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M249 Squad Automatic Weapon


Though the automatic rifle changed, the role of the automatic rifleman did not between its conception as a result of World War I and the end of the conflict in Vietnam. The automatic rifleman supported the infantry squad in the offense and defense. The M249 SAW was developed through an initially Army-led research and development effort and eventually a Joint NDO program in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The effort was part of a desire to restore sustained and accurate automatic weapons fire to the fire team and squad. The M249 SAW filled the void created by the retirement of the M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) during the 1950s. Automatic weapons adopted subsequently for use as automatic rifles, the M15, M14A1, and M16A1, had failed as viable "base of fire" weapons.

Experiences during the conflict in Vietnam had shown the standard M16A1 fitted with a bipod to be ill suited to the automatic rifle role. During the conflict, attrition and other factors led to instances of M60 machine guns being deployed at squad level. Formal experiments were conducted to test the suitability of the M60 as an automatic rifle, a role it was found to be too heavy for. As a result, the US Army began the Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) project in the early 1970s. The initial contenders were chambered for experimental 6x45mm rounds, an attempt to find a universal round for both the automatic rifles and machine guns at platoon level. Candidate weapons were supplied by Maremont (XM233), Ford Aerospace (XM234), and Rodman Laboratories (XM235).

In 1976, the SAW Materiel Needs Document was modified to switch required ammunition from the 6x45mm cartridge to the standard 5.56x45mm cartridge. The candidates for the system eventually include a modified variant of the M16A1 designed by the US Army's Ballistic Research Laboratory, with a quick-change barrel (XM106), the Rodman Laboratories SAW candidate rechambered for 5.56x45mm (XM248), the Fabrique Nationale Minimi (XM249), and a variant of the Heckler and Koch 21A1 chambered in 5.56x45mm (XM262).

Of the candidates, FN's XM249 is determined to be the best choice. With the decision to switch to heavier 5.56x45mm ammunition, the XM249 was modified with a new barrel to properlly stablize the rounds being tested. The resulting weapon was the XM249E1. In 1982, a Joint Service Operational Requirement was published for the M249, merging US Army and USMC requirements for a new automatic rifle. The US Marine Corps had been investigating an interim SAW, based on the M16A1 like the XM106, designed by WAK, Inc, since 1977.

By 1984, the XM249E1 was standardized as the M249. The SAW was issued as a one-for-one replacement for the M16A1s designated as automatic rifles in US Army and US Marine Corps infantry squads. The light machine gun configuration of the M249 was proposed as a replacement for the M60 at platoon level, but this was later deemed to be unacceptable. The M60 was subsequently replaced in the US Army by the M240B and in the US Marine Corps by the M240G.

Early in the M249 SAW's fielding, the Army identified the need for a Product Improvement Program (PIP) to enhance the weapon. This effort resulted in a "PIP kit" that modified the barrel, handguard, stock, pistol grip, buffer, and sights. This gave the M249 its distinctive look apart from other FN Minimi variants. Existing XM249E1s in inventory were supposed to be retrofitted, but some remained in the initial configuration through the first Gulf War in 1990-1991. Though the designation XM249E2 or M249E2 is sometimes applied to weapons fitted with the PIP kit, in the end weapons with the kit retained the basic M249 designation.

A further development during the 1990s was the Short Squad Automatic Weapon, sometimes referred to as the M249E3, which shortened the SAW by more than 10 inches. This developmental effort was intended to produce a weapon that was easier to maneuver for improved Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT) maneuverability and improved Airborne/Air Assault jump ability. The weapon was based on the FN Minimi Para, which had also been developed for this purpose, with elements of the PIP Kit. Eventually, the short barrel was issued as a replacement option for standard M249s, with the weapon retaining the basic M249 designation.

By 2003, US Marine Corps M249 SAWs were worn out and apparently beyond repair. They had far exceeded their service life. Many Marines were reported to be duct-taping and zip-tying the weapons together. Reconnaissance units were requesting short barrels, while infantry units were requesting collapsible buttstocks. The M249 SAW was being used in Iraq by all US miltiary services.

One of the US Army National Guard critical readiness requirements was individual weapons modernization. As of 2005, the Army National Guard still had an inventory of 11,000 M16A1s serving as substitutes for the M249 in the automatic rifle role. Also, still in Army National Guard inventory were 3,753 M60 machine guns substituting in the light machine gun role. These weapons were obsolete and obtaining ammunition for the M16A1 rifle had become increasingly difficult. The M249 was issued to units requiring the capability to deliver high rates of suppressive fire. It had become the automatic rifle of choice for the Global War on Terror and homeland security.

The FY06 RDD validated an Army National Guard requirement for 32,221 M249s at a cost of $3,000 each. On hand were 19,714 M249s in both the automatic rifle and light machine gun roles, most of which were deployed. Future fielding to fill the remaining Unfunded Requirement of 12,507 weapons had been suspended in order to push the entire weapons production to deploying units. Army National Guard Brigade Combat Team's deploying to Operation Iraqi Freedom had received approximately 220 additional M249s for the mission. M249s were being substituted for M240Bs in many deploying combat support and combat service support units. There was no alternative weapon to fill the requirement.

Funding the M249 SAW would give the US Army National Guard Soldiers the same capability as Active Army Forces to deploy and operate with maximum effectiveness on all fronts of the Global war on Terror. It contributed to their ability to rapidly and effectively defend themselves with high volume, suppressive fire in adverse conditions. It was essential that the M16A1s be replaced as soon as possible. The M16A2, M16A4, and M4 fieldings were partially funded, but alone would not displace all the M16A1s and M60s. Failure to fund the M249 fielding would increase risk to the soldiers and costs of pre-deployment cross-leveling, which also degraded the Army National Guard's ability to train for and execute its federal and state missions.

In 2005, the US Marine Corps issued a sources sought notice for a non-developmental, 5.56mm, Infantry Automatic Rifle (IAR). The IAR would replace the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon. In late 2008, the US Marine Corps awarded 5 year indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contracts to Fabriaque Nationale, Heckler and Koch, and Colt Defense (which recieved 2 contracts for 2 separate designs). In late 2009, the US Marine Corps selected the Heckler and Koch entry, which was expected to eventually supplant the M249 in the automatic rifle role.

As of May 2010, the M249 had been fielded to units throughout the Army and had proven its reliability in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. A collapsible buttstock had undergone testing and was being issued to units. Production of the 200-round soft ammunition pack had also begun and units were being issued that item. All future M249s would be produced with the improved SAW bipod. The goal was to field them under the Rapid Fielding Initiative to those units deploying or preparing to deploy to combat areas.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 02:46:01 ZULU