Question: Can you build an all-purpose battle rifle that can change
colors, barrels, and weapons packages on the fly, comes equipped with
a grenade launcher and shotgun that can take out Sigourney Weaver's
aliens, and jams far less frequently than the M-16? Answer: The new
XM-8 rifle by Heckler and Koch.
For almost 40 years, the M-16
5.56mm combat rifle, in all its incarnations, has served as the
United States military's primary battle rifle. To give you an idea
of how long a time that is, the only other long gun with a similar
tenure is the .58 caliber Brown Bess musket -- which entered service
with the Continental Army in 1776.
The German weapons manufacturer Heckler & Koch believes it's high
time for a change; specifically, it would like to see the United States
retire the M-16 and replace it with a slick, new, high-speed battle
rifle dubbed the XM-8. And boy, what a rifle it is …
Army of One
The XM-8 weapon system -- for that's what it really is, a family of
related weapons -- packs quite an arsenal in its portable shape (6.4
pounds, lighter than the current M-4 at 8.85 pounds). It takes its
cue from the M-29 Objective
Individual Combat Weapon (OICW), a $10,000 prototypical technology
test bed from the late 1990s. The OICW was a combination of "kinetic
energy" projector (a battle rifle that fired the Remington .223) and
a semi-autonomous, air-bursting 20mm grenade launcher. The XM-8 is
the "kinetic energy" portion of the OICW, plus a receiver to which
all other components can be attached or removed.
Complementing the XM-8 are two attachable weapon systems, the XM320
40mm single shot grenade launcher and the LSS 12-gauge shotgun. The
XM320 incorporates a swing out barrel design with integrated sight,
and is capable of firing all currently manufactured 40mm grenades,
while the LSS is capable of firing both lethal and non-lethal shotgun
shells, as well as specially-designed breaching shells. Both weapons
are mounted forward of the magazine, underneath the barrel, and can
be installed by the operator in minutes without tools.
The XM-8 is a model of efficiency in use: its operation controls are
ambidextrous, it has three firing modes (single round, three-round
burst, and fully automatic), and can handle a variety of magazines,
including a 30 round semi-opaque (to allow the shooter to see how
many rounds are left in the magazine) hard plastic magazine, which
can be rapidly reloaded in close combat situations, and a 100-round
drum (for sustained fire), as well as 10-round weapon qualification
magazines and M-16 style metal magazines.
Flexible on the Fly
Whether the user is a sniper or part of an attack team, the XM-8 can
accommodate all uses. It uses four different interchangeable barrels
(a 9" compact, a 12.5" assault, a 20" match grade sharpshooter, or
a 20" heavy barrel for sustained high ROF applications), each of which
can be swapped out at the unit level in less than 2 minutes. The weapon
can also be equipped with a 5-position collapsible stock, a flat butt
plate (for an extremely small weapon profile), an adjustable sniper
stock, or a folding stock.
Attention has also been paid to look and feel with the XM-8. Forward
handguards incorporate non-slip materials to improve weapon handling
and retention. The XM-8's non-metallic components are manufactured
from fiber reinforced plastic polymers which can be molded in numerous
colors, and can be removed or replaced by the operator without specialized
tools. In other words, whether you're in the jungle or on the sand,
the weapon's "skin" can be changed to blend with its surroundings.
The XM-8 doesn't skimp on optics, either. Its optics/sight package
is an "all-in-one" combination: an infrared laser target designator,
IR target illuminator and 1x close combat red-dot sight. In addition
to incorporating the three sights into one system, the sight is zeroed
at the factory and can be removed and reinstalled by the operator
without specialized tools, or the loss of zero. Contrast this with
the M-16/M-4 series: While advances have been made in their combat
optics to improve rifle accuracy, these advances have brought additional
issues (increased weight, cost, the need to continuously re-zero the
devices when removed).
The XM8 is designed as a modular weapon; different
barrels and other modules can be swapped quickly
depending on operational requirements. The
XM8 will also be lighter and more reliable
than the existing M4 carbine and M16 rifles.
If this rifle is approved, the Army could
XM-8 Baseline Carbine
• 12.5" barrel
• Common modular assemblies
XM8 Carbine with Add-On XM320 Grenade Launcher
• Side loading 40mm grenade launcher
• Short 9" barrel
• Butt cap receiver cover
• Personal defense applications
• Heavy 20" barrel for sustained fire
• Integral folding bipod
• 100-round drum magazine
Content and graphics from Heckler &
Koch USA Website.
How useful are the XM-8's interchangeable parts? Here's a quick look
at some of the M-16's problems in this regard:
A half dozen incarnations of the M-16/M-4 are currently in service,
and none of them have parts that are 100% interchangeable with a different
For the M-16, mounting optics requires the use of weapon specific
(read: non-interchangeable) adapters.
The M-16A1 (still in widespread service with the National Guard and
Reserves) was designed to fire the M198 5.56mm Ball cartridge, while
the M16A2 and later rifles (used by Active Duty formations) was designed
to fire the heavier M855 cartridge. While both rifles can chamber
and fire both types of bullet, the M885 bullet weighs more, and is
less accurate when fired from the M16A1.
On the other hand, the XM-8 has:
One common component receiver, with the remaining parts (barrel, optics,
stock, hand guards, auxiliary weapons) attached as needed.
Combining three optic units into one not only reduces weapon weight,
but also simplifies equipment issue, maintenance and accountability.
One common bullet type (5.56mm cartridge) for all models.
This is not to say that soldiers are going to enter battle toting
a golf bag of rifle barrels and accessories, but rather, replacement
parts can be replaced or exchanged at the unit level without worrying
about system compatibility. At the end of the day, does any of this
make the XM-8 more lethal than the M-16? No, as both fire the same
5.56mm cartridge … but the XM-8 completely outclasses the M-16 is
in reliability, ease of maintenance, and reduced logistical requirements.
Of course, all the fancy weapons and attachments on a rifle don't
mean much if it jams on the operator. One of the M-16's major flaws
is jamming, due to its gas operating system, where propellant gasses
are used to cycle the rifle's bolt and fire bullets. In the M-16,
these gasses are vented directly back to the rifle chamber itself.
This means that every time the weapon is fired, propellant gasses,
gunpowder residue, and other particles are deposited directly on the
bolt face (this process is called "fouling"). Eventually, the bolt
becomes too dirty to fully lock into place, rendering the weapon unreliable.
While no gas-operating weapon (including the XM-8) is immune to the
effects of fouling, the XM-8's system presents a clear advantage over
the M-16: The receiver utilizes a six-lug rotating bolt that fully
supports the cartridge case and is driven by a "pusher" type gas piston.
This piston is unaffected by barrel changes, and is even capable of
operating if the weapon's barrel is full of water. Most importantly,
it eliminates fouling of the bolt face, which dramatically improves
the weapon's overall reliability in a sustained firing situation.
In short, soldiers using the XM-8 in combat should have one less thing
to worry about, and that one thing can mean the difference between
life and death.
Goodbye to the Past
If you add up all the M-16's flaws -- its poorly designed gas operating
system, its need for constant maintenance and cleaning, its lack of
interchangeable parts - it becomes clear that the XM-8 is superior
to the M-16/M-4 family in all respects. It is lighter, cheaper, more
reliable, and easier to maintain than the current rifle. In short,
it surpasses all of the M-16's strengths while eliminating all of
its weaknesses, thus earning a spot on our Military Gear Hot List.