Got a phone call yesterday from a friend at a range in West Virginia. Three guys including a former SF man, a former SEAL (range officer), and a dealer/gunsmith/armorer without military service cracked the box on a new TrackingPoint .300 WM rifle on a long range.
This is file photo a standard TP XS3 rifle. Don’t know yet what exact model our guys had.
Best packaged gun any of them had ever seen. In the gunsmith’s experience, that’s out of thousands of new guns.
Favorably impressed with the quality of the gun and the optic. It “feels” robust.
It’s premium priced, but with premium quality. Rifle resembles a Surgeon rifle. “The whole thing is top quality all the way, no corners cut, no expense spared.” They throw in an iPad. The scope itself serves its images up as wifi.
First shot, cold bore, no attempt to zero, 350 meters, IPSC sized metal silhouette: “ding!” They all laughed like maniacs. It does what the ads say.
Here’s how the zero-zero capability works: they zero at the factory, no $#!+, and use a laser barrel reference system to make automatic, no-man-in-the-loop, corrections. Slick.
The gun did a much better job of absorbing .300WM recoil than any 300WM any of them have shot. With painful memories of developmental .300WM M24 variants, that was interesting. “Seriously, it’s like shooting my .308.”
By the day’s end, the least experienced long-range shooter, who’d never fired a round at over 200 meters, was hitting moving silhouettes at 850 yards. In the world of fiction where all snipers take head shots at 2000m with a .308, that’s nothing, but in the world of real lead on target, it’s huge.
It requires you to unlearn some processes and learn some new ones, particularly with respect to trigger control. But that’s not impossible, or even very hard.
They didn’t put wind speed into the system, and used Kentucky windage while placing the “tag.” This worked perfectly well.
An experienced sniper or long range match shooter, once he gets over the muscle memory differences, will get even more out of the TrackingPoint system than a novice, but…
A novice can be made very effective, very fast, at ranges outside of the engagement norm, with this system.
As Porky Pig says, for now, “Ib-a-dee-ib-a-dee-ib-a-dee-That’s all, folks!” But we’re promised more, soon.
Everybody is really impressed with the Tracking Point system. No TP representative was there and as far as we know this is the first report on a customer gun in the field, not some massaged handpicked gunwriter version. And as far as we know this is the first report on a customer’s experience with both experienced school-trained snipers and an inexperienced long-range shooter. The key take-away is the novice’s ringing of the 850m bell on moving targets. That’s Hollywood results without the special effects budget, and with real lead on real target. No marketing, no bullshit, just hits.
We asked about robustness. This isn’t like the ACOG you can use as a toboggan on an Afghan stairway and hold zero (don’t ask us how we know that one). But it seemed robust to the pretty critical gang shooting it Friday.
We wish Chris Kyle were here to see this. Maybe he already has!
Stand by for more on TrackingPoint, and on more on this range complex when the principals are willing to have some publicity.
Beretta presented a novel smart-gun concept at a recent defense expo overseas, which they called iProtect. This video shows how it works, using an RF-enabled gun with multiple sensors.
Here’s another video, with Beretta executive explaining how the gun works with the Robocop t-shirt.
You don’t have to be Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden to be a little creeped out by that.
Supposedly, the Beretta technology provides comprehensive surveillance but not control of the firearm, at least at this time. One consequence of that is that it is fail-safe: if the central office drops off the net (anyone remember the first responder commo chaos of 9/11?) the nifty features don’t work, but the gun just reverts to being a plain-vanilla PX4 Storm. This PX4i is, in fact, a PX4 with some minituarized sensors deployed in it:
Many gun vendors and writers are appalled by this idea, but the iProtect needs to be understood, both in terms of its intended niche, and its likelihood of succeeding there. Neither indicates that Beretta intends (or has produced) a threat to civilian gun owners with this technology. More realistically, this is a technology demonstration for future potential developments in law enforcement and military weapons, rather than a practical product in 2014.
Here’s Beretta’s brochure on the technology, to give you more depth than is available in the videos, although the videos are probably a better overview of this complex and interdependent system.
Although the concept of a “smart gun” or “personalized gun” has received public attention recently, we believe that careful consideration has not been given to potentially dangerous risks associated with these concepts. In our opinion, such technology is undeveloped and unproven. In addition, Beretta strongly believes that “smart gun” technology or “personalized” guns (hereinafter also referred to as “smart gun” technology) could actually increase the number of fatal accidents involving handguns.
