Category Archives: Foreign and Enemy Weapons

Canadian Machine Gun Resto Project

Two machine guns in battered condition on a Canadian war memorial are being examined and will be cosmetically restored to their original condition — and efforts are underway to determine their true provenance and history.

Both are German MG08 guns. The one in this picture, on the south side of a roadside cenotaph in Harold, Ontario, was captured in 1918 at Arras; the hole in its water jacket may have been caused by Canadian fire. The cenotaph itself is rare: most Canadian cenotaphs list only the war dead, but this lists the returned surviving veterans as well as the fallen.

MG08, captured at Arras, 1918.

A pair of 100-year-old German guns, taken as souvenirs at the end of World War I, will be temporarily removed from the cenotaph on Highway 14 to be refurbished thanks to the efforts of the local branch of the Royal Canadian Legion and the Stirling-Rawdon Historical Society.

Silenced in 1918, the guns will never fire again says society member John Lowry, but they will be cleaned up and returned to their original colours, perhaps even solving a few mysteries along the way. Lowry explains that significant research has been done on the weapons, a pair of Maschinengewehr 08 machine guns captured by 2nd Division CEF troops at the end of the war, but there are many unanswered questions as well.

via Machine gun restoration project under way.

John Lowry and Phil Martin of the Historical Society will try to match the gun’s original color scheme — if they can determine what it is — and answer the question of what made the hole in the Arras gun. They’re also trying to find photographic evidence tying the gun’s partner to a particular location or battle.

John Lowry (l.) and Phil Martin (r.)

Lowry thinks the hole in the water jacket may have been the act of a Canadian sniper:

[T]he Arras weapon appears to have been disabled by a sniper’s shot and the restoration may lead to a conclusive answer, he adds, “if we find a .303 bullet in there.” Lowry says that the guns, capable of firing 500 rounds per minute, were water-cooled using a chamber that surrounded the barrel and marksmen would deliberately aim for it hoping to quickly overheat the weapon rendering it useless.

According to the article, trophies like this were once commonplace across Canada, but the herd — once numbering some 15,000 captured arms, originally intended to populate a grand war museum, but on the project’s cancellation scrapped or spread across the very large country — has been thinned, less by time than by WWII scrap drives.

[T]he remaining local pieces, which also include a trench mortar in Madoc and a field artillery piece in Trenton, are only a small fraction of the enemy weapons that ultimately arrived in Canada after World War I. …. A significant number, Lowry says, were scrapped during World War II, including a pair of machine guns received by the village of Stirling. The fate of a similar pair that arrived in Marmora is unknown, but they too may have been scrapped.

The Stirling Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion has raised the cost of the MG restoration. And no, they won’t be restored to firing condition — it is Canada up there, which is kind of like Massachusetts with more polite people and much better drivers.

Is This Book For Real?

tiger_tracks_faustWe’ve been reading Tiger Tracks: The Classic Panzer Memoir by Wolfgang Faust. Republished by Sprech Media, which publishes and republishes English translations of German combat memoirs of WWII (mostly), this is a 1947 memoir by a Panzer VI Tiger driver who fought on the Eastern Front, it says here. Its German title was the Wagnerian Panzerdämmerung. 

But there are a few details that give us pause. In the first place, it’s graphic to the point of gaudy. Here’s a taste:

One such tank shot at us with a maniacal speed, its tracer rounds flashing past us as we manoeuvred around it to put a shell in from its side. Our 88mm round went exactly centre, just above the snow-covered tracks. The turret hatch lifted up and detonating ammunition spiralled out into the red-tinged sky, adding to the smoke pouring across the stained, rutted snow. Even then, the driver’s hatch opened and a crew man emerged, still in his protective headgear, holding a machine pistol. He fired on us with the little gun, the bullets pattering on our front armour, until our hull MG man brought him down with a single shot. Every round had to count now, had to find its mark; while every manoeuvre and evasion used up our dwindling fuel.

I lost track of time in that fight, with my head spinning from the amphetamines and my body unaware of pain. I noticed, with a strange detachment, that the sky was whitening, and the sun was now looming over the ridge above us. It was a fierce, crimson sun, casting jagged shadows from the peaks, and lighting the scattered wrecks of panzers that burned around us. In its light, the Stalins withdrew up the slope, reversing rapidly, firing as they left. Our 75mm PAK in the bunkers caught one of them with repeated hits as it lurched backwards in the snow, smashing off the very tip of its pointed hull. The Red tank kept on reversing, with two crewmen visible inside the hull through the split-open front. Wilf was unable to resist the temptation: he fired directly into the exposed compartment. Cool as always, he had selected high-explosive, and the detonation of the shell deep inside the confined steel box blew out the driver and machine-gunner from the fractured hull, sending them cartwheeling across the snow, trailing smoke. The Stalin’s ruptured compartment became an inferno of orange flames, in which other men were visible, struggling and writhing, until the vehicle was enveloped in its own smoke.1

Driver station of the Tiger in running condition at Bovington. Note vision block (all images embiggen with a click).

Driver station of the Tiger in running condition at Bovington. Note vision block (all images embiggen with a click).

There’s a lot of writhing in flames in this book. Hits on tanks frequently let Faust (through his single vision block!) observe the deaths of the Russian or German crew inside. Hits on half-tracks (which he calls “Hanomags,” after the original manufacturer) do likewise, when they don’t blow vividly-described body parts in the air, launch vehicles in the air to land on screaming Panzer Grenadiers, or scythe heads off.

It’s all very Hollywood. One scene has German infantry struggling in neck-deep snow until an artillery shell neatly beheads them, leaving their “red spurting necks” as the only parts visible. It all seems rather over-the-top, even for the eastern front.

No doubt there was unimaginable carnage, we don’t question that. We question whether one guy could see all that carnage, although one guy could certainly see lots of carnage and imagine the details.

And there are a few oddities. He claims to be fighting JS- (or IS-)3 Stalin tanks in 1943. He just calls them “Stalins,” but its clear from the way he describes the vehicles — domed turret, and a precise description of the arrangement of the glacis armor — that he’s talking about a JS-3, not the earlier Stalin I or II tanks. (The JS-1 resembled the Tiger and other prewar and early-war tanks in its armor layout, and had a roughly square turret. The JS-2 had a turret resembling a T-34-85). Yet every reference we’ve seen suggests that Chelyabinsk Tractor Works, the Soviets’ go-to tank shop, didn’t start on the Objekt 702 project until the fall of 1944 at the earliest, and the JS-3s first showed up in combat in the Battle of Berlin, and were unknown to the Western Allies until the first Soviet victory parades.

Finally, there is an entirely implausible subplot with a captured Russian female lieutenant. Ripped right out of the movie script, that!

