LAS VEGAS — Army troops in the future may very well go into combat armed with a high-technology rifle that produces almost no kick and can be outfitted with electronics capable of seeing around corners, according to the co-inventors.
Michael Merino, an Army paratrooper who saw combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, said future versions of the Vulcan recoilless rifle will be fully automatic and will fire large-caliber rounds more easily than current Army machine guns and squad weapons.
The civilian Vulcan rifle, formerly known as Mars, went on sale for the first time Tuesday and was showcased during a range firing and at a major arms exposition now underway in Las Vegas called SHOT Show 2023.
Kayla Lewis, part of the firearms trainer Tactical Response, said after test firing the rifle that its recoil “felt like baby kisses.”
Its makers say the .308 caliber rifle uses a unique patented technology involving a pistonlike moving barrel that transforms the bullet’s recoil energy during the firing process. Inspired by a hybrid of several technologies — pneumatics, mechanical springs and hydraulics — the semi-automatic rifle produces hardly any recoil by transferring that energy into expelling shells and chambering the next rounds.
Mr. Merino offered the rifle to the Army for its next-generation squad weapon, but the service chose more conventional weapons to replace its M-4 rifles and M-249 light machine guns and M-240 machine guns with common 6.8mm bullets.
Still, Mr. Merino believes the military will eventually adopt his rifle for soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and guardians.
“I can tell you right now that it has a lot less recoil than any battle rifle, including the one that has recently been adopted,” he said.
In April, the Army selected the prototype of arms manufacturer Sig Sauer as its next-generation squad weapon.
“But I know that I can make a better product that will be more useful to our warfighters,” Mr. Merino said.
No other rifle has the technology that Mr. Merino says could also potentially generate electricity for battery-powered night vision sights, laser aiming, or cameras that will allow troops to peer around corners during combat.
“A fixed-barrel gun that uses gas and a piston is now the same as a flintlock or muzzle loader,” Mr. Merino said. “That’s old technology, and we are now moving into an era where there is new technology.”
The low-recoil weapon, he said, also will make it easier for the Army to integrate women into combat missions.
Mr. Merino, currently with the Montana National Guard and a marksmanship instructor, said soldiers have the most difficult time qualifying on weapons because of the weight of the rifles and operator fatigue induced by recoil. An Army version of the Vulcan would be lighter than any current machine guns and easier to fire because of the low recoil, he said.
Mr. Merino developed the advanced rifle with a lengthy technology pedigree. His grandfather was Robert Noyce, a co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and the computer chip giant Intel Corp. Mr. Noyce, dubbed the “mayor of Silicon Valley,” is credited with inventing the integrated circuit or microchip that set off the personal computer revolution.
“I always wanted to grow up to be like him and be an inventor, and I wanted to be able to create something new,” Mr. Merino said.
The Vulcan rifle is the culmination of a 10-year research and development effort by Mr. Merino and his colleague and co-inventor David Lake. The project was carried out without government or industry funding. The firearm has been demonstrated for 27 different militaries and is said to be a favorite among U.S. special operations forces, some of whom have the right to select their own weapons for use in operations.
The rifle was designed to be quickly adapted for different military missions and can interchange barrels and components to fire different caliber ammunition.
“It’s the next-generation rifle that has more capability for lethality at extended range,” Mr. Lake said in an interview. “You can turn it from one role to another with a few parts in a few minutes. … It’s very futuristic.”
Mr. Lake said electronic accessories are likely to be added in the future and powered through a rechargeable battery in the stock.
Mr. Merino grew up on a ranch in southwestern Montana. He said he learned to innovate and improvise in fixing things as a mechanic, plumber, electrician and repairman in an area where parts were not readily available. When he was 19, Mr. Merino joined the Army two months before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and shortly afterward was sent to Afghanistan as part of the 82nd Airborne Division. In 2003, he deployed to Iraq, where he was assigned to a sniper team that did “a lot of work outside the wire” – a military phrase denoting specialized military activities.
The experience and a second deployment to Baghdad a few years later left him with a range of experience in precision marksmanship and firearms. Trained on the Barrett .50 caliber rifle known in the Army as the M-82, Mr. Merino realized the 29-pound weapon was too big and that a small version was needed.
Back in Montana, he decided to design and build a rifle that is easier to use for troops in the field. The idea, he said, originated from his retail emergency preparedness business to build a multicaliber firearm that could use any ammunition found in an emergency.
“I started working on prototypes and combined it with my military marksmanship education to create hybrid, non-standard firearms,” he said.
After a “eureka moment” for what would eventually become the Vulcan, he said, he applied for patents and began a search for investors.
“I had always imagined that this would be an excellent rifle for the military,” he said. “That was where my heart was: to build a better battle rifle for soldiers and warfighters to shoot.”
Then the Army announced it was looking for prototypes for replacement service rifles and that set into motion the quest to build a better gun. Together with Mr. Lake, the co-inventor, the rifle came together over a period of several years and several prototypes, both semi-automatic and automatic.
“His joke is that I come up with the ideas and he makes them work, and that’s OK with me,” Mr. Merino said of Mr. Lake.
Last year, all elements needed for the rifle came together. The first models went on sale to retailers this week. The list price for the rifle will be around $3,900. The guns are produced at an Olympus Arms factory in St. George, Utah, from all metal parts.
Regarding the electronics, Mr. Merino said the weapon can be built with a self-supporting, self-charging system that uses a very light battery pack, “and I can charge that battery with every shot.”
Laser sights, infrared aiming devices, night vision optics and cameras are among the accessories that can be added to the Vulcan.
“Soldiers will be able to see around corners without having to expose their body to a threat by aiming the rifle and seeing images with glasses or goggles sent from the camera,” Mr. Merino said. “And all of that can be made possible through a lot of technology that already exists within a rifle that is capable of generating electricity.”