By Charlie Cutshaw, dec’d
Florence, Alabama – -(Ammoland.com)- As World War II progressed, the Army identified some serious issues with the M1 Rifle, despite its otherwise excellent performance.
First, the magazine capacity was limited to only eight rounds; second, it was extremely difficult to accomplish a tactical reload – i.e. top off the magazine during a lull in the fighting. In order to do this, the entire clip had to be ejected along with the remaining rounds and a new one inserted.
Not only was this time consuming, but wasted ammo.
Finally, when the last round was fired, the empty clip was ejected along with the spent casing with a loud “DING” that announced to anyone within hearing that the rifle was empty, which the Japanese used to their advantage during the Pacific Campaign. As preparations progressed for the invasion of Japan, the Army addressed these issues by developing a select-fire version of the M1 designated T20E2, essentially a M1 with a 20 round detachable magazine that could be reloaded either via stripper clips or by changing magazines. The Army actually placed orders for 500,000 T20E2s, but when the war ended in August 1945, the order was canceled.
By the 1950s, the Army was looking for a replacement for the M1 and went through a series of experimental rifles and new cartridges to replace not only the M1 Rifle but the .30-06 cartridge. Space precludes going into the many experimental rifles that the Army considered, but the final T44 rifle that eventually became the M14 was nothing more than a T20E2 with a gas system borrowed from another experimental rifle designated T37. The M14s gas system can be traced to the World War II experimental M1E9, so the M14 really incorporated nothing new in its overall design.
Interestingly, the Italian firm of Beretta borrowed a page from the T20E2 by modifying license produced M1s into 7.62mm NATO rifles by simply turning the barrel back just enough to accommodate the new NATO cartridge and modifying the M1 to accept a 20 round magazine. This rifle was fielded as the select fire BM-59, although a semiautomatic only version designated BM-59E was also manufactured.
In retrospect, it seems that the Army might well have been better off if it had followed the path Beretta took and simply converted some of the millions of M1s it had on hand, rather than spending huge amounts of taxpayer dollars to develop a “new” rifle that was, in the final analysis, nothing but a product improved M1 Garand. In fact, Springfield Armory’s designation for its commercial M1A is more appropriate than the Army’s M14 designation. As far as the new 7.62x51mm (.308 Winchester) cartridge was concerned, it was really no more than a shortened .30-06 round that gave ballistics nearly equal to the older cartridge in a smaller package due to advances in the propellant. Although the 7.62x51m cartridge was marginally lighter in weight than the .30-06, the weight difference between the M1 and M14 was negligible. So the bottom line is that while the Army fielded the M14 as a new, lighter-weight rifle, the M14 is actually about the same weight as its predecessor and has similar ballistic performance. The M14 was officially adopted in 1957, but rifles did not begin to reach troops in the field until 1959.
During the early days of my military service as a US Army Infantry officer in the 4th Infantry Division, we had M14s as standard issue and as a rifle platoon leader, I was issued an M14, just like my soldiers. I actually preferred the M14 to the M1 that I used in basic training because it just “felt better.”
Felt recoil was about the same and I really liked having that 20 round magazine. Although all of our M14’s had the provision for select-fire, only two men per 11 man squad were equipped with select-fire rifles – modified M14s designated M14E2, later redesignated M14A1. These rifles had modified pistol grip stocks that, along with a muzzle compensator, in theory, reduced felt recoil and muzzle rise. The fact is that M14s, even M14E2s were impossible to control on full auto and were all but useless in that mode, even when the shooter tried to enhance his control by firing in short bursts. Thankfully, since I was in a mechanized Infantry battalion, each squad’s M113 “track” also had an M2 .50 caliber and M60 7.62mm machine guns, the latter of which was much more effective in delivering suppressive fire on enemy troops than the M14E2.
During my Infantry time I never saw a “grunt” M14 with the selector switch installed. That isn’t to say there weren’t any, I just never saw any.
The bottom line is that as an automatic weapon, the M14 rifle was just about worthless and in my personal opinion should have been semiautomatic only right from the beginning.
