Taking Back The Infantry Half-km: Britain’s L129A1
If fighting in Iraq was mostly about Close Quarters Battle, experience on the ground in Afghanistan is driving home the opposite imperative: marksmanship and lethality at range. US studies like the influential “Taking Back the Infantry Half-Kilometer” are driving that point home, and the trend is leading to shifts like fielding more 7.62mm M240 machine guns in place of 5.56mm M249 Minimis, and doubling the number of 7.62mm M14 EBR rifles per infantry squad to 2.
The British are facing the exact same pressures. After a very poor start, their 5.56mm SA80/ L85 bullpup assault rifles have been improved by an H&K redesign. That may help with jamming and reliability, but it doesn’t change the 5.56mm round’s fundamental ballistic characteristics, like its notable drop-off in lethality beyond 300 meters.
The Competition, and the Winner
In December 2009, The UK Ministry of Defence issued an initial GBP 1.5 million urgent operational requirements contract that would offer its troops a semi-automatic 7.62mm rifle with excellent accuracy, whose rate of fire and robustness made them usable within infantry squads, not just by specialized sniper teams. It had to demonstrate lethality in the 500-800 meter range, which is not uncommon in Afghanistan.
UK ‘sharpshooter’ soldiers remain chosen men, who must complete a marksmanship course but are expected to conduct the full range of infantry tasks, and are considered a grade below sniper. Britain’s new L115A3 .338/ 8.59mm sniper rifles left a lot of spare bolt-action L96s for sharpshooters to use, but that isn’t a suitable choice in the kinds of firefights patrolling soldiers experience.
The winning “L129A1” is gas-operated semi-automatic weapon with a 20-round magazine. Its single-piece upper receiver has free-floating, quick-change barrels available in 305 mm, 406 mm and 508 mm. The standardizing “Picatinny Rails” on the top, bottom, and sides allow a wide variety of attachments, from sights to flashlights to grips, that can be replaced in the field with only basic tools. At 5 kg/ 11 pounds, it’s close to the loaded weight of an SA80A2.
Jane’s reports that 7.62mm competitors included H&K’s 417, the FN-SCAR 17 used by US Special Forces, and Law Enforcement International’s winning LM7 design. Jane’s added that Sabre Defense Industries had also entered the competition, but did not specify whether the product was a 7.62mm weapon. Sabre’s weapons, like its M5, publicly offer only 5.56mm, or 6.5mm Grendel options.
While intermediate calibers like 6.5mm Grendel and 6.8mm SPC offer far superior ballistics with the same magazines as 5.56mm weapons, the pressures of standardization have kept them out of the field. A MASS contract under Britain’s long-term ammunition supply agreement may tweak the 5.56mm round’s performance, but it doesn’t offer the step change required. The choice of heavier 7.62mm rifles and less ammunition carried, or 5.56mm rounds with less range and penetration but more rounds carried, remains.
Contracts & Key Events
June 4/10: The UK MoD announces delivery of L129A1 Sharpshooter rifles to Royal Marines’ 40 Commando unit in Afghanistan. LEI says that deliveries have taken place ahead of schedule, beginning n early 2010, and the weapons have been operational since mid-May 2010. UK MoD.
Jan 22/10: Trijicon agrees to remove tiny coded bible verse references from its optics, placed beside the “Made in USA” moniker. Defence Management reports that their ACOG sights have been ordered to equip the UK’s new L129A1s.
If only they’d stuck to AUS3:16 instead…
Dec 29/09: An initial GBP 1.5 million urgent operational order is placed for 440 L129A1 sharpshooter rifles, which will be based on LEI’s LM7 design.
LEI is a 100% British owned and managed UK firm, though its web site remains inactive, and some sleuthing is required to find the connection. The rifles will reportedly be manufactured by Lewis Machine & Tool Company in the United States, with deliveries expected to begin in early 2010. Jane’s | Defence Management | UK Daily Mail | Strategy Page.
- Combat Arms (July 2010) – Crowned: L129A1 [PDF, 6 MB]
- Gannett’s Army Times (March 23/10) – Marksmen issued better rifles in Afghanistan. American “squad designated marksmen,” that is.
- British Army – SA80 A2 L85 Individual Weapon
- British Army – L129A1 Sharpshooter rifle
- DID – The UK’s Sniper Improvement Program. Deals with Britain’s new dedicated sniper rifles, and related equipment.
- DID – USA Fielding M110 SRSS 7.62mm Semi-Auto Sniper Rifle. Very similar initiative, different rifle and manufacturer.
- Winds of Change – Taking Back the Infantry Half-Kilometer. Links to official report and related materials.
- NY Times At War: Notes from the Front Lines – The Weakness of Taliban Marksmanship. And how they make it work for them anyway. Effective, accurate counterfire at range offers an especial advantage against such opponents.