I learned a lot of things in the Marine Corps. One thing I learned is that cheating and bending the rules are two different things. Conducting a platoon vs. platoon field op? Well, is it cheating if I go to the headquarters’ tent to ask Gunny for a water jug and snap a photo of the map showing every platoon’s location? Nope, it’s gathering intel. That’s rule-bending.
And the Marine Corps pulled their own version rule-bending when they took the M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle and used it as their official service rifle replacement.
The Army has conducted what seems like half a dozen attempts to replace the M16/M4 series of rifles, and they typically spend a ton of money and accomplish nothing. The Marine Corps adopted the M27 IAR originally to replace the SAW. IAR stands for infantry automatic rifle, and the Corps wanted to replace the SAW with an automatic weapon that was lighter and more maneuverable.
The M27 IAR replaced the SAWs, then it became the Designated Marksman Rifle, and now it’s the issued rifle to every Marine Infantrymen and most of the combat arms. Sneaky Marine Corps. What’s interesting is this is not the first time an IAR has been issued over a belt-fed weapon. In fact, this is the fourth time the U.S. Military has tried to use an automatic rifle in the squad support role.
Here are the three other times we’ve done this dance.
The Browning Automatic Rifle
The O.G. infantry automatic rifle came from John Moses Browning. It was initially designed for WW1, and at the time, Browning’s son was serving overseas. The BAR was produced a little too late for World War 1, but as we know, WW1s sequel came around, and WW2 gave the BAR some action.
Like a lot of action. It served admirably in Europe, the Pacific, and North Africa. Chambered in the powerful 30-06 round, the M1918A2 BAR spat 30 caliber man stoppers at a relatively slow and controllable 300 to 450 rounds per minute. At a time where most rifles were bolt actions and most machine guns weighed hundreds of pounds, the BAR offered some serious firepower and mobility.
It made a big difference and allowed the United States doctrine of maneuver warfare to succeed across the globe in the face of unparalleled evil. The BAR didn’t see the end of its service until the early days of Vietnam. Even then, it saw plenty of action with South Vietnamese forces. However, a 4 foot long nearly 20-pound rifle wasn’t exactly efficient by modern standards.
By the time Vietnam came around, the M14 was the rifle of choice, and the M60 had become one of the first true general-purpose machine guns. The M60 was carried by dedicated machine gunners and weighed almost 24 pounds. It didn’t fill the gap of a light machine gun, so the U.S. Army Ordnance board went about designing an infantry automatic rifle version of the M14.
Do you ever wonder why we have an M14 and an M16 but no M15? Well, the M15 was a heavily modified M14 made for the squad automatic role. Known as the M15 Squad Automatic Weapon, the rifle was identical to the M14, except it wore a heavier barrel and stock, a front and rear pistol grip, a hinged buttplate, and a bipod.
However, it was never fielded because it turns out an M14 with a bipod and hinged buttplate performs just as well as the M15. So what we saw was the M14E2, which became the M14A1. The M14A1 utilized a bipod, a BAR sling, a folding vertical pistol grip, a rear pistol grip, a plastic upper forend, and a muzzle compensator.
Some went to Vietnam, but this infantry automatic rifle kind of sucked. The BAR’s extra weight and slow firing rate made it successful. The lighter M14A1 and its 750 round per minute firing rate made it overheat quickly and hard to control. It was abandoned, and it seems most were given to ARVN ( Army of the Republic of Vietnam) forces.
The Stoner 63 Automatic Rifle
Marines took several hundred Stoner 63s to Vietnam for test and evaluation. The Stoner 63 had various configurations, including rifles, machine guns, and the infantry automatic rifle variant. The infantry automatic rifle variant utilized a top-feeding magazine, just like the European Bren guns. It chambered the lighter 5.56 round, fired full-auto only from an open bolt configuration, and utilized a bipod for additional control.
During testing, the Marines found the automatic rifle version to be useless and turned them in. It was an interesting design, but magazine-fired weapons don’t provide the best suppression in vicious firefights. The top-loading magazine allowed for a good low prone with a bipod, and the gun was superbly light compared to the M60, but no one loved it.
In the 1980s, the USMC fielded a more modern infantry automatic rifle. Kind of. In fact, at the time, it was actually an older weapon. Marine fireteams each featured an automatic rifleman armed with a full auto M16A1. The only real change they made to the rifle was attaching a bipod to it.
The M16A1 offered a full-auto setting and was actually quite controllable. With its closed bolt design, it had some of the better traits of a rifle in the automatic rifleman position. The poor Marine issued an infantry automatic rifle carried upwards of twenty magazines though.
