04 September 2016

FWS Armory: Modular Firearms

On the modern battlefield, soldiers are asked to adapt to an ever-evolving tactical situation, especially in Special Operations and the urban warzones. You may be fighting in an open-field, move to a crowded village street, search house-to-house in deadly close quarters warfare operations; all within the same mission. This has been seen in combat operations in Israel, Iraq, and Afghanistan. These modern warfare conditions forced the retirement of the battle-rifle for the assault rifle and the assault carbine as well. But there is another movement in modern military firearms: modular weapon systems (MWS) AKA modular assault rifle system (MARS). In this installment of the ongoing FWS Armory blog serial, we will explore and explain the modern trend of modular weapon systems.

What are Modular Firearms and Modular Weapon Systems?
These two terms: Modular firearms  and Modular Weapon Systems both describe an adjustable, flexible weapon system constructed around an foundation or base weapons platform and via various attachments, accessories, and modular pieces new weapon can be formed. These modular weapons still retain the base foundation weapon at its core, allowing for an easy of training and familiarity. These has become an fixture of modern military small arms, with companies like H&K, FN, and Colt developing modular firearms. The primary goal of all of these various modular firearms is tactical flexibility.
These various levels of customization allow the warfighter to fine tune their weapon to their own tastes and battlefield conditions, even adjusting for right or left handed shooters. At times, a variant can exist for the civilian gun market as well. This customization can be as simple as switching out the optics based on day/night or swapping out barrels based on mission environments. While this blog article will be mainly dealing with infantry small arms, the term "modular weapons" can be applied and extended to larger weapon systems that could be fitted to powered armor suits, exoskeletons, armored vehicles, mecha, and even artillery. Modular means that an base firearm can be modifited into variants that are used in various tactical environments, even on an armored vehicle.

The Macro and Micro Level of Modification
Before we get started into the meat of this Armory article, we must discuss the two levels of weapons modifications that directly impact tactical flexibility: Macro and Micro. These are not terms or ideas I've read anywhere else. These ideas were created by me during a lengthy brainstorming session on the way to Houston. Macro level of flexibility/modification is where the overall weapons platform is altered normally on a workbench via gun surgery with hardware modifications or swapping out modular upper receivers. This type of configuration is often a more permanent option and that alters the weapon from its base platform to another weapon for another battlefield role. For example, taking a H&K G3 battle-rifle and Macro level adjusting it to an DMR or LMG.
In Micro level of tactical flexibility, the already altered Macro level weapons platform is then modified further via accessories and attachments, normally on an integrated rail system or RIS. These RIS allow for the fine tuning of a weapons platform to fit the needs of the user and the battlefield conditions. All manner of lights, scopes, aiming devices, sights, and secondary weapon systems can be easily attached via these rail systems allowing for a single weapons platform to host all manner of customization that vary from soldier to soldier.
When examining pictures of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, we can see US warfighters carry the M4A1, Mk. 48, FN SCAR-H, and the H&K 416, however, each one is Micro level customized via the various accessories and attachments on the rail system to the tastes of the user. To sum up, you take an M16A2 assault rifle and via Macro level modification, it transforms into M4A1 assault carbine, then it is increasingly modified with Micro level flexibility in the form of accessories and attachments. This does not just apply to machine guns, sniper rifles, and assault rifles; pistols are also being fielded in greater numbers with standard rail system to allow for the attachment of aiming devices and illumination    

Three Types of Macro-Level Modular Weapon Systems

1. Hard Variant MWS
This is where the base foundation weapon platform is used to create different incarnations of firearms using an portion of the base weapon, often the lower receiver assembly. An assault rifle could be transformed to an DMR, or to an commando carbine, or an carbine, or PDW; or even an LMG. This can be best exemplified by the AR15 assault rifle and all of the countless variants it has spawned, along with the H&K G3, the Stoner 63, and the AK. However, this variant is not modular, and could cannot easily modify the DMR back to an assault rifle with a simple swap out of the upper receiver. For example, you cannot take an M110 AR15-based DMR and swap out the upper receiver to make an base M4A1 assault carbine. Much like any MWS, the Hard Variant variety of modular firearms allows for cross-training to apply and for quirks and the ergonomics of the base foundation weapon to be known. Some Hard Variants MWS are rechambered for new cartridges like the SR47, the AK74, and the HK33

2. Swap-able Variant MWS
This is the current trend in modern military firearms, where a base lower receiver assembly is used to form several variants that can be easily swapped out in the field or at an FOB. Some Special Operators, like DEVGRU, carry several already kitted-out upper receiver assemblies that they can just easily swap out and transform the assault rifle to an close quarters commando carbine and back again. This can be seen in the Colt M4A1, FB MSBS, the H&K 416, and the Colt CM901. This allows one foundation weapon system to be flexible in any tactical environment, allowing the experience warfighter the easy of using a weapon they are well-trained on and have extensive experience on.

3. Instant Variant MWS
The technology to allow for an "instant" transformable modular weapon system does not yet exist. However, with miniaturization, 3D printers, and nanotechnology, it will be possible in the near-future to transform and reconfigure your weapon from one variant to another with the push of a button. Warfighters of the future could go into battle with an single modular weapon system platform that can reconfigure itself to any type of weapon our future warfighter could need or want. This is rarely seen in science fiction. Old Man's War has the Colonial Union MP35 and I have an Instant Variant MWS in my new book about an far-future TIER-ONE SOF unit...but that is classified information at the moment.

The Realities of Modular Weapon Systems: "The Combat Lego Set"
During an recent email exchange with FWS chief contributor Yoel, we discussed modular weapon systems, leading  to me rethink and rewriting portions of this blogpost. The reality of most modern military modular small arms weapon systems is that even the most modular firearms, like the Colt M4A1 carbine, Special Forces warfighters are not hauling upper receivers into the field to swap out when the conditions change on the battlefield. The swapping out of upper receivers is done back at base, well behind the wire. From accounts I've read and pictures I've seen, Special Operations units have weapons case kits of various upper receivers ready to go for various operational environments. Yoel told me in an email to think of MWS as more akin to Legos rather than handheld 3D printers.

