A History and Evaluation of the M14 and M1A – Part 1

M14 finish

The story of the M14 rifle really began during World War I. Perhaps earlier, but this is a good starting point. The armies of the world went to war with bolt-action rifles. The Mexican Mondragon notwithstanding, bolt-action rifles ruled the battlefield.

Long barrels, heavy actions, and powerful cartridges suitable for engaging troops well past 500 yards were the rule. When the action became crowded in trench warfare and house-to-house fighting, these rifles were less than ideal.

Americans had the famously effective pump-action shotgun and Europeans developed submachine guns (really machine pistols).

Odd creations resulted—by adding a long magazine to the bolt guns, the Luger 33-round snail drum magazine and the American Pedersen device were developed. We learned a great deal about what was needed and what did not work.

Interestingly, the bayonet and hand grenade survived, while other designs did not. The war was won by the Allies and, for the most part, European firearms development was stagnant during the time between world wars.

Oh, there were plenty of ideas, but actual adoption was rare. The warring powers returned to battle with the same rifles they had fought World War I with when World War II broke out 20 years later.

M14 post front sight
This is the post front sight of an M14-type rifle.

Gaining an Edge

In America, the lessons were learned better and development began on a semi-automatic rifle. John C. Garand is an inventor that should rank with John Browning or any other.

His invention gave American infantrymen (and Marines) a tremendous edge against the Axis. The M1 Garand proved powerful, accurate, easy to load quickly and useful in small-unit, close-range actions.

While the Garand is praised for its accuracy and ability at long-range, anyone that has tried the rifle on fast-moving or multiple targets realizes the Garand is a great choice for infantry shootouts.

When the enemy is hit with the .30-06 Springfield, they stay hit. The rifle is fairly quick to reload for those that practice and is robust in action. When World War II began, most armies were armed with bolt-action rifles and a few submachine guns.

We had the BAR and the Brits had the Bren gun for a support base. Some air forces still had biplane aircraft in 1939 and many of those served on for months.

When the war was over, air forces were flying swept-wing jets in small numbers and the first ballistic missiles had been developed. As might be expected, there were hard looks at the battle rifle.

M14 variants
Close variants of the M1 and M14: the Tanker Garand, top, and the M1A Socom, bottom.

Close Quarters

Fast-moving house-to-house fighting in France and Russia, not to mention in the Asian jungles, had shown that a fast-handling rifle with a good magazine capacity was an advantage.

We had the M1 carbine, which was limited in power, and the Russians developed the intermediate 7.62x39mm cartridge. The Russians made great use of the SMG. In America, ordnance units were looking at what had won the last war.

They decided that one rifle might take the place of the SMG, BAR and M1 Garand. While this didn’t prove possible, the modern M4 has replaced the SMG and makes a good stab at being the main battle rifle in some environments.

The Army realized the M1 Garand was a reliable system. Talented gunsmiths modified a Garand to take the Browning Automatic Rifle 20-round magazine and it seemed to work well. The stage was set for a new development.

Simple Calibers

Most of the armies of the world were looking to adopt a less-powerful main battle rifle.

The west did not wish to adopt a lower-powered cartridge such as the 7.62x39mm/7.92×33 Kurz, but realized that with new powder developments, the .30-06 class would be nearly duplicated in a shorter cartridge case.

Notably, a .276 cartridge had at one time been in the works for the Garand, making it a lighter 10-shot 7mm rifle. While the concept has merit, General McArthur rightly killed this development and insisted the rifle be produced in .30-06 Springfield.

We had stores of Springfield and Enfield rifles, as well as ammunition—not to mention all sorts of .30 machine guns in stock. We could not have afforded the logistics problems of feeding diverse calibers.

M14 in action
The M14 type rifles are accurate and reliable in properly maintained examples.

Back to the M14

The new rifle would chamber a shorter .30 cartridge with nearly the same performance as the .30-06. In an interesting twist, the new cartridge was based on the .300 Savage.

After World War I, Savage banked on returning soldiers wanting a .30 hunting rifle.

They shortened the .30-06 and created a semi-rim suitable for use in their Savage 99 lever-action rifle. The .300 Savage, in turn, by 1950 enjoyed an excellent reputation in the game field and seemed ideal for use in the new rifle.

It was modified into the .308 Winchester.

M1A Springfield
This is an early Springfield M1A rifle. It is a great all-around rifle.

Pros and Cons

In Europe, the FN FAL and CETME were developed on the same line of reasoning, but that is a story for another time. The proven M1 Garand was modified to take the .308 Winchester (7.62 NATO ) cartridge.

The T44 that became the M14 was very similar to the M1. The M14 received a new trigger group with fully automatic fire capability. The rifle featured a shorter barrel at 22 inches versus the M1’s 24 inches.

