The 5.56mm NATO Mousegun and Three Watermelons

By Randy Wakeman

A great deal has been written about the 5.56mm NATO / .223 Remington, both pro and con. The history of the 5.56mm NATO and the A-15 service rifle is long, convoluted and unsavory. Books have been devoted to the subject and more will be. It is an epic saga, full of political and military ineptitude, falsified testing, staged reports and insider graft. It is a confusing, contorted and twisted journey. See if you can follow all of the gory details.

What about those watermelons? Well, in July of 1960, General Curtis E. LeMay of the USAF attends a 4th of July get-together and birthday party for the former president of Fairchild, Richard Boutelle. A Colt production AR-15 happens to be there, with watermelons set up at 50 and 150 yards. General LeMay kills one watermelon at 50 yards and then at least severely wounds a second watermelon at 150 yards. The third watermelon was reportly spared and devoured at the party.

The two watermelons were killed so well at this party that General LeMay decided he would recommend the AR-15 as a replacement for the Air Force's M-1 carbines. The story of the M1 Carbine is quite a tale in itself, going from the death of John Browning's brother, “Ed.” to further development by the bootlegger and ex-con David “Carbine” Williams, who was hired by Winchester in 1939. Though some six million M1/M2 carbines and variants were produced, it was considered a short range weapon with its effectiveness falling off after 200 yards. Sound familiar? It is also considered underpowered for big-game hunting, even with expanding bullets, which should also sound hauntingly familiar.

It wasn't until 1971 that M16A1 rifles were shipped with chrome-lined barrels. Later that year, the manuscript “M16: Colt's Lethal Lemon” was released. The House Armed Services Committee began a probe. In 1972, the Justice Department orders an FBI probe of Colt, concerning allegations that Colt cheated on quality control testing of the M16.

In 1991, Fortune magazine reported, “Under target-range conditions, a soldier with an M16 (or any rifle) has only a 60% to 70% chance of hitting a target 300 meters (328 yards) away. In battle, that chance falls to 10%. The Army wants 20%. In 1982 it paid $40 million to six manufacturers to come up with a successor to the M16. Testing of prototypes started in January 1990 and by 1995 the Army should have its new rifle -- a potential order that could run as high as one million.”

In September 2006, the DODIG issues the report "Program Management of the Objective Individual Combat Weapon Increment I." The report addresses requirements, systems engineering processes, contracting procedures and the milestone decision authority for the XM8 Program, which later became OICW Increment I. The XM8 / OICW Increment I is found to have had fundamental internal control weaknesses. The OICW Program Office awarded contracts for the XM8 before having a Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC) approved requirement, and it did not obtain appropriate milestone decision approval before initiating the acquisition. The report declares that the OICW Program Office inappropriately spent $33.3 million in research, development, test and evaluation funds for the development of the XM8 / OICW Increment I.

In November 2006, the DODIG issues the report "Competition of the 5.56-Millimeter Carbine." The report reviews the canceled February 2006 solicitation for NDI 5.56mm carbines. The Army issued the solicitation because of the high price of the M4 carbine and the potential to procure a carbine with improved capabilities and performance. The Army planned to award contracts for 193,400 carbines with an estimated procurement cost of $294.7 million.

In April, 2007, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) sent a letter to Acting Secretary of the Army Pete Geren asking the Army to hold a "free and open competition" before awarding sole-source contracts to Colt for nearly 500,000 M4 carbines. Coburn states that purchase of the M4 is based on requirements from the early 1990's and that better, more reliable weapons exist that could give troops a more effective weapon.

In November, 2008, TACOM awards a $45,215,789.95 delivery order to Colt for 37,415 M4 carbines. These are for the USMC and US Army. Also in November 2008, the US Army hosts an invitation-only Industry Day regarding a potential future replacement for the M4 Carbine. The goal of the Industry Day is to provide officials with knowledge as to the current state of the art, which will assist the writing of a formal requirements document. Nineteen companies display weapons and provide briefings to military officials. These include Colt, FN, HK, KAC, AAI, SIG Sauer, Smith & Wesson, Bushmaster/Remington, Sabre Defence, Barrett, PRI, Robinson Armament, LWRC International, Troy Industries, Patriot Ordnance, Armwest, Polytech and Superior Arms. Officials hope to have the updated carbine requirements document completed by the end of the year and approved by Summer 2009. A competitive RFP is not expected to be issued until September 2009 and any new carbine would not be likely to be issued to troops before 2012.

The clear answer is the 6.8mm SPC (.270). This what the 5.56 NATO should have been all along. It offers less recoil and more controlability than the .308, yet handily outperforms the .223 and the 7.62 x 39.


