AMU: Pipeline for Spec Ops Weapons

When then-President Dwight Eisenhower ordered the establishment of the United…

When then-President Dwight Eisenhower ordered the establishment of the United States Marksmanship Unit (AMU) at Ft. Benning, Georgia, in March of 1956, little did anyone suspect that the AMU would become the Army’s “skunk works” for the testing and development of special-purpose weapons. The unit was initially given the mission of “competing in Inter-service, national, international, and Olympic competitions, promoting the Army, and enhancing combat readiness,” and it has embraced that role. The AMU placed second in the International Sniper Competition that was held at Ft. Benning the end of October 2006. The AMU competed against twenty-five teams from all over the world including units from the U.K., Canadian Army, Israeli Defense Force (IDF) sniper instructors, and from the Army, Air Force and Marines.

pipeline1.gifBut the AMU has grown to take on a greater role in developing and improving weapons. The key to this unit’s success is the AMU’s staff of small-arms gunsmiths—people who represent the very best talent in the Department of Defense (DOD), if not the world. To quote an AMU fact sheet, “ Their most unique skill is the ability to take what they have learned in creating the most accurate competition firearms and transferring this knowledge into better combat weapons systems.”

New Take on an Old Favorite
One of the most ambitious projects taken on by the AMU was the development of a number of 1911-A2 prototype pistols. You read that right: 1911-A2. It is no secret that special operations units have fielded a variety of 1911 pistols for many years. The lesser-known story is that line units have also pulled a large quantity of 1911 pistols from storage and put the old warhorses back to work. One of the more well-publicized photos of the Iraq war shows Colonel James Hickey, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, posing with his troops shortly after Saddam Hussein was captured. He is wearing a WWII tanker style holster with a cocked-and-locked Government Model. According to sources, the reissue of these 1911s has resulted in significant parts orders being placed with several well-known gunsmiths.

With these demands for the old pistol being placed on the military, the AMU started to look at developing a new generation of 1911s in late 2004. The author was given exclusive access to the project from design to production and testing. The project started with carbon-steel Caspian frames with a light rail and bald Caspian slides. The frames are marked Model 1911 A2 U.S. Army and serial-numbered with a prefix of USPT (U.S. Prototype). The left side of the slides are marked United States Property and a circle U.S. is placed behind the cocking serrations on both sides of the slide.

The goal was to produce a minimum of seven variants that would act as test beds for various configurations. These configurations include various sights, both internal and external extractors, flat and arched mainspring housings, integral and add-on magazine wells, and other options. Test finishes include Black T, KG Gun Coat, Bear Coat, Robar’s Roguard, NP3, and ION Bond. The idea was to give the end-user a buffet from which to select the features they felt were most desirable for their mission.

Mix and Match Parts
The frames are a combination of standard configurations and “race-ready” frames that are cast with an integral magazine well. Smith & Alexander (S&A) mag wells are fitted to the standard frames while the internal parts are a combination of parts from Wilson, Caspian and Ed Brown. These companies were chosen based on the AMU’s extensive experience. The slides are delivered with no sight cuts, allowing the AMU gunsmiths to make the appropriate cuts to install various adjustable sight combinations. These include sights from Novak, Bo-Mar and Champion. Since some people feel that the extractor design of the 1911 is a weak point, internal and external extractors units are being tested as options for the end user. Ambidextrous safeties are standard on all test pistols.

Bar-Sto, Kart and Storm Lake provide match barrels that are hand-fitted to the slide using solid national match bushings. Both standard and fully ramped barrels are used, again giving the user a choice. The accuracy requirement for the project calls for 2” groups at 25 yards using standard hardball ammunition. To nobody’s surprise, the guns actually exceed this requirement. Eight-round Wilson magazines are provided with each pistol.

The stocks for the project are molded synthetic grips with a pebble finish obtained from a private vendor. The AMU also tested two versions of Crimson Trace Laser Grips (CTC). The LG-401 offers an open front strap with a single activation button located at the base of the trigger guard. This unit and a similar unit for the Beretta Model 92 have been purchased in significant numbers by both Special Forces and line units of the U.S. military. Due to the unique operational requirements of Special Operations Command units, CTC provides both visible and Infra Red units for the project. Several of the Tier 1 units took a great interest in the IR unit.

