Thursday, February 18, 2010


NEWS ITEM, NAVY TIMES: Corps to use more lethal ammo in Afghanistan

Well, it would appear that’s it’s time to tick everyone off again and beat my favorite dead horse, the beloved 5.56x45mm service round. The 5.56mm was developed from the .223 Remington, which was intended to shoot varmints, from prairie dogs up to fox and coyote. Thus, due to it purpose of slaying canines, detractors (such as myself) refer to it as the “Poodle Shooter”. The original military round was the M193 55-grain FMJ, launched at a muzzle velocity of 3,250 feet per second. Sometimes, inside of 200 yards, the bullet would yaw violently when it hit a human target, then break apart at the cannelure inside the body, causing devastating wounds. Then again, sometimes it wouldn’t.

As Col. Harold G. Moore of We Were Soldiers fame noted of the effects of the 5.56mm on enemy soldiers in his AAR of the Ia Drang fight: "Even after being hit several times in the chest, many continued firing and moving for several more steps before dropping dead."

Col. John Hayworth recounted: “In one fire—fight, I saw my RTO place three rounds [of 5.56 mm] in the chest of a charging NVA regular at 50 yards. He kept firing his AK and never slowed down. At 30 yards, I hit him with a blast of double ought buck. It picked him up off his feet and he didn't get up again.”
The U.S. then bullied the rest of NATO into adopting the 5.56mm, just as we had the 7.62x51mm (.308). The latter turned out pretty well with the FN FAL, G3/CETME, and the M14, (even though at the time the British had already developed a kick-ass 7mm/.280 round with about the same performance as the new 6.5 and 6.8 rounds Spec Ops are looking at to replace the 5.56mm). But I digress.

It only took the brass hats and their deep-pocketed defense contractor pals three decades to admit that the old M193 55-grain bullet of Vietnam vintage wasn’t really worth a crap. Not to worry, they said. They brought in the new & improved super-secret choco-fudgie whack-o-matic M855 62-grain service load, actually the Belgian SS109, which is what everybody else calls it. This little varmint, the famous “green tip” ammo, features a 10-grain .182-caliber tungsten penetrator core down inside the bullet so that it can zip right through enemy body armor, which you really see lots of in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. Seriously, it can penetrate the standard NATO 3.45mm steel plate up to a range of 640 meters (704 yds) and one side of the old U. S. steel helmet up to a range of 1,300 meters (1430 yds).

Unfortunately, at 19 meters, the average urban warfare engagement range, it still can’t penetrate a hollow cinder block or a brick wall. If your enemies run around in the open at 700 yards hiding behind steel plates, you’re in business. If they hide behind something rare like, say, the wall of a house, you’re SOL. Then it had to be taken into account that the heavier, longer bullet launched from tighter rifling was much more stable in fight than the 55-grainer, thus losing a lot of that famous, devastating yaw, which was about the only thing the cartridge had going for it in the first place. Whatever else the M855 might be, it ain’t a real good fight stopper.

The best description of how this works comes from Mark Bowden’s must-read classic Black Hawk Down. This was how Delta operator SFC Paul Howe saw the M855 perform in Mogadishu:

“He was an expert marksman, and thought he had hit them, but he couldn’t tell for sure because they kept running until they crossed the street and were out of view. It bugged him. His weapon was the most sophisticated infantry rifle in the world, a customized CAR-15, and he was shooting the army’s new 5.56mm green-tip round. The green tip had a tungsten carbide penetrator at the tip, and would punch holes in metal, but that very penetrating power meant his rounds were passing right through his targets. When the Sammies were close enough he could see when hit them. Their shirts would lift up at the point of impact, as if someone had pinched and plucked up the fabric. But with the green tip round it was like sticking somebody with an ice pick. The bullet made a small, clean hole, and unless it happened to hit the heart or spine, it wasn’t enough to stop a man in his tracks. Howe felt like he had to hit a guy five or six times just to get his attention."
Desert Storm was anything but an infantryman’s war, but there were some small arms engagements. According to Marine Maj. Howard Feldmeier, USMC (Ret.) : “ . . . several Marines commented that they had to shoot Iraqi soldiers 2—3 or more times with the 62—grain 5.56mm green tip ammo before they stopped firing back at them…”'

Then came Gulf War II, in Iraq and Afghanistan, for who knows how long, with plenty of action for the PBI (Poor Bloody Infantry). The same old sad story started cropping up again.

