This ‘Funny Contraption’ Could Make Life Easier for Australian Machine Gunners
The Reaper is a support pole for your gun
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
When the legendary American-born inventor Hiram Maxim designed the first modern machine gun at the end of the 19th century, he completely changed the face of war. But after more than a century of development, one thing still limits these deadly weapons — their weight.
In early May 2016, the Australian Army said it was looking at a piece of American kit that, it believed, might finally ease the burden on its light machine-gunners. Aussie troops will experiment with what is essentially a curved metal pole that they can wear like a backpack — and which could help support their machine guns.
“It’s a funny-looking contraption,” Australian Army warrant officer Nicolas Crosbie, one of the soldiers taking part in the test, commented in an official video. “I’m interested to see … when we trial it with the soldiers, what they think of it and that sort of thing.”
Advanced Accuracy Solutions makes this novel “weapon support” that it calls the Reaper. Extending up over the shooter’s shoulder, the Reaper keeps the gun steady and reduces the strain necessary to keep the weapon at the ready.
A soldier would then attach their rifle or machine gun to the end using a length of cord and a strap. Running down the length of the pole, the line extends and retracts as the user moves their gun — sort of like a retractable dog leash.
With guns weighing anywhere from 15 to 30 pounds unloaded, machine gunners’ arms are liable to get tired quickly while holding the gun on target or while standing or kneeling for long periods. The system itself adds fewer than five pounds to a soldier’s load.
“The Reaper literally allows for unlimited time patrolling with M-249 and M-240 machine guns,” Advanced Accuracy Solutions’ Jason Semple told War Is Boring in an email, referring to two gun types in U.S. military service. “The system actually allows you to patrol at the ready position, as it 100-percent removes the weight away from your arms and shoulders.”
With recent experience fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the Australian Army is acutely aware of the how taxing it can be for troops to lug weapons and gear around on long foot patrols. Canberra’s squads carry a version of the Belgian-designed F.N. Minimi as their primary support weapon. The F-89A1 weighs almost 15 pounds without ammunition.
“Personnel patrolling for long periods of time can become combat ineffective, or at the very least have a diminished response to a threat,” Semple noted. “The last hour of a patrol is just as important as the first.”
In October 2015, the Idaho-based company showed off the Reaper to the Australians at their Army Innovation Day showcase. The country’s ground combat branch subsequently decided to put the equipment through a six-month trial that should wrap up before the end of this year.
“Ergonomically, on the range, it’s a good bit of kit,” Crosbie said. But before the Reaper goes into battle, it will have to win over the soldiers who would actually use it in combat.
After the official video appeared on YouTube, blogs and individuals — this author included — were quick to question whether any praise could survive a real-life scenario. However, the military and police veterans behind the Reaper are convinced they can satisfy their critics.
“AAS is cognizant of the skepticism that surrounds a product like ours, as it is unusual and definitely something that is new,” Semple wrote. “We have a 100-percent track record of showing those who are initially skeptical and transforming their opinions. The system sells itself once you have tried it out.”
During demonstrations and tests, the Reaper has definitely shown it can work as advertised, Semple said. He claimed he’d seen people rigged with the pole system fire machine guns at targets more than 2,500 feet away with “excellent accuracy,” even while standing.
The gear doesn’t get in the way of loading or unloading, clearing jammed guns or shooting while lying prone on the ground, according to Semple. And pictures on AAS’ Webpage show individuals easily wearing the rig under body armor and packs.
A soldier can also fold the system away when they’re not using it. This means troops could wear the setup inside vehicles or helicopters, potentially helping them aim on the move.
Semple explained that his company demonstrated the Reaper for military and police in the United States, Europe and Asia. Some have already bought the gear. But Semple said he would not divulge these customers’ identities. “The Reaper has over a thousand hours of operational and training employment,” he claimed.
