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Size Does Matter – An OpEd by Frank Plumb

As some of the close friends of the company know I have a history with the U.S. Senate. That for more than a decade, I have advocated for more lethality in our small arms with Congressional leadership and their staff. This is the first time I have publicly acknowledged this. I do not consider myself a pivotal player in the Special Operations community. But this is the time to speak up. The next cartridge, the next bullets, the next 30 years of small arms is being decided. It is being decided as we speak.

As a CEO of a firearms manufacturer, a Green Beret, a medic, a sniper, and an engineer. I forget my unique perspective. I have enough experience in each discipline to truly understand what we need in more lethal systems. It is time for those in the shadows to emerge a tiny bit. So that we might engage in honest conversation with each other. The time is now, as a nation, as a military, we must get our new cartridge right. But what can we do right now?

So, for me, it all goes back to a firefight in 2003. My ODA was engaged in a close to mid-range multi direction ambush. I remember very specifically engaging several enemy that had just been blown out of their position by another gun truck. I dropped every bit of a full 5.56 magazine of fast, controlled, and aimed shots into them. They did not drop immediately as I had expected. I thought I was missing them. But members of another ODA would verify later I had put several shots into each of them. This firefight would verify to me that 5.56×45 has lethality issues.

This shock of the results of that August night fundamentally altered how I saw small arms. It put me on a mission to bring a higher level of lethality to our forces. I have studied reports that discuss 5.56 lethality, and over penetration issues. I have treated critically injured patients who have been shot with a massive variety of small arms. I have spoken with men far more combat experienced than me. One thing has become abundantly clear to me. In the arranged marriage of combat marksmanship, Energy Transferred into the target is the Queen and Shot Placement is the King.

What the projectile does once it enters the body is secondary only to where it enters the body. That a projectile that transfers the bulk of its energy into the enemy combatant is key. Once a projectile enters the human body, if it exits, it means there was energy that was wasted. A bullet that can fragment, yaw, or a combination thereof inside the body is ideal in my opinion. We should seek to insure every possible joule of energy has been transferred into the target.

When a projectile enters the human body what type of tissue it strikes is paramount. I have seen small caliber bullets deflect off and skip around bone. I saw a convenience store owner shot in the head from under 10 feet. It entered his skin at an angle, deflected off the frontal bone of the skull, transverse around the skull, under the skin, and exited out of the occipital region. I have seen a person shot multiple times at close range with 7.62×39 and live. I know of a retired General and a NSW SOMTC instructor who have been shot in the chest with 5.56 and lived. I have seen the work of 7.62×51 rifles and machine guns. I have never seen anyone shot in the chest, head, or abdomen with 7.62×51 and live. 7.62×51 inflicts injuries that are usually never survivable.

The way a bullet destroys muscle, solid organ and soft organs is different. This is based off the cavitation effects of the projectile once it enters. Imagine looking down on a boat moving through water. It leaves a wake behind it. The size, shape, and speed of the boat determine the size of the wake. Think of the boat wake as projectile cavitation.

Since Humans are about 70% water I feel this is a very accurate metaphor. Look at the wake of a speed boat, like the type that are raced in the open ocean. They leave clean small wakes by comparison to their size. It the pursuit of speed, they reduce drag, they transfer as little energy into the surface of the water as possible. This is akin to how a 5.56 projectile works. Clean and fast through the air often means clean and fast in the target. According to Army studies a 5.56 bullet needs 4.75 inches of body penetration to Yaw. This Yawing is critical to the 5.56 round being lethal. It is how it transfers its energy into the target. If the 5.56 round fails to yaw, it often fails to kill. That August night in 2003 makes a lot more sense now.

Now look at the wake of a battleship. They sit low in the water, muscling the water out of the way. They push forward with brute force. They plow the ocean. It does not mean they are inefficient, they are designed to sit low and power through the water. Only when compared to the open ocean race boats they are considered inefficient. 7.62×51 rounds act in the same manner. They seem to plow through the air, which becomes very evident when they go transonic. In this same manner they plow through human beings. Those who have fired a M240 machine gun at the enemy and seen the work it does. Or who has placed the crosshairs of his Leupold on an enemy insurgent and pulled the trigger. They all will tell you 7.62×51 kills the first time.

