A bright December morning in the agricultural fields of Kibbutz Nir-Am on the border with the Gaza Strip. The quiet and greenery surrounding us are the complete opposite of the sights seen here only four months ago, during Operation Protective Edge, while the same fields were being trampled under the weight of hundreds of IDF armored vehicles and thousands of soldiers. The operation was also the first operational trial of the new 7.62mm caliber Negev machine gun, officially designated Negev NG7.
At least one special unit we know of operated this weapon just a few kilometers to the west of here, deep inside the Strip. When the battles ended, the professional feedback arrived. The experienced machine gunners and their commanders testified to the primary advantages of the new machine gun – light weight, which enables easy, agile movement, prompt dismounting from an armored vehicle and engaging targets accurately in urban enemy territory where terrorists mix with civilians. Additionally, the most prominent characteristic of the new machine gun they noted was its intense firepower and improved penetration of walls, light armored vehicles and stone terraces, owing to the larger caliber of the ammunition used.
Admittedly, the relocation of IDF to the Negev is being delayed and appears to be stuck these days. On the other hand, the revolution of the Negev machine gun among the IDF infantry units completes a circle of almost 20 years in the field, and I think it could be concluded as a success. In the late 1990s, the 5.56mm caliber Negev machine guns by Israel Military Industries (IMI) were issued to the IDF infantry battalions and elite units for the first time. I was a young paratrooper company commander in those days, and I vividly remember the first training seminars for commanders in 1997, the men of the IDF Marksmanship Department coming to the field and teaching us how to zero the new, shiny, black weapons, the enthusiasm of the MAG machine gunners, whose status was upgraded overnight when the new kit was issued to them. In those days, the Negev machine gun suffered from numerous “childhood diseases” that marred its light weight and ease of operation: frequent stoppages, problems with the cocking mechanism – the famous “ratchet”, and assault drum failures. But gradually, through the good communication between the demands from the field and Israel Weapon Industries (IWI), who inherited the responsibility for the manufacture of the weapon from IMI, the Negev machine gun underwent a series of upgrades (“Negev 2000”) until it replaced the venerable MAG as the official squad machine gun of the IDF, and was subsequently sold to dozens of military organizations and police and security forces worldwide.
The cumbersome, powerful and reliable MAG machine guns by FN of Belgium (eventually, they were manufactured under license in Israel) were in use in the IDF since the late 1960s, and became the heaviest and most lethal squad weapon, normally assigned to the strongest, biggest troopers. Those machine gunners cursed every minute of carrying their kit, mainly during forced marches, which left them bruised by the blows of the swinging machine gun. But those who survived it all and eventually had the good fortune of “playing” their MAG machine guns, firing extended bursts – fell in love. Incidentally, one of them was Israel’s present Defense Minister and former IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. (res.) Moshe Ya’alon, who was appointed as a MAG machine gunner while serving as a young Nahal paratrooper.
The introduction of the Negev machine gun as the squad assault machine gun of the infantry units had an adverse effect on the competence of the MAG machine gunners. The MAG machine guns evolved from a squad weapon operated by a competent and skilled squad leader into a platoon weapon used primarily in company-level pin-down fire assignments, so they received less attention and training during routine periods. Commanders in the infantry battalions told me that owing to the degraded competence and mainly because of the awkwardness in movement and in dismounting from the Achzarit and Namer APCs, the MAG machine guns were often left behind. On the other hand, there was a demand for a powerful and accurate machine gun capable, on the one hand, of tearing down a brick wall and penetrating light armored vehicles, while on the other hand allowing agile movement in built-up areas and selective fire in scenarios where the terrorists had blended into the local population and highly accurate fire is required in order to avoid hitting uninvolved civilians.
“The need arose from the field,” recounts Shay of IWI, the weapon engineer who was responsible for the development of the new machine gun, “from the scenarios of Afghanistan, where US troops were involved in fighting at ranges of hundreds of meters opposite enemy forces hiding behind rocks and boulders in mountainous terrain, and equally importantly – from the needs of the IDF and the scenarios in which Israeli troopers were involved over the last decades.”
In 2010, the project team initiated the accelerated development process. The objective was to maintain the advantages of the Negev machine gun as one of the lightest assault machine guns in the world, but use the larger caliber 7.62mm ammunition in order to increase both lethality and operational range. “From an engineering point of view, it was a tremendous challenge,” the people of IWI explain. “When you switch to higher-caliber ammunition, you must ensure that the weapon system does not collapse, that you manage to contain the recoil and that the weapon does not show premature wear.”
The development of the first prototypes of the NG7 was completed in 2012, and it has been a year since it was introduced to the IDF, after passing a series of tests by the IDF Ground Arm Weapon System Department and the IDF Testing & Quality Control Unit.
Now, after the campaign ribbon of Operation Protective Edge has also been pinned to the new machine gun, the people at IWI are waiting for new domestic and foreign orders. Meanwhile, in view of the restrictions associated with the defense budget and the priorities of the IDF Ground Arm, IDF has not issued a comprehensive procurement plan for the new machine gun, so the MAG machine guns will remain in serve with the IDF at least until the end of the present decade.