"The current-issue 62gr 5.56mm (223) round, especially when fired from the short-barreled, M-4 carbine, is proving itself (once again) to be woefully inadequate as man stopper. Engagements at all ranges are requiring multiple, solid hits to permanently bring down enemy soldiers. Penetration is also sadly deficient. Even light barriers are not perforated by this rifle/cartridge combination.”
"During engagements of less than 100 meters, [enemies] shot multiple times in the torso with 5.56 seemed to continue to function for a long period of time…" "Head shots seemed to be the only way to kill someone quickly with the Green-Tip bullet.”
“Soldiers asked for a weapon with a larger round. “So it will drop a man with one shot.''
“…the 5.56 mm round will not put a man to the ground with two shots to the chest.”

“…during a fierce exchange of gunfire, one insurgent was hit seven — count ‘em, seven — times in the torso by the 5.56, only to be brought down by a single shot to the head from a .45 caliber pistol. But before the insurgent died, he killed two U.S. soldiers and wounded seven.”

To top it off there’s a story in a 2006 issue of Marine Corps Times magazine where a squad leader admitted his Marines carried and used "found" enemy AK-47s because their 7.62 bullets packed "more stopping power."

Not to worry! The Army Pentagon boys had some flunkies with vested interest in the results conduct some tests and found that the M855 is just fine and dandy. (USMC and Navy reports read a little different, “does not meet USMC performance requirements”, but what the hell do they know?) All troops have to do, some Pentagon wonk who has probably never even fired a rifle said, is forget about that silly quaint old notion of a fast shot to center mass. Instead one should deliberately aim just a little bit higher on the torso during close range engagements and give the insurgent a “double tap” to the upper chest, which increases lethality by 10-20% according to the public information officer. If that doesn’t work, they advise, just give him a headshot next. Hopefully, during all this time, your opponent will have the good manners not to shoot you while he’s waiting. Plus, isn’t admitting you need multiple carefully-placed rounds to vital areas to put your man now the same as admitting the bloody bullets don’t work. Not if you’re a Pentagon spokesperson type.

Something else the M855 and the “heavy barrel” M16A2 were supposed to do was increase long-range performance of the 5.56mm. Afghanistan has proved to be a pretty good test ground for the whole long-range performance thing. A British Ministry of Defense report noted that over half of the firefights their troops have been in were between 300-900 meters. One U.S. Army commander put the average engagement range for his troops at 500 meters. Another American source agreed that over half of the engagements are in excess of 300 meters.

From the MOD report:

"The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2002 onwards represent the first sustained combat use of current NATO standard 5.56 mm ammunition since it was approved in 1980. Official and anecdotal reports provided by British, American, German and other NATO allies have all surfaced the same common complaints suggesting that issues fall into four categories as follows:

• Ineffectiveness at long range
• Inconsistent wounding effect
• Poor intermediate barrier penetration
• Ease of deflection

In the open and undulating countryside of Afghanistan, Taliban forces frequently engage ISAF units at distances beyond 300 metres. Using Russian made sniper rifles and machine guns firing high-powered 7.62 mm ammunition (equivalent in performance to the 7.62 mm NATO), the enemy can engage allied forces at ranges of up to 900 metre. Equipped with SA80 weapons firing 5.56 mm ammunition, British troops are unable to return fire because the effectiveness of small calibre 5.56 mm rounds diminishes rapidly at ranges beyond 300 metres; even the long-barrelled L86 [British SAW] light support weapon is ineffective beyond 400 metres."

Yeah but…yeah but…yeah but 5.56mm rounds are smaller, so soldiers can carry a lot more of them, and the various models of M16-series fire bursts or full-auto, so the men can spray ‘n’ pray a whole lot of un-aimed rounds downrange and just suppress the living hell out of the enemy. Well, not according to a British Royal Marine veteran of Afghanistan: “The Taliban ignore 5.56 mm, are worried by 7.62 mm and fear 12.7 mm rounds.”So, after another 3 decades, even the all high mucky mucks are finally getting ready to admit that maybe…just maybe…the M855 5.56mm ain’t all it’s cracked up to be either.

Now welcome (let’s give ‘im a big hand, ladies and gentlemen) the spiffy new non-performer of the next 3 decades. The Spec Ops boys, (who would prefer to go to a whole new performing cartridge such as the Remington 6.8 or the 6.5 Grendel), have attempted to increase the 5.56mm’s performance…again…with the SOST MK318 MOD 0 62-grain load. The Marines have already adopted it as their new standard round, after waiting for the Pentagon lawyers to finally declare it legal for use under the Hague Convention. Apparently it does work better than the M855 (a dubious accomplishment), and the Marines are always more interested in killing the enemy than the Army ever will be. The Army, meanwhile, tried to create an “eco-friendly” round (I kid you not…this was real!) which of course failed miserably.

