If necessity is the mother of invention, then battlefield necessity is Mother on Steroids. In order to accomplish their missions, the men and women of our armed forces have had to invent, adapt, and improvise solutions to challenges on a daily basis. Often the people on the frontlines find answers to problems encountered in combat that were never even envisioned by those in higher command. Those in industry, like the good folks at LaRue Tactical, have often been quick to work with those at the front and fabricate the innovative equipment they need. Sometimes this equipment even finds a role in the LE and civilian sectors.
Sorting Out Suicide Bombers
Following the ousting of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq the largely conventional combat ceased. What followed was the beginning of an intense anti-guerilla campaign of asymmetrical war. The goal of the terrorists has been to inflict such a high cost in personnel and materiel on Coalition forces that the member nations lose their will to fight and then withdraw. At the same time, these terrorists target the democratically elected governments and civilian populations in a gambit to seize power if they are able to force a premature Coalition withdrawal.
Suicide bombings and surprise attacks by small, heavily armed teams are among their methods. Common targets of these attacks include security checkpoints, vehicle convoys, and fixed installations such as police stations. The goal of these attacks is to inflict casualties on troops and security forces. Another desired effect of these attacks is to compel Coalition or government forces to accidently kill innocent civilians mistaken for attackers, to cause the Coalition and national governments loss of popular support. In order to minimize civilian casualties, Coalition forces have established rules of engagement with a strict escalation-of-force procedure. Various means of visual warnings have been adopted as part of this force continuum.
A typical visual warning scenario would take place at a roadblock or the rear security vehicle of a convoy. The incident might play out as follows: A four-door sedan approaches a check point or is gaining on a convoy at high speed. This might be a carload of civilians rushing to a family gathering, or a suicide bomber intent on committing mass murder. Before the vehicle closes to a dangerous distance, a soldier uses a visual signal to warn the driver to stop or risk being engaged with deadly force.
One of the most used visual signal techniques is to fire a pyrotechnic flare to warn civilians off. This practice has proven to work fairly well in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
The most commonly used flare launching equipment supplied to U.S. troops is the Mk 79 Mod 0 (Mark 79 Modification 0) Illumination Signal Kit. This kit is composed of an Mk 31 Mod 0 signal projector and a bandoleer of seven Mk 80 Mod 0 signal cartridges. The Mk 31 projector, more commonly known as a pen flare, is a machined metal tube slightly longer than a ballpoint ink pen. The launcher tube is hollow and contains a spring-loaded firing pin mechanism. A thumb-activated trigger screw is attached to the firing pen and extends out of the tube by means of a slot cut in the side of the projector.
The launcher is cocked by pulling the trigger screw back with the thumb and compressing the internal spring behind the firing pin. Once pulled fully to the rear, the trigger screw can be rotated into a “J” notch that acts as a safety and keeps the spring compressed. After this is done an Mk 80 signal cartridge is screwed onto the threaded muzzle of the projector. When ready to fire, the muzzle of the projector is pointed in the desired direction and the thumb-activated trigger screw is released. The spring-loaded firing pen then strikes the primer of the signal cartridge which then discharges a single bright red star flare downrange. A loud bang, about the same as produced by a small-caliber pistol round, is made when fired. The red flare burns brilliantly for four to six seconds and typically travels between 250 to 650 feet.
Although simple to use and lightweight, there are some drawbacks to using the Mk 31 flare projector. Because it must be ready to use quickly, the Mk 31 has to be cocked and loaded at all times when a soldier is on post. Because of its rudimentary safety, the Mk 31 can be fired unintentionally unless extraordinary care is used. Unfortunately, many U.S. personnel have been injured after dropping the pen flares or carrying them loaded in their pockets and web gear.
If hit by a flare at close range, a person can receive the same type of traumatic injuries as a gunshot wound. The pyrotechnic charge of the flare can also cause life threatening thermal injuries and ignite flammable material. Troops from other Coalition nations have also been injured by pen flares. Case in point, in 2008 two Australian soldiers were hurt in a pen flare accident in Oruzgan Province, Afghanistan. One of the soldiers was seriously injured and later had to be airlifted back to Australia for follow-up treatment.
A Good GI Fix
Another drawback of using the hand-held pen flare is that if the approaching vehicle or personnel fail to heed the warning flare, the soldier needs to have his weapon up and ready to engage the threat. Because of the safety and operational drawbacks of using the Mk 31 projector, a soldier in Iraq was inspired to come up with a solution. The soldier placed a satellite phone call to the shop of LaRue Tactical located in Leander, TX. After the soldier explained how the Mk 31 pen flare was being used and what its limitations were, he asked the LaRue staff if they could fabricate some type of weapon mount to hold it. The soldier wanted to be able to fire off the pen flare while his weapon was shouldered and ready. In an inopportune twist of luck, the satellite phone call was dropped before the LaRue staff was able to get the soldier’s name and contact information.
