26 July 2020

The Weapons of Science Fiction: The M590 Exo-Assault Rifle from SPACE: Above and Beyond

Packed in seemingly every military science fiction work are futuristic firearms and some, like the Colonial Marines M41A1 Pulse Rifle has become an icon of sci-fi weaponry...then there are others that never get their day in the limelight. One of those military sci-fi weapons is the United States standard issue endo/exo assault rifle of the 2060's: the M590. Featured in the legendary 1990's FOX one-season TV show Space: Above and Beyond (SAAB), the M590 was never given the fandom of Decker's blaster or the Macleod's Katana, but it made an impression on me and on others in the Military SF community. In this installment of The Weapons of Science Fiction, we shall be diving into the SAAB M590 exo-assault rifle and finally giving its due.

What is the M590?

As depicted in the show, the M590 exo-assault rifle is the primary rifle of the US Marine Corps and the US Army for use in all exo-planetary environments and conditions that the US Armed Forces find themselves during off-world combat and peacekeeping operations. This magazine-fed, air-cooled kinetic energy weapon fires a cased 5mm to 7mm projectile of various ammunition types depending on the conditions and enemy target types. Designed by AeroTech Corporation, the M590 has been the official standard assault rifle for off-world operations with the increased off-planet colonization expansion after the A.I. Rebellion.
Due to the design specification by the Defense Department for soldiers and marines needing to use their M590s will in combat environmental suit that feature padded gloves, the trigger is rather unique and not similar to any combat rifle before. The "trigger bar" is often depressed by four fingers instead of the traditional single due to the gloves worn with the rifle stabilized by the thumb loop grip and the forward grip. Given issues with safety and the bulkiness of the current issue gloves, the trigger was set with more force to fire the weapon. In some models, the forward assembly grip has been replaced by a single shot, slide-opening 40mm grenade launcher for increased offensive capability.
At the beginning of the Chig War in 2063, the M590s were issued with a flush box magazine containing 10 rounds. This was believed effective due to the nature of infantry combat in off-world conditions where one round could inflict critical damaged to the environmental combat suit, causing death via lack of ability to maintain the suit's integrity. However, it was proven that the small magazine was not effective against the armored alien infantry units causing the issuing of 30 round magazine in early 2064. With the use of environmental helmets, the traditional scope and sight systems was abandoned for a larger flip-up HUD display that could be easily seen by the user even when wearing a helmet.
Using the forward sensor tube, the data was feed into the flip-up HUD screen and the user could select night vision, IR, motion tracking, thermal inputs to acquire targets or scan for threats. However, with extended usage in the field, the battery powering the system was only good for 12 hours and in-field users were strongly encouraged to pack extra batteries. Another feature of the M590 was the arm brace system rather than the traditional rifle stock. This was also due to the conditions unique to fielding an infantry weapon for units that would be operating in all manner of exo-environments. Some units have requested special modifications to the standard issue M590 for Special Operations missions. At the time of writing, AeroTech has proudly produced over two million M590s for use in the Chig War.

The M590: By the Numbers (based on the art by Georg Joergens)
Overall Length: 33.82 inches
Width: 1.77 inches
Weight (unloaded): 9.26 lbs
Height: 10.67
Height w/ IR Scanner: 12.72
Action: semi-automatic, gas-operated rotating bolt. reinforce for exo-environments 
Caliber (according to Georg Joergens): 5.56x45mm/7.62x51mm
Range: 200-400 meters
The Special Trigger: Variable pressure adjustable (up to 1.7 lbs) designed for the exo-environment ranked standard issue gloves. 