But that was then, this is now.
Back in the bad old 90s, the anti-gun Clinton administration and their allies in Congress and in state legislatures were pushing hard for smart guns as a means to disarm citizens and centrally control armed police. (Some officials then and now believe that cops should lock their guns in a station arms room at shift’s end, and a few PDs actually do this). The policymakers pushing this saw technology in the automotive and computer worlds (we dunno, like the chip-in-the-key in our ’89 Corvette that used to occasionally turn on the alarm for no particular reason? that they imagined would adapt to guns, no problem. They disregarded many things, like the different volumetric envelope in a car and a gun, and made no bones about their nominal “safetyt” push really being all about citizen disarmament. A key problem with the high-tech push was that politicians have never successfully scheduled an inventiuon in the past, and they didn’t this time, either. By the time quasi-working “smart guns” were going bang six times out of ten, the would-be launch customers — various anti-gun officials of the Clinton Administration — had moved on to K Street at the change of administrations.
SIG’s late-90s entry, the SIG P229 EPLS, illustrated some of the problems with these arms. To be set to fire, a PIN had to be entered on a keypad on the gun’s nose, and a time period entered. So, for example, policemen would have their guns enabled only for the duration of their shifts. The pistol was not fail-safe in any way: the failure mode was that, if the electronics borked, the gun remained on the last setting indefinitely, whatever it was.
The 229 EPLS was unreliable and never went into series production; 15 or so prototypes and pre-production test articles were made, some of which may have been released to collectors according to this article at Guns and Ammo.
Colt made an effort to spin off a smart-gun subsidiary, called, we are not making this up, iColt. There is no sign of it today; Colt’s perennial dance with the threat of bankruptcy was mortal to any engineering resource-suck with such an uncertain path to returns.
The “Smart Gun” that’s in the news: Armatix iP1
Beretta’s plan for intelligent duty firearms, iProtect, is radically different from the publicity-focused smart-gun maker, Armatix. Armatix’s designer is Ernst Mauch, the prime mover of HK during its decades-long phase of HK: Because You Suck, and We Hate You hostility to nongovernmental customers, and he brings his superior, anti-customer attitude to Armatix. The company’s strategy is to have its gun mandated by authorities: it has come close in New Jersey, and one candidate in the Democrats’ Sep. 9th primary for Attorney General of Massachusetts (Warren Tolman) has promised to ban all other handguns if elected. (Yes, Massachusetts law and case law does give that official this power. No word on whether he has a stake in Armatix).
The gun itself is a poor design, kind of like some of Mauch’s later HK abortions (UMP, M8). Its reliability approaches 19th-Century lows: few reviewers have gotten through a 10-shot magazine without a failure to feed, some of which seem to relate to the magazine and in some of which the slide does not go into battery. Armatix’s idea of fail-safe electronics is this: if the electronics fail, they brick the gun, therefore it’s safe.
Because the fragile Made in Germany electronics aren’t ready for centerfire prime time, the gun will be available only in .22 long rifle for the foreseeable future. For a .22 it’s bulky, and it has only average accuracy.
Pity it doesn’t have the red HK on it. Then, at least the fanboys would buy it.
The iProtect system is not like the Armatix, or other Smart Guns
Like SIG in the 90s, Beretta began with a decent pistol and then added the electronics to it, in Beretta’s case the underrated Px4 Storm. Like SIG, there’s a bulky “light” on the rail that contains the brain. The gun is truly fail-safe: if the electronics go paws up, the gun doesn’t. In fact, the operator can dismount the “brain” at any time.
Unlike Armatix, iProtect has not been launched with noises about the authorities having an ability to remotely brick the firearm. And it does not brick itself if the battery runs down. Beretta also addressed another weakness (or at least, inconvenience) of battery-powered gear by making the black box’s battery wireless rechargeable.
The “brain” is not really the key to the system, though: the key is the Black Box’s networked communications abilities. First, it talks to the sensors on the gun itself, monitoring the position of the gun and its controls much the same way a Digital Flight Data Recorder monitors the position of an airplane’s control surfaces and flight control inputs. The brain transmits that information to a central control console. Since all of the smarts are in firmware and software, they can be updated more or less on the fly to add new capabilities (and, no doubt, to squash bugs. It’s practically impossible to write a program more useful than “Hello, world!” without introducing bugs).