Now, back to the firing range in the fields of Kibbutz Nir-Am. We start the morning with an introduction to the new weapons. The older Negev machine gun and the new model stand side by side on the bench. The external similarity is misleading. Both weapons are very similar in shape and size, with the exception of the thicker barrel of the 7.62mm model and the fact that the stock of the new model is not a folding stock. Admittedly, one of the advantages of the lighter Negev machine gun is the fact that it enables firing and full operation with the stock folded, commando style, but in the new model, the stock was used for accommodating a hydraulic braking mechanism that blocks the more substantial recoil.
The instructors demonstrate the simple and easy field stripping and reassembly procedures – an important characteristic that enables easy maintenance on the battlefield. Each weapon comes with a matching second barrel, just like the MAG or Negev 5.56mm machine guns. Barrel replacement can be accomplished even in the prone position, with one hand, within seconds, and enables the machine gunner to maintain fire continuity and high rates of fire for long periods of time.
The first challenge – adapting the weapon to the fact that I am left-handed – is accomplished fairly easily by removing the assault grip from the left side of the weapon and reattaching it to the right side. Now all that remains is to fit the dedicated sling which is well padded and relieves the shoulder blades during long hauls, and we begin the dry practice run. The objective: to get accustomed to the new Negev machine gun and examine our ability to move and respond promptly to running engagement situations in open terrain.
The lightness of the machine gun is felt immediately and enables quick movement and assuming all of the firing positions: standing, kneeling and prone. The biggest surprise was in the standing position: positioning the stock in the shoulder recess, spotting the targets and positioning them between the sights while maintaining stability were all accomplished effortlessly, just like when firing an M-16. Even the recoil that we will experience soon during the live fire run is definitely reasonable owing to the major modifications in the hydraulic brake mechanism and return spring, which cope nicely with the more substantial recoil generated by the 7.62mm ammunition. A similar maneuver using a MAG machine gun is something that even veteran MAG machine gunners would have found difficult to execute.
We continue with our advance and practice firing from the hip during an assault, and then dropping to the ground and crawling into cover. In this case, too, the convenient weight of the weapon plays a major role in our quick advance. Assuming a prone firing position is comfortable and the low silhouette of the weapon enables the gunner to position himself effectively behind cover. The telescopic stock enables optimal adaptation to ensure the gunner’s convenience. The bipod (at least on the test version) is a telescoping-adjustable bipod that enables the weapon to be positioned conveniently behind various cover types. I am not sure, however, that this type of bipod will last long in the hands of the Negev machine gunners in the field, and it is possible that in the context of a future IDF procurement deal, light, durable and non-telescoping bipods will be supplied, like those designed to IDF requirements for the third-generation Negev machine guns.
The crawling part of the dry practice run evolved into a wet run very quickly when I entered the mud puddle left here by the recent rains. This time, the scenario involves firing under extreme physical conditions of rain, mud and sandy terrain. The engineering solution is a gas regulator that is easily switchable between 3 positions: firing from a magazine, standard firing using an assault drum, and firing under difficult conditions and at a high rate of fire. Even the drill of replacing the barrel by the second barrel in the mud is accomplished promptly and smoothly. We stand up and move on, this time toward the hills surrounding the range. Here, too, despite the sloping gradient, the machine gun is easy to carry and assuming a sitting firing position, as used in ambush operations in dense vegetation terrain, is simple to accomplish and enables long-term stability.
Owing to the firing limitations of the range, the switch to live fire is carried out under relatively sterile conditions of a firing line and targets positioned at ranges of less than a hundred meters. The manufacturer’s specifications claim an effective range of 600 meters for individual targets and 800 meters for group targets. The fact that the frame is fitted with Picatinny rails on the fixed side and upper parts enables the attachment of an extensive range of devices for various scenarios, without adversely affecting the weapon’s zeroing – laser designators, flashlights and an extensive range of telescopic and reflex sights are just a part of the list of optional toys. Before opening fire, we review the safety mechanisms.
As in the classic Negev machine gun, the frame cover plays a major role and there is no way of slamming a round into the chamber with the frame cover open. The primary mechanism intended to prevent uncontrolled firing was and still remains the “ratchet” mechanism, which has been adapted and reinforced on this weapon. This mechanism compels the gunner to pull the cocking lever (the “apple”) all the way back before firing, so releasing it half way through will not result in an uncontrolled shot. We fire the first rounds from a standard M-16 magazine – one of the advantages of the Negev machine gun, which is suitable for semi-automatic firing (firing single rounds).
The Negev machine gun is the only machine gun that enables semi-automatic firing, which is not a characteristic of the prevailing machine-gun concept, but enables the gunner to focus and engage his targets accurately. This is particularly suitable for urban scenarios, where terrorists have to be engaged very accurately while hiding among the civilian population without inflicting substantial collateral damage or betraying the position of the firing force. The option of using additional loaded magazines supplied by your comrades-in-arms during combat is an obvious advantage.
The next scenario involves firing in the prone position from an assault drum containing a 150-round belt. Inserting the drum and feeding the belt into the weapon are very easy to accomplish. We release the safety catch and switch to fully automatic fire, which leaves the cardboard targets seriously perforated within seconds. Switching from the prone position to the standing position while ensuring that the weapon is set to ‘safe’ is accomplished easily (although one must admit that we are not wearing a Negev machine gunner’s vest loaded with ammunition). We continue with fully automatic fire from the hip while advancing toward the targets, only to ensure that none of the “bandits” has survived the hail of bullets.