“I could never get a kick from full-auto.”

– J. C. Tate, CDR USN (Ret.)

Lt. Col. Mark A. Westrom was one of my previous commanders as well as the former owner of ArmaLite and Eagle Arms. Before retiring from the Army, he published an informative paper:
Rapid Semiautomatic Fire and the Assault Rifle
Firing Rate Versus Accuracy
United States Army Reserve Command Small Arms Training Team

In his paper, LTC Westrom detailed a series of tests conducted with competitive shooters and military personnel shooting scored and timed courses at various rates of fire. With him in attendance, we ran a similar test based on his findings at the All Army Small Arms Championships at Fort Benning one year.

The basis of testing was to have shooters to fire on scored targets at varying rates. Given there was no fixed round count, every shot fired added to the score, but only if it hit.

The results were unsurprising to anyone in the know: Rapid semiautomatic fire at the maximum pace a shooter can get something resembling aligned sights on target ends up with the highest score. This is much faster than Rapid Fire in High Power and is fast enough to result in occasional misses, but is controlled. Obviously, the pace varies based on shooter skill and target size/distance. Taking the speed above the shooter’s limit sees the score decline and increasing the rate of fire further reduces the score even more. All shooters maxed their score with semiautomatic fire; nobody improved their result with full auto.

Lt. Col. Westrom concluded his paper with this:


Today, the U.S. Military is generally conducting small arms training with much the same emphasis on single round accuracy that it did eighty years ago. Preliminary data suggests that a substantial increase in lethality can be obtained by increasing the firing rate of the line. The principles now taught are generally sound, and little additional training is needed to squeeze an important increase in effectiveness from our soldiers. Rapid semiautomatic fire is a simple extension of existing training, and its benefits are easily achieved by emphasis during training.

To make the best of Rapid Semiautomatic Fire we must:

  1. Test the benefits of rapid semiautomatic fire.
  2. Experiment. Additional firing data needs to be gathered to learn the effect of training, position, tactical situation, and weapon design. Fortunately, the experiments aren’t lengthy or difficult to conduct. The apparent flattening of the firing rate curve suggests that a rule of thumb rate of fire such as “50 shots per minute in the final assault” is adequate guidance. Lengthy testing to pin down exact numbers under a variety of scenarios might be interesting, but will probably not prove useful.
  3. Train soldiers to use rapid semiautomatic fire, and to shoot until the target is down.

Current qualification courses provide the shooter one round with which to engage each target. This isn’t tactically realistic. The current courses punish a shooter using rapid semiautomatic fire for even nearby targets.

In combat, the soldier is presented with a significant logistics issue: how to consume his basic load of ammunition with greatest efficiency. When presented with a distant target, he may need to fire several rounds to get a hit. If he does so, however, he may run low on ammunition. When presented with a threatening, nearby target later, he may be out of ammunition. He certainly must not decline to fire a second shot at that nearby opponent if the first shot is a miss.

This is just what the current qualification courses train the soldier to do. Current training teaches the wrong lessons. Each target is addressed by one cartridge. The correction to this is simple. Issue sufficient ammunition to allow for misses. Reward the shooter based on targets ultimately hit. Reward him further with a few points based on ammunition remaining. The highest scores obviously continue to go to the best shots, who both hit many targets and return with ammunition, but all are trained to engage.

  1. Aim every shot.

The current edition of FM 23-67 [since replaced by TC 3-22.240, TC 3-22.249, and TC 3-22.50, and TC 3-22.19 – Ed.] providing doctrine for the [then-current] M60 Machinegun, shows a machinegunner boldly firing the weapon from the hip. An M60 is too heavy to fire readily from the shoulder, so aiming every shot with this manner may be difficult. Nonetheless, advancing with a weapon firing from the hip must be regarded as an act of desperation or idiocy. The very fact that such an unsound technique is posted to the cover of a major document is a poor indicator of fire discipline.

The correction for this omission rests properly with the NCO Corps. Every NCO must assure as a matter of faith that every shot must be aimed in both training and combat. Even machineguns must be sighted. There can be no exceptions for blanks.

  1. Avoid burst or automatic fire.

As previously noted, there is ample evidence proving that automatic fire is almost useless beyond 25 yards. It is essentially useful for room to room fighting or trench clearing. Three shot burst if largely useless for both close combat and longer range fighting. It is truly the worst of both worlds. Both automatic fire with the M16A1 and burst fire with the M16A2 should be strenuously discouraged by the same NCOs who reinforce the act of aiming every shot. This is especially important during training with blanks, because soldiers enjoy automatic fire as a matter of play.

In summary, aiming assures maximum efficiency with each shot. Rapid semiautomatic fire assures maximum efficiency with each moment of contact. Combined, they offer a substantial increase in combat effectiveness with little change in resources or doctrine.