And yet… there are parts that ring true. There’s Faust hastily cannibalizing a vision block from a knocked-out Tiger, and detailed descriptions of the running gear and its limitations. He never drives his Tiger at an unreasonable speed — it was a slow tank, and he’s typically grinding along at  a plausible 10 or 20 km/h. For example, these sound plausible to us:

Inside our panzer, it was humid now, as the groaning transmission became hot and warmed the sealed-in air. Condensation collected on my dials, scalding oil from the transmission spat on my face, the reek of carbon monoxide made my head throb, and I almost envied our commander up in the turret, still with his head up in the morning air – despite the risk he ran of losing that clever brain to a shell or a sniper.2

This running gear layout is a Tiger II, but it gives you a sense of German practice.

This running gear layout is a Tiger II, but it gives you a sense of German practice.

Driveshafts and transmissions crowded the driver in his position in the left bow of a Tiger. And this should ring true to any former tank or mech guy:

Our Tigers were never designed to drive sustained journeys, not even on smooth city roads. The stress and wear to the running gear was too great, and the entire engine and transmission itself only lasted for 1,000 kilometres before being completely replaced. Several of our panzers were at that point now , and their crew muttered gloomily about the prospects of them finishing the journey at all without burning out or seizing up. Even the track links – those great chunks of steel weighing ten kilos each – wear quickly under the duress, and the tracks must be tightened and adjusted if the track is not to snap or become tangled on the drive wheels. The pins that hold the links together are thick metal rods, like your grandmother’s biggest knitting needle – but if one breaks, the sixty tonne panzer can be lost.3

One is left with the impression that perhaps the author is a trained Tiger driver, or at least has read his Tigerfibel closely, but has embellished his combat experience to make for a more vivid (and horrifying, and salable) book. Some years ago we reviewed very positively a book by a Soviet TC who fought on this same front in a T-34; Vassily Bryukhov’s descriptions of combat were no less vivid, but were much more credible than Faust’s.

We suspect we are not the first to have doubts about this work, and wonder if it was equally controversial when it was first published in war-wracked Germany.

UPDATES

A small note at the end of the book’s text says that “Wolfgang Faust” is a pseudonym, and the names of all others in the book have also been changed.

At book’s end, Faust is very nearly a sole survivor (his TC, a unit XO turned commander, is another). While there certainly have been sole survivors of crews, units, etc. in history, “sole survivor” is a very common claim in wannabe war stories, perhaps to explain plausibly the lack of corroborating witnesses.

A reader in Germany  tells us that there is absolutely no reference to this “classic Panzer memoir” discoverable on the German-language internet; he reminds us of the stirring Boy’s Own type tales that were printed in the pulp mag Der Landser (something like a German equivalent of The GI) during the magazine’s 1954-2013 run. (It has resurfaced as Weltkrieg, “World War”, and seems to have its roots in a wartime propaganda pulp for Hitlerjugend boys. They also were apocryphal stories, with brave heroes, minimal Nazi politics, accurate technical details and lurid combat scenes.

NOTES

  1. Faust, Wolfgang (2015-03-04). Tiger Tracks – Classic Panzer Memoir (Kindle Locations 1769-1782). Bayern Classic Publications. Kindle Edition.
  2. Ibid., Kindle Locations 59-62.
  3. Ibid., Kindle Locations 718-724.

G36: German Gun Mag Thought They Had the Answer Last Year

A German gun magazine publisher conducted an investigation of the G36 last year, with the assistance (of course) of H&K. Running online under a title that translates to the rather optimistic “Overheating Problem Cleared Up,” the short version of the article combines reporting on the alleged accuracy problem with a range report on the rifle. (Vielen Dank to the anonymous tipster who sent it to us).

Heckler-und-Koch-G36-BW

A key paragraph of the report:

For about two years, negative reports of the supposedly deficient performance of the HK G36 in combat. have been multiplying in TV und print media, such as Report Mainz, Frontal 21, Spiegel and BILD. The core of the allegations has always been that an HK G36 fired until hot will disperse its shots so widely that the enemy can no longer be safely combatted. The Bundewehr introduced a Close Combat Shot Cycle (Einsatznahen-Beschuss-Zyklus or EBZ) in March, 2012, in which the entire basic load of 150 cartridges is fired in 20 minutes. On the basis of the EBZ the manufacturer carried out in-house experiments with ten various  G36s manufactured during the years 1996 to 2008.

The article describes HK’s shock at learning that the weapon failed tests — new tests, that hadn’t been part of the firearm’s original adoption — and the range results obtained by company in those tests, and by the magazine’s shooters using a rack-grade G36 and following both slow fire and EBZ protocols.

The 134-page invesigative report by Heckler & Koch, “Assault rifle G36 Investigation of dispersion and aiming point behavior of the Weapon in Fired-Hot Condition” (Sturmgewehr G36-Untersuchung zum Streuungs- und Treffpunktverhalten der Waffe im heißgeschossenen Zustand) exactly describes the test conditions, the technical procedures and the results, which have been compiled meticulously. Certainly there is an increase in group size with forced rapid fire in shot-hot conditions, as there are with any other weapon; the HK G36 is no exception.

See what they did there? They’re not saying “our gun doesn’t do this,” after tests that show, well, that it does; they’re making a tu quoque argument: “others do it too!”

Cold bore, all was well....

Cold bore, all was well…. 10 shots in a 78mm/ roughly 3″ group

The article does go on to suggest that variable and out-of-spec bullet-jacket thicknesses, not the rifle itself, causes the dispersion problem (which they confirmed as about doubling group size when hot, from a 20 cm (~8″) group at 100m, to 40 cm (~16″)).

The original article teaser (in German) is here; or you can try your luck with a mechanically brutal Google translation auf englisch. The article reportedly appeared in the April 2014 German magazines Caliber and Visier, so we’d like a scan or .pdf if anybody has it (you can send it to hognose at networkimpossible.com). We’d also really like to have a copy of the 134-page HK report. (If you’re listening, HK USA, send us the report and we’ll do a certified translation for you for free).

Remember, by the time Caliber and Visier ran this article, the “media whirlwind” (as they call it) over the G 36 had been going on for over two years. Obviously this predates the recent results in which independent testing also showed an unacceptable increase in dispersion when the rifle was rapid-fired in hot environmental conditions. And the media whirlwind, spun up further by new revelations, shows no sign of abating.

German Sturm und Drang over G36

The German media continue to run article after article criticizing the Bundeswehr’s G36 service rifle, and the procurement process that put the H&K product into the German Landser’s hands. The rifle has been extremely controversial from its introduction, but particularly since 2011.

HK G36

Of the various charges out there now, the one that has stuck, according to reports from the field and from German news media, is that the weapon loses all accuracy when it gets hot. The dispute has multiple facets or sides, including the Bundeswehr, H&K, the MOD’s current leaders, its former leaders, opposition politicians, and the German media; each such interest seems to be at war with all the others.

