Russians are smart, good shooters, and brilliant engineers. They could have built an M-24 equivalent. Instead, in the early 1960s, they built the SVD. What were they thinking?
We had an epiphany while at a foreign weapons course, zeroing in on a target with a Romanian FPK with a badly maladjusted scope. Fortunately, the instructor was an ace spotter, so he was able to talk us on to heart shots by using Kentucky windage — aiming, in fact, at the silhouette’s hand in his pocket to pop him just (our) right (his left) of the sternum.
It wasn’t the optimum way to fire the gun, but it worked. It was satisficing, not optimizing.
A McMillan .338 LM with a Nightforce or Schmit & Bender scope might well be an optimum sniper weapon, but the organizations that spring for weapons like that are few and small. A small, poor country like Communist Romania could put an FPK in every or every other rifle squad. The USSR did something similar with the similar-looking (but better designed and made) SVD (Dragunov Sniper Rifle, in its Russian acronym). What were they thinking?
These weapons would not impress M24-equipped SOF snipers, or M40-wielding Marine Scout Snipers. But they were adequate for their task. They gave every rifle unit a few precision riflemen that could engage point targets out beyond the effective range of assault rifles. They got all the other benefits of snipers, too: ISR through direct observation being, perhaps, the most important.
The Soviet and Warsaw Pact (now Russian and CIS) program was a success even though it was not up to SF or Marine standards. But, thing is, it didn’t have to be. For the Russian architects of Soviet sniping doctrine, which drove the development of the SVD rifle, “good enough” was, well, good enough. They chose to satisfice, not optimize, a decision that met all their needs while working within their constraints.
Satisficing is often a more satisfying process than optimizing. If something is optimized for particular requirements, it may be less adaptable than something that was just good enough. And it’s entirely at the mercy of the wisdom and foresight of the guys who write those requirements. (Six years after adoption, for instance, even Army Ordnance figured out that the nifty-neat magazine disconnector that let you use a Krag like a Trapdoor really wasn’t enough of a killer feature to pick it over the Mauser, after all).
The US has many riches in Small Arms Development, but consistency is not one of them. Consider two development programs that brought contracts to H&K over the years: the Offensive Pistol and the Compact Semi-Automatic Sniper System. Both of these contracts were successful, in that the US military procured (or in the case of the CSASS, is procuring) at least some of the systems. But both might have gone better, had a satisficing approach been taken instead of a maximizing one.
The Offensive Pistol was a special operations project mostly driven by a SEAL wish-list. It produced a pistol that checked every box, but that was nearly as bulky and heavy (with its suppressor) as a carbine. Despite the weight, though, the Mk 23 pistol was handicapped by being a pistol that fired a pistol cartridge. That meant it could never be a sole weapon, the guy using the Mk 23 (presumably in clearing a linear or confined target) needed to have a carbine too.
Here we see how the Mk 23 dwarfs even the pretty big .45 ACP USP Tactical (from this thread on HKPro).
The Mk 23s are out there, but I’ve never heard of anybody using them for anything but playing on the range, or stylin’ and profilin’. It was optimized for its set of specifications, but nobody ever said, “Wait a minute, we say we want it to do X and handle Y, but did we ever do X and Y with a pistol before? Why not?”
In the case of the CSASS, the Army (in particular) had another firearm that was developed from a telephone-book-sized stack of requirements and specifications, the M110 Semi-Automatic Sniper System. The M110 SASS had the same thyroid problem as the Mk 23: it was unweildy for the ways the soldiers wanted to use it.
The M110 SASS came with lots of cool gear, but few of the end users were well trained on the system. And it was too long and unwieldy, hence, the compact semi-auto sniper system competition started to find a less unwieldy
The maker of the original M110, Knight’s Armament Corp., offered to modify the existing M110s to meet the new spec for short money but the Army wasn’t having any of that. They wanted all new guns, and hang the expense.
The CSASS, a cousin of the German G 28 (HK calls this variant the G28E), is basically a piston .308 AR, but it’s optimized for the new specification.
What happens when the users of that rifle make contact with the enemy and suggest some changes? Or, somewhat more cynically, what happens when some new action officer replaces the old and brings a new set of prejudices to bear on the problem? Will the CSASS have as short a run as the M110 did? And be replaced, as it was, by what’s essentially the same gun?