrel, no stock, and general lack of bulk that comes from a pump shotgun (as compared to say, a Colt Commando), the Witness Protection Shotgun was easy for a marshal to hide under his coat. These were popular with the US Marshals in the 80s, and then fell out of favor.

And with proper technique you won’t hit yourself in the face when shooting one either.

  1. Your mileage may vary. Some restrictions may apply if your state is run by communists. 

Whence Cometh PMAGs?

It occurred to me that there are plenty of folks who don’t understand how and why Magpul’s fantastic PMAGs became the standard magazine for AR-15 users both civilian and military. So let’s take a stroll down memory lane.

In terms of product, Magpul’s PMAGs1 hit a solid mix of reasonable price, reasonable quality, reasonable durability, and reasonable reliability of feeding (which is to say, function). They’re also pretty ubiquitous. Easy to find almost anywhere. While you can buy more durable magazines, they will cost you more. And mags that are cheaper by a large enough margin to care about don’t work as well.

Magpul wasn’t the first to come to market with a polymer magazine. Their first prototypes were made in 2006. They were among the first to come out with a polymer magazine that worked well, and they had built a customer base with some of their other quality products, like their magazine pulls (hence the company name).

Of course, the AR-15’s original magazines were made from thin aluminum. They were originally intended to be disposable after a single use, and this allowed the Armalite design team to make them very lightweight. However, the military did not go for that, and reissued magazines. Civilian shooters would also not treat aluminum magazines as disposable items either. However, the Armalite design team was not given a chance to redesign the magazines to make them more durable.

One of the things that will crop up with ‘USGI’ aluminum magazines is that the feed lips can deform, whether from being dropped or being smacked or whatever. And a property of metal is that when deformed with enough force, you’ll get “plastic deformation,” i.e. it will stay bent. If the feed lips get messed up, your mag isn’t going to work. These can be subtle problems. Your eye won’t know, but your rifle will. Like the princess and the pea.

Now, the military hates to throw things out, so mags that get bad from use and abuse (or stupid, stupid boots) are going to stick around. And civilians aren’t very likely to throw out bad mags either. They paid good money for those! That’s not to mention the affect of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, which allowed the sale to non-law enforcement civilians of standard capacity magazines made before 1994. So those aluminum mags were going nowhere. And those old mags were now worth a premium, so whatever crappy mag that a guy could dig up could be resold at a significant profit. Even if the mag was beat to hell.

I still have a folder of data on my hard drive of proper feed lip dimensions and instructions for retuning feed lips to get them close to original spec so that they wouldn’t induce double feeds. Ugh. Bad memories.

After the sunset of the ban in 2004, the market exploded with manufacturers making standard capacity magazines. Of course, the nature of the aluminum USGI magazines meant that it was pretty hard for the layman to tell if the magazine was made by anyone who knew what they were doing. Substandard materials or construction methods could lead to more problems. Or more rapid onset of problems. Or not; you could just get lucky.

Enter Magpul’s PMAG. Magpul hit the market with a good design, good materials (finally–remember this wasn’t the first attempt at a polymer AR-15 magazine), and good quality control. If you bought a Magpul PMAG, it would work, unlike previous polymer magazine efforts. And you didn’t find PMAGs in a box with a bunch of other curbstomped mags at a gunshow. Even if you did, they looked distinctive. Plus, they were cheap enough to buy a lot of.

Once they got the polymer magazines working well, Magpul’s choice of material brought other benefits. Polymer doesn’t deform like aluminum does; ironically it doesn’t do “plastic deformation”. It’ll either spring back to its original shape (elastic deformation) or break. And when it breaks it’s obvious. Maybe there’s a chunk of feedlip missing. Maybe there’s a big crack down the back of the magazine. Maybe the weld split. And it’s probably going to vomit bullets all over the floor when you try to fill it.

There you have it. Why we love our PMAGs.

  1. All caps, because Magpul spells it that way. And when I say PMAG, I do mean “Magpul’s PMAG” not something else. Not the imitators. And I like Magpul a lot, so I’ll happily oblige them on their branding. 

Resurrected Weapons: Project Babylon

Back in the 1950s, when rocketry was extraordinarily difficult, and TV was full of videos of NASA rocket tests failing miserably, Gerald Bull had an alternative idea: Use a giant gun to put a payload in orbit. This led to Project HARP, which got a lot of great research done. By the 1960s, we had figured out (mostly) how to make rockets that work. It was still hard, but now we could generally expect launches to work. And so the plug was pulled on HARP, but Gerald Bull still dreamed of using a giant gun to put a satellite in orbit. Eventually, in the 1980s, he found someone with money willing to back his dream once more. That man was Saddam Hussein.