Now concessions will need to be made for enemy armor. Do not think for one second that Near-Peer adversaries are not fielding equivalent body armor systems. This is why I am a fan of the HK 417, M110 and the FN SCAR® (Mk.17). Even though 7.62×51 almost never stops in a human body, they have joules to spare. The flexibility of the cartridge and its many variations like 180 grain AP, 175 grain 118LR, 110 TAP, and others allow the modern 7.62×51 based rifle more lethality and flexibility right now. But 7.62×51 is not the future. The future is for my next blog post.

Regardless of what you’ve heard, yes size does matter.

Frank Plumb is a US Army Special Forces veteran and CEO of Handl Defense. This first appeared on Handl’s website.

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24 Responses to “Size Does Matter – An OpEd by Frank Plumb”

  1. PPGMD says:

    I guarantee you that there are a ton of people shot with 7.62 NATO that survived.

    The lethality of the round depends more on how it was constructed. You mention that it 4.5″ for the bullet to yaw, you simply design a bullet that takes less distance to yaw. For example most reports are that the new M855A1 takes only a inch to yaw. There are even some 223 bullets designed to wound via expansion rather than fragmentation.

    It is no different than your battleship comparison. There are cruise ships are about the same weight, beam, and length as our WWII battleships. By thanks to modern hydrodynamic design they are much more efficient through the water. So it all comes down to design.

  2. Jack Boothe says:

    Thank you Mr. Plumb for a well written and cogent article. Your explanations were succinct and understandable, and very convincing.

  3. Joshua says:

    Oh boy the old “7.62×51 kill them one hit every time”…..

  4. Will Rodriguez says:

    Very well written article. The authors credentials are outstanding. The king and queen metaphor for shot placement and caliber is excellent.

    M855 does have a through and through problem. That said the article doesn’t address M855A1 which didn’t exist in 2003.

    People have survived being hit in the abdomen and chest by 7.62×51.

    Most importantly bullet design is critical but the implication that size is the solution has secondary and tertiary effects many fail to consider.

    Bigger rounds weigh more. That means the soldier has to carry more weight to have the same number of rounds. Less rounds means a shorter amount of time to suppress targets to allow fire and maneuver as well as a higher requirement to facilitate resupply.

    There have been rumblings that case technology can lower the weight of bigger bullets. I have yet to see that technology proven adequate for combat use. (I’m specifically thinking reliability/very hot guns and the impact of heat on new case technology.)

    • Reece says:

      I must agree with wills comments above with regards to the ability to rapidly reengage a target. Any way i can look at it two hits are better than one seeing as one is unlikely to kill in the first place.

      As such i have a hard time agreeing with the concept of a full power 7.62x51mm cartridge being the answer. Based primarily upon the recoil and muzzle blast that those cartridges produce.

      I see this as the final fix the coming back to equilibrium from the US Armys decision to push 7.62 into NATO service in the 50s. and even more so the decision to stay with the .30-06 in the 1930s. In both cases they chose to go with a larger than needed round over a lighter easier to shoot cartridge.

      This being said I think they may have it right this time looking for a cartridge like 6.5 Grendel or .260 Remington its larger and more lethal than 5.56 yet smaller and with less recoil than the 7.62. Possibly a more ideal mix of traits than any other main line cartridge to date.

  5. Nattydreadbushdoc says:

    I personnaly treated two Afghan children shot multiple times through the chest by an M240 at ranges between 100-200 meters. They were shot by Afghan Commandos in support of coalition operations just outside of KAF. The shots were all front to back. In one case a round barely missed one of the kids heart by about 2-3cm. Not only did they both survive but neither child ever lost consciousness.

    The body has an amazing ability to absorb punishment. If you are counting on anything other than shot placement to put someone down immediately then I hope you have 4-6 minutes to let the adrenaline wear off and blood loss to result in a loss of consciousness. Death will take a bit longer.

  6. Kirk says:

    More grist for the mill, when it comes to my incessant desire for more and better numbers in this arena.

