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CARTRIDGES FOR SILENCED SNIPING RIFLES


Anthony G Williams
Substantially rewritten January 2013
The sniper is the most efficient of soldiers. The current military emphasis on firepower, combined with the use of
deterrent suppressive fire, has seen the number of small arms rounds fired per casualty inflicted rise from several
hundred at the start of this century to tens if not hundreds of thousands in modern high-intensity conflicts. Through all
this, snipers have maintained a rate of approximately 1.3 rounds per casualty.
The lethal effectiveness of snipers also makes them the most unpopular of soldiers with their adversaries. Detection of a
sniper usually results in a mortar attack if not a comprehensive artillery shoot, so snipers have to be experts in
concealment as well as crack shots. They also have to be prepared to change position rapidly as soon as they feel that
their position might have been spotted.
Most sniping rifles are chambered for the standard military cartridge, currently usually the 7.62 x 51 NATO or 7.62 x 54 R
Russian depending on historical allegiance. These are not ideal because a heavier bullet at a higher muzzle velocity
would ensure better long-range accuracy, so specialist rifles are available with more powerful cartridges such as the
.300" Winchester Magnum and the .338" Lapua. Some rifles go even further, being chambered for rounds of calibres up
to the .50" Browning heavy machine gun cartridge. These are described in THIS article.
All of these rifles have a major disadvantage from the sniper's point of view in that they are very obvious in use. The
muzzle report can be heard at great distances and although this problem is increasingly being tackled by fitting a sound
suppressor, the sharp crack of a supersonic bullet still gives clear warning to the enemy that they are under attack.
There has therefore been a continuing interest in a genuinely silent sniping rifle for covert operations, and there is a
wider choice now than has ever existed before.
The problem is that a silent rifle has to generate a muzzle velocity below the speed of sound, which is at around 320
m/sec (1,050 fps) depending on altitude and air temperature. This is in the realm of pistol rather than rifle cartridges so it
is no surprise that one of the first and best known of such weapons used such a cartridge. This was the De Lisle
Carbine, developed for British special forces in World War 2, which consisted of a Lee Enfield bolt action rifle chambered
for the standard .45" Auto from the Colt 1911 pistol (11.5 x 23 in metric) and fitted with an 210mm barrel and a massive
suppressor. Initial examples used the standard Lee-Enfield stock but a paratroop version with a folding stock was also
produced. The problem with the De Lisle was that although it was reportedly accurate to over 300m, the velocity of
around 260 m/sec combined with a relatively light (230 grain / 14.9 g) round-nosed bullet which lost velocity relatively
quickly resulted in a rainbow-shaped trajectory at long range, making accurate range estimation crucial.
The next development along these lines went some way to solving the problem. This was an American bolt action rifle,
fitted with a target barrel, a silencer and a telescopic sight, which saw experimental use in Vietnam. It was based around
a new cartridge, the .458 x 1.5" Barnes (actually 11.6 x 33 B), which was essentially a shortened .458" Winchester big
game round, firing the usual 500 grain (32.4 g) bullet at just below the speed of sound. It was apparently not entirely
successful, largely because the bulk and weight caused by the long, heavy target barrel didn't endear it to the troops.
Even this was not the ultimate answer as the bullet was still round-nosed and therefore quickly lost velocity and
effectiveness at long range. This prompted the development of cartridges using very heavy, pointed, boat-tailed bullets of
excellent shape to minimise the velocity loss. Initially these were modified loadings of existing rifle rounds and such
loadings are still available in all standard military rifle calibres, as they have some utility where the users want to carry
only one weapon for both covert and open use. However, these are not very efficient: the small calibres limit the bullet
weight which can be used before the rifling can no longer stabilise the bullet's flight, while the cartridges cases are far
too big for the small quantity of propellant needed to reach subsonic velocity.
As a result, a new breed of specialised subsonic rounds has arisen in the past few decades. These can only be used in
purpose-designed rifles, usually fitted with short barrels and a large suppressor. They are designed for maximum
efficiency in the role, so have relative large calibres and use small cartridge cases to fire the heaviest practicable bullets.
The smaller versions are intended for use in suitably modified military rifles which may also feature selective fire (the
capability for automatic firing), the larger ones for use in bolt-action rifles. Some of the cartridges are also available with
supersonic loadings (for use with or without the suppressor) so that users can be more effectively equipped for when
covert use is not needed.
One of the first, and certainly the most prolific, manufacturers of specialist subsonic rounds is SSK Industries of the
USA, who produce the Whisper range of ammunition. These include 6, 6.5, 7, 7.62 (.300 Whisper), and 8.6 mm (.338