The new design featured a roller on the locking lug to lock into the operating rod, addressing one of the few problems with the M1 Garand in long-time service. The M14 gas system is viewed as a trade-off by many.

While stronger and more robust, the M14 system will accumulate more powder ash in long term use and must be cleaned more often. But the new rifle was a credible upgrade from the M1 Garand and, in my experience, the more reliable in long-term use.

Commercial variants from Springfield Armory, the M1 and M1A, are comparable in reliability and accuracy, while the early M14 rifles were sometimes a victim of cost-cutting. As the story goes, when you have a good one, you really have something!

The new rifle also featured a long flash hider/muzzle brake compared to the M1.

Other Problems

The new rifle was practically uncontrollable in fully automatic fire. As one veteran told me, he never saw the M14 used on full auto in Vietnam.

He opinioned that it might be useful to put it on full auto and shove the muzzle into a bunker and let go, or perhaps the same tactic might be good if you shoved the muzzle into a tank’s viewing port.

Otherwise, the piece was not a good support weapon in full-auto fire. A heavy barrel version with a bipod and pistol grip, the M15 was intended to replace the BAR. It was a little more controllable than the M14 and was not adopted.

The M14 was slowly implemented into service, with many units keeping the Garand well into the 1960s. In 1963, the M14 program was canceled with some 1.3 million rifles produced. The M16 rifle was replacing the M14 for jungle combat use in Vietnam.

The M16 as then issued was a far cry from the highly developed rifle we now trust. There were problems with lubrication and with poorly designed ammunition.

Congress investigated the problem and found that the U.S. Army did things that bordered on ‘criminal negligence.’ The result was that in Vietnam, some continued to lug the reliable M14 over the lighter M16.

M14 battle sights
The battle sights of the original M14 were nearly identical to the M1 Garand.

Into the Sunset

A significant problem was that Marines and soldiers engaged in long-range patrols. A rough estimate is that twice as much ammunition could be carried with the M16 5.56mm NATO for the same weight.

The 5.56mm did not penetrate as well through cover, but it was controllable in fully automatic fire. The M14 soldiered on and was eventually developed into a highly effective sniper rifle.

While the M21 variant was a factory-produced rifle, the majority of rifles currently in use in the designated marksman role are rebuilt M14 rifles.

In a thoughtless and difficult-to-understand act, thousands of M14 rifles were destroyed during the Clinton administration. Others were given to police departments. These lucky officers certainly had great roadblock guns!

I cannot help but reference the millions of 1917 Enfield rifles made for World War I and then put in storage. They were later shipped to Great Britain and China to fight the Axis and today they are in use in Denmark on ski patrol.

Old military rifles may be outdated in modern war, but to the solider with nothing, they are a Godsend!

Testing the M14S
Firing the M14S is a joy. The rifle is accurate and functions like a service rifle should.

Lasting Legacy

The M14 continues in use in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. The rifles are old, but rebuilt and useful in the war on terror. The M14 has served longer than any other military rifle, although its official adoption was the shortest in history!

The M14 is a proud part of American tradition. Unfortunately, the M14 will never be offered as surplus as the rifle is fully automatic. But, Springfield Armory offers an excellent reproduction in the form of the M1A.

We’ll cover that, however, in the second part of the story

About the Author:

Wilburn Roberts

When Wilburn Roberts was a young peace officer, he adopted his present pen name at the suggestion of his chief, as some of the brass was leery of what he might write. This was also adopted out of respect for families of both victims and criminals. The pen name is the same and the man remains an outspoken proponent of using enough gun for the job.

He has been on the hit list of a well-known hate group, traveled in a dozen countries and written on many subjects, including investigating hate crimes and adopting the patrol carbine. He graduated second in his class with a degree in Police Science. It took him 20 years to work himself from Lieutenant to Sergeant and he calls it as he sees it.
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (12)

  1. In 67 I went thru Paris Island with the M14. I shot sharpshooter with it missing expert by 1 point. I went to Nam and was issued a M16 and was sorly disappointed! I experienced many, many jams and it is a wonder it did not cost me my life as I am sure it did many others. I have become an expert at extracting spent casings from the chamber. I. know the current crop of M16 variants and ammo especially have drastically improved and are much more reliable but it is still a mouse round.

  2. 2Bn, 3rd Marines, we only used the M14. We tossed the wretched M16, busted and unusable in the jungle. The truth is, the M16 could be fired easily in automatic, the rounds were lighter, but you used those rounds up way too quickly on automatic. You failed to mention the M16, which uses the same round as the M14. I fired one so long in a firefight that the barrel turned orange-red and had to be replaced. For 18 months I carried the M14 and I still have it, the bayonet, and four mags for it. The next time in battle we had the revised M16 that wouldn’t blow up with a little moisture in the barrel. I used to tape my large capacity mags in to an “s” shape, so that I could quickly keep firing after on mag was spent. I would still rather have the M14 in battle.

