UPDATE ABOUT NGSW SELECTION DATE: Maj. Gen. Anthony Potts said that decision about the selection of The Next Generation Squad Weapon rifle and the automatic rifle is expected to be published by mid-2022.
Every few decades, the US Armed Forces initiate R&D programs for the latest generation weapons. From SPIW, over ACR and finally OICW, they all should have resulted in new generation firearms for various purposes. They experimented with dart ammunition, duplex rounds, caseless ammo, airburst grenades… you name it.
So far, none of these solutions achieved standardized military usage – 5.56×45 and 7.62×51 are still the mainstays, but the armed forces are aiming to change that.
NGSW – A Step Forward
All advancements can be categorized into two types: evolution and revolution. Evolution is a gradual adoption of new technical solutions, creating a slow increase in performance. Revolution, by contrast, aims to shift the paradigm altogether by creating new solutions that replace the old systems outright.
All previously mentioned programs attempted to introduce a revolutionary concept, and in addition to new technologies used to improve the weapons themselves, they focused on ammunition as well. The aim was to improve ammunition performance as much as possible, whether by using dart hypervelocity projectiles, rapid-firing duplex rounds, low-mass caseless ammunition, or airburst grenades for rifle-mounted grenade launchers. Many analysts just loved all the theoretical advantages of these concepts, but practical testing revealed numerous flaws. The proposed weapons were usually very expensive and often, not all that efficient compared to those already widely used by the military.
In time, it became apparent that the good old M4 carbine or assault rifle variant, an optional M203 under-barrel grenade launcher, and the M249 light machine gun still had some life in them, as they’re all good weapons with long-term viability. They have their flaws, sure, but they’re still the most widely used weapons in the US Armed Forces.
During the previous decade, a lot of attention was given to the new 6.5 – and 6.8-mm ammunition that was expected to replace 5.56×45 and 7.62×51 rounds. Despite excellent ballistics, low mass and acceptable recoil, these rounds were not widely adopted. And now, we’re facing the first results of the NGSW (Next Generation Squad Weapon) program – in January of 2020, three contestants offered prototypes for the second stage, so let’s check them out!
Assault Rifles, Machine Guns and Fire Control Systems
Unlike previous programs that were primarily focused on replacing assault rifles and sometimes carbines, NGSW is meant to replace machine guns and aiming enablers or advanced fire control systems as well. NGSW-R is the designation chosen for assault rifles and carbines and NGSW-AR for machine guns. They’re all supposed to share the 6.8 mm caliber, which is similar to 6.5. They both have a rather long projectile with better ballistic performance, lower air resistance and high stopping power – much higher than any 5.56 rounds.
This decision makes a lot of sense because infantry logistical support is much easier if (almost) all weapons use the same caliber; that way, all members of a squad can share ammunition no matter their firearm. In exceptional cases, like Afghanistan, where 6.8 rounds just didn’t have enough range, one or two machine guns can be replaced with the latest SIG Sauer MG 338 using the powerful .338 Norma Magnum rounds.
Six companies have suggested their own solutions for this program: “General Dynamics Ordnance & Tactical Systems” (GD OTS) and “True Velocity” have a joint showing, “Textron” is partnering up with “Heckler & Koch” and “Olin,” and “SIG Sauer” is going solo. The companies are free to offer various solutions for both weapons and ammunition. All showcased prototypes have integrated batteries to power the advanced targeting system developed under the umbrella of the Next Generation Fire Control program.
Now, these are all undoubtedly very expensive devices, but they’re expected to see use by more than elite special forces units. How successful they’ll remain to be seen, as cost-effectiveness is one of the things that sunk previous similar projects.
General Dynamics and True Velocity: the High-Tech
Going for a bullpup rifle configuration is a brave move considering how traditional American military tends to be – they tend to accept new developments only after they’ve proven themselves during armed conflicts and/or in the hands of other armed forces.
Their weapons have the longest barrels out of all offered, which is definitely an interesting choice, considering that the US military has been steadily moving away from the 20″-barreled M16 to the 14.5″-barrelled M4. It can’t be disputed that longer barrels offer better range, penetration, better use of gunpowder gas, and (in theory) even accuracy. However, the modern circumstances of most US soldiers just don’t show the need for those traits – at least they don’t seem to be justified by the drawbacks. GD’s NGSW-R has a 20″ barrel while the NGSW-AR sports a 22″ one, which is consistent with rifles and machine guns using 7.62-mm rounds. The final firing rate hasn’t been determined yet, but it will likely be somewhere between 500 and 750 rounds per minute. The rifles can be equipped with Inconel-based suppressors which are light and resistant to high temperatures, allowing the reduction in rifle weight. They’re very modern looking with straight lines, standard Picatinny rails and a transparent magazine (it makes ammo checks much easier).
