The Predecessor to ACR: SPIW, Project SALVO
The Goals of the US Army ACR Program
The General History of the Advanced Combat Rifle Program
The Genesis of the ACR Program
Phase I (1985/1986)
The US Army issued six funded contracts to some of the most well-known defense companies in the world with the industry alternative program at around February of 1986. However, in the official US Army report issued in 1992, it starts that the contracts were issued in 1985. Those six companies were: AAI Corporation, ARES Inc., Colt, McDonnell Douglas, Steyr-Mannlicher, and Heckler & Koch. According to the document on the ACR Program, the US Army reached out to eight companies, five companies were minimally accepted for a “breadboard demonstrator” presentation of their ACR model at the end of six months. However, it was too narrow of a timeframe and none of the five were able to present their ACR prototype and the government extended the timeframe out to 21 months. From the official report, H&K was already being considered and was not part of the five “breadboard demonstrator” contracts. At the end of Phase I of the ACR Program, live-fire demonstration and presentations was held along with initial evaluation for the candidate advanced combat rifles. It was here that two of the six candidate rifles were dropped from the ACR Program due to issues with the ammunition and/or mechanical operation of the candidate rifle at around 1987. Dropped were the ARES Industry ACR that fired 5mm caseless rounds and the McDonnell Douglas ACR that fired these oddball “chiclet” rounds that fired salvos of flechettes, almost like a shotgun shell. These weapons will be discussed in further detail below.
Phase II (1987-1988)
At the beginning of Phase II of the ACR Program in 1987, two of the six were dropped from consideration, leaving us with the “Fab Four”: H&K G11, AAI ACR, the Colt ACR, and the Steyr ACR. During Phase II, it seemed that more tests were conducted to make sure these prototype combat rifles and their exotic ammunition types were safety enough for the rigorous field testing being planned at the upgraded Buckner Range. Also during Phase II was more logistical planning and discussions of the testing parameters of these next-generation combat rifles. On the other end, the companies still in the running were likely improving their candidate rifles and constructing the amount of rifles and ammunition necessary for the upcoming Phase III testing. It was during Phase II that the US Navy and US Marines withdrew their support for the ACR Program in December of 1987 at the Test Integration Working Group.
Phase III (1989-1991)
For the weeks long Phase III field testing at the Buckner Range, and grueling schedule of weapons testing, that went beyond just firing at targets. The US Army wanted the ACR candidate rifles to be tested as close to combat conditions as possible in a controlled environment during peacetime. To simulate those combat conditions, the field testing was conducted at various times of the day and in various weather conditions. Activities like dispersion fire, hit performance firing were held in conjunction with testing the Fab Four for reliability, maintainability, human factors, safety, and compatibility. During the three phases of testing at Ft. Benning, both male and female shooters were recruited for gathering testing data on how these ACR candidates were handled by the different sexes in combat.
The 3 Advanced Ammunition Types in the ACR Program
Interestingly enough, there was a 3rd Reich attempted towards the end of the war with developing an caseless combat rifle in 8mm. Four experimental caseless rounds were found in the ruins of Hillerslaben Providing Grounds and interviews with captured officials informed the Allies of an Nazi caseless ammo program that was begin in 1932.
The “Fab Four” Candidates
The Steyr ACR
The Colt M16A2 ACR
The AAI ACR
This smoothbore rifle fired an saboted fin-stabilized flechette packed into the standard 5.56x45mm casing in either 3-round bursts or semi-auto. This presented several issues with the AAI ACR because the AAI ACR could not fire the traditional M16 5.56mm ball ammunition, like the standard M885 round without critically damaging the AAI rifle, but originally, the AAI ACR could accept regular STANAG M16 magazines. That means in the heat of battle, an shooter could jam an regular M16 mag loaded with regular ammo into the AAI ACR rifle and attempt to fire it with critical damage between done. Thus, AAI altered the magwell of their ACR candidate, preventing the use of STANAG magazines. However, there was nothing prevent a desperate soldier from hand-loading an regular 5.56mm round into the chamber of the AAI ACR.
One addition to the AAI ACR candidate was the combination sound suppressor/flash hider mounted on all of the AAI needle-rifles. This was due to the massive report and flash when the AAI ACR was fired. According to the information I read, the unmodified prototype rifle was louder than the M16 and had greater muzzle flash. Even with the addition of the suppressor/flash hider, the AAI ACR was still slightly louder than the M16A2 unsuppressed! This could have made the AAI ACR problematic for Special Operations units when the mission required stealth and not direct-action.
was the repository of the equipment necessary to product the flechettes needed for both their (AAI) contract and the Steyr-Mannlicher contract and the MDHC (McDonnell Douglas ACR) contract)".
