The assault rifle is the primary weapon for any soldier, no matter what their role or specialisation. First introduced during World War 2 by Germany and then slowly adopted by other armed forces, the assault rifle is now considered the optimum weapon for frontline troops. In terms of design, the selectivefire assault rifle has not changed radically since its inception, with only slight enhancements such as the Bullpup layout (SA-80, FAMAS, TAVOR and AUG), or optimised internal parts for greater reliability.
Several armies are now modernising their small arms inventories, either through upgrading existing stocks, or replacing them with new examples. In Europe, there is modernisation occurring, although this is limited to upgrading older types or introducing mature designs with little risk. The British Army has embarked on an upgrade programme for its SA-80, bringing it up to an A3 standard with contractor Heckler & Koch. France has also adopted the HK416F, while Germany is also expected to select a new rifle shortly to replace its ageing G36.
One of the most ambitious small arms programmes anywhere in the world right now is the US Army’s Next Generation Squad Weapon (NGSW), which could see a revolutionary leap in terms of rifle technology and individual soldier lethality. One of the most notable aspects of this programme so far has been the army’s decision to move to a new, military-grade 6.8mm intermediate calibre that has superior aero-ballistic performance than the 5.56x45mm NATO standard round currently used on the M16/M4. For the US Army, the 5.56mm round lacks the range and ‘stopping power’ required to defeat modern peer threats who use advanced body armours.
The NGSW programme will consist of both a fully ambidextrous rifle (NGSW-R), and an automatic rifle (NGSW-AR), with the latter replacing the belt-fed M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW). While the service has agreed on a calibre for the bullet, it will be up to industry to decide how that 6.8mm projectile is packaged with cartridge, propellent and primer. At the end of August, Textron Systems (partnered with H&K), Sig Sauer and General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems (GD-OTS) were selected to develop and manufacture prototypes for the NGSW programme.
All three companies are now expected to deliver 43 NGSW-ARs and 53 NGSWRs over a 27 month period, along with 845,000 rounds of ammunition for testing. Two prototype test phases are scheduled into the programme in May 2020 and January 2021, lasting three months and six months respectively.
This year’s AUSA in Washington DC was the first real opportunity to see all three competing designs together. Textron Systems’ solution represents one of the biggest leaps in small arms technology with its focus on cased-telescoped ammunition, over traditional brass cases a technology that has not previously been mature enough to field. The company has been developing its CT ammunition and associated weapon systems in various calibres for over a decade with the help of funding from the US Army.
GD-OTS meanwhile has surprised many by revealing that its NGSW offering is a bullpup-configured rifle, with the magazine and action behind the trigger rather than the traditional AR layout. One of the main benefits of this design is that the barrel can be longer to improve accuracy, yet the overall weapon system remains compact. Sig Sauer’s offering appears to be the most conservative design offering, with Ron Cohen, President & CEO, noting that the “core of our submission is our newly developed, high-pressure, 6.8mm hybrid ammunition that is utilised in both weapons, and is a significant leap forward in ammunition innovation, design, and manufacturing.”
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