The Rise, Fall and Rise of the M14
October 30, 2012
Practically all of our greatest 20th century military rifles have not only been known for their long-term success on the battlefield but have gone on to achieve further fame in the hands of civilians. Witness the 1903 and 1903A3 Springfields, the M1 Garand, the M1 carbine and the M16. Not so much with the M14. In spite of the fact that it was actually an improved version of the M1 Garand — the World War II rifle that Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. called "The greatest battle implement ever devised" — it served our armed forced the shortest time of any of our battle rifles.
Its tenure as an issued military weapon lasted only from 1957 until 1964, when production was halted with just 1,380,874 rifles made. This modest record is even more astonishing when one realizes it was John Garand, the father of the M1, who actually improved his original M1 design. His changes evolved into the T-20 experimental rifle, and subsequently the T-44 and finally the M14 — or "United States Rifle, 7.62 mm, M14," as it was ultimately christened.
And even though fully loaded it was two pounds heavier than the Garand, in many ways the M14 was vastly superior. For one thing, it was chambered for the 7.62x51 NATO cartridge (which became the civilian .308 Winchester), making it compatible with rifles of other NATO signatories.
It also bested the older M1's eight-round clip capacity by utilizing a 20-round detachable magazine. This increased firepower could be further enhanced by semiautomatic or full-auto capability via a selector switch on the right side of the receiver.
In addition, a modified gas expansion cut-off system utilized a shorter operating rod and modified upper handguard and fore-end, thus making for a more compact weapon in spite of its increased weight. But perhaps the most notable asset was the accuracy and range of the M14 — with verified kills common out to 500 yards and often well beyond.
Once Springfield Armory started production, some of the first M14s were sent to the celebrated 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles. But until the Vietnam war heated up, deployment of the new rifle was relatively slow, and I can remember going through Advanced Infantry Training and Officer's Candidate School back in the '60s and training with M1s, while only getting a one-day familiarization course with the M14.
Still, any soldier familiar with the Garand felt pretty much at home once he got an M14 in his hands because the buttstock and rear sights were practically clones of the M1, and the rifle broke down into its three main components the same way.
Originally the stocks were made of walnut but were soon changed to birch, which was not only less expensive to manufacture but more durable. The fiberglass upper handguard, however, caused some of us a bit of consternation, as we likened them to "toys." It should be noted that initially these upper handguards were made of wood, but the heat generated by the NATO round during rapid fire actually caused some of these guards to char. Ventilated fiberglass upper handguards were also tried but proved too brittle in battle, their macho appearance notwithstanding.
The M14 also had another flaw that, like the early rapid-fire campfire smell, was also due to its hard-hitting cartridge. Because of its full-auto capability, it was assumed the M14 would eventually replace not just the M1 Garand but the M2 Carbine, the M3 "grease gun" and the Browning Automatic Rifle as well. But it was soon discovered that firing the M14 in its fully automatic mode of 750 rounds per minute shook both shooter and weapon to the point of ineffectiveness.
Sustained recoil wasn't the only culprit; in full auto, the M14 had a nasty tendency to climb right off the target. In fact, firing even as few as three quick bursts would result in a dramatically (and sometimes dangerously) elevated muzzle, lobbing rounds where they weren't supposed to go. Thus, a small cylindrical selector switch lock was eventually used to permanently disable the full-auto capability on the majority of M14s issued to troops.
But rapid-fire recoil wasn't what led to the M14's short initial military career. If anything, the gun was highly revered for its long-range accuracy and its reliable, jam-resistant action. Rather, it was the fact that then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara considered the wood-and-steel rifle ill-suited for the close-in, humidity-soaked rigors of the Vietnam war.
Concurrent with this was the Small Caliber High Velocity program, which resulted in Eugene Stoner developing a light 5.56 NATO-firing rifle with selective-fire capability. As a result, by 1964 all further purchases of the M14 were halted, and while it was still retained in South Korea and for some European NATO operations, it was replaced with the then-untried M16 (although it is interesting to note that some Marine units continued to hang on to their M14s in Vietnam right through the Tet Offensive).
Nonetheless, by the 1990s, literally hundreds of thousands of M14s — rifles previously made not only by Springfield Armory but also by Winchester, Harrington & Richardson, and Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge — had been demilled. Others were shipped to our allies overseas, or sold to appreciative law enforcement organizations on the home front. Within our armed forces, the M14 continued in limited designated marksman roles and as a sniper weapon. Its accuracy was also useful on board naval vessels, where it excelled at detonating floating mines.
In addition, Army shooting team gunsmiths, as part of the Army Marksmanship Unit, started to rebuild and fine-tune the M14s capabilities even further, making it a rifle that was "much more refined than that used by the average soldier," to quote from the government's M14 Rifle Accurization manual.
