Going through a box of old stuff we found all kinds of treasures that may appear in these pages later: Rhodesian uniforms and web gear; a Munich streetcar Zeitkarte; an East German Praktika camera that once belonged to a border-crossing spy; an alleged Spetsnaz ballistic knife. But one thing we also found was a brochure for the best machine gun we never quite adopted, the Ultimax 100.
The Ultimax was made in Singapore, and we wanted them badly in SF and special missions units in the early 1980s. As Maxwell Smart might say, “missed it by that much.” We kept trying to buy the damn things with discretionary funds and someone kept substituting other MGs, including the FN Minimi which would later become the M249. The Minimi was and is OK, apart from its issues with magazines (which trace, ultimately, to the same dimensional problem that would lead the M27 to have problems with aftermarket mags: the M16/AR-15 series weapons have a magazine well which is generally not too precisely close to, and usually larger, than the drawings in the technical data package required).
Now, we were not privy to the actual decision-making so all the information on why things were and were not bought is 100% hearsay. The Ultimax was magazine-fed and the ordnance powers that be reputedly were sold on the advantages of belt feed. The initial MkI Ultimax 100 did not have quick-change barrels. Yadda, yadda. And it was made overseas, in Singapore no less.
But the Ultimax was, conceptually, as American as monster trucks. Its designer was L. James Sullivan, who started as a draftsman at Armalite in AR-10 days, and went on to cut his own broad swath across the world of small arms design, with the Ruger Mini-14 and M77, and the Beta CMag among his accomplishments. And — here we are on much stronger ground, because we shot it several times, usually on Range 44 at Bragg — it was one hell of a sweet-shooting light MG. We’d go so far as to say the most accurate and easiest-shooting machine gun ever made. Period. Full stop.
The Ultimax appears to hold no secrets from outside. It is a 5.56mm, gas-operated, magazine-fed weapon (it could take modified STANAG magazines but usually used its own 60- and 100-round drums). It has a conventional rotating bolt, a folding bipod and a plastic stock, removable for compact transport. It fires from an open bolt and the selector switch offers only Safe and Fire, which is full-auto. It is trivial to fire single shots, but you cannot expect rifle-level accuracy from this open-bolt gun. The gas system has six selectable positions (about three or four more than anyone imagines needing). It is light (10.3 lb empty and 14.3 lb combat-loaded with 100-round drum) and handles easily. It was optimized for smaller Asian hands during production, and we could have used an inch or two more trigger pull and a larger foregrip. Other than that, we’d change little.
Sure, it’s ugly, but have you ever pondered the aesthetics of an M249? If it’s beauty you want, and wall-hanging is your objective, you need a Spanish AMELI. But if your plans include shooting, particularly at pop-up, shoot-back targets, the Ultimax would be a good choice. We mentioned that there’s no secret visible from the outside; instead, you get initiated into the Ultimax secret when you fire the thing. It has less perceived recoil and less movement during firing than any machine gun you care to name. Holding it on target during full-auto fire, even from a standing, unsupported position, is child’s play.
The secret is in Sullivan’s timing of the mechanism to deliver a recoil pulse slowly — over the entire period between two rounds firing on cyclic rate. The same force, delivered over a longer time, meant a lower, steadier recoil impulse. He called this the Constant Recoil principle, and the result is an MG that can deliver aimed fire from every assault position, specifically including offhand, with more accuracy than any other 5.56 LMG.
The attached brochure (here it is: Ultimax_100_brochure_1982_compressed.pdf) is a clever multiple-folding arrangement with two two-page and one four-page spreads, so it doesn’t make the transition to .pdf all that well. But we bet you’ve never seen it before. The Ultimax reps, who might actually have included Sullivan, handed us the brochure one day in 1982 or 1983 at either Fort Bragg or at Mott Lake Compound. (Sorry, CRAFT disease strikes). It was one of several opportunities to shoot the gun, which always has left us grinning even more idiotically than usual. Not many machine gun vendors urge you (1) to fire longer bursts and (2) to stand up and fire their gun offhand. These guys did, and we were sold on Sullivan’s Constant Recoil Principle long before the first drum was empty.
But we never did buy it. The problem with the Ultimax was not the gun, apparently. It was that Singapore was, for reasons that we do not comprehend, on the State Department naughty-boy list. The gun is still in production, and it’s up to Mark V. Singapore bought over 10,000 of them for its own forces and has sold tens of thousands elsewhere (we’ve run into them in Latin America). They’re great guns, but they’re a footnote to history when you consider the tens of millions of ARs and AKs that have been made. (Probably more like 100 million AKs).
So that’s why we call the Ultimax the best machine gun we never quite adopted. It might even be the best 5.56mm machine gun ever.