FN’s Individual Weapon System in .264 USA

There was significant buzz around FN America’s booth at SHOT 2023 a couple of months ago. FN America unveiled a brand new rifle, developed for a US government requirement. I had the chance to take a look at the rifle and speak to FN about the weapon.

The new Individual Weapon System, chambered in a new .264 round, was on display in a case, tucked away in the military section of FN America’s booth. On first sight you might mistake the rifle for a SCAR-H or an AR-10 pattern marksman’s rifle but on closer inspection the rifle is a different beast. With the weapon only displayed inside the case this is the best footage I could get of it.

FN explained that the new weapon and ammunition was developed for the Irregular Warfare Technology Support Directorate (IWTSD). Interestingly, the aim for the project was to provide overmatch against emerging great power competitors and future threats. A similar goal to the US Army’s Next Generation Squad Weapon System which coalesced on a 6.8mm round. It’s important to note, however, that the IWS was not FN’s proposal for NGSW – that instead was based around an adapted FN HAMR and a belt-fed weapon in 6.8mm.

The FN IWS on display at SHOT Show 2023 (Matthew Moss)

What is the IWTSD? The Irregular Warfare Technology Support Directorate is responsible for carrying out research and development to support U.S. and allied organisations involved in irregular warfare. Originally set up in 1999 as the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office, its name was changed in 2021. The Department of Defense defines the Irregular Warfare Technology Support Directorate role as:

“to identify and develop capabilities for DoD to conduct Irregular Warfare against all adversaries, including Great Power competitors and non-state actors, and to deliver those capabilities to DoD components and interagency partners through rapid research and development, advanced studies and technical innovation, and provision of support to U.S. military operations.”

The IWS chambers the Lightweight Intermediate Caliber Cartridge (LICC), developed from .264 USA. The 6.5x43mm round uses a steel case, which FN America says reduces weight by 20% compared to equivalent brass. No data on velocities has been released yet. The round has a two-piece, lightweight steel design with a stainless steel head and case body. A variety of loads have been developed with a number of different projectiles, including a 130gr Reduced Ricochet Limited Penetration round, a 109gr copper open tip match (OTM), a 120gr copper OTM and a soft nose 125gr cartridge. To date FN haven’t yet released any data on the rounds  performance.

According to the 2019 Broad Agency Announcement (BAA), which outlined the programme’s requirements, polymer cased ammunition was considered and two proof of concept rounds were desired for Phase 1: 108gr OTM with a muzzle velocity of 2650 feet per second, from an 11.5 inch test barrel, and a frangible training round.

In Phase 2 IWTSD required Combat Barrier rounds loaded with Special Operations Science and Technology (SOST-style) projectiles and an M855A1-style enhanced penetration round which could penetrate no less than 12-inches of 10% ordnance gelatin at 800m and no greater than 18 inch at 25m-150m when fired from a 14.5 inch barrel or 25m-450m when fired from a 11.5 inch barrel.

A new 25 round polymer magazine has been developed for the rifle, sized somewhere between a 5.56x45mm STANAG magazine and a 7.62×51mm AR-10 pattern magazine. The proprietary magazine was developed by an industry partner – believed to be Magpul. FN say that when fully-loaded loaded with 25 rounds it is equivalent in weight to a Magpul P-Mag loaded with 30 rounds of 5.56mm ammunition. From the IWTSD 2019 BAA we know that a box magazine no longer than a STANAG magazine with a “self-lubricating non-tilt follower and high-quality corrosion resistant magazine spring” which could be loaded with ammunition in stripper clips using speed loaders was required.

Left: FN IWS (FN America)

The Individual Weapon System began concept development in the late 2010s. In 2018-19 IWTSD published their annual Broad Agency Announcements which outlined the requirements for the IWS and its ammunition. 

Here is how IWTSD describe the IWS and its ammunition: 

“Tactical operators require an integrated, user-tailorable, lightweight shoulder-fired individual weapon and lightweight intermediate caliber cartridge (LICC) that can overmatch the current maximum effective range and terminal effects of peer, near peer, and future threat individual weapons and ammunition, while also defeating current and emerging threat individual protective equipment out to 800 meters. This weapon system shall be comprised of four main components: a lightweight .264 inch (6.5 mm) intermediate caliber projectile loaded in a lightweight polymer cartridge case; a lightweight purpose-built caliber .264 USA detachable box-magazine; a purpose-built lightweight modular weapon platform. The   IWS weapon system shall be developed, tested, and delivered for developmental and operational testing by a single contractor who shall develop/obtain and integrate all subcomponents into a fully mature, safe, and reliable system.”

In 2019, FN America were awarded a contract to develop a weapon system to meet the IWTSD’s requirement. FN America is the lead contractor on the development working with a team of other industry manufacturers which includes four ammunition manufacturers, a magazine manufacturer [Magpul], and a suppressor developer. 