The M16A1’s downfall as an infantry automatic rifle really came down to the fact it wasn’t designed for that role. It would overheat quickly, become too hot to handle, and again, 30 round magazines don’t provide much long-term firepower.
Is An Infantry Automatic Rifle a Bad Idea?
We’ve seen the rise and fall of the infantry automatic rifle over and over again, so that leads us to ask, is it a bad idea? Well, admittedly, an automatic rifle cannot provide the same level of firepower as a belt-fed machine gun. A magazine-fed firearm just can’t match a belt.
However, a lighter, more maneuverable weapon fits a rapidly moving force like the USMC a good deal better. Most Marine Corps platoons receive support from a machine gun team with medium machine guns. Also, when you outfit everyone with an M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle, then everyone has suppression capabilities, and the gap between an IAR and a real machine gun lessens considerably.
The USMC’s M27 features a design that is made for full-auto fire. Also, each infantry company will keep six SAWs in the armory, just in case a platoon needs a little more firepower. The adoption of an infantry automatic rifle can be done correctly, and it seems like the USMC just might be doing so.
Plus, they Trojan horsed a new service rifle into the Corps without a big expensive trial and upheld the greatest tradition of being the step-child fighting force. What say you folks? Can an IAR work in the infantry?
Or should we go back to belt feds? Let me know what you think below.
Alan Cranford says
It’s confusing when crew-served weapons are represented as individual weapons and when individual weapons are employed as crew-served weapons. While in Kuwait as an armed security officer protecting a US Army logistics base, some of the 9mm pistols were crew-served during pistol training–a gunner, a loader, and a crew chief directing fire.
Browning’s Automatic Rifle was designed to be plugged into the standard 8-man rifle squad as a replacement for the issue Springfield M1903 rifle as an individual weapon. At the time John Moses Browning invented his automatic rifle (first called a “machine rifle”) the machine gun was a form of light field artillery and machine gun employment wasn’t well understood. There was no market for an overweight select-fire service rifle prior to the First World War. During that war, France invented the modern rifle squad, with a shock element (maneuver element armed with rifle grenades, hand grenades, and bayonets fixed to rifles) and a fire element (a light machine gun team armed with the select-fire CSRG Model 1915 Chauchat machine rifle). The Chauchat had problems but was the best thing on the battlefield in its class (with the rare Madsen second best and the superior Lewis actually a true crew-served light machine gun) and the French regarded it as effective to only 200 meters–in the days that a service rifle was regarded as being “effective” beyond the 1000-meter mark. Separation of weapon and how it was employed is a mistake that many make. Immediately after the Great War every army in the world wanted two items for their infantry companies–a good crew-served light machine gun and a semiautomatic service rifle. The crew served LMG was given priority because an LMG was determined to create more casualties when placed in each rifle squad than the rest of the rifles combined–though hand grenades and rifle grenades were nice to have. Imperial Japan was more honestly advertising their large rifle squads as “light machine gun sections” because the rest of their squad existed to protect their squad automatic weapon and find targets for it. There were one or two rifle grenade launchers in the Japanese squad, too–and often, the platoon mortar squad attached one of their knee mortars (called “heavy grenade dischargers) directly to a rifle squad.
Sounds like a digression, but at the squad level the entire rifle squad became servants of the squad’s light machine gun. A crew of at least two were required to feed box magazine-fed light machine guns, and quick-change LMG barrels were common, but with a crew of two or three the LMG could put out as many projectiles as a bolt-action magazine service rifle in five minutes (ammo supply exhaustion was the reason for only five minutes–rifles often were issued only 40 to 60 rounds and LMGs commonly had only 500 rounds distributed among the gunner, assistant, and the rest of the squad). Anyway, the asymmetric French-style rifle squad of 8 to 15 men (averaging about 10) had enough warm bodies to do this.