    I don’t think Mr. Plumb is quite correct, when he alludes to the 7.62mm NATO as being reliably lethal in the way that he has. Hell, I know a guy who took multiple shots from a 7.92X57 into the chest cavity and abdomen during WWII, and despite the medical care being what it was back then, he lived until his 80s.

    There ain’t no magic death ray, folks–There’s just tradeoffs. And, frankly, unless he went downrange and actually examined those guys he swore he hit, and can show where the bullets that he fired went in, there’s absolutely nothing beyond his subjective impression that the 5.56 failed to do the job.

    Which is why I still say we’re arguing on really poorly constructed grounds, in these things. We need better numbers.

    And, it occurs to me that there’s more of a tradeoff here than one might suppose–The 5.56mm cartridge is low-powered enough that it allows you to recover from missed shots and get back onto target a lot faster than you can with a 7.62mm individual weapon. Say you take that first shot with the 7.62mm, miss, and then because the recoil and muzzle rise effects attendant to that cartridge cause you to take longer to reacquire, you don’t get that second or third chance to kill the bad guy before he gets in range to kill you himself. The whole thing is a tradeoff, and the real question is, where do you want to make your trades, and for what?

    I remain unconvinced that we’ve proven the 5.56mm round and M16/M4 in need of replacement. Subjectively, yeah–I agree. I want more power. Realistically, and from a standpoint of “Can I prove that shit…”? Nope. Can’t. We need better numbers.

  7. AbnMedOps says:

    Cavitation: There is the TEMPORARY cavitation, which rebounds due to the tissues’ elasticity, and generally doesn’t produce lethal wounds.

    Then there is the much narrower PERMANANENT cavitation, which might/might not hit something important (like an artery).

    But to my understanding, most of the lethal damage, most of the time, usually, with all the usual caveats, is going to be produced by the bullet showing it’s largest possible cross-section, with the most likelihood of hitting these important structures (arteries, nerves, organs). This occurs when the bullet YAWS, or (with civilian hunting ammo) MUSHROOMS and consequently YAWS and continues to travel base-forward, with the wide mushroom dragging like a parachute. OR when the bullet yaws, and breaks (typically at the cannelure groove in the jacket) into two or more fragments on divergent paths (this is more common in military FMJ ball ammo).

  8. Jimbo says:

    Thanks for the write up.

    Was the 03 Deh Chopan by chance?

  9. DSM says:

    I’m sure a materials engineer can figure out the proper recipe for a bullet able to punch body armor while simultaneously yawing in tissue.

    My simplest avenue first approach would be to re-examine what drives our choice of bullet. The POTUS seems all about removing us from int’l agreements, what’s one more? An FMJ bullet that’ll punch a tiny hole and possibly lead to death only through infection over days or weeks, or, a purpose designed for an ethical kill bullet as found in modern hunting ammunition? Those rounds won’t work as well against body armor of course so maybe combined with a penetrator.

  10. MidGasFan says:

    I personally know several Army SF dudes making one and two shot drops on guys with a suppressed 10.5″ SCAR 17 at well over 600 yards. That would be possible, but much, much less likely with a MK18-type rifle in 5.56. Some of the guys like the weapon, some didn’t, but none could argue its effectiveness over even a 14.5″ barreled 5.56. One guy made a head shot at just over 800 with said rifle and thought the guy ducked. They find the bad guy dead with a nice entry hole from his rifle round. Great shooting to be sure but the energy and mass sure didn’t hurt(well, not for the shooter)

    I used to be one that didn’t see the value in 7.62×51 and thought it was pointless, harder to shot fast, heavier, blah, blah. Then, I got some significant trigger time behind some suppressed FAL, HK91 and SCAR-H rifles. Yes, they are a little shower back on target but it’s not like were talking about shooting a Garand here. They aren’t appreciably slower, at least not enough to be tossed aside fur the 5.56.

    It’s SO much more satisfying hitting steel with a .308 than 5.56. That energy and retained weight is not to be discounted. Using ball ammo sucks and if real charges are to be made, I’d argue that would be the place to start. It would be more expensive to deploy with nothing but MK262 but the hit probability and damage to the target would be better.

