The Battle Rifle’s Future is 6.5mm (6.8mm)

InRange takes a look at a Bullpup Battle Rifle in 6.5 and I talk near future calibers.

What was old is new again… I wonder sometimes what the small arms landscape would look like if we hadn’t had the 7.62 NATO ‘Dark Age’, for lack of a better term. Not disparage .308 overly much, it’s great round in its own right but it exists because the U.S. Army couldn’t let 30-06 go after it “won” World War II. It was a cartridge that ended up in a rifle (the M14) that we already “knew” (should have known) was entering the twilight years.

Back in 1945 the Brits developed the .280 “7mm” cartridge that they would use in the EM-2 Bullpup. FN in Belgium also liked the cartridge and the FAL was designed around it. The Spanish CETME rifle used an “8mm” variant originally before the Germans turned it into the 7.62 NATO G3, Which the CETME later ran a reduced power 7.62×51 Spanish load. Similar to what was done from 10mm until it became .40 S&W.

In short, the 7.62 NATO was never a very good idea. It was just a workable one and since the US was riding high on the WWII and Korea rifle combat reports they absolutely refused to not use a .30 caliber with 30-06 type performance.

All the research saying what infantry needed was something like the Germans had come up with in the STG 44 be damned! The Germans lost! The M1 Garand won! (And the BAR, Thompson, 1903, M3, M1 Carbine, etc. But bugger all those..)

So, because the US led NATO, the US got their .30 caliber… and it lingered a long time in the “we’ve always done it this way” sort of sense. Mostly because it wasn’t a bad caliber. It just wasn’t great anymore either, and we had spent a lot of time and effort stocking for it. But you can’t lie to yourself forever, and when your sniper rifles are being out sniped and your shooters end up being more comfortable and efficient with their ‘other than’ 7.62 combat rifles, whether shooting heavy grain 5.56 or 6.5 Creedmoor, it was time to say “Hmmmm what if we went with a true intermediate caliber and a high efficiency projectile…?”

Europe collectively went, “Boy, this sounds familiar doesn’t? I wonder if somebody *they all look at the UK* maybe brought up this idea before?”

Now in 2020 the 6.5 Creedmoor has cut a swath into both the bolt gun and gas gun markets and with a winning recommendation from SOCOM on top, who have scooped up several small batch examples. Data indicates the lower mass lower recoiling round outperforms the 7.62 NATO in every way. The only things keeping it in ‘Gucci’ precision rifle circles instead of mainstream fighting rifles were cost per round being higher than .308/7.62 and nobody was really looking for a ‘new’ battle rifle.

Until suddenly we were, not just little batches of toys for SOCOM like the 300BLK rifles/uppers and new 6.5 Creedmoor M110’s, but the whole US Army.. with the US Marines following the data and making comments and recommendations based on their mission profiles. SOCOM providing direct help as well.

It’s not a coincidence that this little guy, while chambered in the stated 6.8mm (.277 Fury, huh.. “.280” was actually .276.. funny how that happens), can also be chambered in the legacy 7.62 and 6.5 Creedmoor (the proven new contender in both SOCOM and civilian shooting circles). In fact SOCOM is involved in the NGSW program as the key 6.5 data source since they actively use it operationally and are the sounding board to see if 6.5 might be the better round over the three 6.8 variants being tested. The biggest question on this front will be if 6.5 can meet the ‘near peer/future development’ body armor penetration requirements with an ‘A1’ type projectile of solid copper and hardened steel that came about out of the Army’s “6.8mm” submission requirement.

The Marines, as an aside, are already playing with the new SIG GMPG in .338 NM which is seeking to drastically upgrade the abilities of what easily portable machine guns can do. If successful the FN MAG M240 might finally begin to retire. We also might see a belt-fed back in the automatic rifle position.

In short, the theory that the Brits came up with in 1945 and we here in the US rejected because, “mA .30 cAliBER!” and then we rejected the rifles in favor of “mUh GrrAnd but with a MaGazinee!” is back and with a mountain of additional data. Not to say the Brit’s .280 was perfect out of the gate but these new rounds all seem to be curiously close to where they ended up in their development cycle.

The 6.5 (and it is assumed the 6.8 too, at least the SIG variant) do much better efficiency wise in shortened barrels than the 7.62 NATO, they retain advantages, lose less velocity at the muzzle, and most importantly lose less velocity in flight. SIG’s rifle being a 13″ barreled carbine, giving it the familiar profile of the M4 and Mk17, shows an understanding that sizing for mobility remains a priority.

Speed is a powerful tool in projectile weapons. It’s among the reasons why 5.56, even in shorter guns, overtook 9mm for CQB. But when we are talking about any significant amount of distance keeping that speed on is vital.

We’ve found that making the 5.56 efficiently, longer and heavier, we could close the range envelope we just always assumed 7.62 had on 5.56. Making 7.62 more efficient with longer and heavier projectile didn’t grant the same returns and we pretty much maxed out at 800 meters with both. Sure the 150-175 gr hit harder than the 77gr at that distance but both could hit. 6.5 goes further easier, 6.8 does (should by design) also.

7.62 NATO has been moved to a trainer round for snipers moving forward, in part for range safety and in part because it isn’t that good and forces the sniper to do the work. They’re using to because of its limited efficiency.

So, all that said and depending upon the results of the NGSW trials over the next couple years, I expect .308 to do a slow fade and 6.5 Creedmoor to eat that place at about the same rate. If Brownell’s starts selling the ‘Barrel’ again it may well have a 6.5 option.

But we won’t see ammo for anything come back for a minute yet, sadly… thanks 2020.

Keith Finch
Keith is the former Editor-in-Chief of GAT Marketing Agency, Inc. He got told there was a mountain of other things that needed doing, so he does those now and writes here when he can. A USMC Infantry Veteran and Small Arms and Artillery Technician, Keith covers the evolving training and technology from across the shooting industry. Teaching since 2009, he covers local concealed carry courses, intermediate and advanced rifle courses, handgun, red dot handgun, bullpups, AKs, and home defense courses for civilians, military client requests, and law enforcement client requests.