Here are a few of our translations of German news-magazine and blog headlines and subheads. Note that (1) these hasty hacks aren’t official, certified translations (if you want those, they come with a bill), and (2) the articles linked are in German, of course. Some of them may have English translations: look for a small British or British&American flag icon on the website.

G36C disassembled

ITEM: Spiegel, 7 Feb 14: Problems with Bundeswehr Standard Weapon: Legislature stops procurement of G36

After even more reports on the problems of the G36 assault rifle, the Bundestag pulls the emergency brake: The Committee on Budgets has immediately canceled all further orders of the weapon.

ITEM: Spiegel, 12 Mar 14: Examination of the Bundeswehr rifle G36: Whitewash from the Ministry of Defense

A serious accusation of the House of Ursula von der Leyen: Defense Commissioner [Hellmut] Königshause accused the Ministry of attempted manipulation of an examination of the G36 assault rifle. Negative outcomes were, in Berlin, not wanted.

ITEM: Stern, 29 Nov 14: Ministry Tried to Massage Weapons Report

The Defense Ministry is reported to have tried to influence the Experts’ Report on the deficiencies of the rifle G36. Certain formularions were used to try to “retouch” the weapon’s accuracy problems.

ITEM: Spiegel, 30 Mar 15: Bundeswehr: Tests Prove Deficient Accuracy of the G36

For months, there have been doubts about the Bundeswehr’s standard rifle . Now technical tests have demonstrated that the G36 is inaccurate when it’s fired hot. Minister von der Leyen is alarmed.

ITEM: Spiegel, 31 Mar 15: Bundeswehr Rifle G36: Heckler & Koch Accuses von der Leyen of a Targeted Campaign.

The negative reports about the Sturmgewehr G36 have occasioned strong conflict between the manufacturer and the Bundeswehr. Gunmaker Heckler & Koch said it was “shocked” by the decision of Minister von der Leyen

ITEM: Stern, 1 April 15: Von der Leyen has a Commission Investigate the Rifle Problem

A commission has been assigned by Federal Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) to investigate more deeply the problems with the Sturmgewehr G36 and the consequences thereof.

ITEM: Stern, 8 Apr 15: Leadership of MOD was Already Warned in 2011

The G36, the standard rifle of the Bundeswehr, fails under heat and no longer shoots accurately. A report from the Federal Accounting Office reveals: the problem has been known for years, but has been concealed.

(Note: this is the article that occasioned HK’s “Position Paper Nº. 3″ on the G36, available from HK here).

ITEM: Stern, 12 Apr 15: Two Commissions are to Investigate the G36 Affair simultaneously.

The MOD is having the affair of the troubled Sturmgewehr G36 investigated by two Commissions simultaneously. Sie sollen nach der Vorlage eines Berichts zur Treffsicherheit der Standardwaffe der Bundeswehr am kommenden Freitag eingesetzt werden.

There are many more articles. Here, for example, is a search string that will find all of Stern’s:

http://wefind.stern.de/stern/search?query=G36+gewehr

And here is Spiegel’s:

http://www.spiegel.de/suche/index.html?suchbegriff=Gewehr+G36

What it Means So Far

In the German Armed Forces, the G36 is on the bubble, even after the military has accepted hundreds of thousands of these rifles already. The MOD is seriously considering selecting some different rifle as an interim rifle. HK thought they could lobby their way out of trouble, and they have failed; as the only likely complete solution provider inside Germany, the bad odor they are now in with the major parties (CDU, SPD, and even the anti-defense Greens) means they have an uphill fight to either prevent the replacement of the G36, or provide the substitute.

G36E

This would be a really good time for HK to engineer a solution to the high-temp accuracy problem. It’s hard to believe that their tests do not show the same thing Bundeswehr and independent tests have found, that when the gun is hot from firing it can sling bullets as much as 50 cm (half a meter, just under 20″) from point of aim at 100 meters. Cold-bore the G36 is as accurate as any 5.56mm NATO rifle and more accurate than some, but there’s clearly something off in the largely-polymer rifle’s heat management.

You may recall that the G36 forerunner considered and nearly adopted by the US Army, the XM8, also came a cropper on heat-management issues (among many others).

HK’s only winning response at this point is a reengineered G36 that handles these heat issues with aplomb. The lack of confidence in the weapon in the Bundeswehr is not strictly a Bundeswehr problem, because an abandonment of the rifle by the German Armed Forces would be such a vote of no-confidence that its foreign sales would largely evaporate. (Some units might still be moved the way many Latin American and African rifles are adopted, with transfers to numbered Swiss bank accounts).

Meanwhile, other European, especially German and part-German, arms companies are looking at what they have to fill the racks in German arms rooms. FN can offer SCARs, SIG/Sauer the 500 series, Steyr the AUG. Israel may offer the Tavor, but the odds of a European nation, especially Germany, adopting an Israeli firearm approach zero. In addition almost everybody, even HK, can offer an M16/M4 clone. Some German SOF elements already have experience with the M4A1 and HK416, and there are points of preference for those carbines over the G36K they’re supposed to be using.

The US DOD would facilitate co-production if the Bundeswehr were seriously interested in guns similar to US-pattern ones, which it’s probably not. But the service has signaled it’s going to so something, and something big, about its G36 problem.

Finally — did anyone else notice the irony that, in Germany the press is crucifying their military for shortcomings of a service rifle most of the troops are happy with, and suggesting that they just buck up and buy the foreign alternative (such as the M4), while in the US the press from time to time crucifies the military for shortcomings of a service rifle most of the troops are happy with, and suggests that they just buck up and buy the foreign alternative (such as the G36)?

(In the interests of fairness, we provide links to and translation of the most recent HK Position Papers on the G36 overleaf. Click “more” to read them. –Eds.)

Continue reading

HK’s Other 4.6: the HK36 in 4.6 x 36

HK LogoAround 1970, Heckler & Koch was doing well, but their restless engineers were thinking: what’s next? One thing we learn from history is that no weapons system lasts forever, and there was maybe one more go-around in the company’s present line of roller-locked weapons, trading some militaries’ 7.62 NATO weapons for 5.56 NATO ones. But what could offer stingy weapons procurers enough reason to stop sitting on their wallets?

HK 4.6 x 36mm, made 1971. For sale here. It seems likely that there was only one lot.

HK 4.6 x 36mm, made 1971. For sale here. It seems possible that there was only one lot each of the “soft core” (lead, this) and “hard core” (tungsten carbide) FMJ.

The company explored many ideas, in two major strains. One is now well-known: caseless ammunition with a radically new action and new modes of fire, which became the G11 through many, many series of tests and evaluations in the 1970s and 1980s. The second was, perhaps, meant as a technical backstop if the G11, a technical stretch, proved infeasible. It became the HK36 — not the G36, the technical backstop HK had to create after the G11 failed, but the very obscure G36. The rifle existed in, perhaps, three prototypes. It used a unique 4.6 x 36mm intermediate cartridge.

