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ASSAULT RIFLES AND THEIR AMMUNITION:
HISTORY AND PROSPECTS
© Anthony G Williams
First, I need to define what I mean by an "assault rifle", as there are various definitions around. The one I use is:
"A military rifle, capable of controlled, fully-automatic fire from the shoulder, with an effective range of at least 300 metres".
This has some clear implications for the ammunition such weapons are chambered for. First, it excludes all weapons designed around pistol cartridges (i.e. sub-machine guns - SMGs) as they only generate around 500 joules muzzle energy and cannot meet the range requirement. Second, it excludes the traditional "full power" military rifle/MG cartridges such as the .303", the .30-06, the 7.92x57 and the 7.62x51 NATO (typically firing 10-12g bullets at 750-850 m/s, and developing around 3,000-4,000 joules), as these are so powerful that their recoil is uncontrollable in fully-automatic fire from the shoulder. Assault rifles therefore need to be designed around a cartridge intermediate in power between pistol and full-power rifle rounds; in practice, approximately in the 1,250-2,500j range depending on the calibre.
Attempts have been made to extend the effective range of SMGs by developing more powerful cartridges for them. However, there is a limit to the degree to which this can be achieved as the basic API blowback mechanism used by most SMGs is not suited to high-powered ammunition. Attempts have also been made to design automatic rifles around full-power cartridges, perhaps the most famous example being the German FG 42 paratroop rifle in 7.92x57. Some of the early rifles in 7.62x51 NATO, such as the American M14, were also capable of fully automatic fire, but the recoil problem made them incapable of accurate fire on full-auto and they cannot be classified as assault rifles.
There have been two contrasting approaches to the design of a suitable intermediate cartridge with the appropriate compromise between long range and light recoil. One is to retain the same 7.6-7.9mm calibre as the full-power round, but with a shorter cartridge case firing a lighter bullet at a lower muzzle velocity (lets call these "full calibre assault rifle", or FCAR, rounds). The other is to reduce the calibre while retaining the same, or a higher, velocity (reduced calibre, or RCAR rounds).
FCAR rounds score well in the traditional methods of measuring stopping power (which are dominated by calibre and bullet weight) and also by being less affected by the bullets striking foliage etc on their way to the target. However, they have a relatively steep trajectory and a rapid velocity loss due to the short, fat bullets, which quickly reduces their effectiveness at long range.
A decision to reduce the calibre raises the immediate question; by how much? At the large end of the RCAR scale (7mm), bullet weight and muzzle velocity can be much the same as in the FCAR cartridges, but the better ballistic coefficient due to the longer and more slender bullet will reduce velocity loss and improve long-range performance. However, there is potentially some loss in stopping power. As the calibre decreases, so the recoil and the ammunition weight become lighter and the velocity can be higher, thereby flattening the trajectory; all good things. The downside is that the stopping power becomes more controversial (relying on velocity rather than calibre and bullet mass; which according to combat reports sometimes works, sometimes doesn't) and the long-range performance begins to decrease again as small-calibre bullets generally have poorer sectional density ratios, and thereby ballistic coefficients, than large-calibre ones.
Different nations have made different choices in developing assault rifles, and the purpose of this article is to describe and analyse them in order to examine the future prospects for this type of weapon.
Development before World War 2
The elements of an assault rifle were in place surprisingly early in the history of automatic weapons. Self-loading rifles were developed before the end of the 19th Century and the first selective fire (semi or full auto) rifle using a medium-power cartridge was probably the Italian 6.5mm Cei-Rigotti, developed between 1900 and 1905, but this was not adopted. Mannlicher introduced their m/1901 carbine in a purpose-designed 7.65x32 calibre, but the loading was relatively weak and it also was not adopted.
Small-calibre rifle cartridges were also in use or under development for military purposes. The USN's 6mm Lee of 1895 is probably the best known, but the curious 5.2mm Mondragon of 1894 was also made (the odd shape resulting from an internal piston to give the bullet an initial kick up the barrel) and the 5mm Sturtevant was being developed towards the end of WW1.
From left to right: 7.62x51 for scale, 6mm Lee, 5.2mm Mondragon, 5mm Sturtevant
The first service weapon which can be identified as conforming to the specification of an assault rifle dates back to the First World War; the Russian Federov Avtomat of 1916.
This was a selective fire weapon using a short-recoil action and was chambered for a military rifle cartridge of intermediate calibre and power - the 6.5x50SR Arisaka - large quantities of Japanese rifles in this calibre having been acquired by Russia. This was an excellent choice, as the cartridge combined moderate recoil with a good long-range performance, but only about 3,000 Avtomats were made. They were used in action in the Russian Civil War and thereby earned their place in small-arms history.
The French also nearly made it into the record books with the first selective-fire rifle using purpose-designed intermediate ammunition. During WW1 they made some use of the semi-automatic Winchester Model 1907 in .351 and .401 Win SL (self-loading) cartridges; the rifle design was very simple, being blowback only. While these were mainly used by aircrew, in 1917 France placed an order for 2,200 of an automatic version of the M1907 for use by special assault soldiers. At the same time, they were modifying the .351 SL cartridge by necking it down to accept an 8mm bullet, creating the 8mm Ribeyrolle. The war ended before anything could come of this.
