Ridin' the Rails


running up that hill
Jan 3, 2007
in Wonderland, with my Alice

The typical rifle used by today’s special operators is much more of a high-tech weapon system then a simple carbine. Scopes, NVDs, suppressors and more have all been integrated for more deadly and accurate handheld firepower.
“Having a modular barrel configuration is a key element,” said Matt Baker, director of sales, military and federal divisions, with Eagleville, Pa.-based Streamlight Inc. “This allows the user to have effective long-range engagements or work in close-quarter settings.” Streamlight manufactures and supplies the C4 series of Tactical Gun Mounted Lights, as well as a variety of white-light, aiming and infrared (IR) accessories for the long-gun platforms used by SOF.
In many tactical operations, the order of the day is: “Keep it simple.” And yet many of these accessories are really not optional, often meaning the difference between a mission’s success or failure. Balancing complexity with weight and ease-of-use issues has been a consistent challenge to rail and accessory manufacturers.
“Maintaining overall flexibility is vital, but so is the ability to offer a simplified, easy-to-understand operating platform,” explained Baker.
The M16 and its variants, the M4 and M4A1, all weapons typically carried by SOF, can be fitted with a variety of accessories including but not limited to lights, suppressors, night vision devices, scopes, bipods, grenade launchers, and just about anything else that can be made to be compatible with a MIL-STD -1913 Picatinny Rail.
The term Picatinny comes from the Picatinny Arsenal located in New Jersey, where the MIL-STD-1913 standard rail, which was adopted in 1995, was first developed. The standard specifies the dimensions required including length, width, height and angle of tolerances for each measurement. What distinguishes the Picatinny from similar rail systems is the profile of the grooves. The term ‘Picatinny Rail’ is sometimes used generically, much like ‘Band-aid’ or ‘Kleenex,’ in commercial or civilian gun sales. However, to be a true Picatinny rail and meet MIL-STD as required for military applications, the recoil grooves must be .206 inches wide, and have a center-tocenter width of .394 inches.
Seeing and Being Unseen
Two of the areas of most importance to the special operator when it comes to rifle accessories are being able to see during night operations, and remaining unseen to the enemy. Lighting systems and suppression technology are two of the most common accessories you’ll find attached to the rails of any SOF weapon.
“We have seen an enormous upswing in end-user requests for signature suppression—flash and sound,” said Kel Whelan, government and industry liaison with Eagle, Idaho-based Gemtech. “Our G5 silencer has always been one of the quietest on the market, but now clients are obtaining it with a new emphasis—for its flash reduction as well as its superior audio suppression. One of our greatest challenges is that we are being asked for increased interchangeability: for instance, we’ve addressed this by making Gemtech 7.62 mm suppressors that are able to be mounted easily on 5.56 mm host weapons, from a M249 to a MK18. But we also designed in safety features so a 5.56 mm suppressor cannot be mounted on a 7.62 rifle.”
Gemtech silencers are used across the field of special operations. However, when asked to specify what units their products are currently deployed with, Whelan had this interesting response: “While Gemtech products are in duty use with all branches of the U.S. military, the intelligence community and with other federal agencies, we do not give out specific client lists. Our motto is ‘Quiet things for quiet professionals’—and since we’re in the business of keeping things quiet, we always assume our clients would prefer to be discreet.”
If being discreet is one side of the SOF mission, the other is often throwing some light on the subject, be that white or laser light, sometimes at great distances. That is where tactile gun mounted lights come in. “If it has a rail,” Baker said, “we can put a light on it.” That includes not only carbines like the SCAR, M4/M16, and belt-fed machine guns like the M240 and M249, but a variety of indigenous weapons that special operators use when in their deployed locations.
Baker explained, “If the user needs white light beyond 300 meters, we have the capability in a system that’s less than seven inches in length and weighs just seven ounces. If the user needs a light or light/laser combo that can be either carbine- or pistol-mounted, we have a single solution that does both and gives 179 meters of range.”
SureFire, based in Fountain Valley, Calif., not only manufactures Picatinny rails but also produces several of the accessories most requested by special forces to mount on them, including weapon lights, silencers and flash suppressors. According to the company, SureFire sound suppressors for rifles and machine guns combine the most important features sought by SOF: excellent sound, flash and dust signature reduction.