    I don’t shoot coyotes with ball or the like, we use specialized ammo. When shooting the two legged animals it seems like the military throws all this info out with the bath water. We have caliber restriction laws for taking game. Done are BS, while others are based on science and wanting a humane kill. Why is this forgotten our ignored when it comes to the battlefield?

    As someone who primarily carries a pistol in .357 Sig(we live in the sticks and have all kinds of wild cats and best), I like the 9mm caliber for handguns but if I can get some more velocity and energy with a small trade off in my ammo count, I say why not?!

    • Adun says:

      It has to do with the various treaties that the US abides by, even if we didn’t actually sign all of them. We are talking agreements that refer to expanding bullets as “dum dum” rounds still.

  11. Matt M. says:

    Everyone knows there are issues with M855 Green Tip in barrel lengths shorter then 20 inch’s (which SS109 was designed for). Placement obviously is king, but the way in which you go about trying to justify a bigger bullet is fallacious.

    The conclusions you make regarding this are disjointed so bare with me with respect to the order in which I address them.

    1. You mention that placement is key. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that assertion, however its just as important with 7.62×51 as it is with any other caliber. One does not simply die from a shot anywhere on the body simply due to the size of the bullet unless its a bloody howitzer. Placement is just as important with a .30 caliber as it is with a .223.

    2. You assertion regarding 7.62×51 and how it flies through the air are patently false and ignores readily available data-
    M80 Ball; 147 grain travels at 2700 FPS with a G7 BC of .200
    M855 (SS109); 62 grain travels at 2900-3100 FPS depending on platform with a G7 BC of .151 (with a variance of .1 due to MV).

    The heavier bullets, such as 175 Grain out of an M118LR (or Mk262) are going to start slower, but retain MV better over the entire trajectory vs the faster but less efficient M80 and M855 bullets respectively. Thus, the M80 ball is actually is more aerodynamically efficient then the M855, full stop. This is something you will continually find as you get bigger and heavier in a lot of bullet weights in a variety of calibers- the bigger caliber is generally going to have a better BC, with some notable exceptions. The big limiting factor with .308 is charge weight and COAL for magazines, which is why you see the push towards 6.5 by a lot of shooters who formerly wouldn’t have given it a second thought.

    3. Based on what I stated in #2, the analogy for terminal ballistics falls short. Just as you stated earlier in your editorial, you mentioned that what a bullet does after it enters a target is most important. A slightly larger hole isn’t going to do much, and frankly M80 ball isn’t known to be an super efficient terminal killer, regardless of whatever myths you subscribe to regarding “hydrostatic shock.” There are just as many anecdote’s of people surviving multiple hits by 7.62×51 (and bigger). Its not as much the caliber, but the bullet used.

    Now, what do you get going to a larger caliber- Effective range and lethality at greater distance. This is why the bigger calibers are used for Sniper Weapons for example and GPMG’s like the M240- you get more distance out of it. If the Army insists upon sticking with bullets like the SS109 and M80 Ball, then terminal effect will remain the same either way. M855A1 doesn’t have the issues that SS109 has, and Mk318 is another notable mention for effective bullets in 5.56 that have enhanced lethality. Even the longer Mk262 does a pretty decent job since the longer bullet (due to the heavier weight, longer ogive and boat tail) make it tumble/yaw when it strikes flesh. In one paragraph you mention the 5.56 isn’t transferring enough energy, then in the next paragraph you want 7.62×51 because its “got joules to spare” to penetrate armor. Well… which is it? You can’t have cake and eat it to.

    What the military needs is as much a software upgrade as it does a hardware upgrade, and even then I don’t think we will find much if we switch calibers to something bigger. If soldiers (and Marines) by and large aren’t connecting with hits were it matters, changing calibers to something heavier, with increased recoil, and a smaller combat load isn’t going to help matters.

    In the interim, I think we will get much more out of better optics, a functionally more mechanically accurate weapon system, and more lethal bullets in the same caliber then we will trying to find the elusive “overmatch, one shot one kill” caliber that doesn’t exist. There is always a trade off, and in this arena we have to look at human performance as much as performance of our weapons and ammunition as a component.

