Cold War Conflicts and ‘Brushfire Wars’
By Robert Bruce
In the course of decades of researching various sources including military and museum archives, Robert Bruce has acquired a treasure trove of photos of what might be considered “odd and unusual weapons.” Here is a follow-on to earlier oddities that appeared in previous issues.
Now, with apologies for some of these rough-looking images—presented as they were found—SADJ takes a look at some interesting developments in the tragic aftermath of the Vietnam debacle as U.S. and Allied forces pivoted to other Cold War conflicts and “brushfire wars” around the globe.
When the Democrat-dominated U.S. Congress cut off funding and other military aid to America’s South Vietnamese allies, a Communist victory was assured. Saigon fell in 1975 to a combined North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) assault spearheaded by T-54/T-55 tanks supplied by Communist China.
Although badly shaken by what many bitterly considered a betrayal of an ally and callous disregard for the sacrifice of more than 211,000 dead and wounded Americans, the U.S. Armed Forces regrouped and refocused on the harsh realities of conventional—and likely escalating to thermonuclear—warfare with the Soviet Union; a formidable and nearly equal enemy. Joined by NATO Allies (not including the French, that’s another story) “force modernization” became a priority for rapid upgrades to ships, aircraft, tanks and all types of weaponry. Leaving the big stuff to others, we’ll concentrate here on just a few notable man-portable arms that were driven by a determination to equip fighting forces with better guns and ammo—some of which were already in the RDT&E (Research, Development, Test & Evaluation) pipeline when Saigon fell.
West German Partisan Pistol: VP70M with Buttstock and Carrying Sling
CREDIT: HK GMBH
First produced in 1970 in the height of the Cold War, Heckler & Koch’s (HK) Volkspistole 70M (literally “people’s pistol”) was intended for civilian partisans in the wake of an almost-certain USSR/Warsaw Pact invasion of West Germany. Inspired by the multitudes of cheap and simple weapons dropped by U.S. and Allies behind German lines in WWII to arm resistance forces, it was much more capable than the single-shot OSS “Liberator” pistol and even the quick-takedown British MKII STEN submachine gun. The VP70M is a highly concealable, 9mm 18-round capacity, semiautomatic handgun that instantly converts into a 2200 RPM three-round burst-fire machine pistol with addition of its buttstock/holster. Notably, it carries the distinction of being the first production-run polymer-framed handgun.
Underwater Revolver: Gun, Underwater Defense, Mk 1 Mod 0
CREDIT: ROBERT BRUCE
Like the one seen here, locked away for posterity in the arms vault of the Naval Historical Society, the Mk 1 Mod 0 was developed late in the Vietnam War for use against enemy swimmers and continued in service with men of the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams and SEALs in the Cold War. It’s a seriously updated techno version of the multi-barrel “pepperbox” revolver of the 1800s. The removable barrel/chamber cluster holds six sealed Mk59 cartridges, each loaded with a wickedly long, needle-like tungsten dart.
Heavy Duty Grenade Gun: 40mm Philco-Ford CROW
CREDIT: NAVAL HISTORICAL SOCIETY ARCHIVES
Because grenade machine guns firing the M79 “Blooper’s” low-velocity 40mm grenades proved inadequate in Vietnam, logic demanded a weapon that could fire the newly developed, powerful and long-reaching 40mm M384 and M385 High Velocity ammo. But how to tame this hot round’s formidable recoil in a grenade machine gun (GMG) of manageable size and weight? In 1970, Philco-Ford’s Aeronutronic Division got a developmental award for their Counter Recoil-Operated Weapon (CROW) concept: “… the principle of converting kinematic energy of the round into potential energy. The energy stored in various springs is released during the counter recoil stroke to open the barrel, eject the spent round and feed the next round.” The resulting 35-pound GMG demonstrated effective operation at rates of fire up to 400 RPM. Nice try, but the prize went to Naval Ordnance Louisville’s MK19, which is still serving today.
