Buckle up, mall ninjas. It’s time to talk about the military’s choice of 6.8mm bullets for their rifles. I would say that I want this to be a detailed and well-mannered article, but I know that some of you just can’t handle a civil discussion so I’m going to put this out there in layman’s terms.
For you tl:dr readers who just want to you head to the comments and tell me just how wrong I am, here it is: I think that it would be a monumentally stupid idea to chamber any military rifle in 6.8mm and I don’t think it will ever happen in any broad capacity. It may be real for a brief time, but so were all the items on the Discovery Channel’s Future Weapons.
Every time we talk military rifles and cartridges I am stunned that there are so many of the industry’s brightest minds lurking in the comments section of my humble articles hidden behind generic online names. Like werewolves under a full moon, these prestigious experts wait for my critical thoughts to transform into 200+ IQ ballistic masterminds, top-secret military logisticians, and snipers with 500 kills each (that they can talk about).
Sadly, these saviors of Western civilization vacate after leaving their educated and irrefutable thoughts, never to return to the scene of their well-written victory over a blithering, uninformed millennial journalist.
If you’ve made it this far without commenting below, I’ll tell you again: the 6.8mm military rifle is a stupid idea and will likely never make it out of initial testing. The main reason I’m a critic of any 6.8mm rifle in service is that it’s an idea that looks good only on paper and has no real practical application over what is currently in service. Millions will be spent and wasted just to come to the realization that it will be cheaper and easier to upgrade existing weapon systems.
The first angle we’re going to look at is the financial and logistical drawbacks of the 6.8mm weapon family when it comes to general application. We’re going to have to assume that the full development of a dedicated 6.8mm rifle will not be a thing, which means that a private sector commercial option will be adopted for service, likely in the form of an upper receiver upgrade for the M4.
I can see a belt-fed system being scratch-built, but there are far fewer of them compared to carbines, which would make replacement of those somewhat feasible.
This mystery 6.8 cartridge desired by the military may be a type of caseless ammo, but those designs have rarely been successful for a variety of reasons. The caseless debate is one for another article, so I’ll save it for that time. If the rifle is going to be an M4 ‘upgrade’, it will be limited to the constraints of the standard AR magazine. The major problem with this is that there is only a limited amount of power that can be harnessed in that that set of dimensions.
For our example we will be considering the only successful (if you call it that) 6.8mm intermediate cartridge: the 6.8mm SPC. Despite the fact that it offers greater muzzle energy than the 5.56mm, it suffers tremendously in the weight category, coming close to 7.62x39mm in individual cartridge weight.
Having done a great deal with both 6.8 SPC and 5.56mm at ranges past 600 yards, I can say that the 5.56mm 77gr OTM military loads are superior to anything in 6.8 SPC at virtually all ranges. The reason for this is that the long, aerodynamic 5.56mm bullets can easily best the short, squat 6.8mm projectiles in flight much like they best the standard M43 7.62x39mm bullet. Weight savings is again critical here and 5.56mm will always beat 6.8mm in that regard by simple math.
There isn’t a known cartridge in 6.8mm that offers a significant advantage over either 5.56mm or 7.62mm NATO in the given size of their respective weapon platforms. If it’s replacing the 7.62mm in machine guns, I would think the military would go with something like 300 Norma Magnum to increase range/overmatch while staying in the same weight envelope as the M240. (More on ‘overmatch’ soon, so hold on.)
When it comes to replacing the 5.56mm, I don’t think that will happen as long as superior rounds like M855A1 exist. Polymer-cased ammo will likely be fielded before anything caseless is adopted.
If this seems disappointing, understand that the military has a long history of failing to deliver on even the most basic projects. Look at the trillion dollar laughingstocks like the Future Combat System, F-35, the B-1 Lancer, and Zumwalt-class destroyers.
On a more basic level, the ACU camo system, designed to work in any environment, was a total failure. But adding a brand-new cartridge and weapons systems to an already clogged, inefficient military procurement machine will work out just fine according to many ‘scholars’ I know.
For the people who believe changing the basic fighting instruments of the military is as easy as swapping guns in Call of Duty, just look at the multi-year Modular Handgun System (MHS) program and what a mess it was. I very much believe that the best gun won. SIG SAUER’s M17 is a better gun than what GLOCK entered and was actually modular, which was kind of the spirit behind the whole thing.
‘Experts’ say that SIG won because they underbid. Reality says they won because they delivered a superior gun that met the desired criteria set forth in the MHS competition, yet this simple, fact-based matter is hotly debated even today. It’s almost like facts don’t matter when five million fanboys masquerading as subject matter experts start crying like little children.
“Why doesn’t the Army love me, Papa?”
“Shhhhhh, little Gaston, they just can’t see that you identify as modular.”
The M17 contest is something of a mystery in that it’s the first time that the military as a whole has decided to equip their forces with a gun that can be readily adapted to the individual solder in terms of ergonomic features. It had always been a one-size-fits-all or a six-position stock, at best. If it took us this long to recognize that soldiers have hands that vary in size, it’s wishful thinking that they will be able to pull off a complete replacement of primary rifle systems.
While guns have been forced on the military in the past, that’s never been met with good results. What happened with the M16 in Vietnam is likely a foreshadowing of what will happen with this next-gen rifle and ammo. While AR platform rifles are good guns now, it has taken decades to get there.
The ballistic problem that this mystery 6.8mm round is supposed to solve is the head-scratcher called ‘overmatch’. It’s the loosely defined concept of the warfighter’s need to overmatch the enemy in firepower (among other things).
The military has become literally obsessed with this overmatch concept to the point that it has become a literal joke. And what, dare I ask, are we trying to overmatch? What weapons juggernaut are we pitted against that has made us call into question our fighting cartridges?
The answer is the 7.62x54R, a rimmed rifle round dating back to 1891, typically used in the PK general-purpose machine gun. While we tend to laugh at old, Soviet-era technology in the hands of un-educated peasants, the American military certainly seems to have a hard time addressing them with any confidence. A new suite of arms is essentially being designed to counter technology that has existed for well over a century.
But a new cartridge won’t solve these problems. It will likely only create more in yet-to-be-seen, unanticipated ways.
If this article seems too pessimistic, understand it comes from the standpoint of practicality. It seems ridiculous to me that the greatest military power in the world keeps running into problems like this and tries to solve them by throwing
millions billions into hypothetical solutions.
Projectile science is getting better and better every day. But it isn’t fashionable or sexy to simply upgrade existing systems when money and time can be readily wasted on new weapon system pipe dreams.
Best case scenario is that this works until the enemy gets the same technology. But the worst case is that it costs lives on our side while the enemy keeps chugging along with those 19th century cartridges. The latter is typically what happens and that’s the sad reality of the adoption of an end-all, advanced weapon system.