According to the 2019 BAA the suppressor requirements stipulated that the “sound signature shall be no greater than 140 dB when measured at the operator’s ear firing .264 USA SOST-style ammunition.” It also calls for the suppressor to be not larger or heavier than a standard SOPMOD suppressor. It also mentions that the suppressor should “reduce back-pressure and blow-back into the weapon” suggesting a requirement for a flow through suppressor. The suppressor which was on display was indeed a flow through design which appeared to be from Huxwrx (formerly OSS).

FN representatives noted that the COVID pandemic inevitably slowed development but by late 2020 the ITWSD had decided to accelerate the project. The summer of 2022 saw the weapon under go initial User Acceptance Testing and Performance Evaluations.

The IWS uses a long stroke piston operating system and a paired with a three-lug bolt. FN note that the weapon is designed to run without any adjustments when operating suppressed or unsuppressed via the virtue of a self-regulating gas block.

Right: FN IWS (FN America)

Development of the ammunition and weapon has been an iterative process and three variants will be delivered: an 11.5” Close Quarters Battle carbine, a 14.5” Carbine, and a 18.5” ‘Recce’ (Designated Marksmanship Rifle). FN America say these variants weight 7 and 9 pounds, empty depending on configuration.

The 2019 BAA gives some further details on the IWS variants, and noted that it wanted operators to be able to change configurations by swapping out the upper receiver. Here are the weight requirements for the various configurations, according to the BAA:

CQB Carbine: weight 6.5-7lbs. 

Carbine: weight 7-8lbs. 

Recce Rifle: weight 8-9lbs.

The weapon is fully ambidextrous, has a self regulating gas block, a non-reciprocating charging handle, a two stage trigger, a self contained operating group, a monolithic upper, a full length top rail and an MLOK forend, a folding stock and several built-in recoil mitigation mechanisms. Details on these mechanisms haven’t been disclosed yet. Interestingly, throughout its description of the desired weapon characteristics the BAA uses the Colt Canada C8 SFW as a reference point for overall length, and felt recoil, also noting that “reliability, durability and safety of the LICC IWS shall be equal to or better than the Colt Canada C8 SFW with 14.5 inch barrel”.

FN IWS with magazines, suppressor, optic and cleaning kit (FN America)

Later this year FN America will be delivering 55 of the LICC IWS. Three configurations, along with a number of the EVOLYS-based LICC Assault Machine Gun, along with ammunition will be delivered. Canadian Special Operations Forces are a  co-sponsor of program and they will also be receiving a batch of the weapons and ammunition for testing and evaluation.

It remains to be seen what applications the LICC IWS has in the field but on the face of it appears to be an interesting answer to a similar question the Army’s Next Generation Squad Weapon program has sought to answer.

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Broad Agency Announcement FY2019, CTTSO/TSWG – Now IWTSD, (source)

FN America’s New Individual Weapon System, TFB, (source)

FN America (FNA) Previews the Lightweight Intermediate Caliber Cartridge (LICC) Individual Weapon System (IWS), SSD, (source)

NGSW: The US Army’s First Suppressed Service Rifle & Some History

A couple of weeks ago the US Army finally announced the winner of their long running Next Generation Squad Weapon program, selecting the SIG Sauer MCX Spear rifle as the XM5 and the LMG-6.8 as the XM250.

The topic of whether this was the right choice and if the 6.8mm round they chamber is the right direction to move in is the topic for another day. I wanted to highlight one important aspect of the program that’s been somewhat overlooked. The weapons will be issued with suppressors as standard.

All of the NGSW submissions had suppressors developed by various manufacturers as it was an Army requirement. SIG developed their own design in house. When fielded over the next few years the XM5 will become the US Army’s first service rifle to be suppressed as standard.

But this isn’t the first time the US Army has examined large scale issue of suppressors. The US Army first examined the usefulness of suppressors way back in 1910, over a century ago.

XM5 / MCX Spear and XM250 / LMG-6.8 (SIG Sauer)

The first viable firearm suppressors appeared just after the turn of the 20th century with a series of patents being granted on various designs between 1909 and 1920. One of the first suppressor developers was Hiram Percy Maxim, son of Sir Hiram S. Maxim, He experimented with valves, vents and bypass devices, however, he eventually finalised his basic idea based on baffles and developed a series of practical suppressors; which were sold through the Maxim Silent Firearms Company. He filed his first patent on 26th June, 1908, which was granted in March the following year (US 916,885).

During the 1910s Maxim sold a successful range of ‘silencers’, as they were then largely known, on the commercial market. As early as 1907 Maxim was looking at ways to suppress the Army’s new Springfield M1903.

M1903 Springfield with a Maxim Silencer
M1903 Springfield fitted with a Maxim Model 1910 Silencer (Cody Firearms Museum)

The US military first took interest in silencers in 1908. However, the 1909 annual report of the Chief of Ordnance wasn’t too enthusiastic stating that “the silencer be not adopted for use in the service in its present form” citing visible gases leaving the silencer and the difficulty of mounting a bayonet. The following year the Chief of Ordnance believed that the improved the Model 1910 silencer overcame “most of the defects found in the original” and that “five hundred of the silencers are now being procured with a view to the issue of one or more to each organisation for instruction of recruits in target practice, and for issue to the militia, on requisition.”

