The M2 .50 caliber machine gun has been a cornerstone of American military firepower for nearly 100 years. Its long range capability coupled with a heavy round combine for a devastating mixture on the battlefield — a weapon powerful enough to destroy a building or shoot down aircraft.
But for troops on the ground, the M2's advantages come at a severe cost — namely weight. The typical M2 weighs in at a crushing 84 pounds, not to mention the weight of the ammunition itself (which is over 140 pounds for 500 linked rounds). That means despite the M2's firepower, it's not a man-portable weapon, requiring a heavy tripod for a mount that makes it more suitable for defensive positions and vehicle-mounted options.
A few years ago General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems proposed an alternative to the M2 and medium M240 chambered in an innovative new caliber. The company argued that its new machine gun came in at nearly 1/4 of the weight of the M2, but delivered a similar knockout punch to bad guys at .50 cal ranges.
Dubbed the "Lightweight Medium Machine Gun," the new weapon is chambered in .338 Norma Magnum — a favorite of some precision shooters for its ability to reach out to targets at extended ranges while still having enough knockout power to take down the enemy.
While outside experts saw the capability as a game-changer, there really wasn't any money available to add a major weapons program for ground forces at the time.
The .338 Norma Magnum has a maximum effective range close to the M2 .50 cal at a fraction of the overall weight. (Photo from General Dynamics OTS)
Now, five years later, the Army is in the market for ways to lighten its soldiers' load and provide increased firepower with a smaller footprint. So there's a renewed interest in the LWMMG program.
Weighing in at only 25 pounds, the General Dynamics-designed machine gun has a maximum effective range of more than 1,800 yards and can reach out as far as 6,000, according to company documents. The LWMMG in .338 NM has a lot of advantages over the current 7.62mm M240 machine gun as well, the company says.
The General Dynamics Lightweight Medium Machine Gun delivers a ballistic punch similar to an M2 .50 cal with less weight than the current M240. (Photo from General Dynamics Land Systems briefing documents)
"At 1,000 yards the LWMMG is capable of defeating Level III body armor and incapacitating soft skinned vehicles by delivering more than four times the terminal effects of the 7.62mm NATO cartridge," General Dynamics documents say.
GD has also developed a new "Short Recoil Impulse Averaging" system that the company says delivers the same recoil as an M240 despite the larger .338 NM round.
Some argue that the increased weight of the .338 round cancels out the LWMMG's advantages for dismounted troops, since 1,000 rounds of 7.62 weigh about as much as only 500 rounds of .338 NM. But new developments in polymer case technology could combine to make the new machine gun a lighter option overall than the M240 while delivering the killer punch at M2 ranges.