The integral rail provides the ability to mount both illumination and target designation units on the pistol—in laymen’s terms, lights and lasers. For this part of the project, the AMU turned to two leaders in the industry, Insight Technologies and SureFire. Insight provides a military-specified version of their M6X that offers both a white light and visible laser. The SureFire X200A tactical LED white light has also been tested. Each pistol, along with the assigned accessories, is housed in a Blackhawk Discreet SOCOM Pistol case.

The USPT2 pistol serves as the test unit for a suppressed version of the 1911-A2. During the program, suppressors from AWC, Gemtech, SWR and STW were field-tested. Conventional wisdom has held that a 1911-type lockup requires a recoil enhancer to be reliable with a suppressor attached. The AMU proved this wrong as prototype #2 runs without any modifications in the lockup or bushing. The suppressor threads directly onto the extended barrel and significantly reduces the report of the pistol. Having put several hundred rounds through this pistol, I can attest to both the accuracy and reliability of USPT2 and the other A2s.

The AMU demonstrated the first group of pistols to the Marine Corps at Quantico and various U.S. SOCOM units at both Ft. Bragg and other locations. The pistols were very well received and inspired some feedback. During the testing, the concepts were expanded and other accessories were incorporated in the tests. Three different slide configurations were developed to improve deployment of the suppressed pistol. These are equipped with iron sights that are then supplemented with a slide that mounts a Docter red-dot sight in the rear dovetail. A third slide features a short Picatinny rail that is mounted on the top of the slide, forward of the ejection port. This configuration retains both the front and rear iron sight while allowing an electronic sight to be used.

This project served as a feasibility study and provided specific units with a blueprint for future projects. After the initial demonstrations, the test pistols were “loaned” to SOCOM units for field testing. Specific details are not appropriate here, but the same pistols I handled at the AMU have “been there and done that” in the past three years.

Looking to the Future
An RFP was issued for a Joint Combat Pistol; 645,000 pistols was part of the initial proposal. It was scaled back and ultimately canceled. It’s been reported that certain units are experimenting with a high-capacity 1911 platform in .40. Whatever pistol is adopted will incorporate lessons learned through the AMU 1911-A2 project.

The pistol of choice for the serious warrior continues to be the 1911. The 1911-A2 project provided a test bed for improving existing 1911s.

AMU Leads The Way In Historic Battle-Rifle Innovations
The AMU was responsible for developing the M-14 battle rifle into the M-21 sniper system. It also served as the testing ground for the M-24 (Remington 700) sniper system and optics. The unit’s hard-won expertise enabled the AMU shop to take a rack-grade M-16 and transform it into the Special Purpose Rifle, SPR Mk-12, for the U.S. Army Special Operations Command. The SPR gave the soldier minute-of-angle accuracy out past 600 meters, a capability  put to use in Iraq and Afghanistan. More recently, the AMU was involved in Remington’s development of the Modular Combat Shotgun. The MCS was field tested by an AMU NCO during a training mission to Iraq in 2004.

The AMU shop is also called on to assist United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) units in the maintenance of other special weapons. These include the Knight SR-25, 7.62 NATO rifle. The SR-25 is essentially an M-16 that has been up-scaled to handle the 7.62 mm or .308 round. On a recent trip to the unit’s shop, I observed a dozen or so well-used SR-25s that had been utilized by the 3/75 Ranger Regiment. The shop was conducting a full maintenance and technical inspection, including a microscopic inspection of the bore. The rifles will be refurbished and returned to the Rangers for their next deployment.

AMU’s R&D: Perfecting Weaponry For All!
The AMU’s extensively involved in R&D of weaponry to better equip our war fighters as well as seeking info from the warriors themselves. Their gunsmiths are unmatched in their level of knowledge. AMU’s tests include a wide range of firearms, ammo, suppressors, and other components. Results are shared with the Army and the manufacturers in an effort to create stronger, more reliable and effective products. Furthering their studies, they follow competive shooting. Matches and combat take a toll on weapons.

Due to the unit’s participation in USPSA competition and national matches, the shop is unmatched in making reliable double-stack 1911 platforms. This experience resulted in several proof-of-concept pistols being built in both .45 and .40. These pistols can be as reliable as a traditional single-stack 1911.

They provide technical support and maintenance for special units non-standard systems. Support may take place at Ft. Benning or the dispatchment of personnel to the field.

AMU hosts an annual 3-Gun Match. Top guns like Todd Jarrett, Phil Strayader and Taran Butler participate, and military props such as Hummers and M-203 grenade launchers are used.

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