U.S. Rifle, cal. 7.62mm, M14

By David Tong

Springfield Armory Standard M1A rifle
Illustration courtesy of Springfield Armory.

After the adoption by the U.S. Air Force of the Eugene Stoner designed AR-15 and 5.56mm M193 ball cartridge in 1964, the rest of the U.S. military followed suit by abandoning the .30 caliber battle rifle shortly thereafter. The M14 thus became the shortest-lived service rifle in our history. Or is it? Officially adopted in 1957 and type-replaced in 1964, though the Marines issued it as late as 1968 for service in Vietnam.

The gestation of the M14 is pretty well known. In summary, after the foundation of the NATO alliance in the late '40s, there was a move to standardize small arms munitions. Britain had experimented with an intermediate cartridge of ".280 bore" in their EM1 and EM2 bullpup rifles to counter the ComBloc 7.62X39mm round used in the AK-47.

U.S. Army Ordnance officials were unhappy with this state of affairs. Possibly some of which was due to the "not invented here" syndrome that is a part of any country's arms procurement strategy, so they developed a cartridge based on experiments with the .300 Savage known as the "T65." (The civilian version of the T65 was named the .308 Winchester.)

The ballistics of the new cartridge were identical to those of the previous 150 grain .30-06 military ball load. The new cartridge came in a case 51mm long, as opposed to the '06s 63mm case length, and with a sharper shoulder, but shared the same .473" diameter rim. It weighed about 10% less than the military version of the .30-06, which meant that about that many more rounds could be airlifted on a given flight.

At the same time, FN had developed, under the auspices of M. Dieudonne Saive, the rifle to be known the world over as the FAL, or Fusil Automatique Legere ("light automatic rifle"). With some political maneuvering, the U.S. was able to impress upon the new NATO alliance that since it was the most efficient ammo producing country in time of war, if NATO would adopt the T65 cartridge, we would adopt the FN rifle. NATO duly did this in 1952, calling the new round the 7.62mm NATO.

The FN rifles offered during the Army trials in the early to mid '50s were called T-48s and differed from later FALs only in the use of wooden stocks and hand guards. There were some issues relating to the Belgian use of the metric system and the American inch production system that worked itself out, but Army Ordnance still pressed forward with what became the T-44, and eventually the M14.

It was thought that since the Army's Springfield Armory was already tooled up for the M-1 Garand rifle of W.W.II and Korea fame, some money could be saved by the standardization of small parts between them. In fact, only about 25% of the parts interchanged at best, as in extractors, ejectors, their springs, plungers and cross pins, rear sight apertures and windage/elevation knobs, and so on.

Long story short, we adopted the M14 after selling NATO on the new .30 round, knowing full well that modern infantry tactics that included selective fire capability would prove to be near impossible for either the FAL, the M-14 or the German Heckler & Koch G-3 due to severe recoil and muzzle climb.

There was a squad automatic variant known as the M14A1 that featured a high-combed, pistol-gripped stock with a forward-folding aluminum grip and a muzzle compensator that afforded somewhat better full auto control. The Army also developed the M14 into the M21 sniper variant; essentially an M14 National Match rifle that had optical sights installed over the receiver and also retained the standard iron sights.

M14 rifles were built by Harrington and Richardson, Springfield Armory (the government arsenal, not the commercial company that copied the name), Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge (TRW) and Winchester. A number of subcontractors supplied small parts and major components such as barrels, Saco-Maremont being one of the latter.

In the jungles of Vietnam, where the M14 saw its first baptism of fire, the weapon was considered too long in the dense bush. Since most engagements took place at less than 150 meters, the Army mandated selector lock that precluded full auto fire. This created a firepower disparity against the VC and the NVA regulars. Couple that with the heavy ammunition carried in steel magazines, the humidity which caused the wood stocks to swell (even though the rifle later received a fiberglass stock), and given the firepower tactics of the day, the handwriting was on the wall. Thus, the M16 began to replace the M14 in the mid-'60s and we haven't looked back since, right?

Fast forward to the mid-1980s. The Marines have long been exponents of individual riflemen being able to produce hits, not burst noise. Their "product improved" M16A2 with its faster twist barrel designed for heavier 62 grain projectiles, coupled with highly optimistic 800 meter sights, was adopted during the Reagan years. The A2, with it's standard 20" barrel and the M855 "penetrator" round, proved to be acceptably adequate on the battlefield, although the rifle itself was still maintenance intensive and certainly dust and sand sensitive.

The U.S. Navy had never abandoned the M14. It is still a standard arm in ships' arms lockers, and it continued to be used by the SEALs, though often the only purpose it served was to shoot lines between ships to facilitate the transfer of fuel oil hoses. In addition, the Marines had continued to quietly develop semi-accurized "designated marksman rifles." These stopped short of Scout Sniper capability but allowed for longer effective range and superior terminal ballistics compared to the 5.56 round.

