|The M14/M1A - Four Decades of Service|
By way of the extremely accurate Springfield Inc. M1A, the M14 has just finished over 40 years of service.
Over 40 years ago, on May 1, 1957, the Ordnance Department of the United States Army announced that our military services would be armed with a new battle rifle. The rifle would be called the M14, and it was the main service rifle until sometime in the late 1960s when we switched to the revolutionary M16. The M14 was the most common U.S. rifle of the early Vietnam War. While the production life of the M14 was relatively short - from 1957 until 1964 - don't assume there was any major fault with this rifle. Quite the contrary. There have been a number of instances since Vietnam when special missions have demanded the unique characteristics of the M14 and out of storage they came. Along with the M14, GIs learned to work with a new cartridge called the 7.62 NATO, or 7.62x51mm. In the developmental stages, the cartridge was called the T65, and it was really the .308 Winchester that Winchester had been selling commercially since 1952.
Some M14 rifles are presently in civilian hands with the blessing of the authorities, but the originals were equipped for full-auto fire and require the tax stamp, etc. For that reason Springfield Inc. (Dept. ST, 420 W. Main St., Geneseo, IL 61254) produces a semiauto rifle that is completely civilian-legal. For the purposes of evaluating the whole system, I obtained a fully equipped version of the Springfield. It's called the M1A, and it's the rifle you see on these pages. Aside from nostalgic veterans, the main market for M1As is shooters who take on the challenges of service rifle matches. The firing line at Camp Perry has dozens of M1As in attendance during the National Matches every summer, and Springfield's well-illustrated catalog shows a number of variations of this rifle, including bush rifle, scout rifle, police tactical rifle, and National Match varieties. I chose the National Match version for evaluation here.
"Aside from nostalgic veterans, the main market for M1As is shooters who take on the challenges of service rifle matches."
Before I get to the results of my shooting test, I'd like to share a bit of background on both the rifle and the 7.62mm NATO cartridge with you. Oddly enough, the cartridge was officially declared to be the service rifle (and light machinegun) cartridge before we had decided on a firearm to deliver it. NATO trials for a common service cartridge were underway in the early 1950s, with the two major contenders being the U.S.-developed 7.62mm round and the British-designed .280 British. Eventually the American entry won out and went into service rifles of the NATO alliance. That includes the excellent FAL, or L1A1, rifle developed by FN and used by many NATO countries.
Winchester had been marketing guns and ammo under the .308 label since '51 or '52. Essentially the .308 (or 7.62mm NATO) is a radically shortened (about 12mms) version of the .30-06 that had served U.S. servicemen well in Springfield, Enfield, and Garand rifles during both World Wars and the Korean conflict. For all practical purposes, though, the 7.62mm NATO round and the M14 rifle story began in 1957 when we adopted the rifle and the M60 machinegun as the main infantry weapons. Because of the 7.62's shortened case, it had a somewhat reduced case capacity. This led to something like 100 fps less velocity, which worried some critics of the round. But over the 40 years that the 7.62mm NATO has been used, ammunition development has been such that the velocity gap between the two cartridges has closed and their practical performance, at least with service ammunition, is virtually indistinguishable. Since the 7.62 cartridge is smaller and lighter, the same amount of 7.62 ammo is easier to carry; that's important to an already overburdened infantryman. Early on it became obvious that the 7.62mm cartridge was at least as good a round as the older '06, possibly even better.
The rifle was a different story.
In my experience there were four major problems with the M14 as we used it in the '65 to '66 era in Vietnam. First, the White gas system used on the M14 dated to a rifle of the 1920s. Under ideal conditions it worked pretty well, but it required more frequent cleaning and was a little harder to take down for cleaning as opposed to the gas cylinder lock screw system of the M1. Second, the magazines for the M14 were somewhat fragile, particularly in light of the flimsy one-magazine pouches we were issued to carry them in. Hit the deck hard and you stood a good chance of bending the feed lips of a fully loaded magazine on your belt. Third, the blasted flash suppressor mounted on the end of the barrel was forever getting out of alignment, and accuracy went out the window whenever it did. All three problems were resolved by improvements in the rifles and the way we went about carrying and using them. The fourth problem wouldn't go away then, and it hasn't gone away to the present day. In the early stages of the transition from M1 to M14, there was supposed to be a special version of the new rifle intended to replace that beloved old BAR. This gun was to be called the M15, and it was really nothing more than an M14 with a super-heavy bull barrel. As it developed, the M15 was scrapped, and we used the M14 with a folding bipod and full-auto selector for the squad automatic rifle. Big mistake--if ever there was a truly uncontrollable full-auto firearm, the M14 was it. It's too light and has too high a cyclic rate for the 7.62mm NATO round. As a result, the gun jumped around all over the place. A GI was far better off to simply leave the gun on semiauto.
Looking back on all of this, it's obvious that the M14 had growing pains like all firearms systems, and we never really got a chance to work out the kinks. The M16 story began in the early 1960s and all of our infantry was armed with them by 1967, thereby shoving the M14s out to pasture. As mentioned earlier, the production life of the M14 was short, and its widespread service life was only marginally longer. I have been told that the Special Operations people use them quite extensively, and the open-country fighting of the Gulf War was a fitting setting for the long-range performance characteristics of the M14 and its excellent 7.62mm NATO round. But the M14's life as a competition rifle continues to the present day; the biggest reason for that is availability of the excellent Springfield Inc. M1A.
This article was originally published in Shooting Times magazine.