Over the past couple of decades, the USA and most of its major allies have standardized on the Belgian FN Minimi (more familiarly known as the M249) or similar weapons as the squad-level support weapon. A relatively lightweight belt-fed LMG that can deliver heavy fire out to around 400 yards, the Minimi has proven itself in numerous conflicts and is popular with troops. The same goes for other weapons in the same class, like Germany’s HK MG4. But now there’s a dissenter from this trend – the United States Marine Corps.
The USMC’s focus on individual marksmanship is a point of pride, but up til now they’ve shared support weapons with the US Army – first the M60, then the M249 (and to some extent the M240, the Minimi’s big brother). That’s changing though. In 1999 the Corps began planning a competition to find not just a new weapon, but a whole new concept – the Infantry Automatic Rifle. Trials started in 2005, and the winner was announced five years later. The squad-level support weapon of the USMC is now the M27 IAR.
The first thing to say about the M27 is that it’s an excellent weapon. Manufactured by Heckler & Koch, it’s a variant of their superb MK416 carbine. This means it’s instantly familiar to anyone trained on an M16 or M4 – the USMC’s standard infantry weapons – and thanks to its gas piston system, the reliability is outstanding. The M27 has a 16.5-inch heavy barrel, and comes as standard with an ACOG and a forward grip with integrated bipod. The advantages the USMC claim for the weapon include the use of standard rifle magazines, better MOUT performance thanks to its compact size, and the fact the enemy can’t identify gunners as easily.
But not everyone is happy. Former Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway says that even if the M27 is more accurate, the M249 is a real belt-fed machine gun, and puts out a degree of firepower that a carbine can never compete with. The Corps insists that improved accuracy will compensate for that, but experience suggests they might be wrong. In 1985, the British moved from their old 7.62mm weapons – the L1A1 FN-FAL rifle and the L7 general purpose machinegun (basically the same weapon as the M240) – to the SA80 system. The squad’s single GPMG was replaced with two L86A1 Light Support Weapons, which followed the same concept as the M27 – a carbine with a longer, heavier barrel and integrated bipod. Twenty years later this decision was acknowledged as a disaster and each squad got two L110A2 LMGs – and the L110A2 is simply the FN Minimi. The L86 weapons were reissued to riflemen who could use their improved accuracy, but the support role was claimed back by a proper machine gun.
In fact, the trend right now is for even heavier weapons to be issued – the British used L7s as squad-level weapons in Afghanistan, while many German units preferred the old 7.62mm MG3 to the lighter, more compact MG4. US infantry, both Army and USMC, like the reliability and firepower of the M240. The USMC is definitely swimming against the stream with its decision to phase out squad-level guns in favor of an enhanced carbine. In some ways the M27 looks like a rebirth of the Browning Automatic Rifle – a superb weapon, but one developed for a task that didn’t really exist. What happened to the BAR? It faded away to be replaced by belt-fed guns. It will be interesting to see if the M27 suffers the same fate as the L86, taking on a marksman’s role while the M249s return to give fire support.