HK 36 factory photo, as published in Full Circle.

HK 36 factory photo, as published in Full Circle. This is the configuration we call Prototype 3.

The Big Ideas: Weight and Spoonery

When we referred to this as the “other” 4.6, we’re referring, of course, to the fact that this is not 4.6 x 30 HK round used in the familiar (at least, in appearance) MP7 series widely used by US and foreign special operations forces. The 4.6 x 30 is the latest of HK’s many attempts to make an even smaller caliber round, but it was aimed at a different objective: the short-range SOF and LE submachine gun, making most shots inside 100 meters; it has very light bullets (31-40 grains for warshots) and is a hair over half the weight of 9×19 or 5.56×25 ammo, allowing a reduction in operator burden (or an increase in ammo load, naturally).

The 4.6 x 36 was developed in the 1960s to meet a different requirement entirely: that of a normal assault rifle intermediate cartridge, with engagement ranges mostly inside 300 meters. Two ideas drove the 4.6 x 36: reducing ammunition and system weight for a given effect, arguably the longest-standing trend in firearms design, and increasing terminal effect in the intended target, to wit, enemy homo sapiens. The first objective drove the reduction in caliber and length. To get to acceptable lethality, higher chamber pressures (51,200 psi CUP) were accepted, but the light projectiles (42 grain hard core/54 grain softcore) didn’t reach outlandish velocities (2,600-2,800 fps). It required a fast barrel twist to stabilize the light projectiles; 1 turn in 6.3″ was selected. HK claimed the round shot flat, allowing it to print to point of aim from 0 to 300 meters without any need for range compensation by the shooter or the sight.

The “spoonery” of the subtitle refers to an invention of Dr Gunther Voss of CETME, which remained in symbiosis with HK itself at least at the time he applied for German and US patents in 1964 and 65 (his US Patent, 3,357,357, was granted in 1967).

Voss Loffelspitz US3357357-0

…to provide a rifle bullet wherein the tip of the bullet is of an asymmetric shape. When this bullet strikes the target, forces are generated which accelerate the bulet inclination.

It is stil another object of the present invention to provide a rifle bullet wherein the turning moment produced by the inclination accelerating forces increases and the bullet inclination is produced more rapidly when the distance between the bullet center of gravity and the bullet tip is greater. It is possible to increase the effect produced by the bullet tip asymmetry through the backward displacement of the bullet center of gravity.

The CG change could be produced by a dual-material cored bullet (later Russian rounds would take this approach, without using Voss’s tip).

Voss 4.6 x 36 Löffelspitz (l.) with 5.56 x 45 for comparison.

Voss 4.6 x 36 Löffelspitz (l.) with 5.56 x 45 for comparison.

Voss further believed that by increasing terminal velocity with the subtly asymmetric bullet tip he called the Löffelspitz or “spoon tip,” he could reduce caliber without losing lethality, and without having to “underspin” the bullet, which was widely understood to be Armalite’s approach to small caliber lethality.

In addition to the effective range increase, a bullet with these characteristics offers the advantage of the possibility of reducing its caliber without decreasing the detaining power obtained with the calibers used until now.

“Detaining power” is a euphemism used throughout the patent application. But clearly, the one biggest Big Idea in the HK36 was this ammunition.

The Three Known Prototypes or Versions

It is possible that some of these are actually the same rifle before and after rework. The fairly comprehensive (to its date) HK reference The Gray Room does not include a picture of an HK 36, suggesting that this may not have been preserved by the firm (or it may not be in display condition). Full Circle only includes handout publicity pictures.

The receiver of the rifle is very slender and short and, while surviving weight figures (6.3 lb empty) generated by marketing personnel based on prototypes are hard to reconcile with real in-service weights, it should have been much lighter than other HK rifles and more competitive with AR-15 based contemporaries.

Prototype 1 had a very conventional HK roller-lock styled receiver and magazine well, and very conventional HK (as far back as CETME) drum sight. It showed a relatively early plastic HK lower marked 0-1-30 and had an unusual sliding buttstock, clearly inspired by the Colt CAR-15, even though the HK36 did not require a buffer tube.

hk36 prototype 1

 

Prototype 2 also had a fixed magazine well, but the drum sight had been replaced by an, also Colt- or Armalite-inspired, carrying handle/sight mount. A reflex sight is contained within the after third of this sight, but we’ve never seen pictures of it, or of its reticle; we do note that apart from Prototype 1 (above), all HK 36 photos appear to be innocent of any foresight or any provision for iron sights. This image was featured in the 1975 Jane’s Infantry Weapons edited by FWA Hobart. Hobart reproduced a factory brochure for the rifle inside the book. He also, at the same time, featured this firearm in an article in National Defense, the magazine of the (then) American Defense Preparedness Association (which was earlier the Ordnance Association, and would later be the National Defense Industrial Association). By this time, possibly unknown to Hobart, the HK 36 was destined for the back burner as the caseless project was beginning to look feasible.

hk36 prototype 2

That picture doesn’t really do the sight-tower justice. It would be preserved in the next prototype and we’ll see it from some more angles.

Prototype 3 took another turn in the direction of space age looks with a fixed stock with a high center so that the recoil thrustline is barely offset from the stock centerline. This would have the  effect of reducing muzzle rise in high-rate fire, including auto- or burst-mode fire.

HK36b

The selector now has four positions: 0, 1, 25, and 3, for a three-shot burst. This appears to have been a burst at normal cyclic rate.

The unusual magwell appears also to be a little bit inspired by Armalite concepts: a disposable waffle-reinforced magazine insert made of aluminum.

hk36mag

Changing a magazine was a Heath Robinson task on the HK 36; it appears from surviving photos that you have to move the mag well latch to the rear which would let the spring-loaded side door open and then you could insert the 25-Round magazine insert into the well and press the side door closed. At this point you could resume fire.

It may have been even more complicated than that. This is how Major Hobart explained it in the National Defense article (via Full Circle, p. 346):

The magazine is charged as follows:

At the bottom of each side is a milled button attached to a spring-loaded chain carried inside the magazine. When the buttons are pulled down, the chain is extended and held out. This pulls down the magazine platform and compresses the magazine spring. The rear of the magazine is open, and the 30-round box is placed on top of the followers. A further pull on the chain releases the holding catch.

The magazine platform rises under the cartridges and passes inside the containing box. The chain is taken up into the magazine. The first round is now in position for loading, and when the bolt comes forward the top cartridge is fed into the chamber. The magazine is sealed against the entry of dirt, snow, etc. As subsequent rounds are fired, the magazine spring drives the follower farther up inside the ammunition box. When the last round is fired, the bolt is held open. When the chain is pulled down, the empty box is ejected, the magazine spring is fully compressed, and the platform is pulled down to allow the next ammunition pack to be inserted.

