December 22, 2021
7.62x51mm M118 Match is likely the most famous and longest-serving load fielded by US snipers. Developed for use with the National Match M14 rifle, this 173-grain FMJ-BT load first saw combat during the war in Vietnam. Originally designated XM118, for experimental, it was subsequently adopted and served throughout the Cold War. It was fielded by both US Army Snipers in the XM21, M21 and later the bolt-action M24 sniper rifle as well as by USMC Snipers in the M40 series. Later redesignated M118 Special Ball, it saw service during the opening stages of the Global War on Terrorism before being replaced by the newer M118 Long Range.
Delving into the history books reveals just how far back the roots of the 7.62mm 173-grain M118 Match load can be traced. The US military ordered special loaded Caliber .30 match ammunition at least as early as 1907. American ammunition quality, even for match ammunition, during this time period is not what we would think of today. This can be noted by examining the accuracy of a special lot of ammunition Frankford Arsenal produced for the 1909 National Matches. This load was topped with M1906 150-grain FMJ flat-base bullets produced to tight tolerances. When tested by the military, this special run had a Mean Radius of 4.92 inches at 600 yards. Keep in mind; this is Mean Radius not extreme spread, which would have been about 12 to 15 inches. It should also be remembered the scoring ring dimensions of the targets during this time period were substantially larger than they are today. It’s also interesting to note the US Army ordered 100,000 rounds of 180-grain Match ammunition during World War I. A portion of this was shipped for combat use in Europe, but it is unknown if any was actually fielded.
The general opinion is World War I had little lasting effect on US sniper doctrine or equipment. At first glance this makes sense as US military sniper schools were quickly shut down after the war ended, most sniper equipment was disposed of and sniping seems to have been forgotten in the post 1919 years. However, the truth is World War I would have a much greater long-term impact on US sniping than most would ever suspect. This stems from, of all things, American combat use of the French Mle 1914 Hotchkiss machine gun chambered in 8mm Lebel. Yes, as hard as it may seem to believe a French machine gun would heavily influence American sniping until fairly recently.
When the United States entered World War I the US Army was very poorly equipped. When the small peace time army rapidly expanded, it led to shortages of all types, including machine guns. Due to shortages of all types, the American Expeditionary Force fielded various types of French weapons when it first arrived in Europe. This included artillery, airplanes, tanks and machine guns. The US Army purchased and fielded 7,000 Mle 1914 Hotchkiss machine guns during the war, becoming the second-largest user of this design behind the French Army.
The American machine gunners received training by French officers with combat experience in the trenches. One of the common tasks at the time was performing indirect-fire missions at very long range. A typical mission was to have a gun or group of guns sight in on a crossroad in German hands. The guns would then open fire at random times during the night when it was suspected the enemy was trying to bring reinforcements or supplies up. The guns could be expected to be employed out to the very limits of their range when used in this roll. Employed similar to artillery, they would often fire out to 4,000+ yards. At these very long distances a section of guns could cover a large piece of ground with plunging fire, thus preventing any enemy movement over it. When employed in this manner the Hotchkiss guns played a very important roll due to the tactics and methods of the Great War.
Towards the end of the war US machine gun units began receiving American produced M1917 Browning machine guns in .30-’06. The M1917 Browning was overall a better design than the Mle 1914 Hotchkiss, and was better liked by the crews receiving them. The Brownings were beautifully made, reliable, water-cooled and fed from a 250-round cloth belt. In comparison the Hotchkiss was very heavy, 110 pounds for the gun and mount, fed from 24-round feed-strips, was air-cooled and had a slower rate of fire.
American machine gun crews quickly realized though the Hotchkiss did have one virtue over the Browning, range. The Mle 1914 was chambered for the standard French 8x50mmR “Lebel” cartridge. The issue 8mm Balle D load featured a machine turned solid bronze projectile weighing 198 grains. The Balle D was the first military load to be fielded sporting both a spitzer profile and a boat tail to improve its exterior ballistics. An extremely well-designed projectile, it featured a G1 Ballistic Coefficient (BC) of approximately .567. Even today, this is very respectable and it provided the Mle 1914 Hotchkiss with a maximum range of 4,150 yards. The M1917 Browning on the other hand fired the standard Caliber .30 M1906 load. This featured a 150-grain FMJ lead core projectile with a flat base. G1 BC of this projectile was about .440 and the maximum range was just over 3,000 yards for indirect-fire.
Losing approximately 1,000 yards of effective range handicapped American machine gunners for the rest of the war. It was frequently mentioned in writings of the time. This loss of effective range was not forgotten at the end of hostilities and it led directly to the demise of the Caliber .30 M1906 load US troops fought World War I with. After the war ended work continued on improving the Caliber .30 ammunition and a new, more streamlined and heavier .30-caliber projectile was developed. The new bullet was a 173-grain FMJ with a 9-degree boat tail and gilding metal jacket. Loaded into ammunition by Frankford Arsenal for the 1925 National Matches, it grouped into a Mean Radius of just 2.3 inches at 600 yards. A similar load, but seated to a longer overall length for the Palma Match, provided a Mean Radius of just 4.43 inches at 1,000 yards. This new projectile, manufactured to looser tolerances, was subsequently adopted by the US Army in 1926 as Cal. .30 Ball Cartridge, M1. Subsequent military match, and sniper, ammunition was destined to be based upon this projectile design for decades.
