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  • Wanted: Full Auto for Accuracy, not Rock 'n Roll

    It might be years from now, but soldiers will one day go into battle armed with fully automatic carbines, a capability ground forces haven’t had in more than two decades.

    As the Army moves ahead with its carbine-improvement effort, it will replace today’s three-round-burst option with a full-auto setting.

    The shift will dramatically increase the rate of fire soldiers can send downrange, but it will also mean new challenges for small-unit leaders, who’ll be responsible for ensuring their soldiers maintain fire discipline even during the heaviest of gunfights.

    “We don’t expect, nor will we tolerate, our soldiers just firing their weapons on full-automatic because they can,” said Dave Libersat, director of the Soldier Requirements Division at the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Ga.

    “We have to maintain fire discipline for lots of reasons,” he said. “One is when you go out on patrol, you’ve only got X amount of ammo; if you shoot it all up, and you’ve still got a firefight going on, it’s not a good day for you.”

    The primary reason for the return to the full-auto setting, infantry officials say, is that it will give soldiers a more accurate weapon when firing on semiautomatic.

    The Army began using three-round burst setting in 1986, when it adopted the Marine Corps-developed M16A2 as a replacement for its fleet of M16A1s. The A2 fired the M249 squad automatic weapon’s M855 round and featured a number of modifications over the A1, such as improved sights, a rounded handguard and, of course, three-round burst instead of a full-auto capability.

    The Marines developed the burst setting to help riflemen conserve ammunition instead of wasting it during long bursts of full-auto fire. But the Marines and the Army later realized that the mechanics of the three-round burst setting caused an inconsistent trigger pull in the semi-auto mode. This means that the trigger doesn’t feel the same every time a shooter fires, making it harder to shoot with the same degree of accuracy from one shot to the next.

    “The trigger is the soldier’s primary interface with the weapon for delivering the round,” said Lt. Col. Tom Henthorn, chief of the Small Arms Branch at Benning’s Soldier Requirements Division.

    This is one of the reasons U.S. Special Operations Command equipped its M4A1 carbines with full-auto triggers in the mid-1990s.

    The Army’s senior leadership decided to start issuing M4A1s last year as an interim step as it moves ahead with the M4 Product Improvement Program and its improved carbine competition, which could ultimately replace the M4.

    “We had some M4A1s on the range … and even the guys from the Army Marksmanship Unit had thought we had [improved] the trigger somehow,” Henthorn said. “The AMU guys were fairly impressed with the trigger.”

    The Marine Corps has no plans to replace its M4s and M16A4s, but will also return to a full-auto setting, said Charlie Clark III, Infantry Weapons Capabilities Integration Officer for the Marine Corps Fires and Maneuver Integration Division.

    “We want the improved trigger,” Clark said, but was unsure when such a change will occur.

    So if semi-automatic fire is more effective, then why not just get rid of full auto altogether? Army officials say that full automatic could be a useful battlefield tool in some cases.

    “There are times when you’ll see several soldiers with a requirement to fire on full automatic, but it’s not going to be a free-for-all out there. It has got to be squad leaders and team leaders giving fire-direction commands,” Libersat said.

    As the Army transitions to a full-auto trigger, training will have to change, but not in a dramatic fashion, Libersat said. Initial Entry Training will still focus on qualification using semiautomatic fire, and will likely include instruction to familiarize soldiers with full-auto fire, he said.

    It will be up to leaders in the operational Army to decide how to train soldiers to employ full-automatic fire, Libersat said.

    Disciplined, well-aimed fire will always be a priority, but a small-unit leader has to have the flexibility to decide when his unit needs to ramp up its volume of fire, combat veterans say.

    Henthorn summed it up this way:

    “When you need the capability, full auto is the right capability to have,” he said. “When you do a break-contract drill … you want to pull the trigger, dump a mag and move.”The war crimes court-martial of Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, charged in the deaths of nine Iraqis, is scheduled to begin Jan. 4 at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif. The cases against three other Marines originally charged in the killings have been dropped.
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