The Beretta AR70/90 has been Italy’s general-issue rifle since 1990. It has full-auto and three-round-burst capacity, and the gas system can be set to shoot rifle grenades.
Few things put a smile on a gun fancier’s face like the thumping of a machine gun. Attending a recent Media Day hosted by FNH USA, which featured several of the company’s fully automatic offerings, I was surprised at how even the experienced gun writers were giddy to line up and wail a belt of ammo into the Nevada landscape. After handling and shooting such equipment as a full-time instructor for over a decade, I forgot how many folks, including gun enthusiasts, have little experience shooting at cyclic rates. Even within the military it is very rare to find skilled gunners, and most personnel are ignorant of gunnery to the point of deluding themselves into pretending they understand it. The majority of military “training” with machine guns is limited to equipment familiarity and gunnery skills are nearly nonexistent.
One of the big stumbling blocks is labeling every full-auto weapon a “machine gun,” without understanding automatic’s different roles. Part of the confusion may stem from U.S. law, which classifies a machine gun as any firearm that fires more than one round automatically with one pull of the trigger. In the real world, not all “machine guns” are created equal in ability or purpose. Terms used today to describe fully automatic firearms include “machine gun”—described as light, medium, heavy or general purpose—“automatic rifle,” “assault rifle,” “submachine gun” and “automatic weapon.” Each of these has a very different purpose, even when fulfilled by the same equipment.
The M249 (FN Minimi), a light machine gun, was brought into U.S. service in the early 1980s to fulfill both automatic-rifle and light-machine-gun roles, under a new designation of “squad automatic weapon.”
The first fielded fully automatic weapons (for example, the Maxim, Schwartzlose and Dreyse) were cumbersome and resembled positioned artillery in form and function. The “mechanical” machine guns by Gatling, Nordenfelt and Gardner were properly labeled “machine guns” since they were loaded and fired by machinery. The effectiveness of the heavy, water-cooled “automatic” machine gun hit its peak in the mud and trenches of World War I, where militaries paid for the lessons of machine-gun gunnery with human lives. Although most militaries—including Uncle Sam’s—have largely forgotten those early lessons, formal gunnery with machine guns is just as effective today when understood and used appropriately. Emplaced WWI machine guns had a barrel surrounded with a water jacket for cooling and a cumbersome tripod for gunnery control. While good for gunnery, this ensemble could not be readily moved—there is tactical advantage to repositioning firepower on demand. Attempts at making heavy, water-cooled machine guns part of the maneuver element included wheeled mounts, skid-mounts and, in the American service, two strong-backed GIs.
Considered a “light” machine gun of that period was any fully automatic gun chambering a rifle cartridge that could actually be picked up by one man, even if the mechanism was nearly identical to the water-cooled, tripod-mounted heavy machine gun. Those of the WWI era that fired from a box magazine were generally called “machine rifles” by the U.S. service. This eventually led to the concept of the “automatic rifle,” an individually-issued, full-auto weapon that boosted firepower while remaining light enough to shoot and maneuver with riflemen. The M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) was one of the first purpose-built automatic rifles, indicating that forward-thinking folks like Browning had realized that tactical roles varied—one design didn’t work across the board. Guns developed between the Wars, such the Czech ZB-30 that grew into the British Bren or the Soviet Degtyarev DP, were usually called “light machine guns.” But other nations who manufactured the BAR generally referred to it as a “machine gun.”
Terminology is wont to being provincial and changing with tactical application more than with design. On the other hand, U.S. box-fed automatics have usually been given the moniker “rifle”—such as the Benet-Mercie Machine Rifle and Browning Automatic Rifle—with the exception being the Johnson M1941 Light Machine Gun as issued and used by the Marines in the Pacific and by the Army in Italy.
An “automatic rifle” is a full-automatic weapon that boosts the volume of firepower of a squad or fire team while remaining light enough for one troop to handle while maneuvering with riflemen. Ideally, it should shoot the same ammunition as the rifles, be as controllable as a machine gun from a bipod in short, controlled bursts (about three rounds), and handy enough to shoot like a standard rifle.
When full-auto rifles seemed practical for general issue, the U.S. Department of Defense attempted to produce an all-around rifle, which resulted in the M14. It was an effort to supplant the M1 Garand and the BAR, as well as the M2 Carbine and the M3A1 submachine gun for good measure. Then came the M16. Even though both weapons were capable of full-auto fire and as handy as regular rifles, both proved ineffective in the automatic-rifle role. The M60, a full-sized medium/general-purpose machine gun took that place. However, where the M14 and M16 proved too light, the belt-fed M60 was too clumsy. The Soviet Army used a belt-fed weapon as an automatic rifle with their RPD. However, RPDs were removed from the rifle squad in the early 1980s and replaced by the RPK, a modified Kalashnikov rifle featuring a heavier barrel, a bipod and a redesigned buttstock to facilitate automatic fire from prone with a larger capacity magazine.