The H&K G11K2 ACR
Among the Fab Four ACR candidate rifles that were being tested the summer of 1990 at Ft. Benning, the Heckler & Koch experimental caseless G11 rifle was the most advanced, tested, and risky. For the test, H&K had shipped 15 G11 "Konfiguration 2" or "K2" to the ACR Program field trials along with 75,000 of rounds of the caseless 4.73x33mm ammunition. Oddly, this West German rifle owed its then current existence to the 1981-1988 undersecretary of the US Army: James R. Ambrose. By the time of the early 1980's, the H&K caseless rifle concept was looking for more funding due to the October 1980 NATO STANAG 4172 that adopted the 5.56x45mm round over other contenders, like the H&K 4.7mm caseless round.
Developed by the West German chemical firm Dynamit Nobel, the caseless ammunition was one of the most difficult elements for the development of the G11. The roughly red-orange box-shaped ammunition was brittle and could crack and break if roughly handled or exposed to hostile conditions. If the propellant was cracked or clipped, the round could fail to load or worse. H&K themselves claimed that the 4.73 DM11 round was waterproof and able to withstand rough treatment. However, to solve any issues, the 51 grain 4.73mm caseless ammo was shipped into the sealed clear plastic containers. The long and skinny 45 round magazines were reloaded by peeling off the seal and placing the ammo reloading case onto the magazine and pressing down to feed the ammo into the G11 magazine. An important note on the ammunition, it is listed as being 4.73x33mm by H&K, but then the G11K2 ACRs shipped to the US were listed as firing an 4.92x34mm round.
To meet the goal of the ACR Program of putting more rounds onto the targets, the G11 ACR candidate fired a three round burst that delayed the recoil until the last bullet left the barrel. However, as you can see in the gif, the recoil looks brutal and was unlike any other rifle at the time. Interestingly enough, the three-round burst had a higher rate-of-fire than the full auto mode (2100 vs. 460). As noted by many today and even then, the internal mechanism of the G11 was grossly complex to the point of people making jokes that you needed a master's in engineering to service the weapon. In the 1989 manuals issued to the nearly 50 shooters of the ACR Program informed the user of the G11 to stop at a certain point in servicing the weapon due to its complexity. Much more about the bullpup German Magic Space Gun will be covered in a upcoming Guns from the Future article.
The Other Two Candidate Rifles
Both of these candidate rifles were terminated out of the ACR Program around Phase II and well before the Phase III trials (around 1987). Some sources point to the ARES and MDHC candidates are allowed to reenter the ACR Program in October of 1987. However, this means that both the ARES and MDHC ACRs where not field tested against the Fab Four.
The ARES-Olin AIWS ACR
The McDonnell Douglas AIWS ACR
We know that originally the MDHC entry had been developed the AIWS in the 1970’s has a salvo-firing rifle that used rectangle-shaped caseless ammunition that was nicknamed “chiclet” that housed duplex or even triplex bullets in 8.6mm in a propellant bed. Due to issues of higher than expected recoil and semi-auto fire mode only, the concept was reworked to have the weapon to fire flechettes instead via the same “chiclet” ammunition concept. Ten of these chiclet ammo packages were loaded into a side-loading magazine, yielding a great amount of firepower.
The timeframe of the switch from bullets to darts is unknown, but it very likely around the time of the beginning of the ACR Program. It is noted in the ACR Program summary that MDHC attempted several different types of flechette ammunition until settling on three darts packed into a .338 cartridge. These flechette-firing MDHC AIWS ACR prototypes were tested again by the ACR Program during Phase II in May of 1988. By June of 1988, the ACR Project dropped the MDHC ACR candidate again, ending their bid. Again, the immaturity of the prototype rifles came clearly through and issues arose due to the complex ammunition that was indeed a salvo weapon, but lacked polish and effectiveness due to the massive technical issues. There was also aiming issues with the flechettes, including that none of the deadly darts were on target in short distances and even more problematic in longer distances.
The Outcome of the ACR Program
That being said, for the time being, the US Army would stay with the M16A2 platform and move in another direction to increase lethality and hit probability.
The Steyr ACR Final Verdict
The AAI ACR Final Verdict
The relationship between the US military and AAI developing future guns goes back to the 1950's, when the SPWI project was attempting to develop an needle rifle and more recently when AAI attempted to developed an caseless rifle for the CARS program and it made sense that AAI would be one of the companies given the green light to enter the ACR program trials. Due to the similarities in ammunition to the Steyr ACR candidate, the 1992 ACR summary report lumps them together and so, I'll be repeating myself with the results here. The flechette rounds were worse overall than the standards set by the ACR Program test guidelines in the three firing ranges tested (short, intermediate, and long).