But the gun’s communication with the central office is only part of it, because it’s also networked to a smartphone or other communications device, and to a special t-shirt that monitor’s the officer’s position, activity, and health status of the carrier (if you’ve ever worn a chest strap when exercising, you’ll get the general idea).
And a key feature of iProtect, absent from other smart guns, is geolocation. The gun knows where it is — and tells the office, many times a second. This complicates things for those criminals who would murder a cop for his gun (like Dzhokar and Tamerlan Tsarnayev did after they bombed the Boston Marathon finish line). It’s one thing to have a gun that’s so hot it’s radioactive, but it’s a whole other game to have one that’s constantly phoning home and otherwise subject to electronic track & trace.
Of course, it also complicates things for cops who would spend their shift cooping behind a strip mall, or unofficially 10-7 at Krispy Kreme. If you’re That Guy, the relative smartness of your gun is not going to affect your police work in any way, anyway.
Problems with iProtect?
Unlike Armatix, iProtect is not a play to disarm the public; it’s a play to increase the information flow in police dispatch offices. There it runs into a problem, in US law enforcement: the Beretta system is best used by intelligent cops and intelligent, expert even, dispatchers. But many large metro departments in the USA — exactly the target market for iProtect — have upper as well as lower bounds for cop IQ. (These departments also tend to have low closure rates on cases requiring in-depth, imaginative investigations, oddly enough). But at least the typical cop is a man or woman of average smarts. The dispatchers are a different thing. It the USA it’s a low-paid, low-status occupation, and it tends to attract people who are a half-step above the welfare lines: the same sort of people who work, if that’s the word, in the DMV or other menial clerical jobs in local government. One consequence of this is the periodic dispatch scandals like this one, a rather trivial violation that went, as usual, unpunished; or this more serious one that ended with a dead caller, a fired dispatcher, and one more illustration of the sad fact that when seconds count, police are minutes away. Literally none of the dispatchers at a modern urban police department has a place in the high-tech, high-demand dispatch center envisioned by iProtect.
The 80-IQ dispatcher is a mountain that iProtect must climb if it is going to sell here in the USA — and it’s a mountain it probably can’t summit. But even the dispatcher problem is secondary to the real Achilles Heel of iProtect: it’s a proprietary, closed system. It not only works with the PX4i, it only works with the PX4i. It only works with Beretta’s own high-tech undershirt. It only works with the Beretta communications and dispatch system. It requires the agency to recapitalize everything at once. Line cops don’t think of budgetary and logistical problems, but chiefs and commissioners spend most of their time on them.
It’s also self-evident that iProtect has no real utility at this time for the private or individual owner, or even to the rural sheriff’s office or small-town PD: it’s only of interest to large police departments, the only users that can resource it properly. (In the long run, the sheriffs of sparsely populated counties might really like the geolocation capability, though; it goes beyond geolocating the police car, something modern tech already can do,and tracks both the officer and his or her sidearm. That’s a big deal for situational awareness if you’ve got a wide open range and very few sworn officers).
So what’s the verdict?
In sum, the iProtect system is an ingenious adaptation of modern communications technology to the police defensive-firearm sphere. It poses no direct threat to gun rights, although cops may find being monitored all the time a little creepy. (Welcome to the pilot’s world, pal). But as it sits there are obstacles to its adoption. These obstacles are organizational, cultural and financial — we don’t yet know how well the system works, but assuming arguendo that all Beretta’s claims about it are true, there don’t seem to be technical obstacles holding it back.
Like the plain old dumb guns that just sit there until animated by human will, the good or evil of a smart gun is in the intent of the mind behind it.
It dawns on us that in our announcement of the honeycombed howitzer nuts developed by New Jersey firm Imperial Tool with SLM additive manufacturing, we did not elaborate on why we think it’s a big deal.
Let us walk you through it by the numbers:
Until now, it’s been hard to build hollow parts.
Most of the loads borne by steel parts are borne by their surfaces and perimeters. This is true of loads in tension and compression alike.
What that means is: most of the loads bearing on the internal metal of the part (say, a nut or bolt) are just the shear forces between the different surfaces that are bearing different loads.
Therefore, the vast majority of this internal structure is superfluous. An optimum shear web would not be solid and fill 100% of the space between, say, tensive surfaces and compressive surfaces (that is why buildings are built with I-beams rather than square solid beams)
The internal solidity of, inter alia, a nut, only exists because manufacturing processes have always subtracted material from a solid (and, to a lesser extent, engineering analyses have been little developed for hollow and honeycombed parts).
