Once again, we’re going to delve back into history a bit. The Hitchman report from 1952 is one of my favorite bits of Army research. Like the 1930 Kent report before it, the findings eventually led to the adoption of the M-16 rifle and 5.56 NATO cartridge. As before, I want to credit the excellent work of Daniel Watters for digging up the timeline of this history.
But before I get to Norman Hitchman’s’ actual report, titled “Operational Requirements for an Infantry Hand Weapon,” we need some background.
1948, Project ALCLAD
WWII is over, and the the good guys won. One year prior, the US passed the National Security Act of 1947 that established the Department of Defense and the US Air Force.
It will be another year before the Soviet Union detonates its first atomic bomb, RDS-1. But we didn’t know that just yet.
America is flush with scientific work, high of the successful Manhattan Project. Realizing that we were entering a new era of warfare, the Department of the Army establishes the General Research Office (GRO), whose mission is to conduct scientific research into future warfighting methods.
Later that year, the office becomes the Operational Research Office (ORO).
One of the first projects is ALCLAD. The Army commissioned the program 1948 but it officially starts in 1950. Norman A Hitchman is one of the staff members on the project. The goal is to evaluate courses of action to provide better protection to infantry soldiers.
To facilitate the research, the team inputs casualty data from over three million reports spanning both world wars and Korea into a computer. The results are surprising.
Project ALCLAD Conclusion
I was unable to find an actual copy of the final report, ORO-R-5. But I did find a 1952 Report that summarizes a lot of the research of the time.
The recommendations regarding protection aren’t groundbreaking. Individual body armor is too heavy and would hinder movement too much. But a new helmet design would be extremely useful.
Another finding is an urgent priority on lightening the load of soldiers in both equipment and weapons. This leads to Project DOUGHBOY, also summarized in that document on page 53.
The interesting thing here is that Norman Hitchman developed a wealth of data about battlefield casualties. From here, he moves on to Project BALANCE.
1951 Project BALANCE
The focus of ALCLAD was about protection from threats. BALANCE was about more effective fighting.
All of that casualty data that Hitchman collected works both ways. If you could use information about how people die in combat as a way to develop protection, then you could also use it to develop better weapons.
Simultaneously, D.F. Bayly Pike and Charles
This is important, and factors into Hitchman’s report to the ORO
Hitchman’s ORO Report
The report’s opening pages get right to the point:
Of what should a rifle be capable in battle today? Since there is a
limitas to how accurately the infantryman fires, can one increase hits by giving him a rifle with new operational characteristics? ORO’s Project BALANCE studied this by taking data on how often, and by how much, riflemen missed targets (as well as the distribution of hits) at different ranges, by taking data on the ranges of engagement in battle, and by taking data on the physiological wound effects of shots with differing ballistic characteristics. The recommendation is made that Ordnance proceed to determine the technological feasibility of a weapon with operating characteristics analyzed in this memorandum.
The abstract highlights three key findings right up front, but I’ll get to those in a minute. The report has several sections, each revolving around a combat theme:
- Combat casualty studies
- Battlefield terrain and visibility
- How riflemen use their weapons in combat
- Lethality of the rifle
- The “Dispersion Weapon”
- Future testing methods
Right up front, the report acknowledges previous work done with project ALCLAD. There are a handful of key findings in this section, all of which become very important for Hitchman’s suggestions later on.
First, bullet wound locations in combat were essentially random. I admit that I struggled with this concept at first. How could impacts be random if everyone was aiming and firing?
I thought back to my own experiences in small unit tactics classes like those offered at MVT and had a bit of a revelation. While I made a good effort to aim, it’s not like I had all the time in the world to peek out, aim, and get a shot off at the popup targets. Furthermore, in the real world, the targets are actively trying not to get shot. So even if you were aiming, the combination of movement, time pressure, and other conditions really does limit your ability.
The probability of being shot has more to do with exposure than anything else, which is exactly what Hitchman highlights.
Further, it was found that exposure was the chief factor responsible for the distribution of hits from bullets and that aimed or directed fire does not influence the manner in which hits are sustained. Stated briefly, the comparison of hits from bullets with those from fragments showed that the rifle bullet is not actually better directed towards vulnerable parts of the body.
Casualties and Range
Another important element here is the collected data about casualties and the ranges associated with them.
Hitchman cites previous work done analyzing battlefield casualties. One study undertaken on Bougainville Campaign during WWII showed that almost all rifle hits in this jungle environment occurred at less than 75 yards.
An analysis of Korea showed that the average distance for most hits was just over 100 yards, with nearly all hits occurring at less than 300 yards. Another study done by the British showed that 80% of effective LMG and rifle fire happened at less than 200 yards, and 90% at less than 300.
Hitchman summarizes this data by stating that infantry weapons are used, on average, at far less distance than traditionally believed. He’s also careful to point out that these conclusions should not undermine the role of a highly trained precision shooter, i.e. a sniper, who still provides a valuable role.
Terrain and Visibility
This section goes over the work of Pike and Gopel.
The team took 18,000 more readings from a variety of terrain in Canada, France, Germany, Korea, North Africa, and the United States. The final conclusion is that 70% of the time, a soldier can identify a 5-foot tall target to a maximum distance of 300 yards. 90% happen at less than 700 yards.
