One of the distinct advantages of working for a place like Military.com and Defense Tech is that on occasion you get to spend a day at the firing range slingin' lead from the latest in military weaponry.
Our boy Bryant Jordan went down to Blackwater USA to test fire the Kriss .45 cal. submachine gun a couple weeks ago, and I just had the pleasure of spending the day out at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland getting some trigger time on a variety of weapons the service is pushing to troops in the field.
First of all, it's a big deal to even be allowed on base at Aberdeen. Some of the U.S. military's most closely-held testing and evaluation of armor, ballistics and explosives goes on there and officials are loath to let anyone in - especially the press - to get even a preliminary glance at what they're up to.
But thanks to an invitation from the Fort Belvoir, Va.-based PEO Soldier, Aberdeen opened its doors on Wednesday for a small group of journalists to come out and learn more about Army weapons. On hand were program managers, test directors, engineers and everyday Joes to answer questions and give the ground truth on what's being developed.
Testers showed off six different systems either already deployed to the field or ready to be fielded with units in the Sandbox, including:
XM320 Grenade Launcher - Pretty close to my favorite one to shoot, the XM320 is a major upgrade for the M203, 40mm grenadeslinger attached to the barrel of M4s and M-16s. Finally H&K has gotten through to the Army about its side-eject under-barrel grenade launcher. The Army plans to field about 71,600 XM320s in a one-to-one replacement of the M203 beginning in late 2008 and it's a good thing. The XM320 can be detached from your combat rifle and fired as a stand-alone weapon (which is how we fired it at Aberdeen) but I'll tell you, it's tough to handle in that configuration for tall people like me since the butt stock doesn't extend very far.
The best part of the system, however, is the integrated electronic sighting system that comes with it. Developed by Insight Technology, the optic uses an iron sight reticule that's precision balanced. A soldier uses a hand-held range finder to determine the distance to a target, dials in the yardage in five-yard intervals on the XM320 sight and a handy green/red light and digital bar tells the shooter whether he's on target and shooting level. I hit the target at 150 yards on my first shot. The rifle-mounted laser illuminator can be used at night with the system to find a target even in darkness, making the new grenade launcher far more effective in all conditions, said Maj. Larry Dring, assistant product manager for individual weapons with PEO Soldier.
M26 Modular Accessory Shotgun System (MASS) - Here was another modular weapon that's pretty cool, but a little more difficult to use than the grenade launcher. Mounted under the combat rifle - or configured as a stand-alone weapon using a standard M4 pistol grip and collapsible butt stock, the M26 is designed to fire both standard 12 gauge rounds and non-lethal munitions. The M26 has an extendable choke-tube that allows the shooter to place breeching rounds against a door frame from a safe distance with the shotgun attached to his rifle - a method that eases the transition between shotgun and rifle in combat situation, said Sgt. 1st Class William Kone, test and evaluation NCO at Aberdeen.
That's all well and good, but I found the cocking mechanism to be clunky and inefficient. Instead of an under-barrel pump-gun style action, a metal bar attached to the bolt extends out to the side, forcing the shooter to transition his hand position to load another round into the breach. I'm sure with practice, I could have gotten as fast on the action as Kone, but I wasn't the only one with that complaint. The Army plans to field 38,000 MASSs beginning in late 2008 to replace its Mossberg 12ga. pump guns.
Read the rest of my weapons report from the Aberdeen range at Military.com's Warfighter's Forum