The new 173-grain M1 load provided greater range and better external ballistics compared to the old M1906 load. It went on to soldier through the 1920s and the 1930s. There was one problem encountered with the new load though. Its range was too long. Or at least, it was for safe firing on many old National Guard ranges which did not have a sufficient safety zone behind the range. This created problems. Plus, tactics changed in the years following the Great War with mortars eliminating the need for machine guns to be tasked with long-range indirect-fire missions. Then there was the coming of the gas-operated M1 Garand rifle. All of these eventually led to the 173-grain M1 ball round being replaced by the lighter 150-grain M2 ball round on January 12th 1940.
While it had been replaced as standard issue, the 1920s vintage .30 caliber 173-grain FMJ-BT projectile was simply too good to die. It was subsequently resurrected in the 1950s during development of the M72 .30 caliber Match cartridge. This load was introduced in 1957 for the National Matches and launched its 173-grain FMJ-BT projectile at 2,640 fps. Highly successful in competition, it went on to serve with M1D and Model 70 armed snipers in Vietnam. As issued, M72 Match ammunition came packed either in bandoleers on eight-round Garand clips or in 20-round cardboard boxes.
When the XM21 sniper variant of the M14 National Match rifle replaced the old M1D sniper rifle in the 1960s, a new 7.62mm sniper cartridge was needed. Luckily it was already in place, the new 7.62mm M118 Match cartridge having been developed in 1965. Originally designated XM118, as experimental it was subsequently type classified as M118 Match. Intended for use in the then new M14 National Match rifle, it was loaded with the same 173-grain FMJ-BT bullet as used previously in M72 Match ammunition. The major difference between the old M72 and new M118 Match loads was a slight reduction in velocity. Whereas the M72 load clocked 2,640 fps the M118 ran slightly slower at 2,550 fps. Even at this lower velocity though, the 7.62mm M118’s 173-grain slug still remained supersonic past 1,000 yards.
The M118 Match load was to prove accurate with exterior ballistics superior to the 7.62mm M80 ball load and it performed well in competition. Due to its accuracy it was soon fielded with the National Match M14 based XM21 sniper rifle (and USMC M40) in Vietnam. There its heavy full metal jacketed projectile proved a valuable asset thanks to its accuracy and penetration. Unlike the standard 5.56mm 55-grain M193 ball, the 7.62mm M118 penetrated foliage and light cover easily. The 7.62mm M118 Match load went on to be the standard-issue US military sniper load for decades.
Eventually though, time began to catch up with this old warhorse. By the 1980s, due to worn bullet-making machinery and poor quality control at Lake City Army Ammunition Plant, accuracy had dropped noticeably. It eventually lost its Match designation and was re-designated simply M118 Special Ball. A new match load, the M852, had to be developed to keep the military rifle teams competitive. Unlike previous military match loads, the M852 was topped with a commercial 168-grain Sierra MatchKing Hollow Point Boat Tail (HPBT). Although extremely accurate at shorter ranges, the M852 did have one shortcoming. It would not reliably remain supersonic to 1,000 yards. Worse still, accuracy dropped off when the bullet went transonic. So the M118 Special Ball soldiered on for sniping.
Dissatisfaction with the inconsistent accuracy of Lake City’s M118 Special Ball’s 173-grain FMJ projectile eventually led to the USMC pushing for a new 7.62mm sniper load. Using the experience gained from the M852’s commercial HPBT projectile a new bullet was developed. Designed by Sierra, the new projectile weighed 175-grains and was similar in profile and Ballistic Coefficient to the old 173-grain FMJ-BT projectile.
The biggest difference though was in how the bullet was manufactured. Whereas the Lake City 173-grain slug was a Full Metal Jacket Boat Tail design the new Sierra projectile was termed an Open Tip Match (OTM). The difference between the two being how the jacket is formed in the die. A full metal jacket projectile is formed from the front, with the base open for the lead core to be inserted. An open tip bullet on the other hand is formed from the rear, with the lead core inserted from the front. Due to this method of manufacturing the all-important base of an open tip bullet can be made much more consistent, leading to superior accuracy. In the case of an open tip match bullet, the tiny ‘hollow point’ in the nose is a by-product of the manufacturing process. It is not for expansion, as is the case with a hunting bullet. Due to this, the new design was considered land warfare legal by the US military.
The new bullet design was subsequently added to Sierra’s highly regarded commercial MatchKing line. When put to the test it provided accuracy superior to the 1920s vintage 173-grain FMJ-BT out past 1,000 yards. Adopted by the US military in the late 1990s, this new sniper load was designated 7.62mm M118 Long Range. It was subsequently fielded in combat with various 7.62mm sniper systems including the M14/M21, M24, M40A3, SR-25 and M110. Overall it performed well in combat, providing a good combination of long-range accuracy and terminal performance.
In recent years there has been a move away from the 7.62x51mm NATO for sniping. The .300 Win Mag and 6.5mm Creedmoor have seen use and proven effective. So after all these decades the influence of a French machine gun on American sniping will no longer be felt. The 6.5mm Creedmoor is an excellent cartridge for this roll due to its exterior ballistics. Performance though is really not that different than the 6.5x55mm Swedish Mauser first fielded in 1891. But that is a story for another time.
I’d like to thank my friend and colleague Gus Norcross for helping to make this article possible.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com
About the Author:
David M. Fortier has been covering firearms, ammunition and optics since 1998. He is a recipient of the Carl Zeiss Outdoor Writer of the Year award and his writing has been recognized by the Civil Rights organization JPFO. In 2007 he covered the war in Iraq as an embedded journalist.