NGSW-AR has an integrated bipod, which was expected since it aims to replace the M249. However, ammo capacity remains one of the big issues for this type of machine gun, and it remains to be seen how GD and True Velocity will solve that. At the moment, both AR and R variants have 30-round magazines (with the AR using a box magazine), which is completely inadequate for a weapon meant to replace M249, which is belt-fed. A longer, higher-capacity magazine would elevate the rear part of the weapon too much and ruin the low silhouette. On the other hand, a high-capacity double drum magazine (C-mag) would be pretty uncomfortable considering the position of the grip. A drum is still a somewhat better solution due to its size, but nowhere close to sheer capacity of a belt. The rifle weighs under 10 lbs. while the machine gun weighs under 11 lbs., ammo included. The rifle that heavy is a strange choice for a “modern” piece of hardware that’s meant to replace the M4A1 that weighs 7.75 lbs. fully loaded.
True Velocity is in charge of the ammunition. So far, the only thing we know aside from the caliber is the fact they’re using composite material casings which are supposed to be 30% lighter than their brass counterparts.
Textron, Heckler & Koch and Olin: the Avant-garde
These weapons were designed by Textron and H&K, with Olin being responsible for the ammunition. It basically looks like an adaptation of M27, which is a standard-issue service rifle of the US Marine Core. M27 itself is a variant of a German rifle HK416, which uses a short-stroke gas piston system and a rotating bolt. The rifle has a classic configuration and it weighs under 9 lbs., while the machine gun weighs under 12 lbs.
Not much needs to be said about the NGSW-R feeding mechanism, which uses standard magazines. The machine gun, however, is belt-fed with a canvas bag housing the belt, which is a rather unique choice. Esthetically, these firearms probably won’t win any prizes, but they’re an interesting combination of a tried and tested internal mechanism and a very modern power supply of a complex targeting system. The rifle can be mounted with a suppressor; Textron and H&K hired Lewis Machine & Tool Company to take care of that part.
Ammunition is telescoped, meaning the bullet is completely encased in the shell casing. In theory, this makes the bullet more compact, but it also makes it more complex and expensive as it’s very difficult to make these kinds of rounds fit properly. The polymer casing saves on mass and makes the whole round more resistant to corrosion. On the other hand, the mechanical properties of the polymer may necessitate a thicker case, which increases the size, somewhat diminishing some of the advantages of the design. In addition, polymers are known to be less resistant to heat than their metal counterparts, so that might be another issue Olin will have to contend with.
Sig Sauer: The Conventional Approach
Sig Sauer adopted a classic design, at least judging from the appearance; we still don’t have any info about the firing mechanism, although the general assumption is that it uses a short-stroke gas piston system. In addition, it reputedly features SIG’s proprietary recoil mitigation system which should help with the accuracy. It’s possible that this system is similar to the one used by another SIG machine gun, MG 338. Basically, shots are timed to occur when a significant part of the gun’s mechanism, including the barrel and gas system, moves forward and thus reciprocates during firing – this forces the recoil to overcome the momentum of the forward-moving components.
The suppressor is also made by SIG, from heat resistant Inconel alloy. The rifle handles identically to M16 and M4, which are tried and tested models. This greatly cuts down on training and familiarization time and simplifies the whole process. The assault rifle uses a 30-round (probably) magazine, but the machine gun can be both belt-and magazine-fed, with the belt being the primary method. The rifle should weigh under 9 pounds with a barrel length of 13 inches. The machine gun, on the other hand, should weigh around 12 pounds and has a 16-inch barrel. Rapid barrel replacement is an especially useful feature, usually reserved for “full power” machine guns that weigh twice as much.
Compared to General Dynamics’ prototype, these weapons are relatively short-barreled. But it’s still not clear exactly what kind of propellant will be used for the ammunition: fast-burning gunpowder can make do with shorter barrels due to excellent usage of propellant gas which allows it to achieve sufficient initial velocity.
Finally, SIG is making their own ammunition: 6.8×51 mm. It’s probably the most conventional approach out the three offered. The contours are standard, but the material is something different. Eschewing the classical brass casing, SIG opted for steel back part of the casing, while the rest is made of brass. We can only speculate on the purpose of this design, but it’s likely it’s implemented in order to increase the pressure (i.e., the speed at which propellant burns) in the round, which should compensate for the relatively short barrel.
All the NGSW suggestions are very interesting and quite different. It still remains to be seen what the Armed Forces will choose, but considering their previous tendencies, SIG may have a slight edge over its unconventional competitors. In addition, SIGs MG 338 machine gun has been accepted by the SOCOM, so this could just be the beginning of the future contracts assigned to the company. We shouldn’t be too hasty, however, as it’s possible that the final choice will be combining the weapon of one manufacturer with the ammo of another.