The interest clearly is there — and has been for nearly 100 years. While AAS’ Website says the Reaper involves “patented technology not seen in this industry before,” people have been trying to solve the machine-gun weight problem for nearly as long as machine guns have existed.
During World War I, troops armed with Chauchat or Browning Automatic Rifle machine guns would employ so-called “walking fire” or “marching fire.” This concept involves soldiers firing from the hip as they advanced in order to keep the enemy hunkered down.
So key was this method to battle plans that the U.S. Army initially planned to give troops a special “cup” to put on their belts to go with their Browning rifles. The gun’s stock would sit in the cup, helping keep the weapon pointed straight.
“Obviously, firing from the hip precludes the use of sights,” small arms expert Daniel Watters wrote in an email to War Is Boring. “For years, it taken as an article of faith that the volume of fire would be enough to overcome the lack of precision.”
In the 1950s and ’60s, the Army and gun-makers tried again to lighten the load by shifting the weight of the belted ammunition into backpack-mounted magazines. Ultimately, these ungainly setups became more popularly associated with movies such as the 1987 action classic Predator.
Another famous example is one of the movie prop gun’s from the 1986 film Aliens. The fictional M-56 Smart Gun is actually a combination of a modified World War II-era German MG-42 machine gun and various other parts on the swinging arm of a Steadicam.
You can see these and other camera-holding devices on the sidelines of many sporting events, where cameramen have to hold their own heavy gear for long periods of time.
In a briefing in February, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory discussed various exoskeletons and other “stabilization concepts” that might ease soldiers’ burdens and improve their accuracy. Three years earlier, U.S. Special Operations Command had disclosed it was working on a similar project.
The “‘field-tested human-weapon interface” — a particularly obtuse way of describing putting the buttstock of a gun against your shoulder — has remained “unchanged since the crossbow,” the Army engineers complained in their presentation. “At what point does ‘field-tested’ mean ‘idea-stagnation?’”
Attacking the problem from a different angle, the U.S. Army has invested considerable time and effort on coming up with lighter ammunition. Cartridges that are shorter overall, use plastic casings or eschew this shell altogether might help trim pounds off future machine guns.
To some, it’s not immediately clear how the Reaper improves on these earlier attempts. “Marksmanship competition shooters have their own tricks in stance and accessories to support a heavy target rifle while standing, but these tricks don’t always lend themselves to the battlefield,” Watters explained.
“The formal target shooter has time to prepare their stance, knowing exactly where their target is going to appear, when it will appear and for how long,” he added. “The soldier on the battlefield isn’t guaranteed to have such a cooperative enemy.”
In addition, existing training regimens might not be compatible with the Reaper. To really take advantage of the gear, the Australian Army or any other prospective customer might have to be prepared to change basic notions of combat.
“The problem would seem to be that when soldiers come under fire, their normal response is to take cover, lie down and return fire from the prone position … or supporting their weapon on a wall,” Anthony Williams, editor of IHS Jane’s annual volume on ammunition, noted in an email to War Is Boring. “In which case, this device becomes somewhat useless.”
“The obvious approach to lightening the load is … based on polymer-cased-telescoped ammunition, but that requires entirely new weapons,” he added.
Telescoped rounds feature a special design that allows the bullet to sit down inside the case with the gunpowder. The shorter rounds mean the guns that shoot them can also be shorter.
And this is where Reaper might shine the brightest. Exoskeletons, advanced ammunition and new guns have all proven to be particularly difficult and expensive to build.
With far more resources than its Australian counterpart, the U.S. Army has spent more than a decade and millions of dollars trying to cook up telescoped and caseless ammunition and firearms to go with them. The ground combat branch won’t even begin evaluating and showing off the latest versions until some time in 2017, according to an April briefing.
The arrival of any future “Iron Man” suit is even farther off. So, in the interim, the Reaper might be a useful and cost-effective alternative.
By the end of the year, we might know whether Crosbie and his Australian comrades agree.
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