Jon Weiler is a former Army Sniper and Precision Rifle Instructor who has taught many Military and Law Enforcement Snipers, both foreign and domestic, along with numerous recreational shooters. His company, Professional Marksmen Inc., is dedicated to the disciplined art of Precision Long Range Shooting.
There is a great debate within the military as to what calibers and shooting platforms to utilize for Sniper Teams in our current combat environments overseas. I have the opportunity to work in the Sniper Community still and am a combat veteran Sniper from OIF I (2003-2004). I train Sniper Teams, many prior to an upcoming deployment. So I understand the debate and I also understand the need to change the current operating platforms and training methodology.
Gas operated rifles have been around for a long time, since the first part of the 19th Century and the beginning of “Modern Warfare”. The M1 Garand was developed by John C. Garand in 1932 and became the first of the semi-automatic gas operated rifles for the military. Infantry soldiers were issued this rifle, chambered in .30-06 Springfield, and it was used in World War II through the Korean War. I even saw one in the hands of a Sgt. Major in Iraq, although I doubt it got much use in his hands (not that he wasn’t capable; I think he carried it for the aesthetic value).
The M1 changed the face of battle. Now soldiers were able to send more bullets downrange at a faster speed, with some decreased accuracy but with an increase in volume of fire. And fire superiority is the key to any firefight. The M1 is a well put together rifle with a sturdy wooden stock, reliable operating system, and is chambered in a cartridge that has sufficient terminal ballistics out to 600 meters. Everything a soldier would need right?
The face of battle is always changing and we moved on from the conventional warfare of the European and Asian Theaters to unconventional of Vietnam. The M14 was the second step in the evolution of the semi-automatic rifle. The Army took the “shortcomings” of the M1 Garand and upgraded to the M14, which had full-automatic firing capabilities and was chambered in the newer 7.62x51mm NATO Cartridge, which was ballistically similar to the .30-06 but was smaller and lighter, meaning the troops could carry more ammunition. The M14 was adopted in 1957 and seen combat in Vietnam, however was pushed to the side rather quickly due to its shortcomings in that fighting environment. The M14 was long and heavy. It was chambered in a cartridge that provided the distance and power necessary for standoff engagements, but the weight of the ammunition also became a factor.
The Army did a study after the Second World War into the Korean War to determine the appropriate battle load for an infantry soldier and the approximate number of rounds used in a firefight. They found that the battles were decided by the volume of fire and not necessarily the amount of enemy casualties, meaning soldiers didn’t always hit what they were aiming at. This is where the full automatic shoulder fired rifle came into conception. The amount of ammunition the soldier carried was also paramount to this theory because the more he had, the more he could shoot. This is why it was chambered in the 7.62x51mm instead of the .30-06. These theories did not last the Vietnam War though. Soldiers had a hard time moving with their rifles in the brush and the humid environment would cause the rifles to swell affecting the operation. The Army was then forced to look for another rifle that would replace the M14.
The M16 is a durative of the AR-10, developed by Gene Stoner. He had originally introduced the AR-10 during a procurement by the Army for a semi-automatic rifle chambered in 7.62x51mm NATO. His design was a good one but did not have sufficient time to test anything prior to submitting and wasn’t picked up. However, his design chambered in 5.56x45mm NATO was picked up initially by the Air Force in 1964 and it is all history from there. I’m not going to go in depth into this (that’s why we have Wikipedia…) but there is a reason for why we have what we have today. The M16 has gone through many evolutions throughout the past 40-some years for sure and will go through many more in the upcoming future. But the basic platform remains and has proven itself in combat time and time again.
Direct Impingement Gas Operation is the operating system for the M16A1/M4 and its military variants. The principle of this operation is diverting the gas pressure exerted by the smokeless powder igniting and pushing the projectile down the bore and redirecting it back towards the chamber area. The gases come into contact with the bolt carrier and push it to the rear, where it extracts/ejects the cartridge, resets the firing hammer, and loads another round from the magazine into the chamber. This is a very dirty form of operation because there is a fair amount of carbon (burnt and unburnt power residue) that ends up in the chamber area. If you don’t keep up on maintenance, this becomes an issue.
Gas Piston Operation uses an op-rod piston in conjunction with the gas pressure from the powder combustion. The gases are still re-directed but come into contact with a piston operating rod which pushes the bolt carrier to the rear to finish its cycle of operation. This particular form of operation seems to be much more reliable and definitely cleaner than that of the direct impingement. However, there have been tests done that show wear on the locking lugs of the bolt due to the camming action of the bolt being canted within the barrel extension. I am not aware of how excessive this is though.
