Infantry: Disruptive Ammo Tech

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September 11, 2021: An American firm (True Velocity) put its new plastic (composite) case ammo on sale for the first time. The initial offering was the popular, with hunters and snipers, .308 Winchester round. The composite case ammo is 30 percent lighter than metal case ammo, transfers less heat to the rifle and puts less stress to the barrel when fired. The initial price of the composite case .308 Winchester rounds is $3.50 each. Metal case equivalents cost from a dollar to $2.40 per round. This caliber of ammo is the most popular type used by big-game hunters who need long-range accuracy and hitting power to take down elk, black bear and other large mammals. The .308 Winchester is a higher performance version of the NATO standard 7.62 rifle round that was largely replaced by 5.56mm assault guns in the 1960s. The .308 Winchester and 7.62mm rounds are interchangeable, but the .308 must be used with caution in 7.62 weapons because it generates higher pressure and is meant for rifles built to handle it. Soldiers and marines found that their semi-automatic M14 7.62 rifles were excellent sniper rifles when equipped with a scope and using .308 Winchester ammo. For this reason, the troops in an infantry squad who are designated as “sharpshooters” are equipped with refurbished (to hunting standards) M14s that get the most out of the .308 cartridge. The sharpshooters proved so useful that they became standard. The sharpshooters did not require the extensive training of dedicated snipers, who operated on their own in teams of two using longer range rifles and more powerful rifle rounds that were accurate beyond a thousand meters. Sharpshooters used M14s and .308 ammo that proved equally accurate out to 900 meters, which was sufficient for infantry squads.

Sharpshooters and other infantry would appreciate the composite case .308 ammo because it is 30 percent lighter while the weight of weapons and equipment carried by modern infantry is a growing problem. The military will pay premium prices for lighter versions of current items carried by the troops. Hunters and recreational target shooters are less concerned with the weight of their ammo but for the military it is something worth paying a premium for. The True Velocity composite case ammo prices are expected to come down if these rounds are solid in large quantities to military as well as civilian customers.

To gain access to the military market, True Velocity teamed up with a major defense firm (General Dynamics), to provide a more acceptable ammo for the U.S. Army than what was developed during the recently (2017) cancelled LSAT (Lightweight Small Arms Technology) 5.56mm machine-gun program. At one point the army planned to replace all existing assault rifles, pistols and machine-guns with models using smaller caseless or telescoped ammo. The True Velocity composite case ammo was very tempting to the army and marines, which could have the benefits of lightweight ammo without having to replace all existing rifles and machine-guns with new designs that can use existing caseless/CTA (Cased Telescoped ammunition) ammo designs that are also 30 percent lighter than existing ammo but are shorter and could not be used with existing weapons. Before True Velocity came along the military planned to choose caseless or CTA for new infantry weapons designs. Even with that it would mean supply problems because it would mean another ammo type would have to be supplied to troops. Because the first new infantry weapon under development is the LSAT, a replacement for the current light-machine gun that uses the same 5.56mm ammo as the rifle troops carry.

The basic design of LSAT was available since 2012 but acceptance for production was delayed by efforts to see if it should be built to use either conventional (brass) or caseless/CTA ammo. Initially LSAT prototypes were built to test two types of lightweight ammo and it wasn’t until now that one of those lightweight ammo designs reached the point where it was ready for combat testing. That was when the True Velocity polymer case design finally arrived. Commercial ammo using the True Velocity polymer rounds were ready for sale in 2020, aimed at hunters and target shooters. One market that was not pleased was reloaders, who reload their own ammo, often with custom propellant loads, using the reusable brass casings. The reloaders would need new equipment to handle composite cases and even then, the reloadable composite cases would be different than the current ones. For the military that was not a problem and the fact that the polymer case, unlike the brass case, insulates the rifle from the heat of the propellant is a bonus. For machine-guns that is a major advantage and military ammo is rarely reloaded. Civilian target shooters will find the heat handling aspects of the polymer case useful if they fire a lot of rounds on the range and need to be careful about overheating of the receiver portion of the rifle, where the ammo is ignited and the empty case ejected while another is loaded. Overheated receivers are sometimes a problem with military weapons, where the heat can rise to levels where rounds fire spontaneously when loaded and before the trigger is pulled. The composite rounds also put less wear on the rifle barrel, another feature more valuable to military users.

