Are Long Range Infantry Calibers Just Marketing Smoke and Mirrors?

    With the recent push for small arms ammunition with increased range, power and capability, are military customers in danger of being taken for a ride by industry marketeers working to sell rifles in new calibers? Is the primary driving force behind new infantry calibers not in fact a need to be addressed, but a desire to sell weapons in a stagnant small arms market?

    The subject of small arms ammunition selection and the effect of marketing upon it deserves a far more detailed treatment than we afford today. Instead, we will explore some possibilities that may illuminate some of the potential risk factors in this area. But first, let’s turn our attention to hunting.

    For hunting game, the bolt-action rifle has been king for well over a century. Although evolutionary improvements to the weapons have been made during that time, these changes have come slowly, and have not affected the weapons’ fundamental natures. Because of this, and because rifles are not consumable items, manufacturers of these weapons have faced a problem: How to sell more of them to people who already own one. Decades ago, a solution was discovered: Create a new chambering and ammunition to go with it, and convince the customer that he needs a rifle that will fire it to stay ahead of the curve. In the latter half of the 20th Century, we saw this strategy employed time and time again, from the plethora of magnum cartridges starting with Roy Weatherby’s .270 Magnum to today’s Winchester Short Magnums. Perhaps the most stark example of this is the almost-forgotten .30 T/C, which was advertised as giving “.30-06 performance in a .308 package”. In that case, the appeal of a new round was not enough to overcome the sheer silliness of the concept. After all, what was anyone doing with a .30-06 that they could not do equally well with a .308? The .30 T/C flopped, and is only remembered today as the parent case of the much more successful 6.5 Creedmoor.

    To this day, though, the “magnum marketing” effect lives on. Less than a hundred years ago, hunters routinely took down whitetailed deer with puny calibers like .25-20 and .32-20 WCF. Karamojo Bell famously favored the 6.5x54mm Mannlicher-Schoenauer – a round scarcely more powerful than today’s 6.5 Grendel! – for elephant. Today, anyone who has ever hunted, or who knows hunters, knows someone who will swear up and down that “.308 is not enough for whitetail, you need a 7mm Remington Magnum”, or some similar nonsense. The marketing has taken hold. Caliber selection for hunting is more about not looking like a fool, and about going with the crowd, than it is about choosing what will do the job the best.

    Being frank, the consequences of this in the hunting world are small, and mostly positive. Today’s hunting calibers and ammunition are in every way superior to those of yesteryear, and customer choice has hardly ever been higher. However, we may now be entering an era where this same marketing principle is being applied to military caliber selection, and it’s this mutation that could produce significant negative effects. If the current push for infantry calibers optimized for engagement ranges of a kilometer or more is not actually based on a real military need, but is instead a marketing reaction to stagnation in the small arms market, then the successful adoption of such a caliber by a major military service could result in a massively sub-optimal small arms round that burdens them for decades.

    Like the bolt-action stagnated the hunting rifle market, the select-fire assault rifle has stagnated the military rifle market. Virtually all major market options work very well, shoot better than the troops expected to use them, and are flexible, adaptable, and inexpensive. Individual rifles can be kept in service not just for years, but potentially decades, if maintained properly. If upgrades are needed, they can be applied thanks to a generous aftermarket cultivated around each weapon type. In some cases, rifle fleets have been kept in continuous service for over half a century, with no real ill effects, and no replacement dates in sight.

    For the weapons manufacturer, this state of affairs is very bad indeed. Contracts that would otherwise come up every ten years or so never do thanks to the sheer longevity of rifle designs, and the flow of contract dollars slows to a trickle. Like the hunting rifle manufacturers, military small arms manufacturers in this position may seek ways to recapture the interest of their consumers – the militaries and governments who are their clients. One way to do that is to fan the flames of the caliber debate, and to promote the idea that current rifle calibers are not enough. If a military service adopted a new caliber, one which was too big to allow retrofit of existing weapons, then a new contract would necessarily follow. If that service was a prominent and influential enough one, such as the US Army, then the rest of the Western world’s militaries would likely follow suit, as well. A whole round of fresh new contracts would result. The faucet would be turned back on.

    Whether this is actually happening now is not known. However, it could happen, and, if it was, we might not notice any difference on the outside. The caliber debate is increasing in intensity, and it is often spurred on by small arms companies or their associates. Whether this is due to genuine concern or corporate interests is not only impossible to truly know, but may be a false dichotomy. The answer could well be both – many people do have genuine concerns about this issue, and if those line up with the interests of manufacturers, then all the better for the both of them.

    It is important to point out that just because there may be a corporate push behind the adoption of a new caliber does not mean that the arguments for a new caliber are necessarily invalid or made in bad faith. The lifespan of the two current small arms calibers – 5.56 and 7.62 mm – is surely finite, in the long run. They have both already served a very long time, and each will someday be replaced. That replacement will surely beget its own round of contracts, which will make manufacturers money. It’s possible that time will be upon us soon, and if it is then the companies and people within them that develop the right solutions should be justly rewarded.

    Rather, the message should be that any new caliber proposals, requirement augmentations, or capability demands for the infantry must be subjected to a very intense and objective scrutiny. Decision makers must ask “is this capability really needed?” “could this capability be achieved without a change in small arms ammunition?” and “does the infantryman provide a platform that can realistically exploit this capability?” Checks and audits on any such effort are necessary to ensure that the requirements fill real needs instead of just supporting unnecessary rounds of industry competition. If, instead, the preference of the day is accepted without question, there is a very real risk that all the blood, sweat, and tears shed in the effort to adopt a new round will accomplish nothing more than letting unneeded contracts, and saddling the armed forces for decades with the wrong round.

    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]