When I was watching the press briefing that announced the Army’s new XM5 rifle, there was one big thing that stood out to me: our role in making it happen. And by “our” I literally mean you and me, the civilian firearms owners who buy firearms and accessories.
During the press briefing, Brigadier General Larry Q. Burris, the Army’s Soldier Lethality Cross-Team Director, said . . .
…we arrived at this point in record time because we leveraged middle-tier of acquisition rapid fielding authorities to enable speed and flexibility…working with our partners in tandem in a process that would have traditionally been linear, and may have taken 8-10 years to complete. And we arrived at this point in only 27 months, and that’s simply remarkable.” He also said: “It is necessary for us to develop capabilities at the speed of war. Necessity drives invention. In this case, necessity drives innovation.
As the United States pivots away from fighting low-intensity conflicts against non-state actors and even “goat herders” and turns to face the growing threats of near peer competitors like China and maybe Russia, we’re seeing the need to come up with a better rifle that gives U.S. troops not just a fighting chance, but an overwhelming advantage. The M4 was starting to run into its limitations even in fights against the Taliban and Iraqi insurgents, so it was definitely time for a change.
But, the United States doesn’t have ten years to slowly design a new rifle, come up with new things like the XM157 smart scope, and then test several designs to see which one is the best. To face the future, we need to quickly get something new going so there’s time to build ammo production capacity to feed it and take other steps needed to get the new platform into action.
Let’s imagine what this would be like if we were a country with little to no civilian firearms ownership.
Companies like SIG SAUER would exist, but their only customers would be military and law enforcement. They might make some dumpy bolt-action .22 or single-shot 20-gauge for whatever civilian market there may be, but that would do little for their revenue and nothing to push them to always be coming up with new and innovative designs to sell to us civvies.
Would they have designed the SIG MPX submachine gun? Probably not. If you look up that weapon’s users on Wikipedia, it lists one team of the Hong Kong Police Force, a counterterrorism unit in India, limited use by police in Thailand, and a few cops in the United States.
That limited user base of military and police sales wouldn’t justify a new design in a market segment that already has good, proven options like the H&K MP5 that could be modified a bit to serve new users. Instead, SIG kept going and improved the MPX design into the MCX, which is now the military’s chosen rifle.
Fortunately we don’t live in a country where gun manufacturers don’t sell to everyday citizens. U.S. civilian firearms sales dwarf purchases by most governments. The .gov might pay more per unit than civilians can, but we’re the ones who drive many new designs and innovations because there’s always some gun company working to get our money before another gun company can.
When the Army needed a new gun, they reached out to gun manufacturers, who had designs ready to test and improve upon. The original Next Generation Squad Weapon competitors included names you see in your local gun shop like FN, Desert Tech, Federal, Winchester, Beretta and, of course, SIG.
If China’s defense ministry decides the People’s Liberation Army needs a new gun, they’ve got to get a state-owned enterprise to come up with a new design — something likely to take years — and then start testing and improving upon it.
The results speak for themselves. Russia is still using a gun with a basic design from 1947 and ammunition from 1974. China recently adopted a new gun, but it looks like an AR knockoff of some kind with some, so they didn’t even come up with their own design. The ammo? From the 1980s.
The ammunition situation alone is instructive. While a few commercial calibers are a lot more popular than others, there is a seemingly infinite variety of “boutique” calibers people use in the United States. Some of the time, civilians come up with their own “wildcat” cartridges that they make at home to solve certain problems, get some small advantage, or otherwise improve things for a very small niche need. Some people do it just for fun to see what they can get away with.
The .40 Smith & Wesson came from an FBI agent who handloaded reduced power 10mm ammunition at home for testing. That would have never happened in a country where handloading at home doesn’t happen (legally).
Would SIG have poured a bunch of money into an innovative new high-pressure cartridge design if they was zero commercial market in the event the military chose something else? Maybe, but it would have been be a lot more risky from the perspective of the investors and bean counters. So, just being able to sell a new, innovative caliber to the rifle-buying public probably freed up R&D dollars at least a little that the Army could take advantage of without having to fund it entirely.
We also solved another problem with the transition: the future of the 5.56 round. The civilian market will also be used to keep 5.56 ammunition production up in the future. Civilians own tens of millions of AR platform rifles in the US. As military needs for 5.56 decrease over time, Winchester will still be able to sell more Lake City ammo to civilians, while they must keep military capability up in case of a major war.
So, we’re going to be supporting the military’s backup capability of 5.56 production in the future, making sure they can acquire a whole bunch of ammunition for troops still carrying the M4 as well as allies who don’t adopt the new cartridge.
Don’t underestimate the power of the American civilian firearm market and what it means for innovation and, yes, military readiness. The Army’s ability to choose a new rifle design in just 27 months was unquestionably aided by the demand for new and effective firearms by people like you and me.