The Past is Another Country: Ultimax 100

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.

15 thoughts on “The Past is Another Country: Ultimax 100

  1. Ian

    I was just discussing the Ultimax with some friends a few days ago…a big part of the reduced felt recoil is the long receiver and the unusually long distance the bolt has in which to decelerate gently without having to smack into a buffer.

    1. Hognose Post author

      That’s exactly the point of the Constant Recoil mechanism. Spread the recoil impulse over the period of time you have. An added benefit is that it works well with drum mags without the drums needed King Kong springs. That’s also why there was no 7.62mm Ultimax. It would have to be too long. Sullivan continued work and by 2008 had worked out a Constant Recoil Principle 7.62 NATO gun… the interview with Sullivan in Numbers 6, 7 and 8 of volume 11 of Small Arms Review is instructive on many things, a great interview. That’s March/April/May of 2008. I think you can still get the back issues from LMO — I have a bound set here and even with the weak indexing, it’s priceless.

  2. neutrino_cannon

    I was pretty skeptical of the “constant recoil” principle… up until I fired an ultimax. Their secret sauce works, and I have the high-speed video to prove it. The receiver barely moves at all.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Yep. It’s actually not rocket surgery. It’s F=change in mass x velocity / change in time. That long cycle of the reciprocating parts makes the denominator larger…

  3. SolidSnake

    Its nice to see a retro Ultimax 100 brochure on the web. I’ve used the MK II and MK III during my stint in National Service in Singapore. It fires well with live ammo although many complain it is susceptible to fail with blanks i think its due to operator’s failure to change the gas setting or the stupid blank carrier affixed to the ejection port Singapore troops have to carry to return the used blanks back when training is over.

    My only complain is that the weapon rusts when used extensively in the field with minimum cleaning. I went for a 7 day field exercise in Taiwan during NCO training. Was wet from the rain from day 1 till we returned to our basecamp. I still remember cleaning the Ultimax like a madman to remove the rust and gunk(MK II version) so that the base armorer will recieve them and wont fuckup our RNR in Taipei!

    1. Hognose Post author

      Sounds like the Singapore army is just like ours. “Clean it again! That’s no good.” But you can be proud your very small country produced one of the finest machine guns ever!

      Many weapons jam much more with blanks than with live ammo. Blank adapters are usually a production afterthought.

      I suppose the finish is ordinary Parkerizing (a phosphate finish) but it might be something else. When Sullivan developed it for Chartered Industries of Singapore, he had to use industrial processes that fit in with the existing M16 line and used industrial processes CIS was already using.

      There was also a rifle version but it didn’t get off the drawing board. Singapore had spent a fortune for a license for M16 production,intending to sell them to Malaysia and other Asian nations, but Colt had put a clause in the contract forbidding that. So Singapore could only make rifles for domestic use! The CIS managers wanted a product they could export and that the Singapore defense force would use.

      1. SolidSnake

        I guess you are refering to the M16S1. I used one during recruit training and halfway during my enlistment till my battalion switched to the SAR21.
        On a side note, we were training with a bunch of Indonesian Marines and they have the para version of the Ultimax 100, simply a model with a shorter barrel. Wasn’t sure whether its an armorer mod or a version CIS (now known as Singapore Technologies) never released for local use. Sure was wieldly during an urban operations exercise. For us we had to remove the buttstock Mini-Me style – frowned upon though!!

  4. Geodkyt

    Too bad USMC rejected the Ultimax they tooled up for the IAR tests. Full STANAG (including polymer mags) compatibility, and an honest LMG to boot. Singapore made several PI changes specific to the USMC RFP.

    Ultimately, the acquisitions decision was, “We will take whichever weapon wins the competition, as long as it’s an HK 416 variant.”

      1. Geodkyt

        Hype, pure hype–

        “The HK is most bestest, because it’s an HK”

        The Ultimax “failed” the same way the FAL “failed” against the M14.

        Hell, I wouldn’t object to replacing ALL M249s with the Ultimax Singapore whipped up for USMC, and I LIKE the M249 (not so much the “para” versions — why create a base of fire gun with a carbine barrel?)

