(This was originally posted in The Print by Snehesh Alex Philip)
It took some ‘jugaad‘, but the American SiG 716 rifle has finally become a formidable choice of weapon for India’s soldiers after it was equipped with ‘eyes’ to operate in the dark, given better grip and the ability to turn it into a light machine gun. The 7.62×51 mm SiG 716 G2 Patrol assault/battlefield rifles first reached the Line of Control (LoC) in December 2019 after India bought the weapons from the US under emergency procurement. However, it took soldiers some time to get used to the arms.
Several factors were behind this, but primary among them was the fact that Indian soldiers were used to the ever dependable 7.62×39 mm AK-47s and the basic 5.56×45 mm INSAS rifle that was inducted in the early 1990s, sources in the defence establishment told ThePrint. Also, the American rifle has a higher recoil. The SiG 716 has a higher calibre and is meant to shoot-to-kill at a distance of 600 metres, unlike the INSAS which has a lower range and is not designed to kill at longer distances. The AK-47 also fires a smaller round.
There was also the issue of the rifle sights — the optical device meant for the rifle was not bought to keep the cost down. This effectively made the rifle “almost blind” when operating the dark. Ammunition was also a concern. While the Americans sold the rifle at a cheaper cost, the ammunition was expensive and hence this meant that a limited quantity was bought. “A company might sell a rifle at a particular cost. But it makes better money through ammunition and servicing just like a car company does,” another source said.
The grip of the rifle was another stumbling block. Indian soldiers were used to the shorter barrel of the AK-47s for operations, which gave them better grip. In fact, troops had even fixed wooden handles beneath the barrel to improve the grip. However, when it came to the SiG 716, the rifle did not come with any additional equipment than the standard issue. All of these issues were addressed by making tweaks. The Army had, in total, bought over 1.4 lakh of these rifles under two separate contracts.
‘Jugaad’ to the rescue
The Army first integrated its already existing sight systems on the SiG 716 as it equips at least two companies each of the over 400 Infantry Battalions. Some of these sight systems have night vision capabilities too and are manufactured by both state-run and private Indian firms.
“The existing sight systems does the trick. While it is not completely compatible with the firing system, it is much better than not having one. With a little bit of training, the soldier is able to shoot directly even in dark,” a source told ThePrint. The sight systems meant for the SiG 716 has a pointer to tell the soldier where exactly the bullet will hit. In case of other sights being used, the pointer will vary but the difference is minimal. The Army has also added additional kits on the rifle to give it a handle. This means the rifle has a better grip even for those with shorter hands.
Such kits have also been used on AK 47s as well, besides other rifles in use in the Army. To tackle the ammunition issue, the Army replaced the original American make with locally manufactured and easily available rounds of the 7.62 light machine gun (LMG). The drawback, though, is that these are high powered rounds which make the recoil higher than what the rifle would have if the original ammunition was used.
“The soldiers have got used to the higher recoil than the AK-47s or the INSAS. The beauty of this rifle is that unlike the AK-47s, these have greater accuracy and at much higher distance,” a third source said. The Army is planning to make another addition to the rifle — a bipod, a stand that allows the soldier to use the weapon in different scenarios.
“The SiG 716 has a formidable firepower. With a bipod, the rifle can be used as a LMG with greater accuracy,” another source said. Weighing just 3.82 kg without the magazine, the rifle has corking from behind than the side, which is the case in most of the small arms. This makes the SiG 716 ambidextrous. Though the butt of the rifle is not collapsible, it comes with six adjustable positions, making it handy in operations.
Why Army bought SiG rifles
In the initial years, the INSAS was a good weapon of choice, but the fact that it did not undergo much modernisation has meant that it no longer suits the needs of a modern soldier. The indigenous INSAS owes its origin to the 1980s when the Army sought a lighter assault rifle chambered to fire the 5.56×45 mm cartridge. It was aimed at providing relief to soldiers who fought the Siachen battle and the LTTE in Sri Lanka with the 5.1 kg Ishapore 7.62×51 mm rifle.
The Army’s objective then was to use a rifle that injures an enemy soldier instead of killing them. An injured soldier would require at least 2-3 others to take him away for medical care. Given the changing warfare tactics and the Army getting involved in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations too, the force sought a high calibre weapon that is a “shoot to kill system”. It eventually zeroed in on the SiG 716 under emergency procurement even as India works on a deal with Russia to jointly manufacture the AK-203 rifles, chambered to fire 7.62×39 mm ammunition just like the AK-47.