The Fictional History of the M590
The nations of Earth were in a delicate position after the AI War and the public was tired of armed conflict due the bloody terrifying nature of the AI rebellion. But, the threat reminded out there among the stars. Towards the end of the war, the Silicates were losing and they commandeered military heavy launch vehicles to fling themselves into space, away from their former masters. This gave the nations of Earth the public support and will to expand extraterrestrial military capability to prevent their return to pose a threat to Earth and her colonial holdings. One of the symbols of this was the construction of the US Navy John F. Kennedy space carrier class, with the Saratoga (SCVN-2812) being commissioned in August of 2059. It was during this time that most nations of the Earth expanded their space naval capabilities alongside the effort to establish colonies beyond the Sol System. It was during this time that military outposts and bases were established, like in the Groombridge 34 system.
This created the need for a specialized rifle for use in all exo-environments that infantry units would be operate within. With so much of the  modernization of the spacefaring military being handled by AeroTech, they provide a prototype of what is now the M590 exo-assault rifle in 2059. After trials on Mars, Luna, and several asteroids in the Kuiper Belt, the M590 was adopted as the standard exo-environmental assault rifle of the US Marine Corps, the US Navy, US AeroForce, and the US Army. While the weapon had been used in some wargames on Demois and Groombridge Lanstrom, its first combat usage is against some Silicate pirates at the ore mines of Blackheart's Rock in the Luyten 726-8 system.
Then came the attacks on Vista and Tellus, the first major colonial ventures outside the solar system. With days of those cowardly attacks by the now-christened "Chigs", the M590 was engaged in all manner of combat across the cosmos. With these battles against the armored aliens came new data about the combat effectiveness of the new rifle. While the bullet fired by the M590 did indeed kill Chigs, it needed more rounds in the magazine for the intense combat engagements that were occurring in the war. The new 30 round magazines were used to the frontline units in the winter of 2064 with great improvement to the combat effectiveness of the M590. With the failure of the peace talks and the continuation of hostilities, AeroTech is set to roll-out the newly improved M590A2 to frontline units after the successful real-world combat testing and evaluations.

What Do Those M590s Fire?
Officially, there is no canon information what the M590 fired in the series. This as lead to debate among fans, on what the M590 fired, if it was cased or caseless. This is similar to the discussions surrounding Decker's M2019 blaster. What is not in any debate is what the blank-firing weapon was and what it fired. Buried under the sci-fi plastic covering is the familiar Ruger Mini-14 Ranch Rifle in 5.56mm. Much like the SST Morita rifle, the M590 uses the reliable Ruger Mini-14 semi-auto rifle that fired blank  5.56x45mm round. However, unlike the SST film, which mixed the semi-auto Mini-14 and the full-auto AC556 blank-firing weapons, SAAB's M590 were only fire semi-auto, making them Mini-14s, not AC556s. This is reversed when the M590 is featured in an episode of The X-Files. This could mean that the fictional M590 fired the same round as the Colt M16, meaning that the 5.56mm cartridge has been in service with the US Armed Services for 100 years! Some information presented on fan sites have stated that the M590 fires the larger, heavier 7.62x51mm
round that is one of the best military bullets ever developed. Added to this confusion, we rarely see the M590s eject cartridges and some sites have stated that the M590 is an caseless assault rifle, Again, there is no official information and we just have to guess or imagine what these kinetic energy weapons fire. It could be as simple as good old NATO 7.62mm or even 5.56mm or maybe some sort of exotic cartridge developed during the AI Rebellion.

What Does the M590 Say about the USMC of 2063?
Weapons of war speak volumes about the cultures that created them and we can learn about the civilizations that forged them for combat by their warriors. So, what does the M590 exo-assault rifle say about the US Marines of 2063/2064 during the Chig War? When the Chigs made their presence widely known to the governments and peoples of Earth was during their wiping out of the Vesta and Tellus colonies some 10.5 Lightyears from the Sol System (the evil AeroTech company knew about the Chigs before 2063 along with the exiled Silicates). At the time of the Vesta and Tellus massacres, the nations of Earth were at relative peace and were still rebuilding from the AI Rebellion.
At this time, the nations of Earth, via the AeroTech company, were establishing exo-colonies. To protect these colonies, the US government had the US Marine Corps establish the “Colonial Sentry” program, where Marine units would serve rotations on off-world colonies and bases as protection against AI pirates, any hostile lifeforms, and possible hostile little green men. This was a new concept and the nations of the Earth were just starting to really establish their interstellar military presence, tactics, and technology when the Chigs made a hostile visit to the colonial sites of the Epsilon Erdani star system. This is great represented in the M590, the first assault rifle developed by AeroTech for the use by US Army and US Marine units assigned to off-world duty.
Being the first weapon designed for such an operational environment, it has flaws that would be worked out for future variants and even new small arms based on the experiences of using the M590. During the Chig War, the forces of Earth using the M590, mostly the armed forces of the United States of America, saw improves to the weapon because of hard earned experience. This can be noticed with the inclusion of large magazines issued to Fleet Marine units on the frontlines. The M590 also tells us that AeroTech and the US military envisioned the M590 being used in mostly hostile alien environments due to the trigger assembly being developed for us by soldiers, marines, and sailors using padded gloves rated for hostile off-world alien environments.