So additive lets us save weight — in the case of the nuts, honeycombing the interior rather than making it solid saved 50% of the net weight of the part — and lets us save material.
The advantages of weight savings should be obvious. If you can reduce weight for the same strength, almost any application benefits. There’s also the flip side of weight savings: you can make a stronger part within the envelope of the original weight budget.
If your part is a common aluminum or steel alloy, material saving probably doesn’t offset some of the disadvantages of using additive: given present technologies, subtractive methods and precision casting are much faster and produce a superior surface finish. But material savings are a different thing with exotic alloys such as Inconel or titanium alloys.
Hollow, weight- and material-saving parts take advantage of the fact that additive manufacturing enable parts with topologies and structures that are literally impossible, using manufacturing methods used from antiquity through the 20th Century. One other current use of this potential is in rocket nozzles, allowing parts to be manufactured with internal cooling channels.
This suggests some possibilities for future small arms:
A lightweight, insulated barrel comprising an outer sleeve and inner honeycomb compression web, printed around a thin hammer-forged liner.
Stronger, lighter stocks and furniture.
Weight of rails interfaces reduced by half.
Weapons that include printed-in electronic circuitry for fire control (further reduced lock time) and target acquisition and designation. (Imagine a Tracking Point rig, built into the weapon, and the size of a conventional ACOG).
50% reduction in the weight of a heavy machine gun.
MG with an evaporative-recovery liquid cooling system built into the rear area of the barrel.
75% reduction the weight of a mortar’s cannon (tube) and baseplate.
Improved fragmentation sleeves in grenade launcher and mortar rounds.
Built-in recoil compensation for instantaneous second shots or sustained on-target bursts.
Some of these technologies will require engineering not yet done, but none of them appears to require an invention not yet made.
Why do a bunch of gun guys want to look at what the ONR is doing? Because the ONR is working on one of our favorite themes: what’s next? By that we mean that current projectile weapons technology is a very evolved version of late 19th century breakthroughs such as breech loading, smokeless powder, fixed ammunition, gas- and recoil-operated automatic weapons, and (for artillery) recoil-managing carriages.
Those inventions revolutionized the weapons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and they continue to be exploited even in the latest designs, but the pace of innovation is slower, the effect of innovation is more peripheral or marginal, and the character of innovation is evolutionary, not revolutionary. We could say we’re at a technological plateau, or apogee. (Think of where the internal combustion piston engine was circa 1945 — at a pinnacle of power and efficiency.
Some other trends can be perceived if you look at things in the long (real long) haul. These include a centuries-long trend for projectiles to be launched with smaller calibers, higher velocities, and greater accuracy. But these trends too have hit a plateau.
So the ONR is looking for breakthrough technologies. One thing that they, and the Army, have explored in the past is liquid propellants. We may write something about that, but the bottom line there is that the great potential runs up against insuperable (so far) safety issues. There are many things the next great gun should do, but one thing it should not do is blow itself up.
So the breakthrough currently being explored is the electromagnetic rail gun. Here is their overview of the program on a single page and here’s a web version. The potential is staggering: 50-100 nm range initially (230 nm stretch goal); Mach 7.5 (5,600 mph). In gunnery terms, feet per second, that’s 8,370 (2550 m/sec for those of you still using Robespierre’s revolutionary units). The fastest common To give you some velocity comparisons, that’s not quite as fast as the X-43 scramjet experimental platform, and not quite the orbital speed a geostationary satellite is going. It covers a kilometer in 392 milliseconds. (For comparison’s sake, the fastest guns issued today are smoothbore tank guns firing discarding-sabot fin-stabilized subcaliber penetrators. The APFSDS round in the 120mm M256 gun on the Abrams is pretty fast at 5,500 fps, and the Russian 125mm makes 5,900 fps).
This is the most recent test video ONR published (last month). Their gun accelerates an irregular shaped projectile to hypersonic speed.
This image, from RIA/Novosti (!) shows the principle of operation in more detail than the image above:
Its current weakness is its power consumption, but the Navy has the most experience in the world with one potential source of unlimited power: shipboard reactors. The Army, too, is working on railguns, but doesn’t have that handy reactor in its tanks.
The ONR railgun program is now well into Phase II. The Phase I objectives were set, and the Phase II objective is, broadly stated, to transition from a research and development program to an evaluation and acquisition one.
