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The Military Needs to go All-Semi-Auto
By Harold Hutchison

Snipers have played a huge role in the war on terror, and some have racked up some eye-popping totals in terms of kills. But in the War on Terror, especially early on, our snipers have been hobbled by the fact that they are limited to the M40 and M24 sniper rifles.

The M40 rifle is chambered in 7.62x51mm NATO, and most versions had a 5-shot internal magazine. The new M40A5 replaced the 5-shot internal magazine with a 10-shot detachable magazine. The M24 is chambered in both 7.62 NATO and .338 Lapua Magnum. The 7.62mm NATO version has a 10-shot magazine, and the .338 Lapua version has a five-shot magazine.

But why stick with those bolt-action systems? These may have been state-of-the-art when it made its combat debut in a war in 1864, but this is 2012, and the state of the art has gone beyond a bolt-action rifle. So, what is taking so long? It’s not as if the semi-auto systems haven’t been effective at taking out the bad guys. Don’t believe me? Look at the record.

The U.S. Army introduced the M21 sniper system in 1969. It was used by snipers in Vietnam to great effect. While Carlos Hathcock got much of the acclaim while using a bolt-action rifle to score 93 kills in Vietnam, he wasn’t America’s top sniper in Vietnam. That honor went to Army sniper Adelbert Waldron, who used the semi-automatic M21 to score 109 confirmed kills. Waldron earned two Distinguished Service Crosses for his service. The Soviet Union went with a semi-auto sniper system by using the SVD Dragunov, which used a 7.64x54mm cartridge and a ten-shot magazine.

The M21 fires the same 7.62 NATO round as the M40 and M24, but it has 20-shot magazine, and it can fire a whole lot faster. Since then, the semi-auto systems have gotten even better, with the M25 and M110 entering service. The M110, which is based on the AR-15 mechanism, has either a 10 or 20 shot magazine. There is even an AR-15 type rifle that is chambered for .338 Lapua Magnum, the Noreen “Bad News” rifle. This rifle has a five or ten-shot magazine.

These rifles far outclass the bolt-action rifles. They have more ammunition capacity, and follow-up shots will come faster with these rifles as well. This can be very useful in a place like Afghanistan, where a cell of insurgents planting an IED can be taken out by one sniper – and from far beyond the effective range of the AK-47s the Taliban use.

So, why aren’t the bolt-action rifles being retired? Is it a case of years of tradition unimpeded by technological progress? Does it really make sense to stick with a bolt-action rifle when semi-autos are available? With looming defense cuts, it may be time to maximize the firepower of individual soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen. When it comes down to putting rounds downrange, a semi-auto will put far more downrange faster than a bolt-action.

The M24 and M40 sniper rifles have served well, but they are not the best rifles for the job any longer. It is time to retire them. These rifles could be declared surplus. However, that would not be the end for them. They could be refurbished and handed over to local and state law-enforcement agencies, a number of which may be short on funds to buy sniper rifles. Or, they could be sold off to raise money to support charities that aid wounded warriors or which help unemployed veterans find jobs.

What do you think? Is it time for the military to ditch the bolt-action once and for all? Or should they be kept around?