INSAS 5.56 MM RIFLE –– For Fighting and Not Fun!

An IDC Analysis


New Delhi, 01 October 2002

We present below Mohan Guruswamy’s well-researched and analytical piece on the INSAS 5.56 mm rifle. As usual the DRDO has attempted to ‘reinvent the wheel’ 

instead of going in for licensed production of tried and proven automatic weapons which may have been manufactured at much cheaper costs. The so-called INSAS rifle (‘standing for a very grandiloquent Indian National Small Arms System’), is a little heavier than planned and we hear it jams at times and is still no match for the AK 47 and it costs double. We hope this is not true and the MOD statement that the rifle is well received by the Indian Army is valid and so export orders can also be sought easily. In Pakistan because of the Gun culture AK 47s are available at Rs 6000 in plenty.

For Fighting and Not Fun!

By Mohan Guruswamy

Uziel ‘Uzi’ Gal died last week at the age of 78 of cancer. It merited a small paragraph at best in several international newspapers and magazines, which is quite disproportionate to the impact his invention had on our times. For along with Mikhail Kalashnikov, Uzi Gal will be a name associated with the greatest mayhem since the end of the Second World War, a war in which almost 20 million died. In years after that almost a hundred million have died to bullets sprayed from Kalashnikov and Uzi automatic weapons. No other weapons have killed so many in so short a time in the history of man. It is much more than what AIDS or a major disease like Cholera or Typhoid has killed during the years since when the 7.62mm Kalashnikov assault rifle and the 9mm Uzi sub-machine gun made their debuts.

The development of the light automatic rifle was the consequence to a well-known post WWII study of the pattern of usage of infantry weapons by US infantrymen in combat by Brig.Gen. SLA Marshall, the prominent American military analyst. Marshall’s study revealed that most infantrymen actually used their weapons very little, preferring to take cover for most of the time and firing occasionally. The study also revealed that the infantrymen most likely to fire their weapons were those closest to a soldier firing a Browning automatic rifle. This was because when the BAR man fired, he was able to literally hose down a wide arc in front of him. When he did this the opposing infantry lay low and infantrymen by his side were able to rise from behind their chosen cover and fire their weapons. Quite clearly this itself suggested a need for greater deployment of automatic weapons, if you had to get more fighting out of soldiers.

The Americans were first off the mark with their M-14 7.62mm automatic rifle and most others soon followed. But we in India missed this switch completely.  While we were expending our defence rupees on Hunter, Mystery and Ouragon jet fighters and even on an aircraft carrier, the Chinese went in for better equipment and gear for its men on the ground.  Thus when the 1962 war was upon us the poor foot soldier with .303 Lee Enfield single shot rifles and in flimsy clothing was left to deal with the Chinese juggernaut.

One would have thought that the Indian Army and our defence planners would have derived lessons from this.  But it seems that little has been learnt and much forgotten, for even now we have not fully equipped our forces with the latest generation of automatic rifles. Way back in 1980 the Indian Army stipulated its qualitative requirements for a new basic combat rifle. This called for a 5.56 mm automatic rifle. It took the DRDO and the Indian Ordnance Factory at Ishapore over a decade and a half to commence any serious production. Even though the INSAS 5.56 mm rifle has been around for a few years now, but there doesn’t seem enough of them for most of our troops still carry the AK-47 or the old Ishapore 7.62 mm semi-automatic rifle. Only about 200,000 units have been produced which is very little considering that the Army alone has a million men to arm.

Given the pattern of recent defence spends it seems our strategists once again seem to have reverted to the old habit of spending all on the big and extravagant and least likely to be used, than on arms for the foot soldier who in the ultimate analysis, even today, still wins or loses battles for his country. Thus while debates have raged and money obviously made on purchases of SU-30 and more Mirage 2000 jets, 155mm self-propelled guns, nuclear submarines, and another aircraft carrier, little thought has been given to the foot soldier and his weapon. This reminds me of the lines of a ditty, in another context, from the Leon Uris war novel “Battle Cry” which went: “This is my rifle, this is my gun, this is for fighting, this is for fun!” The jets and big howitzers certainly look very sexy trundling down Rajpath on January 26 and are great fun to watch, but don’t forget it is the infantryman with rifle in hand that does most of the fighting. 

