Once in a While We Get It Right: A Thumbnail History of US Arms Procurement

The appearance of the Krag-Jorgensen infantry rifle in Gunfight Friday was a reminder that although the United States has developed innumerable high-tech weapons over the years, we haven't done too well when it comes to procuring a basic infantry rifle with which its grunts can fight our endless wars. And this has been going on for a long time.

During the War of Southern Hubris, Union ordnance officers refused to consider adopting repeating rifles, such as the Henry and the Spencer, despite the fact that they worked fine and the troops coveted them. The repeaters that were used were either private purchase or issued at the personal insistence of Abraham Lincoln, who had a better grasp of weaponry than his ordnance department.

After the war, the Army once more turned its back on the repeater, despite its established record in combat, and despite the fact that Indian wars were fought at close range, and that rapid fire was a necessity, and that all this was well known, and went with the single-shot Springfield .45/70. The people who paid for this decision were not the officers who made it.

In 1892, by which time almost all of Europe had re-armed with bolt-actions using smokeless-powder ammunition, the U.S. Army decided that it was time to replace the .45/70 and, after careful consideration, selected the Krag-Jorgensen, which was carried by the soldiers of those two military powerhouses, Denmark and Norway. The principle attraction of the Krag seemed to be its magazine cutoff, which would keep foolish American soldiers from shooting up all their ammunition and thereby achieving fire superiority.

However, it quickly became obvious that the Krag was inferior to the Mauser, and that we needed a more powerful cartridge than the .30/40. However, rather than simply buy Mausers, or make them here under license, the Army designed its own version, which would be called the Springfield Model 1903. It was a very good rifle, although probably not as good as the original, and when the Germans saw it, they said:

"Ve sue you now, ja?"

And they did, for patent infringement, and won.

And that would have been that, but in 1906 we discovered that we had designed the .30/03 cartridge to fire a heavy, slow-moving bullet that was far inferior to the high-velocity Mauser round, and so the cartridge was re-designed and designated as the .30/06, and the rifles were modified, and together they managed to whip the Kaiser's butt, due to the efforts of the French and British soldiers who had already died in the hundreds of thousands and bled the German army white in the process.

Then, in 1936, Army Ordnance did something right. It adopted the U.S. Rifle, caliber .30, M-1, the Garand, which was the best rifle any army had in World War II. But somewhere in the Soviet Union, a German landser fired the first round ever from a Sturmgewehr 44, (assault rifle, Model of 1944) and the Garand became instantly obsolete.

The STG 44 was made of cheap, stamped parts, held 30 rounds instead of the M-1's 8, and lay down a perfect storm of fire. The Soviets, and in particular a young tank sergeant named Mikhail Kalashnikov, were fascinated by the STG 44, and the result was the AK-47. The American reaction to the STG 44 was somewhat different. We ignored it, and in 1959, issued the M-14 as a replacement for the Garand. As our standard infantry arm it was an abject failure, although it was a very good rifle, and would go on to have a long and useful life in a highly modified form which its designers never envisioned.

What we switched to was a brilliant and truly ground-breaking design which the Army designated the M-16. The Department of Defense then proceeded to modify the M-16 to no good purpose, load its ammunition with powder for which it was not intended, and place its final design in the hands of accountants who knew nothing of firearms or warfare, but were pure hell on saving money. And that was only the beginning.

Eventually it all got straightened out, even if soldiers had to die because their rifles didn't work. But somewhere along the way, we decided that since the average range at which infantry fights had been taking place had been dropping since World War I, and now averaged well under 300 meters, that they would never take place at long range again.

Which brought us to Iraq, and especially Afghanistan, where it was found that very often engagements took place far beyond the 300-meter effective range of the 5.56mm round, which was woefully underpowered, and so the Army dug out its M-14s, scrubbed off the cosmoline, made Designated Marksman rifles out of them and put them back into service. And to their very great credit, both the Army and the Marine Corps have made a major effort to excel at long-range combat shooting.

However, the Army and Marine Corps still find themselves with a rifle/carbine whose design is 40 years old, that does not withstand wear well, and requires more maintenance than should be required in a combat arm. There are more modern designs that would do better. The XM Counter Defilade Target Engagement System is very effective, but will not be mass-produced for several years. There is the HK 416, the FN-SCAR, the REC7, and the XCR. But do we have any idea which we want?

No.

Do we have the money to replace our M-16/M4s?

No.

Have we begun any meaningful, systematic tests leading to the adoption of a new rifle?

No.

In short, it's business as usual. George Armstrong Custer's troopers would recognize the situation instantly.