The LSAT weapons program was cancelled in 2017 as the army decided to replace the 5.56mm round with something larger. Within a year the army had settled on a new, and very popular, 6.8mm design and called on weapons developers to create a NGSW (Next Generation Squad Weapon) that would replace the 5.56mm M4 assault and M249 5.56mm machine gun with a single weapon using the new 6.8mm round. Lightweight ammo was no longer a priority. Initially the army wanted NGWS prototypes using the shorter and lighter ammo designs. Shortly thereafter cost became an issue as procurement budgets were being cut and the troops were enthusiastic about converting to the new caseless round.

Caseless ammo is not a new concept but you need the right materials and right design to make it work. It’s all a matter of getting the right tech and the right design and then getting the new ammo some convincing battlefield success. Back in the 1980s German firm Dynamit Nobel developed a 4.73mm round that weighed much less than the existing 5.56mm rounds but was similar in effectiveness. The new (at the time) G11 assault rifle was designed to fire the caseless 4.73mm round. A G11, along with 510 rounds, weighed the same (7.36 kg/16.2 pounds) as an M-16 with 240 rounds (eight, 30 round magazines.) The West German army tested the G11 extensively in the late 1980s and was considering adopting it and its caseless ammo to replace its 7.62mm assault rifles. Then the Cold War ended, Germany was united, and the decision was made to go with the cheaper G36 5.56mm weapon firing conventional brass cased ammo. Caseless ammo was also more expensive than the conventional 5.56mm stuff, and there were still concerns about reliability, even after years of testing. Not much work was done on this caseless ammo in the 1990s but after 2001 American firms began working on upgrading and improving the Dynamit Nobel tech. While field testing has shown that the new polymer case design is safe and reliable, the new caseless design must survive combat testing and the military has yet to decide on when and where to carry that out. Germany later had problems with their new 5.56mm assault rifles when they finally got some combat use in Afghanistan and several serious flaws in the rifle were discovered. In the Internet age details of this failure quickly spread to troops worldwide who used the Internet, often for this kind of information.

The LSAT weapon prototypes came in two versions. One used ammo with a CTA telescoped case, and the other was caseless. The CTA ammo was ready for use first while the caseless stuff was still in development. Both LSAT weapons feature a revolutionary ammo feed that employs a pivot, rather than a bolt, to load the ammo into the chamber. This design propels the case out the front of the weapon. Naturally the caseless ammo has no case to eject. The use of the pivot reduced overheating problems, which are more of a hassle with the polymer case of the CTA cartridge prototype. The CTA case is a straight case, like a pistol round, not a bottleneck case more common with high powered rifles. A caseless round was seen as the ideal solution but this design was more difficult to manufacture. Caseless rounds have been developed before but were found to be more expensive and more vulnerable to rough handling.

The original LSAT expectation was that if the caseless round were used, the LSAT and 600 rounds would be 9 kg (19.9 pounds) lighter than the current M249 and its ammo. The new plastic case ammo and the LSAT is 6.8 kg (15 pounds) less than the M249. In early 2012 eight LSAT machine-guns and 100,000 rounds of the CTA ammo were delivered for army troop use and passed field tests. At this point it became possible to use the same technology for a new assault rifle. While LSAT passed muster with the troops and the realities of use in a combat zone, by 2012 most of the fighting was over. The new machine-gun would be much appreciated by infantry operating in Afghanistan, where the machine-gunner is often lugging his weapon and all that ammo up steep hills.

Back home there was less enthusiasm, and money, for a new generation of assault rifles and light machine-guns using radically different ammo. The True Velocity polymer case conventional ammo was now available and easier to implement, especially since hunters and sport shooters reported success with the distinctive white and lighter polymer case rifle ammo. News like that always spreads quickly on the Internet and infantry worldwide pay attention. That composite case ammo costs twice as much as brass case ammo but the manufacturer points out that the price will come down as larger quantities are sold and military contracts get the largest discounts of all. Hunters don’t have a problem with ammo weight but the infantry does. The U.S. military has already been paying more for lighter versions of weapons and equipment troops must carry into combat. The 6.8mm round with a composite case weighs the same as a 5.56mm round with a brass case.

 


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