(This is what happens when you ask a room full of guys whose names terminate in Dipl. Ing. to simplify something). HK claimed that this would “reduce weight and cost.”

It’s unfair to judge the magazine system based only on images and descriptions, but the temptation to pass judgment is strong. In any event, it is not the only ergonomic question mark with these firearms. The usual HK selector switch seems to call for the usual double-jointed thumb, especially on the burst setting; also, a stock weld of any type looks practically impossible, whether you’re using the fixed or sliding stock versions. (In true HK roller-lock fashion, they’re easily interchangeable. HK was modular before modular was cool).

The close-up of Prototype 3 shows the unusual shape of the forward carrying-handle pillars, and the only reason we can think that they’re bowed out like that is to keep them out of the field of view of the mysterious reflex sight. At around this time, HK was working with Hensoldt on a reflex sight for the G11; this might be the same sight.

Note that these “Prototype numbers” are not anything assigned by HK, but something that gun watchers have applied to these photos over the years as they’ve surfaced. We’re not aware of any picture showing more than one HK 36 in any one place at any one time, so it’s quite possible that there was only one prototype, and it went through several different reconstructions. It’s also possible that at least some of the weapons in the factory photos are actually mockups or dummies, and were never built as working firearms. The existence of quantities of the 4.6 X 36 ammunition argues for the existence of functioning prototypes.

What Happened to the HK36?

We know, in broad terms, what happened with the project. As the 70s wore on and the G11 project for a 4.9 mm (later 4.7 x 21) caseless Wundergewehr came together technically, the HK 36 and its unique 4.6 x 36 mm round vanished back into the swamps of, if not Mordor, at least Oberndorf. The G11 project was all-consuming, and it was this close to Bundeswehr adoption and standardization, having demonstrated a 100% pH improvement over the G3 rifle, when it was overcome by events. The Berlin Wall crumbled, and Germany entered the phase of Wiedervereinigung — the reunification of a nation divided in twain for almost 50 years. With the defense demands that resulted from this unexpected boon, including the challenges of merging two completely incompatible sets of armed services, it would have been irresponsible to sink great resources into rifle re-armament — so they kicked that can down the road, and stuck with the obsolescent G3.

The G11, which had already been rejected by the US Army when it cancelled the Advanced Combat Rifle procurement program in 1990, went into the lockers, too, and HK was briefly without a future in the infantry rifle market (right when worldwide Police/SOF enthusiasm for its submachine guns was running out of steam).

When HK found its future again, it wouldn’t be roller-locked or caseless. So one of the salient facts about the HK 36 is that it was, indeed, the last of a long line that began with the Mauser Werke StG 45. For that, as well as its innovative ammunition and concept, it deserves to be remembered.

We are aware that this post is far from comprehensive, but we think it tells the story of this rare experiment to the extent that it’s been made public. If there is a single thorough article on the HK 36 in the Intertubes somewhere, we did not find it. The best and most authoritative sources, based on factory information, are those 1975 Jane’s and National Defense articles, and three short pages in Full Circle, which reproduces much of the ND article’s content. 

Sabotage Cartridge, Reputed British Provenance, 1943-45

sabotage_round_2A Swiss museum (Fortress Museum Heldsberg) recently required a collection of roughly a thousand cartridges, including many rare and exotic specimens, many of which have been sectioned for display. Among them is this unique 7.92 Mauser round that was reportedly dropped from British aircraft in cunningly copied German packaging. Thinking it was misplaced ammunition, some unfortunate Landser would pick it up, and kB! ensued.

These sorts of sabotage operations are not meant to kill or maim any serious number of men, or destroy or damage a militarily significant number of weapons. That’s not what they’re about at all. Instead, they’re psychological operations, calibrated to shake the enemy’s faith in his own war industries and in his weapons. Even exposure of the foreign origin of the ammunition involved does not resolve this psychological threat, because, since the ammo so closely resembles the genuine article, he can’t be sure if any shot is going to behead him.

If nothing else, it produces an army of flinchers.

Sabotage Round 1

Here’s what the Heldsberg museum says about it (our translation):

Sabotage Cartridge

This cartridge was manufactured in a munitions factory in England. It is a copy of a Wehrmacht cartridge with the code P 490 of Hugo Schneider AG in Altenburg, Germany. These cartridges with a genuine-looking headstamp, in perfectly forged packaging and crates were dropped by the Englishmen during bombing raids at night over German areas. Any German trooper was sure glad about the unexpected resupply. He just couldn’t know that this ammunition comprised cartridges specially altered to blow up weapons. Instead of the normal load of propellant, the powder area is full of an explosive charge. It consists of a shortened English blasting cap that is installed so that its open end is struck by the flash of the primer. About 1.2 grams of plastic explosive is found between the blasting cap and the cartridge case. Above that, the free space is filled with wadding, so that the blasting cap and the explosive stay where they belong, and so that the cartridge is not too heavy. If an attempt to fire set off the blasting cap and explosive, the chamber and bolt would be destroyed. The shooter and anyone standing close to him could be wounded by blown-up weapon parts. The bullet expelled by this explosion would have a significantly lower velocity and energy. The weapons usually would be destroyed.

In the past, we’ve known of such cartridges made by Germany in both World Wars (7.62 x 54R caliber), by Russian in WWII (also 7.92 x 57), and by the USA in Vietnam (7.62 x 39 and 7.62 x 54, as well as mortar and recoilless-rifle rounds and unguided rockets purporting to be of Chinese and Russian origin). No doubt this obvious idea has been used even more widely than that. But we were previously unaware of this British ammunition. Our best guess is that if it is indeed British, it was generated under the auspices of the Special Operations Executive under the Ministry of Economic Warfare.

The museum’s cartridge collection comes via a Herr Karl “Charly” Untersee, who has sectioned almost 1,000 cartridges. Some of his cartridges, including a number of bizarre multiple-projectile loads, have been photographed for an art exhibition called AMMO (what else?) by photographer Sabine Pearlman.

Nebst einem Querschnitt durch schweizerische Munition sehen Sie eine einmalige Sammlung von aufgeschnittenen Patronen. Unser Waffen- und Munitionsspezialist, Herr Karl Untersee, hat in unzähligen Stunden das Innenleben von fast 1’000 Patronen für uns sichtbar gemacht. The Museum itself is a World War II underground bunker/artillery fortress, well preserved and maintained as a tourist attraction. It was hastily built to face Austria, not previously thought a threat to Swiss liberty, after the Anschluß of 1938.