        Meanwhile, “LMG” versions of the M16 are a chimera that USMC has been chasing since Vietnam. Shockingly enough, it seems a lightweight “carbine” sized rifle makes a crappy LMG. . . (I’m not aware of ANY force that has issued one of the various attempts at an “LMG AR” that has actually liked it once it spent enough time in front line service to actually get used to it.)

        1. Hognose Post author

          A guy who served in the Singapore Defense Force had comments on the Ultimax thread. Bottom line, the joes liked it. The “joe test” is a telling one. OTOH, so far the Marines seem to like the M27.

          And the actual reason for HK is “Because you suck. And we hate you.” (Due credit to Larry Correia).

  5. Observer

    Irony of it all is that the Ultimax came from the Singaporean attempts to LMG the M-16. Final evaluation was that trying to LMG an M-16 was doomed to failure, which was why they sourced out Sullivan and the Ultimax.

    So… now that the DoD has tried to reinvent the wheel by LMGing an M-16/M-4, how long will it be before they come to the same conclusion as 30 years ago? Deja vu?

    Though to admit, some points have improved.
    1) Slower ROF
    2) Short stroke, not DI

    Beyond that, it’s probably been downgraded from a SAW to an AR.

    As for the Ultimax, it has a few flaws too, though some of the “flaws” are by design.

    1) Light, easily bent bipod. No choice for this one. You put a heavy bipod on a MG designed for light weight, it screws up the original purpose of the design in the first place, not to mention bipod heavy, gun light = nose heavy.

    2) Soldiers have to manually reload the drums instead of being supplied belts of ready to use. Might be interesting as punishment detail :)

    3) Terrible with blanks. The anti-recoil system starts resisting recoil the instant the round fires, which means weak blanks don’t have the power to cycle the next round in as opposed to M-4s et al where the recoil only stops when it hits the buffer springs in the stock.

    4) When it ages, one of the first things to go is the shear, which means that runaway guns and slamfires become more common. Maintanace has to keep an eye on that.

    Most of the youtube clips I see about this gun being fired prone actually have people using the wrong stance. Most of them use the “LMG” stance of left hand at the stock. This is to control recoil and to stop the stock from pounding your shoulder to jelly. But think it through, why is there a need to control recoil in a near recoiless weapon? SOP for this LMG is different from other LMGs in that the left hand is actually supposed to go to the front pistol grip for greater control instead of at the back. Unique weapon, unique usage.

    1. Hognose Post author

      I don’t think the USMC is trying to LMG an M16 with the M27. They’re just returning one man per fire team to a designated auto rifle position. Tactically different thing; the M249 is a (very) light machine gun and while the Army with its smaller squad welcomed the firepower, the Marines change their tactics at a glacial pace. (The smaller Army squad was driven by the interior volume of Army delivery vehicles like the Stryker and Black Hawk).
      Sullivan did describe the Ultimax as an outgrowth of a program for a native Singaporean gun that could be exported. CIS was already making the M16A1, but under terms of their license, found they couldn’t export it, after making the sale to Malaysia. The economics of the factory only worked with a customer base larger than Singapore’s small Defence Force.
      So the search was on for something they could make in an M16 factory that they could export. Sullivan began with an auto rifle, but convinced them to go for the radical LMG. He did in fact go through the calculation you describe about, what would it take to make a good LMG out of the M16? And concluded that the game was not worth the candle.
      Now, the drums were supposed to be delivered loaded to the combat troops, in the original concept. (That was the designer’s idea, whether any of the customers agreed, we can’t say). That was the original concept for the AR-10, the mags were training reusable but combat disposable. (All magazines are de facto combat disposable, whatever loggies say. Not many ways to get killed dumber than going after an empty mag).
      Great comment as always.
      Most US owners of Ultimaxes (there are a few here as transferables, and more as Dealer Samples meaning a licensed machine gun dealer can own them but only sell them to police or military units, or another dealer) would use the LMG stance shooting them because they’ve never had any formal training on the gun.

    2. Geodkyt

      Load drums isn’t as big a deal as some might make it out to be.