SAW Contender: Rodman Laboratories XM235
CREDIT: U.S. ARMY ORDNANCE MUSEUM
This interesting mini machine gun was entered in the Army’s 1975-1976 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) trials. Chambered in the Army’s specified 6x45mm experimental cartridge, its novel operation system—enhancing full-auto accuracy—was patented by its government design team as the Modular Lightweight Squad Automatic Weapon System, “… having symmetrical forces applied to recoiling parts by use of two parallel gas pressure rods acting in unison. An integral sprocket feed system is actuated by the recoiling parts and avoids gross asymmetrical movements about the weapon’s center of gravity resulting from shifting ammunition weight. A dual tube receiver and dual gas system is featured in the weapon.” In the end, the Army chose FN’s Minimi in 5.56x45mm NATO, serving now as the M249 light machine gun.
Fire and Forget It: TRW’s Low-Maintenance Rifle
CREDIT: AUTHOR’S COLLECTION
It isn’t PC to assert that many if not most Third-World troops are culturally indifferent to properly maintaining their weapons, so we’ll just present this one as an interestingly cheap and simple shoulder weapon for U.S. counterinsurgency forces to arm certain soldiers. Responding to a 1971 Army requirement, the Thompson Ramo Wooldridge group (TRW) offered this 7.26-pound, 34-inch-long, 450 RPM, 5.56mm Firestick, only externally reminiscent of the superlative, sophisticated WWII German FG 42. Its equally simple and cheaply printed 1973 Tech Manual dryly notes in typewritten prose: “… a 5.56mm magazine-fed, gas operated, air cooled, shoulder weapon … designed for use as an automatic weapon and functions from the open bolt position. … The rifle is fabricated from corrosion-resistant materials and is semi-permanently lubricated by the dry film process.” Less than a dozen were made, and the project was abandoned. After all, millions of uncannily reliable AKs were available worldwide—super simple, dirt cheap and with mountains of 7.62x39mm ammo.
Piggyback Projectiles: Frankford Arsenal’s Folded Ammunition
CREDIT: U.S. ARMY ORDNANCE MUSEUM
Some engineers—ever eager to explore even marginal improvements to conventional cartridges—have produced some genuine oddities. Not the least of these is presented in a “Feasibility Study of 5.56m Folded Ammunition System,” published in September 1976 by the Munitions Development and Engineering Directorate at the Army’s Frankford Arsenal. Citing advantages including efficient stowage, higher performance in less overall space, weight reduction, etc., it boasts: “The shorter ammunition length shortens the weapon bolt stroke required to feed the ammunition and extract the case after firing. This feature enables a shortening of weapon length in the chamber/breech location.” So, what has transpired in some 4 decades since? Most notably not Frankford’s folded ammo but the HK G11’s molded brick caseless and AAI/Textron’s lipstick-tube cased-telescoped ammo.
“The EM-2, a British rifle fleetingly adopted in the UK in 1951 as ‘Rifle, No. 9,’ was the first attempt in the world to field a general-issue military shoulder weapon based on the ‘compact’ or bullpup system.” (R. Blake Stevens in the introduction to Thomas B. Dugelby’s 1980 Collector Grade book, EM-2 Concept and Design—A Rifle Ahead of its Time.)
Bullpup??!! Most simply defined as the term applies to small arms, a “bullpup” design puts the magazine and firing chamber behind the pistol grip/trigger group that’s typically located about midway along the length of the weapon. Why? For compactness, balance and quick handling.
