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soldier keeping watch in Iraq with an M249 SAW mounted on the top of his Humvee.]]

n soldier instructs a U.S. Marine in clearing an RPK, a squad automatic weapon variant of the AKM.]]

A squad automatic weapon (SAW, also known as section automatic weapon or light support weapon) is a light or general purpose machine gun, designed to give infantry squads or sections a compact and mobile source of suppressive fire. SAWs are usually equipped with a bipod for stabilization and fire the same cartridge as the assault rifles carried by other members of the unit. This reduces logistical requirements by making it necessary to supply only one type of ammunition to a unit. SAWs are light enough to be carried by one man, as opposed to heavy machine guns such as the Browning M2, which fire more powerful cartridges but require a crew to operate at full effectiveness.

Squad automatic weapons are not used to inflict mass casualties on enemies, but instead to support troops by forcing enemies to take cover and reduce the effectiveness of their return fire. This increases the likelihood of a successful attack against an enemy position by friendly troops. The usefulness of a SAW in the attack is based on its portability and ability to maintain sustained automatic fire. SAWs may also be used in defending friendly positions, but cannot provide a field of fire as effective as that of a tripod-mounted machine gun.

Many SAWs (such as the RPK-74 and L86) are modified assault rifles that have increased ammunition capacity and heavier barrels to withstand continued fire. In the case of some assault rifles, such as the H&K G36, the SAW is simply a variant of the rifle, with a few parts swapped. The most common SAWs in use today are derived from two basic patterns: RPK or FN Minimi. One of the first weapons designed for this role was the M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle, which, though having a limited magazine capacity, was still more than that of the typical infantry rifle, and it gave the infantry a base of fire weapon that was more suited to maneuver warfare than the bulkier machine guns of the period, such as the M1919 Browning machine gun.


Assault rifles often provide a fully automatic setting, but troops too often become excited in combat and waste large amounts of ammunition. Because assault rifles use lower capacity magazines than SAWs, a soldier that uses full-automatic fire will quickly use up his personal ammunition supply, leaving him vulnerable. Therefore, in many modern armies, military doctrine requires the ordinary soldier to avoid using his weapon's fully automatic mode unless defending against a mass assault or an ambush.

This doctrine, by reducing ammunition use, greatly reduces logistic loads; including combat pack weights, aerial resupply, and fuel requirements. It reduces training requirements and expense, and also extends patrol time for a typical soldier.

When applied to civil or irregular militia, this doctrine makes private purchase of ammunition affordable, and allows militia to train and operate with standard military doctrines using nonmilitary repeating rifles. In war time, such lightly-equipped civil militia can be easily upgraded by distributing relatively few SAWs, one per squad, and training.


  • SAWs require less training than medium or heavy automatic weapons. Machine gun training is also cheaper for SAWs than other machine guns because the ammunition is cheaper. SAW doctrine also limits advanced training to the specialists who operate the weapon, further reducing cost.
  • SAWs are more effective than assault rifles in fully automatic mode. Hand-held fully automatic fire is difficult to control and is less likely to hit an incapacitating part of the enemy's anatomy. A SAW usually has a bipod, transmits less recoil due to its greater weight, and is meant to be placed on a surface instead of braced against the body - increasing stability and reducing operator fatigue.
  • SAWs are more reliable than assault rifles under intense firing. Assault rifles are designed to be lightweight, and therefore have less well-reinforced barrels and are prone to overheat or malfunction under the stresses of continuous fully automatic fire. Because it is carried by a designated specialist with a specialized pack load, a SAW can be heavy and sturdier action without burdening the entire squad.

See also



Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



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squad automatic weapon (plural squad automatic weapons)

  1. (military, weaponry) a class of light machine gun ; a machine gun issued to a squad of troops, being heavier than the standard assault rifles, personal machine guns, machine carbines, battle rifles issued per trooper.


Related terms

  • automatic weapon

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