      When’s the last time you ever heard of First World troops having to manually consolidate individual rounds in the middle of a firefight?

      And there is always the Soviet solution — gunner carries two drums. One for the initial gaining of fire superiority, and one once he consolidates for counterattack. In between, he uses box mags. I’d be tempted to issue him 4-5 drums, but I have always felt too much ammo is self correcting.

      If something like the Surefire 60 rounders can prove their suitability as a combat mag, those might be the perfect mags for the LMG gunner as his in-between mags, and working well with the “2 drums + box mags” loadout concept. Compatible with M4s, yet carrying more ammo. No harder to load than a standard M4 mag — you just have to strip 6 clips instead of 3. (More difficult if you want to load 4-1 ball-trace, sure.) (Something like a PMag with metal reinforced lips would be pure sex as a 50-60 round coffin mag with a STANAG upper tower.)

      Beats the hell out of issuing MG teams boxes of loose rounds, links (or God forbid, non disintigrating belts, whether cloth or metal), and expecting them to link their belts in the FOB. Yet, major wars were fought that way, not that long ago in terms of infantry small arms. . .

      Reliability with blanks isn’t as big a deal with me, so long as you can get ENOUGH reliability that the guns aren’t pure anchors on exercises. Design a blank adaptor that overgasses the system, if you must (better than teaching Joe to turn the gas system up — ’cause he’ll do it on live fire as well, “just in case”). Extra filth and reduced reliability on exercises will make for good training — much better than the way things magically seem to work better in FTX scenarios. If Joe is HIGHLY experienced at swiftly clearing malfs and indoctrinated that not cleaning his weapon regularly results in a boat anchor and very sad NCOs who share their sadness with him, then when he gets to combat and Murphy HALOs on to his gun, he’s ready. Feature, not bug.

      When I wore an “X” designator and a Jellystone Ranger Hat, I LOVED filthy blanks and increased malfunctions for that reason — concurrent SPORTS and PMCS training on every exercise. Loose fitting (due to wear) blank adaptors also taught Joe that a failure to cycle is NOT the same as a failure to shoot — get the friggin’ rounds out, even if you have to run it like an M95 Steyr straight pull. (Later, in the Guard, the same things applied, only harder. Once ended up having an MG team run an M60 as a straight pull bolt action in a defensive position, due to a blank adpator that spontaneously disassembled itself while being tightened. BTW, an M60 firing single blanks with NO blank adaptor is a fearsome looking and sounding thing at night. {chuckle} ‘Course I had them lift fire when the “enemy” closed to 25-30m, just to be safe.)

      The Marines wanted the IAR program, because SAWs were too heavy to keep up with riflemen, not really compatible with M16 mags, and too slow to reload with belts — all problems in MOUT/CQB. They specified a carbine barrel length for their Automatic Rifle when their RIFLEMEN are still schlepping 20″ barrels and fixed ‘A2 stocks. They needed a handy full-automatic rifle, because fixed ‘A2 stocks and 3-round bursts aren’t getting it done.

      Better solution would have been swapping the Stutter Switch for a true Giggle Switch in their M16s, using a carbine stock system, and wholesale swapping of M249s with a true magazine the LMG that can function as an Automatic Rifle OR a real base of fire gun.

      The mods to the rifles would be relatively inexpensive while increasing firepower, accuracy (the BURST gadget screws up the SEMI trigger pull, to those of you outside Uncle Sam’s Boy Scout Troops), AND handiness. Dumping M249s for Ultimax 1:1 would increase handiness, ammo interchangeability (belted vs. box almost might as well be different calibers), AND CQB firepower, without significantly affecting base of fire use.

      The Ultimax bipod CAN be fixed without killing it with weight. Polymer/carbon fiber. Or even, just use the Harris bipod the M27 uses — it’s not like they are metric tons of Krupp steel.

      Honestly, I’d use the “MG hold” on it from the bipod, because I use that hold (or the “fist under the stock, squeeze to depress”) on pretty much everything with a bipod. Including single-shot .22LR bolt action rifles. It’s not necessarily a “recoil” measure — it’s ergonomic and accurate.

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