Beauties without a future

Since the inception of assault rifles in the 1940s, arms manufacturers have strived to develop models that would elevate this category to a new level. Many prototypes failed because they were ahead of their time or brought unreliable solutions. Let's introduce you to four of these unfortunate creations.

Published 28.06.2024 / RaptorX

Victim of Standardization

After World War II, the British armed forces sought a weapon to replace obsolete bolt-action rifles and Sten submachine guns. Stefan Janson's team at the Royal Small Arms Factory bet on developing a rifle using the .280 British (7mm) short cartridge. In 1951, a prototype was born with a revolutionary bullpup layout for its time, where the magazine well and bolt were located behind the trigger mechanism in an extended casing capped with a buttstock. Since the barrel and buttstock were in a straight line, the designers had to raise the axis of the optical sights higher, which they achieved by embedding them into the upper handle. The optics did not offer magnification, but the shooter did not have to tediously align the sight, front sight, and target in one line – it sufficed to place the center of the reticle on the target. When designing the twenty-round magazine, the British took inspiration from the German Sturmgewehr rifle.

During testing, the EM-2 shot very accurately and endured rough handling. Its only weakness was the ejection of empty cartridges too close to the soldier's face, so it could only be fired from the right shoulder. Despite the enthusiasm of the royal infantry, the government succumbed to pressure from Washington and rejected the weapon – the United States had vast supplies of 7.62×51 mm ammunition and pushed for its standardization across NATO. The British eventually adopted the Belgian FN FAL, but the experience with the EM-2 was utilized in the development of the SA80 assault rifle introduced in the 1980s.

Three-Barreled Sled

Soviet designer German Korobov was known for his unconventional assault rifle designs in 7.62×39 mm caliber. Although he hoped that one of his models might compete with the AK-47, none of the designs ultimately reached production.

Shortly after the war, Korobov created the compact bullpup TKB-408 rifle with a curved 30-round magazine and a rate of fire of 600 rounds per minute. It was capable of semi-automatic and automatic fire, which the soldier switched between using a lever. The placement of the ejection port was problematic, making it unsuitable for left-handed shooters.

The TKB-022 series from 1962 to 1968 included many prototypes, some of which had the magazine and bolt behind the trigger, while others featured a layout similar to the Uzi (the magazine also served as a grip). Korobov aimed for the most compact dimensions, which would make the rifles suitable for armored vehicle crews and helicopter personnel. The distinctive look of the “twenty-twos” was also enhanced by the use of reddish-brown plastic. Although they performed well in tests, Moscow rejected them due to mistrust in their reliability in bad weather.

By far the strangest model was the TKB-059 with three barrels, whose simultaneous firing was intended to contribute to a maximum rate of fire (1400–1800 rounds per minute) and the highest probability of hitting the target. This curious weapon was born in 1966 and fired from a ninety-round magazine, with each barrel drawing cartridges from a separate 30-round row.

Hundreds of Arrows per Minute

In the 1950s, Americans sought to increase the effectiveness of gunfire against both point and area targets. A solution was expected from the Special Purpose Individual Weapon (SPIW), to which armories such as AAI, Springfield, Winchester, and Harrington & Richardson contributed.

The innovation was intended to combine the advantages of an assault rifle, a grenade launcher, and a shotgun, and designers deemed the combination of flechette ammunition and a 40mm grenade launcher as the most advantageous. Although firing metal darts might seem archaic, it theoretically offered many benefits – from the weapon's compact size to low recoil and precision.

During the 1960s, a series of prototypes in both classic and bullpup configurations emerged, the most promising of which weighed only 1.6 kg and had a 60-flechette magazine. The rifle fired individual darts as well as bursts and achieved a phenomenal rate of fire of 2300 rounds per minute. Instead of traditional rifling, engineers used a so-called guide plug, which rotated inside the barrel and transmitted its movement to the projectile. The flechettes were 4 cm long and 1.8 mm in diameter, reaching a muzzle velocity of 1200 m/s. Some acted like dum-dum bullets upon impact, while others were impregnated with chemicals.

Despite promising results, problems outweighed the benefits and the program ended in failure in 1968. However, some SPIW components were utilized – for example, the AAI underbarrel grenade launcher became a popular accessory for the M16 rifles under the designation M203. It should be added that the Americans did not give up on the flechette idea, and further prototypes emerged in the 1980s from the Advanced Combat Rifle program.

Smart but Heavy

One of the numerous attempts to replace the M16 rifle was the OICW (Objective Individual Combat Weapon) program initiated in the USA during the 1990s. It aimed to introduce a new standard infantry weapon that would combine a 5.56 mm caliber rifle with a 20mm grenade launcher capable of firing "smart" ammunition with programmable detonation timing.

In the selection process, the company Alliant Techsystems succeeded, with assistance from the German arms manufacturer Heckler & Koch. This collaboration led to the experimental weapon XM29, consisting of a modified HK G36 assault rifle and a semi-automatic grenade launcher (sometimes considered more of a cannon due to the flat trajectory of its projectiles). While the magazine for the rifle ammunition was located in front of the trigger, the grenade magazine was inserted into a large, boxy stock. On the top side, designers installed a computer-controlled aiming system with a six-fold magnification scope, laser rangefinder, and night vision.

Although the futuristic rifle made an impressive impression and generals had high expectations, the tests ended in disappointment. The entire setup was too heavy and cumbersome—calculations promised a loaded weight of about 6.8 kg for the XM29, but in reality, it was 8.2 kg. Also, the effectiveness of the small grenades proved to be insufficient, and the project was halted in 2004. It was quickly followed by less ambitious programs, from which emerged the XM8 assault rifle and the XM25 grenade launcher of 25 mm caliber. Although the USA eventually rejected both weapons, the XM8 at least made it into the arsenal of Malaysian special forces.

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