Project Babylon came in two phases. Stage one was “Baby Babylon”, a proof of concept model with a 350mm bore and a barrel length of 46 meters. This was initially used for horizontal testing, and was then erected on the side of a mountain. The full size “Big Babylon” would have been the biggest gun ever, with a one-meter bore and a barrel length of 156 meters. The original design was intended to be suspended from a steel framework by a system of cables.

Testing of the Baby Babylon cannon showed issues in dealing with seals between the barrel sections. While these were being fixed, Gerald Bull was assassinated outside of his Belgian apartment on March 22, 1990, which crippled the project. It would not be resumed after the First Gulf War.

Bull’s assassination was almost certainly not due to his work on Project Babylon. The superguns were massive, fixed targets. Easy to spot with aerial or satellite reconnaissance, easy to destroy. But Bull was also working on improving the range of Saddam’s Scud missiles. Those are much more effective than a giant gun. This was the project that most likely angered Saddam’s enemies enough to get an assassination. The most likely candidates are Israel or Iran, both of whom have intelligence agencies with lots of experience in liquidating potential problems.

Project Babylon itself is also extremely problematic. It’s a lousy weapon, as we’ve mentioned before. But I’m also extremely skeptical of their utility as a launch system. Even with a 156 meter barrel, the acceleration is going to be absolutely brutal. This is going to seriously restrict the payloads you can launch. A rocket is going to be far gentler on the payload, and much less likely to wreck a satellite. Plus, rockets can accept oversize shrouds to handle larger payloads, or be clustered to lift more weight. You’re pretty stuck with the weight capacity and payload diameter restriction here.

Verdict: Funding Request Denied by the Borgundy Ordnance Board

There Is No Milspec AR-10

Anytime I hear the words “milspec AR-10” my teeth get set on edge. There’s no such thing. I’m gonna repeat that.

There is no such thing as a “milspec AR-10”.

Got it? It should be pretty clear. No. Such. Thing.

Let’s start with what exactly is “milspec.” You may have guessed it’s short for “military specification,” and you’d be correct. For the US Army (and some others), they like to take ownership of certain products. Sometimes there are competitive bids. For the M4, there’s a specification of what exactly an M4 is, and then the US Army can have companies bid on how much it will cost to make a certain number of rifles to that spec. The milspec is owned by the military (in general).

So there’s no “milspec AR-10” because no major military adopted the AR-10 and cemented the design that way. Emphasis on the and. Merely adopting the rifle is insufficient. The AR-10 was used by the Sudanese, Cubans, and the Portugese, but none of those made a spec. All of those arms were built by Artillerie Inrichtigen, which wasn’t able to get more contracts and stopped making AR-10s ages ago. Still no spec.

Things got confusing in the 1990s. By that time, Eugene Stoner was working for Knights Armament, and they made the SR-25, a modern take on the AR-10 design for use as a semiautomatic marksman’s rifle. This used the gas system improvements worked out on the AR-15 and had a number of parts shared with the then-issue M16A2. The magazine design is also used in DPMS’ AR-10-pattern rifles, among others, and you can find these magazines as “DPMS/SR-25” pattern.

There’s another pattern of magazines currently in use for AR-10-pattern rifles. This one is made, confusingly enough, by Armalite. The original Armalite company ceased operations in the early 1980s. The rights to the name were bought, and Armalite was relaunched in 1996, with a new AR-10 pattern rifle (among other things). At that time the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban was in effect in the United States. This bill prohibited the sale of new magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds, but older magazines that held more than 10 rounds could still be bought and sold. So (new) Armalite made magazines that had a common design with M-14 magazines, so buyers of their rifle could use existing, common M-14 magazines with a couple easy modifications. These are “Armalite” pattern magazines, and they’re not compatible with DPMS/SR-25 pattern magazines.

And no, neither DPMS nor Knights nor Armalite are responsible for any current milspec “AR-10-pattern” rifle.

Competition Meets Tactical: SOF STI 2011s

I love competition shooting, and I love modern military gear. Sometimes, the two worlds collide, and I always find such events fascinating. Let’s take a look at a little bit of Special Operations history, courtesy of an old Gunbroker auction and the late, great Weaponsman.

