March 05, 2013
The Curious Career of the M-14
By David E. Petzal
In the strange and generally disappointing record of U.S. small arms development, no rifle has an odder history than the M-14. The original concept behind it was so addled that Joe Biden could have come up with it—a single weapon that would replace the M-1 Carbine, the M-3 Grease Gun, the M-1 Garand, and the Browning Automatic Rifle. Starting after World War II, and using the Garand as its foundation, the Springfield Armory came up with a modified design that weighed slightly less, held 20 rounds in a detachable box magazine instead of an 8-round clip, and had an option for semi-auto or full-auto fire. It was chambered for the 7.62 NATO cartridge, a more compact version of the .30/06, but with just about the same ballistics.
Production began in 1959, with the new gun designated the M-14. It was not a success. The rifle was nearly twice the size of the M-1 Carbine, nowhere near a .45 ACP submachine gun, hardly any lighter than the Garand, and uncontrollable on full auto, which meant it could not replace the BAR. And that was the good news. The bad news was, as an infantry rifle for the second half of the 20th century, the M-14 was obsolete on the first day it was issued.
But the M-14 had virtues. It was highly reliable. It was powerful. It was accurate, and could be tuned up to be very accurate. In the hands of a good shot, it could lay down a heavy volume of aimed fire.
This was not enough to save it. It was a long-range rifle, and the war which was just around the corner was Vietnam, which was a short-range conflict. In 1966-67, the M-14 was replaced in Vietnam by the M-16, and was dropped as the Army’s issue rifle in 1970. All told, 1.38 million were produced, and into armories they vanished.
And there, by rights, they should have stayed. Except that, as early as the 1970s, Navy SEALs were using M-14s as sniper rifles. They found that it was very useful to have one man in a SEAL platoon armed with a scoped M-14, as he could often do more damage with less gunfire and at longer range than a platoon blazing away with M-16s.
Then came Afghanistan. The average range of engagement, which in Vietnam had probably been under 100 meters, and 200 to 300 or much less in Iraq, suddenly lengthened to 500—800 meters. The many people who did not like us discovered that the 5.56mm round was good to about 400 meters, and all they had to do was stay at twice that distance, shoot at us with whatever would reach, and then clear out before artillery fire or air support could be brought to bear.
In their efforts to turn a Bronze-age dungheap into Greenwich, Connecticut, the Army and Marines came to the same conclusion the SEALs had, but for slightly different reasons—that if you gave a scoped M-14 to one man who could really shoot, he could get results with far less collateral damage than could a whole squad or platoon firing away for all they were worth. The title for this individual was Designated Marksman, or Squad Designated Marksman.
The scoped M-14 was the weapon of choice, but there were problems. Most notably, the fiberglass stocks were too long to be used with body armor, and the rifles could not be fitted with any of the modern sighting devices that were undreamed of in the 1960s. The answer was to discard the conventional stock in favor of an all-aluminum chassis stock that is adjustable for length of pull, and hanging Picatinny rails where the fore-end once was. (There were other changes as well, and to read about them, go to Maj. John Plaster’s excellent article here.)
The result was heavy—14 to 15 pounds, depending on what you hung on it—and extremely accurate. The Army’s version is called the Enhanced Battle Rifle (above), and the Marines produce the Enhanced Marksman’s Rifle (below). When fed match ammo, both will shoot right along with bolt-action sniper rifles. The EBR comes with a Leupold 3.5-10X scope, while the Marines favor a Schmidt & Bender Scout Sniper Day Scope. Both rifles are effective to 800 meters.
Thus we have a paradox. On the one hand, the M-14 has the shortest issue life of any U.S. service rifle. On the other hand, it is back in use 54 years after the first ones were issued. This takes the title for longevity, edging out the 1903 Springfield which was first issued in that year and used as a sniper rifle until 1953 in the Korean War.
Half a century later, the M-14 has morphed into its true place in the world. You can’t keep a good man, or a good rifle, down.