But the railgun isn’t the only thing the ONR is up to, by any means. Writing in the Wall Street Journal this week, ONR head RADM Matthew Klunder reports that, while the railgun will be going to sea in a couple of years, the Navy is already planning to test a laser cannon at sea this year, and is working on other innovations, like unmanned helicopters for supply delivery or medevac.
Advanced technologies that were once the stuff of science fiction are also in the pipeline. This summer the Navy will deploy a laser cannon at sea for the first time and plans to test an electromagnetic railgun on a ship in 2016. The laser cannon delivers an invisible beam of energy with pinpoint accuracy that can take out an incoming plane, drone or boat. The electromagnetic railgun—using electricity rather than gunpowder—will defend against incoming missiles and opposing ships, and project power far inland by launching low-cost guided projectiles hundreds of miles at hypervelocity speeds over Mach 7.
Breakthrough technologies like these give commanders the option to deter, disable or destroy threats from greater distances. In addition, there is no limit to how many rounds a laser can fire, and at just $1 per shot, laser cannons will save the Pentagon (and taxpayers) many millions once fully deployed.
Both the railgun and the laser have the potential to save future ships from the fate of such naval tragedies as HMS Hood, or the USS Maine for that matter, where detonation of a ship’s magazine was a key factor in the loss of ship and men. The railgun can be effective with dumb metal kinetic-energy projectiles, and the laser fires a beam of light — neither is as hazardous to store as plain old HE shells.
“WeaponsMan,” we can hear you thinking. “Dey already done dat.” Well, not exactly. Sure, they printed a gun before, but this time they did something pretty amazing: they printed all 34 non-spring parts in a single go (see the photo of the parts below, fresh from the laser-sintering machine with only the unused powder removed yet). And they printed it of Inconel 625, which you’ve probably never used in a gun before (but if you’ve ever flown in a jet airplane, it was probably the turbofan engine’s hot-section shaft and several other critical parts.
Inconel is fairly expensive and is normally not used in firearms for three reasons: (1) cost, (2) lack of necessity (steel, aluminum, and stainless steel have gotten the job done for the last century), and, (3) until now, it’s been fairly difficult to work with.
Indeed, one of the greatest applications for Direct Metal Laser Sintering (and SLS and other metal-sintering additive manufacturing processes) is to make things out of those materials that break or wear down subtractive-manufacturing tools, or need exotic tool bits or inserts. That includes Inconel and Titanium alloys, of course, but we also hear rumors that sintering Tungsten is possible. How recursively self-referential does it get? Imagine 3D printing the tools you need to do final milling on 3D printed parts… that tomorrow could be today very soon.
Our second iteration is composed entirely of Inconel 625, a material that is stronger than Stainless Steel (and a bit heavier) save for the springs which were not 3D Printed. The gun is once again composed of thirty-four 3D Printed components. Our second gun will be stress relieved and post processing will be by hand once again.
This is an important note, that last sentence above. The parts don’t come out of the DMLS machine ready to be snapped together — not parts for a precision machine like a firearm. But they go on to note that they’re learning as they go:
Inconel 625 is a harder, stronger alloy than 17-4 Stainless Steel. We modified the geometry for this second iteration to incorporate different tolerances in order to make hand finishing sufficiently easier. With our first prototype, we had to hand sand to perfect a few tolerances, but our tweaks to the design should remove the need for such sanding. Our first gun is now up to 700+ rounds.
Because it’s taken a while for us to bring you this, that 700 rounds is not up to date:
We’re thoroughly enjoying this research-development-improvement process for an internal project. The implications of its success for our customers’ future projects – from aerospace to medical – are very uplifting! Thanks to our followers for their support and enthusiasm, it has been quite the ride.
There are still some things we’d like to know about what Solid Concepts is doing. One is whether the powder from which the products are sintered is recycled or not? Aerospace firms working with Inconel parts produce a great deal of waste: chips from milling and drilling, and dust and powder from grinding. It would be great if that waste material could be transformed readily into raw material for a new process.
We’re high on additive manufacturing here, an exploding new sector with new concepts, technologies, and even a new magazine, which we read avidly. It has applications far beyond guns, but guns are a natural application for this technology — if it’s not strangled in the crib. Who would do that? Well, the only enemies guns have, some wag has said, are rust and politicians. Neither of the SC printed guns is very prone to corrosion due to the materials used, but additive manufacturing and home prototyping are being targeted in Congress by, who else, anti-gun politicians. The two leading the charge are Chuck Schumer in the Senate and Steve Israel in the House. Both are New York Democrats of a liberal bent.