Under the Plastic: The Mini-14 and the M590
Like most props, the M590 has both a fictional world it lives in and the real-world. In the real-world, the M590 rifle is a bit of a mystery and little attention has been paid to it over the years outside the propmaking fans of SAAB. What is well know is that under the plastic futuristic shell is a Ruger Mini-14 5.56mm semi-auto rifle (the full-auto is the AC556). This is one of the most commonly used blank-firing weapon used for props for films due to its reliability. After that, little is actually known about the M590 prop...until now. According to some interviews (and some big help from Yoel) with propmasters and production designers involved with show, here is what we know about the M590 prop.
Some of the M590s used on-screen where built in Australia by , due to Land Down Under being the site of the filming of the pilot. These are somewhat different in color and construction. Once SAAB was pocked up, the production moved to the States and more M590s were made with differences in construction, like in the barrel, Philips-headed screws, and being made out of black resin. We know that some of the Australian-made M590 space rifles were used in the US during filming the series due to the M590 used by actress Kristen Cloke in "Ray Butts" being tracked by fan that owns the prop.
According to one source involved with the US production, the production designer in Australia was Bernard Hides and he did not know if Mr. Hides was involved in the designing of the M590. He did tell me that the reason for the massive trigger that was guard-less, was due to the heavy gloves worn by the actors. After getting in touch with Ian Scheibel, the propmaster for SAAB, he provided me with the source of the creators of the M590: Independent Studio Services (ISS), based in Sunland, California. When I asked about the design, he said this: I believe I took some ideas from the producers, had ISS make some prelim designs that we made changes to, etc.  Hate to be so vague but it was the usual design process... everyone wants to do something "new" and put their thumbprint on it and I want to keep it simple so that it's practical... doesn't weigh a ton and is an easy weapon to throw into a mold to make non-working replicas and rubber doubles.
During a Facebook conversion with Yoel, he brought up the issue of the magazines with the M590s. Up until the episode "Toy Soldiers" from February 18th of 1996, no magazine had been seen sticking out from the bottom of the M590, then a larger magazine was featured throughout the ending of the show, but not all M590s had the larger magazines. I asked Ian about this, and here was his response: we used five-round magazines (maybe 10-round, too) unless higher capacity was needed for a scene with gunfire.  So, in other words, the "default look" was maybe pretending that it didn't even have a magazine or that the magazine was flush with the bottom of the housing... that way we did not need to start designing new elements for the magazines.  For example, on Space Rangers (see pic below) we couldn't leave well enough alone and added that element on the end of the mag to make it less-recognizable.  
We did the same thing for the sidearm on SAAB... added an extra piece so that it did not look as much like a current day Glock magazine. I'm wondering if we actually switched to larger mags or if you were just seeing it in a scene where we needed actual gunfire.  If that was the case, we probably would not go into a scene with only a five- or ten-round mag unless there were only 1 to 5 shots being fired.  (If we switched to higher capacity mags just for actual firing, we might have just cheated them in, thinking that in all the excitement, who's gonna keep track?) I'm remembering now, too... The new housing we created  made things a little tight.  Because you have to kind of angle in the magazine (kind of engage it then rock it forward) the housing was really making that difficult. To answer your question, we had real weapons (blank-firing), replica weapons (poured resin/plastic) and rubber weapons.  
All of them had the little, light-up, fold down screens.  The replicas all had working, light-up screens.  We would not have a real (blank-firing weapon) in a shot unless there was actually gunfire called for (or if a character wanted to "rack a round" as the replicas did not have a functioning charger handle/slide... and actors like to do that). On the other hand... we never counted on Post or roto or CG for gunfire... they may have added it at times but if there was gunfire in a scene, we were firing live blanks. And the alien planets were super dirty... whatever they were using for soil on other planets really did not work well with oiled guns. So, where are the prop M590s now? Given the amount of stunt and replica copies made for the production, these are the one that have that fans have been able to buy over the years. I assume that the few blank-firing M590s were return to ISS and possibly broken down and sold without the Mini-14 and/or AC556 internals.