    Muzzle velocity

    200 yards drop

    200 yards velocity

    400 yards drop

    400 yards velocity


    .223 55gr M193

    3073 fps

    2.2 inches

    2353 fps

    27.8 inches

    1743 fps


    .223 77gr OTM

    2679 fps

    3.3 inches

    2216 fps

    32.7 inches

    1810 fps


    6.8 SPC 115gr SMK

    2650 fps

    3.5 inches

    2143 fps

    35.4 inches

    1677 fps


    6.8 SPC 110gr V-MAX

    2650 fps

    3.3 inches

    2208 fps

    31.1 inches

    1811 fps



    2300 fps

    3.3 inches

    1787 fps

    53.8 inches

    1324 fps


    .308 168gr SMK

    2600 fps

    3.4 inches

    2235 fps

    32.3 inches

    1891 fps


The 6.8 comports to what was originally sought from the .30-06 and .308, that being the ability to carry more ammunition. It restores the longer range terminal performance lost by the 5.56mm, yet is adaptable to current AR platforms requiring only the switch of barrel, bolt and magazine.

Senator Coburn's request from three years ago apparently hangs in bureaucratic limbo. USA Today reported on October 25, 2007, that “The cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could total $2.4 trillion through the next decade, or nearly $8,000 per man, woman and child in the country, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate scheduled for release Wednesday.” That of course could not have possibly accounted for the current direction in Afghanistan, where costs per year now handily exceed those of Iraq. The Congressional Research Service estimated that in 2006 (the latest available figures), it cost $390,000 a year to sustain each American trooper overseas. Current estimates are in the $500,000 per troop per year range and above.

One might think with all of the money going abroad, at home with various bailouts, questionable stimulus packages and the willingness to spend trillions on health care and other government expansions, we would have long ago done far better for the only Americans than know the true horrors of war and are most affected by it, our soldiers. One quick look at how we compensate our disabled veterans defines our great failure and our great shame.

Law enforcement officials use more effective, humane cartridges than we issue to our troops. Deer hunters use more efficient, humane, effective cartridges than our troops are allowed. We forbid deer hunters from using relatively ineffective non-expanding bullets on game on the basis of being humane. Yet, we have apparently invented a new meaning of humane when it comes to combat. We burden out troops with ineffectual ammunition, yet we ask them to work against improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades, land mines, booby-traps, roadside bombs, suicide bombers and insurgents who have absolutely no honor or regard for humanity.

The situation is embarrassing, shameful and intolerable. Back in 1935, the .220 Swift was introduced and promoted as a big-game rifle cartridge. Time can be a harsh judge; the .220 Swift was long-ago exposed as what it was, a varmint and small game cartridge. More recently the experience was repeated with the .223 WSSM. So it goes with the .223 Remington / 5.56 NATO. It was and is a fine 250 yard varmint cartridge, although long-range varminters rightly prefer the .22-250 or the .220 Swift for extremely long-range prairie dog popping.

The flawed premise of the watermelon round was the mythical “meat-chopper” effect, with a inadequately stabilized round tumbling and creating wounds of mythical proportions. For various reasons, including cold-weather inaccuracy, the 1:14 rate of twist was changed to 1:12, then to 1:9 and/or 1:7. A 55 grain pill can only do so much, as was belated recognized. Heavier bullets and shorter barrels (M4) have reduced velocities, to no one's surprise, of the increasingly anemic 5.56mm NATO round.

In WWII, the estimated number of rounds per kill was 15,000. The Department of Defense estimated that it took 50,000 rounds of ammunition per enemy soldier kill in Vietnam. John Pike, director of the Washington military research group, said that, based on the GAO's figures, US forces had expended around six billion bullets between 2002 and 2005. This has been estimated to 300,000 rounds expended for every insurgent. As one of the advantages of the 5.56 in the first place was to enable soldiers to carry more ammo, it hardly rings completely true when over five to six times the ammunition is used per kill right now than in Vietnam and we are using twenty times the rounds of ammunition per kill right now than we did in WWII.

We ask a great deal of our servicemen and servicewomen. We put them in situations that are difficult for any human being to manage, both emotionally and physically. We fail to adequately support them after their service years have ended. We fail every day to support them to the fullest extent where we put them in active duty.

We know better. It isn't just a matter of opinion that that both the 5.56mm NATO cartridge and its ammunition is less than optimally effective. It is a settled matter of exterior ballistics and wounding ballistics. Every law enforcement official and every big game hunter in the U.S. has access to better, more effective cartridges and ammunition than we offer our troops. We know we can do far better, yet we fail to do so. It is both inexplicable and damnable.

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Copyright 2013 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.