The H&K G11K2 ACR Final Verdict
the feasibility of a caseless ammunition rifle system has been successfully demonstrated with this effort”.
statistically worse” than the M16A2. For the intermediate range, the G11 did worse than standard when fired in semi-auto (likely due to the recoil) and with the low-power optical sight (there was no G11 iron sight...sorry Black Ops). This was also true of the caseless weapon being fired in burst mode in the intermediate range testing.
It was concluded by the test results that the G11K2 performed better in burst fire mode than semi-auto, which was in direct contrast to the M16A2. Overall, the G11 was not a match for the M16A2 standard. However, at 75 meters, the H&K was better than the standard in burst. As with all of the ACR candidate Fab Four, the G11 did not meet the 100% improvement threshold, but impressed the ACR Program overall with the efforts of H&K and Dynamit Nobel (who formed a consortium in West Germany for the caseless ammunition. So H&K made the weapon and the DNAG consortium made the ammo). From reading in-between the lines in the 1992 summary report, you gather why the mature G11K2 ACR candidate was not moved on down the line to being the next US Army/USAF combat rifle.
for future purpose, the melding of the AAI mechanism with the highly superior H&K (HMX) propellant might conceivably result in a weapon superior to both candidates”.
The Colt M16A2 ACR Final Verdict
Despite some promising test results and the Colt ACR being based on the current US military combat rifle, the ACR Program did not want the future infantryman to be forced to carry two different types of bullets into combat then switch in the middle of a gun battle between the different types of rounds. However, the duplex round at short range did increase hit probability with a salvo spread. Two other elements that likely worked against the Colt ACR is the explosion of one of the rifles during testing of the duplex ammunition with the trailing projectile becoming lodged in the barrel and that the duplex 5.56mm round was heavier than the standard M885 round; adding to the soldiers burden in the field along with logistical challenges.
What Happened to the Fab Four after the ACR Program Ended?
What If...the US Army had Adopted One of the ACR Candidates?
Why Hasn't the US Military Not Replaced the M16 Yet?
To me, given my knowledge of the history of the M-16 and how it was thought of by Vietnam Vets in the 1980's, it is deeply vexing to see the current white-hot love affair that the M-16 is having with the American civilian shooter market, American Law Enforcement, and international military organizations.
Sci-Fi and the ACR Program
On the surface, it may not seem that the US Army Advanced Combat Rifle Program of the 1980's had much if any impact on the realm of science fiction...however, I think there some echos of the ACR Program to be explored. At the time, there was a number of publications devoted to exploring the world of firearm, military hardware, and technology, like International Combat Arms. Creators of all type and genres used these resources to investigate what future soldiers would be armed with and programs like SPWI, and ACR helped give creators a pathway. High profile weapons like the H&K G11 also helped forward the profile of the ACR Program and caseless ammunition to the point that caseless ammunition became a hallmark for military science fiction works like the M41A1 Pulse Rifle from ALIENS. At the time as well, tabletop gaming was apex of popularity and the companies, like FASA, that pumped out source material needed ideas to full those pages. One such example is the FASA Battletech Technical Readout 3026 from 1987 that seems to have used the ACR Program Fab Four as a source of inspiration for the small arms of the Inner Sphere. Then people exposed to those examples from the FASA technical manual, like me, then use it as inspiration for their own and so on. In addition, due to the futuristic design to the Fab Four, the weapons themselves were used by creators to pattern their own fictional futuristic weapons after, like the Evangelion pellet rifle that was directly lifted from the Steyr ACR candidate or the AcMag from the Demolition Man. With the age of the internet, the ACR Program and the candidate rifles have been given a second life and able to reach more creators.
At a glance, it would seem that only the H&K magic Kaut space gun, the G11, would have entries on here. However, after some painstaking research by myself and Yoel, we have come up with some examples outside of the G11. Please note, we limited the number of G11 examples and the full list of those G11 examples will be explored in its own article.
The Steyr ACR from The Punisher War Journal
The Colt ACR from "Action Man Mortar Combat Mission Raid" 2002 Figure
In America, the Action Man line of toy soldiers is more unknown due to it being a British creation that based on the American GI Joe action figures of the same time. Palitoy began their Action Man toyline in 1964 and two years later, the first plastic toy soldiers were released. Much like the Hasbro GI Joe toyline, the Action Man toyline has popped in and out of toy shelves over the course of its history. In 1993-2006, Hasbro relaunched the toyline with more of an action/adventure theme rather than straight military. During this time, one of the more military figures produced was "Mortar Combat Mission Raid" in 2002 that featured a mortar soldier with the only example of the Colt M16A2 ACR. Found by chief FWS contributor Yoel, this toy soldier is armed with an Colt ACR. It is madding to see the only example of the Colt ACR out of the context of the ACR Program with no explanation and no further information on why this ACR candidate rifle is there. It just exists in his plastic hands and Action Man is not saying a word about his super rare ACR. The odd thing about the Colt ACR in the figure is that there is no magazine in the weapon, but Hasbro included the optic and something mounted under the forward assembly of the rifle. Maybe one day, we'll get an answer on the inclusion of this weapon. A big thank you goes to Yoel for locating this one!
