Militarily, there are certainly good valid reasons for the use of fully automatic fire by dismounted infantry, especially for the Squad Automatic Weapons and genuine light or general purpose machine guns. The use of and need for shoulder-fired full-auto in the individual’s rifle, on the other hand, can be of rather dubious value, except perhaps for room clearing at spitting distances.
Clint Smith of Thunder Ranch probably put it best when it comes to shoulder-fired full-auto rifles: “They only turn money into noise.”
In his extensive study on small arms use during the Korean War, US Army historian General S.L.A. Marshall considered semi-automatic weapons such as the M1 Garand an asset rather than a liability.
“Suffice to say now that any trend toward eliminating the semi-automatic, hand-carried weapons in favor of full-automatic weapons in the hands of all infantrymen should be vigorously combated. In perimeter defense, the time almost invariably comes when the automatic weapons run short of ammunition, with the local issue still to be decided. This is the crisis of the contest, when decision may swing either way, depending on which side is most, capable of delivering the last few volleys.
The semi-automatic weapons are conservers of ammunition. Apart from their great value in the hands of a good marksman at any stage of the fight, they compose the weapons reserve which becomes of inestimable value in the last hours when both sides are near the point of exhaustion. In the infantry company data from Korean operations there are numerous examples wherein the retention of the position depended finally on fire from the M1, and rifle fire finally decided the issue. The troops who carry the weapon almost unanimously recognize the vital importance of this factor. On the basis of their experience, they would not concur in any suggestion that the line could be strengthened by fitting it exclusively with full-automatic power.”
The semiautomatic M1 Garand holds the line in Korea.
S.L.A.M. noted there were virtually no occasions in which the M1 Garands ran completely out of ammunition, even when the carbines, BAR’s and machine guns had “shot their wads” entirely. He also claimed that at least 50% of the North Korean and Red Chinese casualties came from small arms, since the Communists quickly adopted the tactic of “hugging the belt”, i.e. closing with UN forces to such short ranges that artillery and air strikes could not be used due to the proximity of friendly forces and the danger of friendly fire casualties. The VC/NVA were also to use this tactic, often effectively, in the Vietnam War to help negate the overwhelming firepower advantage of the American military.
As an aside, while the assault rifle crowd quickly grabbed onto SLAM’s 300-yard figure for all the range that’s necessary for the infantryman’s rifle, they ignored his firm opinions about not needing a full-auto rifle and that the M1 could indeed be effective well past 300 yards if the men were given increased live-fire training.
Full auto fire is especially futile when it comes to the full-power big-bore battle rifles. While a magnificent battle rifle, it was quickly seen that the full-auto capability on the M14 was nothing but a waste of ammunition and in American service the weapon was soon changed to semi-auto only. With the FAL, the sheer uncontrollability of fully-automatic fire led the British and former Commonwealth nations…Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand…to adopt semi-automatic only weapons, the so-called Inch Pattern FAL, L1A1, or SLR (Self Loading Rifle).
This did not appear to handicap the infantry units’ effectiveness when armed with these semi-auto rifles and in fact served to enhance individual marksmanship.
One former British infantryman summed things up well: “The reason as to why the British forces did away with auto fire on their SLR is because it was bloody pointless; if you have ever shot an AK47 then you will know that on auto they shoot up into the air. The SLR would have done pretty much the same! A waste of ammo and tax payers’ money…”
Some estimates claim that American troops in Vietnam, once armed with the full-auto M16, expended around 200,000 rounds of small arms ammunition per enemy casualty. For Aussies of the well-trained Royal Australian Regiment, armed with the semi-auto SLR, 275 rounds were expended per enemy casualty. This while the Aussies looked down on body counts as a measure of success, and tended not to “extrapolate” their body counts to please the brass hats.
The Australian method of fighting involved small, professional and very stealthy patrols in which they usually got the jump on the enemy. For instance, over a third of the Australians’ enemy contacts were ambushes. In 34% of the cases, the Aussies ambushed the VC/NVA while in only 2% of the contacts did the enemy manage to surprise the Australians in their own ambushes. Aussies initiated contact with the VC/NVA over 75% of the time while it was the VC/NVA who initiated contact against American forces 80% of the time.
One SAS study of Australian actions in Vietnam claimed that, despite the usually quite timely and relatively heavy air strikes and artillery support the infantry enjoyed in that war, some 70% of enemy casualties were inflicted with infantry small arms...and the majority of those small arms were semi-auto SLRs.
A continent away, Rhodesian Security Forces fighting Communist terrorists who usually always greatly out-numbered them deigned the use of full-automatic on their South African manufactured R1 FALs.
Rhodesian troopies used aimed single shots or double-taps to break up Communist ambushes.
“Like most of the Rhodesian Security Forces, the change lever on my FN was set for semi-auto only. I had the option of having this changed to include full-auto, but decided against it. Through practice, I could put down a devastating barrage of accurate semi-automatic fire that just could not be matched on full auto. I have never had much faith in full automatic fire capability in a full bore battle rifle, simply because you generally waste ammunition without hitting anything after the first shot has been fired. The recoil generated by the powerful 7.62mm NATO round makes the gun virtually impossible to control…”
Another Rhodesian veteran noted another advantage of well-aimed semi-automatic fire that most people wouldn’t think of.
“Terrorists generally fired on fully automatic – ‘spray and pray.’ This would often start high, and would rise. The indiscriminate use of ammunition on fully automatic usually meant they would run out long before the Rhodesian troops.”