How "Modular" is "Modular"?
During discussions of this blogpost with FWS advisors, the term "modular" came under some scrutiny. When it comes to bulk of modular firearms we are discussing here, they are as "modular" as when care share the same chassis, like the Toyota Land Cruiser and the Lexus LX570. While they are related, there is a great deal of mechanic work separating one from the other. These are the "hard variants" we discussed above.
Even the most modular weapons, that allow users to pop off upper receivers, like the Colt CM901, and swap out calibers and/or barrels with associated attachments, is still using the foundation of the gun's architecture (lower receiver), just like the common chassis. Then we have to consider one more element of the term modular and how it applies to these weapons: the common core of these variants. Any weapon sharing the AR15 lower receiver, any variant constructed off of this common DNA, is colored by that fact, for better or worse. The true modular nature of modern military firearms comes from the Micro-level customization available via rail systems and those high-tech attachments.    

Advantages of Modular Firearms
Modular firearms are at an advantage over normal firearms due to their saving of time and money costs. The savings are associated with less training being needed, easier on the supply lines, and by using the Costco method of buying in bulk, there is savings in those juicy government contracts. Of course, modular weapons offer more flexibility and often more standardization, due the weapons all being related to a common ancestor. One of the reasons for the adaption of the H&K 416 was due to its overall design and ergonomics being so close to the M16 that allowed users to be instantly familiar with the operation of the new weapon with the need of extensive training and hands-on time to familiarize themselves to the 416.

Disadvantages of Modular Firearms
When it comes to the disadvantages of modular weapon systems they mostly boil down to the fact that all of the firearms are being developed and manufactured by one company. This could led to an "all your eggs in one basket" situation if there is quality issues, failures, design flaws. These could effect the bulk of your fielded infantry weapons. Another disadvantage is that the family approach could lead to the variants not be effective as an individual weapons specifically designed for said purpose. This could be why most "sniper" and light machine gun variants of modular firearms are not fielded in great numbers. Lastly, we could have integration issues with the modular pieces and parts created a solid firearm about to withstand the stressors of combat conditions and the pounding recoil.

Accessories/Attachments and the Modular Weapon Systems
When discussing MWS, we have to talk about the role of attachments and accessories as part of the overall picture of modular firearms. As I said above, integrated rail systems allow for the fine-tuning of a firearm via Micro-level modifications. This can co-exist with various types of Macro-level variants. Different types of scopes, sights, lights, secondary weapons, and even handles can be attached ad nauseam. This can take an already modular weapons platform, like the H&K G36, and extend its tactical and lethal abilities beyond the original design.
While swapping out upper receivers in the field is a no-go, an operator can carry various attachments for their rail system (the Combat Lego Set) to alter some of the functions of their weapon depending on the ever-changing tactical situation on the ground. This all thanks to modular flexibility allowed by attachment rail systems While this seems like a modern trend, the modern high-tech goodies populating rail systems are descended from the 3rd Reich STG44 "Vampir" IR system that was being experimented during the closing years of the war and the US M3 carbine IR night scope system used during World War II and the Korean War. Even the more modern USSOCOM SOPMOD program dates back to 1989 when it was originally designed for the M16A2 and its variants.

Integrated Rail Systems
At the heart of the modern modular weapon systems is the almighty rail system. Rail systems are metal strips with attachment grooves allowing items to slide on and be locked down.What sets the modern rail attachment systems from the older scope mounting is the flexibility and placement on the weapon. Most dove tail and other older mounting system were limited to the upper receiver frame in a narrow perimeter, while modern rail systems are just swimming across the weapon. Today, modern firearms are mostly developed with rail systems already incorporated into the frame and design of the weapon, but they can be changed out with relative ease.  Rail systems are everywhere today in the realm military/tactical/firearm products, and are not just limited to firearms, but they are older than most think.
The Picatinny rail system was developed in the 1980s, the weaver rail was developed in the 1930's, but it would take until the 1970's and 1980's until the technology was utilized. Rail systems and the various accessories fitted onto these attachment sites were an intersection of technologies. This allowed night vision, scopes, sights, laser aiming devices, grenade launchers, and vertical hand grips to have a place to live on modular platform weapons, like the AR15 platform. When it comes to impact of rail systems on the flexibility of modern firearms, it is massive. The infantry small arms used by Marines, soldiers, and sailors are in reality a Lego set of options in attachments and accessories, thanks to the rails that spawned an entire industry of "Weaver Rail Madness Syndrome". While "rail system" is used as a general term, there is a difference between Picatinny and Weaver rail systems. Mostly this has to do with the spacing between the slots, the number of slots, the size of the slots. There is debate about if they are interchangeable, but in practice they are not. One of the biggest differences is that the MIL-STD-1913 Picatinny rail system is standard RIS of the US Military.

Weaver Rail Madness Syndrome 
There are people in the world that cannot handle or leave alone blank spaces or things that are not customized. People invest heavy amounts of time, money, and energy in upgrading their Honda Civics, tattooing their bodies, and slapping paint on every corner of their canvas. This applies directly to those fantastic modular rail systems that transform assault rifles into Lego sets of tacticoolness. However, it does have a dark side that leads into the mouth of madness...weaver rail madness that is. Civilian shooters, Fobbets, Special Operators, MILSIM Airsofters and Paintballers all can suffer from the crippling effects of over-accessorizing their modern firearms for maximum tactical flexibility and superstar tacticoolness with all sorts of attachments.
There seemingly no end to the rail attachments and accessories being pumped out for the civilian and military market. This can led shooters and soldiers investing serious brainpower, time, and money into finding that "one attachment to rule them all". I've read that soldiers will spend their entire combat pay into ordering aftermarket accessories and attachments for their M4 carbines and pistols while on deployment. People I know and work with are always researching and buying devices for their AR15s or their Airsoft/Paintball facsimile complete with an RIS. Modern military shooter video games can give raise to virtual Weaver Rail Madness with gamers outfitting their virtual MWS with all the bells and whistles (Perk I Greed Cards!). Even I suffered from this disorder. In 2007, I had an custom constructed Mk.18 Paintball commando carbine complete with weaver rails built from me and it led to me breaking out in a bad case of Weaver Rail Madness Syndrome. Today, I am in Weaver Rail Madness Syndrome recovery and I use a stock Tippmann Alpha Black Elite with only a sling as the aftermarket accessory.    

