The days of the US military's obsession with the 5.56 rifle may be numbered

The U.S. military has been talking about it for years, but now the stars may be aligning to force a closer look at replacing the standard military rifle issued to most American troops.

The Army is reportedly exploring how it might outfit all its front-line troops with a rifle chambered in a larger round than the 5.56mm M4 and M16 for the current fight in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, insiders claim. Service officials are increasingly worried that that soldiers are being targeted by insurgent fighters wielding rifles and machine guns that can kill U.S. troops at a distance, while staying out of the effective range of America’s current small arms.

“A Capability Gap exists for 80 percent of US and NATO riflemen who are armed with 5.56mm weapons,” weapons expert and former Heckler & Koch official Jim Schatz stated in a recent small arms briefing. “The threat engages friendly forces with 7.62mmR weapons 300 meters beyond the effective range of 5.56mm NATO ammo.”

“These 5.56mm riflemen have no effective means to engage the enemy.”

A Special Forces soldier takes a rest during a patrol in Afghanistan. The Army is considering outfitting its front-line troops with a 7.62 battle rifle like this Mk17 SCAR-H. (Photo from US Army Special Operations Command)

So the service is considering options to outfit soldiers with a true “battle rifle” chambered in 7.62×51, a more powerful round with a greater range than the 5.56, analysts say. It’s unclear which system the Army will pick if it decides to go this route, with rifles like the Mk-17 SCAR-H, M-110 and now the M110A1 CSASS either getting set for fielding or already in the inventory.

But military planners aren’t stopping there.

Multiple sources confirm that the service is also looking at fielding a so-called “intermediate caliber” round that can be used in both machine guns and infantry rifles that deliver better range and lethality than the 5.56 but in a smaller, lighter package than the NATO M80 7.62×51 ammo.

Dubbed the .264 USA, the Army Marksmanship Unit at Fort Benning, Georgia, has been shooting a prototype intermediate caliber round for years. Similar to the 6.5 Grendel but with a case sized for use in a standard M4 magazine, the .264 USA has an 800 meter effective range and better terminal ballistics further out than a 5.56.

A slide from a 2016 briefing by the late Jim Schatz who argued the .264 USA round being used by the Army Marksmanship Unit could be the perfect caliber to replace the 5.56 and the 7.62. (Photo from DTIC.mil)

The round is also being developed with a polymer case instead of brass, which cuts down the weight significantly, experts claim.

“Stand-off shooters in Afghanistan employ the suppressive merits of 7.62x54R weapons by raining down .30 caliber projectiles onto troops armed mostly with 5.56mm rifles incapable of returning effective fire,” Schatz wrote. “A lightweight polymer-cased intermediate caliber cartridge and projectile would thus improve the probability of hit, incapacitation and suppression for all members of the squad without the weight and recoil penalties associated with 7.62mm NATO ammunition and weapons.”

The notion is to field one caliber that can work for a variety of missions — from close-in battle clearing houses to distant engagements using a rifle or a machine gun. In fact, there’s increased interest within the service to evaluate a new medium machine gun chambered in .338 Norma Magnum that would replace the M240 and potentially even the decades-old M2 .50 cal in some missions.

The Army has not taken an official position on the fielding of 7.62 battle rifles for its front-line troops or on the development of an intermediate caliber. The service did conduct a Small Arms Ammunition Configuration Study to look into the issue, but the results have not yet been publicly released.

And weapons experts within the military and in industry confirm to WATM that the debate is heating up.

Two experts who spoke to WATM questioned the wisdom of fielding a 7.62 battle rifle as an interim solution, arguing the current M4 could benefit from better constructed, longer length, free-floated barrels and top-notch ammunition to make up for some of the ballistic shortfalls.

Another veteran and firearms expert said the M4’s range problem is more a training issue than it is a caliber one, calling the Army’s marksmanship program “a joke” and arguing good ammo and a longer barrel could solve many of the engagement distance problems.

Additionally, one world champion competitive shooter and tactical trainer told WATM that top-tier special operators who’ve taken his classes are using 18-inch barrels on their carbines, moving away from shorter options geared for tight spaces in favor of the range advantages of a longer gun.

The military has been debating the wisdom of sticking with the 5.56 since operations in Somalia prompted discussions over the terminal ballistics of the “varmint” round, but despite multiple studies claiming there are better options out there, the Army and the rest of the services haven’t seen a compelling enough reason to make a change.

Yet with the potential for increased defense budgets, a replacement for the M9 pistol coming on board and a Pentagon leadership that seems more in tune with the needs of troops fighting terrorists on the ground, the drive to rethink America’s arsenal could lead to major changes.

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