A smoldering debate over the need for a more powerful sniper rifle for Marines is once again , to replace one that is lacking by the Marine Corps' own admission, is ablaze.
A recent story by the Washington Post has generated renewed controversy among Marines who say that some snipers have been outgunned on deployments, taking fire from targets they can see, but not shoot. While the Marine Corps' M40 is undeniably rugged and accurate, its .308 cartridge is unreliable beyond half a mile. 800-900 meters.
The story compares the Corps' rifle to the Chinese M99, which can reach targets twice as far away. The British and U.S. Special Operations Command also have sniper rifles with better firepower that can reach nearly a mile. And the Army's M2010 can reach targets about 1,300 yards away.
Marines told the Post that having the best training doesn't matter if their rifles and cartridges are subpar. Some said they fear better weapons can reach the hands of their enemies, including Islamic State militants.
Marine snipers in long-range engagements have long been frustrated with by the Corps' Vietnam-era M40s and .308 Winchester cartridge, which simply put cannot shoot as far as the Marines pulling its trigger. In 2005, Marines operating in Iraq were calling on the Corps to develop a sniper rifle that had a range of more than 1,600 yards, nearly twice that of the M40.
In Afghanistan, Taliban gun teams, aware of the M40's reach, would set up their gun teams just outside the rifle's range. They'd rain fire on Marines, knowing they weren't likely to be hit back. Marines were forced to relay their location to close air support or artillery teams, hunker down and await help.
The Maine Corps has worked to improve the M40, creating the A5 variant by dropping the legacy rifles inner workings into an improved modular chassis built by Remington. It provides Marines a foldable stock for moving in confined spaces and allows for attachment of more rail-mounted accessories. The improvements do nothing to address the effective range of the .308, however.
In 2012, Marine snipers operating downrange forwarded a position paper up their chain of command that outlined their perceived deficiencies with ammunition used with their M40A5 and M107 sniper rifles.
While some efforts have been made by Marine officials in Quantico, Virginia, to replace the M40, plans have repeatedly stalled.
In 2009, it appeared that snipers might get their wish when officials with Marine Corps Combat Development Command called for the development of a sniper rifle built for the 21st century.
"The current M40 Series is limited by a caliber not suited for precision fire at distances greater than 914 meters, is extremely heavy relative to its capability and is readily identifiable by its sounds and flash signature," a draft proposal from MCCDC stated at the time.
The Marine Corps began working hand-in-hand with SOCOM to develop requirements for a new rifle. But the Marine Corps dropped out of the project, even as SOCOM proceeded, before companies began competing to produce a product. At the time, some officials said it was more gun than the Corps needed.
Meanwhile, the Army's M2010 Enhanced Sniper Rifle was fully fielded in 2011. About two years later, SOCOM fielded its Precision Sniper Rifle.
The Army's M2010 Enhanced Sniper Rifle has a range of about 1,300 yards. A new story by the Washington Post has reignited the debate over the Corps' needs for new sniper rifles.
Photo Credit: Ms. Andricka Thomas/ATEC
Ryan Innis, a former scout sniper with 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion, said there are pros and cons when using the Corps' .308 cartridges. They're light, so Marines can carry a lot of ammunition, he said. But that lack of weight also contributes to them being more easily pushed around by wind and other environmental factors, which can make hitting precision targets at longer ranges tricky.
Innis, who left the Marine Corps as a sergeant in 2013 after serving on the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit's anti-piracy raid force near East Africa, said the European standard .338 Lapua Magnum — which is also used by SOCOM — would serve Marines better in combat.
"Marines make fantastic shots and are world renowned," said Innis, now a firearms instructor with Condition Zero Training Group in Michigan. "But the longest shots are taken typically by foreign snipers because they have some of these calibers."
With defense budgets tightening, though, Innis said it's likely the Corps is unable to invest all that would need to go into fielding a new sniper rifle. Shrinking budgets have in recent years put small arms modernization on the back burner as the Marine Corps fights preserve larger programs leaders say they'll need to contend with future threats, like the multi-billion-dollar F-35B joint strike fighter. Leaders call the aircraft critical to the service's ability to counter future threats.
Marine Corps Systems Command told the Post it has "evaluated several options for replacing the M40 series sniper rifle; however, the weapon continues to meet our operational requirements."
A lot more would go into fielding new sniper rifles than just the cost of the individual weapons, Innis said. goes beyond purchasing individual rifles. It includes includes training e Everyone from scout snipers to Marine armorers would have to complete new training to scout snipers and the purchase and sustainment of new ammunition in the logistics pipeline.
"Training and implementing a whole new caliber and whole new weapons system is something smaller elite teams or big-Army can afford," Innis said.
Still, a heavier hitting round would be an unquestionable asset, particularly in combat. Innis said he and other Marine snipers have been able to hit targets more than 1,200 yards away using the M40 at the Corps' Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, California. But those feats are far less likely in less-than-ideal conditions, he said.
"When you have someone shooting on range day at [Camp Lejeune, North Carolina] even with a little wind kicking up, you are going to get accurate shots," he said. "But in combat you rifle is not clean, you are not in the best shooting positions and it pulls back the effective range a little. So .338 would push your effective range way past .308."
And when those rounds strike their targets even at long ranges, they would have devastating effect. Hunters use .300 Win Mag to take down big game like elk and moose.
"Three-three-eight would turn a whitetail [deer] inside out," Innis said.
All that considered, the M40 could remain a reliable workhorse in an urban environment where many shots are likely to be close and where concealing a sniper's location is paramount.
"The .308 suppressed at night is dead quiet and extremely accurate," Innis said.