One day soon, U.S. infantrymen could go into battle with Next Generation Squad Weapons equipped with a compact, mechanical stabilizer designed to drastically improve accuracy, especially when shooting from a standing, unsupported position.
The aim control enhancer, or ACE, was once under consideration to be part of U.S. Special Operations Command's now-defunct "Iron Man" suit program. Now, the device is being evaluated as part of the NGSW effort.
The ACE device mounts to the weapon's Picatinny rail system. The shooter grips the ACE with the non-firing hand, much like a rifle foregrip. Once activated with the push of a button, the device is designed to compensate vertically and horizontally for even slight movements from the shooter's body, keeping the muzzle on target.
Peter Rowland, a spokesman for the Army's Project Manager Soldier Lethality, confirmed that NGSW program officials are looking at the ACE and many other products and concepts that could possibly add to the NGSW's effectiveness.
"The program is looking at anything and everything in a variety of different aspects, whether it's trigger or barrel technology, and this is just another one of those," Rowland told Military.com.
The Army is in the final phase of evaluating 6.8mm NGSW rifle and auto rifle prototypes made by Textron Systems, General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems Inc., and Sig Sauer. The service hopes to select a winner and start replacing the 5.56mm M4A1 carbine and the M249 squad automatic weapon in infantry and other close-combat units in 2022.
Matthew Angle, an electrical engineer, designed and built the ACE device while working on his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2014.
Angle, who never served in the military but enjoys shooting, decided that "this should exist and built one," he told Military.com.
One of the keys to effective marksmanship is a stable body position, which is difficult to achieve in an unsupported position. U.S. military trainers teach techniques such as breathing control to minimize muzzle wobble, but it can take years of practice to overcome.
The ACE uses small gyroscopes and inertial sensors to monitor how the rifle is moving, making small adjustments horizontally and vertically to reduce muzzle movement, Angle said.
"The idea is just to get rid of the shake you can't control and still let you aim the thing," he explained. "It does reduce your wobble pattern. ... In most people, we can take out somewhere between 60 and 80 percent their wobble pattern size."
In 2016, Angle was showing off his device at a defense innovation summit in Austin, Texas, when the ACE caught the attention of a program official from Special Operations Command's Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) effort, he said.
After demonstrating the ACE to TALOS program officials in Tampa, Florida, U.S. SOCOM awarded Angle a Small Business Innovation Research contract in 2017 to refine his device. But SOCOM canceled the TALOS effort in February 2019 after the program failed to produce a futuristic suit featuring full-body armor protection and enhanced physical performance capabilities.
That same month, Angle began working with Army NGSW program officials to develop the ACE through a Florida-based company known as Majr Mechatronics LLC.
The current version weighs just under nine ounces and will run for up to five hours on two CR 123 batteries, said Angle, who estimated that the ACE will cost in the $1,000 range for retail sale.
"Reliability has been the focus with the Army effort," Angle said. "They do some pretty heinous things to these, especially in the drop tests. We are happy with how we are doing there."
Rowland, who would not go into detail about the Army's evaluation of the ACE, said that the Army remains open to testing new innovations that could possibly make the NGSW more effective.
"Even though we've got the three [NGSW] prototypes doing their own thing, if we should come along and find something that we can attach to this and make it even better once we make a final selection -- great," he said.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.