China’s Got a Supergun
Beijing’s new infantry weapon is cheaper and simpler than the American version
China’s got a high-tech new gun that combines a rifle and grenade launcher. The ZH-05 Objective Individual Combat Weapon fires “smart” explosives that can kill enemies hiding behind cover.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because the Pentagon has been working on a similar concept. The ZH-05 is yet another Chinese weapon based on a Western design. But this time, the copy could be as good as the original.
The U.S. Air Force and Navy used guided munitions as far back as the Vietnam War—and in the 1980s the Army fielded smart missiles small enough for teams of just a few soldiers to use.
But the precision-guided munition revolution passed over the individual rifleman. The foot soldier’s arsenal in the late 1990s wasn’t much different from that of his 1950s predecessor.
The Army’s XM-29 Objective Individual Combat Weapon was supposed to change all that. This 5.56-millimeter assault rifle included a computer-controlled 20-millimeter grenade launcher that could accurately explode directly over a wall or trench, raining shrapnel on anyone hiding below.
The XM-29 would render useless the age-old tactic of taking cover. In theory. In practice, the weapon was too heavy at nearly 14 pounds fully loaded. And at $12,000 apiece, the XM-29 cost about 20 times what the Army paid for an M-16A2 rifle. Was one XM-29 really better than 20 M-16s?
The weapon also suffered an identity crisis. Was it a rifle or a grenade launcher? Should you fire the rifle first and then follow up with the grenade launcher? Or should you look for opportunities to use the grenades first? Did the XM-29 even need to be both a rifle and a grenade launcher?
The XM-29 evolved into the XM-25 Punisher, which omits the rifle and scales up the grenade to 25 millimeters. The Army sent a few Punishers to Afghanistan, and the troops seem to like it.
Gun versus gun
The ZH-05 OICW is pattered on the original XM-29 design. The Chinese gun combines a 5.8-millimeter rifle and a 20-millimeter smart grenade launcher in an over-under configuration. The new weapon weighs just 10 pounds fully loaded—its low weight likely due to the launcher’s antiquated, but still effective, manual bolt action.
A 19th-century-style bolt action on a modern grenade launcher might seem like a technical weakness, but it’s actually a strength. The action is dead simple to use and has fewer parts that could break. Any loading system designed to be faster would also be heavier.
The grenade has a damage radius of 7.7 meters, greater than that of other People’s Liberation Army grenades. PLA tests judged the OICW grenade 60 percent more effective than mortars in urban combat. The ZH-05 launcher has a range of 800 meters and a high first-round hit probability.
The ZH-05 has a less advanced aiming system than the American XM-29. The American gun had a built-in thermal viewer for picking out targets in the dark. The ZH-05, on the other hand, appears to only mount a two- or four-power telescopic sight.
So, which one is better?
The ZH-05 is light and simple but has its drawbacks. Besides lacking a night sight, it can fire only one grenade at a time without reloading. By contrast, the American Punisher is almost perfect with its semi-automatic function and night sight. Its 14-pound weight is its only liability.
But almost-perfect comes at a price. An XM-25 costs $35,000, a staggering sum for a handheld weapon. We don’t know the cost of a ZH-05, but it’s certainly less.
The U.S. and Chinese weapons are so different that a direct comparison is difficult and probably useless. The technologically inferior ZH-05 would be unsuitable for the U.S. military, and the XM-25 would be unaffordable by Chinese standards. Each country built its own unique version of the same smart-gun concept.
Still, don’t be surprised to see the XM-25’s thermal sight on top of the Chinese supergun some day.