View Full Version : Rifle of the future?

09-08-04, 09:20 PM
Issue Date: September 13, 2004

Rifle of the future?
The Army has already zeroed in on the XM8 as its next weapon. Now, the Corps is taking a closer look

By Laura Bailey and Matthew Cox
Times staff writers

The Army is about to enter the final round of testing on what is well on its way to becoming its next weapon — and perhaps the Marine Corps’ in years to come.
Although Marines can expect to keep their M16s into the next decade, Corps leaders are closely watching the Army’s development of the Heckler & Koch XM8, now in its second generation. If the Army adopts it in 2005, as is expected, the weapon could be a contender for the Corps’ next service rifle.

With that in mind, the curious Corps is having a look at the weapon, and on Aug. 12, its top weapons advisers test-drove the machine and logged their preliminary likes and dislikes.

On that day, Marine gunners from as far afield as Okinawa, Japan, and Fallujah, Iraq, fired several variants of the weapon during the annual Gunner Symposium at Quantico, Va.

More than two dozen gunners fired off more than 5,000 rounds from several variations of the XM8, including the 12.5-inch barrel standard carbine, the short 9-inch barrel compact carbine and the 20-inch barrel sharpshooter version.

“Last year, the Army said it’s going to pursue this thing. We said, ‘Hey we need to look at it,’” said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Patrick Woellhof, the gunners’ occupational field manager and symposium organizer.

“Conceptually it’s what we’re looking for,” he said.

As the Corps’ top weapons experts, the gunners carry a big stick in the weapons development community.

“People take what they have to say very seriously,” said Gunnery Sgt. Martin Custer, the infantry weapons chief at Systems Command’s Warfighting Lab at Quantico. “It’s a very important group of people to impress if you’re looking to get a weapon into the Marine Corps.”

The feedback gunners gave after the demonstration was very positive, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready to jump on board just yet, Custer said.

“Right now, there’s a big wait and see what the Army’s gonna do with this. [The gunners] say, OK, it’s a pretty good rifle, but when you start talking about replacing hundreds of thousands of M16s, that racks up a big price tag pretty quick,” he said.

At the range, the weapons, which manufacturers tout as highly reliable, fired off thousands of rounds without the need to clean them. They performed “extremely well” without a single malfunction the entire day, Woellhof said.

“The design is as reliable as heck,” he said. “As many rounds as I’ve seen put through it, I’d be comfortable going into combat with it. I’m not sure about giving it to my Marines yet, but I’d be comfortable. Its reliability is unquestionable.”

Modularity is key

Gunners praised the weapon for being flexible and simple to operate.

Due to its modular system, the weapon can be tailored to fit different missions and different roles within the fire team. Interchangeable barrel sizes and other modules and collapsible butt stocks make it easy to configure for the mission at hand.

“What the gunners are interested in is true modularity,” Woellhof said.

The M16A4 and the M4 are also considered modular because components, such as the grenade launcher, can be added. But they aren’t as flexible as the XM8, Woellhof said.

“A true modular weapons system is where you can take it, make it a short gun, make it a long gun. It fits the mission you need it for. When you’ve got a long gun, it’s always going to be a long gun. Being able to make it a submachine gun and an automatic rifle, that’s the modularity we’re looking for.”

Gunners said they also liked the fact that the weapon is easy to clean. Because the weapon doesn’t use a gas-operating design, the metal on the XM8s doesn’t suck up carbon composites like metal on another rifle would. Therefore, XM8s take less than half as long to clean as M16s.

Custer said he was able to clean one in 15 minutes with no scrubbing involved. “You just dip it in a solvent tank and it’s done,” he said.

However, gunners said they aren’t sold on the weapon’s accuracy.

Gunners said the XM8 wasn’t more accurate than the M16, adding that their test drive was only a demonstration and they didn’t have a chance to run the weapons through their normal paces.

“It seems good to go, but to shoot it one time doesn’t really tell you everything you need to know,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Gene Bridgeman, gunner for the School of Infantry West, Camp Pendleton, Calif.

“The good point is you can do many things with it. We’re all for that,” he said.

Bridgeman said the gunners are waiting to see how the weapon does with the Army before giving the weapon their solid endorsement.

“We’re waiting to see what comes down the pike. We’re keeping an open mind. If it works out, we’re all for it.” Bridgeman said.

But for now, gunners remain content with the M4 and M16, and Marine Corps Systems Command officials remain committed to buying the latest versions of those weapons through at least 2008.

“The concept of an XM8-like weapon, with a true modular design, is the way ahead and the future replacement for the M16 family of weapons. The technology just isn’t quite there yet,” Woellhof said.

How the Army changed it

In the meantime, the second-generation XM8s sport more than a dozen soldier-inspired refinements that manufacturers hope will help them persuade Army leaders to adopt the new family of weapons in early 2005.

Until then the new prototypes — 17 carbines, 15 compacts and 14 designated marksman versions — are slated for more Army evaluation through the fall and winter.

The new prototypes include changes that make the XM8 more reliable, easier to operate and lighter, said Army Col. Michael Smith, head of Project Manager Soldier Weapons.

The Army developed the XM8 in late 2003 as part of a longer-range effort to perfect an over-and-under style weapon, known as the XM29, developed by Alliant Techsystems and Heckler & Koch.

The XM29 fires special air-bursting projectiles and standard 5.56mm ammunition. But it is still too heavy and unwieldy to meet Army requirements.

The Army decided to perfect each of XM29’s components separately so soldiers can take advantage of new technology sooner. The parts would be brought back together when lighter materials became available. The XM8 is one of those components.

One of the more challenging changes in the second-generation XM8s involved redesigning backup iron sights.