The US Army Modular Handgun System Proposal
When most people think of modular weapon systems, they often imagine assault rifles being customized into carbines, LMGs, DMRs, and so on. However, this also applies to handguns, and the US Army put forth a proposal for an modular handgun system for the new combat handgun, the XM17. The idea is to field an modular handgun platform that could be fitted with attachment sites, more customization for various missions and units than the current military handguns, along with various acceptance of calibers and ammunition, hardware flexibility. Much like the M4A1 carbine being used across the US military, one handgun platform would cut down on costs, training, and more familiarity. Online, there is heavy betting on the Sig Sauer P320 coming out as the winner.

The Impact of the Modular Weapons

Modular weapons platforms are nothing new as previously mentioned with examples going back to the 2nd World War. When the first assault rifles and modern battle rifles began to replace the bolt-action rifles, they had variants constructed around the base military rifle, the carbine being the most popular and most issued variant. This was one of the major impacts of the modular weapon system: the rise in the popularity of the carbine and the AR15 type military rifles. Today, there global armies using AR15 type rifles, carbines, and DMRs that never really considered the M16 before the M4A1 became an international military firearms superstar. We have nations like Great Britain, France, and Norway all adopting AR15 descended military rifles and carbines.

AK47 vs. M16: Evaluating the Variants
These two iconic assault rifles are titans in the field of military weaponry, and are some of the longest servicing military rifles in history. In addition, but the AK and the M16 are the first adopted assault rifles of their respective nations, and are both serving on battlefields across the planet. That being said, both the AK and M16 base assault rifles have spawned a number of variants given their modular nature.
While creator Eugene Stoner envisioned his AR15 as an family of variants, Kalashnikov did not. That has not stopped the basic AK design and architecture from being the genesis point for dozens of AK variants and clones. So, how do these two titans of military firearms rate when comparing their offspring variants? Many of the original variants of the AR15 were not fielded by the US military. Only the assault rifle, the carbine, and the commando carbine. For much of its operational life, the M16A1 and M16A2 were limited to a few operational variants. It would take the upgraded M16A2 carbine, the M4 and M4A1, to finally get the ball rolling to the status the old Black Rifle is today with a number of variants in service via Macro and Micro level modifications, but some are still not used.
That is not so for the AK family of variants. From the original 1947 model, to the global rock star that is the AKM, to the workhorse of Afghanistan, the AK74, to the modern AK; each had variants in service...including the light machine gun (RPK). Given the global popularity of the AK series, there are a number of locally constructed variants, like the Red Chinese Type-56, the Finnish Rk-62, and the IMI Galil, and these led to other variants...it is like an Russian nesting doll! The story gets even odder. With the success and innovation of the American M4 carbine, the AK followed suit with rail system modernization to allow for all manner of attachments. While there are many more in-use variants of the AK, the M16's M4 carbine was by far the more successful and innovative. To me, the AK and its army of clones, better utilized the potential of building upon a successful assault rifle foundation. However, the Colt M4 variant of the M16A2 altered the landscape of modern firearms.      

Real-Steel Examples of Modular Weapon Systems

The FN SCAR (Belgium/USA)
 The M16 is an aging warhorse. It has served the US military since the 1960's in various conflicts, wars, and uprisings around the globe. It was believed, since the 1980's, that the US military would replace the aging M16 family of weapons with something else that could address some of the issues with the M16 platform. For years, it was believed at the AUG would replace the M16, but that passed. During the War on Terror, there were two major attempts to dethrone the M16: the H&K XM8 and the FN SCAR. While the XM8 was aimed at the general military, the FN SCAR was specifically aimed at the American Special Operations community. This was reflected in the name of the MWS: the Special Operations Forces Combat Assault Rifle (SCAR). This family style modular weapon system was developed with input from USSOCOM, and the future of the SCAR was bright as the primary weapon system of the US Special Operations in 2004. Then the luster of the SCAR MWS wore off sometime around 2010. What the hell happened? The story of the FN SCAR MWS is a sad one with its true potential never being fully utilized by the US Special Operations Forces. On a Macro-level of flexibility, the FN SCAR was available in either 5.56mm and 7.62mm (some sources claim an 6.8mm was under consideration) with around six different types of weapons formed from the either caliber base rifle platform.
It was believed that the Special Operations units would use both the 5.56mm (SCAR-L) and the 7.62mm (SCAR-H) variants for various tactical roles and missions. The 5.56x45mm "L" (Mk. 16) model would replaced the Colt M4A1, while the 7.62x51mm "H" (Mk. 17) would be replacing some DMR models or even serve as an hard hitting assault rifle. When the SCAR made into the hands of some SOCOM members, they seemed to love their 7.62mm Mk.17, and it was seen in service with US SOF units like Rangers and SEALs, but the Mk. 16 was a tougher sale, and there fewer photos of it in service in Afghanistan or Iraq.
By 2010, the story of the Mk.16 5.56mm modular assault rifle was ended by the announcement from SOCOM that they would not be funding the SCAR-L. However, it was not all bad news for FN, SOCOM did continue funding for the Mk. 17, the Mk. 13 40mm grenade launcher, and the Mk. 20 Sniper Support Rifle. But, the story does not end for the 5.56mm SCAR. There is an 5.56mm conversion kit for the Mk.17 to fire the smaller round. While the USSOCOM has an uneven history with the FN SCAR MWS, there 20 other nations that utilize the SCAR along with private military units. What killed the SCAR was the lack of motivation by the US DoD to replace the Colt M4A1 with spending large amounts of money to field the new 5.56mm rifle. Then there is the other 5.56x45mm rifle that cause the end of the consideration for the Mk.16: the Heckler & Koch 416. Developed with input from former DELTA Operator Larry Vickers, H&K was looking to replace the Special Operations M4 carbines with their piston-driven upgraded M4A1 that could be sold as only an swap-able upper receiver upgrade to the M4 that was already paid for. The role of the Mk. 16 SCAR-L was taken by the gun that killed Osama Bin Laden, that there was not enough money or oxygen to allow both to coexist.