In the War on Terrorists, the desert conditions and long ranges first encountered in Afghanistan have underscored the shortcomings of the current general issue 14.5" barreled M4 carbine and the M855 rounds they fire. Many reports have come back from Special Ops and regular infantry units complaining that the short barrels unacceptable decrease the velocity, range and stopping power (never plentiful) of the .22 caliber round.

Although the U.S. Government had sold the M14 production tooling to Taiwan in 1969, and the Clinton Administration destroyed hundreds of thousands of the rifles and sent approximately 170,000 more to arm the Balkan countries and Israel, remaining U.S. inventories of M14s were quickly sent to the Near East. There they have proven to be effective at ranges of 300-600 meters, especially with the M118LR ("long range") cartridge using 175 grain Sierra Match King bullets. Even standard 1950s technology M82 (147grain FMJBT) rounds serve well in a pinch. It comes as no surprise that firing into what the enemy considers "cover" is also more effective, due to the markedly higher energy and better penetration of the .30 caliber bullets (compared to 5.56mm).

When one handles the M14 or its civilian counterpart, the (civilian) Springfield Armory Inc. M1A, you know you have in your hands a weapon from a different era. First, the family resemblance to the 1937 M-1 Garand is striking despite the lack of parts interchangeability, and the manual of arms save closing the bolt (thankfully) is the same. The bolt locks into receiver mortises, and both are made of machined steel from a casting (M1A) or forging (M14). Barrels are threaded into the receiver, and most civilian and match rifles based upon this action wear wood furniture.

It differs from the M-1 most notably in two areas. One is its use of a detachable 20-round staggered row magazine, and the second is a gas cylinder system moved six inches behind the muzzle. The latter is supposed to be a less "abrupt" and more accurate way to deliver gas to cycle the piston and action.

In addition, the hinged buttplate was supposed to allow a more stable prone firing position. The flash suppressor, which incorporates both the dovetailed front sight base and a bayonet lug, added to the overall length of the rifle by about three inches and strongly resembled the original FN suppressor in appearance and effectiveness.

Personally, I am of a mind preferring somewhat larger bore cartridges for "social work," be they .45ACP in my pistol, or .30 in my rifles. Since I am not a member of a firepower team in an infantry squad, the .30 bore to me offers a pretty good compromise between terminal effectiveness in hunting situations, tolerable recoil, and good long range accuracy to the limits of the bullet's supersonic trajectory.

In absolute terms though, as much as I admire the M14, it has its quirks for rifle competition. Not least of these is the need to stabilize the wood stock via action bedding, which complicates field stripping for cleaning unless special "steel bed" compound is used, or using a similarly fitted synthetic stock. Magazine changes are slower compared to an AR-15 type, as they need to be rocked into the well forward end first, in the manner of the FAL or AK.

Due to the ease of fitting barrels and isolating them from firing harmonics with the use of a so-called "float tube" under stock appearing hand guards, a barrel free of heavy reciprocating parts, the development of 77 grain match bullets, and a course of fire that allows for the single loading of rounds that would otherwise be too long to work in their magazines, the AR-series rifles have dominated Camp Perry and the local high power club events for about a decade. (Not surprising, as the less a rifle kicks the more accurately it can be fired. Matches, however, are not combat. -Ed.)

Firing the M1A is fairly pleasant. The weapon, at 8.7 pounds empty, is also fitted with a rather large buttplate that spreads recoil onto your shoulder over a larger than normal surface area, and the gas operation undoubtedly cuts it more. Triggers on your typical rack grade rifle run between 5-6 slightly creepy pounds with the usual two-stage take-up. Match rifles retain the two-stage pull but have a crisp release set at 4.75 pounds.

The rifle fits most shooters best when using iron sights, due to the low comb height and the need to have a conventionally mounted scope placed relatively high over the ejection port for proper functioning. McMillan Stocks in Arizona has been building fiberglass stocks for the M14 for the Marines and civilian shooters for decades, and some feature adjustable combs to provide a proper cheek weld for scope use, though such stocks are not permitted in NRA Service Rifle competition.

The Marines currently field the M14 as a Designated Marksman Rifle (DMR), using a McMillan stock resembling the M14A1 pistol-grip design. Army units such as the 2nd Infantry Division are now using a more G.I. conventional stock with a removable cheek rest in Operation Iraqi Freedom; again, this is for longer-range, precision shooting.

The rifle, with its 22-inch barrel is, by modern standards, rather long and heavy for general issue. Or maybe we've just gotten softer over the years. How many generations of troops worldwide carried a 9+ pound infantry rifle?

Finally, the cartridge selection process that led to the 7.62mm NATO and then the 5.56mm NATO may be coming full circle to that British .280. Some special units of the U.S. military are now fielding the 6.8mm (.277") Remington SPC round, which offers comparable trajectory to the 7.62mm, similar terminal ballistics, lighter recoil, and lower cost per round. This new cartridge easily out performs the 5.56mm NATO and 7.62x39 AK round. It would be especially amusing if the military were to field a bullpup rifle to go with it to replace the 5.56mm M16/M4! What goes around, comes around.

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