This M-16 Round's "Friendly," But Still Deadly
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 4, 1999 Some range NCOs talk about "slinging lead down range." In the future they'll have to talk about "slinging tungsten and tin."
That's because the Army is producing environmentally friendly ammunition. The first million rounds will be produced at Lake City (Mo.) Army Ammunition Plant, and officials expect troops from all services to be using the new "green" rounds soon after.
Researchers at the Army's Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J., developed the 5.56 mm bullets, which have a tungsten-tin core sheathed in copper. Current rounds use lead cores.
Don't let "environmentally friendly" fool you: The new rounds proved slightly more accurate than the lead versions during testing, officials said. The new rounds are ballistically and visibly identical to the old and require no special handling.
Alaskan National Guardsmen recently finished qualifying using the new rounds. "There was no difference in the performance of the rounds concerning shot groups or functioning of the weapon," said Army Maj. Gary Curtiss, operations officer with the 1st Battalion (Scouts), 297th Infantry.
"We've been working on this for about two years," said Jim Arnold, chief of the pollution prevention and environmental technology division at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. "The concept is part of an Army initiative called Range 21. It is about the Army being good stewards of training and testing lands."
The idea is to reduce lead in the environment. The heavy metal and its chemical compounds are poisonous. Even small doses can cause irreversible brain damage if ingested or breathed.
Contrary to news reports, lead contamination is not currently a problem at military outdoor ranges, although it could conceivably leach into surface water on some of the more heavily used ranges, he said.
"There's no problem now, but there could be," Arnold said. "Why not look ahead, anticipate problems and solve them before they start?"
Arnold said the concern is indoor ranges, such as those used regularly by the reserve components. He said many indoor ranges have been closed. While lead contamination is part of the total picture, general health concerns about the vapors, residues and other pollutants created by firing rounds plays a larger role in closing the indoor ranges. Still lead is toxic and if we can get rid of even the small chance of breathing lead, we should, Arnold said.
The tungsten-tin solution is not expensive. Arnold said the costs of new and old rounds are comparable. Once in mass production, tungsten-tin bullets may be cheaper than lead ones, he predicted. The Army buys all the small arms ammunition for the military -- 200 million 5.56mm lead- copper rounds in fiscal 1998.
If the green 5.56mm round proves successful in actual field use, researchers will move to 7.62 mm, 9 mm and .50-caliber rounds. "The next is the '50-cal,'" Arnold said. "There's a small amount of lead in the round we think we can get rid of through improving the industrial process in making it.
"The 9 mm is the tough nut to crack, because the bullet is fairly large," Arnold continued. "There has to be some cost reduction on tungsten-tin before this will work."
"Green" bullets solve only the problem of reducing lead in the environment. Scientists also are working to make bullet propellants and primers "greener."
"All my young engineers have been excited about working on this project," Arnold said. "There isn't really a down side to it."