The 23rd Annual European Small Arms & Cannons Symposium


For those with strong personal interest in small arms or those engaged professionally in “the business” of weapons, ammunition and ancillary devices there are two public symposia that are mandatory additions to the yearly planner: the NDIA (National Defense Industrial Association) annual Small Arms Systems Division Symposium held in the states and the European Small Arms and Cannons Symposium conducted each year in the UK.  These events combine papers presented by subject matter experts in their field from various government agencies, academia and the industry, the latest in products on display by vendors and live-fire demonstrations of state-of-the-science hardware.  While the US NDIA event has become a massive meeting of over 700 attendees, 40 demonstrators and dozens upon dozens of exhibitors, it can be like the SHOT Show; simply too large to be absorbed completely by just one person.  The European Small Arms and Cannons Symposium, held at the UK Defense Academy located outside the small town of Shrivenham, England is just the opposite.  It is more intimate in its size and scope and allows for time to explore all aspects in greater detail.  “Shrivenham” as it is commonly called is the subject of this report.  This year’s event was conducted during the last week in August and is just two full days in length (two half days bracketing one full day) making it easy to add on to the trip stops at some local attractions.

Historic Collections Abound in the UK
Prior to the start of the symposium, a quick trip to the town of Warminster and meeting with retired 37+ year British Army veteran and great host Major Norman Benson provided access to the wonderful collection at the UK Infantry and Small Arms School Corps located at the Headquarters of the Small Arms School Corps Infantry Land Warfare Center, 30 miles southwest of Shrivenham.  (  Public tours of this fine assemblage of historic weapons are conducted each Wednesday from 1000 to 1215 hours and are limited to 20 visitors.  (To join a future tour phone 44 01985 222487 for full tour details.)  The collection is immense (2,100 articles) and includes early and rare pieces such as the 1770-era British designed .65 caliber Ferguson rifle, considered the first successful breech-loading rifle of which less than 1,000 were made and only a handful remain in existence today, and a great assortment of both the .280 British caliber (7x43mm) EM2 bull-pup and FN FAL rifles that comprise an important chapter in missed opportunities to field a true intermediate or medium rifle caliber service rifle.

On the last day of the symposium we were treated again, as is the opportunity afforded symposium attendees each year, to some real hands-on time (to include field stripping and extensive handling) in the amazing reference collection located at the Defense Academy of the United Kingdom at Shrivenham, just a block down from the location of the symposium lecture and exhibit halls.  There, both retired Lieutenant Colonel John Starling and his assistant Paul Harding provided us with hours of access to nearly any modern small arm you can name.  The early German assault rifles FG42, MKb.42(H), Stg.44, MP44 and the desperate measures 7.92mm Kurz Gustloff Volkssturmgewehr are available to explore with the first model FG42 in nearly mint, unissued condition.  SADJ Editor-in-Chief and Technical Editor Dan Shea ran us through the Russian YakB “self-powered” four barrel, 4,000-5,000 round per minute 12.7x108mm Gatling gun, commonly seen on the Mi-24 “Hind” attack helicopter, not powered by electricity like the western Minigun, but by storing power in a spring system located within the barrel cluster.  In the event of a stoppage the weapon uses a separate magazine of blanks that can be fired to clear the stoppage.  The collection includes a complete 4-piece set of the US Advanced Combat Rifle (ACR) candidates with wooden rack built for the weapons for use on the ranges at Fort Benning – a sight not seen since 1990 as though they had been teleported there from Fort Benning’s own Buckner Range, the site of the ACR testing.

There is a lot of that in these collections.  A mix of old and new, successful and not so, of brilliance and innovation, of imitation over and over again throughout history, and every once in a rare while a true new innovation and first time creation to be marveled at by all.  In many ways a participation in the symposium is well worth the price of admission just to have access to both the collection and the deep and impressive knowledge of the true experts who work there.

Over 40 companies displayed their wares during the three day Shrivenham symposium.

Gentlemen; Present your Papers
The focus of the symposium is the technical papers presented with many topics not heard at the US NDIA event and, in many ways, are more specific to the European experience.  Papers presented this year ranged from reports of the combat performance of the UK Army’s suite of small arms and equipment to plans for soldier and weapon modernization in Germany, the UK, Canada as well as overarching international efforts in the NATO Land Capability Group 1 that is responsible for NATO dismounted soldier issues.  Various vendors were given the opportunity to cover in detail new products and developments of interest to the attendees.  Subject matter experts and RKIs (Reasonably Knowledgeable Individuals) presented papers on topics of interest and some controversy, such as Anthony Williams’ excellent review of service rifle cartridges over the last 100 years and a look at the appearance again of the Swedish saboted 6.5mm “CBJ” PDW cartridge, now chambered and available in the 9mm B&T MP9 submachine gun.  Lots of talk this year on the optimum rifle caliber for the service rifle, the need to reduce the soldiers combat load, enhancements to various ammunition types from 9mm through 40x53mm, and the thoughtful concept of a joint small arms effort for the development of a new assault rifle family for the UK, US, Canada and Sweden by a member of the NATO Land Capability Group 1.

