US Army to Create Lightweight .50 Caliber Machine Gun (Again)

    The US Army has begun a program to create a lightweight .50 caliber machine gun to replace the venerable M2 Browning. The program will, like the M240L machine gun, use titanium to reduce weight by 20-30 percent. Scout.com and NationalInterest.org both have stories on the subject. The following is from Scout.com:

    The Army is creating a new, lightweight version of its iconic .50-cal machine gun designed to better enable Soldiers to destroy enemies, protect convoys, mount weapons on vehicles, attack targets on the move and transport between missions.

    The new weapon, engineered to be 20-to-30 percent lighter than the existing M2, will be made of durable, but lighter weight titanium, Army officials said.

    The emerging lightweight .50-cal, described as still in its infancy stage, still needs to be built, riveted and tested.

    The parts for the titanium prototypes will be built at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J. and then go to Anniston Army Depot, Ala., for riveting and further construction.

    “We always want to lighten the soldier load. A major requirement is to engineer a 60-pound weapon compared to an 86-pound weapon,” Laura Battista, Product Management Engineer, told Scout Warrior in an interview.

    The Army plans to have initial prototypes of the new lightweight .50-cal built by this coming summer as a preparatory step to release a formal Request For Proposal, or RFP, to industry in the first quarter of 2017, Alessio said. An acquisition contract is expected several months after the RFP is released.

    “We are looking to test this summer,” he said.

    The lighter weight weapon will bring additional an additional range of mission sets for Soldiers who will be better able to transport, mount and fire the weapon against enemies.

    “If you are a top gunner and you are having to move this weapon around – it is on a pedestal tripod. If it is lighter, you are going to be able to traverse the weapon a little bit easier than a 20-pound heavier weapon. That is one of the added benefits as far as getting it on and off the vehicle. If a soldier can do that by himself that is an added benefit,” Alessio said.

    Future .50-cal Innovations

    The Army’s .50-cal program is also looking at a longer-term project to engineer a lighter weight caseless ammunition which will reduce the amount of brass needed, he added.

    Further into the future, the service will also create requirements for a new externally-mounted weapon to replace both the M2 .50-cal machine gun and the Mk19 grenade launcher.

    “This will be one weapon with a totally different new type of ammo that is not yet even in the developmental phase,” Alessio explained.

    Aside from improving the weapon itself, the Army will also embark upon a simultaneous excursion to develop a lighter profile barrel.

    “We will have many barrels that will lessen the logistic burden of having a spare barrel all the time. We are also hoping to save a lot of weight. We are hoping to save 16-pounds off of a 26-pound barrel,” Alessio said.

    In addition, the Army plans to engineer a laser rangefinder, new optics and fire control technology for the .50-cal. Alessio said a new, bigger machine-gun mounted optic will likely be put on the gun within the next five years.

    Finally, within five to ten years, the Army plans to have some kind of fire control technology added to the .50-cal; this will improve the accuracy of the weapon an increase its effective range by incorporating ballistic calculations such as the round’s trajectory through the air to target, Alessio explained.

    This is hardly the first time anyone has tried to replace the venerable “Ma Deuce”, either. Probably the first time was as early as 1939, when the Army issued a requirement for an anti-tank rifle and machine gun with more penetrating power, to counter the tanks of the era. This resulted in the ultimately unsuccessful T17 machine gun, which had it seen service would have been roughly the equivalent of the later Soviet 14.5mm machine guns in common service today.

    One of the most successful (though still ultimately failed) attempts to replace the M2 came in the 1950s with the M85 machine gun, which saw use on the M60 Main Battle Tank, but ultimately was retired and replaced with the M2 itself! In the 1980s, Fabrique Nationale designed a 15.5mm machine gun to replace the M2 and to match and exceed the Soviet 14.5mm machine gun in performance, but the project was unsuccessful and nearly bankrupt the Belgian arms manufacturer (on the other end of the size scale, the humble P90 PDW helped resuscitate the company).

    The two latest attempts to replace the M2 were the XM312, a lightweight, long-recoiling .50 BMG machine gun derived from the 25mm XM307 ACSW (and which was originally intended just as a test bed for that larger-caliber weapon), and the XM806 LW50MG. Both of these were cancelled, despite each being half the weight of the M2.

    What both the XM312 and XM806 programs found is that there is a serious contradiction in having a lightweight .50 caliber machine gun, especially one that compromises the performance of the weapon in some way. Automatic weapons in this caliber, due to their massively heavy ammunition, virtually cannot be used as dismounted weapons, and must be used mounted to either a vehicle, aircraft, or tripod. As a result, the benefits of lightening the weapons even substantially does not create a major improvement in usability for the weapons, although it may seriously increase convenience for the soldiers who have to move the weapon from mount to storage space and back. Even with lightweight cased ammunition, a .50 caliber machine gun will still suffer from this problem. I suspect that the use of an expensive titanium receiver for weapons of this type will prove to be a poor tradeoff, especially since the weight savings is significantly less than that of either the XM312 or XM806.

    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]


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