Interest in assault rifles on the part of the major powers then largely disappeared from view until the Second World War, although experiments continued in some smaller countries. Switzerland developed the Furrer short-recoil carbine in 7.65x35 in 1921 and made a 7.65x38 cartridge in the late 1930s, and in the early 1930s Denmark made limited numbers of the delayed-blowback Weibel (or Danrif) assault rifle in 7x44 calibre. In 1939 a light automatic weapon was advertised in Greece in a 7.92x36 calibre, apparently based on a shortened and neck-out 6.5mm Mannlicher case.
Elsewhere at this time, the prevalence of trench warfare and the associated close fighting had focused attention on short-range automatic weapons, in complete contrast to the prewar obsession with accurate long-range rifle fire. This resulted in three different lines of development: pistols which were modified with longer barrels and stocks and sometimes adapted to fully-automatic fire; purpose-designed SMGs; and the Pedersen Device (which replaced the bolt in the US Springfield Rifle with an automatic mechanism to fire small .30 cal (7.62x20) rounds developing less than 400 joules; it was never used in anger).
Pistol-based carbines were a natural extension of the occasionally recurring fad for equipping pistols with detachable shoulder stocks in order to permit more accurate aiming. Longer barrels further extended the effective range (partly through increased velocity, partly because of the longer sight base) and so weapons such as the Mauser C96 and P08 produced carbine derivatives, usually only capable of semi-automatic fire. These were relatively expensive to make, however, so the future in short-range automatics lay with the much simpler API blowback SMG. The first of these (if you discount the curious twin-barrel Villar Perosa) was the Bergman MP18 in 9x19 Parabellum calibre, which was the ancestor of the Thompson, the MP 38/40, the Sten Gun, the PPSh and so on.
Attempts to improve the power and range of the small automatics, such as the use of the 9x25 Mauser Export round in the Solothurn and Kiraly SMGs (which saw some service), did not catch on. The late-WW2 efforts in Finland, producing such cartridges as the 9x40 Lilja and the 9x35 Lahti, were no more successful. In fact, despite the evidence that most shooting during WW1 was at short range, armies continued to show an interest in full-power rifle/MG rounds. The Japanese Army even planned to replace their 6.5x50SR cartridge with a new 7.7x58 calibre, although they never completed the changeover. The Italians were similarly caught at the start of WW2 part-way through a change from their 6.5x52 Mannlicher-Carcano rifle to a 7.35x51 calibre.
Why was this? Probably because the need for a full-auto rifle was generally resisted, on the grounds of economy (automatic rifles being much more expensive and requiring more maintenance than bolt-action ones), and also the fear that soldiers would just spray ammunition around at a great rate, causing increased cost and supply problems (this latter concern was, of course, fully justified, but has been addressed by improving supply arrangements). So even the one nation wealthy enough to afford an automatic rifle - the USA - restricted the M1 Garand to semi-auto fire, and full-power rounds biased towards MG use prevailed. Incidentally, the USA did of course have the Browning Automatic Rifle in service, but that was too heavy to be a rifle replacement and was used as a light machine gun.
There had been some efforts towards considering intermediate calibres, with the US Ordnance Board sponsoring comparative trials in the early 1930s of the effectiveness of different rifle cartridges using anaesthetised pigs and goats to assess wounding effectiveness. They concentrated on a .25 (6.35mm), a .276 and the existing .30. The .25 (8g at 820 m/s, for 2,700 joules) most impressed the testers, but the Board chose the .276 Pedersen (7x51) a medium-power round developing 2,400 joules, which would have made an effective assault rifle cartridge. At this point, the top brass insisted on the new rifle being chambered for the .30-06 (7.62x63), so another opportunity was lost.
Rounds for early automatic rifles: the 6.5x52 Carcano, 7.65 Mannlicher Carbine, .30 Pedersen, 8mm Ribeyrolle (replica), Swiss 7.65x35, .276 Pedersen, Swiss 7.65x38 with bullet alongside, 9x40 Lilja, 9x35 Lahti
There was one rather odd American development not followed by any other country - the M1 Carbine. This was a light, semi-automatic rifle chambered for an intermediate, straight-cased 7.62x33 round. It was not originally intended for front-line troops, but more as a self-defence weapon for second-line units, on the sensible grounds that it was much easier to shoot accurately than a pistol. The M2 version came with a full-auto option, and thereby comes close to our definition of an assault rifle, but the cartridge was rather weak and the light, blunt-nosed bullet lost its modest velocity too quickly.
World War 2 and after - the Assault Rifle Emerges
The modern line of assault rifle development started with the Germans. Various experimental cartridges from 7mm to 8mm calibre were tried, and even before WW2 one gun - the Vollmer Maschinenkarabiner M35 - was built around a 7.75x40 Geco cartridge. In 1938 Polte were given a contract by the Heereswaffenamt to develop a new, short-cased infantry cartridge. After much development work, this resulted in the final version of a new round, adopted in May 1942. This followed the FCAR route, shortening the usual 7.92x57 K98 rifle/MG case to 33mm, and loading a lighter bullet at a reduced velocity. Keeping the same calibre was simply a matter of production convenience.
The MKb42(H) by Haenel and the MKb42(W) by Walther were designed around the new cartridge and produced in some numbers for field testing. This led to the development of the Haenel MP43/44 (later renamed StG 44 for Sturmgewehr or assault rifle).
Despite initial opposition from Hitler, this was the weapon the Army wanted to back-up their MG 42 GPMGs, and it was produced and used in quantity. However, the end of the war stopped the direct line of development of this significant weapon.
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