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Whisper II) rounds, all using cartridge cases with the same diameter as the 5.56 x 45 but just 35-36 mm long so they
can be loaded with longer bullets while keeping within the same maximum round length. This enables them to be
chambered in rebarrelled versions of the standard M16 assault rifle, and they can even use the 5.56 mm magazines.
SSK also makes subsonic loadings of the 7.63 x 25 (.30 Mauser) and 7.65 x 21 (.30 Luger) cartridges, marketed as the
Mini-Whisper and Micro-Whisper respectively, with pointed heavy bullets making them too long to be used in the
pistols. Other cartridges are based on the 7.62 x 51 NATO case, but shortened and again in various calibres: .302, .338
(Whisper I) .375 and .416 Whispers, the last of these (which has so far evaded my collection) being virtually straightcased. These can be used in modified 7.62 mm rifles such as the AR-10 family, or when fitted with shorter bullets to keep
the same overall length as the 5.56 x 45 can be used in an M16 with more extensive modifications and different
magazines. Finally, even larger rounds have been developed: the .458, .500 and .510 Whispers, based on the .458
Winchester Magnum, .460 Weatherby Magnum and .338 Lapua Magnum cases respectively.
The
smaller
examples
are
unlikely to have
much military utility
so this article will
focus on those of
7.62+ mm (.30+
inch)
calibre
intended for use in
military rifles. The
smallest of these
was the first to
come to notice and
is probably the
most popular by a
long way; the .30"
Whisper
(now
known as the .300
Whisper), which
uses
a
.221"
Remington Fireball
cartridge necked
out to 7.62 mm
calibre to take a
210 grain (13.6 g)
boat-tailed spitzer
match bullet. This
has proved so
successful that it
has prompted very
similar
developments by
other
manufacturers.
The first was for
the Heckler & Koch
SL9
SD
suppressed rifle;
the 7.62 x 37 HK,
produced by BAE
Systems Radway
Green ammunition
plant in around
2000. It is unclear
whether or not this
rifle achieved any
sales, and the
ammunition is no
longer
in
production. In the

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past couple of
years three other
very similar rounds
have emerged: the
7.62 x 37 Musang
from
the
Philippines (which
has also yet to find
a place in my
collection),
the
AAC 300 Blackout
and the 7.62 x 40
Wilson Tactical,
both from the USA.
The Blackout is a
straight copy of the
.300 Whisper, the
main
difference
being that it is
SAAMI registered
and the focus is
more
on
the
supersonic
loadings, which are
a close match for
the old 7.62 x 39
Kalashnikov
rounds.
The
Wilson round is
optimised
for
supersonic
loadings and is
included here only
for
comparison
purposes.
The main US rival to SSK is Teppo Jutsu, which offers three options. The .30 HRT is essentially a 6.8 x 43 Remington
case modified to 7.62 x 41. It therefore has a case diameter intermediate between the 5.56 mm and 7.62 mm, but can be
used in suitably modified AR-15 (M16) rifles. This is not a specialised subsonic round because the emphasis is very
much on the supersonic loadings, but it is also offered loaded with a 15.6 g (240 grain) bullet in a subsonic loading. The
.338 Spectre uses the same case shortened to 32 mm, the .458 SOCOM is a multi-purpose (supersonic and subsonic)
cartridge small enough to fit into modified M16 rifles while and the .500 Phantom can be used in modified 7.62 mm rifles
when loaded with shorter bullets than the A-MAX shown below. It is even available with a saboted .30 cal bullet at 3,200
fps (975 m/s)! More details and photos of the Teppo Jutsu range are HERE.