Toggle-Locked Orphan: the Benelli B76

If you have a well-rounded firearms education, the name Benelli needs no introduction. Now part of the Beretta family, the marque has been known for its semi-auto shotguns since its founding in 1967. But Benelli made an attempt, in the 70s and 80s, to make a NATO service pistol. It’s interesting for its unusual toggle-lock mechanism (one we missed when we covered toggle-locking), its fine Italian styling, and its relative rarity: internet forum participants, at least, think only about 10,000 were made. (We do some analysis on this claim below, and posit a lower number).

benelli b76 pistol

There were other Italian semi-autos at about the same time, like the Bernardelli P-018, competing in part for European police contracts, as many Continental police departments replaced 7.65mm service pistols during the 1970s and 80s rise of European communist terrorist groups like the Red Brigades and Baader-Meinhof Gang. But the Benelli was a unique blend of design and functionality. Arriving too late into a market saturated with double-stack double-action pistols, it might have been a killer competitor for the P1/P.38 or the Beretta M1951 twenty years earlier, but by the end of the eighties, the market was heavily oriented towards double-stack, double-action, and often, ambidextrous-control service pistols. Even European police services who had thought 8 rounds of 9mm a real fistful of firepower had moved on — and so did Benelli, retreating to a concentration on its market-leading shotguns.

Mechanics of the B76

The toggle-lock is not truly a lock in the sense of a Maxim or Luger lock, but more of a hesitation lock or delayed blowback. Other weapons have used a lever in delayed blowback, like the Kiraly submachine guns and the French FAMAS Clarión, but the Benelli one is unique. It’s described in US patent No. 3,893,369. The toggle lock or lever is #5 in the illustration below, from the patent.

US3893369-1Benelli B76

Benelli often cited the fixed barrel of its design as a contributor to superior accuracy in comparison to the generic Browning-type action.

Aesthetics & Ergonomics

The styling of the B76 is a little like its Italian contemporary, the Lamborghini Countach: angular, striking, and polarizing. You love it or hate it, or like Catullus, both at once: Idi et amo. It came in a colorful printed box, resembling consumer products of the era…

BenelliB77Pistol in box

…or in a more traditional wooden case.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The somewhat blocky slide needs to be protected by a holster with a full nose cap, if you intend to carry the B76. It’s a large pistol and it would be prone to print if you did, much like any other service pistol like the M9, the Glock 17, or various SIGs. Where the pistol comes into its own is when you handle and shoot it. The safety falls right to hand, like that of a 1911, although as a DA/SA gun it’s perfectly safe to carry hammer down on a loaded chamber. The grip angle is much like the P.08 Luger, making for a very natural pistol pointing experience. The pistol’s steel construction and roughly 1kg (2.2 lb) weight makes it comfortable and controllable to shoot. The heavily-contoured grip on the target models makes it even more so.

The guns are known for reliability and accuracy, and their small following is very enthusiastic, reminding us of the fans of the old Swiss SIG P210 pistol: the sort of machinery snobs whose garage is more accustomed to housing premium European nameplates than generic American or Japanese iron, and who not only buy premium instead of Lowe’s tools, but who can take you through their toolboxes explaining why the premium stuff is better.

Production and Variations

The Benelli company was relatively new when it designed the B76. The US Patent application for its locking mechanism dates to 1973, and the planned start of production was 1976 (that may have slipped).

There were several variants of the B76, most of them sold only in non-US markets. The B76 was the name ship of the class, if you will, but there were several variants. The B77 was a scaled-down model in .7.65 x 17SR (7.65 Browning/.32 ACP); it was a completely different gun. The B80 was a 7.65 x 22 (7.65 Parabellum/.30 Luger) variant, largely for the Italian market; only the barrel and magazine differed from the B76. The B82 was a variant in the short-lived European police caliber, 9 x 18 Ultra (sometimes reported, mistakenly, as 9×18 Makarov). In addition, there were several target pistol variants, including the B76 “Sport” with target sights, grip, longer barrel, and weights, and a similar target pistol in, of all things, .32 S&W Long called the MP3S. We’ve covered some of these exotic Benellis before, in the mistaken belief that we had brought this post live, which we hadn’t. (D’oh!)

The one modification that might have brought Benelli sales to police departments or military forces was never done, and that is to develop a double-stack magazine. A “mere” 8 rounds of 9mm was already insufficient in 1976, when many NATO armies already issued the 13-round Browning Hi-Power as their baseline auto pistol, and the novel Glock 17 coming on strong.

Benelli dropped the pistols from its catalog in 1990. The company still produces its signature shotguns and a line of high-end target pistols, and even some rifles based on the shotgun design, but its foray into the pistol market has left Benelli with bad memories, red ink and a few curiosities in the company museum. But the curious pistol buyer looking for a firearm with a difference will find here a remarkable and character-rich handgun. If you’re the sort of man who can rock an Armani suit or avoid looking ridiculous in a Countach, this might be a good companion piece.

We’ve mentioned the internet claims of production of 10,000. The highest serial number we found on the net (5462) was well below that, but we certainly don’t have a statistical grasp on production yet. With 7 known serial numbers we can make a rough calculation that there’s a 9 in 10 probability the total production is under 6400, and a 99% probability it’s under 8500. That’s assuming our rusty MBA-fu still retains its potency.

Market

No B76s are on GunBroker at this writing, and only very few — single digit quantities — have moved since 2012. The guns offered were all in very good to new-in-box condition, and they cleared the market at prices from $585 to $650. One went unsold at $565 against a reserve of $600, hinting that, despite these guns’ character and quality, there’s just not much of a market for single-stack full-size DA/SA autopistols.

For More Information

We’re seeking a better copy, but for the moment, heres a .pdf of the manual. Unfortunately, it takes greater pains to describe the mundane DA/SA trigger system than the rare, patented breech lock!

benelli_b76.pdf

The GunLab VG 1-5 Project Update

Chuck at GunLab reports on the ongoing VG 1-5 project. Pre-orders have been taken (cards not yet charged) and a list established at Allegheny Arsenal. It’s not cheap, but you’re not going to be the sixth AR in line at the range with this thing.

We’re going to catch you up on the last several VG 1-5 2015 updates, a couple of which we might have mentioned before.

Chuck had made the first few receiver reinforcement plates by hand on a finger brake. It worked but it was an ugly way of doing it, especially with hundreds of the guns spoken for by eager collectors. So he made a special pressing jig. Here it is in action:

The Magazine Release Button comprises a threaded insert riveted into a pressed dome, which is made itself from a flat laser-cut washer. Both processes are shown in the video below and explained with many photos in the appropriate GunLab post from back in January.

And so, finally, we get to the latest update, from 9 Mar 15, in which a test-mule VG 1-5 is test-fired. As Chuck writes:

We looked at everything from the barrel chamber and flutes to the firing pin length. We needed to check the recoil spring length and tension. Is the buffer spring too strong or weak? Will the fire control group work properly? All the drawings showed that everything should work but these are all questions that can only be answered during a test fire.

