By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2021
“His rifle...knocked a man down with one shot, and in combat, one shot was all you got. You shoot a guy, you want to see him go down. You don’t want to be guessing for the next five hours whether you hit him, or whether he’s still waiting for you in the weeds.” — Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down, 1999.
During the early phases of the Vietnam War, the United States developed the powerful new Springfield Armory M14 battle rifle in 7.62x51mm NATO, a sturdy, rugged design that wasn’t radically different from the combat-proven, M1 Garand rifle of World War Two and the Korean War, except that the new M14 held 20 rounds, and had a select-fire capability as an “assault rifle.” It was officially adopted as the nation’s standard rifle in 1959, but it ended up having a very short service life for three reasons.
First, the wooden stock tended to swell in the heat and humidity of the Southeast Asian jungles, badly affecting accuracy, so a synthetic-stock weapon was needed, and the overall size of the weapon was considered too long for jungle warfare.
Secondly, it was almost uncontrollable on fully-automatic fire, because it was considered “too powerful” for a selective-fire weapon.
And third, the urbanization of American society after two major, world wars and the Korean War had resulted in a higher percentage of gun-shy, “city-personnel” instead of experienced farmers, ranchers, and hunters joining the Armed Forces, and the new recruits were afraid of the M14’s stout recoil. Similarly, our small-framed, South Vietnamese allies proved physically unable to handle the heavy and powerful M14 on a daily basis, especially in fully-automatic mode.
So, in 1964, the brand-new, synthetic-stocked Colt M16A1 rifle in the much-less-powerful 5.56x45mm cartridge began replacing the mighty M14, and took over as the U.S. Army’s official service rifle in early 1968. This new design was so successful that it is still in active, military service today as the M4A1carbine variant.
The 5.56mm cartridge is a reasonable but marginally-effective manstopper with very light recoil forces, so virtually anyone can fire it fairly accurately, but its principal disadvantage is the direct-impingement, gas-operating system, which blows hot carbon and soot directly into the breech face, chamber, and open magazine areas, resulting in carbon fouling and reduced reliability, and requiring very frequent cleaning.
As modern warfare has evolved, however, the U.S. Armed Forces found themselves engaged in the dusty, dirty, arid environments of Afghanistan and Iraq by 2003, fighting in wide-open deserts with the enemy often very far away, and firing at insurgents who had often smoked concentrated hashish, or used some form of opium drug, so the American 5.56mm rounds were proving far less effective than required, for dropping a drugged, armed combatant with a single shot.
Studies by the U.S. Army found that the M4A1’s small-caliber, 5.56mm bullets did not retain sufficient velocity beyond 330 yards to kill an adversary, and Taliban sharpshooters tended to stay out at distances from 650 to 850 yards, in order to exploit this American, combat weakness. There were even credible stories of wounded, Taliban warriors, hit as many as three or four times by 5.56mm bullets, and still walking and talking, who surrendered themselves at U.S. bases in return for medical attention. So, many old, M14 rifles were suddenly taken out of mothballs, because they had the necessary, longer range for desert warfare, and their 7.62x51mm ammunition was practically an instant manstopper.
The late Dr. Martin L. Fackler, a retired Army surgeon and wound-ballistics expert, stated that the Mk. 17 SCAR-H round holds a clear advantage at longer distances, because the lighter, 5.56mm bullets significantly lose velocity and momentum after only 400 meters, sharply reducing their lethality against enemy troops. “In contrast,” he said in 2010, “at 1,000 yards, the 7.62mm bullet is still traveling at over the speed of sound.”
Member of Parliament (MP) Patrick J. Mercer, a former, British Army colonel with fighting experience in Northern Ireland and Bosnia-Hercegovina, stated that, “The 7.62mm round is a good, meaty bullet, and will drop your enemy with a single hit. The 5.56mm cannot compete with it for stopping power and, according to many soldiers, the round has fallen short in Iraq and Afghanistan. Insurgents who would have been fatally wounded by a 7.62mm have been able to continue fighting and endanger the lives of our soldiers...(So) returning to 7.62mm rounds in the infantryman’s standard rifle...could save lives and win battles.”
