Taking back the middle ground – Designated Marksman Rifles
Blast from the past – these M14 rifles look modern, but they’re older than the soldiers using them.
All armies have different ideas about equipment, but the weaponry of an infantry section stayed pretty constant from about the 1930s to after the turn of the century. A section could contain anywhere from eight to 15 men depending on national doctrine, and most of them would carry the standard infantry rifle (with a brief interest in submachine guns until bolt-action rifles were replaced by semi-automatic or selective fire ones.) Heavy firepower was provided by one or two light machineguns, and often high explosive weapons were included too. British sections had an anti-tank gunner with an 84mm Carl Gustav from the 1970s to the early 1990s, replacing the earlier bazooka family, and the US Army introduced squad grenadiers with the M79, and later the M203, in 1961. Trends changed over time; heavy 7.62mm machineguns, usually issued one per section, were replaced by one or two lighter 5.56mm models like the FN Minimi or L86 LSW, and heavy calibre rifles such as the FN FAL, G3 or M14 gave way to assault rifles. In general things stayed much the same, though.
Well, not quite. In 1963 something new appeared in the Soviet Union. The Dragunov SVD rifle was issued to Soviet snipers, although many of them preferred the older but more accurate Mosin-Nagant bolt action rifle. Snipers only made up a tiny proportion of its users, though. Every Soviet infantry platoon had at least one, and when supplies allowed there was one in every squad. The Soviets had issued many infantrymen with PPSh-41 submachine guns during the Second World War, and then adopted the AK-series assault rifle beginning in the early 1950s. This massively increased infantry firepower, but it also seriously reduced the average footsoldier’s effective range. The SVD, by giving small units a weapon that could deliver reasonably accurate fire out to 800 metres, was intended to solve that problem.
Western armies didn’t see a problem, of course; their new 5.56mm assault rifles outranged the AK, and were reckoned to be effective at more than 300 metres - the USA, optimistically, claimed the M16 was effective against point targets to 550 metres and area targets to 800. Not everyone was convinced about this and there were occasional moves towards an equivalent of the SVD; the British L86 LSW, while generally loathed as a useless light machinegun, was more highly thought of as a long-ranged rifle and was often issued to the number two in a sniper pair. Able to hit targets accurately out to 600 metres but put down a reasonable weight of rapid fire when necessary, it was a good complement to the long-ranged but slow-firing L96 sniper rifle. It also proved itself at the section level; when the Minimi Para was adopted as the standard light machinegun the LSW stayed on to provide long-range aimed fire.
During the Coalition mission in Iraq most combat was at close range and all seemed well with the current crop of 5.56mm rifles. When Afghanistan started hotting up in 2005, though, problems began to emerge. Unlike the mostly urban fighting in Iraq, combat was often taking place in open ground or mountainous terrain. The Taliban quickly learned that no matter what the pamphlets say, an M16 or L85A2 is only effective out to about 300 metres and an M4 carbine is little use beyond 200. These ranges still matched the insurgents’ AKs, but they had another card to play; large stocks of heavy-calibre weapons. PM machineguns, SVDs, Pakistani-made Heckler & Koch G3s and even ancient .303″ Lee-Enfields all allowed troops to be engaged at 800 or even 1,000 metres, well beyond the reach of 5.56mm assault rifles. Often a unit would find itself pinned down by accurate long-range fire, with only the machinegun able to respond. British and US units frequently resorted to firing Javelin anti-tank missiles at $80,000 a pop. Clearly this was an expensive way to kill one or two tribesmen with old rifles, but given the limits of the 5.56mm cartridge there weren’t a lot of alternatives; calling in air support isn’t exactly cheap either and often leads to collateral damage.
The solution to the problem looked a lot like the one the Soviets had come up with. The US military’s special forces units were already leading the way; old 7.62mm M14 battle rifles had been brought out of storage, refurbished, fitted with high-quality optics and bipods, and issued as Designated Marksman Rifles. Given to the best shot in a squad, they instantly pushed the engagement envelope back out. Now their numbers were greatly increased and thousands of them sent to Afghanistan. US infantry could now fight back against the Taliban’s PKs and SVDs. The modified M14s were very effective at 800 metres and still reasonably accurate at a thousand, matching or beating anything in the Taliban arsenal except the very heavy DShKM 12.7mm machinegun.