Despite the capacity advantage, the disadvantages of a belt-fed gun for an individual weapon were too much: a crew-served weapon in a sustained-fire role needs ammo capacity, but belted ammo for one person is too much hassle and weight. In one USMC test, shooters were able to reload and reengage pop-up targets faster with a magazine-fed Colt-designed automatic rifle similar to the M16 than with the belt-fed M249 they had previously trained on. Where most of the shooters were able to reload with a box magazine during one or two target exposures, it took at least five exposures to reload with a belt. Every Marine participating in the event preferred the Colt AR (automatic rifle) to the M249.
The other disadvantage of most belt-fed ARs is the open-bolt design. While being a near necessity for machine guns in a sustained-fire role (to prevent cook-offs), this can be a liability in weapons intended to be picked up and run with. It is common to mistake volume of fire for firepower—especially for automatic rifles, more is not always better. In a test of suppressive-fire capability conducted by the Royal United Services Institute for the British Army, the magazine-fed L86 automatic rifle outperformed the L110 (M249). While the L110 could put out more lead, it was less effective at keeping a target suppressed.
A Test of Two Rifles
The current AR issued in the U.S. is the M249. Designed by Ernest Vervier of Fabrique Nationale (FN) in Herstal, Belgium, and released in 1974, it is a light machine gun chambered in 5.56x45mm. As with any true machine gun, it is capable of sustained fire and features a quick-change barrel, belt feed and firing from an open bolt. Traverse and elevation mechanisms for the M122 tripod have been adapted for the M249, and the newer M192 was designed with both the M249 and M240 (FN MAG) in mind. As issued in the U.S., the M249 can be pressed into both squad automatic and light machine gun roles. Until recently, doctrine for each application was published in two separate manuals—now they are consolidated in FM 3-22.68.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Beretta AR70/90, a gas-operated, magazine-fed select fire originally issued to Italian special operations. It is truly select fire, allowing for semi-auto, three-round burst and having fully automatic settings with a switch on both sides. The weapons feed 5.56mm NATO cartridges from STANAG (M16-type) magazines, which lock in and release with an ambidextrous magazine release located on either side of the housing in the lower receiver. Iron sights are similar to the M16A1, featuring a hooded, elevation-adjustable front post mounted atop the gas block and a dual, windage-adjustable rear aperture with peep sights marked for 250 and 400 meters. A fold-down bipod tucks neatly under the forend.
Range sessions took place at Camp Bullis, Texas, during the conduct of our Small Arms Instructor Academy courses. The test was simple: run both weapons through the current U.S. Army Automatic Rifle qualification courses, both the 10 Meter and the Transition, and compare the results. This qualification suffers from a lack of purpose as it fails to identify what an automatic rifle is for. It’s sort of like the machine gun course (which fails to establish and test gunnery skills) but with the pop-up targets on the Transition course shot from 100 to 400 meters. The Automatic Rifle course described by Chuck Taylor in his book, The Fighting Rifle, with shooters first engaging the same course as rifleman for score and then adding full-auto employment, is more to the point. Better still, the Australians utilize a course nearly identical to their rifle course shot on a KD range, with the AR shot in three-round bursts instead of single shots and with each fired bullet accounted for and scored.
Starting on the 10 Meter course, we compared the ability of both weapons to hold a cone of fire when firing bursts. The M249 was a known entity and skilled shooters had no problem centering sub-4-mil cones in their targets. The AR70/90 was a pleasant surprise and fared better than expected. Off the bipod the light AR70/90 was a bit more finicky than the M249, however, good gunners found that they could control a three-round burst well enough to maintain consistently placed, sub-4-mil cones on individual targets. One thing that helped was using the burst setting instead of full auto, allowing the gunner to focus on good position and follow-through and not on modulating the trigger to control the burst.
Traversing through the 10 Meter qual demonstrated why standard M14s and M16s don’t cut it as ARs. Attempting to engage multiples under time limit and forcing the shooter to traverse with a light rifle and flimsy bipod was a bit of a struggle. While nobody could outshoot their M249 score with the AR70/90, the Italian rifle could still get a passing mark when the shooter did his part. The Transition range was easier to handle. Oddly, this course is mostly comprised of single-target engagements on 100- to 400-meter silhouettes, thus, a shooter could get his position solid first. Keeping enough of the burst on the silhouettes out to 400 meters was easy enough for both weapons.
While it isn’t a substitute for an automatic rifle, much less a light machine gun, the AR70/90 shot reasonably well on both scaled-target and full-distance automatic rifle courses out to 400 meters. Shooting an AR proved a satisfying surprise, even though the AR70/90 is about half the weight. If modifications for automatic rifle use were added, such as beefing up the barrel and bipod, it would fulfill the role even better, just as the Colt-built, M16-based automatic rifles have. The M249/Minimi is a good weapon, it’s just not an optimum automatic rifle.
The Beretta AR70/90 has been Italy’s general-issue rifle since 1990. It has full-auto and three-round-burst…
by Leroy Thompson / Jan 5, 2013