The US School of Musketry also tested the Maxim silencer. Twenty four soldiers were issued silenced M1903s for the test. The School of Musketry’s testing found that the report at the muzzle and the recoil felt by the rifleman was reduced when compared to a normal, unsuppressed, M1903. The School of Musketry’s report noted that:

An M1903 with a Maxim 1910 Silencer being test fired, left to right: H.P. Maxim, Lt.Col. R. Goodman, & Capt. E. Church (from the National Guard Magazine)

“The muffling of the sound of discharge and the great reduction in the total volume of sound which permits the voice to be heard at the firing point about the sound of a number of rifles in action, greatly facilitate the control of the firing line.” They also reported that “the silencer annuls the flash” a quality that they felt was a “positive military advantage in view of the extent to which night operations may be employed in future wars.”

Maxim did his best to develop a robust silencer that would meet the military’s needs. He incorporated a mounting point for a bayonet on the military variant of the Model 1910. The model 1910 silencer for the Springfield M1903, however, required the removal of the rifle’s front sight. This attachment method was felt to be the Model 1910’s weakest point and something Maxim himself actively looked to address.

The Maxim Silencer Company subsequently improved models and encouraged by early military interest Maxim envisioned a military silencer being useful in roles such as sniping, guard harassment and marksmanship training.

But Maxim was not the only designer working in the field and Robert A. Moore, his most competent competitor, also submitted a design for military testing. Moore’s designs used large gas expansion chambers which sat beneath the rifle’s muzzle as well as a series of vortex chambers ahead of the muzzle.

Ordnance Corps photograph of M1903s equipped with Maxim and Moore Silencers (US Army)

US Ordnance tests with Moore silencers began in 1910. When the two silencers were compared the US Army found that there was little difference between the two rival designs with regards to the reduction of sound, recoil and flash. Springfield Armory’s report in July 1912, found that the Moore silencer was more accurate and had a better attachment system. The Maxim silencer, however, was more durable and could withstand more prolonged rapid fire. While the suppressors were tested neither was selected for general issue and large scale contracts didn’t materialise. However, we do know that some of the suppressors were used during the US Army’s 1916 Mexican expedition against Pancho Villa and during the First World War some are confirmed to have made it to the Western Front but don’t appear to have been used in the field despite requests from officers.  

I go into much more detail about the early suppressors, their design, testing and whether they saw action in this article

Now fast-forward 100 years and the US Army is finally poised to adopt suppressors for close combat troops. In recent years the US Army has been testing suppressors at the squad level as far back as 2005 and this fed into requirements for the NGSW programme.

XM5 / MCX Spear (SIG Sauer)

In terms of the weapons selected SIG Sauer have developed their own suppressor designs to pair with the XM5 and XM250. SIG have said that the designs initially grew from their Suppressed Upper Receiver Group for USSOCOM. SIG’s suppressors are manufactured using direct metal laser sintering – essentially 3D printing with metal. SIG Sauer’s suppressor designs reduce sound and flash but also reduce gas blowback into the action and face of users. the SIG suppressors for the XM5 appear to be SLX suppressors, optimised for the reduction of blowback of toxic gases – SIG claim by as much as 70 to 80%) and are quick detach rather than direct thread, using a clutch lock system with an internal tapered seal. One thing the Army has not commented on is the efficiency of the suppressors so we don’t know to what levels the report of the weapons has been lowered to. Another thing that isn’t clear about the XM5 is if the Army had a requirement for mounting a bayonet. It certainly appears not to have been which would make the XM5 the first US Army service rifle not to mount a bayonet.

Of course the US Army are not the first service branch to suppress their rifles. The USMC is currently in the process of issuing Knights Armament QDSS NT4 suppressors for use with their M4A1 carbines and M27 and M38 rifles. The process began in late 2020 with the Corps citing many of the reasons originally identified back in in 1910 – reduced signatures, improved communication and hearing protection. 

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The Next Generation: SLX & SLH Suppressors, SIG Sauer, (source)
US Marine Corps Selects Knight’s Armament Suppressor, TFB, (source)
Marine Corps Begins Widespread Fielding of Suppressors, USMC, (source)
Silencers, Snipers & Assassins: An Overview of Whispering Death, J.D. Truby (1972)
Firearm Silencers, N. Wilson (1983)
War Department, Annual Reports, Report of Chief of Ordnance, 1909, Vol.6 (source)
War Department, Annual Reports, Report of Chief of Ordnance, 1910, Vol.1 (source)
Silencer for Firearms, R.A. Moore, US Patent #1021742, (source)
Firearm, H.P. Maxim, US Patent #1054434, (source)