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New M16 aims for more bang per bullet

By Matthew Cox
Times staff writer

FORT BENNING, Ga. — The Army Marksmanship Unit wants to equip squad designated marksmen with the same customized M16 and ammo that its elite members shoot during international competitions.

A modified, more accurate M16 is at the core of the new Squad Designated Marksman Course. the rifle is also part of an Army-ordered evaluation comparing the performance of weapons in use in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the same time, the Army is deep into testing the XM8, a family of weapons that could replace the M16 and its variants. The XM8 variants include a designated marksman model.

In the meantime, gunsmiths here have been toiling in the Custom Firearms Shop, or “skunk works,” to crank out the customized M16s, dubbed the Squad Designated Marksman Rifle.

They recently finished modifying more than 200 M16A4s for the 3rd Infantry Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team (Unit of Action), which is set to deploy to Iraq early next spring. When they go, they’ll pack enough of the customized rifles to outfit a designated marksman in every squad.

Modifications include a special match-grade barrel, an improved trigger, bipod legs and a special match-grade 5.56mm bullet.

The refinements, AMU officials say, make the modified M16 far more accurate at long range than the standard-issue version.

Putting a soldier into the role of squad-designated marksman has become increasingly popular since that assignment was designed into the Stryker brigades the Army began standing up in early 2000.

But the battlefield asset quickly spread beyond Stryker units. Identifying a long-range shooter in the squad became commonplace when infantry units began deploying to Afghanistan in 2001.

Combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, ranging from remote patrols to intense urban warfare, have created a big demand for soldiers with sniper-like skills. But snipers are in limited supply, so squad-designated marksmen have been used to fill that role. The marksmen have been shooting to a maximum range of about 600 meters, twice that of a good rifleman, though short of the 1,000 meters of a sniper.

But the marksmen needed a rifle with more punch at the longer ranges. The Army began pulling M14s out of storage for a quick fix. The M14, chambered for 7.62mm, served the U.S. military until 1967, when it was replaced by the M16.

But soldiers selected as their squad’s designated marksmen were unfamiliar with the M14.

“It’s like, ‘Have you ever hunted deer?’ ‘Roger.’ ‘OK, you’re my M14 gunner,’.” said Sgt. Jake Davis, 82nd Airborne Division, who served in Afghanistan with C Company, 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, from June to September 2003.

The modified M16 requires much less training than the M14, because soldiers already know the weapon, said Lt. Col. David Liwanag, commander of the unit.

Another problem with the M14 is there are no spare parts in the Army inventory in case “it rolls off a Bradley and breaks,” he said.

The problems have captured the attention of the Army’s senior leadership, who last summer ordered the Infantry Center to compare the Squad Designated Marksman Rifle to the standard-issue M16, the M4 and the M14.

Twenty-six soldiers from 3rd Brigade, 3rd ID participated in the shoot-off Oct. 18-29. They shot about 3,500 rounds from the various weapons at targets that were between 100 and 600 meters away.

Dutch Waldheim, project officer with the Infantry Center’s Soldier Battle Lab, could not talk about the details of the evaluation but said soldiers in the tests found they shot better at longer ranges with the modified M16 and standardized 77 grain, 5.56mm match ammunition.

“I would say the soldiers in the evaluation would give the nod to the [Army Marksmanship Unit] weapon,” he said.

The upgrades include a heavier, match-grade barrel that’s fluted to lighten the weight and allow it to cool quicker.

The barrel also floats freely, meaning the hand guard or sling is no longer attached to it. The hand guard now screws directly into the weapon’s upper receiver and the sling is attached to the hand guard rather than the barrel to reduce the chance of bending the barrel when the sling is tightly cinched.

The trigger also has been upgraded to a two-stage match trigger, which gives the shooter better control of the trigger squeeze.

Each M16 is also fitted with folding bipod legs for more stability.

Staff Sgt. Rod Cameron, a sniper with 10th Mountain’s 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, said his unit tried to find commercial gunsmiths who would make similar modifications to M16s for designated marksmen.

“We were going to have to go through local dealers, and it would have cost like $2,000,” he said.

That’s no longer a problem. Cameron attended the designated marksman course in mid-November to learn how to set up a designated marksman program at his unit.

The gunsmiths at the AMU skunk works can give him customized M16s, built to military specifications, at cost.

“We can get mil spec weapons for $400 to $600, with match ammo,” he said.

“I’m sold on it.”
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