Their proposals may not impact Solid Concepts (the firm has a manufacturing FFL, which will insulate it from some of peaks and valleys of Congressional misunderstanding). But they will affect all of us indirectly. Somewhere, maybe even in the New York so poorly represented by those two gentlemen, a 20-year-old kid has the potential to be the next John Browning or Gaston Glock, or even a Steve Jobs of physical things. (Schumer and Israel were not in Congress in the 1970s to ban homebuilding of computers).
We see incredible new vistas of the imagination. (Imagine bringing Grandpa’s broken shotgun back to life by printing a new hammer, after scanning the parts of the broken old one. Imagine having that technology in your gunsmith shop). Will people misuse the technology? You bet. Will criminals print guns? Maybe. Criminals are not the masterminds you see on TV, but in 10 years you won’t need to be, unlike today’s early adopters who are paying thousands for technology that will very soon be obsolete. But we can easily imagine unethical restorers printing, say, matching parts for a mismatched Luger and aging them. (Even that is only unethical if the result is passed off as original).
Many things that were out of reach once are not now. Also, the economics of manufacturing may be changing, to favor small runs of valuable items.
Imagine a commemorative gun for your Army unit or Navy ship. “The USS Miami plankowner .45″. The decoration could be designed right in — it would cost no more to make a highly customized gun than a slabsided standard one. (Guns are a tiny market for this technology. Think of what Bridezillas will do with the ability to have something shiny, of stainless steel, and personalized for every member of the wedding party and guest. Imagine hot-rodders printing different-length fuel-injector runners to accommodate a reprogrammed timing chip).
The upside of this technology is scarcely imaginable. This could be as big as the 1970s computer revolution, and all of us can be part of it. We just need to keep those with fascist tendencies (we’re heil-ing you, Schumer and Israel) from strangling it in its crib. And that’s where we are as 2013 closes: at an inflection point between revolutionary science, and reactionary politics.
History tells us how this ends: science wins. But not without our help.
Young girl (she’s 12, and obviously a good sport). Four ranges (250, 500, 750, 1000). Four rounds. Four hits.
Note that, because of the way TrackingPoint automates range-finding and atmospherics, this is without putting dope on the gun.
Then, she takes a 500-yard target with a single shot — it’s a 3″ plate. Dingg.
The TrackingPoint “Tag” button locks the gun on target.
One suspects the video is edited to remove some fiddly creating and erasing of tags. (The way TrackingPoint works is that you “tag” the target with the laser, and the weapon fires when the target and the trajectory are aligned. If your tag is not on target, you don’t have to fire; stay off the trigger, and you can erase it and place a new one as necessary).
Still, if you’re not impressed with this, you haven’t spent time trying to train hard-headed guys to hit targets at these ranges.
There are still things that only an experienced and trained sniper can do. Any SF or Marine sniper will tell you destroying targets with precision rifle fire is only one small part of a very big job. But TrackingPoint does take a lot of the art, and all the voodoo, out of making a long-range shot in real-world conditions.
We’d like to see how it works in the next thousand meters. The first thousand is the milieu of the mountain hunter and the conventional military sniper. Let’s go out where SOF snipers sometimes shoot, out beyond the first mile. That is, of course, of limited utility to hunters (I can’t imagine many in the Western US/Canada, Alaska, or Africa that would want to take 2000-m shots) but it would really be a sweet spot for military sniping.
“Ze same vay a Cherman officer learns everytzing! From ze manual!”
OK, many of you collect US Army weapons, or have Army weapons or their civilianized counterparts (like AR-15s or M1As) in your collections. As you probably know, the Army publishes fairly good manuals about these guns, Field Manuals and Technical Manuals. Now, you can’t learn everything, unlike the German officers in Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, “from ze manual!” but you can learn quite a lot, especially with the higher-suffix technical manuals.
Say what? Yes, there’s a code to these numbers but it’s a code you can break. Understanding these numbers will be a great benefit to you — even most soldiers, even armorers and maintenance experts, don’t understand this system.
