The Best Service Rifle

A common argument, one of the fundamental arguments at a certain low level within military - and "wannabe" circles - is, "What is the best rifle for the battlefield?" MilitaryGazette has resolutely avoided this dreaded question until now, because of the most important truism at the heart of the argument: place ten military professionals in a room and ask them this question, and you are guaranteed to get fifteen answers, every one of them passionately and adroitly argued.

There are many factors that go into this argument, not least, that it is a vital question at a basic level, because not answering it hamstrings any military at its inception, because service rifle selection impacts training, tactics and logistics simultaneously.

Indian Army soldiers with the 99th Mountain Brigade's 2nd Battalion, 5th Gurkha Rifles during Exercise Yudh Abhyas, 2013 - By Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod, US Army [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What are the features that a "service rifle" must have? There are a several considerations that need to be balanced in answering that question.

First, the weapon must be reliable. An unreliable rifle, prone to malfunction, is not capable of performing any other mission, and is both a waste of money, a guarantee of mission failure and a killer of your own troops, whatever its other benefits might be.

Second, the rifle needs to be "ergonomically sound". This is a modern term, that essentially means that the rifle "handles well", and is logically designed so that troops can use it when they are tired, dirty, cold, wet and slathered in mud -- which they will be.

Third, a service rifle must fire a projectile that can actually harm an opponent, preferably with lethal effect. There has been a great deal of controversy in the last few decades over this requirement, as more brutally-minded pundits have argued in favor of a rifle that is more prone to wounding opponents than killing them, as a wounded soldier is a severe drain on resources, requiring extensive medical care and rehabilitation, and is also a continuing negative reinforcement to morale. Meanwhile, the dead soldier is simply dead - his comrades will mourn him, but will usually recoup, and continue their mission.

US Marines in Fallujah, Iraq, November, 2004

The notion that wounding a soldier on the battlefield, versus killing him, is a very dangerous strategy - very real psychological degradation aside - for any nation actively seeking to deploy such a rifle, for the very simple reason that history is replete with examples of wounded soldiers - and sometimes horrifically wounded ones - continuing to man positions and fight on, long after they should have been felled.

Fourth, the rifle should be semi-automatic. This might seem like a misnomer in the Twenty-First Century, but it is a basic fact that most troops with fully-automatic rifles, who are not trained machine gunners, tend to waste vast quantities of ammunition to little effect. Forces who spend time on training, as well as experienced-but-untrained fighters, quickly learn that they get far more effect out of steady, aimed semi-automatic fire, something MilitaryGazette pointed out as far back as 2015. Firing a large number of rounds blindly from a rifle is not "suppressive fire".

A ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles during the Battle of the Somme, 1916 - By Royal Engineers No 1 Printing Company. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Fifth, the rifle should be as light in weight as possible. Combat troops have always carried far more weight than is advisable...unfortunately, this has usually been a necessity. However, while every ounce saved is appreciated by the infantry, shaving too much weight from the rifle makes it prone to malfunction, overheating and inaccurate in rapid fire, to say nothing of fully automatic fire.

Sixth, the service rifle should have at least a twenty round magazine. The current world standard is thirty, given the current military touchstone of the intermediate cartridge.

Seventh, the service rifle should be affordable for the nation's military. This is another touchy subject, as the lives of a country's troops is usually seen as a matter of vital importance. However, most countries simply do not have the money to equip all of their troops with the absolute best weapons available (Switzerland's Stgw 57 comes immediately to mind), and compromises must be made. Some nations do a better job than others at this.

US Marines practicing bayonet combat - United States Marine Corps

Eighth, and last, is the requirement for a functional bayonet. This is also a controversial view, as bayonets have historically inflicted few casualties in actual combat, and whose actual use in combat has steadily declined, despite the occasional instance of an actual bayonet charge in the last thirty-five or so years. However, the bayonet is as much as psychological weapon as a physical one; it is as much a statement of determination as desperation, both to the enemy as well as your own troops.

So - how have these eight requirements been applied over the years?

Reviewing a simple list of service rifles reveals a dizzying array of weapons, so many that it is tempting to ignore the list entirely. But...look at that list a different way: you should note that virtually every service rifle adopted in the last sixty years has been in one of three calibers: 5.56x45mm, 7.62x39mm, or 7.62x51mm.

What's more, throughout conflict zones around the world, were you suddenly transported from reading this, to one of those places, you have approximately a 95% chance of picking up one of four rifles: an AR-15/M-16, an AK-type rifle, an FN FAL or a CETME/G3-type.






There are two basic reasons for this phenomenon.

First, is the economics of the Cold War: as small, poor nations sided with one bloc or the other, the powerful nations at the core of those blocs were happy to provide their rifle of choice at little to no charge. This encouraged small countries to only buy either that rifle, or a rifle that used that ammunition.

Second, the laws of Supply and Demand and Mass Production meant that three or four basic ammunition types would standardize. Together with 9x19mm 'Parabellum' (in military handguns and most submachine guns) and '12gauge' (for shotguns), the standardization of weapons and ammunition around the world were virtually guaranteed. Additionally, there are enough of the above four rifles out there, that their respective characteristics are well known, including their strengths and flaws.

But -- what does all this mean for the budding army builder? Knowing all these factors, what service rifle should you choose?

The answer is simply this:

The best service rifle is the one that you can lay hands on in the largest quantity, immediately, that you can train the largest number of people quickly to use.

That's it. Really.

The "Big Four" rifles - the AR, the AK, the FAL and the G3 - are: universally cheap (for whatever reason); are all battle-proven designs; have had all of their faults identified; and all have vast quantities of both weapons and accoutrements readily available, virtually everywhere in the world.

You can spend the money on a "shootout" between the various weapons, or read through the exhaustive literature on all of the weapons to decide...of course, there is always the chance that you may need to use whatever is at hand. In that case:

The best service rifle in the world, is the one that will fire when you expect it to.








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