Why American Soldiers Shoot a Glorified .22

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

The mainstream media will often refer to military-style assault rifles as high-power rifles, when they are, arguably, just the opposite. The main battle rifles of WWI and WWII were high-power rifles, but the M16 shoots a teeny-tiny round. So, why do American soldiers shoot a glorified .22?

In 1948, the Army organized the civilian Operations Research Office (ORO), mirroring similar operations research organizations in the United Kingdom. One of their first efforts, Project ALCLAD, studied body armor and the conclusion was that they would need to know more about battlefield injuries in order to make reasonable suggestions. Over 3 million battlefield reports from WWI and WWII were analyzed and over the next few years they released a series of reports on their findings.

The conclusion was that most combat takes place at short range. In a highly mobile war, combat teams ran into each other largely by surprise; and the team with the higher firepower tended to win. They also found that the chance of being hit in combat was essentially random — that is, accurate “aiming” made little difference because the targets no longer sat still. The number one predictor of casualties was the total number of bullets fired. Other studies of behavior in battle revealed that many U.S. infantrymen (as many as 2/3) never actually fired their rifles in combat. By contrast, soldiers armed with rapid fire weapons (such as submachine guns) were much more likely to have fired their weapons in battle. These conclusions suggested that infantry should be equipped with a fully-automatic rifle of some sort in order to increase the actual firepower of regular soldiers. It was also clear, however, that such weapons dramatically increased ammunition use and in order for a rifleman to be able to carry enough ammunition for a firefight they would have to carry something much lighter.

Existing rifles were poorly suited to real-world combat for both of these reasons. Although it appeared the new 7.62 mm T44 (precursor to the M14) would increase the rate of fire, its heavy 7.62 mm NATO cartridge made carrying significant quantities of ammunition difficult. Moreover, the length and weight of the weapon made it unsuitable for short range combat situations often found in jungle and urban combat or mechanized warfare, where a smaller and lighter weapon could be brought to bear faster.

These efforts were noticed by Colonel René Studler, U.S. Army Ordnance’s Chief of Small Arms Research and Development. Col. Studler asked the Aberdeen Proving Ground to submit a report on the smaller caliber weapons. A team led by Donald Hall, director of program development at Aberdeen, reported that a .22 inch (5.56 mm) round would have performance equal to larger rounds in most combat. With the higher rate of fire possible due to lower recoil it was likely such a weapon would inflict more casualties on the enemy. His team members, notably William C. Davis, Jr. and Gerald A. Gustafson, started development of a series of experimental .22 (5.56 mm) cartridges.

The M16 shoots its glorified .22 with roughly half the energy (1300 ft·lbf) of a .308 (2,472 ft·lbf) coming out of an M14, the gun it replaced — but it does so with very little recoil.


  1. Alrenous says:

    This may explain why I grew up thinking infantry were kind of useless, when that’s not currently the case. In WWII, they used a kind of useless weapon.

  2. Isegoria says:

    The M1 Garand carried by US infantry in WWII was called “the greatest battle implement ever devised” by General George S. Patton; it wasn’t “kind of a useless weapon”. The bolt-action rifles used by the other armies weren’t useless either. Rather, most conscripts simply aren’t expert riflemen. They won’t make each shot count, so they won’t benefit from a weapon effective out to half a kilometer or more.

    What is infantry for, anyway?, we might ask, if they’re not really riflemen, and it seems that infantry troops are for infiltrating and screening out infiltrators.

  3. Alrenous says:

    Ah, so the soldiers were kind of useless, meaning the rifle was far more rifle than they could use.

    What would you say would happen if an expert rifleman with a Garand or modern equivalent attacked or was attacked by a regular soldier with a M16?

  4. Isegoria says:

    An expert rifleman with a Garand or modern equivalent, like an M-14 with modern optics, is basically a designated marksman — so his goal would be to engage from relatively long range. Modern American soldiers are well-trained though, and they have high-quality optics on their assault rifles, so the margin would be much narrower than it would be against a modern insurgent or Cold War Soviet conscript with an AK.

  5. Anonymous says:

    At high velocities, the 5.56mm fragments and causes massive damage that a .22 couldn’t hope to do in a billion years.

    Since when has “energy” from a bullet ever taken down anyone? If you don’t hit the central nervous system, you should be concerned about permanent cavity and bleedout.

    For your viewing pleasure. Black area is permanent cavity.

  6. Isegoria says:

    Of course a 5.56 causes more damage than a .22 long rifle round.

    The M16 may shoot its glorified .22 with roughly half the energy (1300 ft·lbf) of a .308 (2,472 ft·lbf) coming out of an M14, but that’s still many times the energy of an inglorious .22 — just 141 ft·lbf!

    An ordinary .22 lacks the energy to cause massive damage — so bullet placement becomes very, very important.

  7. Magus says:

    Studler was the same fool who a decade earlier had insisted that the .308 had to be the round adopted, dismissing the British-designed .280 as insufficient in power. Then he turned around pushed a much weaker round.

  8. Wang Wei Lin says:

    If the projectile is capable of poking a hole in you it’s potentially lethal. Poke enough holes and any projectile is guarateed deadly.

  9. Longarch says:

    “An expert rifleman with a Garand or modern equivalent, like an M-14 with modern optics, is basically a designated marksman — so his goal would be to engage from relatively long range.”

    I would like to think that lowly grunts of the 21st century could engage the enemy at close quarters with automatic firearms more efficient than M3 grease guns or Tommy guns.


    Machine pistols seem cool to me in theory, based solely on my subjective impressions of their usage in 1980s action movies.





    I like the idea of a lowly grunt packing a heavy-caliber machine pistol that can be worn on the hip like an oversized pistol, but can be used for close-quarters SWAT policing or military operations. I am sure that some mechanical engineer could figure out a way to make a machine pistol chambered in 12.7mm. I am sure macho guys would risk breaking their wrists just to fire such a thing in full auto. What I doubt is that any army would be profligate enough to equip lowly grunts with such expensive machine pistols. Because the monetary costs and logistical headaches of the ammunition would likely outweigh any practical benefits, such show-stopping pistols are probably best left to the realm of cyberpunk fiction.

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