What is that HUD Flip-Up Screen on the M590?
One of the more noticeable features of the M590 was the massive flip-up HUD LCD screen and "scope" mounted on the forward assembly of the rifle. From this, we can guess that it seems that the way the M590 was to be operated was via the aiming HUD screen and not iron-sights or other more conventional aiming techniques. This could be due to the Marines being in hostile environmental suits and the helmets preventing the conventional shoulder-aiming ergonomics. This would be similar to my experiences using a paintball gun modeled after the Colt CAR-15 Commando and wearing a paintball mask. In the series, it was only used a few times in the early episodes and appears to be a targeting sensor and tracking system that relays data from the sensor tube located on the front of the weapon.
We have a scan of the readout screen and the data it displays, and this seems to make sense. In the show, the HUD screens are seen in both the flipped-up and flipped-down positions. When discussing the HUD sight with Edward Franklin, who was the Department Coordinator for Electronic Effects, he said this in an Facebook exchange: Only one of them had an actual back lit LCD screen for targeting. The others just had a slide that could be placed in there with a light in the back to illuminate it. Then there were others that had no electronics at all. This confirms two things. One, that the HUD LCD screen was indeed designed for targeting and two, that there was only one "hero" rigged up to illuminate the targeting screen as seen above. I like this was only seen on-screen during the pilot episode when Nathan is tracking the Chig recon vehicle pilot on Mars. Some sources online have claimed that this flip-up screen is used for a grenade launcher that we never see. 

The Impact and Legacy of the M590
When FOX was promoting their upcoming military science fiction show, Space: Above and Beyond, the promotional teasers mostly focused on the aspect of space fighter combat with the Chigs. Some planet-side battles were shown during the expedition to Mars. This was the central concept that the network felt could sell the show and hook audiences. At the time, fans of sci-fi and military SF were excited by the show and much attention was paid to the SA-43 “Hammerhead” Endo/Exo attack jets of the USMC in 2063. However, the expensive in SFX of showing space dogfights with the Chigs forced the show to steer the show’s storylines and battlescenes to more infantry combat with the Chigs and Silicates…which might more screentime for the M590. Even the show made a reference and joke to this when fans became flooding the online message boards for SAAB with requests for more sweet space dodgefights. In one episode, Colonel McQueen states that he has been getting earfill of pilots bitching about being deployed as groundpounders and he says they are Marines first and they will fight “when needed, how needed!”.
This put the M590 more in the spotlight, but despite this, the M590 never gained much traction among the SAAB community along with sci-fi fans. Some fans at the time that SAAB was airing (like me) and later fans, were interested in the M590 and its design. Me, being me, I thought about the M590 and how it was used by the US Marines and US Army personnel in the series while the show was running. Due to the cancellation of the show in 1996, the state of the internet, and the lack of mercdice produced for the show (even now) as lead to the M590 exo-assault rifle being one of the most forgotten and ignored KE rifles of a military sci-fi work of all time.
Overall, the M590 is known about to fans of the show and some within the cosplay and collecting circles of SAAB fandom, but its impact is light and its legacy is nearly nonexistent. Adding to this fact is that there is very little written on the weapon and most SAAB fans are more interested in the SA-43, the Chigs, and Lt. Vansen (meow!).  For me, I was always intrigued by the M590, its design, and its history, and that propelled me to finally give the M590 an article here on FWS. For us fans of the show, we would notice on impact and legacy of the M590 after the end of the show, the M590 being used as a prop weapon for some video games and by other FOX sci-fi TV shows like Sliders and The X-Files.