FB MSBS "Radon" (Poland)
It seems that the Polish military is catching the modular weapons bug with the Polish firearms company Fabryka-Broni developing the MSBS modular 5.56mm rifle system, which is also called "the Radon", for the next service rifle for the Polish military. FB is also eyeing the civilian and export markets with US-legal rifles, multiple calibers and even a shotgun and 7.62mm battle rifle variants. Constructed around a common 5.56mm upper receiver, the two primary Macro-level variants of the MSBS, a traditional assault rifle and a compact bullpup are formed via modular lowers and other accessories. There is even other variants within both forms of the MSBS along with Micro-level customization via the incorporation rail system. The MSBS will be familiar to some FWS reader as it appeared in Call of Duty: Ghosts as the burst-fire MSBS. That version was based on a 3D printed model of the 2011 prototype mock-up. Thanks to FWS reader Andrew Krajewski for the suggestion of adding the MSBS! Interestingly enough, FB has a factory in here in Texas.

Steyr AUG (Austria)
When the Steyer AUG premiered in 1977, it was unlike anything before it. This state-of-the-art polymer space age bullpup 5.56mm assault rifle was a modular platform allowing for several major variants prior to wide-scale acceptance of rail systems. The base bullpup assault rifle could be modified into a light machine gun (HBAR), an DMR, an carbine, commando carbine, grenade launcher, and even an bullpup 9mm SMG in the AUG Para. This weapon became very popular during the 1980's, becoming the official assault rifle of several major nations and there was even talk of the US military thinking about testing the AUG against the M16A2 as a possible replacement. During the War on Terror, the AUG was in the sandbox, fighting against AQ and Taliban targets. While the primary assault rifle was popular and widely accepted, the variants of the plastic-fantastic Austrian weapon are less so...none were more unpopular than the LMG (HBAR) variant. In recent years, Steyr upgraded the AUG with Micro-level customization via rail systems. Several military organization, including the New Zealand Defense Force, is looking to replace the AUG.  

The Adaptive Combat Rifle (USA)
There has been a major attempt by some American firearms companies that have attempted to develop an modular, multiple caliber modern assault rifle to offer a replacement to the aging AR15 platform. Throwing their hats into the pile was Austin, Texas firearms company Magpul with the Adaptive Combat Rifle (ACR) based on the original Masada ACR design. This pulled design and mechanic elements from the XM8, SCAR, G36, M4, and the SR-47. Several companies like Remington and Bushmaster partnered up with Magpul to develop a modular platform in various calibers and styles. There was even an effort to get the US military to test the ACR and it was sold to the US shooter market in various cartridges, including the 6.8mm SPC round. By design and name, the ACR was an adaptive platform for various modular features. However, beside the fame it gained by being the best assault rifle in COD:MW2 (5.56mm) and MW3 (6.8mm), the ACR has not been a success with either military and civilian markets...and there was a recall issued by Remington in 2010. It is still for sale in the civilian gun market here in America at expensive prices.

The H&K XM8 (USA/Germany)
In the early 2000's, it was strongly believed by many, including Red Storm Entertainment, that the H&K XM8 modular weapons platform would be the successor to the Colt AR15 and its variants. For years, video games, airsoft companies, and the interwebs made much about the XM8 project, and even General David Petaeus even carried an XM8 while in Iraq. Despite good results during testing, the XM8 project was cancelled in 2007 with only a few finding their way into the hands of private military contactors and foreign armies. Originally marketed as a family of variants, the XM8 had an LMG, PDW, carbine, DMR with different variants chambering 6.8mm, 7.62mm, and 5.56mm. It was believed that this would represent the future of the US military small arms with all branches adapting the XM8 in its various forms. Sadly, the XM8 was only accepted by the Malaysian Special Forces, with some theory that their entire military will be soon adopting the XM8.

The IMI Galil (Israel)
In September of 2014, FWS published a rare Forgotten Weapons blogpost on the Israeli Galil assault rifle with much help from Yoel. The Galil is hybrid design of the M16 and AKM, and much like the both of its parents, it was available in a wide range of variants in three calibers that are still in service in one way or another to the people of Israel. Unlike many of the variants presented here on this list, the Galil variants were used widely by military organizations that adapted the Galil and the locally produced copies, like the South African Vektor R4. One of the most interesting things about the Galil variants, besides the bottle opener, is that most video games that use an Galil, use the Galil 5.56mm ARM, the light machine gun variant of the line, especially with the wood handguard.

Colt CM901 Modular Assault Rifle (USA)
Since the 2000's, Colt has been in developing on next-generation modular platform based on the original AR15 architecture. That project became the 2010 Colt Modular (CM) 901 assault rifle series that was marketed to civilian shooters, Law Enforcement, and military organizations. The heart of the CM901 was the ability to be an swappable variant on the Macro-level of modular customization centered easily changed upper receivers that can change more than just the barrel length, but the cartridge as well via adapter block in the mag-well. An 5.56mm assault rifle can easily transform into an 7.62mm accurized rifle with change out of the upper receiver. Colt had hoped for the CM901 and its civilian model, the LE901, to be appealing because of its modular nature and to be widely accepted. So far, the CM901 has not lived up to those goals, despite interesting items that surround the rifle. To many of us, our introduction to the Colt CM901 was through its appearance in 2011's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Then there was the rumor that Osama Bin Laden may have been killed by the CM901 instead of the HK416. It is believe that Colt may have circulating that rumor to stoke interest. While the reviews of the CM901 and the LE901 have been positive, it is likely the hefty price tag of $3000 holding back this high-end AR15 for wide-scale acceptance.

The Stoner 63 (USA)
In 1961, Eugene Stoner left Armalite to work from Colt then Cadillac Gage. Once at Cadillac Gage, Stoner developed the modular weapon system that bore his name: the Stoner 63. His vision was a base weapon platform that could easily modified for different tactical roles and calibers using interchangeable parts and a common receiver. However, this 1960's modular weapons platform has not had an easy operational life. While it was marketed as a family of variants, only the Stoner 63A light 5.56mm machine gun saw combat service with the Navy SEALs in Vietnam. The US Army rejected the Stoner 63 and even after some changes, the Stoner 63A, the Army only issued a few to US Special Forces units before issues forced the Stoner 63A to be rejected causing Cadillac Gage to cancel the entire Stoner 63 modular line all together in 1970. Some firearm "experts" claim that the Stoner 63 was superior to the M16 and that it should be in service today. 

