I’ve seen a number of articles on the web and in magazines recently that are concerned with the concept of a universal cartridge for military service. It’s interesting that there’s been so much attention paid to the idea recently in the press. The general idea behind a universal service cartridge is rooted in the desire to streamline supply and thus combat ability. That’s a good idea and has been more or less successfully accomplished at several points in the collective history of mankind.
From an American perspective, there have been several conflicts where ammunition and weaponry were nearly universal. Going back to the Civil War, both sides were armed with weapons that could take the same .58 caliber minie ball. Granted, the .577 Enfield bore was slightly different, but the paper cartridges and caps could be used in weapons of either side.
That was a unique circumstance in our history, as two distinct sides tooled up with essentially the same firearm and ammunition. Of course, there were various militias with a hodgepodge of firearms, but that’s the same in almost every war. The regular armies at the time were equally matched as far as equipment, but not in manpower.
This was, however, one of the first industrial wars that man had fought and as such, the standardized capabilities of the weapons and ammunition were set by the commanders at the time. The great advances of the era such as the Henry rifle were frowned upon by the brass, as they saw rapidly firing weapons as a waste of time. The real waste of time, though, were those very generals and secretaries. Untold numbers of soldiers died because of their ignorance.
That wasn’t the last use of a universal ammunition. In WWI, most armies or countries had a proprietary weapon and ammunition combination. Germany with the 7.92x57mm. Great Britain with the .303. The United States with the .30-06. The primary concern with these weapons and ammunition wasn’t weight savings or soldier loadout. That concept hadn’t really been addressed as the arms race was all about power at distance.
That wasn’t a bad idea at the time. The smallbore race led armies to what we consider full-power ammunition in the late 1880s. Bore size dropped from .45-50 caliber down to an average of .30, but as small as .264 and as large as .323. The weight savings was dramatic considering that soldiers had a rifle of similar weight to his muzzleloader or breachloader, but could carry many more rounds of powerful, flat-shooting ammo.
Remarkably, little changed from WWI through WWII. The armies that fought both world wars were armed with essentially the same rifles and small arms. Machine gun technology had improved to make the weapons lighter and easier to carry, but the prospect of a universal round wasn’t realized and some armies had different rounds for their rifles and machineguns, again confounding interchangeability.
What was realized by the war was a need for a mid-powered rifle round. That war gave us the 7.92x33mm and the 7.62x39mm. These were fantastic rounds for their intended use. In point of fact, there may not be a more significant and culturally important single cartridge than the 7.62x39mm. The combination of the AK-47 and the 7.62 round have shaped the world was we know it now more than any other weapon, including the nuclear bomb.
For all the merit it has, the 7.62x39mm is a joke to those looking for a universal military cartridge. It displays poor trajectory, limited long range ballistics, and is heavy by comparison to other modern options. And it wasn’t designed to be universal.
The primary problem with a universal service cartridge and why I believe that one will never, ever be successfully adopted is the issue of gaps and theory of use. People are intelligent and creative and it only takes us a short time to adapt to our circumstances. For every round out there, there’s always a new gap created that can then be filled by someone looking to do so.
The Soviet military complex designed a full suite of small arms to include the AKM, AK-74, PKM, RPK, SVD, RPG-7, and several other variants. They recognized the need for a multi-caliber system instead of designing a set of weapons around a single universal cartridge. And that’s the point; if your goal is a universal cartridge, you are thus forced to design all your weapons around the limits of that one cartridge.
We’d all agree that the 1999 Honda CR-V was a great car and does 90% of the things we need a vehicle to do. But it isn’t a pickup truck or a motorcycle. Having all motor vehicles be CR-Vs would make sourcing parts and service easy, but not everyone will need, like or want a CR-V. That isn’t the way of the world. There is a lot that car can do, but there’s plenty it can’t. The same is true for cartridges.
Accepting the limits of a given system are hard for some people to do, which is why we keep innovating and moving to newer and better things. It is my educated opinion that there will never be a universal cartridge in service with any country. The merits of a single cartridge system are many, but completely unrealistic in application. There isn’t a cartridge that I feel would answer the call that has been made or ever will be made.
We are at a point in small arms development where there isn’t really anything new to be had. Sure, variations of a theme come and go, but we are today fighting with small arms technology that would’ve been understandable to anyone as far as hundred years ago. There isn’t too much of a difference when you really sit down and realize that they are all just different sides of the same die. The only things that change are the materials and execution of a given system.
The most common fighting cartridges of our era aren’t new at all. The 7.62x54R’s development dates to the 1880s and it is still an extremely relevant cartridge today. The 5.56x45mm and the 7.62x39mm go back to the end of WW2 and finally came face-to-face in the early 1960s right alongside the 7.62×51. We all know the stories about the inadequacies of both the M16 and M14 in Vietnam, but the call for another round or system wasn’t ever answered, nor should it have been. A multi-cartridge and weapon inventory is here to stay, period.
I think that there isn’t a time when the world won’t be fielding dozens of calibers in multiple weapons. As we go further into the future, I can only see an increasingly diverse number of cartridges and variations being fielded. The problems of our world can’t be answered with a single cartridge. As soon as one country settles on a given round, the next will seek to outperform it. It is the nature of mankind to compete and strive to find new ways to kill each other. It is unavoidable and a fact of our existence.
Look at your own guns. Sure, 9x19mm could do everything you want for target practice, competition, self-defense, and collecting. However, we all know that the 9mm isn’t great for deer hunting. Enter 10mm. Sure, you could move all the way to 10mm for carry and all-around-use, but then you encounter why you had the 9mm in the first place. So why not have both? Ah, and that is the crux of the argument. We need to stop looking at the cartridge discussion as selecting one tool for all jobs, but rather selecting the proper one for a given application. Sure, you’ll have a shed that looks like Home Depot threw up in it, but you’ll be glad you had both a tack hammer and a sledge hammer at the end of the day.
In closing, it is my prediction that the next cartridge to be adopted in an official, but perhaps limited capacity, will be the .300 Blackout. It will likely take the place of the MP5 and other suppressor-friendly applications if it hasn’t already. I don’t think it will be a primary cartridge for service, but rather an upgrade that may see use by select groups or individuals. And, as we go, the world goes, and soon there will be standardized variations and broad adoption. We will see proliferation of it and other cartridges in much the same way we do animals in an ecosystem, each filling their purpose, just as nature intended.