You’ve probably seen the M249 squad automatic weapon in action-packed movies and thrilling video games. This light machine gun was first introduced in 1984, with its roots tracing back to the Belgian FN Minimi. The U.S. Army uses them along with the M4A1 Carbine.
However, in 2022, the U.S. Army embarked on a revolutionary upgrade, bidding farewell to the M4A1 Carbine, M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, and the 5.56 mm family of ammunition. Stepping into their shoes are more advanced next-generation squad weapons (NSGW), notably the XM7 Rifle, XM250 Automatic Rifle, and a 6.8 mm family of ammunition.
With a minimum purchase of 100,000 up to 250,000 units, this upgrade brings a longer range and a lighter weight. Soldiers’ firearms can now reach targets previously thought unreachable, all while maintaining the agility needed for close combat scenarios.
Here, we will explore the impact of these new weapons, the innovative technology they bring to the table, and their comparison with their old counterparts.
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What Are Next-Generation Squad Weapons?
The Next Generation Squad Weapon (NGSW) program is an initiative the U.S. Army started in 2017. They wanted to create better weapons for the troops at the squad level to address evolving threats. The weapons are being developed to be operationally relevant, and the new prototypes are being developed based on soldiers’ feedback.
This program focuses on two main weapons: the Rifle (NGSW-R) and the Automatic Rifle (NGSW-AR). These use a common 6.8 mm cartridge and share a Fire Control (NGSW-FC) system.
The Rifle, or NGSW-R, employs the 6.8 mm ammo instead of the 5.56 mm that the M249, M4, and M16 rifles use. They will also utilize small arms fire-control systems. On the other hand, the Automatic Rifle, or NGSW-AR, has to meet some specifications. These include being no longer than 35 inches, weighing less than 12 pounds, and hitting targets as far as 3,900 feet away.
The three vendors involved in the competitive prototyping phase for weapons and ammunition were SIG Sauer, General Dynamics – OTS, and Textron Systems. Meanwhile, Vortex Optics and L3Harris are the two vendors for fire control.
They are testing different prototypes to see which ones perform the best. If all goes well, these new weapons will replace the old M4 and M249 Squad Automatic Weapons that our close combat forces use, including special operations, infantry, scouts, and combat engineers. The new weapons are expected to be deployed in the fourth quarter of 2023.
Why Does the Squad Automatic Weapon Need to be Replaced?
The main reason driving the Army’s push to replace the M249 is the infantry who stand to endure 70 to 80% of the casualties on the battlefield. Retired General Milley clarified that he wanted those brave soldiers to have every advantage without holding anything back.
However, that’s not all – there are several other compelling reasons why the Army is determined to find a worthy successor for the squad automatic weapon:
The Need for New Technology and Reinvention
The Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) has been used for almost 60 years and shoots traditional 5.56 NATO ammunition. The M249 received negative feedback from Army soldiers who found it big, heavy, and unreliable.
This prompted the Army to replace the current M249 Squad Automatic Weapon with a new design employing modern technologies. The new weapons will be lighter with a longer range and improved accuracy.
Lack of Maneuverability
Although the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) is lighter than the M60, it still lacks maneuverability due to its size and weight. With a length of 41 inches (1,041 mm) and weight of 17 pounds (8 kg), or 22 pounds (10 kg) when loaded with a 200-round belt and plastic ammo box, the M249 proves to be a burdensome weapon.
Consequently, weight became a crucial consideration when the military started searching for alternative replacements.
Shortcomings in Fire Power and Lethality
The need to replace the 5.56 mm round arises from reports suggesting its reduced effectiveness at long distances and advancements in body armor that reduce its lethality. Moreover, the M249 is becoming outdated compared to the latest body armor technologies.
The new body armor is stronger, and the 5.56 mm NATO rounds used by the M249 are less effective than before. Consequently, the U.S. Army requires new weapons to penetrate this modern, stronger body armor. That’s where the Sig Sauer XM250 comes into play.
Needs Improvement in Weapon Control and Accuracy
The M249 platform has a very high firing rate, shooting about 800 rounds per minute. However, this creates difficulties for the operator in controlling the recoil and maintaining accuracy.
