A Marine with 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion zeros in the new M110 Semi-Automatic Sniper System. (Pfc. Mark W. Stroud / Marine Corps)
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The Marine Corps is rolling out a new, semi-automatic sniper rifle to scout sniper platoons, but holding fire for now on fielding a long-range precision rifle designed to drop targets at 1,500 meters.
The service recently began equipping scout snipers with the M110 Semi-Automatic Sniper System. Made by Knight's Armament Company in Titusville, Fla., the rifle allows shooters to rapidly engage targets out to 800 meters with match-grade 7.62mm ammunition, especially in scenarios requiring multiple follow-up shots.
A handful of Marines have used similar weapons downrange before, but the M110 did not receive full fielding approval until the fall, according to an internal memo obtained by Marine Corps Times. It will be fielded to augment the bolt-action 7.62mm M40A5 sniper rifle already in use, and replace two other semi-automatic 7.62mm weapons — the M39 enhanced marksman rifle and the Mark 11 Mod 1 sniper rifle — said Jim Katzaman, a spokesman at Marine Corps Systems Command, out of Quantico, Va.
Marine officials declined to provide more details about the fielding plans, but the memo said fielding will occur in two phases. Deploying units and schools teaching scout sniper and designated marksman skills were scheduled to begin receiving M110s in January, with fielding continuing through the fall. The second phase calls for filling additional requirements in deploying units and replacing the M39 rifle on a one-for-one basis beginning next fall.
The Corps exercised an option on an existing Army contract for the M110 in June, buying 803 for $8.3 million, said retired Lt. Col. David Lutz, vice president for military operations at Knight's. Scout sniper teams likely will carry both the M40A5 and the M110 on many missions, he said. More weapons could be purchased as the Corps completes fielding.
"It's probably a toss-up whether they'll go out with the M40 or the M110 as the primary weapon," Lutz said. "I think it'll depend on what they're facing on a given day. If it's a one-shot, one-kill scenario, then it'll probably still be the M40 getting primary use."
The Corps' widespread adoption of the M110 comes more than a decade after the military began adopting the SR-25, a commercial model made by Knight's with many similarities to the M110. In 2007, the Corps issued an urgent-needs statement for 180 semi-automatic sniper rifles with similarities to the SR-25, and fielded the Mark 11 Mod 1. Those weapons are still likely in the Corps' inventory, and are distinctive because they are black, rather than tan, Lutz said.
The Army began fielding the M110 in Iraq in 2008, after naming it the No. 2 invention for soldiers in 2007. It has a 20-inch barrel, adjustable butt stock and typically carries 10- and 20-round magazines. Its stainless steel sound suppressor also muffles the sound of gunfire so that it is substantially quieter than the bolt-action M24 and M40.
The Corps' M110 will be nearly identical to the Army's, but there are a few differences, Lutz said. For one, Marines are unlikely to carry 10-round magazines for the weapon. The optics also will be different. Soldiers typically use a 3.5x10 optic made by Leupold, of Beaverton, Ore., but the Corps will use a scope from Premier Reticles, of Winchester, Va. Premier already makes the Corps' scout sniper day scope.
The PSR question
The Corps' plans for another more powerful sniper rifle are less clear, however. Marine officials have been mum as U.S. Special Operations Command pushes forward with a competition to decide which company will provide its Precision Sniper Rifle.
The Corps began considering options for a new long-range sniper rifle at least seven years ago, after Marines in Iraq issued a universal needs statement for a weapon capable of reaching 1,500 meters. In July 2009, Marine Corps Combat Development Command completed a draft capabilities development document for the weapon, calling it the SR-21, short for Sniper Rifle 21st Century. It said the SR-21 could replace the 7.62mm M40A5, the latest version of a weapon that has been fielded since the 1960s.
"The current M40 Series is limited by a caliber not suited for precision fire at distances greater than 914 meters, is extremely heavy relative to its capability and is readily identifiable by its sounds and flash signature," said the document, obtained by Marine Corps Times through the Freedom of Information Act.
More recently, the Corps has stepped back, as SOCOM launched its PSR competition. Marine officials worked extensively with SOCOM to develop specifications for the rifle, but hadn't finalized its plans, MARCORSYSCOM officials said last spring.
Marine officials said the Corps is now waiting to see how the PSR competition turns out before deciding what it will do, a common practice for the service when other branches of service are pursuing similar projects.
Several rifles could be in contention. For example, FN Herstal unveiled its Ballista PSR at the 2011 Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show and Convention in Las Vegas in January. The company is relatively new to building precision rifles, but snipers and other combat veterans at SHOT Show said it looked impressive. It features a suppressed .338-caliber system that can be configured for 7.62mm NATO ammo, .308 Winchester ammo and .300 Winchester Magnum.
Another likely contender for the PSR contract is Remington's Modular Sniper Rifle. It has the same multicaliber capabilities as the Ballista, and came close to meeting SOCOM's PSR requirements in its first-generation submission, said Joshua Cutlip, who handles technical services for the company.
Remington's XM2010 — which bears many similarities to a beefed-up M24 or M40 — also may be in play to meet the PSR requirement, some industry analysts said. Sources told Army Times, Marine Corps Times' sister publication, that some Army snipers have occasionally upped their rounds from 190-grain to 220-grain, and achieved distances and accuracy desired from the PSR. It's chambered for .300 Winchester Magnum ammo.
The first three XM2010s were delivered to Army Sniper School on Jan. 18. XM2010s were expected to reach Army forces in Afghanistan by the end of February, said Trevor Shaw, Remington's director of military and government programs.