The AR15/M16 Family (USA)
When Eugene Stoner conceived the AR15 rifle, he envision a family of variants constructed around a lightweight space age assault rifle that fired a new intermediate round. When the M16 went to war in Southeast Asia, only three variants followed: the carbine, the M203, and the commando carbine. While some modified M16s served as an precision fire rifle, it was these three core variants of the modular weapons platform that served for years. There were attempts to develop an 9x19mm submachine gun variant, but a only a few law enforcement agencies like the DEA and some USMC units would use the unloved 9mm Colt SMG. The H&K MP5 was just too strong and too popular. In 1994, the M4 carbine was carried from the M16A2, and the story of the M16 would forever change, especially after the terrorist attacks in 2001. The world would be introduced to the M4 carbine, RIS, and accessories via battles in Afghanistan. Today, the long held promise of Eugene Stoner's Black Rifle has been fulfilled with the M4A1 and the H&K 416.

The H&K G3 (Germany)
If there is a direct competitor to the Eastern Block AK series of weapons, it is the H&K G3 7.62x51mm battle rifle. Since the 1950's, the G3 has been on the frontlines of many conflicts and given the wide amount of variants that number in the dozens and the G3 copies made under different names and by other nations, it is one of the most widely populated western-made military rifles. There are way too many variants for this little section to discuss, but the weapon has been modified, customized, and upgraded throughout its deployment history. It is has even been rechambered in 5.56mm as a lighter variant. The mechanics and architecture of the G3 has also gone to influence the designs of other iconic weaponry, like H&K's own MP5 SMG, their PSG-1 sniper rifle. The other 7.62mm NATO battle rifle of note is the FN FAL, but it did not have the number of variants produced like the G3.

The H&K G36 (Germany)
Post-war Germany has been known to produce some of the heartiest military small arms in the world, and they are used the world over. Even today, the MP5 and the G3 are still used on battlefields across the world. The replacement to the modular G3 platform is the G36 5.56mm modular firearm. Much like the M16, the G36 is available in many favors that are hard, Macro-level variants of the base assault rifle. From an assault carbine, to an light machine gun, all the way to an sniper rifle, the G36 performance has often been said to be excellent ...but, it combat record is lacking in Afghanistan. While the Heckler & Koch G36 is popular among military organizations, gamers, airsofters, and even some special police units; it has recently come under fire from the results of an 2010 extended firefight in Char Darrah district of Afghanistan. German forces came under prolonged gunfire from Taliban fighters, and it was the largest gunfight for German forces since the 2nd World War. The German paratroopers used their G36 family of weapons to engage the Taliban, firing nearly 30,000 rounds of 5.56mm. While many believed that the H&K G36 was one of the best assault rifles in the world, it badly overheated in that 2010 battle, causing soldiers to wait while the rifle cooled. Orders were halted by the German army while the G36 was reevaluated. Some believe the ammunition is at fault and not the weapon. We could see the replacement of the G36 in the near future.

The H&K MP5 (Germany)
For most of the Real-Steel Example section, we have discussed assault rifles and battle rifles, but we should also discuss the apex submachine gun: the Heckler & Koch MP5. Developed in the 1970's using portions of the G3 battle rifle mechanics, the MP5 soon became the weapon-of-choice for counterterrorism, special police units, and close quarters warfare situations. With H&K being receptive to special orders and adjusting their base weapon to meet the requirements of their clients, the MP5 was customized on a biblical scale that speaks to the popularity of this German sub-gun. This included rechambering the SMG to fire 10mm and .40 S&W rounds for the FBI that wanted the platform's superior ergonomics, but needed increased firepower. Both were short-lived...more on those variants in a future Forgotten Weapons blogpost. It was not just Macro-level structural changes that H&K made, in its later versions, attachment rails were added. Despite the sub-gun catalog being nearly extinct due to the PDW and modular carbines, the MP5 is still being used in all of its forms around the world.  

Modular Firearms and the Near Future
In some ways, the modern military experiment in modular firearm platforms has been a massive success, with weapons like the American M4 carbine paving the way to wide scale  acceptance. On the other hand, it has also been a failure. Micro-level customization of utilizing rail systems on assault rifles and carbines is widely accepted and it pushes the developing of all manner of attachments and accessories. That, in the near future of military small arms, is going to be a foundation of any future military firearm. However, the Macro-level customization is in jeopardy.
Many of the military assault rifles and carbines in use with military organizations today feature a whole host of other variants available, but few military organizations take advantage of them besides the carbine variant. Consider that the Colt M4 carbine has been wildly successful in spawning variants like a virus (itself is an variant) via swap-able upper receivers and all kinds of rail attachment goodies, but is one of the few. Even the  progenitor of the M4, the M16 has a number of older variants, like the LMG, that were not used by the US military. This is not just limited to the US military or the M16.
Military organizations like the Irish Army, the British Army, and the German Army all use an assault rifle that is part of a family of modular weapon systems, however, most if any, use the other variants besides the carbine. One of the most common Macro-level hard variants not to be used is the light machine gun. Most armies field belt-fed purpose built LMGs, like the FN Minimi. The USSR AKM RPK LMG variant is one of the few to ever saw wide scale usage. This could put the future of firearms companies developing Macro-level MWS in doubt, while they go with easily swap-able upper receivers and rail systems to offer modular function.

Modular Firearms and the Far Future
When we look ahead one hundred years and even further out, the picture on infantry small arms weapons gets fuzzy. Depending on material technology, the nature of warfare, and weapons technology; we could see the very idea of separate weapons, like carbine, rifles, DMRs, and LMGs obsolete. Weapons could take on various tactical tasks with just the push of a button via on-demand fabrication technology, allowing for instant variants of a base weapon system. Included in this technology could be specific ammunition demands being met via interior fabrication systems as well, allowing for all manner of ammunition fine tuned by the user. This is similar to what we have seen in the MP35 from the Old Man's War universe. When it comes to aiming devices, we could see a simple lack of any exterior sighting systems on the weapon. Instead, all aiming could be routed through the advanced helmet HUD system. 