A Variety of Needs in a Limited Space
One of the greatest challenges to the warfighter in accessorizing weapons, especially for the unique needs of special operators, is how to fit everything desired on a single rail. Manufacturers have recognized and risen to this challenge. “Long-gun manufacturers have been challenged over the years to make their weapons lighter and smaller. This process has shortened the length of many carbine barrels, which has reduced the amount of space available for adding sights, lights or lasers. Because the TLR platform’s overall length is smaller than most other systems, it doesn’t interfere with the other equipment that is put on the rail,” said Streamlight’s Baker when describing their TLR family of lights and aiming lasers.
As always, the concern with anything that needs to be carried by SOF is size and weight. This has been intensified by the recent push on the part of USSOCOM for more effective ammo to engage at longer ranges. This means rifle barrels are longer and bullets bigger, making rifles that have been designed for close quarter battle (CQB) a little heavier, even before an accessory is mounted to the rail. This is forcing accessory manufactures to find ways to make their products still smaller and lighter, without compromising on feature sets and durability.
According to Baker, “As we see it from our dealings with SOF, power output, battery life and environmental durability are the most critical performance attributes. If the operator is able to carry fewer batteries, he becomes more effective. When using the IR setting, our TLR gives the operator nearly 20 full hours of use before needing to change batteries. Our ability to generate a tight, focused beam of energy allows the operator to quickly discern between threats or recognize friendly forces without the aid of any optics. Our TLR-VIR only weighs 6 ounces with batteries.”
“In regards to the M4/M16/AR style platforms, we see SOF going towards short-barreled rifles for increased maneuverability and decreased weight in CQB,” said Ron Canfield, public relations manager with SureFire. “This compacting of the weapon platform decreases the available rail space. This means we try to compact our accessories so they not only fit, but so they’re either compatible or so they don’t compete for space with other non-SureFire accessories.”
This battle for space on the rail has prompted manufacturers to seek out multiple platform solutions that combine the functionality of one or more accessories into a single package, such as the M620V WeaponLight, recently introduced by Sure-Fire. “Previously, if an operator wanted high-output white and IR from one light source, the best option was an incandescent weapon light paired with a compatible infrared filter,” said Canfield.
“This is because white-light-only LEDs produce negligible infrared radiation and cannot be paired with an infrared filter for use on covert missions involving night vision devices. That said, incandescent lamps can break and will eventually burn out, and IR filters can be lost or damaged in battle, which made it necessary for operators to carry extra lamps and filters in the field. The M620V eliminates this problem by offering both white-light/IR capability and superior durability in the form of solid-state LEDs, which unlike incandescent lamps have no filament to break or burn out, so they never need replacing.”
Canfield explained that while the M620V combines functionalities, it still does so in a very small and lightweight package: “The M620V won’t add to an operator’s load. It’s constructed of aerospace aluminum, hard anodized with a mil-spec finish that’s as strong as steel but much lighter. And its compact size doesn’t compromise a weapon’s maneuverability or eat up a lot of space on a Picatinny Rail.” Much like Streamlight’s TLR series, Sure-Fire’s M620V also can be mounted on rails that are “out of spec,” which can often be the case when special forces use indigenous weapons during covert operations.
A Matter of Choice
The dictionary defines ‘accessory’ as a supplementary part or object, so by their very nature, rifle accessories are a matter of choice. Ground troops and especially special operators often have a choice of what accessories they want for their weapons. While this is often mission-driven, personal preference and budget also are factors. Accessory manufacturers and distributors are well aware of this, and believe it is all about listening to the needs of the operators in the field. “Budgets are becoming the biggest challenge to everyone,” Streamlight’s Baker observed. “With that said, combining as many features into one operating system, thus reducing the total number of items on the weapon, is the most commonly cited ‘wish list’ we continue to hear. However, with each mission comes a set of ever-changing environments. SOF’s strength relies on its ability to customize and cater to the mission, making a one-size-fits-all approach very hard to realize.”
SureFire’s Canfield put it somewhat differently, but basically agrees. “Knowledge is power, [and the key lies in] getting every soldier educated on what’s out there and giving them a chance to get hands-on. That last part is really the key. There’s so much ‘noise’ from the industry that it has to be hard for any soldier to make a decision. When it comes to personal equipment, you’ve just got to use it. We want the soldiers to use, abuse and put us to the test. Those that have will know what we’re about.”