What makes the Shrivenham event so inviting is the close proximity of the speakers to the attendees as the papers are presented in a relatively small 200-seat lecture hall.  The exchange of information flows easily and one can feel the tension when the more controversial topics are covered.  Presenters get immediate feedback from the crowd, and vice versa.  This year there were 96 attendees from more than a dozen NATO countries, 22 assorted papers presented and 42 exhibitors, some of which took part in a live-fire demonstration on day 2 of the event.  Through all aspects of this event attendees (“delegates” in fact) are well cared for in fine fashion by Event Director Michael Hewetson, Lynn Anderson and Ryan Baker and the professional and friendly staff from the Cranfield University, the organizers and hosts of this annual event.  Each attendee leaves on the final day with a CD copy of all presentations and the attendee contact roster, a great future resource.  Let us now take a look at a few of the more important and interesting topics covered.

Official Government Presentations:

The UK Soldier’s Small Arms Experience in OIF/OEF
Always the most important aspect of these events is the user feedback on in-service small arms and ammunition performance.  The military hosts of the event always cover the state of the UK Army’s fielded systems.  We learned that the time in Afghanistan and Iraq has been the longest unbroken period that the British Army has been engaged in combat since the Korean conflict.  It is also the first time they have been engaged in extended combat operations using 5.56x45mm weapons and most all reports from the field are good.  No complaints from the soldiers on the reliability or performance of their upgraded SA80A2’s (L85A2’s) and LSW’s (L86A2’s) though a need for longer barrels on the 5.56mm Minimi LMGs has been identified to increase range and accuracy.  A look at a new long penetrator 5.56mm projectile was discussed off line to improve long range performance and it was generally agreed that British adoption of a medium-caliber rifle round would be a “retrograde” move and would not increase unit effectiveness due to the importance of the high volume of suppressive fire permitted by 5.56mm weapons and their higher round count combat load.  No mention was made of 5.56mm short range terminal performance but the higher muzzle velocity obtained from the 20-inch barrel SA80/LSW bull-pup layout was stressed as a key contributing factor.  That key performance feature alone, uniquely available from the bull-pup design, is too often missed or ignored by too many Armies.  The 20-inch barrel SA80A2 bull-pup layout and the British L2A2 SS109-style round were praised as “highly effective,” especially in comparison to that reported from short-barreled carbines in use in other NATO countries.

Target Suppression in a Long Range War
A great deal of user feedback and studies have been conducted concerning the use of the UK section (squad) small arms most recently in Afghanistan, a long range war in comparison to Iraq.  The results seem to indicate that in the suppression role a combination of the individual 5.56x45mm weapons and 7.62x51mm L7A2 GPMG (General Purpose Machine Gun), highly praised and loved by all for its reliability and target effects, has been very effective in “fixing” Taliban fighters (“suicide shooters”) at long ranges in the hills of Afghanistan until indirect fire and/or aircraft-launched ordnance (or an occasional Javelin anti-tank missile) can be brought to bear on the target.  The 1972 Litton Study and 1970-era US CDEC study determined that the greater the kinetic energy (KE) of the round fired, the higher the suppression effect due to the shock wave created by the higher KE rounds.  Rounds passing within 1 meter of the target are considered highly effective in all calibers.  To no ones surprise the .50 BMG outclassed both 7.62mm and 5.56mm rounds in this regard.  This conclusion is proving out to be correct in modern day combat as well.  It was stated that, “The Taliban ignore the 5.56mm, respect the 7.62mm and fear the .50 BMG.”  This echoes reports from US Special Forces on the lack of respect by Iraqi insurgents to US forces armed with short-barreled 5.56mm weapons.

The incrementally enhanced British SA80A3 with polymer P-Mag, quad rail system, gangster grip, Vortex flash eliminator and 4X ACOG sight with interim mount. The final A3 version will include a Picatinny rail on the receiver for direct sight mounting. (Photo by Dan Shea)

The need for a mid-range 7.62x51mm semiautomatic rifle within the UK rifle section has been identified to allow more accurate engagement of distant targets well out of the precision range of 5.56mm platforms.  The HK417 and FN SCAR Heavy (MK17) were rumored to be candidates under consideration.  It is also planned to return the GPMG to the section – a major revision in tactical doctrine but one welcomed by the British infantryman in Afghanistan.