The XM8 relies on special optics for its primary aiming system. There’s a short-range version with a red aiming dot and a long-range version for use by marksmen.

The backup sights fold down into the hand guard and carrying handle when not being used.; The original design was trashed, Smith said, because it called for the backup sight to be built into the optic.

“What if it is smashed? That’s why [soldiers] wanted it to be separate.”

The battery life for both optics has increased from 110 hours to 400. And the new designs feature a lever-style clamping mechanism for attaching the optics to the weapon instead of the screws that soldiers tended to strip during testing.

Both the short-range and long-range optics have a built-in infrared pointer and illuminator, which now have more range. Plus, there’s more range on the pointer and illuminator — designers upped it from 600 meters to 800 on both optics. Soldiers can focus the pointer and illuminator on the long range or 4x optic while the same infrared features on the short-range or unity optic remain fixed.

“The sights on the XM8 are what the Army likes,” Woellhof said.

“It’s adequate, but the optics we’re using now are the best that are made right now,” he said, referring to the Trijicon Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight.

Woellhof said he didn’t like that the XM8 sights are battery operated and don’t include the magnification that the ACOG provides.


09-08-04, 09:20 PM
Other gunners and weapons experts were concerned that the Corps’ current optics might not be compatible with the XM8s, most of which don’t have Picatinny Rails.

“The bottom line is the Marine Corps has and is spending a large amount of money on our optics and it’s all designed to go on Picatinny Rails,” said Custer back at the Warfighting lab.

Developers are currently working to get rails on all the variants of the weapon, and currently they have added them to two variants, said Peter Simon, president of Heckler & Koch Defense.

Better aim

Developers said the full-auto capability should be more reliable now that they have increased the rate of fire by 25 to 50 rounds per minute. The change makes the XM8 capable of firing 850 rpm.

“We did the change to give us better a capability in nasty environments like the desert,” Smith said, explaining that the higher rate should help push more sand and grit out of the chamber when firing. “You get a little more force blowing that stuff out of there.”

Unlike the first generation, the designated marksman and automatic rifle models are now the same weapon, except that the automatic rifle will be fielded with a special 100-round, drum magazine. The designated marksman variant will use the 30-round magazine used on the standard carbine.

The high-capacity magazine, which can be used in all the XM8 models, is intended to give commanders the option of beefing up a squad’s volume of fire beyond the current M249 squad automatic weapon, which is belt-fed and equipped with quick-changing barrels.

Woellhof, the Marine gunner, said the XM8’s automatic rifle variant could open a path for the weapon into the Marine Corps. As the M249 SAW nears the end of its lifespan, the Corps is looking for its replacement, which could be an automatic rifle instead of a light machine gun.

“The XM8 would be a good replacement for that because it has an automatic rifle variant … But that just opens the door. It could even become the service rifle. But that won’t be for 15 years,” he said.

Lighter load

The second-generation XM8s include several ergonomic improvements, such as new ridges or knurls added to the cocking lever for a better grip. They also are about 15 percent lighter than the first prototypes, Smith said. That’s about a pound less on the carbine model, which now weighs in at 7.14 pounds with optic and a loaded 30-round magazine. An M4 carbine with its standard attachments and a 30-round magazine weighs about 8.5 pounds, he said.

The Army’s senior leadership is scheduled to make a decision on replacing the M16 with the XM8 in February, Smith said.

There were plans to possibly field the XM8 to two infantry brigades in 2005, but Congress chose not to provide the roughly $27 million needed for the purchase in the fiscal 2005 budget or in supplemental funding, Smith said. The Army could still begin fielding in 2005, but the money would have to come from existing programs, he said.

Before those decisions are made, however, the second-generation XM8s are slated to go through desert testing in Arizona in September, tropical testing in Panama in October and arctic testing in Alaska in December. A limited user test, involving an undisclosed, active infantry division, is also scheduled for October, Smith said.

The Corps has yet to run the weapon through its own formal tests, but H & K’s Simon said the Corps has requested a number of XM8s for testing later this year.

That could happen this fall or winter, said Custer. The Corps will get the rifles from the Army weapons lab’s Project Executive Office Soldier, which will provide several XM8s for Systems Command to test, Custer said, but stressed they are only doing preliminary information gathering.

“If it’s going well for Army, maybe they’ll say we’ll take a look at it officially, but at this moment I haven’t heard of any plans to jump on board,” he said. “We’re interested spectators at the moment.”

But even if they do well, the weapons are only in their second generation. It could take several more revisions before the Corps sees a version it wants, Woellhof said.

Woellhof warned it’s not the brand gunners are impressed with, it’s the concept.

“XM8 isn’t going to be the only boy to play. … It’s not H&K. It’s the concept that gunners said ‘this is the way we want to go. Once you’ve seen XM8 has broken the code on this, you’re going to see everyone follow the concept because it just makes too much sense.

“Everyone would have to compete for that. A competitor could throw their hat in the ring and they could win.”

Until then, the Corps is content to let the Army spend its resources on further development, Lt. Gen. Jan Huly, head of Marine Corps plans, policies and operations, said Aug. 11.

“We’re not putting any money down on that right now … That’s one of the good things about having the United States Army close by. They’re bigger, they’re more capable of testing some things like that,” said Huly, who sits on the board that would ultimately help decide the issue.

“They’ve got more finances to look into that and I think we’re going to just kind of coattail off of them and slipstream them for a bit and see where they go with this.”

See the XM8 in action.




09-09-04, 03:20 AM
I was in Quantico (95-98) when they displayed these weapons. It takes 'em long enough. They also had one that would fire around corners, and one that fired in three directions at once. I recently tossed out the brochures. I wonder what happened to the those two?