Ranger Question of the Day:
"Why are sniper rifles usually 7.62 and not 5.56?"
In a previous piece (Colt and the M4), Ranger opined that the 5.56 mm was not the appropriate weapon for fighting in Afghanistan and is marginal at best for fighting in Iraq. Now the Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey says the military is reviewing complaints that the bullets aren’t powerful enough (Chief of Staff: Army Reviewing Complaints over Bullets.)
Current and former soldiers told the Associated Press the military's M855 rifle rounds are “not powerful enough for close-in fighting in cities and towns in Iraq and Afghanistan .”
A little history: The 5.56 or .222 Remington is what used to be called a “varmint class cartridge” back in the 50’s and 60’s. The sort of think you might expect to find Mitt Romney toting around, if you will. The military may consider their adversaries varmints, but we are talking small mammals here. The current .223 / 5.56 is a slight variation of the .222, and was modified for use in a box magazine and for feeding in semi- and auto weapons.
The .222 fed well in bolt-action rifles, but did not adapt well to feeding in assault rifles due to the overall length of the neck, hence the 5.56 mm. But ballistically they are similar, varying only in the length of the neck of the cartridge.
Over the years the bullets have been made heavier and longer, with tungsten carbide cores to assist in penetration of body armor. However, this modification also degraded the round for use versus non-armored human targets.
The round now punched clean through, often leaving the target still in a combative posture. This is why Ranger favors the 7.62 NATO, a round which effectively knocks down targets when they are properly hit.
Not only are our riflemen armed with 5.56 rifles (.223) but our Squad Automatic Weapons are belt-fed 5.56’s. Same-same rifle. The platoon level machine gun is still the 7.62 mm. The 7.62 machine gun fired from a tripod with transverse and elevating equipment is effective to 1,100 m and will still kill people quite nicely at that range.
However, the SAW is not equivalently effective. It is a fine weapon, but it lacks knock-down and long-range effectiveness. These factors are usually not critical in a normal corps scenario combat situation, in which the infantry in the offense and defense will utilize indirect fire assets (aviation, et. al.) to neutralize the enemy before engaging in close combat. In that scenario, the rifle is secondary, becoming a clean-up tool.
But in Iraq and Afghanistan, the COIN requirements often preclude the use of artillery and aerial support, thereby placing a greater reliance upon squad and platoon resources.
A quick fix IMHO would be to pull the SAW’s and issue 7.62 general-purpose machine guns at squad level and to train the gunners and leaders to effectively utilize the heavier nature of the weapon.
A seeming benefit of the 5.56 is that the gunners and assistant gunners can carry more ammunition, but that is a necessity anyway as more ammo is required to neutralize and chop up defensive positions, both hasty and prepared. This increases reliance on the machine guns to neutralize the strong points.
If the U.S. forces are attacking in-depth, then this direct support should come from the fighting vehicle's organic suppressive weapons (7.62 machine gun, 20 0r 40 mm, or 50 Cal.) However, close fighting would also expose these vehicles to RPG fire, making it unwise to put them in restrictive street scenarios that enhance their inherent vulnerabilities.
Another quick fix would be to place one M-14, 7.62 mm-type rifle in each fire team for increased firepower -- not necessarily by volume but by power factor and increased range. These personnel would not be snipers but designated marksmen, and sniper-type scopes would not be a requirement.
The above items have been an item of discussion since 1965. The best choices should be made based upon analysis of both past and present performance of the ammo and weapons in question.
The M-16 family and the 5.56 are not adequate for our front line troops today. They suffice for Combat Support and Combat Service Support, but it just isn’t the rifle for Iraq, and especially not for Afghanistan.
~~Cross-posted at Main and Central~~
______________FOLLOW-ON: Rifle's Handloader (April/May, 43:2) features an article, ".222 Special: On the Road to the 5.56 x 45 mm and M16."
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