First, some competition background. In the USPSA Limited1 division, the dominant platform is the double-stack 1911, often called a 2011, which is the trade name used by STI for their pistols. Since STI is the biggest builder of these, and where to go for a factory-type solution, the name has stuck. While people use other guns in Limited, the 2011s are the most popular. Since it’s based on the 1911, with its expired patents, its wide open for people to play with, so you can get your gun customized to your heart’s content. While it’s the indian, not the arrow, that decides results, nobody wants to shoot a lame arrow. Plus the 1911-style, single-action, sliding trigger is super easy to make amazing. There are no better triggers than a tuned 1911-type trigger for shooting.

Around 2006-2007, one of America’s elite special operations units decided to experiment with these pistols. Here are a pair of them.
STI 40s

A few things to note. They’re chambered for .40 S&W, not 9mm NATO like you might expect. Being based on the 1911, which was originally designed around the .45 ACP cartridge, 2011s tend to be easier to make reliable with longer cartridges. .40 S&W is a bit longer than 9mm NATO, so that helps. Plus, the vast majority of 2011s are chambered in .40 for USPSA,2 that’s where most of the experience in keeping them running is focused.

From the auction description:

Both of these STI 2011 .40 caliber pistols saw actual issue and use in a US Army SOF unit in 2006-2007. One pistol is in 93%+ condition and the other is in 96%+ condition. They are consecutively serial numbered and are quite possibly the only consecutively numbered set to be offered for sale. This consecutively numbered set comes with the following items: *** individual letters of authenticity from Larry Vickers (www.vickerstactical.com) for each pistol— original, unedited versions will be provided to the buyer *** six 140mm 17 round magazines *** one 170mm 22 round magazine *** one issued Surefire X200A light *** issued Safariland 6005 light bearing holster with end user modifications *** two Eagle Industries pistol cases

These are standard STI magazines with STI follower and basepad. This doesn’t sound odd, but most competitors will swap the follower and basepad out to get more capacity. More capacity is great at a match, but it tends to make the mags a bit more fussy, and extra maintenance requirements are not the friend of the combat soldier.

What did SOF think of these pistols? They liked them, but found the maintenance requirements to be more than they wanted to deal with. Specifically, issues came up with fine desert sand from the Middle East. This makes some sense. These are tightly tuned competition pistols, built for maximum shootability. Competitors don’t mind having to do a bit more cleaning of their magazines. And of course, as a general rule, guns with a metal frame and slide need more lubrication than those with a polymer frame and steel slide.

That said, in Vickers’ letter of authenticity, he said that “these were the only pistols sold outside the unit” (emphasis added). So likely lots of the men chose to keep the pistols, because they are awesome and shoot really well. Even if they might not be the best choice for a secondary weapon out in the sandbox.

  1. No electronic sights, no compensators, no barrel porting, magazines no longer than 141.25 mm. 
  2. Because power factor. 


The Component Advanced Technology Test Bed was another late 80s American test program to investigate new systems for future tanks. As we’ll see, it looked quite a bit different from the TTB, and where the TTB was testing a very specific change (namely the unmanned, low profile turret) the CATTB tested a variety of new technologies in a more conventional layout.


CATTB shared an Abrams hull, but the turret was new, and came with a bustle-mounted autoloader. The autoloader was very similar to the one on the Leclerc or K2. A new gun was tested, the XM291, which came in both 120 mm and 140 mm versions. The 120 mm version provided a lower-risk alternative to the 140 mm. The turret had rather large forward armor arrays, plus reasonably thick side arrays and a decent amount of roof protection. And I have no idea why they decided to mount so many smoke grenade launchers on there, but they did. This was before the advent of soft-kill active protection systems, but might not go amiss on a tank today with the right cueing system.

CATTB Rear view

As you can see from this rear view, the CATTB also came with a new engine: the XAP-1000 diesel. The Cummins/Allison XAP-1000 was based on the advanced Cummins XAV-28 V-12 diesel, a low-heat rejection engine. It used only oil coolant and has no water in the cooling system at all. Higher temperature exhaust gasses were tapped to run the APU. I don’t know a ton about this engine, but the US Army has a history of backing highly advanced diesel engines that end up being problematic. I would suspect similar things with the XAP-1000. Again, the project went nowhere. Later in the 90s, the Abrams was going to get a new engine as an offshoot of the Crusader project, but the proposed engine was not the XAP-1000. Instead, a gas turbine was chosen.

CATTB is a lot more of a conventionally designed tank. I do really like its lines. The project which was supposed to lead to the Block III MBT ended up leading nowhere due to changing priorities. Though, it is not at a museum. It is in the long term storage section of the Sierra Army Depot in Hurlong, CA. Make of that what you wish.