To understand the manuals, you need to understand just a little about the Army maintenance system. The Army divides maintenance tasks by level or “echelon,” with the operator (or crew, for a crew-served weapon like a .50 MG or an M4 Sherman tank) at the bottom end and Depot Maintenance at the high end. Each higher level is authorized and required to do more. On an M16, for example, an operator can only clean and field-strip the rifle, although his unit armorer may let him replace broken handguards. The operator usually isn’t allowed do anything that would require him to apply a tool to the gun, or to remove a part that isn’t removed for normal cleaning. The Depot, conversely, can replace the barrel or any other part and completely overhaul and zero-time the rifle, preparing it for reissue as meeting new rifle specs.
In all there are five levels of maintenance, with the first two taking place at the unit level, and the top three going to increasingly remote, and increasingly well-equipped, maintenance organizations. These echelons existed in the same way in World War II as today, even though hardly anything issued then is still in the field. (The M2HB machine gun is an exception).
Operator/Crew Maintenance (also known by code letter C)
Organizational Maintenance (code letter O)
Direct Support Maintenance (formerly “Field” maintenance, code F)
General Support Maintenance (formerly “Heavy” maintenance, H)
Depot Maintenance (code letter D).
The most common Army manuals are Field Manuals, which describe Army doctrine, and Technical Manuals, which describe equipment. So while an FM covers marksmanship training, when you want to maintain or repair weapons, you’ll be playing in the TM garden. Here’s a typical Army TM number: TM9-1005-317-10. Every single digit of that carries meaning!
To decode the manual, break it down into parts. “TM” obviously tells us it’s a Technical Manual and not an FM, Training Circular (TC), Graphic Training Aid (GTA) or some other kind of publication. The 9 tells us who’s responsible for the TM.
1 — Aviation
3 — Chemical
5 — Engineer
7 — Infantry
9 — Ordnance (now called the Tank & Automotive Command, it’s also responsible for small arms)
“1005” is a code for the Federal Supply Class of the manual’s subject. One of these numbers appears in the National Stock Number/NATO Stock Number of any item in the supply system. The numbers you’ll be most interested in with respect to weapons are:
1000 — small arms, general
1005 — Small Arms up to and including 30mm
1010 — Small Arms above 30mm
1340 — Anti-Tank Weapons
6920 — Training Aids and Devices
It’s obvious that 1005 is the sweet spot for gun collectors, including as it does every shoulder fired weapon between .22 and 30mm, and a TM-9-1005-anything is going to be useful to us. Crossing the next hyphen brings us to a three-digit number, in the case of our example 317. Now this is the identifier of the particular end item, and you have to know these numbers, or be able to look them up. We happen to know that “317” happens to be “Pistol, Semi-automatic, 9mm, M9,” the standard GI version of the Beretta 92FS. (OK, the manual’s sitting in front of us. So, for that matter, is the pistol). The pistol’s NSN, by the way, is
But decoding NSNs is a question for another day, perhaps. You do recognize the FSC of 1005 is the leading segment of the NSN. All firearms will lead with 1005, unless they’re big enough to be 1010 (common examples of the latter are the M79, M203, M320 and Mk19 grenade launchers).
There’s one area left of the manual number, and that’s -10. And that’s depressing news, because it’s only the basic operator’s manual. Remember the five levels of maintenance? Yep, a dash-ten is user (operator) maintenance only. Dash-twenty’s organizational, Dash-fifty’s the depot manual.
Here’s the manual in .pdf form for download: Berreta M9 9mm TM_9-1005-317-10 The Army’s been trending away from paper pubs for 25 years, but older small arms manuals, at least, still come both ways.
Some manuals don’t end in “0”. The last digraph might be -12 (pretty common), -23, -45 or even a trigraph like -25P or even this strange arrangement: -25&P. What this means (taking the examples in order):
-12: Echelons 1 and 2, so, operator or crew and unit maintenance;
-23: Echelons 2 and 3, so, unit and direct support (WWII-era “field”) maintenance;
-45: Echelons 4 and 5, so, heavy and depot maintenance;
-25P: Echelon 2 through 5 Parts manual. This contains none of the maintenance procedures, but all of the parts (this is usually found with parts and tool lists. Special tool listings for higher echelon maintenance look promising, but the tools are listed by NSN — it’s usually a challenge to find them that way at Brownells’s or wherever).
-25&P: the ampersand indicates that this manual contains the parts & tool list and the maintenance procedures for the item in question. This is a good manual to have, if it’s published for your weapon!
Not all manuals are made for all echelons. For some small arms items, the government has negotiated extended warrantees and sometimes just sends a gun or weapon sight back to the manufacturer and lets them sort it out or exchange a new one.