The Underbarrel Grenade Launcher (UGL) employed on the British SA80A2, specifically a variant of the 40x46mm LV HK AG36, was thought to be somewhat inaccurate for precision fire though useful for launching marking and illumination rounds.  The L115A3 .338 Lapua bolt-action sniper rifle was highly effective out to 800 meters for man-sized targets over the 7.62x51mm L96 it replaced, though as in America wherein some M14’s equipped with scopes and have been returned to service in a squad level Designated Marksman’s role, L96’s have also been reissued in limited numbers until a new 7.62mm semi-auto platform can be tested, selected and fielded.

The most effective of all the crew-served weapons of course were the .50 BMG HMG (Heavy Machine Gun, aka M2HB) and 40x53mm HK GMG (Grenade Machine Gun).  “Greatly feared by the enemy” so much so that the British MoD is increasing their inventory of HK GMGs (current inventory of 400), and also that of the M2HBs from 156 to 1,100 After nearly 90 years, “Ma Deuce” is still getting it done for the troops.  The UK reps mentioned they were looking to field a universal mount for the GPMG, GMG and HMG as soon as possible to reduce the burden of carrying and supporting three different mounts.

UK Weapon Modernization
Britain has done for its soldiers an amazing job over the past decade in incrementally improving their entire fleet of small arms.  Their suite of weapons is vastly improved, takes advantage of incrementally superior COTS products and has made a real difference for the British front line combatant.  Additional user-inspired enhancements are planned for various weapons in the inventory to include the once severely maligned SA80 (L85).  The interim SA80A2E (6.75 kg/14.88 pounds with 4X ACOG sight, mount and steel magazine) and new SA80A3 will include an integral Picatinny receiver and Quad-rail up front (likely the new May 2009 NATO STANAG 4694 version) in 2011 (an interim adapter this year for the 4X ACOG scope with piggyback mini reflex sight that is replacing the SUSAT sight), a polymer magazine (the Magpul P-Mag is performing well in UK field tests), Vortex flash “eliminator” and “downgrip” (vertical foregrip which the Brits also call the “gangster grip” with extendable bipod ala Grip Pod.  All of these changes will actually result in a weight reduction of the SA80A3 of .73 kg (1.6 pounds) to 5.82 kg (12.8 pounds), an amazing feat in this day of unsuccessful efforts to lighten the soldier’s load.

Of course a plan to replace the SA80 and LSW altogether is still in the works for 2020 with various studies planned to determine the best way to proceed.  No discussion on this subject is complete at Shrivenham without the question, “Will it be another bull-pup?”  The highly compact L22A2 (SA80A2 Carbine) with 442mm (17.4 inch) barrel, 7mm (.28 inches) shorter in fact at just 572mm (22.5 inches) overall than the US M3A1 “Grease Gun” is still highly regarded for its compactness in the confined spaces role such as in vehicles with greater muzzle velocity and energy and terminal effects than many western short-barreled carbines with far greater overall lengths.

Incremental Successes – More Capable, Less Weight
Changes are planned also for the current UK 5.56mm LMG (Minimi Para) that will also result in a .29 kg (.64 pound) weight savings.  The new 6.91 kg (15.24 pound) LMG E will include a Grip Pod-style downgrip, Picatinny tri-rail handguard and top cover, retractable Savit buttstock, and a prong-style flash “eliminator” already in combat use.  Lightening the load of GPMG gunner is also in the works by replacing the steel side plates of the current GPMG with Titanium plates and a fluted barrel, all resulting is an expected weight savings of 1.73 kg (nearly 4 pounds).  Trials are ongoing at present time on the “Lightweight GPMG” with results expected late this year.

The British MoD has already received a small quantity of new 9x19mm SIG P226s officially designated the L105-A2 to replace the long-serving 9mm Browning L9A1 Hi-Power pistol for which the UK MoD reportedly has 20,000 in inventory.  Being a double action pistol, the new SIG handgun is faster into action and has already been used in combat with great effect and has even been credited with saving the life of a British sniper who used it “up close and personal” where handguns earn their keep.  While this interim fielding has been well received (and nearly all British front liners have requested one) this handgun is not considered the final solution in the words of the briefer.

The brand-new 40x46mm AG77A1 Multi-functional Grenade Launcher from Madritsch KG Waffentechnik in Rustorf, Austria was briefed and displayed during the event.

Seemingly one of the biggest surprises during the UK MoD portion of the briefings was the recent fielding of 200 Benelli M4 Super 90 Combat Shotguns, known in the US Marine Corps as the M1014 Joint Services Combat Shotgun.  In use in many special operations units around the world and renowned for its ultra reliability, the new UK A01424 Semiautomatic Combat Shotgun came about from a Green Zone requirement for “high impact” personnel engagements at less than 10 meters, where the appreciable and game changing terminal effects of a 12 gauge “scattergun” are warranted and welcome by the user.  A Picatinny quad-rail and vertical foregrip are planned for the weapon.  Additional uses, such as door beaching, are also roles the new Benelli will fill and fill well.