The US M1 Garand Rifle was adopted in 1936 to replace the Springfield (and the more numerous M1917 substitute standard service rifles of World War One) and the Browning Automatic Rifle and the few Thompson submachine guns that were taken into service. The BAR was an individual weapon used as a crew-served weapon because of weight and cost. The Thompson was a bit handier than the BAR though still heavier than the Springfield but the Army still wanted to make it a crew-served weapon! No wonder the M1921 Thompson kept failing service trials! When you expect your sidearm to do the job of a water-cooled belt-fed heavy machine gun, you are going to be disappointed. According to period manuals the rifle company would have just four weapons–the new M1919A4 light machine gun (two with another two in reserve), a very good 60mm light mortar, the new Garand rifle, and for those people requiring a personal defense weapon but didn’t need a rifle, the improved M1911A1 pistol! Check the 1940 Small Wars Manual for details on arming patrols–the Marines believed that putting two Garands in a standard Marine Corps rifle squad (9 Marines at the time the Small Wars Manual was published) and giving the rest of the squad the standard M1903 rifles would provide adequate firepower in war. The reason for two Garands was that the Banana War Marines found that their squad leader’s span of control was too limited in close terrain (jungles and villages) for instant reaction, so when in close terrain the Marine Corps Rifle Squad was divided into two teams that were anchored around either a Thompson or a BAR. These small teams were too small for a true light machine gun, but the intent was to maximize mobility in pursuit of lightly burdened guerrillas while providing fire superiority. The Garand was thought to have sufficient firepower to replace Marine Corps BARs and Thompson submachine guns. Perhaps it did with long-service professional Marines in low intensity battles, but during the frontal assaults from the sea on Japanese island forts and the close-quarter mop-up following, Marines learned to use smaller fire teams (putting their firepower up front) and build those teams around an individual automatic weapon.
A semi-trained BAR man armed with the M1918A2 Automatic Rifle was supposed to select the slow automatic fire rate for combat use. Browning intended that his BAR be used as a semiautomatic rifle with automatic fire reserved for “emergencies.” The slow automatic fire rate was determined to be insufficient for anti-aircraft use and produced fewer hits on moving targets than did the rapid automatic fire rate. There was a problem with the rapid automatic fire rate–bullets would miss the intended target. Cone of fire from a BAR on rapid automatic was wider than the cone of fire from a Garand (semiautomatic only) and that is demonstrated in the 2nd Marine Division video, but even as early as the Spanish American War it was demonstrated that in real firefights spewing a lot of bullets kept enemy riflemen from firing by killing those stupid enough to poke their heads above trench parapets.
On a formal range with generous time limits and scoring percentage of hits versus number of rounds fired will give the contest to semiautomatic rifles firing from a closed bolt over even a water-cooled heavy machine gun mounted on a tripod and stabilized. I managed to fire a perfect machine gun qualification table with an M60 machine gun mounted on its tripod, sandbagged for stability, and using the Transverse and Elevation mechanism to aim after the first shots, but that was a range fire trick and not really practical in offensive maneuver combat. TIME is the commodity that is shortest in battle–and other things get traded to make time–ammunition and lives are two trade items. An automatic rifle–either M27 or BAR–will not match the insane amount of firepower that a belt fed crew served machine gun can spew out in 30 seconds or less. Much of the time the enemy on the modern battlefield isn’t fully visible and the automatic weapon is used to pollute the area containing the enemy (“area fire,” a target about 10 meters in diameter contrasted with a point target about a half-meter in diameter) and giving time for the rest of your team to maneuver in closer for more effective fire. On the other hand, belt-fed machine guns really require a two- or three-man crew for efficiency. One man is harder to detect and locate and kill than a crew of three, and if a fireteam is built around a belt-fed machine gun, that fire team is actually a machine gun crew. The M249 was designed for one gunner to operate but traditional dogma has an assistant gunner along to keep the gun in action, especially after the gunner becomes a casualty. There are even Close Quarter Battle editons of the M249 and a supplemental assault magazine (aka “nut sack”) holding a shorter belt of 100 rounds because that 200 round belt magazine can be bulky when used at hand-to-hand combat distances (the US Army now regards 50 meters and less to be “close combat”) and the buttstock and barrel are shortened, too.
The Marines seem to be replacing their M4 carbines with M27 IARs because of shortcomings of the M4 in long-range combat and when used on the Known Distance qualification range either the M16A4 or the M27 will score higher. Actually, the M249 is a poor choice for the KD rifle qualification range. On the other hand, if you’ve got to put a bullet every foot across a 33-foot “target area” in three to five seconds, the M249 will shine where an M4 on semiauto will fail to put out the minimum of 33 bullets out in five seconds. Even on full-auto the M4 won’t cut the mustard, especially when the target is at 50 or 100 meters–and the M4 used to have the Colt 3-shot burst device instead of full-auto.
What are you trying to accomplish? The M27 promises to be adequate around 95% of the time (low intensity conflicts) but other weapons are needed for small unit combat. The US Army regards company-sized elements to be “small units.”
Yes, I have to explain the official jargon because the battlefield is an undiscovered country. Those who have experienced battle are not “in their right minds” because memory is emotional state dependent. Want perfect memory? Relive that hell. The clinical test lab or the controlled rifle range do provide some valuable information, but combat doesn’t match the rifle range. It’s about like training with go carts on a closed driving course and then taking a main battle tank to war. Obviously the M249 is the wrong tool for many uses–and testing the M249 out on the standard Marine Corps KD rifle qualification course. Try running a bayonet assault course using the M9 pistol sometime–if you can safely do so. The closer testing and training resemble battlefield conditions the better actual battlefield performance achieved.
