The new 5.56mm rifle round that is making its way to Marines in Afghanistan. (Thomas Brown / Staff)
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CAMP HANSON, Afghanistan — The Marine Corps has fielded its new, enhanced 5.56mm rifle round in Afghanistan, and it's just beginning to reach thousands of grunts here.
The two North Carolina-based battalions involved in the initial assault on the Taliban stronghold of Marjah — 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, and 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines — were among the first units to receive a large shipment of Special Operations Science and Technology ammunition, said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Joshua Smith, battalion gunner for 3/6, headquartered here in Marjah. Each battalion received 75,000 rounds, but neither used it during the assault.
"As soon as I got it, I pushed it out to the companies and basically did a one-for-one swap," Smith said.
The companies field the new SOST rounds as they see fit, Smith said, and may be using their existing supplies of standard 5.56mm ammo first. Grunts with India Company, 3/6, expected to receive large quantities of the round May 14.
First Battalion, 3rd Marines, currently deployed in the Nawa district of Helmand province, recently received its supply of SOST rounds, and other units in Afghanistan that have not received it are expected to get it soon.
The round uses an open-tip match-round design common in sniper ammunition, and is considered "barrier blind," meaning its aim stays truer through windshields, walls and other barriers. Initially, it was considered as a way to increase the lethality of Marines carrying the M4 carbine, which has less stopping power than the M16A4 because of its shorter barrel, but was approved for use in January with both rifles.
Only one major Marine 5.56mm weapon system will not use SOST rounds, officials said: the M249 squad automatic weapon. The new ammo fits the SAW but is not currently produced in the linked fashion commonly employed with the light machine gun.
Infantrymen with 3/6 who have seen SOST ammo said they haven't used it enough to determine whether it performs better than standard 5.56mm rounds.
"I got mine from a [military policeman] attached to the company, but I haven't shot them yet," said a lance corporal who serves as a fire team leader for India Company 3/6. He is one of the few Marines interviewed by Marine Corps Times in Afghanistan who was in possession of the ammunition, and he had only 20 rounds.
Initial studies conducted by 1/6's gunner, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Matthew Harris, showed that Taliban insurgents hit by the new round suffered larger exit wounds, but information has been limited, Smith said. Attempts to reach Harris were unsuccessful.
Smith said Taliban tactics play a role in the limited amount of information the Marines have been able to collect.
"The Taliban usually doesn't leave behind bodies or wounded," he said.
Three fast facts about the new Special Operations Science and Technology round being used by Marines in Afghanistan:
1. It's "barrier blind": That means the SOST round stays on target better than the Corps' existing 5.56mm round after penetrating windshields, car doors and other objects.
2. It has more stopping power. The SOST round also stays on target longer in open air and has increased stopping power through "consistent, rapid fragmentation which shortens the time required to cause incapacitation of enemy combatants," according to Navy Department documents.
3. It was designed with hunters in mind. At 62 grains, the new ammo weighs about the same as most NATO rounds. It has a typical lead core with a solid-copper shank and is considered a variation of Federal Cartridge's Federal Trophy Bonded Bear Claw round, which was developed for big-game hunting and is touted in a company news release for its ability to crush bone.