In 1933, after a multiyear selection process, the designation “M1” was awarded to the Garand rifle in .30-06 caliber. General George Patton would one day call it “the greatest battle implement ever devised.” Dwight D. Eisenhower said it was the weapon that won the war. Notwithstanding that the U.S. military wasn’t quite able, in the intervening eight years before war broke out, to fully equip the infantry with the Garand—the Marines fought on Guadalcanal with variants of the World War I bolt-action Springfield—the Garand certainly deserves the praise it has won on a hundred blood-soaked battlefields.
I merely want to use the case of the Garand to illustrate how massive government operations work—even massive government operations as limited in scope as U.S. military procurement in the 1930s. The trial version of the Garand did not fire the .30-06 round—a World War I design that remains an extremely popular hunting round today. The Garand was originally chambered in a now-forgotten caliber called .276 Pedersen, and it competed against a Pedersen-designed rifle firing the same round.
The results of the trials were unanimously in favor of Garand’s rifle design over Pedersen’s—but also unanimously in favor of the .276 round over the .30-06.
The smaller cartridge had several advantages over the older .30-06 design: Ballistically, it was almost identical. But the bullet was lighter, so it produced less recoil, which made it easier to shoot quickly and accurately. And the cartridge was lighter too, which meant soldiers could carry more ammunition, and the rifles could hold more in a single magazine: The M1 Garand in .30-06 famously holds eight rounds in one of its en-bloc clips; the original .276 Garand could hold 10.
But the recommendation to adopt the Garand in .276 was squelched by Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur. He pointed out that we had billions of rounds of .30-06 left over from World War I. And moreover, we had lots of other infantry weapons—the light machine guns and the Browning Automatic Rifle, which also used .30-06. So adopting a new caliber would be a logistical nightmare. MacArthur told them to redesign the Garand in .30-06, and they did.
As a result, we continued to use the World War I-era .30-06 through World War II and Korea, and into Vietnam, when it was replaced with a newer .30-caliber round that became the 7.62 NATO, and eventually (because we decided we would never need to fight wars at distances of greater than 200 yards because every future war would be like Vietnam) with the smaller 5.56 NATO.
But the 5.56 NATO, being too light, proved an inadequate mid- and long-distance round. Not surprising, since we designed it that way. So the result today is that we’ve ended up in precisely the logistical situation MacArthur wanted to avoid: We have infantry weapons in more than one caliber (some firing the 7.62, some 5.56), and worse, neither is a real all-purpose round.
This compounding of errors has just led our government to commit a few billion dollars to buying a completely new 6.8 mm round which, in civilian parlance, is called the .277 Fury. Ironically, we’ve come to rest on a design not unlike the .276 Pedersen the trials officers wanted to adopt 90 years ago—with a few critical differences that make the new choice worse.
For example, this new round takes advantage of modern powder to achieve extraordinarily high chamber pressures—over one-third higher than the .30-06. Ballistically, this means the new round will be accurate and lethal at 1,200 yards, beyond ordinary ranges of engagement, not to mention the marksmanship abilities of the typical soldier.
The practical result of the high chamber pressures are many: The new round has an unprecedented “bimetal” case with a steel rather than brass base, so it doesn’t blow up. This also makes the round heavier and more expensive. Also, thanks to the high pressures, the gun is so loud that it will have to be issued as standard with a suppressor (commonly misnamed a “silencer”), which makes the new rifles longer, heavier, and (again) more expensive. Oh, and it will reduce the barrel life of the rifles by at least 25 percent, so we get to buy new replacement barrels more often, which is—you guessed it—more expensive.
Will this new .277 round turn out better than the .276 Pedersen we killed off in 1933? I doubt it. It is too much the way of government to get everything wrong at taxpayer expense. The more money government has (and now it has a lot), the more wrong it succeeds in doing.
As a little codicil to the .30-06 story, consider the following: After World War I, again as the result of extensive trials, we switched the bullet design of the military .30-06 from the flat-bottomed bullet we had used in World War I to a newer, sleeker boat tail design. This improved version was both more accurate and more effective, and was adopted and designated the M1 round (a separate nomenclature from the M1 Garand). But it wasn’t long until we discovered a problem: The new .30-06 was so good that it exceeded the safety limitations of the Army’s shooting ranges. The obvious solution? Redesign the .30-06 again and make it worse!
So we reverted to a flat-bottomed bullet design of the sort we’d used in World War I and designated it the M2. And it was with the M2 cartridge that we fought World War II. The M2 .30-06 was about a third less-accurate than the M1 round, and (by design) had a shorter effective range. Military commanders who knew the difference tried to get their hands on cases of M1 ammo from the 1920s, but they were hard to obtain.
Who says the government doesn’t know how to pick a winner?