Crew-served M9 pistols just aren’t practical.
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Magazine fed rifles cannot keep an adequate rate of fire, except possibly with drums (which are unreliable in austere conditions), but then the drum is slow to reload so unacceptable as well. I’ve spoken with a few marine machine gunners who have voiced similar concerns. What is needed is a better M249 or possibly a better maintained M249, or better yet a better designed light machine gun, perhaps a Knight or Negev. These SAWs are lighter and in at least the case of the Negev, lower recoiling as well.
Every battle no matter the terrain comes down to fast thinking and the ability to make outside the box decision’s to figure out the quickest way to eliminate the threat. That said the best automatic weapon at anyone’s disposal is between their ears.
Mad Dog says
Um, for me, a shotgun and granade launcher works. Is it spray and pray or suppression fire? Is it jungle or sandbox? It is always the hand, not the glove.
Co. E, 2/506 Inf., 101 st Airborne Div.
P. Thompson says
As a contractor we bad access to match grade ammo and DMR upgrades and aiming devices. We also had access.to upgrades like trigger springs, firing pins, different parts for the m4 that really increased.its.performance considerably. I liked the.platform personally.and.some of the.new aim assist devices.are.great
Mad Dog says
Um, for me, a shotgun and granade launcher works. Is it spray and pray or suppression fire? Is it jungle or sandbox? It is always the hand, not the glove.
Co. E, 2/506 Inf., 101 st Airborne Div.
Carried a saw for 5 years (terminal lance) back in the 90s we trained using 2 saws per fire time, I think they called them assault teams. Imo I cant see a mag fed rifle ever replacing a belt fed weapon unless the corps ditched its fire and maneuver tactics. Occassionally I still wake up reaching for my saw, I think the marine corps will be doing the same
Brian Foley says
Okay….let’s be straight and honest about this…it’s never the glove, it’s the player. The Taliban is giving everyone a run for their money using a rifle designed in 1947 and still in use today. Everyone cries “we need longer distance fires”…the Taliban use a rifle with an effective combat range of 400 meters…let that sink in for a moment. The big difference seems to be 7.62mm v. 5.56 mm…or so I’m told. “But 7.62mm is too heavy to hump around”…except for the Taliban who seem pretty comfortable with it. So a couple of billion dollars later we’re still farting around trying make up our minds between 7.62 or 5.56 or 6.8….and the Taliban is taking over Afghanistan with a rifle designed in 1947……yep, ain’t progress grand.
I think we should just produce AK 47’s. They seem to get the job done. And in battle 762 ammo is plentiful. The AK 47 has been kicking our asses for years. I remember how f’d up our experiments in Vietnam with trying newly designed rifles. A lot of people died because of terrible designed rifles. The AK is a kick ass, easy to maintain rifle. Drop in the mud, pick it up and start firing. Drop a AR in the mud, good luck. AK 47. 1947 it’s been kicking our asses every since. That’s a lot of years.
Sheldon C. Robertson says
You’ve clearly never seen a mud test featuring an AK pattern rifle or an AR/M16 pattern rifle. Stop spewing nonsense you know nothing about. You have been proven wrong and there are multiple test videos online on this very subject and the results are unambiguous, the AR rifle and all of its derivatives are overwhelmingly superior to the Kalashnikov in mud. Especially if the weapon is fully immersed.
I see you fall prey to age old “AR bad” myth. You said a couple of things that are true though, AK platform is reliable and easy to maintain. Dispelling other myths about it, it is also fairly accurate platform. Now your comments on the AR platform are unfounded and factually incorrect. The experiments in Vietnam were very successful and the platform was accepted well by the troops, preferred well over the awful M14. Infact the Viet Cong feared the weapon, telling each other beware of the man with the black gun. The malfunctions associated with the AR platform stem from the munition used, and the lack of cleaning kits available. After the right ammunition and proper cleaning kits were issued the AR platform worked flawlessly. Covered completely in mud, through sand, and after thousands of rounds the gun still worked. All it need was the right ammunition and some light maintenance. The platform’s benefits far out weighed the cost of maintenance, and that is why the AR platform is still in service today. The AK platform, infact has many issues in the mud, but does fare better in the sand than the AR platform. If you know anything about gun design then you know that designing a gun is all about trade-offs. In this case the AR platform and the AK platform are both phenomenal platforms and have there place. There are few rifles that are the best over all the others and at the current moment those two and a couple of others cannot be beaten.