The M249 has a margin of error of about twelve minutes of angle (MOA). Simply put, when shooting from 100 yards away, the bullets from the M249 could land up to twelve inches away from your position. At 500 yards, the margin of error increases to 5 feet. Machine guns lean more on suppressive firing rather than precise targeting, so some degree of spread is desirable.
While the U.S. Army accepts this as part of their firepower strategy, the U.S. Marines have put their M249s in storage and replaced them with the M27 Infantry Automatic Weapon (IAR). The Marines, who value accuracy and well-aimed shots, believe the lighter and more accurate M27 can fulfill the mission with fewer firing rounds.
Comparison of Squad Automatic Weapons and Next-Generation Squad Weapons
Here’s a direct comparison of squad automatic weapons and the next-generation squad weapons that succeeded them:
M4A1 Carbine vs XM7 Rifle
When it comes to guns used by the U.S. Army, we have two interesting contenders: the M4A1 Carbine and the XM7 Rifle. The XM7 replaced the M4 Carbine, so it’s worth comparing these two.
The M4A1 Carbine weighs around 6.34 pounds (2.88 kilograms) without any suppressor, and it can hold up to 210 rounds. On the other hand, the XM7 Rifle is a bit heftier, tipping the scales at approximately 10.07 pounds (4.54 kilograms) without a suppressor.
Now, let’s dive into the caliber. The XM7 Rifle fires 6.8 mm rounds, while the M4A1 Carbine has 5.56 mm rounds. Why the change? Well, studies showed that the existing 5.56 mm rounds had limited range and didn’t deliver enough power for small-caliber squad-level weapons. That’s why they switched to the 6.8mm caliber to improve range and lethality.
Like the XM250 light machine gun, the XM7 Rifle is designed to extend the range, enhance accuracy, and increase overall effectiveness with those 6.8mm rounds. The XM7 is also equipped with the XM157 Fire Control optic. This provides unparalleled precision and tactical advantages. It’s got a laser range finder, ballistic calculator, visible and infrared lasers, and even a compass.
M249 Squad Automatic Weapon vs XM250 Automatic Rifle
The M249 was the go-to light machine gun for the U.S. Army that’s been around since 1984. It provided a lighter option than the hefty M60 machine gun. Soldiers and Marines preferred it because of its reliability and firepower. However, as technology and body armor advanced, the M249 lost the spotlight.
The XM250 is a newer light machine gun designed by SIG Sauer specifically for the U.S. Army’s Next Generation Squad Weapon Program. It was introduced in 2022 to replace the M249. It sports a free-floating reinforced M-LOK handguard, which allows direct attachment of accessories onto the mounting points.
One of the standout features of the XM250 is its weight, which is about 4 pounds lighter than the M249. That means soldiers can carry it around more easily without sacrificing firepower.
Speaking of firepower, the XM250 comes with the latest advancements of the 21st century. Its gas system has been improved, making it even more reliable and efficient.
Another significant upgrade is the new cartridge, the .277 Fury, which is a deadlier and more efficient hybrid steel base/brass cartridge ammunition. The development of the .277 Fury and the XM250 took into account the experiences of soldiers facing insurgents and extremists in the Middle East to ensure they meet the needs of modern soldiers in real combat situations.
The XM250 isn’t just about power. It also brings some ergonomic improvements, making the design more user-friendly, comfortable, and ambidextrous.
5.56 mm Family of Ammunition vs 6.8 mm Family of Ammunition
The 6.8 mm cartridge is better than the 5.56 mm in distance, accuracy, and lethality to the target. It performs even better than the most advanced 5.56 mm and 7.62 mm ammunition. By switching to the 6.8 mm ammunition, soldiers can have a longer range and more power than the current 5.56 mm round without the added bulk of the 7.62 mm.
While there are no plans for the Army to introduce new weapons in 6.8mm caliber instead of the standard NATO calibers, they are working on converting some existing arms to use the new intermediate round. The Army is actively seeking a conversion kit for the M240B and/or M240L machine guns currently using 7.62 mm to maintain the durability, reliability, and function of these weapons.
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