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Gun Firms Fear Army Carbine Fait Accompli

Feb 04, 2012
And the winner of the U.S. Army competition to replace the M4 carbine is … the Army's new and improved M4 carbine.

At least that's the outcome gun makers attending Shot Show 2012 predict for the completion of the service's improved carbine competition.

The Army is nearing the end of the first phase of the competition, now referred to as the IC. The service will soon announce which companies can advance to the second phase, when Army testers will start shooting hundreds of thousands of rounds through the prototype weapons.

Phase one has had nothing to do with evaluating test prototypes, but instead has focused on weeding out companies that may not have the production capacity to make thousands of weapons per month. This has become a bitter point of contention that has driven away some companies with credible names in the gun business.

"I'm not going to dump half a million to a million dollars for them never to review my rifle," said Steve Mayer of Rock River Arms, standing amid his racks of M4-style carbines at Shot Show, the massive small-arms show here that draws gun makers from all over the world.

The Army invited vendors last June to submit proposals for off-the-shelf carbines that could replace the M4, made by Colt Defense LLC.

For more than three years, dozens of gun makers have been preparing for the chance to unseat the Army's M4, but it's unclear how many of those companies remain.

Alex Robinson, the head of Robinson Armament Company, was excited about competing when Army officials first announced the effort in 2008. That quickly faded when he began trying to wade through the IC's narrow guidelines that seem to discourage innovation, he said.

Robinson's company is known for its XCR line of modular weapons that offer several barrel lengths and multiple calibers -- attributes that do not fit with the Army's improved carbine requirement.

"If we are going to develop for our country a new rifle, shouldn't we take all preconceived notions off the table and try to come up with what is really the best for Soldiers?" he asked. "That is what I expected the IC to be about, and I could see that it wasn't going to be anything about that. I just felt like I would be wasting a year or two year's profits chasing a ghost that I am never going to catch."

Smith & Wesson and LWRC International also decided against participating in the competition.

LWRC had already made its batch of M6 Improved Carbine prototypes when it decided to call it quits.

"The guns met all the requirements; we met all the requirements for ambidextrous controls, we met the performance requirement, the accuracy requirement -- but what we couldn't keep up with was the contracting side," said Darren Mellors, executive vice president for LWRC.

LWRC is a small company, so it signed an agreement with Anniston Army Depot to use its new small-arms center to meet the Army's production requirement of 4,200 weapons per month.

"The goal was to make the Army feel comfortable, that they weren't taking a risk," Mellors said. "That would make the Army a partner in building these rifles. If they had to surge production, they know what their capability and capacity is."

Then, an amendment to the solicitation included language that basically said "if you use any government-furnished equipment, facilities or labor -- they are going to penalize you on your sale price," Mellors said. "Well to use Anniston Army Depot, it's actually more expensive compared to market value."

Jesse Gomez, senior VP at LWRC, explained it this way:

"The contract people looked at it as though we are getting a deal, but Anniston says 'you are paying market value to use our services,' " Gomez said, explaining that Anniston's take on "market value is not really comparable to industry; it's higher than industry."

In the end, LWRC officials decided the risk of being eliminated after phase one was too great.

"It would do more damage to the company than good; who knows how many years the rumor would be you got eliminated in phase one," Mellors said. "Your competitors would tell your customers, don't buy LWRC. They got eliminated by the Army."

But LWRC doesn't regret spending close to $1 million to create its new IC weapon, which drew a lot of interest on the Shot Show floor, Mellors said.

"You can shoot 15 magazines through this weapon on full auto, nonstop, no rest and do no permanent damage to it," he said proudly.

"My only regret is I feel like you put your best foot forward for the warfighter and he will never get to see it, test it or even know if it is worthwhile. I thought the whole point of this was to look at the best technology."

Not all gun makers were as willing to comment on the competition, especially those that appear to be in it until the bitter end.

FNH USA spokeswoman Jeanette Hanfling said the company is not granting any interviews until after the completion of Phase One of the competition.

But the company's 2012 product catalog at Shot Show includes the new FN Advanced Carbine. The newest member of the Special Operations Forces Assault Rifle, or SCAR line, "is ready to serve as the U.S. Army's next generation Individual Carbine," according to the catalog.

The new carbine looks very much like the MK 16 SCAR, but there is no information on whether the 14-inch hammer-forged barrel is changeable at the operator level like the MK16.

The advanced carbine features a non-reciprocating charging handle and is slightly lighter than the MK16, weighing in at 7.95 pounds with a loaded 30 round magazine -- a key requirement in the carbine competition.

G. Wayne Weber, president of Heckler & Koch's U.S. operation, was very guarded about the version of the 416 carbine the company submitted to the competition.

This "is much more visible than other competitions," he said. "It's just more high profile."

He admitted he was surprised that some companies have pulled out but said that H&K isn't changing its course.

"It's still a competition that we have a chance of winning; I wouldn't want to pull the plug on something I would regret," Weber said.

In addition to the carbine competition, the Army is also conducting a parallel effort to improve the more than 500,000 M4s in the inventory.

The general feeling at Shot Show was that even if the Army selects a new carbine, it's unlikely to buy it. Upon completion of the competition sometime in late 2013, the Army will conduct a business-case analysis to see if it is worth buying a new carbine over the improved M4.

For this reason, officials at Remington Arms Company Inc. decided to refine its Adaptive Combat Rifle to meet the IC requirements instead of playing it safe with the company's M4-style carbine.

"When they do the final down select, they are going to compare it to the improved M4, and it has to be significantly better -- so we thought how can another M4 be significantly better than another M4?" said Trevor Shaw, director of Military and Government Programs at Remington.

Remington took its ACR, a carbine with modular features such as a quick-change barrel system, and completely reworked the design.

"We were very happy with the reliability of the original ACR … but that gun could not make the weight requirement," Shaw said.

"The government didn't ask for any level of modularity … so we took out our user-changeable barrel. It's still a quick-change barrel," but now it would have to be done at the unit armor level.

The new ACR's lower receiver is now made from a magnesium alloy, which is as light as polymer but much more durable, Shaw said. Remington also fluted the barrel, narrowed the handguard and got rid of the folding stock feature.

The new ACR is a departure from its modular roots, but Remington officials are happier with the final design.

"This finally feels handy when you pick it up," Shaw said. "What's scary to me is if … you get through the competition, they declare a winner and then it goes against the M4 and they say 'OK it's better than M4, but not enough.' "


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