The reader may be wondering why a smaller caliber weapon is better when it seems that for most things in life, bigger is better? This change in thinking, as far as rifles were concerned, was as a result of three observations.  First was due to the fact that the larger 7.62 mm round needed a bigger explosive charge to propel it at the desired 900 meters per second.  The recoil as a result of this explosive charge in the automatic fire mode made the weapon virtually uncontrollable.  Not only was the soldier unable to aim properly, but also quite often the recoil caused serious injuries.

The second observation was that the infantryman did not need a marksman’s weapon firing accurately up to 800 meters. Statistical analysis by the US Army of rifle engagements in WW II, Korea and Vietnam revealed that 90 per cent of them were at ranges less than 300 meters and 70 per cent at 200 meters and less.  Therefore, the emphasis on long-range accuracy of 300-800 meters was found somewhat redundant. Since most engagements were at close quarters it also suggested a weapon that could be fired from either shoulder or hip.

The third observation related to wound ballistics. Studies commissioned by the US Army revealed that a smaller round caused more damaging wounds. A bullet is stabilized to fly straight in air, but when it enters another medium, like water, its flight characteristics undergo changes. Instead of a stable flight the round develops a tendency to tumble. The human body is 80% water held up by bone and fiber and so what happens to the bullet in water happens in the body.  While a heavier round because of its greater momentum often carries through the new medium leaving a clean exit, the smaller round tends to tumble more easily and thereby doing more damage to the body.  The paradoxical consequence of this is that an enemy combatant hit by a smaller bullet risks suffering greater bodily harm and therefore to a higher probability of being incapacitated. 

What followed from the increasing dependence on automatic weapons was that greater quantities of ammunition were now needed.  The propensity to consume ammunition reached the astounding rate of 50,000 rounds per kill in the Vietnam War.  This obviously means that the soldier now needs to carry greater quantities of ammunition. The smaller the caliber, the greater the number of bullets the soldier can carry into the battlefield. All these clearly pointed towards a lighter weapon firing a smaller round to increase lethality, reduced recoil and with new ergonomics.  The result of this was changes in infantry combat philosophy and in conformity with it the introduction of a light small caliber weapon in most armies keen to win their wars.

Ever since the US army introduced the Eugene Stoner designed M-16, a 5.56 mm caliber automatic rifle in the latter stages of the Vietnam War, the 5.56 weapon has been the NATO standard.  The older Russian AK-47 assault rifle while a 7.62 mm caliber weapon fires a lighter round at a lower muzzle velocity of 710 meters per second. The consequent drawback is its limited range as over at 200 meters the AK 47 round begins to drop. Since the recoil is minimal it makes it an extremely manageable weapon with the wound ballistic characteristics and ergonomic advantages of the 5.56 mm rifle.

In India a decision was taken way back in 1980 to switch to the 5.56 mm assault rifle and steel core ammunition.  It took the Army two years after that to ask for weapons for trials from all over the world. The Army tried out these weapons for three years.  They then short-listed the Austrian Steyr AUG and the German Heckler and Koch G-41.  Of these the Steyr AUG was considered the best suited as its modular design enables it to be converted from a carbine to an assault rifle to a light machine gun by merely inter-changing barrels.  It has an effective range of 600 meters and fires 850 rounds per minute.  It incorporates the innovative Bullpup design, which makes it the shortest weapon with the longest barrel, besides giving it the best ergonomics because it can be fired from either shoulder.  It has a larger 42 round magazine and a telescopic sight fitted into the carrying bracket.

Both manufacturers offered us licensed production. However, we decided to develop an automatic rifle of our own, the INSAS 5.56, with INSAS standing for a very grandiloquent Indian National Small Arms System. The INSAS has not only been very late in coming and that too not in enough numbers, but is reported to have serious performance drawbacks, particularly in cold conditions. The Indian Army’s Performance Quality Requirements have typically been unrealistic and have hindered the development of an effective basic combat rifle. Among the PQR’s was a requirement that it should also be capable of being swung by its barrel like a club when ammunition runs out!

Consequently we have a weapon that looks more like the Ishapore ordnance factory’s 7.62 mm SLR rather than a modern infantryman’s combat rifle. In fact the official web site describes it as “gas operated selective fire weapon having an interesting blend of features culled from a variety of sources.” And it is! The receiver and pistol grip are that of the Russian Kalashnikov; the butt, gas regulator and flash hider from the Belgian FN FAL; fore-end from the US Armalite AR-15; and cocking handle from the German Heckler and Koch! Looks good on parade with a bayonet stuck on top. But is it more for fun than for fighting?

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