At the end of WWII the Canadian Forces, like most other Commonwealth countries was armed with the .303 caliber Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifle.
The bolt action rifle in general and the .303 caliber round in particular were seen as obsolete in light of the experiences and technical advances coming out of WWII.
The post war small arms scene saw the rise of the assault rifle. Specifically the Soviet designed Ak-47, or Kalashnikov, which became the new standard against which other weapons were judged. The western response was the M-16 rifle and its accompanying 5.56mm round.
The Kalashnikov has become an icon. As much a symbol as a weapon, it is a formidable weapon. Part of its success lies in the bullet it uses. The large caliber bullets in use up to the Second World War were too big for use in fully automatic rifles; the answer was smaller bullets that traded speed for weight to achieve lower recoil with acceptable lethality. The Ak-47 uses a 7.62×39mm cartridge. Larger then a pistol bullet but smaller then a full sized rifle bullet it made the relatively light weight fully automatic assault rifle possible.
The whole field of bullet sizes and descriptions is uncommonly complicated, but an excellent primer (pun intended) on cartridges can be found at Anthony G. Williams’ homepage:
The M-16 and its 5.56mm bullet were born out dissatisfaction with the heavy rifle and full sized round favoured by the U.S in the post-war era. After the war the British in particular had been interested in replacing their .303 Lee-Enfield’s with a modern weapon. U.S. pressure forced them to cancel a promising new assault rifle, with accompanying new .280cal. cartridge, and, along with Canada and the rest of NATO, adopt the full sized 7.62mm U.S. round. The semi-automatic FN rifle which was well suited to the cartridge became the weapon of choice for most of NATO.
It was the Vietnam War which changed the situation. The Americans found themselves literally outgunned by the Ak-47 in the jungle environment. Against great internal opposition, which went so far as to use bullets made to the wrong specifications when the weapon was first introduced, the M-16 and its derivatives eventually became the standard U.S. rifle. Needless to say its 5.56mm cartridge then became the new NATO standard round.
Canada adopted a Canadian made version of the M-16 and has used it and other Canadian made derivatives since 1984. More information about the weapon can be found at:
The complaint against assault rifles in general and the various 5.56mm type rounds specifically is that they are too light and that they lack range and lethality. In Afghanistan this appeared to be true in some circumstances. NATO troops sometimes felt that the Taliban could engage them from greater ranges then they could return effective fire. The 5.56mm round trades velocity for weight and then looses some of that velocity being fired from the short barreled versions of the M-16 currently favoured. Troops in the field have found that at ranges greater then two or three hundred meters the bullet is no longer effective.
What is needed is a completely new rifle and accompanying round. Much easier to suggest then to do it is even harder then it appears. For reasons that may best be left to the psychologists, purchasing small arms appears to be an incredibly emotional issue. The sheer amount of discussion and impassioned debate that goes into the purchase of a new service pistol or rifle makes the debate over F-35’s seem mild in comparison.
For a more dispassionate explanation of the whole state of play check out Anthony G. Williams’ article, “The Case for a General-Purpose Rifle and Machine Gun Cartridge” at:
It is never going to be a good time to spend all the money necessary to equip the Canadian Forces (and NATO) with a new family of small arms. This is a particularly bad time as the Forces (along with the rest of NATO) can expect to have smaller budgets for the immediate future. There is one thing however that can be done. As Mr. Williams says;
“What I believe is needed is a small-scale research and development project which examines the caliber, ballistics and bullet design of an optimum GPC and produces one or more conventional rounds for thorough testing in suitably modified existing 7.62mm guns, preferably including active service. This could provide valuable input into advanced ammunition projects like LSAT, and would also act as a back-up, ready to go into production if needed. The cost and risks would be very low, the potential benefits substantial. This is not complicated. We could have gone down this path decades ago, first with the .276 Pedersen, then with the 7x43, and we should not, yet again, miss the opportunity to do so in our next generation of small arms.”
In a difficult economic time small scale and carefully focused research, and to a lesser extent development, is the appropriate choice. Now is the time to be spending what money is available on developing the weapons that will be needed when circumstances and money make them a necessity.
On a final note it is ironic that, as the Canadian Forces increase their Arctic presence, concern about the inadequacy of currently issued firearms to deal with the threat of polar bear encounters has lead to the limited re-issue of .303 caliber Lee-Enfield bolt action rifles to northern bound troops.