Lessons learned from recent conflicts has seen a greater focus on modularity and ambidextrous customisation of small arms, as well as reducing weight and the introduction of new ammunition types to increase lethality.
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 selective-fire 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 NGSW-Rs 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.”
If the NGSW programme is successful and a suitable rifle is selected, the first unit to receive the rifle could be as soon as FY2022, according to army documentation.
China Goes Traditional
The US’s competitor, China, has also officially revealed that it is bringing a new rifle into service. This unnamed weapon – which has long been rumoured to be in development as a replacement for the 5.8mm Type 95 (QBZ-95-1) – was first shown during celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 2019.
Instead of the bullpup configuration of the current in-service rifle, the new weapon is a more traditional AR design with the magazine ahead of the trigger and action, rather than behind. The PLA also appears to be following trends seen elsewhere around the world in the small arms market, particularly when it comes to improving user ergonomics and increasing overall modularity.
Features China’s new rifle
Initial details appear to suggest that the new rifle remains a 5.8mm example, potentially even able to utilise the same magazines at the Type 95 (or at least the newer QBZ-95-1 variant). It has been seen in both a carbine variant and standard infantry variant, and photos have also circulated on Chinese forums of a longer barrel version for potential use as a squad designated rifle.
Photos from the 70th anniversary military parade show the rifle with a single Picatinny Rail along the top with a new sighting system, likely a magnified 3x example that utilises tritium and fibre optic for illumination, along with traditional flip-up iron sights. Other photos appeared to show a new night vision sight, likely an uncooled thermal device to be used during both night and day operations.
Other features include a telescoping butt stock that can be adjusted to the preference of the individual soldier; this also likely houses a return spring which means the butt cannot be folded. There is also a foregrip that has two extendable bipod legs for a steadier position when in the prone position. This foregrip also features an electronic box at the top where it meets the handguard, which is possibly a laser aiming device that has both visible and IR-based lasers or an interface to a helmet-mounted night vision system, or radio system.
The handguard itself appears to be one single piece, with attachment points on the 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions for additional accessories, and can be easily removed with a hex tool to access the gas parts for disassembly and cleaning. The PLA has chosen not to go with newer attachment points such as M-LOK or KeyMod.
There appears to be some similarities with the AK design, such as an ambidextrous magazine release in front of the trigger guard, as well as a charging handle just below the cartridge ejection port, as well as commonalities with western-style designs such as the thumb-operated fire selector switch.
The magazines themselves are a new polymer design that allows a firer to see when they are running low, with a red mark becoming visible at 5, 3 and 1 rounds remaining. It has not been verified officially whether the rifle uses a long-stroke, short-stroke piston, or direct impingement gas operating system – although there is a strong likelihood that it is a short-stroke gas system owing to the popularity and advantages of this design.
India’s new Assault Rifle
Another Chinese rival, India, is also in the process of fielding a new assault rifle, replacing the Indian Small Arms System (INSAS) that was first fielded three decades ago. A replacement for the locally-developed 5.56x45mm INSAS has been in the works for several years, but as with many Indian defence projects, it has faced several delays. The country’s experience with the INSAS and its technical shortcomings has seen the Indian MoD opt for a rifle design from a foreign vendor, which will be manufactured locally.
India selects Russian AK-203
This year, India finally selected the Russian AK-203 chambered for 7.62x39mm, which will be built locally in Amethi, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. This facility was inaugurated in March 2019 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and is run by Indo-Russian Rifles Private, a joint venture between Rosoboronexport, Kalashnikov Concern (part of Rostec) and India’s Ordnance Factory Board (OFB). A manufacturing contract for 670,000 units is expected to be signed following approval by authorities, possibly at the end of October, with final production numbers likely to be around 750,000.
Around 40,000 units are expected to be built in Russia and exported to India to meet urgent operational requirements, with initial work in India to be the assembly of knock-down kits, which will then ramp up to component and sub-assembly manufacturing for greater transfer of technology and indigenisation. Local reports suggest that the deal will value each rifle at $1,000.
The 200-series’ of Russian AKs (available in 5.45mm, 5.56mm and 7.62mm) retain much of the features of previous AK designs but have been updated to improve areas such as ergonomics and attaching accessories.
The AK-203 now features a telescoping buttstock (four positions) so that soldiers can adjust as needed; this can also be folded to reduce the rifle’s overall length. The rifle also features Picatinny rails on the top of the rifle, and on the bottom of the new polymer handguard to attach sights, lasers, lights or other accessories. A tab has been added to the fire selector lever for easier operation with the trigger finger, while the rifle itself retains the AK’s reliable long-stroke gas piston system.
As well as the AK-203 – which will be the service rifle for most Indian Army soldiers – the country’s MoD has also committed to buy 72,400 SIG716 rifles from US company Sig Sauer.
The order was announced by Sig Sauer in February 2019, with the company confirming that the rifles will be manufactured in the US, rather than in India. The 4.3kg SIG716 features a 16in barrel and short stroke piston design, and fires the 7.62x51mm NATO round. It is not known when the Indian Army will receive its first examples.
CAR 816 rifle
Making India’s small arms procurement more complicated is the reported purchase of nearly 100,000 5.56x45mm carbine rifles from UAE company Caracal International, known as the CAR 816. Once again, the status of this order is unknown.
Vietnam selects Galil ACE 31/32
Vietnam is another country that is refreshing its small arms inventory and has recently completed a new rifle manufacturing facility in the country with the help of Israel Weapon Industries (IWI) to replace older AK-47s in the Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) with the Galil ACE 31/32.
Ronen Hamudot, VP marketing and sales at SK Group (which owns IWI), said this was an example of one of the company’s “mega projects” in terms of technology transfers and indigenous manufacturing. “They selected the ACE because they have a lot of 7.62x39mm ammunition and magazines, and so we designed and developed it with them,” he explained. “In Vietnam it is full production, they manufacture everything and are totally independent.”
IWI has even subcontracted the Vietnamese facility to manufacture parts for Israeli production lines as well, reducing overall product costs.
Philippine National Police
The long-stroke, piston-driven ACE rifle can also be chambered for 5.56x45mm, 7.62x39mm and 7.62x51mm calibres. The Philippine National Police is also another user of the Galil ACE family in the region, with the country still receiving batches.
The ACE design brings the legacy Galil – designed and fielded in the 1970s – up to modern standards with a full length Picatinny rail on the top for accessory attachment, as well as a telescoping buttstock and adjustable cheek piece. Weight has also been addressed with the use of polymer for several components.
IWI’s two new Rifles
Over the last 12 months, IWI has also revealed two new rifles that have been developed, including the 5.56x45mm Carmel and the AR-15 based ARAD.
The former is a brand new design that addresses key demands in the rifle market, including an innovative ambidextrous charging handle that can be swapped to either side without disassembling the rifle, as well as other ambidextrous controls such as magazine release, bolt catch and thumb-operated fire selector switch. Modularity is increased with an adjustable/collapsable buttstock that offers six positions, as well as an adjustable cheek rest. The Carmel is 3.3kg, with weight savings gained by using polymers and aviation-grade aluminium.
The ARAD meanwhile is based on the AR-15 design but introduces some ergonomic improvements, such as being fully ambidextrous, as well as being available in several barrel lengths and calibres – including the increasingly popular .300 BLK used by special forces and law enforcement.