The Future of Assault Rifles

PHOTO by SSG Caleb Barrieau / Wikicommons
Kalashnikov’s editor-in-chief reflects on the future of assault rifles

The firearms industry is experiencing some rough times. As competition increases, innovative ideas are fading away. Speaking with Lenta.ru, Mikhail Degtyarev, editor-in-chief of military magazine Kalashnikov and a leading weaponry expert, discusses the state of modern automatic weapons.

Lenta.ru: Lots of people are talking about there being a crisis in the gun industry. Would you agree?

Degtyarev: At the end of the Cold War, spending on light weapons slowed down. Today I do not see any surprises in technical innovation, but only ergonomic solutions, which follow the "modern" criteria. Perhaps, the design too, because a weapon is part of a material culture, and must therefore reflect constantly changing aesthetic ideals.

Over the past 30 years only two handguns have survived the test of time – the Russian-made AN-94 (aka “Avtovmat Nikonova,” or Nikonov assault rifle), used by military, and the Blaser R93, a German hunter rifle.

The AN-94 had mixed reviews. Its firing mechanism was said to be not reliable enough, that it was too complex to produce and use for army conscripts. But those whispers were eventually silenced...

It happened for several reasons. Firstly, the country was at a turning point in history: there were more important issues to address. Secondly, it was developed with a particular warfare strategy in mind. The AN-94 was adopted by the Russian army when the Soviet Union had ceased to exist and military needs changed. In fact, the new strategy was still forming.

The AN-94 has its flaws, but it is the only rifle in the world that can achieve such unprecedented accuracy and rate of fire in short bursts. None of its rivals have been able to match its results.

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An AN-94 assault rifle

A number of guns are marketed as the weaponry of the 21st century and they set the trends for development. Is there an obvious leader?

No one can really dominate in a free-market economy. There are some firearms that are in greater demand and they compete among themselves. These are the Belgian FN SCAR, the German HK416, the American Bushmaster ACR and the Italian Beretta ARX-160. Among the recent additions, I would mention the Czech CZ805 BREN and Polish Radom MSBS. I visited a presentation on the second generation CZ805 – BREN2. The rifle is solidly made and nicely marketed.

Most of the rifles you mentioned are similar to the Belgian FN SCAR. The exterior of some of the Russian test rifles also mirror it. Would you call it a trend-setter in the gun industry?

In a way, yes. The Belgian FN Herstal has succeeded in designing a rifle with an edge and the SCAR is a living proof.

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An American soldier with an FN SCAR

Has the Belgian company produced a unique ergonomic weapon or is it just the result of natural processes? Why are other well-known brands following suit?

First of all, it’s an attempt to keep up with the trend. Second, big corporations spend lots of money on product design: I do not mean aesthetics, but rather its economy, costs and production efficiency. I believe the FN SCAR has played well to these requirements, to the point that others seriously take it into account.

It seems that plastic, aluminium and modularity are setting the course for the future, doesn’t it?

Modularity and design are integral to modern rifles. A barrel length, for example, defines the firepower. In some cases, a single gun becomes a platform for other samples with different calibres, ergonomic and geometric aspects.

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What excites many people is the capacity to transform their weapons. By switching parts -a barrel for example- a machine gun turns into a sniper rifle. The Austrian Steyr AUG started that.

The AUG has been a one of a kind weapon for nearly half a century. Speaking of changing barrels... where would you do that? In a combat situation? Also, where do you store the extra parts? The Second World War showed that during military operations a second barrel either gets lost or is deliberately left behind. And I'm referring to machine guns which use the second barrel as a vital necessity to ensure the proper firing mode.

Such modularity, I think, is a marketing trick. No serious army unit in the world would use it. It would turn into a huge logistical problem.

What is your opinion of new Russian designs?

The overall picture is rather grim. The traditional approach adopted by the Soviet Union is gone. New knowledge and experience have not yet been gained. By looking at the upgraded AK-12 model, you see it as a weapon assembled of completely random components, that have no common thread.

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A Russian soldier with an AK-12

By the way, what do you make of the AK-12 project?

The first AK-12 version was a daring and utopian idea. After inviting some experts onboard, the course changed. But to create something different, you need to put in a lot of time and effort, which didn’t happen. So, they switched back to AK-74M as a platform for base for the AK-12. So in fact, this is just a modified AK-74M.

Reverting to the original question on the future of assault rifles. What is it?

You are not going to see anything revolutionary until there is fundamentally different ammunition. Some possible directions are the invention of a case-free cartridge, the use of gas or liquid substances as propellants. Perhaps you can expect different ways of initiating the charge, for example, with a non-mechanical primer.

Hypothetically, there could be separate loading firearms when the bullet and propellant are charged separately like in artillery guns. This would allow to control the power and depending on the charge capacity we could design weapons with different attributes.

But again, these are just hypothetical scenarios.

And what about guided ammunition?

I think it would be impossible and extremely expensive, even just to create the test samples, if we're speaking of portable firearms.

But soon assault rifles will start integrating grenade launchers. Smart ammunition will become the key aspect. Grenade launcher systems already provide for ammunition of different types – remote, non-contact, with programmable fuses, etc.

Some military experts agree on the need to increase the calibre of military rifles due to emergence of personal-use guns, changing tactics, etc.

History moves in a spiral. It is possible that in the near future the ammunition power will increase. After all, the shift to small calibre (5.45x39 in the USSR and 5,56x45 in NATO countries) happened when the mass of ammunition decreased. Now there’s a reverse tendency. A soldier with today’s webbing would not fit in the BMP-1, the infantry fighting vehicle. Half a kilo more doesn't matter.

Returning to heavier ammunition, its combat effectiveness is increasing. But you have to understand that changing to a different calibre is a long-term and extremely costly process. There should be an urgent need, which I cannot see yet. Still I believe work on larger calibre cartridges will be under way in different countries soon.

Interview by Vladislav Grinkevich