It could be a third-floor window perch overlooking a small square in Kabul, or an inflatable craft bobbing close to a pirate boat off Somalia, or a rooftop above Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue as the inaugural parade passes by. Whatever the time, place or the mission, when it comes to the moment of truth, the American military sniper counts on three things: his training, his weapon and the round in the chamber.
Military necessities and advances in technology have resulted in successes so spectacular they have received recognition from media outlets ranging from news broadcasts to Hollywood, and the exploits of such elite units as Seal Team 6 have generated extensive public interest in the individuals engaged in special operations and the weapons they carry. Less familiar, but equally important, is the story behind the evolution of the cartridges that “cannot fail.”
According to Bruce Webb, vice president of business operations for Nammo Tactical Ammunition, the evolution began in the 1990s. “By the late 1990s, munitions makers throughout the free world were experiencing a slowdown in military sales. In 1998, the governments of Norway, Sweden and Finland decided to consolidate their ammunition manufacturers into a single entity, forming the Nordic Ammunition Company, or Nammo. Products included small, medium and large caliber ammunition, as well as warheads, rockets and fuzes.
“The Al Qaeda attacks of September 11th and the subsequent U.S./Allied military action in Afghanistan and then Iraq changed the worldwide munitions market. For example, the U.S. rifle ammunition requirements, mostly filled by the Army’s own Lake City Army Ammunition Plant, increased by three times between 2000 and 2004 to more than 1 billion rounds per year. In Europe, Nammo embarked on a two-pronged strategy incorporating increased capacity through acquisitions, coupled with R&D efforts, to produce superior products and to provide them to allied countries-including the U.S.A.”
In 2007, Nammo purchased Arizona-based Talley Defense Systems, a long-time partner in the manufacture of shoulder-launched munitions including the M72, BDM and SMAW systems. Nammo Talley’s Mesa, AZ, campus would become the center of U.S. operations and spearhead the creation of a world-standard cartridge.
The development of the optimum sniper round emerged from the recognition of the problems attendant on two of the most common calibers. The .38 Winchester (7.62mmx51) uses a 175 grain projectile with an effective range of about 900 meters fired by a weapon weighing 12 pounds. At the other end of the spectrum is the .50 caliber BMG with a 650 grain projectile and a 1,500 meter range, but requiring a 30-pound weapon. The gap between the two systems resulted in a series of unsatisfactory trade-offs. In 1982, the U.S. Military moved to close that gap through the development of a multi-purpose cartridge (for machine gun, semi-auto and sniper) capable of launching a 250 grain projectile at 3,000 feet per second (fps) with a range of 1,500 meters.
An early response was Armament Research Corp.’s “Haskins Rifle.” Incorporating a simplified action, the design could utilize a .300 Win Mag, a .50 cal round, as well as a .416/.338 cartridge based on the .416 Rigby. Lapua was signed on as a cartridge case production partner.
By 1984, however, a number of problems had surfaced, chief among which was a recurring “headspace” difficulty caused by an oversized bullet and the Haskins bolt design. Despite this, the military continued with the Haskins concept utilizing the .300 Win Mag, as well as the .50 caliber, but dropped the .416/.338, thereby eliminating Lapua’s participation.
Realizing the superior potential of their design, Lapua proceeded on its own. Further refinements included increased web thickness and, to satisfy machine gun demands, increased taper. By 1985, Heym, a German manufacturer of semi-custom guns, developed an action that maximized the capabilities of the renamed “.338 Lapua Magnum” cartridge. In short order, competitive long-range shooters were opting for the .338 LM. By the late 1980s, through the efforts of Malcolm Cooper, Accuracy International migrated its Arctic Warfare weapon from 7.62mm and .300 Win Mag to the .338 Lapua Magnum and became the first production armament to use the new cartridge.
Authorities and aficionados were quick to note the improvements of the .338 Lapua Magnum over the .416 Rigby. Most visible are the narrower mouth and increased taper for improved extraction, slightly shorter length (2.72 inches vs. 2.90 inches), and the marginally lighter 114gr to 122gr. The increased web provides for higher chamber pressures-up to 60,915 psi.
Today, the .338 Lapua Magnum is used in such weapons as the Accuracy International AWSM/AWP, the SAKO TRG-42 from Finland, Canada’s PGW, the sophisticated Remington M24A3 and the Swiss SIG Blaser LRS2.
As the popularity of the round has grown, the increase in production demands has necessitated the most advanced quality control measures available. Webb comments, “Nammo Tactical’s process control is among the tightest in the industry. Snipers in training have to know that the ammunition they will use in the course of a mission will perform exactly the same way as the rounds with which they’ve trained. This requires absolute uniformity and, to ensure this, we inspect-and shoot-one out of every 50 rounds produced.”
At the heart of the Nammo Tactical quality assurance process is the LaserLab inspection system developed by General Inspection LLC, of Davisburg, MI. Capable of accommodating parts from 2 to 38 millimeter (mm) diameter and 150 to 300 mm in length, the system holds the part stationary while it is scanned by a series of laser emitting diodes designed for inspection purposes. Thanks to a specially developed Windows-based software, the template can be developed directly from a prototype sample part or from a CAD file or print. The template includes both graphic representation and numerical data establishing the desired part, or cartridge, features. As the inspection proceeds, a real-time comparison records any deviation from desired features or measurements. The characteristics can include lengths, diameters, radii, tapers, minimum/maximum material, hex, across flats/corners, threads, trilobe/taptite, straightness, concentricity, wrench height, recess depth, first/last scratch thread and first/last full thread.
The 100% inspection takes only 20 seconds, or less, and generates a report that can be printed, archived or transmitted electronically. To ensure system accuracy, after every scan, the LaserLab automatically recalibrates itself through a NIST traceable calibration device. Inspection reports can be maintained for recording purposes and/or submitted to customers. Webb comments, “We found that LaserLab’s greatest advantage is in telling us when there is a problem with our equipment. Based on the information found in the inspection report, we can immediately address even the minutest malfunctions.
“In the past, when we used dial indicators, we could only examine one chord at a time. LaserLab holds the part stationary, goes to 360 degrees immediately, and delivers a complete inspection. Today, we have machines capable of manufacturing and testing a few million rounds per year, and the speed and ease of use are something we can’t do without.
“LaserLab has not only helped us to produce a better product but to control our own costs. Our operation formerly involved a team of 18 people. We can now do it with seven and deliver better results. We’ve also saved on fixturing costs, measurement tools, and continual calibration. In the future, we expect to add additional LaserLab units at other international facilities producing multiple product lines.”
The proliferation of military operations in the Third World has resulted, in many cases, in a highly individualized approach to neutralizing key enemy combatants, as well as terrorists and their support groups. For those on the front line, the availability of the latest technology produced to the highest quality standards delivers the greatest degree of assurance that their missions will be successfully completed.
Certain of the part characteristics quoted do not apply to ammunition. In addition to the munitions industry, LaserLab is utilized by manufacturers and distributors of bolts, specialty fasteners, and numerous other products.
Nammo Tactical Ammunition