By next year, the Army expects to field its first true replacement for the squad rifle and automatic rifle in a brand-new caliber.
The Next Generation Squad Weapon rifle and automatic rifle variants, chambered in 6.8 mm, mark the first substantial change to U.S. military small arms since the adoption of the M16 in 1964.
The Army selected Sig Sauer to build the weapon and refine the cartridge earlier this year. The company won the Army’s Modular Handgun System contract in 2017, replacing the Beretta M9 that had been in service since the 1980s.
The current program value is slated at $4.7 billion for the weapon contract and another $2.7 billion for the associated NGSW-Fire Control, which was awarded to Vortex Optics and Sheltered Wings in early 2022.
The weapon will replace the M4 and M249 Squad Automatic Weapon for the close combat forces, which includes special operations, infantry, scouts and combat engineers.
But don’t worry, both weapons will still get their own names — the rifle will be called the M5 and the automatic rifle the M250. The Army’s so creative when it names things.
Also, non-close combat soldiers will still carry the M4 and M249 SAW for the foreseeable future. Sorry guys and gals, this one’s for the ground pounders and those pounding the ground with them.
Cheryl Bielamowicz, NGSW program officer, told Army Times that the weapon was scheduled to begin another round of operational tests in September and, upon conclusion, was expected to field to units by early 2023.
The rifle has a variety of features not found or improved on from the currently issued M4.
It features M-lock handguards, a Picatinny Rail, an ambidextrous safety, a left-side charging handle and a collapsible buttstock.
And those little details, the ergonomics, or fit and feel, make a difference, Brig. Gen. Christopher Schneider, head of Program Executive Office-Soldier, told Army Times.
“Soldiers get out behind that weapons system and it is a matter of minutes and they’re proficient,” Schneider said.
The NGSW-Fire Control is a computer-assisted optic that wirelessly links with soldier devices and includes aim correction, a first focal plane optic, a disturbed reticle, a ballistics computer and a laser rangefinder.
Once fielded, the optic will be called the M157.
Even in its most degraded form, no computer, just glass, uses a 1-8x variable optic that exceeds the performance of the existing M68 and ACOG optics now fielded, said Maj. Alexander Kipetz, NGSW-Fire Control assistant product manager.
A quick peek through the scope shows an aim point at the desired range with left and right windage adjustments embedded. The device has every ballistic configuration for all weapons and calibers loaded. So, users could slap the NGSW-Fire Control on their M4s or crew-served machine guns, if needed.
The optic provides cant, inclination, azimuth and temperature data to best match the shooter’s aim point, weapon and caliber combination to get rounds on target.
“You’re putting rounds on target much faster, potentially, than you were in the past,” Schneider said.
Army Times reported in August that the weapon will also include real-time weapon health and readiness through a monitoring system under development by Armaments Research Co.
Poor performance with the 5.56 mm-chambered weapons at great distances in Afghanistan and concerns about Chinese and Russian body armor advances drove a report called the Small Arms Ammunition Configuration Study several years ago. That study identified the need for an “intermediate caliber” that fell between the 5.56 mm and 7.62 mm used in most NATO ground combat units.
The 5.56 mm was too light and could not deliver lethal effects consistently past 300 meters. The 7.62 mm shot farther but fell off in accuracy and energy on target compared to newer rounds. But a simple switch to 7.62 mm for everyone was not in the offing.
The heavier round in legacy weapons was too heavy and put up too much recoil to ensure accurate fire from all shooters.
Developers dipped into the past by selecting a 6 mm-range caliber, which was used by the U.K. and Japanese militaries in the early 20th Century.
For civilian shooters, the 6 mm is comparable to the .270 caliber round commonly used in North American deer hunting.
But that is not the round that the Army designed. With input from the study, the Army Marksmanship Unit, Picatinny Arsenal and a host of other small arms and ammunition experts, officials narrowed down to the 6.8 mm projectile, designed by the Army.
From there, vendors contributed weapon designs built with the new round in mind. Sig Sauer submitted an M4/M16 ergonomic-style weapon common to most assault rifle platforms.
General Dynamics, which later handed over the contract to Lone Star Future Weapons, put up a bullpup design. The bullpup places the magazine well or feed behind the pistol grip in the buttstock of the weapon, which alters the weapons balance and shortens the overall length. It is a design commonly used in some foreign militaries but not traditionally used in U.S. formations.
Textron Systems pushed a cased-telescoped ammunition using polymer casing to lighten the load but was unsuccessful in the process.
The winner, by Sig Sauer, does have a lot of features, greater range and lethality. But it does come at a cost, fewer rounds carried and a heavier rifle, though the automatic rifle is lighter than the SAW it replaces.
M5 shooters will lose 70 rounds and carry another 5 pounds in total weapon, optic and ammo load compared to the M4.
M250 light machine gunners will give up 200 rounds and add 3.6 pounds compared with the M249 SAW load. The M250 is lighter, but the ammo is heavier and the new fire control adds 2.6 pounds to the system, according to officials.
Both Sig Sauer and Lake City Army Ammunition Plant near Independence, Missouri, will manufacture the new 6.8 mm ammunition. Lake City is adding a new manufacturing line for that purpose. It’s expected to be at full capacity by 2025, Brig. Gen. William M. Boruff told Army Times in May.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.