The Army And Marine Corps’ Ammo Debate Is About More Than Bullets

news
Photo by Spc. Thomas Crough

The House Armed Services’ Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee has shed light on one of the more bewildering defense procurement realities: the Army and Marine Corps’ use different 5.56x45mm ammunition for what are largely the same group of weapons like the M4, M16A4, and the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon. The Army uses the M855A1 Enhanced Performance Round, while the Marines have made efforts since 2010 to switch to the Mk318 Special Operations Science and Technology round.


Subcommittee chairman Rep. Mike Turner said, "The Army and Marine Corps are using a very similar enhanced small caliber 5.56 rounds for the same operational environment," in a quote for the Marine Corps Times. Obviously it, makes little sense for both branches to be using different ammo in the same weapons for the same application. Conventional wisdom would dictate that since the Army has significantly higher ammo purchase requirements due to its size, the smaller Marine Corps could switch to M855A1. But Turner's assertion that the M855A1 and Mk318 are similar bullets isn't quite accurate. The Marine Corps might just have a better bullet.

A lot of things regarding firearms are shrouded by innuendo, rumour, and urban legend. The 5.56mm round is no different. It has been maligned as a “varmint” round, a “poodle killer,” and “designed to wound rather than kill.” But, criticisms of the 5.56mm often fail to consider the specific ammunition being used.

The M855A1 round was an upgrade to the Cold War-era M855. Initially, the improved round was simply supposed to be a more environmentally friendly version of M855. The program expanded to make the M855A1 a generally more lethal bullet. A 2010 study by the Army Research Laboratory revealed that all small arms rounds yaw dramatically in the first 50 meters of flight. For the M855, a bullet with limited fragmentation, this can have a significant effect on the round's terminal effectiveness.

While the M855A1 has solved this problem, it still has some fundamental flaws. First, the round has been shown to have an increased chamber pressure, accelerating the chamber pressure. The round is a better penetrator than its predecessor, but it is perhaps too good, as the Army has had to stop the use of the round in close-quarters-battle “shoot houses” because of over penetration. Finally, a civilian ammo manufacturer successfully sued the Army for patent infringement, citing that the service had shared confidential information with other vendors to create the round. The Army will have to pay millions in damages per year every time it buys M855A1, until 2027 when the patent expires.

The Marines rejected M855A1 in 2009 and instead looked to the Mk318 bullet. The round was began development in 2005 after special operations units found the M855 to be ineffective in short-barrelled guns like the M4 and Mk18. The bullet features a copper front with an open tip, followed by solid brass. The open tip design creates consistent fragmentation, while the solid core continues to penetrate. This creates a round that is “barrier-blind,” meaning it can penetrate walls and windshields and still maintain lethality. The round has been deployed by the Marines in Afghanistan, but performance data is limited, especially given the insurgents’ practice of removing their dead from the battlefield.

The environmental concerns in both programs, and the issues with the M855A1 in close-quarters training, illuminate a practice that makes little sense to many civilian shooters who buy their own ammo. Both the Army and Marine Corps use the same rounds they fire in combat in training. In the civilian shooting realm, shooters use cheap ball rounds with similar ballistics to replace their “real-world” bullets for training to reduce costs, and avoid wasting their expensive hollow-point ammunition. Range targets don’t need bullets with enhanced penetration or lethality, so why spend so much money on expensive ammo that will be wasted on paper?

A better bullet can enhance a infantryman's punch, but the clash between M855A1 and Mk318 belies a fundamental truth about combat shooting: You can’t beat shot placement. Detractors of 5.56mm, or really most firearms calibers, forget that shot placement is king. And despite decades of research, there’s still plenty of argument about what are the most important characteristics of a bullet to impart lethal effects on a human body. Just ask the Navy SEAL who was shot 27 times. He managed to engage and kill three insurgents with his handgun. If any of those insurgents had survived long enough to post on a gun forum, the 9x19mm would be seen as the most lethal round in history while the 7.62x39mm AK bullet would be derided as a “goat-killer.”

Quoted in the May 4 Marine Corps Times article is Larry Vickers, a former Delta Force operator and tactical shooting instructor who has contributed to the design of several small arms. He cautions against focusing simply on ammo, saying:

"Tackle some training deficiencies first. Go out and issue M193 ball (the predecessor to original M855 to Delta and they will hand anyone their ass on a platter because they are bringing training and technology together. … You can't bypass the first step. You need guys who can hit targets in a variety of situations under stress, bringing the skill to the table that warrants that ammo."

Ultimately, it is the archer who decides the battle, not his bow or arrows. If troops don’t get modern combat shooting techniques down, then the M855A1 versus Mk318 or 5.66mm versus any other caliber debates are meaningless.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to more accurately characterize the nature of bullet yaw and shot placement. (5/15/2015)

A U.S. Army UH-60L Black Hawk crew chief with the New Jersey National Guard's 1-171st General Support Aviation Battalion stands for a portrait at the Army Aviation Support Facility on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., Feb. 3, 2020 (Air National Guard photo / Master Sgt. Matt Hecht)

Active-duty service members, Reservists and National Guard members often serve side-by-side performing highly skilled and dangerous jobs, such as parachuting, explosives demolition and flight deck operations.

Reservists and Guard members are required to undergo the same training as specialized active-duty troops, and they face the same risks. Yet the extra incentive pay they receive for their work — called hazardous duty incentive pay — is merely a fraction of what their active-duty counterparts receive for performing the same job.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by U.S. Rep. Andy Kim, D-3 of Moorestown, are partnering on legislation to correct the inequity. Known as the Guard and Reserve Hazard Duty Pay Equity Act, the bill seeks to standardize payment of hazardous duty incentive pay for all members of the armed services, including Reserve and National Guard components.

Read More
Army recruiters hold a swearing-in ceremony for over 40 of Arkansas' Future Soldiers at the Arkansas State Capital Building. (U.S. Army/Amber Osei)

Though the Army has yet to actually set an official recruiting goal for this year, leaders are confident they're going to bring in more soldiers than last year.

Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, head of Army Recruiting Command, told reporters on Wednesday that the Army was currently 2,226 contracts ahead of where it was in 2019.

"I will just tell you that this time last year we were in the red, and now we're in the green which is — the momentum's there and we see it continuing throughout the end of the year," Muth said, adding that the service hit recruiting numbers in February that haven't been hit during that month since 2014.

Read More
In this June 16, 2018 photo, Taliban fighters greet residents in the Surkhroad district of Nangarhar province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

KABUL/WASHINGTON/PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - The United States and the Taliban will sign an agreement on Feb. 29 at the end of a week long period of violence reduction in Afghanistan, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Taliban said on Friday.

Read More
A screen grab from a YouTube video shows Marines being arrested during formation at Camp Pendleton in July, 2019. (Screen capture)

Editor's Note: This article by Gina Harkins originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

Another Marine was hit with jail time and a bad-conduct discharge in connection with a slew of arrests made last summer over suspicions that members of a California-based infantry battalion were transporting people who'd crossed into the U.S. illegally.

Read More
A soldier reunites with his daughter at Fort Bragg, N.C. after returning from the Middle East. The 82nd Airborne Division's Immediate Response Force had been deployed since New Years Eve. Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. (U.S. Army via Associated Press)

Some Fort Bragg paratroopers who left for the Middle East on a no-notice deployment last month came home Thursday.

About 3,500 soldiers with the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team were sent to Kuwait beginning Jan. 1 as tensions were rising in the region. The first soldiers were in the air within 18 hours of being told to go.

Read More