Weapons: Silent Death


April 28, 2011: Four months after arriving in Afghanistan for evaluation, the U.S. Army's new XM2010 sniper rifle has been so popular that production has been speeded up. Last December, American army snipers received 250 upgrade kits for their M24 bolt-action sniper rifles. These kits convert the M24s to the more powerful XM2010 sniper rifle. A major change is allowing 7.62mm M24 rifles to fire the .300 Winchester magnum (7.62x67). This is a more powerful round than the NATO 7.62x51 ammo currently used in the M24. The conversion kit includes a new receiver and barrel, a new scope, a new flash suppressor and a folding buttstock. The XM2010 weighs 8.5 kg (18.7 pounds) and is 1.33 meters (52.2 inches) with the flash suppressor. The conversion of all 3,600 existing M24s will take five years and cost about $7,800 per rifle. Yes, the XM2010 conversion kit is basically a new rifle. The idea of introducing it as a M24 upgrade kit was largely due to procurement politics (overcoming opposition to the XM2010 and budget disputes.)

The quick acceptance of the XM2010 was largely due to the longer range of the Winchester Magnum round (over 1,200 meters versus 800 for the older 7.62x51 ammo). While the 12.7mm sniper rifle can hit targets at 2,000 meters, it is less accurate. Thus at a thousand meters, a 12.7mm rifle will put a round within 63.5 cm (25 inches) of the aim point. That causes a lot of misses, because the human body is about 56 cm (22 inches) wide. The Winchester Magnum, however, will put rounds within a 26 cm (ten inch) circle. Moreover, the 26 cm (ten inch) long suppressor on the front of the XM2010 barrel hides 98 percent of muzzle flash, reduces recoil 60 percent and the sound of the bullet firing 32 decibels. This means that, at a thousand meters, the XM2010 is nearly impossible for enemy troops to detect, allowing the sniper to get off another round, or get away safely. The XM2010 also works well with new, high-powered day and night sights.

The army was pretty sure that the new ammo would be a hit. Thus, two years ago, they ordered 38.4 million rounds of .300 Winchester magnum ammunition for the XM2010, as well as similar SOCOMs Mk13 models. The new ammo costs about $1.30 per round. The .300 Winchester magnum ammo is ordered in minimum lots of 56,160 rounds (117 boxes of 480 rounds each). The entire 38.4 million rounds will last a while.

All this was in response to requests from snipers for a longer range weapon, but not one as bulky and heavy as the 13.6 kg (30 pound) .50 caliber/12.7mm rifle (which is good to about 2,000 meters). It was felt that the .300 Winchester Magnum gave the snipers all the additional range they needed, without requiring a much heavier rifle. SOCOM has been using this approach since the early 1990s.

The calls were loudest from snipers operating in Afghanistan, where U.S. Army and Marine Corps shooters wanted a sniper rifle that can consistently get kills out to 1,800 meters. The current 7.62mm round was good only to about 800 meters. The .300 Winchester magnum is a more powerful, but not much larger, round than the current 7.62mm one. An improved version of the magnum round is expected to extend that range another 200 meters or so.

There was another option, and that was to replace the barrel and receiver of the M24 sniper rifles to handle the .338 (8.6mm) Lapua Magnum round. Thus you still have a 7-9 kg sniper rifle, but with a round that can hit effectively out to 1,600 meters or more. British snipers in Iraq, and especially Afghanistan, have found the Lapua Magnum round does the job at twice the range of the standard 7.62x51mm round. The 8.6mm round entered use in the early 1990s, and became increasingly popular with police and military snipers. Dutch snipers have used this round in Afghanistan with much success, and have a decade of experience with these larger caliber rifles. Recognizing the popularity of the 8.6mm round, Barrett, the pioneer in 12.7mm sniper rifles, came out with a 7 kg (15.5 pound) version of its rifle, chambered for the 8.6mm. But the U.S. preferred the lighter .300 Winchester magnum solution.

This is not the first time the U.S. Army has quickly responded to sniper needs. Two years ago, in response to requests from snipers operating in urban areas of Iraq, the U.S. Army began issuing the M110 SASS (Semi-Automatic Sniper System). Urban snipers often have multiple targets, at relatively short ranges. They needed a semiautomatic rifle. Previously, many snipers have had success using tuned up M-14s (from the 1960s) as sniper rifles. While semi-automatic and rugged, the M-14 wasn't designed to be a sniper rifle. The M110 was a better semi-automatic sniper rifle, since it is inherently more reliable and accurate. As far back as World War II, it was known that there were many situations where a semi-automatic sniper rifle would come in handy. But it's taken over half a century to solve the reliability and accuracy problems.

The M110 is a based on the AR-10 rifle. The U.S. Navy has been buying a similar weapon, the SR25. This is also known as the Mk11 Sniper Rifle System (SRS). These new semi-automatic sniper rifles are 7.62mm weapons based on the designs of M-16 creator, Gene Stoner. The basis for the M-16 was the AR-15, and a 7.62mm version of that weapon was called the AR-10. About half the parts in the SR25 are interchangeable with those in the M-16. The Stoner sniper rifle achieved its high accuracy partly by using a 20 inch heavy floating barrel. The "floating" means that the barrel is attached only to the main body of the rifle to reduce resonance (which throws off accuracy.)

The M110 weighs 7.9 kg (17.3 pounds) in combat, and about 32 kg (70 pounds) with all components of the system. The M110 can use a ten or twenty round magazine. The 128 cm (40.5 inch) long rifle can have a 15 cm (six inch) tube attached to the barrel, which reduces the noise and flash made when the rifle fires, and largely eliminates nearby dust rising into the air, which often gives away the sniper's position.

The M110 will gradually replace some of the bolt-action M24s, while the remaining M24s will be converted to fire the .300 Winchester Magnum, for those snipers working somewhere, like Afghanistan, where more range is needed.




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