Why does the M590 have so little in the why of Impact and/or Legacy?
Some sci-fi weapons are icons and known/worshiped by fans and wider culture alike. This includes the Mortia Rifle, the Lightsaber, the PK-D of the LAPD Rep-Det unit, and the Phaser. That does not apply to the Space: Above and Beyond standard issue exo assault rifle of the US Marine Corps and US Army off-world forces. The reason for this is mainly that SAAB was cancelled by FOX after just one season (you bastards!) and it came at a time when internet geek culture was just becoming established, but limited to the expense of being online and the hardware associated with dialing into the matrix. SAAB never had the online fandom that Firefly had or has, for example. In addition, while the rifle is named in the pilot two-hour episode, nearly nothing was ever discussed about the weapon’s technical data or even what it fired, unlike the USCM pulse rifles of ALIENS.
Then there was the overall design that was unique, but it lacked the starpower that makes some sci-fi weapons icons, which is a subjective value, but it holds true. There is very little in the way of fan reproductions of the weapon or an active SAAB cosplay community to support the creation of M590s beyond the level that exist today. While I liked elements of the M590 exo-assault rifle, it is not as well thought out or design to the degree of the somewhat similar M41a1 Pulse Rifle or the MA5B. It is highly likely that if SAAB had been allowed to live and run for a few seasons more, the M590 would have gained traction in the fan community along with alternated by the production staff or even replaced by something else as we witnessed with the Colonial small arms of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica.  Overall, the M590 was condiment to being  just beyond the surface of iconic military science fiction weapons due to it being a single season show that aired in the mid-1990’s and that was also an odd design to boot. 

Where Else Have We Seen the M590?

As the "M190" in the TOPPS 1996 SAAB Comicbook Series
From January to July of 1996, TOPPS would publish a Space: Above and Beyond tie-in comicbook series. The first three issues were a bad comic retelling of the 2-hour pilot and then what followed was a two issues storyline that were an original plot called "The Gauntlet". From my research, this was not based on any lost scripts or possible storyline not undertaken. Overall, these comics are terrible and I have read them...so, feel some pity for me. At one time, I was thinking of an FWS article on them, but they are complete shit and it would be a waste of time discussing them due to their lack of polish and lack of attention to detail when it comes to the world of SAAB. In the series, the artist and writers at TOPPS called the rifle an "M190" in issue number #2 that covered the 58th mission to Mars, where we learn of the rifle's name.  It looks barely like the M590 we know in the TV series, but it was closer than the oddball rifle we witness in the two-issue "The Gauntlet" story. There, the rifle looks more like an M16 with all manner of sci-fi looking attachments. After the two issues of "The Gauntet", TOPPS cancelled their comicbook venture into the Chig War due to the cancellation of the TV series.

In the Hands of Mulder and Scully in The X-Files "First Person Shooter (7x13)"
During one of the last good season of the original X-Files, season 7, we get a mixed bag episode called "First Person Shooter". Mixed bag due to its lazy dumb-dumb plot and terrible writing, but good to see Scully kicking digital ass with a familiar rifle: the M590. With creators of Space: Above and Beyond, Glen Morgan and James Wong being involved in The X-Files, the M590 appearing in the 2000 episode likely due to that. In the episode, a near life-like VR game allows players to directly interact in a very Matrix/Holodeck way that so beyond any technology then and even now that it destroys the hull integrity of the entire framework of the story.
When the VR soldiers enter into the game to deal with a female avatar (played by Krista Allen) is murdering real players in the VR realm, the Lone Gunmen and the dynamic duo enter into the game and use the M590, fired on full-auto with ejecting shells. According to some research, the 5.56mm Mini-14 semi-auto in SAAB was replaced by the full-auto AC556 for the "First Person Shooter" episode and several black-painted M590s were used in the show with likely only one being full-auto blank firing. When this episode premiered, I immediately noticed the inclusion of the M590 and thought it was odd, but cool to see it again.

As the GDI/NOD "M16 Mk. II Pulse Rifle" from Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars
In the 2007, the 3rd Command & Conquer game was titled "Tiberium Wars". and depicts the further conflicts over the Tiberium crystals between NOD and GDI. In the hands of some of the infantry is the very familiar profile of an M590 with the flush magazine and even the barrel. This is called the M16 Mk. II Pulse Rifle that fired a .22 KE projectile and the one that looks like the M590 is the variant one. I have no solid answer why the M590 appears in a 2007 video game or how.

