U.S.’s 5.56mm rifles not suited to warfare in Afghan hills.

The U.S. military's workhorse rifle — used in battle for…

The U.S. military’s workhorse rifle — used in battle for the last 40 years — is proving less effective in Afghanistan against the Taliban’s more primitive but longer range weapons.

As a result, the U.S. is reevaluating the performance of its standard M-4 rifle and considering a switch to weapons that fire a larger round largely discarded in the 1960s.

The M-4 is an updated version of the M-16, which was designed for close quarters combat in Vietnam. It worked well in Iraq, where much of the fighting was in cities such as Baghdad, Ramadi and Fallujah.

But a U.S. Army study found that the 5.56 mm bullets fired from M-4s don’t retain enough velocity at distances greater than 1,000 feet (300 meters) to kill an adversary. In hilly regions of Afghanistan, NATO and insurgent forces are often 2,000 to 2,500 feet (600-800 meters) apart.

Afghans have a tradition of long-range ambushes against foreign forces. During the 1832-1842 British-Afghan war, the British found that their Brown Bess muskets could not reach insurgent sharpshooters firing higher-caliber Jezzail flintlocks.

Soviet soldiers in the 1980s found that their AK-47 rifles could not match the World War II-era bolt-action Lee-Enfield and Mauser rifles used by mujahedeen rebels.

“These are important considerations in Afghanistan, where NATO forces are frequently attacked by insurgents using … sharpshooter’s rifles, which are all chambered for a full-powered cartridge which dates back to the 1890s,” said Paul Cornish, curator of firearms at the Imperial
War Museum in London.

The heavier bullets enable Taliban militants to shoot at U.S. and NATO soldiers from positions well beyond the effective range of the coalition’s rifles.

To counter these tactics, the U.S. military is designating nine soldiers in each infantry company to serve as sharpshooters, according to Maj. Thomas Ehrhart, who wrote the Army study. They are equipped with the new M-110 sniper rifle, which fires a larger 7.62 mm round and is accurate to at least 2,500 feet (800 meters).

At the heart of the debate is whether a soldier is better off with the more-rapid firepower of the 5.56mm bullets or with the longer range of the 7.62 mm bullets.

“The reason we employ the M-4 is because it’s a close-in weapon, since we anticipate house-to-house fighting in many situations,” said Lt. Col. Denis J. Riel, a NATO spokesman.

He added that each squad also has light machine guns and automatic grenade launchers for the long-range engagements common in Afghanistan.

In the early years of the Vietnam War, the Army’s standard rifle was the M-14, which fired a 7.62 mm bullet. The gun had too much recoil to be controllable during automatic firing and was considered too unwieldily for close-quarter jungle warfare. The M-16 replaced it in the mid-1960s.

Lighter bullets also meant soldiers could carry more ammunition on lengthy jungle patrols.

The M-16 started a general trend toward smaller cartridges. Other weapons such as the French FAMAS and the British L85A1 adopted them, and the round became standardized as the “5.56mm NATO.”

Source: Slobodan Lekic for Yahoo! News AP.

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  • Randy

    Way? we should never ever have one calibre in our tool box,history tells us that.We have the know how to change the uppers.Our troops need the best of both worlds,There life depends on it.There was a time or two I wished I had a large cal. in Vnam.

  • CFLASH

    Robert –

    Good idea, bad information. 7.62 nato is too long for the 5.56 lower. The mag well is not big enough. That is why there is an AR-10. The 6.8 and the technically superior 6.5 are the longest cartridges that will fit in a magazine in the standard 5.56 lower. If we want to keep the 5.56 lower, we need to make a boat load of 6.x cartridges and deploy the relevant upper. If we want to use all of that 7.62 we have in the warehouses, we will need to go to something like the AR-10 or its many variants. No corporate greed in particular, just the hangover from a earlier and arguably understandable commitment to the 5.56 round.

  • Just for clarification. A 7.62×51, 308 Winchester upper will not work on an AR-15 lower. The 7.62×51 cartridge is much longer than the 5.56 and it’s not possible to fit a 7.62×51 magazine in the AR-15 lower.

    The M110 mentioned in the article above is the larger framed 7.62×51 AR style rifle

  • Erich

    I was going to suggest the M1, but the affective range is aprox. 900 yds with 30-06 AP. How about the 1903-03.

  • Robert

    The conclusion is correct the m-16 was never intended to be a one-shot knock down artist at long range. It was designed for “multiple-hit characteristics. “Why fight between both calibres? The AR’s modularity can allow one rifle to switch between two uppers. One in 556, and one in 762. Each one can be zeroed and will keep it. I know that our inventory has plenty of both ammo calibre, so why not. 6.8 was good in theory, but they need it now. Our guys have been making do for some time now. Because good shooter can hit at 700+ yards, under lab conditions, is more the exception rather than the rule. I’m not downing anyone’s abilities, but wind can move that little bullet around on a 100yard course. That’s reality. I hope that the powers that be, do the right thing, instead of satisfying corporate greed.