Modular Firearms and Science Fiction
The idea of modifying a base weapon into other variants is nothing new, but was not widely accepted or designed until sometime around or after the Second World War. While modular weapon systems were being developed throughout the Cold War, they were not seen in science fiction until very recently. One of the first was the original Phaser from Star Trek: TOS, where the handheld Phaser had a "pocket" Type I variant attached to the upper portion of the pistol, the Type II. This idea was recycled for ST III: Search for Spock retro-Phaser and the "Assault Phaser" from ST: V and VI for two of my favorite PhasersHowever, it was until the 1990s and the 2000s that we see familiar hallmarks of modular weapon systems in either directed or kinetic energy. 
Given the popularity of the Colt M4 carbine in the War on Terror, this weapon would prompt the idea of modular firearms with attachments, rails, and variants on a base weapon. Helping the fuel the spread of science fiction modular firearms was the advancements in computer technology, that led to games like Ghost Recon, Call of Duty, and XCOM 2 that offer modular weapon systems as part of the gaming experience and business model. After all, how many times have we quested online to unlock or locate some upgrade to our weapon?    


The BlasTech DC-17m ICWS from Star Wars: Republic Commando Video Game and books
While the regular Clonetroopers of the Grand Army of the Republic used the bulky BlasTech DC-15A Blaster rifle, the Special Forces units of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Commandos, were issued the BlasTech DM-17m Interchangeable Weapon System (ICWS). Being designed to fulfill an number of combat roles, the DC-17m was an interchangeable platform that could be modified from an directed energy carbine to an sniper rifle (complete with optics), grenade launcher. From the gameplay footage, you can simply attach a few items to the base DC-17 blaster carbine to transition the weapon to the sniper or grenade launcher variants. This weapon was fleshed out by author Karen Traviss in her 2004 book Hard Contact and appeared in the 2005 Republic Commando video games and other commando books. This is an early example of an science fiction MWS in literature and video games. Some believe that real-steel MWS, like the M4 and AUG influenced the developed of this DE modular weapons. 
The Modular Weapons from XCOM 2
In the recent XCOM 2, you can unlock the "Advanced Modular Weapons" research project for your magnetic weapons to outfit your soldiers with greater punch. These resistance weaponry is based on the ADVENT human collabors magentic weaponry and costs 20 alien alloys and 200 supplies to complete. Wish they had done more with the modular weapons in the game. Pity. 
The Colonial Union MP35 MWS from the Old Man's War Universe
FWS discusses both the universe of Old Man's War and its technology quite a bit here due to its inventiveness and being the second best Military SF novel of all time. In this blogpost, we will be discussing the high-tech standard CDF infantry rifle, the Multi-Purpose (MP) 35. At the heart of the MP35 modular nature is the use of nanotechnology to convert the weapon on-the-fly to fire various ammunition from a common dense block of nano-material. This common ammunition and the ability to adjust the barrel assembly allows the MP35 to fire normal kinetic projectiles, low-yield guided rockets, low-yeild grenades, flame, and microwave beams via the BrainPal system. Since each fire mode makes use of the nano-block, the ammunition available alters between fire mode. While the author devoted several pages to the MP35 at its Macro-Level customization ability, he did not say anything about the Micro-Level customization...does the MP35 alter its aiming systems based on firing mode or type of engagement? Can the user customize the overall structure of the weapon or its optics? Does it mount any other attachment? Does the BrainPal preform the task of aiming as well as adjusting the fire mode? Despite these questions, the MP35 is still one of the more unique firearms in all of science fiction and it is one of the only Instant variant modular weapon systems in all of sci-fi as well. I am insanely curious about how an Old Man's War film or television series will protray the MP35.
The Modular Weapons from Eden Star
For this military sci-fi/ survivor Steam PC game Eden Star takes place on Pharus VII, the designers looked at including several modular weapons systems based around rifles and pistols. Various configurations via interchangable parts leds to different stats. 
Weapon Customization and Modification from Ghost Recon: Future Soldier
In the Ghost Recon games, you could often pick from variants of familiar military small arms, like the XM8 and the SCAR. Then with the Ghost Recon: Future Soldier release, there option for greater weapon modification was possible via the "gunsmith" option. Via ten to eleven modification points on most of the 50 featured weapons in the game, the player could tailor their weapon to their own play style and tastes. This was an amazing interface for customizing weapons in a video game. 

The Weapons Customization from the Mass Effect Universe
Throughout the Mass Effect games, BioWare allowed the players customization options with their weapons, and this reached its zenith with the 3rd installment. I loved how you actually put your weapon on a workbench and set about customizing your weapon, tailoring to it your style. While Macro-level customization of the frame was not really there, you could adjusted a great deal via Micro-level customization...even down to ammunition damage types. This applied to all of the weapon in the game, including your NPC teammates. I am hoping that weapons modification is carried through into Mass Effect Andromeda. 

The Matanza Arms Corporation Cellular Ammunition Rifle Base (CARB) from AVATAR
To some, the 2009 blockbuster AVATAR was a recycled Dances with Wolves in outer space with blue people, but, I for one really like this film. That is not the reason why FWS discusses the film often, it has to do with the superior design of the RDA weaponry and machinery. One of the highlights was the Matanza Arms CARB modular weapons platform. The base bullpup assault rifle can be quickly customized on a Macro and Micro level while firing the same 6.2x35 caseless round. A number of rail attachment, like magazine-fed grenade launchers, shotguns, and less-than-lethal modules could be mounted to the rail system. Then there was the gross modular variants from the base CARB rifle. PDWs, LMGs, carbines, and even a DMR. To the credit of the film, the CARB variants were widely seen throughout the movie. 

The Klingon, Cardassian, and Bajoran DEW MWS from the Star Trek Universe
When we examine the directed energy prop weapons of various Star Trek alien races, we see a certain design template being carried through handheld unit to the "rifle" unit. This made me think that the rifles are just the pistol with upgrade additions to increase their effectiveness. When the Klingon disruptor rifle was seen for the first time in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, the base disruptor blaster pistol was modified into a carbine-like weapon by the simple addition of an stock that seemed to click into the basic disruptor pistol unit. This weapon was not alone. This also seems to be the case for the Cassdassian and Bajoran pistol/rifle combinations as well. The rifle of the Cardassian military could be an extension of the pistol itself, where the DE hand weapon is docked into the rifle module and thus, the Cardassian distruptor rifle is born. This was never seen on-screen and it only a guess.
Then same could also be true for the Bajoran phaser rifle/pistol combo meal. It is unknown when the Bajoran military began using these phasers, however, it seems that the Bajoran modular DE weapon systems is constructed around the handheld Phaser unit like the Cardassian and Klingon models. This is frequent trend in Star Trek guns and was almost used for the TNG Federation Phasers as well. As previously mentioned, there is no on-screen information to back up this claim, it is just a theory.
The Modular Rifle-Caseless from Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter I and II
Since 2001, the Ghost Recon franchise has become of the most maddening and one of the most enduring video game tactical shooter franchises. While always set in the near-future, the adventures of the US Army high-tech Special Forces scouts was given more toys to play with in their missions south of the border in the disappointing Advanced Warfighter series. While the 2nd Korean War setting of the Ghost Recon 2 games was my first outing with the Ghosts, these games would be my last. Both of the 2nd Korean War based games allowed the player to use the XM8 and the SCAR variant families, Advanced Warfighter would introduce us to the MR-C via the cover-art and promotional material. Unlike the XM8 and the SCAR MWS, the MR-C was a concept bullpup gun by Crye Associates. In the game, the MR-C was the preferred weapon-of-choice for your Ghost character, but was a real dog with a lack of impact that required you pumping 6mm or 5mm caseless rounds into target. Four variants were featured in the GRAW games with some advanced technology, The MR-C was dropped after the second GRAW game in 2007 thankfully. 

