Weapons: M2A1 Heavy Machine-Gun

December 21, 2010: Starting this month, the U.S. Department of Defense has begun modifying (for $5,700 each) 6,000 M2HB 12.7mm (.50 caliber) machine-guns. The upgrade converts existing weapons to the M2A1 standard and allows for quick barrel changes. Each barrel weighs 10.9 kg/24 pounds. There is also a mounting rail for scopes and a flash suppressor and fixed headspace (which makes the weapons easier to use). Earlier this year, the Department of Defense also bought 8,000 more M2 machine-gun barrels (for $850 each). This M2A1 version is the latest upgrade for the M2 so far. Another 5,080 new M2A1 weapons will be manufactured.

It was two years ago that the U.S. Department of Defense gave General Dynamics $9 million to try and develop a lightweight .50 caliber (12.7mm) machine-gun (initially called LW50, then the XM806) that works. The LW50 is supposed to be ready for troops use until 2012. Designing and building a lighter and more effective 12.7mm machine-gun has been an elusive goal, and it's still not clear if the XM896 will pass muster with the troops.

An earlier attempt (the XM312) by General Dynamics did not work out so well. Actually, there are several other competitors for this project, and several failed attempts in the last few decades. The army wants a weapon that weighs about half as much as the current weapon (the 38 kg/84 pound M-2), has fewer parts, less recoil and is easier to maintain. Unfortunately, none of the proposed designs has solved the biggest problem with earlier attempts; low rate of fire.

The first attempt at creating a replacement for the current M2 .50 caliber (12.7mm) machine-gun did not succeed. Three years ago, field testing of the XM-312, the proposed replacement for the eighty year old, .50 caliber (12.7mm) M-2 machine-gun, began, in the United States and overseas. Then, nothing. That's because the test results were not encouraging, the biggest shortcoming being the low rate of fire (about 260 rounds per minute). This is about half the rate of the M2, and was believed adequate for the 25mm smart shells the XM312 was originally designed for (as the XM307). But for 12.7mm bullets, it didn't impress the troops. There were some reliability problems, which could be fixed. The rate-of-fire issue, however, has proved to be more difficult. Meanwhile, a new upgrade for the M2 has been fielded, and Ma Deuce still rules the battlefield.

The M-2, nicknamed "Ma Deuce" by the troops, has been around so long because it was very good at what it does. Accurate, reliable, rugged and easy to use, many of the M-2s currently in use are decades old, and finally wearing out. The army doesn't want to build new ones, and wasn't sure it could do without the venerable, and very useful, M2. So it ended up going ahead with the plan to build a new .50 caliber machine-gun (the XM312). Actually, this Ma Deuce replacement is basically the XM307, but without the ability to fire 25mm rounds. The XM312 weighs 36 pounds (compared to 50 for the M-2), even with the addition of the electronic fire control stuff from the XM307.

The LW50/XM806 will ignore the 25mm business, and probably borrow a lot of ideas from superior 12.7mm designs developed in other nations. That's because the LW50 won't be the first lightweight rival for the Ma Deuce replacement market. Buying a superior foreign replacement is difficult politically (although it is done), and there is also the feeling that the superior foreign weapons aren't as superior as they could be.

Actually, there have been many attempts to design a "new and improved" M2, and all have failed, to one degree or another, in one department or another. The basic problem is that the M2 is sturdy, reliable and gets the job done to the satisfaction of the users. The LW50 is apparently going to try and get around this by designing a better recoil system, and use modern electronic sights so that gunners can get more out of fewer bullets. Most combat veterans prefer the current rate of fire (7-8 bullets per second) to the slower (4 per second) one of the LW50. That attitude may change, as troops get to use the LW50 in combat. They may appreciate the ability to get more out of the same ammo supply, and deliver more accurate single shots and short bursts.

What the army is hoping to do with LW50 is not get an M2 replacement, but a "good enough" lightweight 12.7mm machine-gun, for those situations where such a weapon is needed. SOCOM (Special Operations Command), for example, has some lightweight vehicles in the works, that are too light to carry an M2, but could handle a lighter 12.7mm weapon. The army wants to have such a lightweight machine-gun for the troops in about two years. Meanwhile, the army plans to buy 40,000 new M2s.

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