  12. Jon says:

    So I’ve been watching the caliber discussions over the last several posts, and while I don’t know a lot about ballistic effect in the body, I do know about military training and load bearing.I think it is a multifaceted issue, not just the “bullet”, but everything that goes with it. For instance, as a support Soldier, we had enough rounds by MOTE to shoot 2 times a year for qualification. We did not have enough however to zero/qual our PEQ2s or cross train M249/M240… When I was in an infantry unit, ammunition for training was there whenever we needed.

    There are other “funny” issues like the difference between administrative ranges (zero/qual) and commanders wanting us to make it “Tactical””Train as you fight”… Missing the intent of the range purpose as the buillding block to “tactical” training like live fire excercises and more advanced drills. Again, ammunition not being plentiful enough for most non-infantry types to train adequately (You can only CST2000 reflexive fire so many times).

    Lastly, logistically the storage and issue of a new round/fielding the new round proposes a challenge that will have to be addressed by QASIS and the ASP’s throughout the service to manage the new round and the volumes needed for Soldiers to train. Hopefully, senior levels are taking this into consideration when choosing a new round as well. 7.62×51 is great, but if you only shoot it once a year before deployment, you will have the missing component the original post hit on very well- Shot placement is king.

  13. Darkhorse says:

    There is no perfect solution other than having multiple options based on mission profile. There are times when I would opt to carry 7.62 and many many times when I’d opt to carry 5.56.

    Since the military can’t issue multiple guns to a private, nor can it train the private well with ONE caliber, this isn’t an option other than in special mission units.

    In an attempt to balance this, the military uses DOCTRINE. In most military units the doctrine however, is flawed. Units are very slow to adjust tactics, techniques and procedures to the current threat.

    As an example, the IED killed more soldiers than any enemy who wasn’t killed by a first shot from a 5.56 weapon system YET, units continued to drive around Iraq in broad daylight for YEARS.

    We tend to overlook doctrine as a possible problem/solution and focus on items to fix problems.

    As easily as the author “justifies” the use of a bigger bullet, I could 50 times over “justify” the smaller, lighter, 5.56 bullet.

    While shot placement is critical, multiple shots on target is even MORE critical yet units still practice the “double tap” rather than teach how to close the distance with the enemy and engaging until the enemy is no longer a threat.

    The author also doesn’t consider dynamic environments wherein, both the person being engaged and the person engaging are moving. OR, in many situations, the person engaging is moving while in a moving vehicle and the person being engaged is moving. Nor does the author discuss suppressive fire and how the reduced basic load of 7.62 could potentially impact the ability to do this over a sustained engagement.

    We also tend to (as a military) fight our last battles. What might have been perfect for a long open terrain engagement in AFG isn’t necessarily optimal in other situations or battle spaces.

  14. PTMcCain says:

    While the points made in the article are definitely worthy of discussion, I’m a bit uncomfortable with the fact that the author has a heavily vested interested in perpetuating the use of the SCAR-H and 7.62 round because of his association with Handl Defense rather than just a vague reference to being a “firearms manufacturer.” It would have been wise to make that association and clear explicit at the beginning of his editorial.

    • Brian P says:

      Worth noting the comment at the end here, “Frank Plumb is a US Army Special Forces veteran and CEO of Handl Defense. This first appeared on Handl’s website. ”

      It would have been a bit odd for the author to specify who he and his company are when it was posted on their website.

  15. Matt M says:

    Recently saw a photo of a 3/8 steel plate that was shot at 300 meters with M855/M855A1/M80 and I another .308 load that I am unable to ID as of yet (likely a more modern bullet or AP round). Picture can be found on the 82nd AB Small Arms Master Gunner page for those curious of the source.

    M80 failed to penetrate the steel, M855 and A1 had no issues going through… so much for the idea that it has “more joules to spare.”

    Hedging anecdotes and past service as proof your points are valid is why we have so much false information flying around the firearms community, specifically in the terminal and external ballistics department. If you don’t understand it, and don’t know enough to know why you are wrong, then stop putting out nonsense. I just makes everyone else’s job more difficult.