Stephen Kennedy says
The 6.72 mm and 5.56 mm have equivalent energies at the muzzle but by the time they are 200 to 300 meters downrange, the 123 gr. bullet of the 6.72mm retains much more of its kinetic energy than the 55 gr. bullet of 5.56mm.
Mark Thomason says
Many BAR guys in the Pacific loaded AP ammo. It went right through many of the Japanese barrier materials, like coconut logs and lighter concrete. That was serious suppression fire.
Matt Moore says
Most wwii machine guns didn’t weigh “hundreds of pounds” unless your using a wwi maxim.
Finally an author of an article that knows the breach end of a gun from the muzzle, A Marine.
I’m tired of reading inaccurate gun articles written by idiot lefty gun haters who call any semi auto rifle an “Assault Weapon”
The M1918 BAR saw limited use in the Great War. It was the successor to the Chauchat. Both were operated by a 3 man fire team. Gunner, Loader and scout who carried extra magazines and provided flank and rear security to the gun. The M1918 had a semi and a full auto setting and was primarily intended to be fired in semi-auto mode. The Lewis gun was fielded by a section of 15 or 16 men most of who carried loaded magazines in vests on their backs and chests. The automatic rifle and light machine gun was used in conjunction with rifle grenades to suppress heavy machine guns long enough for hand bombers to close and finish the job with grenades. In the 1920’s the 3 man team was folded into the rifle squad and the BAR became the squad base of fire for suppression of enemy fire in the offense and thickening the fire in the defense. The M1918a2 used in WW2 had a low cyclic and a high cyclic setting and was primarily used in the low cyclic. The high cyclic rate of fire was mostly intended for anti-aircraft use. The US army rifle squad in WW2 was 12 men, squad leader carried a Thompson SMG, one BAR and 10 riflemen with M1’s. The Germans had a 9 man squad; squad leader with SMG, 0ne MG34 or MG42, assistant gunner and ammo carrier and 5 riflemen as a maneuver element. The USMC has a 13 man squad with a squad leader, 3 fire teams with 4 men; one SMG, one BAR and two M1’s. The primary purpose of the squad base of fire is suppression of enemy fire in both the offense and defense. In theory equipping every infantry man with a selective fire assault rifle eliminates the need for a specific squad base of fire. However nobody has yet come up with an assault rifle that will handle suppressive fire for long periods of time or allow barrage fire at long ranges with out overheating. For that you need water cooling or quick change barrels. Typically the barrel is changed around every 200 rounds. This means you need somebody to carry it and the extra ammo, so your back to a 3 man crew. Plus the gun will need flank and rear security. This whole issue of automatic rifle, light machine gun, assault rifle and squad base of fire has been going round in circles for a 100 years with no end in sight.
John Chalus says
Stoner 63A Commando is a excellent weapon. It is belt fed from a 100 round box or a 150 round drum. I was an AW Man in a SEAL platoon in RVN. We had 4 Stoners and 5 modified M60s. The rest of the 14 man platoon had M16s or CAR15s with 203s.
Anthony Combs says
Belt feed machine gun with replaceable barrel is or should not go anywhere
Anthony Combs says
Belt feed machine gun with replaceable barrel is or should not go anywhere
John Doe says
M27 iar can absolutely work for a force like Marine corps especially with a couple extra SAWs in the armory just in case. But absolutely could not work with a force like the army slow moving but heavy hitting. So yes I believe it’s a win…
Ultimately on the modern battlefield, small arms are not what defines the outcome of most firefights, smart munitions and information are. Why spend millions and millions of dollars on swapping from a direct impingement to piston AR when the benefits of such a side-grade are minimal at best? The money would be far better spent on equipping squads and platoons with more ISR/comms tech and/or shifting the funding to supporting fires and PGMs.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, most long-distance firefights were spent suppressing the enemy until air power could drop a PGM on the enemy position, what rifle you were using to keep the enemy’s head down doesn’t ultimately matter, and a purpose built LMG like the SAW is far better suited for the role of suppressive automatic fire than the IAR could ever be with swappable barrels and belts of ammunition.
In most fighting where your small arms do matter, you’re usually firing on semi-automatic anyway, thus defeating the purpose of having a rifle designed for automatic fire. I think the IAR program was billed as some great lethality upgrade to brass and congress while the actual goal was to give the Marines an excuse to toss their aging M16’s and hand-me-down M4’s for new gear.
Buck Fiden says
‘Every Marine A Machine Gunner’.
As I understand it the Corps also experimented with a Colt extra heavy barrel for the M16 platform that used some sort of hydraulic buffer instead of the standard recoil spring, with a bipod and A2 sight.