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M855A1: Should it be the New Round for Soldiers and Marines?

by Jeremy Stafford   |  March 7th, 2012 161

M855A1I am not a ballistician, but I know a load of crap when I see it. There are elements within the U.S. Department of Defense that have been recklessly careening down the road to an improved “green” 5.56 round for a long time. After burning through millions of dollars (at least $32 million, according to the last report), it appears that they’ve finally gotten what they wanted in the M855A1.

The M855A1 EPR project has had serious issues since its inception. The problems include a lawsuit from the original designer of this round and the attendant multi-million dollar payout. In addition, there was an embarrassing revelation in 2009 that the initial bismuth alloy projectile would destabilize in higher ambient temperatures, causing it to miss the proverbial side of the barn. Great job, guys. Design a round that doesn’t work in the heat while we’re engaged against enemies operating in hot environments! Too determined to be deterred, they went back to work and “fixed” the round, leading us to where we are now.

I don’t want to be a total naysayer, so let’s talk about the advantages of this new round. It shoots flatter. Of course, the reason it shoots flatter is because they’ve juiced the round up so that it will fly at 3,100 fps. This would be a great achievement except for the fact that they did it by increasing the chamber pressure from 55,000 psi to 63,000 psi. That’s a number closely approaching proof-load pressures. So are new M4s being constructed using stronger materials to handle this hot round? No, of course not. The M4 is being manufactured to the same Technical Data Package (TDP) that they have always been. This means that not only are parts going to wear out at a much higher rate (which is already is an issue with the M4), but if, God forbid, there is any bullet set-back, the number of M4s reportedly going “high order” (i.e., blowing up) should increase exponentially.

While on the subject of the effect of the M855A1 on service weapons, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the new round cuts barrel life by almost 50 percent (information sourced by Individual Carbine contenders recently supplied 10,080 rounds of the M855A1 EPR so that they could tune their submission for this new load).

But no amount of tuning is going to alter the fact that the EPR has a 5.5 MOA accuracy standard. 5.5 MOA? Seriously? The Mk 318 SOST round that the USMC has fielded in Afghanistan is held to a 2 MOA standard, but the latest and greatest round that it’s being replaced by is held to a 5.5 MOA standard? Additionally, the Mk 318 has better terminal ballistics against soft targets, holds together better through intermediate barriers and costs half what the M855A1 costs. In this era of dramatic cost-cutting, it is absolutely mind-boggling as to why they are insisting on fielding a round so inferior in just about every aspect to one that’s already in theater — and pay twice as much for it!

Comparison chart

Click to enlarge.

The reasons for the increase in cost are easy to determine. The three-piece construction of the EPR consists of a copper base and a steel penetrator encased in a reverse drawn (from base to tip) copper jacket. This makes for a complicated manufacturing process that doesn’t really provide an advantage over currently fielded options. The EPR penetrates cinder block marginally better than some of the existing offerings, but it still fares very poorly against windshield glass and other intermediate barriers. It also does not penetrate SAPI body armor or its equivalent, meaning that if we were to come into conflict with another well-equipped nation, we would be forced to fall back to the M995 Armor Piercing ammunition anyway. The original spec for M855 that called for a penetrator was set forth in the 1970s, a time in which steel helmets were common issue in the world. But steel helmets are fading with history and no longer the norm on a modern battlefield. Our enemies today don’t often wear helmets—and the enemies of our tomorrow won’t be wearing ’70’s-vintage steel pots. The inclusion of a non-armor-penetrating steel tip on the 855A1 is a foolish additional step that serves no purpose other than to increase cost. The three-piece construction also increases the chance for something to go wrong, leading to more inconsistencies from round to round and increased accuracy variations.

The last thing I want to touch on here is the “green” aspect of the M855A1 EPR. This issue has been pushed down our throats for years, and it appears that the DoD has bought into it in a big way. The fact is that aerosolized lead from the ignition of primers containing lead is the only source of lead contamination that presents an issue (unless our soldiers and Marines have taken to licking the exposed base of the current M855 or fail to wash their hands after training).

Hard target performance

Click to enlarge.

OK, so let’s consider the bullets that are put into the ground during training. There has never been a single scientific study that has proven that lead from expended rounds has leached into surrounding soil or found its way into the water table. Not a single study. Not one. The whole concept of a “green” round is flawed. If airborne lead is the concern, shooting outdoors mitigates exposure. I currently work on an outdoor range where I’m exposed to airborne lead just about every day. My blood is drawn and tested for lead twice a year, and I’ve never had a high reading. Not even a remotely abnormal reading. The “green” issue is a political red herring. It’s a distraction. It is an answer to a problem that exists only in the minds of people who put such concerns above the concerns of putting holes into bad people.

So…to recap: The M855A1 EPR is poorly conceived and poorly executed and represents, at best, only an incremental improvement at an exponential cost. Our warriors and our taxpayers deserve better.

I would like to thank Dr. Gary Roberts for his invaluable friendship and mentoring. If not for what I’ve learned from him, this rant would not have been possible.

This article was originally published in Guns & Ammo’s Book of the AR-15, now available in stores.

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