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One American
oddity is the
.460 Alliance,
very much in
the
same
mould as the
big-bore
cartridges
developed for
the AR-15 as
described
HERE.
However, it is
intended for
modified
Kalashnikov
AK/AKM
pattern rifles.
It is currently
only available
in supersonic
loadings, but
has
clear
potential for a
heavy-bullet
subsonic
development.
The
Americans are
not the only
ones
interested in
subsonic
rounds as the
French
developed the
ANTHIS rifle,
based on an
ERMA
weapon using
a STOPSON
sound
suppressor.
The cartridge,
based on the
.460"
Weatherby
case, appears
to
be
dimensionally
identical
to
the
.50"
Whisper and
was in fact
made
in
America
by
A-Square.
Any
.50"
Browning
machine gun
bullet could

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be used.
The
most
prolific
developers of
subsonic
ammunition
after
the
Americans
have been the
Russians. The
best-known
example is the
9
x
39,
developed by
necking-up
the 7.62 x 39
case after a
heavy-bullet
loading of that
case proved
unsatisfactory.
It is in use in a
specialised
suppressed
rifle (the VSS)
but
the
effectiveness
of the heavy
bullet at short
range
has
also led to its
adoption
in
some
unsuppressed
compact
assault rifles
for
urban
fighting, such
as
the
OTs-14, 9A-91
and
SR3M
Vikhr. Russia
has
also
introduced the
12.7mm
Vychlop,
using a 12.7 x
55
straight
rimless case
which
is
similar to the
.510 Whisper.
This
is
available
in
several
subsonic
loadings
for
use in the
VSSK
suppressed
rifle.
More

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recently,
supersonic
loadings have
been
developed for
use in the
ASh-12
selective-fire
assault rifle.

MODERN CARTRIDGES FOR SILENCED RIFLES


Rim / body
Subsonic bullet weight
Sectional Density
Designation
Metric designation
diameter mm
grains (grams)
.300 Whisper
7.62 x 35
9.5 / 9.5
240 (15.6)
0.365
AAC .300 BLK

7.62 x 35

9.5 / 9.5

220 (14.25)

0.333

7.62 mm HK

7.62 x 37

9.5 / 9.5

200 (13)

0.304

.338 Whisper II

8.6 x 36

9.5 / 9.5

200 (13)

0.250

.338 Spectre

8.6 x 32

10.6 / 10.6

300 (19.4)

0.373

.375 Whisper

9.5 x 37

12.0 / 12.0

300 (19.4)

0.306

.458 SOCOM

11.6 x 40 RB

12.0 / 13.5

600 (39)

0.412

.302 Whisper

7.62 x 38

12.0 / 12.0

240 (15.6)

0.365

.338 Whisper I

8.6 x 38

12.0 / 12.0

300 (19.4)

0.373

9 x 39 Russian

9 x 39

11.3 / 11.3

250 (16.2)

0.284

.458 Whisper

11.6 x 45 B

13.5 / 13.5

500-600 (32-39)

0.338-0.412

.500 Phantom

12.7 x 39 RB

13.3 / 15.6

660-750 (43-48)

0.368-0.410

.500 Whisper

12.7 x 57 B

14.6 / 14.7

660-750 (43-48)

0.368-0.410

.510 Whisper

12.7 x 48

14.7 / 14.7

660-750 (43-48)

0.368-0.410

12.5 mm Vychlop

12.7 x 55

14.8 / 14.8

710-1,170 (46-76)

0.393-0.650

NB: The Sectional Density (SD: a function of the bullet weight and calibre) is multiplied by a form factor derived from the
shape of the bullet in order to obtain the Ballistic Coefficient (BC). The higher the ballistic coefficient, the better the
velocity retention and therefore the greater the effectiveness at long range. The SD gives an indication of the potential for
barrier penetration and long-range performance, when comparing bullets of similar shape.
REFERENCES
IHS Jane's Weapons: Ammunition (2013-2014 edition)
Military Small Arms of the 20th Century (Hogg & Weeks)
Cartridges of the World (Barnes)
The Cartridge Researcher, January 1997 (item by Barlerin & Regenstreif)
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