A problem is found, is rapidly troubleshot, and a new problem is found.

While the videos are a brief and on point, and have the advantage of motion, we strongly urge going to see the actual posts, because the many photos there and the descriptions reveal details not clarified in the videos.

We have every confidence that troubleshooting will be successful. How much confidence? Well, our VG 1-5 is on order.

There are several other cool things happening at GunLab, and they are worth checking out. (If you’re typing the address in, try to remember it’s gunlab.net. Someone has acquired the gunlab.com domain, but we don’t know who).

UPDATE

Sorry about the missing test-fire video. Should be fixed now.

Exotic Barrels Part 1: Squeeze Bores

In 99 repeating 9% of gun barrels, the caliber is what it is, and the bullet that comes out of the barrel is the same diameter it always was, just marked by the rifling. Likewise, the rifling twist is what it is, and from the point where is picks up in the leade (forward of the chamber) to the point where the bullet exits the barrel it is constant.

Then, there are the exotics, the ones that keep 99.9% from closing the gap between there and “all.” We’re going to talk about one exotic bore, and one exotic twist, in a pair of posts: Squeeze Bore and Gain Twist. Even though the names sound dreadfully like 1970s NATO codenames for Russian anti-aircraft radars, they’re both really a thing.

Squeeze Bore

The idea behind squeeze bore is to use the power of the powder to forge the projectile down in diameter. This would, in theory, do one of two things: blow the gun to Kingdom Come, or accelerate the projectile to velocities previously unheard of. It didn’t take long for people to try to reduce this theory to practice. The 1957 edition of Naval Ordnance and Gunnery, Volume 1:  Naval Ordnance, a training manual coded NavPers 10797-A, showed five different ways to get high velocities. The first is the familiar expedient of a lighter projectile, and the second, the saboted projectile used in most tank KE rounds these days, and in the .50 SLAP (saboted light armor penetrator) round. The third example, essentially beefing the gun up to take excessive pressures, doesn’t seem very practical, and the fifth was, in 1957, science-fiction stuff but is now a pretty routine way to get longer ranges in artillery. Which leaves the fourth example, D, our squeeze-bore

CHAPTER-6-E-FIGURE6E1-PAGE-95

A very, very gradual and subtle version of squeeze bore is the choke used on some firearms. But there’s nothing subtle about true squeeze bore. The World War II German Pak 41 fired a Gerlich-designed 42mm projectile, which the barrel squeezed down to 30mm at the muzzle. At around the same time, the US developed (at Frankford Arsenal) squeeze bore M2HB barrels, which fired a special bullet that squeezed down from .50 to .30 caliber. These guns produced extremely high velocities, with kinetic energy and penetration to match.

S.PzB.41 in action (or at least, being demonstrated). Wheles were removable to lower silhouette.

S.PzB.41 in action (or at least, being demonstrated). Wheels were removable to lower silhouette. Troops show scale… this is really small for something that can ding a JS-1’s frontal armor.

Squeeze bore was primarily used experimentally in antitank weaponry. The one weapon fielded with a squeeze bore was the German Gerlich S.PzB 41. The name Schwere Panzerbüchse meant, literally, heavy anti-tank rifle, and the Germans may have seen it as a replacement for the 7.92 x 94mm PzB 39, but its lightest variant weighed around 300 lbs. It could be broken down into smaller, man-portable-for-a-short-distance, loads.

Factory photo of the stripped-down paratroop version.

Factory photo of the stripped-down paratroop version.

The effect can be approximated by firing an oversize cartridge in a smaller-caliber bore, if the throat or leade is not too tight. (If it is, you get a kB! instead). You’re more likely to get away with such an inadvertent bore squeeze if the projectile is highly malleable, like a soft lead bullet. The Gerlich system used a tungsten penetrator with an aluminum alloy jacket, including crushable skirts. The projectiles looked like this (HE/frag on the left, with a filler of phlegmatized PETN;  AP with a tungsten-carbide penetrator on the right):

28-20 squeeze bore

(source)

The S. PzB. 41 was very effective; at close range it could penetrate all mainstream Allied armor (even the KV-1 and JS-1 tanks), although its behind-armor effect was limited. The Germans were successful in making squeeze bores where other nations’ designers had failed. They mounted it on SdKfz.250 half-tracks and used it as a trailered, man-packed and airborne weapon.

A larger squeeze-bore, the Pak 41, was deployed in small numbers. The ammunition closely resembles the 28/20mm of the S.PzB.41 but is much larger: it started off at 75mm and squeezed down to 55mm. An intermediate sized version was a 4.2 cm (42mm tapering to 28mm) squeeze-bore version of the familiar Krupp 3.7cm light anti-tank gun. (German guns are described in centimeters — move the decimal point once for mm — and their squeeze-bores are known by their initial, not squeezed, caliber).

Pak 41 APBCT

Making a tapered or “squeezing” rifled bore is a challenge, if you think about it, and conventional methods of rifling such as buttons and broaches don’t adapt well to it. (Cut rifling does adapt, but at a price in complexity. But the German invention of hammer-forging barrels over a mandrel opened up mass production to squeeze bore in German plants. (A microscopic amount of taper is usually used in hammer forging, to facilitate mandrel removal. But the amount of taper in a squeeze bore is much greater).

The British made a theoretically sound and plausible attempt to work around the difficulty of drilling and rifling squeeze bores. This was a squeeze-bore muzzle attachment called the Littlejohn for the 2-pdr antitank and light-tank gun, in order to give some realistic anti-tank capability to the airborne (glider-delivered) Tetrarch light tank and various wheeled AFVs.

Littlejohn_Adaptor_Bovington

It squeezed the round after it had been spun to speed; the holes you can see were for pressure release. The Littlejohn was conceived by a Czech emigré, Frantisek Janacek (whose name means “little John”, literally) and was made for the 40mm Vickers S gun as well as for the 2-pdr. The ammunition featured a tungsten penetrator and aluminum carrier, must like  the German squeeze-bore ammo. The US also experimented with Littlejohn type adapters and projectiles, and discovered that firing the Littlejohn projectile from the gun without the adapter produced equivalent velocity improvements without compromising the ability to fire  ordinary projectiles. (In effect, this was using the lightweight projectile as in Illustration A at the top of this post, rather than a squeeze-bore as in Illustration D).

langsford_extruder_bulletsFor a while, there was a squeeze bore gun that anyone could buy. Australian gunsmith Arthur Langsford, an expert in rimfire rifles, used an extended leade or forcing cone to make rimfire guns that fired an ordinary .22 LR round and produced a high-velocity .20 or .17 elongated slug. The rifling didn’t begin until after the forcing cone. They seemed to work well, but didn’t catch on, and pressure and velocity deltas between various brands and kinds of rimfire ammunition were probably larger than anything SAAMI would ever tolerate. The Myra “Extruders” Langsford made are curiosities today.

