April 22, 2022
By Eric R. Poole
Next Generation Squad Weapons (NGSW) is a U.S. Army effort to acquire operational lethality against hardened threats at distance. Specifications came as a result of soldiers’ recent feedback. To modernize, the Army determined that it needed more powerful small arms and ammunition at the squad level to defeat the most advanced protections that could be encountered on the battlefield at long range. The NGSW program requires a 6.8mm projectile to travel at a still-classified muzzle velocity and carry a still-classified amount of energy at a specific range. To achieve these demands, manufacturers had to revisit ammunition design to account for the dramatic increase in chamber pressures required to attain specified velocities. These goals also meant that existing delivery systems might have to be replaced.
The NGSW prototyping effort consists of a Rifle (NGSW-R) and Automatic Rifle (NGSW-AR) firing a common 6.8mm cartridge and Fire Control (NGSW-FC) between the two systems. The NGSW-R is intended to replace the M4A1 carbine and the NGSW-AR would replace the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW), both chambering 5.56 NATO. The NGSW-FC will result in an advanced optic system from development by Vortex Optics and/or L3Harris.
There are three vendors involved in prototyping the weapon systems and 6.8 ammunition including: SIG Sauer; LoneStar Future Weapons and True Velocity; and Textron Systems and Olin-Winchester. The SIG Sauer NGSW prototypes were profiled in the September 2021 issue of Guns & Ammo. This article will provide information on Lone Star Future Weapons’ new bullpup platform, as well as True Velocity’s proprietary 6.8x51mm TVC cartridge. Textron and Olin have not offered Guns & Ammo the opportunity to review their NGSW submissions.
Tom Beckstrand and I have each profiled the growth of True Velocity in separate features. Beckstrand reviewed the company and initial loads for his June 2018 review, and I visited True Velocity’s anticipated commercial launch in the January 2020 issue. From August 16 to 17, 2021, Guns & Ammo toured the expanding Texas-based manufacturing facilities for LoneStar Future Weapons and True Velocity to evaluate their NGSW submissions, and to examine new production capabilities.
If you’re familiar with the program, you may ask, “Isn’t True Velocity working with General Dynamics (GD) on the bullpup?” While True Velocity initially partnered with GD Ordnance and Tactical Systems (OTS) in the design phase of NGSW, GD OTS has since novated the prime contractor role to LoneStar, which will oversee the production of the weapons.
“If LoneStar and True Velocity wins NGSW, won’t they need General Dynamics to manufacture the rifles at scale?” No. True Velocity and LoneStar Future Weapons are on the verge of having the manufacturing bandwidth and square footage to produce both ammunition and small arms in Texas within the next few months.
“Who is LoneStar Future Weapons, and where did they come from?” True Velocity’s leadership also owns LoneStar Future Weapons. In short, LoneStar Future Weapons was founded by the same group of entrepreneurs that founded True Velocity in 2010: Kevin Boscamp, chairman and CEO of True Velocity, and Chris Tedford, president and COO. Craig Etchegoyen is listed as chairman of LoneStar, and Pat Hogan, True Velocity’s chief marketing officer, was Guns & Ammo’s former associate publisher — and my foot in the door.
Boscamp and Tedford are visionaries who quickly assembled a team and produced a portfolio of more than 300 patents and patents pending. Seeing their forthcoming third-generation manufacturing processes — think back to “The Jetsons” — it’s unfair to call True Velocity or LoneStar Future Weapons a firearms and ammunition manufacturer; calling them “technology companies” would be a more accurate. If you think robotic arms are futuristic capabilities, then you’re about 30 years behind where these brands are about to be in a few months — and so is everyone else.
Unfortunately, the NGSW-AR was not available for G&A’s evaluation, but we were told that it is much like the NGSW-R except for having a longer 22-inch barrel. LoneStar Future Weapons indicates that the production barrel would measure 20 inches and likely be produced by General Dynamics. Full disclosure: The barrel featured on the NGSW-R prototype tested by Guns & Ammo was manufactured by Beretta Defense Technologies (berettadefensetechnologies.com) and measured 18½ inches.