  3. I fell in love with my M14 in ROTC, but my TAC sergeant said they were junk in Vietnam. Especially since he liked going on long range patrols and turning Charley’s game back on them. He would load up as many full magazines of 5.56mm and bandoleers as he could and do two man ambushes, where they’d sneak into a camp and go back to back and just start shooting. The chaos and confusion that resulted always ended up the next morning with a high enemy body count. They kept their M16 squeaky clean it is did good service for him.

    Every since then, I’ve figured my FAL or a AR-10 variant was going to end up in my arsenal some day. My FAL certainly does shoot well, and I get MOA with surplus ammo! Nope – an M1A will never see the inside of my vault.

  4. As a Marine, I went through OCS with the M-14 and used the M-14 and M-1 Garand in match shooting. As much as I liked it, I never got around to getting one for myself. I do have an AR-10 clone and I consider it better all around. I am no longer looking for an M-14/M1A for myself; I will stick with the AR-10.

  5. I found your article interesting, but feel you may have missed a few points on the M-14 and M-16. The 101st Airborne proved in the Winter of 1958-59 that that the M-14’s barrel warped in airborne exercises, leaving it unsuitable for use after hitting the ground. It has shown good ground ops service, but usually requires the Israeli 30-round plastic magazine to compete against the 35-round magazines of the now tired AK-47. The M-14-E-1 did have a pistol-grip stock, giving it some ability to imitate the BAR, but the 14-series was a waste on full auto. By the 7th round, the muzzle was straight up in the air; I don’t care if you tied a cinder block to it.
    The M-16 was lighter in weight, but the inadequate caliber, and the Government’s use of slower burning M-14 powder caused the legendary fouling and jams which caused many Marines their lives on Hill 881, among all too many others.
    Unlike the M-14 7.62 ammo, the M-16’s 5.56 was all too easily deflected by jungle underbrush. Regardless of any “Hooplah”, the M-16, and especially the M-4, are the worst weapons the US Government has ever issued, and have been outclassed since their date of issue.

  6. In all the history of the M-14 one part I never see mentioned is that it continued to serve as the service rifle of the Navy into at least the early 90s (when I got out). One advantage that it had was it could be used as a line gun to shoot lines to other ships for things like underway replenishment.

  7. We were Combat Engineers and worked closely with the Infantry in Vietnam. We had the M-14 as a standard-issue, but everybody else was using the M-16. I remember one night on guard duty a Lt. from Infantry asked me to walk him to the next post. He was afraid to go 50 meters with only his M-16 for protection and told me horror stories about that rifle as we walked.
    After 6 months, we moved to the Mekong Delta, and once a month would have a “Mad Minute” where we lined up along the riverbank and fired as much ammo as we could for a minute. It was the only time I fired on full auto, and the rifle rose with each shot. We tried to figure out how it might be best to fire it fully automatic, but never learned the secret.
    I currently own a few AR-15s and enjoy them, but I also have an HK-91in .308 cal. I prefer the larger caliber for man-stopping and the .223 for plinking. The M-14 I carried was the only rifle I ever used when my life depended on it, and it is always going to be my favorite, even if I never handle another one in my life. It was a soldiers rifle and not made of plastic (though they did come out with a black plastic stock).

  8. M14 was great for bayonet fighting.
    Stock was sturdy and enough weight.
    M16 on extended auto burned all the LSA lubes out of the bolt
    and failed to eject.You would see grunts with
    bottles on their helmets.Had to keep bolt pumped full in ‘Nam

  9. As some may have seen
    the is a war on legally owned firearm.
    I myself own two of these great M1A
    One in standard and one in Socom 16
    I love both of these weapons.
    This a part of our history that as
    mentioned above is being taken
    away from us. Please past this
    part of history on to your kids and teach them how important it is to safe this part of our history
    because when it’s gone
    it will be gone forever.
    Semper Fi

  10. Yes, yes. Training with Army 1964 ment having a M14 7.62×51. After 55 years and too many other cheaper rifles, I finally got my dream Springfield Armory M1A1. This is without a doubt the best rifle I have ever had. I now live in Alaska and the 7.62 NATO / 308 is the rifle to carry on the hunt. You never know if you are going to have a distance shot at a moose or caribou, or may runup on an unhappy bear. This gun can easily handle any situation.

  11. I served in the Navy in the early 80s and all the rifles in our armory were semiauto only M14s. SFAIK, once the issue of uncontrolled full auto was realized those capable were only issued as 1 or 2 to a squad in at sort of LMG role.

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