Russian rifle manufacturer Kalashnikov recently introduced a new 12.7mm (.50 caliber) “anti-material” rifle, the SV-18. This bullpup design is similar to Chinese 12.7mm rifles that began appearing in the late 1990s. The SV-18 is entering a mature and very crowded market. The first (1999) of these Chinese bullpup rifles was the M99, and a few years later the M06 showed up as an M99 with a few minor changes. All of these were bullpup (magazine behind the trigger) designs, and built by a state-owned weapons factory. There are many other 12.7mm rifles available from Chinese, and Russian, suppliers. For example, the Chinese AMR-2 is a more conventional design (magazine in front of the trigger). The M99/M06/QUB09 all weigh about 12 kg (26.4 kg), while the AMR-2 is a little lighter at 11 kg (24.2 pounds). The M99 series can be had using Russian 12.7x108mm or American 12.7x99mm rounds, while the AMR-2 only handles the 12.7x108mm cartridge.
The SV-18 is an improvement on the early Chinese bullpup designs. Kalashnikov is trying to stay competitive with the growing number of new Chinese military rifle designs of all calibers. The Chinese have long sold these weapons mainly for export because that was the only way so many different designs could be profitable. In the 1990s Kalashnikov provided competition for the Chinese, stressing higher quality and the Kalashnikov reputation. Despite that, the Chinese are pulling ahead and Kalashnikov is hustling to just stay competitive. This was something Kalashnikov was doing even before the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991.
Famous for developing the AK-47, Kalashnikov also produced the first Russian sniper rifle design, the SVD, in the 1960s. Before that Russia had used infantry rifles with a scope as “sniper rifles”. So did everyone else but after World War II rifles designed specifically for snipers began to appear and by 40 years later a lot of new sniper rifle designs began showing up in the West. Russia took time to catch up. In 2017 Kalashnikov introduced the SVC (Chukavin sniper rifle) to replace the SVD. But there were already several similar (based on Western designs) Russian and Chinese sniper rifles on the market. All were available in several different calibers, especially the popular 8.6mm Lapua Magnum. While the Americans pioneered the use of 12.7mm sniper rifles most nations prefer less accurate (and cheaper) 12.7mm “anti-material” versions that are intended to damage equipment at long range. The SV-18 is more about filling out a category in the catalog that a design breakthrough. Kalashnikov wants to be known for quality weapons of all types, not just the manufacturer of assault rifles.
American sniper rifle designers have been in the lead since the 1980s. Currently, one of the American innovators Barrett (developer of the 12.7mm sniper rifle in the 1980s) is maintaining its competitiveness by joining the growing number of developers of rifles to replace the 12.7mm sniper rifle with lighter ones capable of the same long-range and accuracy of the 12.7mm weapons. For example, in early 2019 U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) ordered an MRAD (Multi-Role Adaptive Design) rifle from Barrett. MRAD rifles can be chambered for three different rounds but the one that seemed to work best was the new (since 2017) .300 PRC (Precision Rifle Cartridge). The 300 PRC round is a 7.62mm magnum round optimized for long-range shooting and offered significant improvements in range and accuracy. The 300 PRC was one of several similar rounds that are making the 12.7mm (.50 caliber) sniper rifle less popular.
Even Barrett saw this coming and worked hard to develop the MRAD design chambered for the .300 PRC. In addition, Barrett wanted to demonstrate that their long-range rifles don’t have to use the 12.7mm round. A major problem with the 12.7mm rifles is that they are too heavy and most snipers will not carry it long distances unless they absolutely have to. With smaller long-range rounds becoming available (like the .338 Lapua Magnum) lighter rifles were now practical. The .300 PRC outperforms the 8.6mm Lapua Magnum and can be effective at up to 2,000 meters. Moreover, it is a smaller round that is more easily adapted to current sniper rifles. The MRAD comes in various barrel lengths (51 cm to 69 cm) which determines weight. The 62 cm (24.5 inch) barrel MRAD weighs 6.7 kg (14.8 pounds) empty. In addition to the PRC round, the bolt action MRAD can handle Lapua Magnum, Win Mag and .308 Winchester. With a loaded ten-round magazine and scope, MRAD weighs less than 9 kg (18 pounds). The heavier 12.7mm rifles weigh about twice as much as MRAD.
The 12.7mm rifles are still dominant as “anti-material” rifles but now their use for sniping is considered secondary. Lighter weapons like MRAD (and several similar designs) do it with less weight and better accuracy. For the majority of sniper targets, the .300 PRC is preferable. While eight of the top ten documented long-range (over 2,000 meters) sniper hits used a 12.7mm rifle (the other two used the 8.6mm), the two longest shots were 3,450 and 2,800 meters. The third longest (2,475 meters) used 8.6mm. Since the .300 PRC outperforms the 8.6mm Lapua Magnum it’s only a matter of time before more of the top distance records are held by lighter (than 12.7mm) rifles.
Modern armies are making greater use of snipers. Not just because snipers are among the deadliest troops on the battlefield, but because better technology is making it easier to get long-range hits consistently. There are even computerized sniper sights that can turn just about anyone into a sniper, at least for shots under a thousand meters.