The G11 "Guerrilla Rifle" from Rhea Gall Force
The long running military science fiction anime and manga series Gall Force, we see the German magic space gun in the hands of the guerrilla forces along some weapons based around the G11 such as Norton's G11-like handgun. In the 1988 OVA Rhea Gall Force installment, it is 2085 on the planet Earth and some of the ancient alien technology is found on Luna during World War III. It is believed that the best option for humanity is to evaluate to the Mars base. The G11 appears to be no real different than the real-steel G11 in both operation and ammunition, but it was not used by any of the main Rhea Gall Force characters.
The GI Joe XMLA-3R Laser Rifle from the GI Joe: Real American Hero
The staff on the GI Joe relaunch project embarked on a great deal of research, including field trips to Natick Army Labs in Massachusetts, which had examples of the AAI SPWI flechette rifles. Some of what they saw was incorporated into the designs of the weapons that the soldiers carried in the toyline and TV series. This maybe were the XMLA-3R laser rifle basic design originated from, however, I cannot find any concrete evidence. The first appearance of the XMLA-3R was with the original Snow Job figure released in the second series of the Hasbro GI Joe: Real American Hero figures and vehicles. Mentioned in the data card was the name of the laser rifle that was in the packaging. Around this time, Sunbow/Marvel developed a TV mini-series around the MASS Device that aired in 1983 and featured laser DEWs in the hands of COBRA and the Joes. The standard issue laser DE rifle for the GI Joe team was the same as the one included with the Snow Job figure: the XMLA-3R. When a full series was ordered, the XMLA-3R continued to be the standard Joe laser rifle. If indeed the XMLA-3R is based on an AAI rifle, it is likely the SPWI candidate or some other AAI prototype, but not the AAI ACR in the ACR Program trials due to the timeframe. The GI Joe series was already wrapped up by the time the general public knew anything about the AAI flechette rifle.
The Standard Suit Rifle from Uchū no Senshi
In 1988, Sunrise and Bandai Visual would release Uchu no Senshi (or “Cosmic Warrior” in English) in a three part Laserdisc release-only format that was based on the iconic 1959 Starship Troopers novel. The LaserDiscs were never released to the West and much lore and mystery was constructed around this SST anime. Given the amazing armored powered suit design by mecha master artist Kazutaka Miyatake, the APS from Uchu no Senshi became famous and in the hands of some of the CLASS-II powered armor was the standard suit rifle that was loosely based on the H&K G11, right down to the overall blocky design, the magazine placement and replication of the caseless ammunition.
The Pellet Rifle from Evangelion Universe
One of the most popular mecha-based animes of all time is Neon Genesis Evangelion and it is odd to think that among the interesting mecha that populates this universe is one of the rare examples of the ACR Program candidate rifles...the flechette-firing Steyr ACR. Styled nearly the same as the Steyr ACR, but supersized for the scale for the Evangelion mecha, specifically Unit 00, 01, and 02. While there is little information on why it is called "the pellet rifle", there is some sources that state in the Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone movie, it is said that the Pellet Rifles fire an 209mm caseless projectile. Unlike the real-steel Steyr ACR, the Pellet Rifle does not possess a plastic magazine, but rather an all metal magazine that looks more like it should be on an directed energy rifle of some sort. Given the Pellet Rifles appear in this popular franchise, the Pellet Rifle has been featured in models, toys, and video games. For the record, the H&K G11 can be seen in the hands of some soldiers in the Evangelion anime.
The Magnetic Accelerator Rifle from Demolition Man
The Magnetic Accelerator gun, the last produced handheld weapon of this millennium displaced the flow of neutrons through a non-linear cycloid supercooled electromagnetic force. The AcMag, now reactivated, should concurrently supercool and achieve fission in...two point six minutes". The conflict between the two displays of information comes from simple production mistakes. For the production of the film, the G11 is a cast prop from armourer Michael Papac based on a loaned G11 prototype from H&K themselves. H&K had to be directly involved with the plans for the weapon in the film and even took the "futured-up" prop used for Demolition Man at the end of filming.
The Steyr ACR in Black Ops: II?!
Agent Helix's G11 from GI Joe: Rise of COBRA toyline
1. Future Weapon by Kevin Dockery, published by the Berkeley Group in 2007
2. The ACR Program Volume I Summary by Vernon E. Shisler and Stephen M. Mango, published by the US Army Armament Research, Development, and Engineering Center in February 1992.
3. Forgotten Weapons Youtube Channel by Ian McCollum
4. The Armourers Bench web-article series on the ACR Program weapons
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