Is the 5.56mm too small for Afghanistan?

There’s an interesting article over at Defense Tech about the problems grunts are having with long range engagements in Afghanistan. Unlike Vietnam, with its dense jungles, or Iraq, with its urban terrain, many parts of Afghanistan have long vistas. Quite often, our troops find themselves in fights at ranges from 300 to 500 meters. As an added bonus, they almost always find that the enemy has the high ground. The M4 carbine, which is the standard rifle for our troops, just isn’t designed to shoot that far.

MAJ Thomas Erhart, as a student at the School of Advanced Military Studies at the Army’s Command and General Staff School, has written a monograph that addresses the concerns, and offers some solutions.

I don’t really agree with all his conclusions. He raises valid concerns about the lethality of the current M855 5.56mm x 45 round. But just because it probably isn’t immediately incapacitating at 500 meters doesn’t mean that a hit on a Taliban is worthless. Would the Army be better off with a 6.5mm or 6.8mm round? Almost certainly. But the Army isn’t going to go there. So the real question becomes, what can we do with what we have?

First, he minimizes the influence of SAWs. The M249 is quite accurate for a machine gun, and can easily reach out 800m or more.  Second, while the M4 is hardly the optimum weapon for ranges past 300 meters, it can place effective fires out to 500 meters. It just takes a lot of training.

And training is the heart of the issue. The Army just doesn’t train troops to shoot past 300 meters. And there’s no real good reason why they shouldn’t. MAJ Erhart addresses some of the reasons why, mostly as a holdover from the days of conscription. And frankly, the current marksmanship training is probably good enough for non-combat arms troops. But there is no reason why infantry troops shouldn’t be held to a higher level of marksmanship.

The Marines have long trained at ranges of 500 meters (though this marksmanship training isn’t terribly realistic, any training at that range is better than nothing).  The Army could quickly and easily address the training concerns, without major changes to doctrine or equipment. They can, and should.

12 thoughts on “Is the 5.56mm too small for Afghanistan?”

  1. Well Brad, like me, I am sure you remember studying for promotion boards and memorizing the “definition” of an M-16 Rifle. Though it was 16 or more years ago for me (in two years, I’d have been eligible for retirement had I stayed in… which is making me feel old), I can still distinctly remember the effective ranges for the M-16. 500 meters for a point target and 800 for an area target. But I also distinctly remember never actually hitting the 300m target on the range. Mind you, I qualified Expert due to a piece of advice from my Drill Sgt that said, skip the three 300m targets and save the rounds for ones you miss. You could still make Expert with those three misses.

    But while I know the Marines had a 500m target, the fact is, with an unassisted eye, your odds of hitting a point target at 500m is between slim and none. Hell, I’m willing to bet that the red dot of the modern sights completely obscures the target at that range. Add to that fact our soldiers aren’t using M-16’s, they’re using M-4’s. And there’s no way on this earth that an M-4 is more accurate at long range than an m-16. I’m no ballistic expert, but same round or not, shorter barrel = worse accuracy at range as far back in history as I can look.

    I’m no member of the 7.62 mafia. I nevere had a problem with 5.56mm. Like I said, I’m no ballistic expert and I never had to fire for effect. So shooting was nothing more than a pleasant exercise to me. If shooters today say they need a larger caliber, I’m not going to disagree with them. But the solution of, “just put a bigger bullet in the barrel” doesn’t sound to me like it will fix the problem. You’ve still got a short barrel on a carbine and an unassisted sight that doesn’t help you see the target.

    The only solution I can see is restoring the original concept of the squad designated marksman. Armed with a long rifle with a magnification sight, with sufficient cross training amongst the squad to allow someone else to pick up the role if the shooter is incapacitated. We don’t want to go back to long rifles for the entire squad, as we went to carbines for very good reasons (long rifle is a hindrance in close quarters, most fights in an urban environment occur at 150-200m range if not closer, etc). But someone integral to the squad needs access to a long arm for the stand off fights. That’s my thoughts at least.