During the infamous “Black Hawk Down” battle in Mogadishu, Somalia, on October 3-4, 1993, U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force commandos used mostly customized, Colt CAR-15 carbines in 5.56x45mm, and Master Sergeant Paul Howe of Delta Force, among many others, reported severe problems. Mark Bowden’s 1999 book, Black Hawk Down, relates that, “His (5.56mm, M855, 62-grain, green-tip) rounds were passing right through his targets...The bullet made a small, clean hole, and unless it happened to hit the heart or spine, it wasn’t enough to stop a man in his tracks. Howe felt he had to hit a guy five or six times just to get his attention.”
In marked contrast, Delta Force sniper Sergeant First Class Randy Shughart, who would earn a posthumous Medal of Honor for this same battle, carried a very different weapon. Bowden wrote that, “They used to kid Randy Shughart because he shunned the modern (CAR-15/M4A1) rifle and (5.56mm) ammunition, and carried a Vietnam-era M14, which shot a 7.62mm round without the penetrating (or in this case, over-penetrating) qualities of the green tip. It occurred to Howe as he saw those (enemy insurgents) keep on running that Randy was the smartest soldier in the unit.
“His rifle may have been heavier...and delivered a mean recoil, but it damned sure knocked a man down with one shot, and in combat, one shot was all you got. (When) You shoot a guy, you want to see him go down. You don’t want to be guessing for the next five hours whether you hit him, or whether he’s still waiting for you in the weeds.”
In early 2004, U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) submitted a specific request for an all-new, battle rifle to meet this urgent need for a harder-hitting weapon with longer range. Fabrique National (FN, literally “National Factory,” in French) of Herstal, Belgium, answered this requirement that same year with the Special Operations Forces Combat Assault Rifle, or FN SCAR, a modular, gas-operated, short-stroke (cleaner-operating) weapon with a rotating bolt, produced in two calibers, the Mk. 16 SCAR-L (“Light”) in 5.56x45mm, and the Mk. 17 SCAR-H (“Heavy”) in 7.62x51mm NATO (.308-caliber), and both variants entered U.S. military service in April 2009.
Over the next year of combat service in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, it was determined that the expensive SCAR-L did not offer significant-enough advantages over the existing, Colt M4A1carbine to warrant full production and replacement with the new rifles, so USSOCOM’s SCAR-L purchase was cancelled in 2010, and all Mk. 16 rifles were turned in by 2013 and removed from the inventory. Instead, the Mk. 17 SCAR-H would be acquired in greater numbers, and 5.56mm conversion kits were offered for the Mk. 17, but were seldom actually used.
The powerful SCAR-H has since proven to be enormously popular with American special operations forces, including the U.S. Army Rangers, U.S. Navy SEALs (now their standard weapon), Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC), Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), and in smaller quantities with the U.S. Army Special Forces and even Delta Force. It is produced in three different barrel lengths, including the SCAR-H STD (“Standard”), with 16-inch barrel, the SCAR-H LB (“Long barrel”), with 20-inch barrel, and the SCAR-H CQC (“Close-Quarters Combat”), with 13-inch barrel.
All three versions are capable of mounting the Mk. 13 (FN40GL-H Mk. 2) Enhanced, Grenade-Launching Module (EGLM) 40mm grenade launcher with a 9.6-inch barrel, which can fire either standard, 40mm grenades, or the brand-new, Pike guided munition. The innovative, Raytheon Pike is rocket-propelled, laser-guided grenade less than 17 inches long and weighing only 1.7 pounds, with a range of 2,000 meters (1.2 miles), accurate to within five meters, and with a 9.6-ounce warhead with a lethal radius of 10 meters. When employed with a skilled, laser-designating operator, it literally cannot miss its targets!
