Next Generation Squad Weapon and optic exceed paratrooper expectations

by Vern Evans

The first soldiers to field the Army’s newest rifle and automatic rifle began live-fire training with the weapons this week, including demonstrations on how the new round can penetrate barriers to strike targets.

Soldiers with the 1st Brigade, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division received a batch of XM7 rifles and XM250 automatic rifles and their XM157 fire controls in late March.

The XM7 is the Army’s replacement for the M4 while the XM250 will replace the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon. Both new weapons are chambered in 6.8mm, a larger and more powerful round than the legacy 5.56mm round used in the M4 and M249.

The soldiers conducted classroom training last week and began firing the weapons in demonstrations on Monday, Col. Trevor Voelkel, 1st Brigade commander, told Army Times in a phone interview.

Voelkel said he was impressed with the demonstration that showed the 6.8mm round piercing concrete blocks to strike paper targets on steel backdrops behind the barriers.

“Seeing the effects on the targets we had makes up for any concerns I had initially about the increased weight,” the colonel said.

Unloaded, the XM7 weighs 8.4 pounds, which is 3 pounds heavier than the M4. The XM250 weighs roughly 13 pounds unloaded, which is 2.7 pounds lighter than the M249.

The 6.8mm round delivers energy on target that outperforms the 7.62mm round, with a flatter trajectory and a lethal range of at least 600m, more than twice that of 5.56mm rounds, Army officials said.

Staff Sgt. Garrett Steele, a weapons squad leader, and Sgt. Marcus Colston, bravo team leader, told Army Times that before they fired the weapon they were worried that the new round would add recoil, which might make it hard to get back on target.

“The recoil, honestly, was very negligible even with the larger round,” Colston said. “The weight of the weapon was pretty negligible.”

Steele agreed and said the XM7 was very accurate, both with iron sights and the new fire control. The weapons team leader said the group of soldiers with 1st Brigade that he trained with were able to zero their weapons and get tight groupings after shooting 10 rounds or fewer.

“There wasn’t anybody who had any issues getting groupings or zeroing quickly,” Steele said.

The XM157 has a host of features not available in the standard rifle optics such as the Close Combat Optic and Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight that have been used by soldiers for years.

The new fire control has a built-in infrared aiming laser, bullet drop compensator and ballistics calculator that can receive data for any weapons system in the Army’s inventory and add new data for future weapons.

The fire control will adjust the aiming point for the shooter based on distance and the ballistics of the round. It allows shooters to use eight times magnification to zoom in on a target, compared to the four times magnification on current standard optics.

Both sergeants said the optic was easy and quick to use. And the features were all applicable.

“There’s no fluff on the optic,” Colston said. “Everything that we can do with that, in my experience, the things we do as infantrymen, every single one of those features is going to be useful at a certain time.”

Voelkel echoed his soldiers’ comments on the fire control, comparing it to the current optics.

“It’s kind of like going from my Nokia flip phone to an iPhone,” he said.

The rangefinder and IR laser will allow soldiers to mark target reference points and laser targets for call for fire in the field with no additional equipment, the colonel said.

“I think that’s going to open up a whole new world of capabilities,” Voelkel said.

The brigade will receive 1,500 XM7s and 200 XM150s, all with their own optics, according to Program Executive Office-Soldier. The brigade is expected to be fully fielded with the new weapons by September.

The brigade is scheduled for their pre-deployment Joint Readiness Training Center rotation in March 2025, Voelkel said. The unit has a large-scale field training exercise scheduled for this fall with the entire 101st Airborne Division.

Those events will help the unit see the performance of a brigade fully equipped with the new small arms and optics in both live fires and simulated, force-on-force training, the colonel said.

During force-on-force exercises, soldiers armed with the weapons will have greater ranges and the ability to penetrate barriers when in a close fight. The laser shooting systems used for force-on-force can be adjusted to accommodate the 6.8mm ballistics so commanders can get a sample of its performance.

“It’s going to allow us to engage the enemy earlier than we would have,” Garrett said. “If we see an enemy far out, we can get better eyes on with the optic.”

In 2017, the 101st Airborne Division was also the first unit to field the replacement for the legacy M9 handgun with the Modular Handgun System, which includes the M17 and M18 handguns.

Following that fielding with the next generation weapons gives the division a chance to give the Army feedback on a weapon that many soldiers may carry for decades to come.

“I think there’s a lot of pride and a feeling of weighty responsibility,” Voelkel said.

The $4.7 billion rifle and automatic rifle weapons contract with firearms manufacturer Sig Sauer and the $2.7 billion contract with Sheltered Wings, a subsidiary of Vortex Optics, for the XM157, are the most significant changes to Army individual weapons since the M16 was fielded in the 1960s.

The XM7 is a piston-driven, modular, select-fire, magazine-fed, suppressed rifle.

The XM250 is a belt-fed, air-cooled, lightweight, gas-operated, select-fire, suppressed light machine gun that fires from the open-bolt position.

The Army plans to field the new weapons to close combat forces such as infantry, special operations, scouts, combat engineers, forward observers and combat medics by fiscal year 2033.

The legacy M4 and M249 will see continued use for decades to come for the rest of the Army.

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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