How Can We Break The Small Arms Plateau?

    In the comments section of my 6.8mm SPC article last year, I was asked what I thought about future infantry small arms. This is a subject that has dominated my thinking over the past several years, and much of the historical research I have undertaken has been in service to forming a better picture of the current state of small arms and how to improve it.

    What could be done to promote the advancement of small arms technologies beyond the current state of the art? What are the areas of small arms development most in need of attention, and what do I think the future holds for the infantryman? Each of those questions deserves their own post, so today I just want to focus on small arms procurement, its history, and how the proverbial small arms “plateau” could be broken.

    First, I want to talk about how US small arms procurement has changed in the recent past. Before 1968, US military small arms development was largely the responsibility of the Springfield Armory; after its closure, these duties were transferred to the Frankford, and then subsequently Picatinny Arsenals, but for the most part engineering and production of individual weapons has been left to the private sector. This changed the dynamic of small arms development in the US from one where a production-oriented government agency sought to continually renew its mandate and reinforce the necessity of its existence to one where civilian contractors are content to produce weapons of the current type.

    It’s of note that, prior to 1968, the US government itself directly undertook engineering, development, and production of the standard individual arms carried by every soldier, a practice which led to such innovations as the M1 Garand rifle. This was augmented by developments from private companies like Winchester in the case of the M1 Carbine, or Colt in the case of the M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle. In recent years, however, engineering of new infantry small arms has been left to private companies, who – while they make considerable effort to produce the best product – fundamentally can only work within the existing framework of firearms as they do not have the means to make major strides without considerable risk. The Army’s recent Individual Carbine competition is an excellent example of this: The private sector brought the best rifles they had, but all participants were unwilling – due to the risk involved in an open-ended, no-commitment competition – to submit anything radically new, with all the rifles submitted being very conservative in design. It’s obvious that a government program could have had more freedom to explore more radical developments – not needing to worry about a secondary market should their project not come to fruition and eventually not be adopted – but similar advancements can also be encouraged in the private sector if the aforementioned risk is alleviated. One way to do this is through a guaranteed downselect process, with a government-funded pre-production phase and trials segment. This model incentivizes the private sector by promising government subsidization of at least part of the tooling and manufacturing development needed to produce new weapons or ammunition, that the company could then potentially take advantage of on the commercial market.

    The nature of reorganization and restructuring of funding is a subject that is beyond my expertise; I am just a small arms hobbyist, and have neither the experience in government nor the training in management to make determinations of this kind. It does seem apparent to me, however, that expecting the commercial market alone to produce small arms solutions is misguided, due to the private sector’s aforementioned aversion to risk. This effect is most acutely visible in the small arms and ammunition sector, where the huge proliferation of arms and ammunition creates self-perpetuating standards within which any new invention must fit, or else it will fail to the detriment of its financiers. Numerous examples of this exist, one being the Boberg XR9 handgun, which, while innovative and offering measurable improvement over conventional pistols, is over-constrained by its reliance on existing 9mm ammunition which was never designed to work with its unique action. This problem would be trivial to solve if the manufacturer had control over the ammunition specifications, but this would be difficult to sell on the commercial market, nor would it be easy to approach a military customer with a proposal to change all ammunition production for the sake of a new design offering only incremental improvement. Regardless of the merits of the Boberg handgun, it is this sort of confinement to existing standards that presents a “chicken-and-egg” problem to private sector small arms developers. To solve this problem, small arms programs – either commercial or governmental – need to be adequately funded to offset the risk of developing a new, untried weapon system.

    One of the keys to solving this problem and creating a quantum leap in small arms technology is to break some eggs. Cracking the ammunition side of the problem by funding advancements in ammunition technology could produce a new serviceable ammunition paradigm that itself would solicit weapon developments from the private sector to utilize it. There is light at the end of this tunnel, in fact: The Army’s LSAT program being developed by AAI is poised to, with luck, change the landscape of military small arms by offering cheaper, significantly lighter ammunition. Unfortunately, the benefits of cased telescoped and caseless ammunition hold little appeal on the commercial market; hunters are unlikely to care about the savings of a few grams in their hunting rifle, and the tactical market is not worried about how many pallets of ammunition can be stuffed inside a C-17 Globemaster III cargo plane. Still, any private company that is able to produce a sound enough lightweight-cased-ammunition-firing weapon early enough in its proliferation stands to make a considerable profit on the military market. Indeed, big enough shifts in military small arms technology could cause gunmakers move away from their close courtship of the civilian market and back to a more competitive global military stance.

    Fundamentally, the relationship between the military and the private sector has a great effect on how quickly and in what way small arms technology will progress. With a closely linked, well-funded, thoroughly incentivizing set of contracts to the private sector for both ammunition and weapon development, major strides in technology could probably be made much faster than many of those who adhere to the “plateau” theory think is possible. The good news is that these structures are already in place; military development arms already have relationships with the private sector that allow the government to fund them in such a way that they can take the risks necessary for a true advancement in small arms. The flip side of this coin, however, is that many of these projects are not getting funded, and with the end of the GWOT, that is likely to continue. While anti-insurgent campaigns have placed a renewed emphasis on small arms, they will still likely play third fiddle to bigger programs with longer food chains, such as F-35.

    Nathaniel F

    Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. He can be reached via email at [email protected]