The Zorg ZF-1 Pod Weapon from The Fifth Element
One of the bright spots of 1990's sci-fi cinema was the fun and fresh The Fifth Element, and like everything in the film, the guns were outlandish. One of the 2263AD guns became an icon of science fiction weaponry: the Zorg ZF-1 Pod Weapon. This Instant Macro-level variant modular super firearm was fitted with all manner of  offensive weaponry in one compact package, with freeze burst, full-auto kinetic fire, rockets, less-than-lethal net-gun, Zorg's favorite flamethrower, and even poison darts. Under all of the sci-fi plastic prop camouflage was an AK74 variant: the AKS-74U. This weapon was created by sci-fi firearms prop-master Simon Atherton, who also designed the iconic M56 Smart Gun and M41A1 Pulse Rifle from ALIENS.  
The Mobile Infantry. Mk. I Morita MWS from Starship Troopers (1997)
This bullet firing 23rd century assault rifle was not found in the original text, but much like the original book, the films' weapon-of-choice influenced science fiction for decades to come. In the film, the M.I troopers and fleet personnel used the Mark I Morita modular rifle system. To the film's credit, three variants of the Morita were seen on-screen. Most of the M.I. troopers use the standard bullpup assault rifle, while officers and fleet personnel use the cut-down carbine variant that lacks the assault rifle's underslung shotgun attachment. More rare than the assault rifle and the carbine was the "sniper" variant. This oversized, nearly cartoonish, "sniper rifle" was only seen in the hands of one character throughout the film. This is an rare example of an live-action sci-fi having an MWS with all of the variants appearing on-screen. 

The REF Gallant H-90 MWS from ROBOTECH: The New Generation
One of the names for a piece of gear that made the transition from MOSPEADA to ROBOTECH: The New Generation was the name of the directed-energy modular weapon system: the Gallant H90. In the ROBOTECH series, the Robect Expeditionary Force developed the Gallant H90 on world of Tiresia during the Opteran Campaign of 2030 to give more power and flexibility to their forces. It would use usage throughout the REF and Sentient fleets. Massive numbers of the Gallant H90s were shipped to human resistance forces on Earth after the Invid Invasion by the REF via automated drop modules and expeditions. 
This one of the most common human weapons during the resistance. Unlike previous REF small arms, the directed energy particle beam Gallant H90 was powered by micro Protoculture cell in the base pistol variant and magazine-like expanded Protoculture cell in the assault carbine variant. At its core, the H90 was an tear-shaped particle beam pistol that could be upgraded through modular pieces, like a barrel shroud extender and stock assembly. Thus transforming the basic H90 pistol to an semi-auto assault/pistol carbine. This weapon became an icons of the struggle against the Invid. This is one of the earliest honest modular weapon systems in sci-fi.   

The Original Phaser Concept for ST: TNG
During the workup to TNG, the production crew was having to push the world of Starfleet ahead some 100 years from The Original Series, and everything had to appear more advanced and conform Roddenberry's wishes of a more peaceful Starfleet. This policy manifested itself into the overall Phaser design. There were several concepts abandoned by the production, and one of them was a modular platform, where several Phaser units could combine into a larger forming Phaser "rifle" like DEW. There was some "modularness" to the original TOS Phaser design, and this abandoned concept from pre-production honored that tradition. This idea of attachments increasing the power of the Phaser hand unit was reflected in some alien weapon designs and the abandoned 3rd season "Riot Gun" that would have been over-the-emitter attachment to increase the power of the Type-II "Cobra" Phaser to deal with the Borg. 
The United Earth MACO EM-41 Modular Directed Energy Weapon from ST: Enterprise
During the 3rd season of Star Trek: Enterprise we would see Captain Archer request members of the United Earth Military Assault Command (MACO) to enhance the offensive profile of the NX-01 during its desperate mission to prevent the Xindu from destroying the Earth with their super-weapon. The directed energy modular weapon that the MACO operators came onboard with is the Earth Military (EM) 41. At its base model, the EM-41 is an assault carbine with some Micro-Level customization via an rail system. A seen-on-screen variant was the "sniper" EM-41 that had an pop-up scope and extended barrel. One of the attachments seen was for low-light conditions, an under-the-barrel vertical foregrip with powerful light could be added. It is also believed that besides the carbine and sniper variants there was an even shorter variant for VBSS/CQC. These weapons were more effective than the Starfleet Class-III Pulse carbine, causing the NX-01 to carry the EM-41 modular carbine throughout the Xindi Crisis and the Romulan War. Behind the scenes, the EM-41 was directly influenced by the Colt M4A1 carbine.   

The Visitors' Cobalt Laser DE MWS from the original NBC V Universe
One of the television series that haunted my 1980's childhood was NBC's V. The more advanced Reptilian race equipped their soldiers with a very fashionable 1980's laser-blaster that used cobalt in the process of producing directed energy bolts, along with  an oddball laser rifle that seems to be an up-gradable shell to the pistol. When you examine the Visitor laser rifle prop, you can clearly see the pistol nestled at the heart of the rifle. Also, the toy gun marketed for a short time allowed for you to add attachments to upgrade the base cobalt laser pistol to an rifle. This was not marketed under the V name for very long by Arco Toys. Instead, the toy laser gun/rifle was relabeled in 1985/1986 for the ROBOTECH toyline launch as the "ROBOTECH Laser Blaster Target Game Set". It is possible that the propmaster on the set of V decided to use the pistol as the foundation for the rifle as a way to save money. 