Though LoneStar’s NGSW-R looks as though it would have a shorter barrel due to its short 321/4-inch overall length (with a Delta P suppressor attached), its barrel is actually longer than the M4A1’s 14½-inch length. The NGSW-R’s barrel effectively burns all its powder in the effort toward achieving the 6.8 TVC’s maximum velocity (which is classified), and helps to eliminate the flash signature. This is partly due to the efficient arrangement of the powder stack and case design. G&A tested a commercial-version of the 6.8 TVC ammunition — machine-turned, 135-grain, all-copper projectile — flash signature was virtually non-existent when the barrel was fitted with a Delta P Design suppressor.
Even with a suppressor attached, the NGSW-R and -AR had to meet the Army’s classified overall length and weight requirements. A bullpup configuration made this possible. Bullpups have been considered for military service since the British EM-2 in 1951, so this concept isn’t new; it is considered exotic among most American gun owners. Successful bullpup designs include the British SA80 and L85, the Austrian Steyr AUG and Israeli Tavor.
The detachable magazine is positioned behind the fire-control and trigger assemblies, which are what defines a “bullpup.” Unlike other bullpups, the LoneStar NGSW-R features a fast magazine release and an easy-to-actuate lever located just above the front of triggerguard. It’s easy to reach by the trigger finger on either side of the rifle. When pressed, the Lancer-designed magazine leaps out of the magazine well! Mag changes were quick, which isn’t an attribute that bullpups are known for, but it was still a challenge to change mags without breaking my cheekweld. While examining the features of this rifle, I also found a black, serrated button at the front of the magazine well that offered a redundant and direct means to release the mag.
The 20-round magazine was specifically designed for the NGSW-R and the 6.8 TVC. It features a stainless-steel support for the top of the magazine, incorporating a latch that engages the lower receiver at the front. This is unlike the side notch on the AR-type STANAG magazine. This addresses at least two of the known weak points about the AR platform. With a side-positioned magazine catch, the AR-pattern allows magazines to shift latterly, which can cause feeding issues if the cartridge is out of alignment with the feed ramps. Further, metal STANAG magazines can succumb to bent feed lips and dented bodies. The Lancer magazine body is constructed of a transparent, almost indestructible polymer that affords users instant awareness of the magazine’s capacity until the final five to 10 rounds.
Operationally, LoneStar’s NGSW-R features a piston-drive gas system to cycle the action and its rotating bolt. Extraction and ejection are conventional with a spring-loaded claw and plunger on the bolt head. However, there are two ejection ports on the NGSW-R that can be switched to the user’s preference from right- or left-side eject.
Other controls are also ambidextrous, including the three-position safety selector and folding charging handles at the top of the handguard. The safety selector is serrated and shaped like a drop-point knife above the trigger. When pressed to the down “Safe” position, both right- and left-side levers protrude into the area within the triggerguard and partially block manipulation of the trigger. When pressed to the “Semiautomatic” position, the lever is horizontal and level. Pressed up again selects the “Automatic” fire position.
Behind the fire-control selector is a two-position lever above the pistol grip. Perhaps confusing to M4 users due to its position, this is a selector to fire automatically from either a closed bolt or open bolt.
Another unusual control is the bolt release between the upper and lower receivers, which is a black, forward- and aft-sliding bar with tabs on each end. For most soldiers, these controls will require training to use and may not be intuitive to AR-pattern users. They can be learned, however.
The trigger is connected to the fire-control by transfer-bar linkage, which often makes a bullpup’s trigger manipulation a deliberate affair. Lone Star’s NGSW-R trigger weight measured between 8 pounds, 9 ounces, and 11 pounds. This was heavier than an M4’s typical trigger and is likely the greatest drawback of a bullpup design versus the AR-pattern rifle. It makes precision shooting more challenging. During bench testing, I often printed three out of five shots in a single ragged hole, but two shots strayed outside of a 1 MOA circle.
LoneStar’s rifles were initially designed by General Dynamics, a publicly-traded and multi-faceted government contractor involved in the aerospace and defense industries. Within the last couple of years, GD yielded further development of these prototypes to LoneStar Future Weapons.
The handguard completely shrouds the piston system and barrel with vents and M-Lok slots for attaching accessories. Most importantly, it’s comfortable to handle, even during sustained automatic fire. Increasing comfort to the handling of the forend are rubber, heat-insulating M-Lok slot covers from Manta Defense. They’re low-profile and add a comfortable location to support the forend.