And of course, not every NSN has a manual, only major end items (a replacement M9 locking block — a very popular service part — has an NSN but it’s covered in the maintenance manuals). And some NSNs, especially way-complex systems from the era of paper manuals only (the old Shillelagh missile system springs to mind) have multi-volume manuals, with the volumes distinguished by a slash and number at the end of the TM number, /1 for example.
This article draws on personal experience, but was based solidly on Chuck Ruggiero’s Armorer’s Manual, a 1998 document used in armorer training in the National Guard and elsewhere. Highly recommended, and almost mandatory for an Army armorer (even though there’s no specific training course for unit armorers, there should be, and an updated version of this should be the textbook).
One last comment: the longest-running and most bitterly-fought war the USA has ever seen has been the battle between the Army and Navy, which has raged unchecked since 1775. Thanks to that kind of interservice squabble, every service has its own manual numbering system, but because most services use the same weapons, they have for many years used same manuals, with the sole inter-service concession of up to five manual numbers stamped on each cover (see the M9 operator manual in this post for an example). Therefore, you only need to learn one system to find almost all manuals in US service.
It’s done. And tested. The first publicly available 3D-printed firearm. The two parts not printed are the firing pin (a roofing nail) and the grip screw. (A standard AR part. You can also substitute an AR grip for the printable grip). Here are the pieces:
And here is the video of a successful test-firing with a single .380 ACP round.
Note the following:
There is risk here. ABS plastic in its various permutations is not an optimal gun barrel material. While the .380 version fired successfully in both tethered and human-fired (in the video) tests, there have been several breakages, and a 5.7×28 FN version blew itself up, with no injury reported. Build this, lanyard-test it. And we’d recommend lanyard-testing Job One to destruction, so that you can set a retire-by round count.
There is another kind of risk here, too. Cody Wilson’s prototype at Defense Distributed was made by a licensed manufacturer, and incorporated a metallic block for compliance with the Undetectable Firearms Act. As a smoothbore weapon in pistol size, this design risks classification as an Any Other Weapon (a legal term of art) under the National Firearms Act. Every NFA violation is a 10-year felony, and the BATFE prefers to pursue backyard tinkerers than organized criminal syndicates… when they’re not actually arming the criminals.
The process of 3D printing (just like any other kind of manufacturing) has a learning curve. You can expect to have teething problems, issues, and yes, print failures.
Expect the usual suspects to panic (they were already panicking over youth rifles; this should send them right over the top). But it’s pure information they’re trying to fight here. They can’t stop the signal. They’ll still try, but it’s a forlorn hope.
Here’s the download link (it will redirect to MEGA formerly MEGAupload — another thumb in the establishment’s eye).
Here’s the link that will let you download the whole collection of DEFCAD data. (Important note: at this writing, the current version, 4.2 “Saito,” has everything but the Liberator pistol files). It will go to MEGA and may only work with Chrome browser.
We recommend you take this freely available data and distribute it widely.
Late last week, in anticipation of the NRA Annual Convention, Tracking Point released new video. This one shows two features: the way the precision-guided firearm can compensate for motion of target or shooter, and the precision cold-bore first shot capability.
Right now, precision guided firearms are very expensive, and are only the province of extreme shooters and early adopters. We predict that that will change, and this kind of precision technology will be increasingly common — and much less expensive, as economies of scale kick in — going forward.
We’ve heard that two separate XM25 Counter Defilade systems (25mm semiauto “smart” grenade launcher have blow’d theyselfs up lately in live fires, one in the USA and one in Afghanistan in February, and that the weapon’s been taken out of service while engineers try to walk back the failure tree. Ishikawa diagram, ho.
Both operators were lightly injured; both weapons were destroyed. The design of the weapon is pretty fail-safe in the way it directs energy away from the gunner (which is good, because as a bullpup its breech is just about under his cheekbone, as you can see from these file photos).
XM25 at a technology display. Note size of weapon, and location of breech.
A second round field test with a batch of improved prototypes only just started in January. The new batch have not fired a shot in combat yet (the one that blow’d up in Afghanistan did it on the range).
ATK, the manufacturer, is trying to figure out what went wrong. There were no such kinetic malfunctions with the first batch of prototypes, which had a generally successful combat deployment. (The problem was not the weapons themselves it was the lack of just-right targets to show off its unique capabilities. Instead, they were mostly used for suppressive fire).
We’re trying to get our hands on the safety-of-use message and of any incident photographs.