There is also a semi-automatic FN Mk. 20 Sniper Support Rifle (SSR) with a 20-inch barrel, also known as the SCAR-H Tactical Precision Rifle (TPR), and just this year, in 2020, USSOCOM selected the Mk. 20S (FN SCAR 20S) rifle in 6.5mm Creedmoor (6.5x48mm) as its new, long-range, sniper rifle. U.S. special operations forces have procured the Mk. 17 SCAR-H and Mk. 20 and 20S sniper rifles in all versions, and they are manufactured by FN America in Columbia, South Carolina.
During extensive testing by USSOCOM, the 6.5mm Creedmoor, compared to the 7.62mm NATO round, had less recoil, one-third longer effective range, and at a range of 1,000 meters, it had 30-percent more energy, 40-percent less wind drift, and double the hit probability, so for special operations sniper rifles, at least, it appears to be the wave of the future.
While all of these SCAR-H variants have been photographed in the hands of U.S. service men, with or without suppressors on the muzzles, the all-out favorite seems to be the compact, Mk. 17 CQC with its 13-inch barrel, although the extra-long, three-pronged, flash suppressor extends the overall barrel length to 16 inches, even in the shortest variant. It has seen widespread, combat service in Afghanistan and Iraq (and possibly Syria), where its light weight (aluminum and polymer construction), compactness (due to folding stock), precision accuracy (to within 1 MOA), extended range, and stopping power have clearly proven their worth on the battlefields.
In fact, Brandon Webb, a former, Navy SEAL sniper instructor, wrote about the SCAR-H in 2011, noting that it was, “Very accurate. It’s a sub-minute-of-angle badass. In simple terms, the gun can hold a quarter-size group at 100 yards...Noteworthy: Most of the (SEAL) snipers I know are actually pulling their scopes off the SR-25 system and putting the optic on their SCAR-Heavy because of reliability issues with the Knight’s Armament SR-25s.”
Nick Leghorn, an author at The Truth About Guns, reviewed the weapon in 2012, writing that, “The place where this kind of firearm works best is the military, where you need to project firepower over great distances...a perfectly-viable solution to an existing problem for the military...Accuracy: Five stars. We were singing steel at 250 yards with this rifle...The force of the recoil is spread over a longer period of time, making it feel remarkably lighter, and allowing for more-accurate, follow-up shots...for the fantastic job they did mitigating recoil...(It has) cleaner operation than direct-gas-impingement, with FNH (FN Herstal) claiming a 90-percent reduction in carbon in the action compared to an AR-15 (or M16/M4 series.)”
The SCAR-H is currently in military service with Belgium, Brazil, Chile, France, India, Kenya, Lithuania, Malaysia, Nepal, Norway, Peru, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Thailand, and the United States. Some have also been captured and used by Taliban insurgents since 2015 in Afghanistan.
The Kenya SOF (Special Operations Forces), in particular, employ the Mk. 17 SCAR-H as their standard-issue rifle, and the Kenyan government plans to adopt it as the nation’s new, standard, army rifle over the next few years, replacing their German HK G3s in 7.62mm and American M4 carbines in 5.56mm. Kenyan Special Forces, all paratroopers, must defend themselves not only against renegade, al-Shabaab (“the Youth”) terrorists from neighboring Somalia, but from the ever-present threat of numerous wild animals, including lions, leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs, hyenas, jackals, warthogs, and crocodiles, so the decisive stopping power of the venerable, 7.62mm NATO cartridge is a huge factor in their decision for a new, military rifle.
Because the Mk. 17 has select-fire capability, at the rate of 600 rounds per minute, or 10 rounds per second, from a 20-round, box magazine, it is technically an “assault rifle,” although the term “battle rifle” is usually applied to full-power, 7.62x51mm weapons of this type.
The only other similar rifle in this category is the superb, German-manufactured, Heckler and Koch HK417A2, which is produced in three different barrel lengths, of either 13 inches, 16.5 inches, or 20 inches, and is remarkably controllable on fully-automatic fire. Britain’s elite, Special Air Service (SAS) commandos have already adopted the HK417 battle rifle in all three barrel lengths, after recognizing the renewed requirement for a full-power, 7.62mm weapon in modern combat.