In the end, squeeze bores were a possible tank solution at one moment in time, but their performance has been overshadowed by accurate fin-stabilized discarding sabot heavy penetrators, fired (usually) from smooth-bore guns.

Next, Gain Twist, an old idea that’s making a comeback.

Sources

Department of the Navy. Naval Ordnance and Gunnery, Volume 1: Naval Ordnance .NavPers 10797-A.  Retrieved from: http://www.eugeneleeslover.com/US-NAVY-BOOKS/1-NO-10797-A-NAVAL-ORDNANCE-AND-GUNNERY.html

Langsford’s Squeeze-Bore Rimfires.Is this Near-Forgotten Idea Too Good to Die? Guns Magazine, January 2011. pp. 18-19. Retrievable from: http://fmgpublications.ipaperus.com/FMGPublications/GUNS/GUNS0111/?page=18

(Others as linked. List not completed due to time limits).

Is a New Russian Tank 10 Feet Tall?

Not literally, of course. Being literally 10 feet tall would be quite unhealthy for a tank, a machine that lives longer on a projectile-rich battlefield if it likes to hide in defilade. But stories and artist conceptions that are spreading make the new T-14 tank and its derivatives seem unbeatable — which is probably the reason for the leaks.

T-14 tank rendering

Note that all these illustrations are computer renderings or models based entirely on speculation.

T-14 tank rendering 3

 

The extensive detail in some of the models may mask the fact that the guys doing the rendering don’t really know what the tank looks like, and so they’re applying some science fiction concepts to Russian tank design principles here. All of these renderings purport to be the T-14 (and others show a tank with a very narrow turret, like that on the M60A2 monstrosity).

Armata-MBT T-14

According to these leaks, rumors, and Russian news sites, the T-14 is the tank version of the new “Armata” vehicle platform, which will also produce SP artillery, personnel carriers, and a panoply of support vehicles. But the tank is the lead vehicle in the class. It has a crew of two or three, all of whom are positioned in the hull, but the third is a temporary stopgap and is not expected to be permanently required — two men can fight the tank, and that’s their long-term plan for a crew. The unmanned turret is remotely controlled and automatically loaded (Russian tanks have had autoloaders for around 50 years now). The turret bears a single 125mm gun, with improved computerized stabilization which has reduced the dispersion of rounds fired on the move. It still appears to have limited elevation and depression.The tank’s secondary armament is a 30mm automatic cannon, and a machine gun or unknown caliber; a remotely operated MG can, somehow, target incoming shaped charge warheads and ATGMs.

As if the 125mm gun was not a powerful thing, a 152mm-armed version is supposedly in the works.

Many of these concepts were in the US-German MBT-70 project, a project that collapsed of its own weight in ahead-of-its-time technology. But that, too, was nearly 50 years ago.

Of greater concern is that all renderings of the new tank show an angular armor arrangement, suggesting that Ivan has stolen the secret plans for, or engineered his own equivalent of, the composite armor that since its invention in the 1970s has made American and British tanks highly survivable (especially compared to their Russian peers).

NATO strategy vs. the Warsaw Pact always hinged on qualitative superiority of weapons and crews to make up for deficient numbers. Even if the T-14 is a propaganda exercise, something hardly foreign to the history of Russian arms, “quantity has a quality all its own,” and there’s little question that Russia wants to build more of these MBTs than their potential opponents, most of whom have either depressed defense spending to one percent or less of GDP, or, like the USA, larded nominal “defense” spending with massive non-military costs.

OK, so let’s look at a counterweight to some of the T-14 tank claims. We have no inside knowledge of this program or of US official studies of it, but we can apply logic and experience. Here are some facts to make you think:

  1. Current Russian tanks, much lower in high technology, cost around $2 million to produce. This is far less than a Western tank, but it does impose an upper bound on the numbers a nation can deploy.
  2. The world of Russian tanks lives in Soviet-era infrastructure that has the size and strength, and the safety margin, to support compact, 36-40 ton tanks. As the US can tell you, a 70-ton tank is a pain in the neck to move around.
  3. Chobham armor imposes size and weight burdens on a tank. You can’t get this shaped-charge-killing technology without bulking up. It also raises costs: better armor means fewer tanks.
  4. 80 years of Russian tank doctrine (and all the lessons learned from Great Patriotic War victories) enshrines the tank-led combined-arms offensive as the method of tank employment.
  5. A big gun and an autoloader come with costs. In Russian tanks, the costs are (1) fewer rounds and (2) internal ammo stowage, which, when hit, produces the familiar sparkly jet with a turret going high enough to need an FAA drone license. How many fewer rounds? The US lost 15 rounds when we upgunned the 105mm M1 to the 120mm M1A1 (55 to 40) and the Russian articles about the T-14 suggest it’s rocking only 30 rounds in the 125mm version (it’s hard to imagine a way it could go to 152mm without losing 5 or 6 of those, at least). Looking at the performance of Israeli and Syrian armor on the Golan front, and Israeli and Egyptian in Sinai, the possibility arises of a T-14 operator having to dry fire in a firefight.
  6. In fielding a tank, the tank itself is only half the problem — maybe less than half. Soviet-made tanks are rusting, deadlined, in tank parks all over the world for lack of preventive and routine maintenance. Now, the Russian Army is as capable of doing this as many other armies, but fielding a new tank is a resource stretch: all at once you have a new vehicle, new engine, new systems for mobility, armament and communications, new crew training and employment materials to develop, and crews and maintainers to train. Meanwhile, the tank strength of the Russian Army is a staggering 15,000 tanks (and 31,000 other AFVs). This means that, at best, any new tank is trickling into a military all set up to operate and maintain other stuff. None of the existing tanks can go toe-to-toe with an Abrams or Challenger; the US has over 6,000 Abramses.
  7. The Russian Army has a bad record with tank improvements. The T-90, really just a T-72 with some debugged tech from the buggy T-64 and T-80 tanks, is the most recent Russian entry, and under 1000 were built. (Next image is a photo of a T-90). Development of the so-called T-95 failed for much the same reasons that the US-German MBT-70 did, minus the international complications: too much technology to bring to fruition at once, and too little money to overcome engineering problems with profligate spending.

T-90 tank

Sure, the Russians may field the new T-14 tank in small numbers, and may continue down their chosen path of using the same chassis for a whole new family of armored vehicles. This does not make their tank units any more likely to win, across the board.

And it may not need to. Because the lesson of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 is that the technical qualities and operational capabilities of NATO armor just don’t matter in what Russia calls the “near abroad”: because NATO isn’t going to show up. At this rate, Russia could project power with 1930s-vintage BT-5s.