There are advantages and disadvantages to this arrangement, kicking off all manner of controversy between proponents of traditional configurations and cocky challengers. Evidence of resistance to change is readily seen in the fact that the first promising young litter of Brit bullpups died from neglect. But that didn’t end the breed, so let’s zoom in for a closer look at some bullpups born in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
U.S. Air Force Arm Gun: Colt’s Lightweight Submachine Gun
CREDIT: U.S. ARMY ORDNANCE MUSEUM
Seen here circa 1969 in what’s likely a conceptual drawing from a presentation of the remarkable IMP-221 (Individual Multi-Purpose), this unique bullpup pistol, firing hot .221 Remington Fireball cartridges, was intended to be a compact and deadly efficient survival weapon for downed aviators. Credited to engineer Dale Davis of the USAF Armament Laboratories, it evolved from the more conventional Colt SCAMP (Small Caliber Machine Pistol) into an ergonomically unique solution to the challenges of producing an ultra-compact weapon with acceptable stopping power and practical range. Its bullpup design provided good balance, and the receiver with magazine along the arm provided some stability, swiveling to accommodate right or left handers.
CREDIT: U.S. ARMY ORDNANCE MUSEUM
For a variety of reasons—not the least of which was the absurd difficulty of accurately shooting the thing—the USAF-Colt IMP initiative was ultimately rejected. But independent gun maker Gwinn Firearms apparently appreciated its novelty and saw potential for civilian or perhaps law enforcement sales, producing the Bushmaster Arm Pistol around 1972. It’s a very close version in .223/5.56 NATO, economically utilizing a lot of standard AR-15/M16 components such as Eugene Stoner’s familiar multi-lug, rotating bolt.
Brit Bullpups: Evolution of the “Rifle, No. 9”
CREDIT: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Seen on the far right is a well-worn trials version of the “EM-2” that soon followed the No. 9, likely chambered for an experimental 6.25x43mm “intermediate type” cartridge. To its left are later variants of the design; the first is identified as an XL60 in .280/4.85mm, and the more recent SA80 A2 (L85A2) in 5.56mm NATO. All of these bullpups are a radical break in British Army rifle tradition, with the SA80 series officially adopted as standard in 1987.
Intermediate Cartridge Showdown: .280 vs. .223
CREDIT: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
On the left is the .280/4.85x49mm, the Brit hopeful in NATO’s weapon and ammo trials of 1978-1979, standing side-by-side with what became the NATO standard .223/5.56x45mm (right). The difficulty of “herding cats” applies here with each of several nations offering their favorite rifles and cartridges with the goal of standardizing to the extent possible for “interoperability.” What emerged was each nation kept its preferred rifle though chambered for America’s mandated 5.56mm fed from America’s M16 mags.
CREDIT: BRITISH MINISTRY OF DEFENSE
2001: A steely-eyed Royal Marine Commando proudly cradles his newly upgraded L85A2 bullpup (topped with a well-used SUSAT day sight) while providing security for a nuclear-armed submarine during Operation Veritas. Cheaply and poorly made in Britain in the beginning by RSAF Enfield, the rifle was plagued with reliability problems, and only a radical rework by the German firm HK in the early 2000s and subsequent manufacture as the A2 version rescued it.
“Bugle” Blaster: The French FAMAS
CREDIT: U.S. AIR FORCE VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
As a member of NATO, the French participate in defense of Europe and occasional forays overseas. So a certain amount of interoperability is evident in the distinctive FAMAS G2 (Fusil d’Assaut de la Manufacture d’Armes de Saint-Étienne) assault rifle including 5.56mm chambering and M16 standard magazines. The French’s quirky penchant for home-grown designs led to this delayed blowback-operated bullpup with the nickname “Le Clairon” (“The Bugle”), entering service in 1978. Interestingly, the bugle has blown its last notes, and France’s soldiers now carry the superlative German HK416. Sacre bleu!
Armee-Universal-Gewehr: The Austrian Steyr AUG
CREDIT: AUSTRIAN MINISTRY OF DEFENSE AND SPORT
With its rakish profile including integral optic and streamlined polymer housing, the AUG would seem perfect for arming starship troopers in most any sci-fi flick. Entering Austrian Army service in 1978, the Sturmgewehr 77 (assault rifle) is a truly modular weapon that can be immediately configured without tools from a standard version with a 20-inch barrel into a short-barrel submachine gun, carbine, heavy-barrel sniper rifle or a squad auto weapon firing from an open bolt. While firing 5.56mm NATO ammo, early versions were fed from proprietary waffled translucent polymer mags, an interoperability problem corrected in later NATO versions, also fitted with Picatinny accessory rails. The AUG proved enormously successful and was purchased in quantity by numerous countries, most notably Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.