Hitchman makes a key implication from this data:
If the vast majority of targets are not identified until less than 300 yards, which is also where most firefights take place, then the general employment of a rifle with an effective range of 1,200 becomes superfluous. We could shave a lot of weight off of a rifleman’s load, a key priority of ALCLAD, if we issued weapons purpose-built for this range envelope.
The Rifleman and His Weapon
Thus far in the report, Hitchman highlighted the ranges that casualties happen and the distance at which soldiers can actually see on the ground. What we haven’t seen just yet is how soldiers actually perform.
The research team devised a test where soldiers fired at silhouettes placed at various ranges, angles, and behind different terrain features. They also erected large cloth screens behind the targets to indicate where missed shots landed.
The findings were very telling. The hit probability for the 110-yard target was very good, but declined sharply after that. Beyond 300 yards, the probability of hit essentially became random. The math indicates that experienced marksman performed unsatisfactorily at 500 yards, well inside of the design envelope for their rifles.
This lines up nicely with the previous work done on small arms casualties. Most hits occur inside of 300 yards because that’s about the limit of performance of the individual rifleman.
So, again, there’s a recurring theme that 300 yards is a kind of magic number.
With these findings, Hitchman discusses shot dispersion. He theorizes that if the number of projectiles fired per trigger pull increases, then the probability of landing a hit also increases.
Hitchman doesn’t mean automatic fire, though. He argues that a soldier cannot precisely aim beyond the first shot. Instead, he discusses developing a weapon that simultaneously fires multiple bullets. This branch of research later becomes project SALVO.
This section of the report heavily leans on the work of D.L. Hall. That particular work is worthy of a post on its own, but it’s essentially a continuation of Kent’s 1930 report.
You might recall a statement at the end of Kent’s report calling for more research to find the right caliber and velocity in the future. Hall undertook that research and put it in his 1952 report, An Effectiveness Study of the Infantry Rifle. In his conclusions, he states that a .22 caliber projectile in the 60gr weight class would improve soldier performance with hit probability, without sacrificing ballistic performance, and increase the amount of ammunition able to be carried.
Here’ s Hitchman’s main takeaway from Hall’s work, emphasis mine:
When compared to M-1 ammunition, a .21 cal missile of high velocity (about 3500 feet per second muzzle velocity) creates equal or greater damage than the standard .30 cal missiles at ranges up to 800 yd. This evidence, combined with the work of Project BALANCE (ORO} on ranges of visibility, marksmanship, and actual operational needs, lends considerable support to the major conclusion that lighter hand weapons of smaller caliber may well be provided without losing military effectiveness, while offering both impressive logistical gains and improved operations.
And here’s the real money shot, where Hitchman pitches development of a new weapon all together.
In addition to these gains, the advantages of low-recoil effects offered by the smaller caliber weapons would be reflected in improved skill in the use of the weapon by allowing a higher rate of single-round aimed fire. Such weapons would also be much less fatiguing to handle. Since recoil of a small caliber weapon would be less than that of present weapons, the dispersion of rounds in a short, fully automatic, burst could be considerably less than the dispersion of current models…
Although such a light weapon would not compensate for human aiming errors when fired semiautomatically, it is quite possible that automatic fire in short bursts at common battle ranges would produce dispersion patterns commensurate with the requirements of the idealized salvo weapon. In particular, the low recoil of a small caliber rifle offers the chance to employ a muzzle compensator with significant effects, lending added promise to a satisfactory development. If the development of this light, hig velocity weapon could proceed to include the ideal salvo principle, obviously a truly effective hand arm could be provided.
Let’s summarize the main findings of Hitchman’s report:
- 300 yards is about the maximum range for common rifle use, and also about as far as a soldier can identify a target
- Beyond 100 yards, marksmanship declines sharply until reaching very low probability at 300 yards and beyond
- Dispersion patterns created through controlled automatic bursts or a salvo increase hit probability at all ranges
- Of the possible designs, the small caliber lightweight weapon with controlled dispersion characteristics appears to be a promising approach. (Low recoil of a small caliber weapon facilitates dispersion control.)
- Bullets smaller than
the .30 caliber standard can create acceptable combat wound damage at common battle ranges while also improving logistical and military characteristics
There were a few more in there that I removed, like the items about adding toxins to bullets to further increase the lethality of hits against
Based on these conclusions, Hitchman goes on to suggest that a new weapon should
Firing in such a pattern mitigates the aiming errors of the user against targets up to 300 yards away.
This report changes things.
Norman Hitchman uses the results of this report as the impetus for project SALVO. That long-running program sought to boost the lethality of rifles by increasing the number of projectiles fired simultaneously. One example was the
Effectively, the rifle fired four bullets at the same time.
Another research path for project SALVO was found with flechettes and the ill-fated SPIW. The program continued all the way into the 1980s with the Advanced Combat Rifle program search to replace the M16.
That’s where the story of Norman Hitchman ends. But another individual involved in the Hall report cited by Hitchman decided to take another path. Stay tuned to hear about him.
Matt is the primary author and owner of The Everyday Marksman. He’s former military officer turned professional tech sector trainer. He’s a lifelong learner, passionate outdoorsman, and steadfast supporter of firearms culture.
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