Army's 'Subcompact' Rifle Search in Doubt

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From this morning's headlines at Military.com...

It could be a perfect fit for cramped cockpits and truck cabs -- a weapon potent enough to penetrate body armor, but sporting a bantam package that won't turn maneuvering in tight spaces into a Houdini act.

Though the Army says it's interested in putting a so-called "subcompact" carbine into the hands of certain Joes, the effort is likely to get kicked to the curb in favor of a new, full-sized carbine -- the victim of withering budgets and the service's focus on updating the M4.

Late last summer, the Army embarked on an ambitious analysis of the latest weapons the small arms industry had to offer. The effort focused mainly on possible alternatives to the M4 carbine, but its secondary goal was to look at subcompacts, or so-called "personal defense weapons."

These handy little guns can be anything from a submachine gun to a chopped-down carbine. The Army first announced it was interested in such a weapon in 2007, to give pilots, tankers and truck drivers a little more firepower than the Beretta M9 9mm pistol.

The service's interest prompted gun makers to gin up a variety of these James Bond-style weapons in multiple calibers and barrel lengths. Gun companies showed off their new designs at an Army industry day in November, but Army weapons officials still have no concrete plans for the effort's future.

"The subcompact has to serve a lot of different people ... it's much too early to say this is what we are looking for," Jim Stone, the head of the Soldier Requirement's Division at Fort Benning, Ga., told Military.Com recently.

Such a cautious approach has veteran gun makers doubtful that these new, compact weapons will ever make it to formal testing, let alone into Soldier's hands.

"I see this as an uphill battle," said C. Reed Knight Jr., owner of Knight's Armament Company. "The government still doesn't know what it wants."

Knight's Armament unveiled its new 6x35mm PDW at the industry day late last year. The sleek, 4.5 pound package has an effective range of 300 meters and can fire 700 rounds per minute on full auto, Knight said.

But the subcompact concept is nothing new. It all started with the .45cal Thompson and M3 submachine guns of World War II fame.

Over the years there have been innovations to the submachine gun genre, such as the Heckler & Koch MP5, a very popular 9mm weapon developed in the 1960s and still favored by numerous special operations and law enforcement units.

Experts say the only real drawback to the submachine gun is that its pistol ammunition isn't powerful enough for the battlefield. One alternative that emerged during the Vietnam War was the XM177, or "Commando" series of weapons. It fired the same 5.56mm round as the M-16, but came with a telescoping stock and 10-inch and 11.5-inch barrels.

The latest versions of these shorty carbines -- such as the H&K 416 -- emerged in 2004 at the request of some special operations units looking for something more reliable than their M4A1. The key to the 416's reliability is its piston gas system rather than the direct impingement system used on the M4 and M-16, which blows heat and carbon residue into the chamber.

And the most compact version of the 416 sports a 10-inch barrel -- that's 4.5 inches shorter than the M4's barrel.

Since then, the small arms industry has been flooded with new piston-driven carbine designs, many of them small enough for use as PDWs.

Among these is LWRC International's PSD. It has an 8-inch barrel and comes in both 5.56mm and the more potent 6.8mm. The Adams Arms Inc. PDW 5.56 takes the barrel length down do 7.5 inches.

Another type of PDW that's gained popularity over the past two decades combines the compactness of a submachine gun with small, rifle-style ammunition powerful enough to penetrate some types of soft armor vests and ballistic helmets.

The first of these appeared in the late 1980s when FN Herstal introduced its P90. The unique design features a 5.7x28mm round and an effective range of approximately 200 meters. The P90's bullpup layout and 10.4-inch barrel keeps the overall length at less than 20 inches, where and M4 measures 30.5 inches when the stock is fully collapsed.

The P90 has a 50-round magazine and can fire up to 900 rounds per minute. The weapon earned more notoriety when it showed up on the set of the TV series "Stargate SG-1."

A decade later, H&K came out with its version of the hybrid PDW, the MP7. It's chambered in 4.6x30mm and also has an effective range of about 200 meters. The 20-, 30- and 40-round magazines load through the pistol grip, making the MP7 resemble the venerable Uzi submachine gun. With this design, the 7-inch barreled MP7 measures only 16.3 inches with its stock collapsed.

By comparison, Knight's Armament PDW measures 17.5 inches with an 8-inch barrel when the stock is folded. The 6x35mm ammunition gives it an effective range of 300 meters with 50 percent less recoil than the M4 carbine, said Knight, who began developing his PDW in 2004 to fill the gap between the M4 and the M9 pistol.

"The 5.56mm is too big and the 9mm is too small," he said. "We really need something in between those."

As part of the request for information, Army weapons officials maintain the service is looking at all calibers for both the carbine and the subcompact.

The Army has made it clear, though, that it will not have a new requirements document for a subcompact until it completes the carbine requirement sometime late this summer.

"The carbine is the priority over the subcompact," the Army's Stone said. "I don't think you will see a new subcompact requirement this year."

The state of the economy will also force the Army to consider "is this worth my investment or not?" Stone said. "Separating wants and needs sometimes is very tough."

It's this kind of talk that makes Knight doubtful he will get a return on the $2 million his company spent developing its new PDW.

Knight said he knew when he started that the weapon would have less than "a 50-50 chance of it getting adopted.

"I think it will probably die a slow death," he said.

-- Christian

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