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Op-Ed: It’s not the rifle, it’s the round: Considerations for the US Army’s future battle rifle

August 16, 2017

The U.S. Army just opened a competition for a new Interim Service Combat Rifle chambered in 7.62 mm NATO to arm infantry units with a weapon potent enough to penetrate enemy body armor.

According to an August 4 solicitation posted on “The Army has identified a potential gap in the capability of ground forces and infantry to penetrate body armor using existing ammunition. To address this operational need, the Army is looking for an Interim Combat Service Rifle (ICSR) that is capable of defeating emerging threats.”

My initial reaction was: “It’s about time!”

The 5.56×45 mm NATO round presented challenges ever since its introduction with the M-16 rifle in the early 1960s. While the 7.62 round carries more ballistic energy, the main reason 5.56 was introduced was portability; an infantryman can carry more rounds than the larger, heavier 7.62 round, and more ammunition can be transported by aircraft.

Another reason 5.56 was selected was criticism that the 7.62 was too powerful for lightweight modern service rifles, causing excessive recoil, and that as a result it did not allow for sufficient automatic rate of fire from hand-held weapons in modern combat. Since the introduction of assault rifles in the 1940s, however, full-automatic fire has yet to prove an effective technique.


It occurred to me that it’s not the rifle the Army should focus on – it’s the ammunition.

The rifle is merely the platform, the “bullet launcher,” as it were. Several battle rifles that chamber the heavier 7.62 round already exist and are already in service. Just add more to the existing inventories instead of reinventing the wheel.

(U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Jeremy L. Wood/Released)

The Special Operations Forces Combat Assault Rifle (SCAR) is a gas-operated, self-loading rifle with a rotating bolt, manufactured by Fabrique Nationale (FN) of Belgium. It is constructed to be extremely modular, including barrel change to switch between calibers. The SCAR has been rolling around the GWOT for the last decade, although I’m not a big fan; it’s expensive for one thing, and in my opinion it’s over-engineered.

Another 7.62 option already out there are the modern variants of the M14, predecessor to the M16. The M14 is a rifle that never really went away. After being replaced by the M16, the U.S. Army retained some M14s for conversion to the M21 sniper rifle.

Recent variants of the M14 in the Department of Defense inventory include the Mk14 Enhanced Battle Rifle (EBR) and the M39 Enhanced Marksman Rifle. The Mk 14 EBR was originally built for use with units of the United States Special Operations Command, to carry out both designated marksman and close combat roles in combat.

(US Marines)


The M39 Enhanced Marksman Rifle, manufactured by Sage International, is a modified and accurized version of the M14 used by the U.S. Marine Corps as its designated marksman rifle (DMR). Springfield Armory’s SOCOM 16 CQB is an M14 variant designed to modern military specifications, available for civilian sales.

Instead of reinventing the wheel, the U.S. military can upgrade M14s from existing inventories into modern variants.

The development of an entirely new system represents a huge commitment of funds that could otherwise go toward developing a round that might actually defeat existing and near future armor.

Disadvantages to adopting an M14 variant over the M16/M4 exist, of course.

Basic Rifle Marksmanship (BRM) training would require redesigning, to address the 7.62 NATO round’s increased range and different trajectory. A double basic load of 420 rounds 7.62 NATO is significantly heavier than 5.56. Personal equipment carried by combat arms would have to be reduced, to the tune of the Vietnam War era.

There is a third alternative.

The 300 Blackout (BLK) is 7.62×35 mm and is a rifle cartridge developed in the United States by Advanced Armament Corporation (AAC) for use in M4/M16/AR15 rifles. It achieves ballistics similar to the 7.62×39 mm AK-47 cartridge while using standard M16 magazines at their normal capacity. All that’s required is a barrel change to existing fielded rifles, a unit direct support level of maintenance.

The 300 BLK round provides a way to shoot 7.62 mm bullets from existing M4 rifles using normal bolts and magazines, without losing the full 30-round capacity of standard magazines. U.S. Special Operations Command (US SOCOM) reports that operators prefer the higher stopping power of the 300 BLK in close-quarter battle engagements compared to 5.56 NATO.  

The 300 BLK is already being adopted by some NATO militaries.

Dutch Maritime Special Operations Force (NL-MARSOF) has acquired carbines chambered in 300 BLK, and 300 BLK is already in use in the United Kingdom. To date, 300 BLK has only seen limited use within U.S. special operations forces, primarily JSOC. The U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team Six has so far been the only confirmed unit using this round. However, as of March 2017, SOCOM requested defense industry proposals for conversion kits from 5.56 to 300 BLK, indicating a wider adoption of 300 BLK across the force.

In my humble opinion, the U.S. Army should open a competition for a new bullet in 5.56, 7.62 and 300 BLK to arm units with a munition potent enough to penetrate enemy body armor.

This would definitely reduce program costs and, as yet to be determined, change management impacts. Did the needs analysis look at other solution sets? Is another rifle really necessary?

Sean Linnane is the pseudonym of a retired Special Forces career NCO (1st SFG, 3d SFG, 10th SFG). He continues to serve as a security professional on six continents.

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