The M2 Browning .50 cal is something of a legend, beloved of soldiers for almost a century now. Though there have been many pretenders over the years, it remains the heavy machine gun of choice for most of the US armed forces.
Unfortunately, its aging design means that it has one huge disadvantage – its weight. Guns designed to replicate its abilities, whilst able to match the M2 in terms of fire rate and stopping power, have universally proved to have poor field abilities.
One option being considered by the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the US Marines is to go in a slightly different direction. They reason that it might be a good idea to commission and buy a weapon with a caliber that sits somewhere in between the .50 cal and smalled, lighter 7.62 mm machine guns.
The choice appears to be the .338 Norma Magnum. A strange choice, you might think – this round size is more commonly associated with long-range precision rifles, and not machine guns. Yet a company able to design and produce a machine gun in this caliber could potentially be able to sign a lucrative contract with the US government.
The design brief is pretty specific. The belt-fed “lightweight medium machine gun” (LWMMG) should be less than 24 pounds, have a barrel 24 inches long, and be able to fire somewhere between 500 to 600 rounds per minute. Special operators and Marines want a weapon that is accurate against area targets, such as groups of individuals or vehicles, out to a range of more than 2,000 yards.
In addition, the proposed machine gun should have a lightwieght tripod, a standard mounting for precision aiming optics, and perhaps the ability to interface with ballistics computers that afford greater accuracy at range. Finally, for use on land vehicles and watercraft, the proposed weapon should be able to fit on existing mounts for the 7.62 mm and M240B machine guns.
If all that sounds familiar, it’s because it almost perfectly describes an existing gun – the General Dynamics LWMMG. Developed seemingly on their own iniative, this weapon fulfills almost all of the requirements of the new design brief.
It remains to be seen whether such a weapon will find favor amongst troops in the field. During the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, it was widely noted that the existing 5.56mm M249 squad automatic weapons were not up to the task required of them (nor the 7.62). They were simply not powerful enough to attack targets behind cover, or at longer ranges. The M2 excels in this field, but is simply too heavy to be carried during day to day patrols.
The problem, at its heart, is the power of the rounds used in these weapons. Whilst the M2 is a venerable old gun, its power comes from the .50 cal round, and the problem with designing a new machine gun in this caliber is that the power of the round itself is likely to damage or destroy anything built more lightly.
Still, there is undoubtedly a gap in capability for machine guns at the moment, and we wait with interest for the proposals.