Unlike the M4A1’s, the NGSW-R’s top rail is continuous (like some AR models), which means it can accept a combination of scopes, magnifiers, night vision, thermals and lasers without concern for misalignment during use. The rail is unique in that it is widely grooved and lined with an electrical contact strip, i.e., the T-Worx Intelligent Rail, abbreviated “I-Rail.” This technology is also known as the “Picatinny Smart Rail” or the “Powered Rail.” This strip is part of a rail system powered by a battery port at the rear. In development since 2009, the sealed, ruggedized I-Rail aims to eliminate one logistical strain on supporting deployed soldiers by offering an onboard power source for next-gen accessories and so-called “enablers.” (So long disposable batteries.) It is a printed circuit board that’s inserted in a Mil-Std-1913 Picatinny rail. This rail eliminates tape switches and cables through the I-Rail control module with user-assigned buttons.
The I-Rail also features a data connection. It can be used to establish a secure and encrypted device integration for data and communications, too. This system is the future. The I-Rail not only connects the weapon to the light, laser and optic with overlay display (i.e., fire control system), it links actionable intelligence from the battlefield through short-range data link such as WiFi or Bluetooth to another user device, perhaps monitored by a platoon commander, for example. This information can also be shared with higher echelon leaders at a command post through 4G LTE tactical cell towers and even through a secure government Cloud.
The 6.8 TVC
Each ammunition manufacturer is developing their own cartridge while using the same 6.8mm projectile designed by the U.S. Army’s Picatinny Arsenal. Exact details of the projectile remain secret, however. The round photographed and tested by Guns & Ammo in the LoneStar NGSW-R was not the general-purpose (GP) projectile that will be loaded in the 6.8 TVC. G&A’s test ammunition was said to be “a commercial variant.” The velocity, pressures and shooting results obtained for this are not indicative of the still-classified NGSW load.
Never mind which manufacturer wins the NGSW award, the “classified” 6.8mm projectile is a poorly kept secret that you can go online and read about. Look back to the M855A1 Enhanced Performance Round (EPR) announced in 2010 and the M80A1 EPR that debuted in 2014. You’ll find a similar projectile in those loads that was designed to penetrate hard targets. Alliant-Techsystems and Olin-Winchester are the major contractors of those bullets.
Though the EPR was designed to be lead-free and non-hazardous to the environment, the truth is that its goal was to penetrate hard targets at distance while still providing the needed effects against soft targets. In the commercial world, hunting rounds and hollow-point self-defense projectiles may work well for those applications, but in the military environment they don’t penetrate hard barriers or adhere to international law that regulates armed hostilities.
Case Design and Pixy Dust
How do you make a round faster if you don’t use more powder? Change the interior shoulder angle, customize the interior shape of the case and how powder is dropped. You can’t do that with brass, but you can with a composite case.
“One of the benefits of our injection-molded technology is that the internals don’t have to look like the externals,” said Chris Overton, product development manager for True Velocity. (His name is on the case’s patent, and he worked with St. Marks Powder and GD on the barrel design and ballistics.) “We have complete authority over what the powder column looks like: Size, shape, structure, and powder stack.”
True Velocity is using less powder, too, about 10 percent less than a comparable brass-cased cartridge. Magically, the 6.8 TVC is exceeding the target velocity. How is this possible? It’s a math problem of total energy, and heat is part of the energy equation.
“First, when shooting True Velocity’s composite-cased ammunition, there is 10 percent less energy being absorbed by the chamber,” said Chris. “With brass cases, you can lose up to 20 percent of energy in the heating of the chamber.”
Ken Overton is the chief engineering and development officer at True Velocity. “If you think about it,” Ken added, “we don’t need to create the energy that a brass round uses to heat the chamber through entropy. To get a certain amount of energy behind the projectile, with brass I must factor that I’m going to lose a bunch of energy in the chamber. With our round, I don’t have to generate that energy, which means that we’re not using as large of a powder load. We don’t change the temperature of the gas, so the barrel and gas block will still get hot and transfer that aft. Eventually, you are going to heat the chamber, but our data shows that it’s a much slower rate.”
I asked, “Does more heat leave the chamber with the ejection of each brass case?”