During the Falklands War, British forces were armed with semi-automatic SLRs while the Argentineans had the equivalent Metric FAL with full-automatic capability. Much ado was made about the Argentine forces’ “firepower advantage” with their full-auto FAL’s, but it didn’t change the course of battle.
British Paras re-zero their SLRs on the ground in the Falklands. You'd think someone deploying from 689-foot elevation Ft. Drum, NY to the Hindu Kush would do the same, but you'd be wrong.
One British Para color sergeant didn’t seem to notice a big disadvantage with the SLR’s semi-auto only action: "I picked four blokes and got up on this high feature, and as I did so this troop of twenty or thirty Argentines were coming towards us. We just opened fire on them. We don't know how many we killed, but they got what they deserved, because none of them were left standing when we'd finished with them."
On the other side, most (not all) Argentine troops were poorly-trained young conscripts serving (suffering?) under a frighteningly large number of very bad, abusive, negligent, and self-centered officers who sometimes vanished when the shooting started. Under such circumstances many an FN magazine was dumped in the general direction of the enemy on full auto with negligible effect.
Proving the axiom that there are no bad soldiers, just bad officers, one Argentine infantryman recalled serving under an efficient, conscientious former commando major who trained his troops thoroughly and well. Said the veteran, “I was issued with a FAL 7.62 millimetre rifle… The main emphasis in shooting was making every bullet count.” His company was one of the few to put up fierce resistance and during the Battle of Mount Longdon, even though they were outnumbered, they fought the British Paras almost to a standstill for 12 hours and inflicted heavy casualties.
In 1983, after the Falklands War, a unit of the 7th Gurkha Rifles conducted a joint training exercise with the American 75th Army Rangers at Fort Lewis, Washington. The Gurkhas are a warrior race, and well known as some of the toughest light infantry on the planet; the Rangers were suitably impressed.
“Unlike American forces, who believe in small-caliber, fast-shooting semi- or full-auto rifles, Gurkha riflemen carry British-made FN semiauto only rifles in 7.62mm NATO caliber. Their legendary steel-clad nerves, which according to numerous reports allow them to return slow fire even when being shot at by automatic weapons, account for their philosophy of ‘one kill for one shot’. And that’s how they’re trained…they make every shot count.”…
The Gurkha’s CO said, “We find that the extra weight of the larger caliber doesn’t matter with the Gurkhas, because they’re so strong, but the increased range and killing power possible with the 7.62, plus the effectiveness of aimed fire, makes them a very deadly soldier in combat…”
“Aimed-fire marksmanship is a continuing part of Gurkha training, and they are virtually all expert shots. In the self loading rifle, or SLR, class in the 1981 Bisley Championship shoot in England, the 1st Bn, 7 GR took first place in all-Army competition. They expect to finish first in the 1983 Championships.”
Things to make you go, "Oh shit!"...Gurkhas, Kukris, and SLRs, oh my.
Afghanistan, 1985: An American Army officer and analysis chastised a Soviet force in Afghanistan for shooting up too much ammo on full-auto: “…an air assault company runs out of ammunition in a day’s combat. This is partially due to the Soviet philosophy that small arms fire suppresses enemy fire and eventually may kill the enemy. The West wants to kill enemy with small arms fire and uses crew-served weapons to suppress enemy fire. The standard Soviet assault rifle’s selector switch goes from safe to semiautomatic to full automatic. The West sees semiautomatic as the norm. Perhaps the Soviets needed to devote more time to rifle marksmanship for a guerrilla war. It saves on ammunition and consumption.”
(Pet peeve time. I certainly never saw all this emphasis on well-aimed semi-automatic fire and marksmanship during my service time in various combat arms units.)
Fast forward to Afghanistan 2006. An American Special Forces company and the Afghan Army commandos they have trained move up a ridge to take control of a dominant hill known as Sperwan Ghar to overlook a battlefield where insurgents and conventional infantry are slugging it in order to call in air and artillery strikes.
“A group of insurgents on the top watched the soldiers approaching. When the task force got to within a few hundred meters of the hilltop, the insurgents opened fire from three sides with RPGs and small arms. The commandos fought for 20 minutes, until they nearly ran out of ammunition. They then broke contact and moved back towards the southern edge of the valley to await resupply by helicopter.”
Examining the math, if we assume the “official” basic load of M4 ammunition, 120 rounds, we get ten shots per minute, or one round every six seconds. And this does not include time spent in taking cover, mag changes, movement, stoppages, etc. The unofficial figure I hear bandied about the most for ammo loads in Afghanistan is more often 600 rounds, which would amount to one shot every two seconds.
The report, BTW, did not mention casualties for either side, even though I’m willing to bet the Taliban expended a helluva lot more ammunition than the friendlies did. So much for criticizing the Russians looking at this example of the West’s skill in marksmanship and semi-auto fire, even by elite troops.
For the small group or even larger military units in rough country, fully-automatic rifles can actually be a liability when it comes to ammunition conservation and re-supply. As SLAM noted, full-auto “firepower” poured out early in the fight can easily leave you sucking hind tit and reaching for the bayonet or E-tool when the action comes to a head. Not even modern Western armies can always count on fresh ammunition being only a radio call away when it comes to mountainous country, thick rain forests, bad weather, or intense enemy fire on helicopter LZ’s.
So don’t feel too bad about having “only” a semi-automatic rifle. As Douglas Bell said, “At 600 rounds per minute, how many minutes can you carry?”