The reason that we’re even discussing these two forms of operation is one is current (Direct Impingement) and one is moving towards the future (Gas-Piston). The op-rod design isn’t new but it is new to this particular platform. Why this hasn’t been done before now is beyond me, but we’re moving in that direction now with manufacturers like H&K with their HK 416 and FN’s SCAR. This means for a more efficient Semi-Automatic Platform that will greatly enhance the urban sniper.
This platform is inheritably more accurate just due to the simple assembly/manufacturing. The Bolt Action, or Precision Rifles, tends to be put together better (or are supposed to be). What I mean by that is the attention to detail put into every piece of the precision bolt action rifle. The chamber tolerances are tighter to accommodate precision ammunition. Each individual action is bedded to each individual stock. Barrels are free floated to accommodate for the rotation of the projectile. The stocks are generally heavier and have more rigidity to prevent any flexing during firing. Really, each part of the rifle is put under a microscope in an obsessive manner to make it as accurate as possible. These are some of the reasons that the Precision Rifle platform is more accurate.
The user is responsible for loading and unloading each cartridge into the chamber. The movement of the rifle isn’t there like it is in an AR Platform because there is no cycle of operation; the recoil management is different than that of the Semi-Automatic Platform. It tends to be sharper, depending on what is being shot, and that recoil is taken into account when the firing position is set up. Muzzle Brakes help manage this and I’ve blogged about this previously here. But overall, the operation is simple and everything depends on how the rifle is put together along with the ammunition used.
But which is better?
It all depends on the mission. We’re talking about the tactical usage of both platforms. The M110 SASS is now being used alongside the M24 SWS. I have spoke with snipers in different operating theaters about what their thoughts are on the two systems and I get mixed reviews about both. Some like the idea of the semi-automatic capabilities and some prefer the accuracy of the bolt guns. The reality of the situation is that these tools are designed for different uses. You can use a bolt gun in the urban environment – I’ve done it – but you will be much more effective with a semi-automatic rifle that is chambered in a caliber that has the sufficient distance and energy to drop the target. I would sacrifice accuracy for firepower in a MOUT Environment any day just because I know what it’s like to have to break contact with a team member having a bolt rifle as his primary weapon. Not practical and it can be a liability for the team. If a SASS system shoots to 1 MOA, you’re good to go anyways.
To me, the practicality of the precision bolt rifle is better utilized in the larger cartridges, such as the .300 WM or .338 Lapua Magnum, at the ranges suited for them. There are some units that have been using the .300 WM in the Remington 700 platform for a few years now with excellent results. There is a push to upgrade the existing M24’s to .300 WM and I think it’s a good idea. It gives some extended range with the existing platforms, along with the proper terminal ballistics at those distances. In our military, there’s not the big usage of the .338 Lapua Magnum like there is in Europe especially. But I’m sure that that is on the horizon too.
Right now there exists the capabilities to scale up a semi-automatic platform to facilitate the pressures of each of these magnums – and I’m sure that manufacturers are working this now – but I would still choose the precision bolt rifle platform for these cartridges. It also depends on what the mission would be and the standoff distance. I don’t want to take the stance that this is the only application that I would use this platform for because it’s not. Everything is mission dependant. From my experience in Iraq, the semi-automatic fire proved to be more effective with multiple targets and combatants mixed with non-combatants. From my adjacent instructors in Afghanistan, the distances of the engagements would be more effective with the magnum calibers with more of a precision platform. But again, everything is mission dependant.
The Sniper motto, “One Shot, One Kill” isn’t always an accurate statement either. I’m sure that I’ve written about this before, but the reality of combat is that you never know what you’re going to do in a firefight or engagement, until you’re in one. But once you run a few missions, you fall into the motions and can work around these mental hang-ups. My point with that statement is that a weapon system with fast acquisition and follow-up is an important tool. This way, when you miss, you can adjust quickly and send that second shot before the target either can react or reach cover. So, the Semi-Automatic Platform works better for a target rich environment with varying targets at varying distances. The Precision Rifle works better to demoralize and harass the enemy from the extended distances with the larger calibers.
So which is better? It all depends on the mission. The most important thing is to know what your tools are capable of and how you can tailor their capabilities to fit your mission. Each of these platforms has their own strengths and drawbacks. It is important to have an understanding of the platform and calibers utilized to increase your effectiveness on the battlefield.