Testing Times – Nato's Rifle Standardisation Dilemma

Rifle calibre and ammunition disparity between allied forces is an issue that stretches back to the Second World War. Alex Hawkes discovers what steps Nato is taking to address the problem.


Nato's turbulent relationship with infantry weapons standardisation is both long and complex. The organisation's quest to standardise a common rifle and a second rifle calibre across all military allies began in 1970 and is yet to be fully resolved.

The need to implement equipment conformity among allied troops rose to prominence during the First and Second World Wars, where most of the big nations were using similar-calibre rifles – none of which, however, were interchangeable. According to the chairman of Nato's LCG1 weapon sub group Per Arvidsson this first led Nato towards a path of rifle standardisation.

"During the Second World War the allies learnt that ammunition supply was a nightmare, as each allied force had its own requirements. When Nato was founded over 60 years ago, it decided to standardise a number of different things between the allied troops – and one of these was rifle calibre," Arvidsson says.

Nato was formed in 1949 as a result of the North Atlantic Treaty. Effectively solidifying the relationship between the European countries and the United States, it soon became apparent each nation had conflicting weapon requirements. The US proposed the organisations adopted the .30 light rifle (7.62mm×51mm), while the UK put forward the British 7.1mm×43mm intermediate calibre.

"Nato's turbulent relationship with infantry weapons standardisation is both long and complex."

A sign of America's power, Nato eventually standardised the US-nominated 7.62mm×51mm as the new rifle calibre in 1953.

Failing to find a solution

The issue of infantry weapons standardisation did not rise again until 1970, when Nato attempted to standardise a common rifle and a second rifle calibre. The decision led a number of allied countries to begin a period of mutual testing before each putting forward prototype rifles for consideration. This included 5.56mm rounds with increased penetration from Belgium and the US, a 4.85mm round from the UK and a 4.7mm caseless round from Germany.

"Six different prototype rifles were tested in total," Avridsson says. "But the allied forces failed to agree on a single weapon and instead standardised ammunition to the Belgium-nominated SS109 round in 1980. Nato also attempted to standardise equipment such as magazine and other rounds but this never happened either."

While two different types of infantry rifles had been dominant in Europe during the 1950s, 60s and early 70s, by the 80s this was no longer becoming the case. Instead a situation was occurring very similar to the one that exists today where, with the exception of the rare few, no two nations in Europe share the same rifles.

Such a fact led Nato to begin a period of identifying the relative merits of each rifle calibre, in particular comparing the 5.56 over the 7.62. The organisation discovered that while both calibres had equal lethality against enemies not wearing body armour, the 5.56 had half the mass and volume of the 7.62 alongside offering a reduced recoil and better penetration in thin metal plates. Overall, it offered a lighter weapon with a higher hit probability.

With this in mind Sweden began training with 5.56 rifles in the mid 80s. "Dynamic shooting training was introduced in 1985, where three levels of 'markmanship badges' were introduced for soldiers and officers," Avridsson says.

"When Sweden introduced the 5.56 AK rifle in 1986, we found that troops could shoot much better and we had to increase the score for the training programme as it was becoming quicker and easier to become a marksman. The same thing happened when we introduced the AK 5c with its red-dot sight."

Future rifle evolution

Despite such discoveries, today's allied forces have failed to commit to a standardised Nato rifle. Often references are made to Nato standardisation agreement (STANAG) magazines, flash hider and bayonets, but Avridsson reasserts that no such regulations are actually in existence.

"Today's allied forces have failed to commit to a standardised Nato rifle."

"What we do have, however, is NNW's [regulations], which are used as reference when new ammunition is standardised. So each country has to nominate new rounds when they are developing weapons. As of 2009, the 5.56mm rifles are Belgium's FNC, Germany's G36, Italy's AR70/90, the UK's L85A2 and the American M16A2," Avridsson says. "A new NNW must work with all qualified 5.56mm ammunition designs. At present there are 17 qualified designs, all of which are held at our test centre, where we test new weaponry."

Avridsson says he believes that recent information exchange between allied forces has shown that there are many similar rifle programmes among the nations. "Through our information exchange, we have learned that several nations plan to introduce a new rifle by 2020. This will be a good opportunity for cooperation," Avridsson says.

"The future of infantry weaponry will be an evolution, not a revolution. It will revolve around a standardised 5.56mm calibre that also has a Nato rail, red-dot sight and short barrel."

Information used in this feature was taken from a presentation at the recent Soldier Technology 2009 conference.