As a result, between Springfield Armory, TRW and Rock Island Arsenal, almost 20,000 National Match versions (upgraded from the standard service rifle and capable of semiautomatic fire only) were produced between 1962 and 1967. Thus, even though it was no longer our official battle rifle, dramatic improvements in the M14's range and accuracy had a trickle-down effect with civilian shooters as well, as more gunsmith-enhanced National Match rifles began showing up in service rifle competitions. Not surprisingly, the subsequent appearance in 1974 of the Illinois-based Springfield Armory's National Match M1A — a semi-automatic only version of the M14 — enjoyed overwhelming success.
And then a funny thing happened on the way to the sandbox. With the escalation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was discovered that the M16 wasn't all that adept at long-range shots and functioning during sandstorms. On the other hand, even with dirt and dust, the M14 excelled in hits out to 750 yards, especially with its magazine stoked with 175-grain M118 Long Range sniper cartridges.
As a result, practically all of the rifles that still remained in storage were called back to duty, where they have been serving with distinction ever since. Today, of course, the evolving tactics of modern warfare have resulted in previously unknown M14 accessories, such as lasers, night vision optics, telescoping stocks and Picatinny rails.
In its civilian guise as the semiautomatic M1A (distinctive from the military M14, which has both full- and semi-auto capabilities) this rifle exists in almost as many versions as its military counterpart.
It's important to note that the term "M1A" has been trademarked by Springfield Armory. Thus, only rifles made by Springfield Armory or utilizing their receivers can legally be called "M1As."
Plus, firms such as James River Armory and Fulton Armory build M1As with receivers that are stamped M14 — a designation that prohibits their importation in certain states like New Jersey. In other states, it is the bayonet lug or flash suppressor that restricts them (the flash hider is often substituted with a muzzle brake to make them compliant in states such as California).
Obviously, 10-round magazines are substituted for the 20-round version in states with mag-cap limits. On the flip side, it should be noted that Check Mate Industries currently makes a 25-round magazine, which is issued to the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Given all these parameters, today there is virtually a plethora of M1A variants — with firms such as LRB Arms, James River Armory and Smith Enterprise Inc. offering forged receivers, while others, including Springfield Armory and Fulton Armory, producing M1As with cast receivers.
There is an ongoing controversy as to which type of receiver is best. Forged receivers cost more, and the fact is few of us will ever fire enough rounds in our M1As to notice the difference between cast or forged. On the other hand, if you want a top-of-the-line, custom-built ultimate M1A, and plan to do a decent amount of competition shooting with it, I'd recommend going the forged receiver route.
That said, I have test fired hundreds of rounds through a variety of M14/M1A rifles from numerous manufacturers, using both forged and cast receivers, and have never noticed a difference in how the guns handled. Quality internal parts and a top-of-the-line barrel (those made by Krieger, Criterion and Smith Enterprise are two that immediately come to mind) are of far more importance.
Today one of the most popular one-stop shops for an M1A is Springfield Armory, which offers the standard issue-type rifle with 22-inch barrel, walnut, black synthetic or Mossy Oak stocks, as well as an adjustable-cheekpiece M21 civilian version of the Army's sniper rifle.
There's also the hugely popular SOCOM, a close-quarters version with 16.25-inch barrel. It's available in a variety of stock options. The company's SOCOM II comes with the firm's proprietary Cluster Rail System — top and bottom Picatinny rails for mounting optics and accessories — and Springfield also makes an optional quad rail for those who simply can't put enough stuff on their rifles.
On the other end of the spectrum, Fulton Armory's Mk14 Mod 0 EBR (Enhanced Battle Rifle) comes with a Sage Industries aluminum telescoping Designated Marksman stock with adjustable cheekpad and a Picatinny rail. It's a ready-to-go semiauto-only version of the highly modified M14 that was designed for Navy SEALs.
Customizing Your M1A/M14
For those who already have an M1A and want to enhance it further, J. Allen Enterprises makes a JAE-100 G3 drop-in aluminum-framed fiberglass stock that will noticeably change the look of your M1A while adding three recoil-reducing pounds to your rifle. But it will also increase its accuracy dramatically while completely eliminating the need for glass bedding.
Along more traditional lines, for those with M1A rifles using G.I. stocks with the original selector switch cutout, Fulton Army offers a realistic-looking, non-functioning dummy selector switch.
The effectiveness of the M1A — specifically in the accuracy department — has been further enhanced with improvements in ammunition, with Hornady's .308 Superformance 150-grain GMX and Winchester's 120-grain .308 PDX1 being two of the newest examples.
Plus there are countless aftermarket accessories, including optical mounting platforms by Atlantic Research Marketing Systems (A.R.M.S.), modstocks and Picatinny rail systems by VLTOR, National Match springs from Sadlak, muzzle brakes from Surefire and Young Manufacturing, and tactical sights by firms such as Trijicon, Aimpoint and Leupold.
Indeed, as it continues marching steadily into the 21st century, the M14/M1A has gradually been transformed into a state-of-the-art battle rifle that, in many cases, even John Garand might no longer recognize. And although the Army is now searching for a replacement for its current Stoner-based M4 carbine, it looks like the M14/M1A rifle is going to be around for a long, long time.