“Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men.” George S. Patton is right but the men and women who fight these wars are only as good as their equipment and armament they use, specifically their weapons and ammunition.

The United States Army’s weapon of choice for soldiers on the ground has been the M-4 Carbine for over 20 years. Since the M-4 is easily maintained and comparatively cheaper than other alternatives, I doubt the Department of Defense would waste funds trying to find an alternative within the next decade. However, ammunition has been advancing and improving significantly over the past several years.

In September of this year, I had the chance to visit the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant (LCAAP) in Lake City, MO. This plant manufactures and distributes approximately 90% of the ammunition used by the Army. While I was there I toured the cartridge manufacturing facilities. Bill Melton and his staff explained each phase of the cartridge manufacturing process and the different procedures that went into developing tracer rounds, armor-piercing rounds, and others types of cartridges. Throughout the tour I could not help but think about how far ammunition has advanced.

From musket balls, that are inaccurate if shooting at something more than 50 meters away, to the destructive anti-material .50 caliber Raufoss round, which is an explosive round with a delayed detonation until initial target penetration to cause damage inside the target for maximum anti-personnel and fire start effect, ammunition has, without a doubt, advanced over time. The most recent improvement being the development of a hardened steel penetrator for 5.56mm and 7.62mm rounds. Unlike previous rounds, the hardened steel penetrator is fully exposed rather than hidden by soft copper. The 5.56mm M855A1 Enhanced Performance Round also travels at a higher velocity which allows soldiers to penetrate tougher battlefield barriers up to approximately 400 meters. This surpasses the current M855 5.56mm round by over 200 meters. The M855A1 Enhanced Performance Round is a significantly improved 5.56mm round that provides excellent soft target consistency and an even better hard target performance. This round increases Soldier effectiveness at extended ranges with greater accuracy by a considerable amount. The most impressive feature of this round is that it does all of this without increasing the amount of weight placed on the Soldier. The idea that cartridge improvements can be made without increasing the weight of the round itself has left Soldiers to question if ammunition can provide the same destructive effects and weigh less, thus allowing them to carry more ammunition or other supplies.

From musket balls, … to the destructive anti-material .50 caliber Raufoss round, … ammunition has, without a doubt, advanced over time.

Well, the engineers and innovators of Orbital Army Technologies as LCAAP have heard and responded to the requests of soldiers returning from Afghanistan and other combat zones. A new case for ammunition is in the early stages of development at Lake City. Rather than brass cased ammunition, cartridges will have new lightweight polymer casing. The switch from brass to polymer will reduce the weight of ammunition by approximately 20-30% but still have the desired effect on the enemy. However, the switch also comes with a number of complications that need solved before it is implemented. One of these complications is the use of polymer cased 7.62mm belts for the M240B machine gun. The current M13 links grip the polymer casing so tightly that the links shear polymer off the case. The amount of force required to de-link a round from a link, the stripping force, is set at 8.5-18 pounds. This standard is an Army regulation for ammunition used in training and operations. The current M13 link with the polymer cased ammunition has a stripping force in excess of 20 pounds. This causes problems when firing the weapon system because the round does not eject from the links. However, PCP Ammunitions out of Florida have developed a modified link that meets the standards of the Army. The modified links brings the average stripping force down to approximately 9 pounds, which is on the lower end of the spectrum. Although there have been several innovations regarding lightweight polymer cased ammunition, they are not scheduled to be mass produced until 2022.

Although the weapon system may not be changing, the ammunition used by the weapon system is. The Lake City Army Ammunition Plant plays a key role in developing new ammunition that will allow our soldiers to complete their mission overseas. With innovation such as the Enhanced Performance Round, soldiers will be able to eliminate enemy targets while minimizing the amount of danger they put themselves in. This innovation will also lead to an increased level of battlefield effectiveness by allowing our soldiers on the ground to engage targets at further distances while carrying more ammunition or other equipment if necessary. The ever changing world of ammunition is essential to the safety and effectiveness of the combat troops on the ground who are defending America’s freedom.

[U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Roland Hale]

Ross Downum is a senior at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He is a Defense and Strategic Major with a Systems Engineering track. He will graduate the United States Military Academy in May as an Armor officer in the United States Army. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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