Leap Ahead Assault Rifles: Advanced Combat Rifle Program
CREDIT: ROBERT BRUCE
Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, 1989: Soldiers at a press preview showcase the “final four” candidates that will travel to Fort Benning, Georgia, for sudden-death playoffs on a super high tech instrumented, combat simulation range. From top left and clockwise: Steyr ACR firing flechettes telescoped inside polymer tubes; Colt ACR, a modified M16A2 firing “duplex” (two stacked bullets) in conventional brass cases; AAI ACR firing brass-cased flechettes; and the HK ACR firing 4.73mm caseless cartridges. While marching underneath the ACR program banner of “doubling hit probability,” in reality the Army was grasping for something better than its somewhat serviceable M16 rifles and NATO 5.56mm ammo. Formally launched in 1986, it flamed out 4 years and $300 million later because none reportedly achieved the stated goal. Since then, GIs have wondered if their M16s and M4s really are the best they deserve, a doubt lingering for 30 years that may be set aside by the winner in the Army’s Next Generation Squad Weapon trials.
Brick Firing Bullpup: HK G11
CREDIT: HK GMBH VIA WIKIMEDIA
Undoubtedly the most radical concept—not only in the ACR program but in any previous practical pairing of gun and ammo—this wunderkind is an engineering and tactical tour de force, birthed in the 1970s from the marriage of West German companies Dynamit Nobel and Heckler & Koch. Among its most striking attributes is its little, brick-like rectangular caseless cartridges made from a nearly magical propellant, compressed and formed with a skinny 4.73mm projectile nestled snugly in a tunnel. On detonation in the oscillating chamber, the bullet zips downrange and everything else disappears, needing no extraction or ejection. It fires in semiauto, auto (460 RPM) and three-round bursts at an astonishing 2,100 RPM. This last intended to maximize accuracy and multi-hit lethality because the third bullet is well on its way before any muzzle jump. The engineering wizardry required for this comes from a vertically oriented, disc-like “chamber” that feeds at 12 o’clock and rotates 45 degrees to align with the barrel at 3 o’clock to fire. Perplexed? Do a Wiki search for details on this German military marvel. A brilliant live-fire demonstration, starring the late, great Jim Schatz in the G11 gunner role is readily available on YouTube. Search “G11K2 Demonstration—Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD 1990.”
Dynamit Nobel’s Caseless Cartridge
A near miracle in chemical engineering and ultra-modern manufacture, the G11’s remarkable ammo is seen here with its components. The HITP (high ignition temperature propellant) is shaped into a tiny 1.3-inch long brick, hollowed out to hold a cup-shaped primer/booster and a 4.73x33mm projectile, held centered by a plastic cap. Resistant to moisture, crushing and cook off, it kicks out its 51-grain FMJ bullet at 930 m/s with scant recoil.
CREDIT: HK GmbH
Although unknown if this ever went beyond its conceptual drawing, the HK G11 system with Dynamit Nobel’s caseless brick ammo could almost certainly have been developed as a SAW/LMG in at least prototype form. Presumably, the vexing problem of cook off from overheating in fast, sustained firing would be solved in some manner, but would this work with a rotating disc chamber? Other caseless contemplations included a handgun-like personal defense weapon. In the end, West Germany’s plan to adopt the G11 died of monetary starvation because of many financial and other problems after the Soviet Bloc crumbled and “reunification” followed with its impoverished Eastern brethren.
In the next installment of Ordnance Oddities we’ll give a nod to the next 2 decades with such well-intentioned efforts as the U.S. Army’s Land Warrior initiative. What were they “imagineering” for 21st century soldiers?