Well, it looks as if the Army has again officially opened the can of worms that is the debate revolving around a replacement for the M16/M4. With this go around however, the Army says all limitations are off. They say they’re willing to consider any caliber, any operation system, and any configuration.
Given the Army’s track record with sticking with the M16/M4 through thick and thin, as well as the Army’s previous position that it would stick with the M4 until there was a “revolutionary” breakthrough in small arms technology (hand held death rays?) I’m taking this most recent statement with a salt lick, but in as much as they are soliciting ideas, I might as well offer up mine.
On its face, it would seem that there are only three real issues to consider; how big (in caliber) how many (bullets in the magazine) and how to crank it (what operating system do you go with.) Once you settle on those, putting them together is packaging. While there are any number of cartridges and operating systems that offer obvious advantages over the M16’s feeble 5.56mm bullet and wretched gas carrier key operating system, if you wanted a truly revolutionary replacement for the M4, I would put my money on the H&K G11.
For those of you not in the know (not that I am, but I remember when it was developed) the H&K G11 rifle was developed as a replacement for the 7.62mm G3 battle rifle in the 1970s. What the Germans wanted to develop was a weapon with a large ammunition capacity (50 rounds) low weight (< 10 pounds loaded) flat trajectory (no sight corrections at <300m) and a high degree of accuracy in 3-round burst mode.
To meet the burst accuracy requirement there were two ways to go, either fire projectiles simultaneously (shotgun shells or duplex rounds) or fire bullets very fast. The shotgun shell method was dropped because the bullets which would do the job not only generated too much recoil to be effective, but their size put them outside the round capacity requirement, so H&K went with the “shoot really, really fast” approach. This is where the G11 comes into its own as a revolutionary weapon.
H&K realized that the bigger the bullet, the more propellant it would require to drive it, and that propellant would be translated into not only recoil to be absorbed by the shooter but a loss of overall ammunition capacity in the magazine. One solution was to use a smaller bullet. The 4.73x33mm bullet developed for the G11 is smaller that the 5.56mm bullet currently used in the M16 but the high degree of accuracy with the G11 in burst mode makes the G11 as accurate firing 3 shots as the M16 firing one, so the combined effect on the target, with the G11, is greater.
The second issue was dealing with the recoil. As has been documented since the invention of the first shoulder-fired automatic weapons, felt recoil will bring the weapon off target, thus rendering accurate, aimed automatic fire impossible at desirable ranges. H&K’s solution was to eliminate the issue by having the weapon fire a 3-round burst so fast that the bullets were out of the barrel and going down range before the recoil reached the shooter.
Again, how H&K did this was pretty slick. To speed up the firing process H&K eliminated several steps in the firing sequence, specifically locking, unlocking, extracting and ejecting, by going with a caseless ammunition, where the propellant, rather than held in a metal casing behind the bullet, is actually molded around it. This eliminated the need for extracting and ejecting spent casings, as there were no cartridges to extract, since, when fired, the propellant body was consumed and the bullet launched out the barrel. Using a caseless cartridge also enabled H&K to not only make lighter bullets (there was no weight wasted in metal casings) but also allowed them to pack more of the bullets into a given space (since the bullets are square, there’s no wasted space in the magazine.) The net result was a cyclic ROF of 2,000 RPM in 3-round burst mode (in single shot and full auto, the ROF is only 460 RPM.) An additional benefit with going with caseless ammunition was the elimination of additional openings for contamination. Lacking an ejection port, the G11’s chamber remains relatively sterile.
To eliminate the recoil issue H&K “floated” the barrel and action on a secondary recoil mechanism. The effect here was that when the burst was fired, the body of the rifle would remain stationary against the firer’s shoulder, while the action and barrel recoiled down the secondary rail; by the time the action came completely out of battery, where the recoil would be felt by the shooter, the burst cycle would be complete (a recoil spring pushes the action back into battery for the next burst.)
The end result was a weapon that was light, with a high ammunition capacity, and which was capable of firing accurate 3-rounds bursts.
So what happened to the G11? Well, as luck would have it, as the G11 was nearing production capability, peace broke out all over the world and with all the lions-and-lambs group hugging going on, the West German government decided it had more important things to do than buy a bunch of new wunder rifles, (like look for jobs for all it’s new citizens from the East “zone”) so the program was shelved.
Well, if the Army is looking for revolutionary, I don’t think you can get any more revolutionary than this. I just don’t expect the Army to explore it.
Check out the G11 here.