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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.