Anyone who has ever purchased equipment from LaRue Tactical before can tell you that they are eager and willing to help the customer in the field get the gear they need. This is especially true of the men and women serving the cause of freedom in the military. LaRue soon acquired the Mk 31 specifications and a test example to examine. They determined that the diameter of the Mk 31 tube body was 12.7 millimeters (0.5 inch). LaRue fabricated an appropriate mount to hold the Mk 31 which they designated the LT-663 Pen Flare Mount. The LT-663 includes LaRue’s standard quick attach/detach LT-171 Locking Lever rail interface mount which works with any military specification Picatinny rail system.
Being somewhat of a gadget man, I was intrigued after reading about the LaRue Pen Flare Mount. I contacted the folks at LaRue and soon received an LT-663 to test. As always, I was impressed by the customer service and legendary Texas friendliness of the LaRue Staff when I placed my order. The LT-663 came attached to the LT-171 mount and the package included an adjustment wrench, a tube of Locktite, and simple, straightforward directions. The mount is built to be rugged, is machined from solid billet aluminum and has a durable non-reflective finish for tactical use. After the Mk 31 is inserted onto the mount it is secured by tightening the locknuts on the LT-663. Although they hold tight, the locknuts can be made to hold fast under the rigors of field use by using the included Locktite.
Test Results—Good To Go!
Using the Locking Levers, the tension of which can be adjusted to fit the user, I tested the LT-663 Pen Flare Mount on a variety of rail-equipped long guns. They fit perfectly and worked as advertised on Mil-Spec rails made by LaRue, Daniel Defense, and Knight’s Armament. As an extra precaution, the LT-171 rail interface has a lanyard hole so that it can be dummy-corded to the weapon with wire or para-cord. Being right handed, I placed the LT-663 in a left hand, forward position on both a rail equipped M4 and an AKM type rifle. With both types of rifle I was able to shoulder the weapon and easily operate the pen flare launcher mechanism with my left hand while supporting the weight of the rifle with my right hand holding the pistol grip. After operating the pen flare I was able to quickly transition my left hand to a vertical foregrip and was ready to fire. Obviously, if anyone plans on using this equipment they should practice the technique with both an unloaded pen flare and weapon until being proficient enough to switch to training with live ammunition.
The LaRue Tactical LT-663 Pen Flare Mount is a well-made and practical piece of kit. Because my experience comes from the field of law enforcement, I know that cops aren’t very likely to use this product to fire warning shots at motorists. However, I did find some other applications for using the LT-663 Pen Flare Mount. For those of you that have ever taken part in a manhunt or missing-person search in the woods at night you know what a hairy proposition they can be. I used to carry a pen flare on such dangerous adventures as I could think of situations where it might come in handy. First off, even the best operators can get lost or hurt in the woods. Although no one in their right mind should be alone in a situation like that, it might be easier to fire off a flare to help others find your location rather than send a team member to lead help back. That guy might get lost himself or not be able to find his way back to you.
If you are trying to vector in a search or medevac helicopter, a pen flare can be real handy to have. If you are under the trees it is nearly impossible to be found by an aircraft equipped with searchlights or even thermal imaging equipment. Most pen flares work great to penetrate the forest canopy, at least of the type found in most of the U.S. Some flares like the Mk 80 signal cartridge are bright enough to be noticed even during the hours of daylight. Some people I know hunt with rail-equipped firearms because it is easier to mount accessories such as optics and bipods. The ability to carry a rail-mounted pen flare launcher using the LaRue mount would be a prudent option whether you are hunting game or fugitives in the backwoods.
Two other pyrotechnic devices that I am aware of are constructed like and function in a virtually identical way to a pen flare launcher. If you are an outdoorsmen or law enforcement officer operating in bear country you probably have heard of a Bear Banger. A Bear Banger works in the same manner as the pen flare except that instead of firing a glowing flare it makes a really loud bang or screeching whistle when it goes down range. The intent of course is to scare a bear or other dangerous animal and send them running. This often works better than having to pepper spray them at a closer range or shooting them in the hope that they collapse before tearing you in half. Many park rangers and wildlife officers carry Bear Bangers religiously. Some models of Bear Bangers will fit in the LaRue LT-663, but be sure to check the tube diameter before purchasing.
Shock And Awe
The second device of interest is a shock tube initiator. Shock tube is a hollow plastic tubing that is filled with a light dusting of explosive powder. When initiated, shock tube does not explode from the sides of the tube, but propagates down the length of the tube at 6,500 fps and in turn initiates a blasting cap which detonates an explosive charge. Shock tube has largely replaced electrical detonators in military and police use because it is safer and more reliable. Many shock tube initiators operate like a pen flare launcher. Once the spring loaded lever is released the firing pin hits a shotgun shell primer which initiates the shock tube.
Tactical Weapons contacted Ideal Supply, a market leader in the blasting supply industry, and ordered their model HR3 shock tube initiator. Like the Mk 31 pen flare projector it fit perfectly in the LaRue Tactical Pen Flare Mount and operated flawlessly using the same rail-mounted firing technique described above. The combination of the LaRue Tactical LT-663 and the Ideal Supply HR3 would undoubtedly be of interest to operators performing breaching and demolition tasks. Although inspired by an American soldier for a specific use, the La Rue LT-663 and the devices it can accommodate have proven to be of value for other tasks for both LE operators and civilians alike. For more information visit www.laruetactical.com or call 512-259-1585.