In the Hands of a Duke Nukem Impersonator from 2001 E3
One of the most tortorius video game developments of all time was the epic struggle to release Duke Nukem Forever. While the game was originally slated for 1998/1999 release, it was delayed. To sooth the fans and inverters, some 19 years ago,  3D Realms reveal one of the many trailers for the upcoming Duke Nukem Forever at E3 2001. Like many companies then and now, they hired models and actors to cosplay/impersonate Duke with beautiful babes, called the "Duke Girls".
In his hands was nothing less than one of the M590 props, painted black(?) and lacking the barrel (for safety?). It is likely that this is one of the many resin copies made for the production for stunt work and arming tons of Marines for "Sugar Dirt". How the hell that an Duke Nukem impersonator hired to promote the upcoming game (insert laughing or crying here) is wielding an M590 is a mystery. My only guess is that the same prop house that armed the two ladies had one of these and when they asked for a big sci-fi gun for Duke, they gave them the M590 stunt copy.

In the Hands of Cyborgs from alternate Earth in Sliders "Rules of the Game (3x01)"

Sliders was not a show that I watched with much frequency due to being in college, working, and being heavily involved in Jeet Kune Do. I was surprised when Yoel reached out to me and inform me that the M590 appears in the 3rd season opener called "Rules of the Game" that aired on FOX on September 20th, 1996. On alternate Earth, there is a game of survival where cash is awarded for living through the playing field. The team crashes into the playing field and battles for their lives against biker gangs and armed androids...sounds like The Running Man. Within the hands of these androids is the M590 painted in black and this episode was filmed just shortly after the cancellation of Space: Above and Beyond. It makes sense that the Sliders production raided the prop-house for futuristic weaponry that did not add to the cost of production.

The HALO UNSC Marine MA5B Rifle?
The first time I saw the standard issue assault rifle for the UNSC Marines, the MA5B, I've always thought it was inspirited by the SAAB M590. Some have thought it was taken from the real-steel FN F2000 futuristic assault rifle. However, according to Bungie's Robert McLees, he did not even see the FN F2000 until after HALO: Combat Evolved was finished and he worried that everyone would think that the rifle's design came from the Belgium future gun. That leads me to reinforce my original theory that the people at Bungie based the MA5B on the M590 and that Space: Above and Beyond was an inspiration for one of the most iconic military science fiction video games of all time.

Next Time on FWS...
Some 18 years. Blizzard Entertainment announced that a unique take on their beloved StarCraft  universe would come to the 6th generation of home video game consoles in the form of GHOST. However, it never came to be and GHOST is regarded by the gaming community as one of the great broken promises of modern video games. In the next installment of Broken Promises, FWS will be taking a look at StarCraft GHOST

2 comments:

  1. Great posts about the M590. So would u make a few posts about what if Earth (from the 20th century after WW2 till the early 21st century) is in Star Wars (any timeline)? Also review some fanfics and videos created by different Earth in Star Wars fans, please?

    BOOFIRE191's Earth in Star Wars the Complete Series -> https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLq28Qebi9pFDKmCfbuJqVPB4gdIPdULz0

    1960s-70s Earth in SWTOR fanfic, "Earth: A Rendezvous with Destiny"(shortly before the events of Star Wars: The Old Republic: Shadow of Revan) -> https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Fanfic/EarthAForgedDestiny

    The Templin Institute's "Could the Galactic Empire Take Over The Earth?" video -> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVzL1g-nezo

    Hope u can make posts similar to these in the future.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I really digged SAAB when it was on the air and missed most of the lirrle details of the rife other than the LED screen (did a good job showing it in acting in the premier)

    While it's not the sexist sci-fi assault rifle, I'm not sure how many other other sci-fi universe think about how a soldier would work a rifle in a environmental suite. Do the UN Marines in the Expanse have a similar rife when patrolling in their environmental suits like on Ganymede?

    While the rifle is unessential bulky to hide the Mini-14 that it's built around, it's no where as comical as the Mortia III or many of the Sci-fi guns we see in FPS. What save the insane MA37/MA5B is all the lore that's been pored into, found a April Fools video does a scary good job selling you a a cartoonish oversized rifle;
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r_XGEgRZsAI

    ReplyDelete