Spokesmen say the new SOST round is “more lethal”. Are we to assume, then, that it will make people “more dead”?

Anyway, the Taliban also figured out that the 5.56 performs poorly at longer ranges. Rather than attempt to develop new loads, they just went old school and returned to shooting large caliber weapons at ranges far enough away that they didn’t have much to worry about in the way of return small arms fire.

The Afghans have always been fond of the old bolt-action .303 British Lee-Enfield, which launches a 174-grain bullet at 2,500 feet per second. During the Soviet-Afghan War, Mujahideen Commander Qazi Guljan Tayeb opined that he much preferred them to the captured AK-47s.

“These Enfields were quite effective against dismounted Soviets. They had a maximum effective range of 800 meters compared to 400 meters for the AK assault rifle. Further, the more-powerful .303 round would penetrate Soviet flak jackets while the AK round would not.”

Then there’s the 7.62x54Rimmed Russian round. Journalists, and even some senior Army NCO’s teaching threat weapon classes, think the Dragunov, the M60, and the AK47 all fire the same “Seben six two mike-mike round”. That just ain’t so. The 7.62x54 Rimmed is an old pre-revolution Russian cartridge from 1891, firing either a 185-grain heavy ball bullet at 2,700 fps or a 149-grain light ball at 2,850 fps. The long boattail bullets also have a high ballistic coefficient (google it) which contributes to good performance and longer range. At a thousand yards it’s still striking with more power than a .357 Magnum pistol. There are also armor piercing, incendiary, and tracer loads.

One can just about guess this Marine's opinion of the 5.56mm if he'd rather use a Romanian copy of the Dragunov SVD.
The performance led the 7.62x54R to be nicknamed the “Russian .30-06”. The AK47, RPD, RPK, etc., on the other hand, fire a 7.62x39mm round, a 123-grain bullet at 2,300 fps, giving it about 10% less power than the old .30-30.

At any rate, there are a great many old Soviet weapons floating around Afghanistan which fire the 7.62x54R, beginning with the old-school Model 1891 Mosin-Nagant and progressing to the Dragunov SVD sniper rifle and all its clones to the PK-series of general purpose machine guns. I’ve seen photos of old WWII-era Goryunovs too. No doubt there’s also quite a few old Degtyarevs floating around as well.
Pakistani license-built copy of the HK G3, with the Hensoldt 4x scope on the STANAG mount.
Then there’s the 7.62x51mm NATO, the “obsolete” .308, (which is also trickling back into the hands of U.S., British, and German troops in Afghanistan in the form of designated marksman rifles and general purpose machine guns instead of SAW’s). The Taliban? .308?!? Yup. The Tali boys have been seen sporting their stylish Paki license-built copies of the German Heckler & Koch G3 battle rifle as well as the MG3 general purpose machine gun, no doubt obtained from the Pakistani armed forces. That’s also where they no doubt got the state-of-the-art Austrian Steyr SSG-9 sniper rifles they’ve been using too.
Time perhaps for us to re-discover the (.308-inch diameter) wheel? As a non-recovering FALcohalic and a Garand Man, all I can think of to say to the good guys is that old John Wayne line: "Use enough gun."

Back to the Future? Nah, too much to ask for.

The Taliban guy with the PKM is apparently going for the ever-popular Che Guevara look.


Ben said...

Great post! You make a compelling case against the 223. I'm urinating on my AR-15 and Mini-14 right now.

Perhaps the military IS starting to re-discover the .308. I saw that SOCCOM was equipping the Ranger reg't with FN SCARs in both .223 and .308, although I don't know how or how many of the .308s will be distributed. A hopeful sign nonetheless.

Question for the author: What makes the new SOST MK318 MOD 0 round more lethal than the older 5.56 mm loads?

Ben said...

Another question for Bawb: What do you think of the Remington 6.8 and 6.5 Grendel that you mention? Which is better? Would they be a good compromise between 5.56 and 7.62mm?

Bawb said...

Hopefully I answer a few questions in the new column, Ben.

Ben said...

Yup. Thank you.

straightarrow said...

Inch pattern L1A1, 7.62Nato.
Any rifle calibers whose first digits are lower than 3 are basically tricked out clubs.