Although early M14s had accuracy issues, the rifle was later developed into an effective sniper weapon, the M21. When the M14 was adopted, there was no real Army sniper program. Designated sniper positions in Infantry units had been eliminated and thus no provision was made for a sniper version of the new rifle. By the time the United States became heavily involved in Vietnam, this had changed and the Army began work to develop a sniper version of the M14. Again, space precludes a detailed history of the M21 program, but suffice it to say that the rifle that was adopted as the M21 in 1969 was a very different rifle from the standard M14. Each M21 was essentially hand-built by armorers at the Army’s Advanced Marksmanship Unit (AMU) at Fort Benning, Georgia. Each was also fitted with a 3-9 power Adjustable Ranging Telescope (ART) that gave snipers the ability to hit targets as far distant as 600 meters and beyond with near 100 percent certainty. On the downside, the custom-made, hand-built M21 was more difficult to maintain than a standard M14 and regular teardown for cleaning and maintenance contributed to the loss of accuracy.
Almost as soon as M14s began getting into the hands of troops, however, a new rifle appeared that would replace the M14 and become the longest-serving rifle in United States history – the AR-15/M16. For reasons that again are beyond the scope of this essay, M14 production was terminated in 1963. The M16 was first issued on a limited basis about that time in Vietnam and by the end of the decade, the M14 had officially been replaced by the M16A1.
Total M14 production was 1,380,358 rifles. Of these, 450,000 were transferred to foreign countries, but some 750,000 were destroyed during the Clinton administration. (Thanks, Bill!) As of 2004, only 170,000 M14s remained in storage.
Other than the .30-40 Krag, the M14 had the unhappy distinction of being the shortest-lived standard service rifle in American history and while the M14’s military career was apparently was over almost before it had begun, the rifle was far from dead.
With the involvement of the US Army and Marine Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan, problems arose with the standard M16 Rifles and M4 Carbines. Both had reliability issues brought about in part by sand the consistency of talcum powder that gets into everything, including the M4/M16 reciprocating parts. The M16 family requires relatively heavy lubrication to function and the lube acts as a “dust magnet,” necessitating intensive maintenance.
Worse, the 5.56mm bullet has poor penetrating power against the brick walls so frequently encountered in the “sandbox.” The result of these issues was the withdrawal of every remaining M14 rifle from storage and their being issued to troops who appreciate the rifle’s reliability and the “stopping power” of the larger 7.62mm round. The demand for M14s has been such that not only has every M14 in storage been withdrawn, but M14s loaned to civilian law enforcement agencies are being recalled to military service. Spare parts for M14s have all but dried up. Special Forces have an M14 of their own, designated the Mark 14, Mod 0 Enhanced Battle Rifle (EBR). This rifle, based on a shortened M14, is mounted in a Sage Engineering modular stock, turning the old soldier into a true modular rifle capable of mounting all the modern accessories used by Special Forces troops. A commercial version of this rifle is manufactured by Fulton Armory. The Marines also used M14s as the basis for their Squad Designated Marksman Rifle.
In short, the M14 has a new lease on life, which begs the question of why not reinstitute M14 production? Despite its popularity, the possibility of manufacturing M14s in numbers sufficient to meet military demands is all but out of the question. The M14, more appropriately M1A, is basically a 70-year-old design and is expensive to manufacture. All one has to do is check the prices for a Springfield or Fulton Armory M14 clone to see that these rifles aren’t cheap and neither of these companies is capable of producing M14s in numbers needed for military use.
Although it is fairly well-known that the Marine Corps is seeking a replacement for the M16, possibly in 7.62x51mm, chances are that the new rifle will be a more modern design using 21st Century materials and production technology. In the final analysis, the M14 has returned and will probably be in service for many years to come, despite having been officially replaced over 40 years ago.
There will never be another military rifle like the M14; it was the last United States military firearm to incorporate the traditional “lock, stock, and barrel” concept that was the mainstay of American rifle production for nearly 200 years.
Welcome back, old friend!
About Charlie Cutshaw
Charlie Cutshaw passed in 2011 and was a well-known U.S. authority on military small arms had extensive experience as a former U.S. Army infantry, ordnance ammunition, and intelligence officer. He was the editor for Jane’s Infantry Weapons and contributing author for other military and firearms publications. When not writing Charlie was a part-time police officer in Alabama. Si vis pacem, para bellum MOLON LABE!