The success of the M14s led to a rapid series of upgrades, with much more extensive modifications being made to improve the weapons’ accuracy even more. It also led to other armies picking up the concept; Britain, Germany, Australia, Israel and many others have now incorporated DMRs into their infantry arsenal. A few 5.56mm weapons have been adopted in the role, such as the M16-derived Mark 12 Special Purpose Rifle, but as the limitations of 5.56mm made the DMR necessary in the first place most are chambered for 7.62mm NATO. Here are the most common ones:
The M14 started life as the service rifle of the US Army. It’s basically a modernised M1 Garand, adapted to fire 7.62mm NATO and use a detachable magazine. It entered service in 1959 and had a very short service life; procurement was halted in 1963 and M16s began to replace it in Vietnam in 1964. In 1970 it was officially replaced throughout the entire US Army. Some hung on in the Navy and reserve units, but most of them were given away to friendly nations and the rest went into stores. Now they started coming back out.
Initial M14-based DMRs weren’t radically modified. A general refurbishment, replacement of wood stocks with fibreglass ones and the addition of a scope and bipod gave a quick and reasonably effective solution. As it became clear that the concept was a good one, more improvements were made. The current versions are the Mark 14 Enhanced Battle Rifle and the M39 Enhanced Marksman’s Rifle. The Mark 14 has a shortened 18″ heavy barrel, making it more compact for its intended secondary use as a battle rifle; the M39 has a full-length 22″ barrel for slightly greater long range accuracy. Both weapons have a completely new stock with quad rail system and collapsible butt, and a top rail to take a wide variety of optics.
Armalite are best known for designing the AR-15, which became the M16, but their first assault rifle was actually the 7.62mm NATO AR-10. The AR-15 is a scaled down version of this weapon, which went out of production decades ago. A number of modern DMRs are loosely based on it, though, combining the simple and familiar M16 layout and mechanics with the greater power of the 7.62mm round. AR-10 style rifles used as DMRs include the Knight’s Armament Company SR25, which is used by Israel and Poland and has now been adopted by the USA as the M110. Australia and several other countries have also bought numbers of them.
Another well regarded design is the Lewis Machine & Tool LM7. Lighter than the SR25 and incorporating a new floating barrel design, it has been adopted by the British Army as the L129A1 Sharpshooter; one is issued to each infantry section in Afghanistan, and the Army is keen to hang on to them once that mission ends.
Heckler & Koch’s popular HK416 assault rifle has a big brother, the HK417. Taking the HK416 concept – an M4 carbine with an improved, piston-based gas system – and scaling it up to 7.62mm, it’s a powerful and reliable weapon. It also comes in three barrel lengths, two carbine models of 12″ and 16″ plus a full-length 20″ one, and these can be swapped in less than two minutes. The long barrel makes for a perfect DMR, with good accuracy to 800 metres. The HK417 has been adopted as a battle rifle by several forces, including Britain’s SAS, and is also making a mark in the DMR field. Australian infantry usually have a scout in each fire team – two per section – with enhanced optics fitted to their standard F88 Steyr AUGs. In Afghanistan the scouts are now designated marksmen and they’re carrying HK417s, which again the army want to keep once that war is over. The German Bundeswehr use a version as the G28 and it’s also in use with Ireland, Norway, the Netherlands and several other countries.
Unless the 5.56mm NATO round is replaced by a new calibre with better long-range performance, the DMR is likely to become a permanent feature of infantry ORBATs. Early designs like the SVD and refurbished M14s are long and clumsy in comparison with assault rifles, but more recent ones like the Mark 14 EBR, the L129A1 with its 16″ barrel and the HK417, aren’t much larger than a standard service rifle and can easily be used at close quarters. Even in built up areas they offer significant advantages over 5.56mm assault rifles; bring a 7.62mm to the party and much of the enemy’s cover from fire gets downgraded to cover from view. The big, heavy rounds easily smash through doors, car bodywork and medium building construction with enough retained energy to kill; in heavy vegetation they’re much less likely to be deflected by greenery and small branches, and they can wreck the engine of a moving vehicle and bring it to a rapid stop. They’re a bit bigger and heavier than the assault rifles they replace, but the soldiers who have to carry the extra weight are happy to do so; that’s probably all we need to know.