Chris replied, “Sure, but that’s because it’s there to begin with.”
Ken noted, “The internal ballistic event in our round is different than what you’d see in a brass-cased round, so that has translated in different requirements of the powder. We tested 60-plus variants that St. Marks got us, and at the same time we provided primed cases and projectiles to them so they could do development at their ballistic lab for ideal flame temperature, energy density and burn rate based on what we asked them to do.
6.8mm Barrel Change
The 6.8 TVC round just happens to be the same overall length as a 7.62 NATO, and it operates using the same .473-inch bolt face. That was not an accident.
True Velocity was approached by a U.S. Army general at a trade show who asked, “What if I like somebody else’s weapon, but I like your ammo?” Hogan replied, “Sir, we’ll make this ammo run through whatever you like.” That’s where the idea of the switch-barrel capability was hatched.
“We wanted to prove that we could run this ammo through weapons designed for either 6.8 or 7.62,” Hogan recalled. “We came back and reamed a barrel for a Remington 700. Then we worked with Reed Knight for his SR-25 and LMG. Then we worked with Dillon and proved it in a mini gun. And the final step was the M240, and we’re doing a Mk 48 now, also. We had zero issues with the 6.8 in any of these weapons, and the reason we can do that is because we’re keeping the chamber pressure low. I don’t know that you’d want to run 80,000 psi at ambient through a M240 or M110. The sequencing and the timing of that weapon would be off.”
If the U.S. Army does not adopt the LoneStar bullpups, it could still upgrade the chambers of existing platforms such as the M240, the SCAR-17 and SR-25-type rifles, even .308-based bolt actions and the M134 minigun! All it takes is a 6.8 TVC reamer for a manufacturer to chamber new barrels. In fact, True Velocity has already developed examples that G&A shot for function, accuracy and reliability. Even if the government scrapped the NGSW program altogether, True Velocity is ready to replace the military’s dependency on toxic, brass-cased ammunition altogether. Next-generation ammunition such as the 6.8 TVC will be expected to increase effective range, reduce the burden of weight and simultaneously maintain normal, safe operating pressures. I believe that’s where the future is headed.
The military is testing True Velocity’s NGSW 6.8 TVC version with the U.S. Army’s proprietary bullet for a specific purpose. The Army’s will feature unique projectiles, powder and internal case geometry. The 6.8 TVC cartridge will be offered commercially, however, but at a lower pressure and velocity. Chris Overton indicated that one of the introductory loads will use 65,000-max psi and standard CCI #34 large-rifle primers to push a 135-grain SMK projectile to 3,000 fps.
Guns & Ammo pressure tested and measured a similar commercial-spec match load featuring a 135-grain turned-copper bullet fired through an Oehler System 85 in a controlled ballistic lab. I verified its performance through a 6.8-chambered Bartlein test barrel. As we proved on the range and in the laboratory, True Velocity’s figures are real. Its composite-case ammunition is responsible for producing the most accurate five-shot group that I’ve ever fired: .23 inch at 100 yards from an Accuracy International AX. It wasn’t magic. True Velocity is just that far ahead of everyone else.
LoneStar Future Weapons NGSW-R (RM277)
- Type: Gas-piston operated, select-fire automatic
- Cartridge: 6.8 TVC
- Capacity: 20 rds. (NGSW-R); 50 rds. (NGSW-AR)
- Barrel: Beretta Hammer-Forged, 18.5 in. (General Dynamics); 1:8-in. twist (USG spec); AR 22 in.; R 20 in.
- Overall Length: 32.25 in. (with suppressor)
- Height: 9 in.
- Width: 3.25 in.
- Weight: 12.6 lbs. (tested with Aimpoint M68 CCO, suppressor and empty mag.)
- Grip: Magpul MIAD
- Finish: Anodized FDE (aluminum); Melonite (steel)
- Safety: Selector lever, ambidextrous
- Sights: Troy Dioptic FDE, flip-up, 45-deg. offset
- Trigger: 8 lbs., 4 oz. (tested)
- Suppressor: Delta P Custom (USG length requirement)
- Optic: Aimpoint M68 CCO (tested)
- Manufacturer: LoneStar Future Weapons, lonestarfutureweapons.com
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