How military-style weapons end up on the market

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How military-style weapons end up on the market

To meet the demands of modern warfare, the military has awarded gun manufacturer Sig Sauer with a 10-year contract to replace two legacy assault rifles with stronger, lighter, deadlier versions. The XM5 will replace the M4, and the XM250 will replace the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon. It’s the first time since 1994 the military has upgraded its assault rifles.

But in the weeks since the deal was made, mass shootings using assault rifle technology have reignited discussion over whether automatic weapons should be available to the public.

Gun control supporters are worried that higher-tech weaponry in the hands of the average American will mean more and deadlier shootings. After an 18-year-old gunman used two AR-15-style rifles to kill 19 children and two adults in Uvalde, Texas, President Joe Biden expressed support for reinstating the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban.

“Why in God’s name should an ordinary citizen be able to purchase an assault weapon that holds 30-round magazines that let mass shooters fire hundreds of bullets in a matter of minutes?” he said in a speech on June 2.

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Gun enthusiasts, on the other hand, are excited by the opportunity to own the new tech — and feel it’s their right to do so.

“The Army’s adopting a new rifle with a 6.8 mm round,” one man tweeted. “The gun crowd’s going to want to get those to ‘have what the military has.’”

“I want one of those new Sig Spears from the Army!” another wrote.

Military-grade assault rifles do eventually make their way to the general public market, albeit with restrictions.

Will the average American be able to purchase these guns? A version of them, experts say.

Since Congress amended the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act in 1986, gun manufacturers are prohibited from selling most fully automatic assault rifles to civilians.

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Machine guns created after the law was updated can be purchased only by licensed firearms dealers or built by manufacturers like Sig Sauer.

Military-grade, select-fire machine guns made before 1986 can be purchased legally as collectors’ items or antiques, but the process still involves an in-depth background investigation with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

“I was in the military for so many years,” Robert Allen, a security expert at Tulane University’s School of Professional Advancement, told Grid. “Even for someone like me, there’s still a hell of a long process for me to actually possess a fully automatic weapon.”

Since the XM5 or XM250 are fully automatic weapons, they’re unlikely to reach mainstream markets in their current form. However, Howard notes that Sig Sauer could simply downgrade the weapon to meet the requirements for mass commercialization.

In the past, this has meant manufacturers produced semi-automatic versions of their military-grade guns so that they are able to fire only one shot at a time. Military-grade assault rifles tend to be either fully automatic or capable of selective fire, meaning the shooter can adjust its firing mode.

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But a different version could eventually hit the market. “I’m sure that Sig Sauer will start selling a semi-automatic version of this to civilians relatively quickly,” he told Grid. “They already fill so many other calibers. The AR platform is the most popular in the country.”

For example, the M4 carbine being replaced was supplied by Colt Defense in 1994. Today, Colt advertises a semi-automatic version of the rifle on its website. Any resemblance to military-grade weaponry is on the surface.

Image of 6.8mm common cartridge ammunition.

“Improvements in accuracy, range and lethality”

The Army commissioned the new guns because body armor has advanced, making it harder to wound enemy combatants since the last rifles were introduced in 1994.

Rifles that can penetrate modern body armor are “critically important,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told lawmakers during a 2017 budget hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“The 5.56 round [the M4′s bullets], we recognize there is a type of body armor it does not penetrate, and adversarial states are selling that stuff on the internet for about 250 bucks,” Milley said.


The guns the military has since chosen are fully automatic carbine and machine guns with 6.8-millimeter ammunition, specifically designed for close-quarters combat.

“Both weapons provide significant capability improvements in accuracy, range and overall lethality,” the Army said in a statement. “They are lightweight, fire more lethal ammunition, mitigate recoil, provide improved barrel performance, and include integrated muzzle sound and flash reduction.”

Steven Howard, a lawyer and firearms expert based in Lansing, Michigan, explained that the guns will be light enough to carry while traversing different battlefields.

“If the troops are firing a 62-grain bullet, they’re probably going to go through 115-grain bullets,” he told Grid, “which means they’re going to carry about a third less, but it’ll work at a longer distance and will have more punch at longer distances. With fighting and mountains and crossing farmer’s fields, range and accuracy become important.”

The Army plans to buy 107,000 M5 rifles, 13,000 M250 machine guns and all 6.8-millimeter ammunition from the supplier over the next decade with a price tag of $4.7 billion.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Kaila Philo
    Kaila Philo

    Government and Political Institutions Reporter

    Kaila Philo is a reporter at Grid where she focuses on the U.S. government and political institutions.