Recently we discussed Jim Schatz’s 2015 NDIA presentation, in which he suggested that US had lost infantry firepower “overmatch,” which he seemed to define as “longest effective range.” His numbers were fuzzy, with three different ranges for the SVD (one of them being 1500m, and we can’t believe that Jim hasn’t shot an SVD or the better-finished, reverse-engineered Chinese NDM-86), but we had several issues with his concept.
Today, let’s talk about another issue, and that’s the single-point nature of effective range as a measure of firepower.
Here’s a historical example. We would guess that most of the readers of this blog have fired, at least for familiarization, an AK and/or its civilian clones, and an M14 and/or its civilian clones. And most of you, then, would be comfortable that the M14 outranges the AK considerably as a practical matter. This is not only due to the design decision to use a full-house turn-of-the-20th-Century rifle/MG cartridge in the US 1950s design relative to the design decision to use a classic mid-century intermediate cartridge in the AK, although that’s a big factor. But the M14 also has considerable advantages in ergonomics and especially sights. The AK still has a 19th-Century open sight, like a 1891 Mosin-Nagant or 1898 Mauser, just shortened to the extreme practical range of the AK, and has a very short sighting radius (which is not entirely a bad thing, for combat marksmanship, but is a real detractor on the rifle range or when engaging enemies at the rifle’s extreme range). The AK, with a similar weight and much less impulse in every cartridge, has superior numbers on recoil and is more accurate in automatic fire from unsupported positions. (Not to say that it’s accurate in objective terms or relative to semi-auto fire, just that it’s far better on full-auto than you can expect any 7.62mm full-auto service rifle to be, and that therefore one can train to fire it automatically accurately, given instruction and/or ammo).
In Vietnam around the end of 1965, US forces first engaged disciplined, regular troops of the North Vietnamese Army in the bloody battles of Ia Drang. The enemy’s ‘arm of choice’ was the AK47. General Wheeler’s ‘worldwide’ trials had shown the AK to be ‘clearly inferior’ to US weapons, and most US soldiers at that time had shown a preference for the M14 over the then-AR-15. But that was 1962 and peacetime, and this was 1965 and counting. America was at war in the jungle, again.
When US forces armed with the M14 encountered light, mobile Vietcong forces armed with the SKS-45 and AK-47 in Vietnam, the result was not Americans crowing about the superiority of their rifle, but Americans demanding a light, short assault rifle with a 30-round magazine, like the AK.
If effective range is just one axis on which firearms can be compared, and other axes include ergonomics, controllability, convenience of reload, quantity of ready ammunition and basic load, weight of gun and ammunition. Almost all of these are subject to being improved, and, unlike effective range, not all of them are entirely dependent on cartridge selection.
Cartridge selection is a decision that is not only technical, but also logistical, and, for a nation that often fights alongside allies and coalitions, inherently political. Gun buffs may not like these facts, but they are facts. When the US goes its own way (as it did with M16 adoption in the 1960s) it puts considerable stress on its alliances, particularly after it had already bullied one international alliance and several nations with strong bilateral alliances with the US into accepting the 7.62 x 51mm NATO cartridge mere years before.
- From The Black Rifle: M16 Retrospective. Toronto: Collector Grade Pubs., 1987. Quoted in Bruce, Robert. M14 vs. M16 in Vietnam. Small Arms Review. Retrieved from: http://www.smallarmsreview.com/display.article.cfm?idarticles=2434