    1. WHile your solution of a squad designated marksman sounds reasonable, and in fact is being put into the field as I write this, it limts firepower in Afghanistan where a majority of the firefights are at ranges beyond 300 meters due to Taliban learning curve having being achieved. So we have a 12 man squad not really because we are operating at 10 or less due to casualty rates, only the saw gunner who is spraying rounds downrange so he doesnt have to carry them and one Squad marksmen can engage targets. The AR is a piece of shit, at 200 yards or greater as half or more of the talibs have better body armor on. So a typical engagement envolves 4 mortors rounds then a series of RPK bursts as 4 to 12 talibs move running and gunning drawing fire with Ak’s and 8 guys with dragonovs and RPKs sitting back waiting for us to run our of ammo to pick us off. Upgrade the M4 its sucks assholes.

  2. It’s trite but true: The most important part in any weapon system is the nut behind the buttplate.

    The effective range for ANY weapon has remained the same from the Civil War until today: 300 yards. It’s a physical barrier that reflects the distance at which the average soldier can distinguish and engage a man-sized target with a reasonable chance of hitting it. Certainly some men have better eyesight and others less so, but the 300 yards is a constant for weapons with iron sights and naked eyeballs. Anything beyond that and you have to start including optics, ballistics, etc.

    Now, AW1 Tim’s suggestion is the same as I’ve always offered: retool and reissue the M-14 for those theaters with large open areas. M-4’s/M-16’s are fine for built-up areas. trenches, jungle, and the rolling landscape of Europe. Other areas, not so much.

    With the M-14 you sacrifice quantity of ammunition for greater range and lethality. Weight is pretty much a trade-off, since the lower individual weight of the M-4 and it’s ammo is offset by increasing the size of the basic load for it.

    I also agree with upping the training for soldiers receiving the M-14. Send ’em to the range for the 500 yard targets. Teach them proper range estimation techniques, OR simply put optics on all the weapons. Strip the optics off the M-4’s and use those, if needs be.

    Having entire units armed with M-14’s that can reach out and touch someone at long range might be a lovely surprise for the enemy, especially considering the damage that the Nato round can do.

  3. I am dating my self but a friend of mine and I went to this place that was great to shoot. We found a 4′ high concrete block wall that had every core poured full of concrete and filled with #5 rebar. (It might have been #4 I am shaky on rebar) He asked me how many shots I thought it would take to punch a hole through the wall. I guessed 20. (I watched the A-team!) He said 5.

    Sure enough 5 shots with a .223 had a grapefruit sized hole through rebar reinforced concrete cinderblock walls.

    The 223 might not be able to stop a car by busting a engine like a 308. But it has plenty of punch.

    More is better, give them all 308 unless they want 5.56.

  4. The problem isn’t penetration.

    The current 5.56mm has better penetration than the 7.62mm at almost every range.

    But then you end up with someone that has a .22cal hole in them, and is often not immediately incapacitating.

  5. The British ran into this same problem in the Falklands campaign in which the long-ranges in which fires were often exchanged over a barren terrain exposed a lack of long-gun penetrating power & reach at the longer distances–especially
    against fortified positions with exposed flat approaches.

  6. Both sides were using the FN, one in Inch, the other in Metric Pattern. Both were firing the 7.62mm NATO round.

    At long ranges anything has penetration problems. The sectional density and initial velocity will determine what is considered long range. At 100 meters penetration will not be a problem with the 5.56 or 7.62. The 7.62 will leave far more of a permanent wound channel than the mouse gun will. The problem was seen in Vietnam and it was observed more than once that a 9mm bullet was more effective than the 5.56mm was. A lot of the combat was at less than 50 meters and even less than 25. At less than 25 meters the 5.56 had real problems. The 7.62 did not.

    The Army really needs to get with the program and change to something in the 7mm class. Yes the ammo is heavier, but I never met any combat vet that complained about the weight of his ammo, just that it worked and stopped the enemy.

    Having said that, A friend who was a Green Beret in ‘nam said that he had seen enemy troops take hits with a .50 cal who were not stopped. I had heard that both Charlie and the NVA drugged their boys in combat, but I’ve regarded that as a legend.

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