The SCAR-H and HK417 are therefore technically tied for first place as the “World’s Most-Powerful Assault Rifle,” but the Mk. 17 SCAR-H has the extra advantage of a folding stock, which the HK417 does not have (sliding stock instead), marginally breaking the tie in the Mk. 17’s favor. But, we can certainly call it the “World’s Most-Powerful, Folding-Stock, Assault Rifle.” That’s still quite an enviable title!
Within the next year and a half, by Fiscal Year 2022, the U.S. Army plans to begin replacing its M4A1carbines and M249 squad-automatic weapons in 5.56mm with the Next-Generation, Squad Weapon (NGSW) and NGSW-Automatic Rifle (NGSW-AR) in 6.8x51mm. The three companies competing for this contract are SIG-Sauer, with a fairly-conventional, classic, M4-style design (they call it the MCX Spear) with a 13-inch barrel and 20-round magazine (just like the Mk. 17 SCAR-H CQC), using hybrid (part-brass, part-alloy, for lighter weight), .277 SIG Fury cartridges, General Dynamics, with a bullpup design using a 20-inch barrel for greater muzzle velocity, and composite-cased cartridges, and Textron Systems, using advanced, case-telescoped cartridges.
At this point, it seems that SIG-Sauer is the most-likely to win, because they already hold the Army contract for M17 and M18 service pistols, and their new Spear rifle is the least-radical candidate, and the simplest to produce. Special operations forces will certainly be high on the list to receive these powerful, new rifles as soon as they are available.
In the meantime, since 2017, at least, the U.S. Army has wanted an “interim,” new rifle in 7.62mm, until sufficient quantities of an advanced rifle can be fielded. They are currently testing various models in .260, .264 USA (6.5mm), and .277 USA (6.8mm) calibers, but only four options in 7.62mm are available as an interim weapon.
They are: the M14 Enhanced Battle Rifle (EBR), essentially outdated already; the M110 Semi-Automatic, Sniper System (SASS), which would have to be simplified and “dumbed-down” as a basic, infantry rifle; the M110A1 Compact, Semi-Automatic, Sniper System (CSASS), a sniper version of the German HK417A2(or military G28) rifle, which would also have to be overly simplified for infantry use; and finally, the FN Mk. 17 SCAR-H rifle, which is already in special operations use as an infantry rifle. The obvious choice is abundantly clear, but we’ll have to wait and see what eventually happens. In the meantime, the M110A1 (HK417A2, with 16.5-inch barrel) Squad Designated Marksman Rifle (SDMR) in 7.62mm, with available suppressor, is currently being issued to U.S. Army units in 2020.
On April 17, 2020, columnist Boyko Nikolov at BulgarianMilitary.com ranked the “Top Five Best Assault Rifles in the World,” with the FN SCAR-H coming in at the #2 position, behind the new, Russian AK-12 assault rifle. Nikolov noted that, “The FN SCAR-H rifle won the title of the best assault rifle of 2014...Deservedly one of the three best assault rifles in the world for 2016...one of the best, modern, and expensive rifles.”
The FN Mk. 17 SCAR-H battle rifle is clearly making a life-saving difference in combat for our frontline, special operations forces, dropping enemy combatants with greater stopping power, high-precision accuracy, and at longer ranges than ever before. It’s ideally suited for today’s desert warfare, even produced in Flat Dark Earth (also called Coyote Brown) as standard for USSOCOM.
If there’s any major drawback at all, it’s the steep price tag, at about $3,600 each, which is two to three times as expensive as a typical, 5.56mm assault rifle. This is why it’s a limited-issue weapon, only for our very best, special ops troops. But then again, it’s proving to be two to three times as effective in stopping the enemy with a single shot, which definitely makes it worth the cost.
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism, and is an NRA member. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.
Photo Courtesy of FN America