The Army announced Aug. 29 that it has selected three companies to develop prototype weapons it says will make ground pounders more lethal in future battles.

Dubbed the Next-Generation Squad Weapon program, the Army is asking industry to come up with weapon and ammunition designs that will address some of the shortfalls it has seen with the current M4 and M249 Squad Automatic Weapon carried by most front-line units.

Chambered in 5.56mm, the M4 and SAW has a lethal range of about 300 meters, service officials have said.

The new rifle and automatic rifle must be able to engage targets out to 600 meters, industry insiders say.

“This is a weapon that could defeat any body armor, any planned body armor that we know of in the future,” former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley has said. “This is a weapon that can go out at ranges that are unknown today. There is a target acquisition system built into this thing that is unlike anything that exists today. This is a very sophisticated weapon."

In its announcement on the Federal Business Opportunities website, the Army said it had selected General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems, AAI Corporation Textron Systems and Sig Sauer as the three finalists for the program. Previously FN America — which makes many of the Army’s current M4 rifles — and PCP Tactical were being considered for the NGSW program.

The Army is asking GD, Textron and Sig Sauer each to supply 53 rifles, 43 automatic rifles and 850,000 rounds of ammunition for testing. The contract lasts for eight years, but the prototype testing will last for 27 months — in line with the Army’s stated goal to have the new rifle and machine gun fielded to combat units by 2022.

The service has said the NGSW will not replace all M4s in the Army but will be carried primarily by front-line troops.

The 27-month test program will include “soldier touch point” tests that evaluate “mobility and maneuverability on Army relevant obstacles, and user acceptance scenario testing,” the Army says.

The service will also test the weapon’s controllability, the round’s ballistic effectiveness and a “limited evaluation with Soldiers in the loop to assess the suitability and effectiveness for combat operations."

"These evaluations may be conducted with multiple squads,” the Army added.

The key to the program is the development of the cartridge itself. The Army has asked industry to develop a round with a 6.8mm bullet. The exact specifications and the threats it would be designed to counter are still secret, but industry officials say the bigger, heavier bullet will reach nearly double the distance with more lethal force than the smaller, 5.56 round.

General Dynamics has been developing a 6.8mm round with a polymer case, helping reduce the weight of extra ammo a soldier might carry employing a rifle with a larger, heavier round.

Textron has spent years developing a so-called “cased-telescoped” round that is even lighter and smaller than the GD option. That round has mostly been a test bed for the Army to explore ways to lighten a soldier’s ammunition load but has been given a new lease on life with the NGSW program.

Sig Sauer — maker of the Army’s new M17 and M18 handgun — has taken a more traditional approach with a 6.8mm round incorporating a blended metal case that is still lighter than an all-brass one.

The Army says it has the option to make a selection during the first 27-month prototype phase and award a final contract. The service says it wants to buy up to 250,000 weapons — a combination of rifles and automatic rifles — and up to 150 million rounds of the new 6.8mm ammunition.

Christian Lowe is senior editor for digital operations and is a competitive pistol and rifle shooter.

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