Next Time on FWS...
We did not know what would be unleashed on us back in 2001 when a company called Bungie released an Military SF shooter on that new Microsoft home video game console called "the Xbox". Then it became the whirlwind that swept the globe and most of our money into a long-term love affair with John-117. Then we thought it was over after HALO: Reach...and we did not know what would be unleashed on us back in 2012 when 343 Industries promised a new HALO trilogy. Then the horror...the horror. In the next FWS blogpost, we will explore and sadly explain (with some liberal Jack & Coke intake) just what the hell happened to the HALO franchise. 


    Guess Magatron did not make the Cut... The Gun from the Classic TV series The Man from Uncle That converted from a Classic Walther P38 that became the Original Uber Spy gun with a Supressor, stock and IR scope A weapon that very much fits the "Micro" Mod definition.
    Macro and Micro mods for weapons have been floating for a long time. Micro in the Form of Scopes started emerging with the first Scoped combat rifles of the Civil war and were really starting to cook in the two world wars where in Trench warfare both sides were experimenting with Para scope rifles and in the second early forms of Night vision scopes were emerging and all sides issued there standard issue weapons modified for use by snipers.
    Macro really kicked up in later conflicts but has suffered set backs the stoner 63 being a perfect case in point. Today it's ghost has from time to time possessed the M4/M16 Platform where today we have the main line M4 Carbine taking out the M16, and having variants in the form of the Mk18 PDW as well as options like the formerly Ares Shrike now Fightlite MCR offering a belt fed M4 LMG.
    Where we go from here is hard to say. Modularity is expanding beyond the main assault rifles and is now phasing across the board of infantry systems.
    The XM17 pistol is supposed to offer modular options of Caliber change for the Macro being the ability to change barrel, Frame and magazine to accept any number of options from the Nato standard 9mm Parabellum to the .40SW to the Classic American .45ACP at the Macro level but will likely offer Micro in the form of a Dust rail for a light/laser module and perhaps a small rail interface for the new generation of micro red dot optics. as well as Suppressor
    Sub guns may be phasing down but the Son of the Submachine gun the PDW is offering macro levels of caliber change and now micro level stock, fore grip, lights, sight and supressor.
    The Assault, battle Rifle as well as LMG and Infantry GPMG I suspect are about to undergo a larger scale change. Most have adopted previsions for Macro level changes in calibre, barrel length and addition of Parasite weapons like the M203 Grenade launcher, micro level lights, lasers, Scopes, fore grips of various types as well as Supressors but we are starting to See With the Darpa Computational weapon optic, Trackingpoint product line and Russian IWT 640 as well as addition of integrated power management elements mean that the Macro level infantry weapon is about to change again. possibly phasing down a number of additional parts by merging them into singular modules. meaning that secondary night vision, Thermal, Range finding and Illumination/designation of targets into a single module that will assist in Aim of the weapon in both conventional and off hand shooting. along with these for the main weapon additional interface options may farther slave the sighting of parasite weapons like the M320,M203, Mk13, M26, Crye Precision SIX12 and other systems.
    As the main weapon becomes more computerized.
    We are also seeing modular Weapons concepts expand into the sniper area before these were minor macro mods, a milling here a new barrel, reshaping the bolt handle and micro mods like adding a scope and bi pod made to existing battle or even commercial hunting rifles. now the new generation of sniper rifles are built out of modular chassis with previsions to build the whole rifle as a Macro kit and then add scope and other features. Add in the possibilities of the above listed computerized scopes and the new weapons are at the level of being "Lego" Built.

  2. Excellent article, like I said in that Facebook post I lolled at the Weaver Rail Madness Syndrome. While the Steyr AUG may be going out, I do hope that Desert Tech's new MDR Bullpup rifle proves to be a success in the civilian market. A base rifle able to be converted to 5.56 or 7.62 NATO caliber with a Barrel and Bolt conversion is sweet and very good from what I am seeing.

    1. BTW an excellent point on Macro vs. Micro modularity. I never thought of such terms regarding this before. Definately incorporating that into my vocabulary from now on.

  3. Great article! Happy to hear about my modest contribution!
    Something I might add is the near future outgrown of modular weapons, at least my take.
    The attachments features of the future been them Picatinny/ Weaver/M-lok/ Keymod or something else could connect attachment not only mechanically, power contacts integrated to those mating areas will provide power to the accessories from central battery.
    Early models are already in development like powered picatinny rail of T Worx Inc.
    Which feed accessories out of single battery in stock.
    Further down the line mating areas will provide data input/output from central gun computer to control those accessories, just plug & play!

  4. And may I mention the FN F2000 bullpup, which was certainly a looker if nothing else.

  5. Thanks for the great comments! Man, I cannot believe I forgot about Megatron!Ugh! I think I might add him...thanks for the heads up!
    I held the FS200 (civilian model) at an Fort Worth gun show at the FN booth, and it fits well in the hand, more than you think. I would love to shoot it...it is expensive.

  6. Weaver Rail Madness Syndrome is something new for me. This one is really interesting and blogs about guns are my all time favorites.
    MA Gun License

  7. First heard of the Bushmaster ACR back when the Magpul Masada appeared on Discovery's Future Weapons. Looked like a great platform, true definition of modular in almost every aspect but looks like the rising cost of the weapon along with a potentially fatal malfunction has killed any interest in the rifle.

    1. No what killed interest was that the licence holder to build them Remington and Bushmaster took the weapon made a tone of promises and then neglected them all. They said it would be competitive with AR rifles but priced it very high, they said they would offer Alternative calibers nothing happened, they said It would have all kinds of options that they never followed through on.

  8. To be a pedant the IMI Galil really has nothing to do with the AR15 other than the cartridge and sights and peep sights are not exactly unique to the AR15 predating that rifle by many decades. Despite both feeding 5.56mm the magazines are not compatible which is understandable as the original AR15 magazines available in the 1970s were not the best and the Galil was designed to be nothing if not reliable.

    The Galil is basically a clone (all be it cosmetically different) of the Finish Valmet M76 rechambered in 5.56mm which in turn is a product improved AK47.

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