For those readers who may have felt that the baby posting lately is tilting our editorial line too far in the estrogen direction, here's one for you...
Once upon a time, military rifles (despite their grim purpose) had a certain beauty. Smoothly finished walnut, dark blued or parkerized metal and the smell of gun oil definitely hold a place somewhere in pantheon of that which is true and beautiful.
Here, for instance, is a British Lee Enfield No1 Mk3, the battle rifle carried by Lewis, Tolkein, Graves and Sassoon in the trenches of World War I. A dark and terrible time, certainly, but still a rifle with a certain beauty.
This is the German K98 Mauser carried by the grey and black clad columns that overran Europe with darkness and terror. Still, the rifle itself is definitely a work of fine craftsmanship.
The US M1 Garand is perhaps one of the more well made and revolutionary military rifle ever produced. It was the first standard issue semi automatic battle rifle, and was carried with pride by the GIs who liberated Western Europe and the Pacific.
And last of an already dying breed of full size, wood-stocked battle rifles, the M14 rifle built only from 1957 to 1964. It's a beautiful rifle and still loved by many target shooters and service men. (In fact, M14s are still in use. A number have been reissued for use in Iraq.) However, it was still too heavy to serve as an assault rifle, and too light to keep from bucking hard when fired in burst.
So along came the age of the ugly rifles. In 1964 the US adopted the M16, a lighter rifle shooting a lighter cartridge (the .223 is pretty much the smallest centerfire cartridge out there) with a plastic stock and a modern look. It's not a pretty gun, but it is at least not as ugly as...
The AK-47, originally a Russian design, but supplied to leftist revolutionary movements throughout the world. It was one of the main weapons aimed at our soldiers during Vietnam, and continues to be used throughout the world to this day. (The newly reconstituted Iraqi army is being issued AK-47s.)
Now, I'd kind of assumed (in a typical America-is-the-whole-world kind of way, that the M16 and the AK-47 were pretty typical of the military rifle in use today.
Then the other day I happened to stumble across a picture of the British Enfield SA-80 (actually built by the German company Heckler & Koch). The current version of the SA-80 was designed in the 90s, thirty years after the M16, and it shows. This is definitely a futuristic looking rifle, though it's also butt-ugly. To make it shorter, it has a 'bull-pup' design, meaning that the received (the part of the gun where the shell is actually fired) is back in the stock instead of above the trigger. This allows the barrel to start well back from the grip and allows an overall shorter design while retaining a 20" barrel.
So I got curious. Are most military battle rifles like this futuristic creature, or do they look more like the '60s era M16?
It turns out one fairly popular battle rifle design is the Steyr AUG. Originally developed for the Austrian army in the late '70s, the AUG is now used not only by Austria but also by Australia, New Zealand, Oman, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Ireland. Like the M16 and the SA-80, it fires the NATO standard .223 round, and like the SA-80 it has a bull-pup design with the receiver and magazine in the stock. It has an aluminum frame and high impact polymer housing. For no extra charge, it also looks like it escaped from the Star Wars prop lockup...
The FN SCAR, designed by the Fabrique Nationale company of Belgium at the request of the US Special Forces is (if it meets final approval) supposed to go into production within the next couple years. This particular example has a 40mm grenade launcher mounted beneath the barrel. One of the primary design requirements for the weapon was that be able to swap out parts to fire different calibers, mainly .223, .308 and the plentiful 7.62x39 cartrige fired by the AK-47 and stocked by insurgents everywhere. I have to say, I appreciate the military's taste on this one. It doesn't look silly, and the last thing you want to do is have to shoot an assailant while he's laughing at your weapon.
Finally, in our tour of modern battle weapons, is the Heckler & Koch G36, originally designed for the German Bundeswehr in the early '90s. The weapon has since been adopted by the Spanish army, and it is also used by a number of international law enforcement agencies and police department SWAT teams in the UK and US. It is also the basis of the XM8 replacement for the M16 which was developed by HK but has now, apparently, fallen victim to the complexities of the government bidding process.
Fortnightly Book, March 29
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