The M14 rifle was officially adopted by the US military in 1957 and was replaced in service as a primary infantrymen’s rifle in 1967, making it the shortest-serving American military rifle. Its development, production, and service were plagued by numerous problems, and the M14 can be considered the example study case of how not to adopt a military rifle.
The story of the M14 rifle began as early as 1944, during the height of World War 2. By that time American ordnance experts finally discovered that the standard .30 M2 rifle cartridge (also known as .30-06 or 7.62x63mm) was too long and heavy for its power level, and by using modern ball powders the cartridge dimensions and weight could be decreased without sacrificing its power and ballistic properties.
In parallel with this discovery, a lot of work was done to improve the US M1 Garand rifle, which was too heavy and bulky, and had an insufficient magazine capacity of only 8 rounds. Several experimental rifles, semi-automatic and select-fire, were developed in the USA toward the end of WW2.
One of such prototypes was the T20 rifle (“T” means “test”) of 1944. The T20 was basically the M1 Garand rifle fitted with detachable 20 rounds BAR magazine and with selective fire capability.
Work on a lighter and shorter cartridge, which intensified shortly after the end of WW2, produced a series of new rounds with case lengths of 47 – 51 mm, as compared to the 63mm case length of the .30 M2 cartridge. Suggestions from Britain and Belgium to adopt a reduced power intermediate cartridge, such as the .280 (7x43mm) round, designed in the UK and used in the British EM2 and early FN FAL rifles, was rejected by US Ordnance outright. American ordnance officers, then under the leadership of Colonel Rene Studler, firmly believed in the ability of an average GI to fire accurately at ranges of up to 1000 yards (910 meters) and insisted on keeping ballistic properties and effective range of the older .30-06 round. The final version of the new American round, the 7.62mm T65E4, was adopted by NATO in 1954 and is now known as the 7.62x51mm NATO. It must be noted that the work on a new American military rifle was well underway by that time, under auspices of the “.30 caliber Lightweight Rifle” program, conducted at the state-owned Springfield Armory.
The first light rifle to be tested with the T65 cartridge was the T25 rifle, designed by Earle Harvey at the Springfield Armory. It was a gas-operated, select-fire rifle with a detachable magazine, an inline stock, and a “cut-off” type gas system. However, this rifle failed trials, same as its later improved T47 version, which lost trials to the newest Belgian FN FAL rifle in 1951.
As a result, in 1951 Springfield Armory initiated a new rifle development, designated as T44. Early T44 rifles were cobbled together from older T20 rifle parts, using spacers to fill the gaps in the receivers due to the shorter length of the T65 cartridge, as compared to the .30-06. Early T44 rifles also fared badly against the FN FAL in trials of 1954 – 1956, and Americans were almost ready to give up and adopt the “inch-pattern” FN FAL rifle, known during the testing as the T48. However, during the Arctic trials, the T44 proved to be more reliable than the FN FAL. So it was decided to keep the work on the T44, as it promised to be lighter than the FN FAL, with fewer parts. The external layout of T44 rifle was felt to be better suited to American needs, and, last but not least, the T44 was of American origin, while the FN FAL was a foreign design. Another major factor favoring the T44 as compared to the T48 / FN FAL was its similarity to the older and well-established M1 Garand rifle in both handling and parts design, which, theoretically, promised significant time and effort savings in preparation for manufacture and troops training.
As a result, the T44 rifle was officially adopted n 1957 in two versions – the T44E4 was adopted as the M14 rifle, which was intended to replace older submachine guns (M1928 and M3), M1 carbines and M1 rifles, and the T44E5 with a heavy barrel and a bipod was adopted as the M15 automatic rifle, to replace Browning M1918A2 automatic rifles in the squad support role.
Preparations for the mass production of the new rifle took almost 2 years. It was decided to place contracts with the commercial companies, and the Springfield armory role was relegated primarily to the oversight, quality control, support, and initial small-scale manufacture of the M14 rifle. The M15 automatic rifle was sacked even before the start of mass production due to the limited funding.
The contracts to produce M1 rifles were issued to three US companies, namely the Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge (TRW Inc), the Harrington and Richardson Arms Co (H&R), and the Winchester-Western Arms Division of Olin Mathieson (Winchester). Early production runs at the H&R and Winchester were plagued by cost and time overruns and serious quality issues. TRW managed to avoid most of these issues by heavily investing in the completely new production machinery. Furthermore, production M14 rifles proved to be insufficiently accurate, and unable to replace automatic weapons, be that light submachine guns or heavier squad automatics. As a result, most of the M14 rifles were issued with the select-fire parts removed, to be used only as semi-automatic rifles.
Combined with the bad performance of the M14 in the jungles of SE Asia and promises of the new “wunderwaffe”, the SPIW system to be “ready soon”, resulted in the decision of the SecDef McNamara to cease production of the M14 rifle in 1964. By that time, about 1 380 000 M14 rifles were made by all major contractors, and they were more or less up to speed in regard to mass manufacture and quality, after significant investments into more modern production equipment. Naturally, contractors were quite unhappy to have their orders canceled and investments lost.
At the same time, the war in Vietnam was gaining momentum. The M14 rifle was too heavy to be carried all day long in a hot and wet climate, and too long for the jungle environment. The 7.62mm NATO ammunition was also too heavy, limiting the amount of ammunition carried by soldiers on patrols. The selective fire capability was mostly useless since the M14 was way too light for the powerful cartridge it fired and climbed excessively when fired in bursts. In fact, most of the M14s were issued to troops with fire selectors locked to semi-automatic mode, to avoid useless waste of ammunition in automatic fire. The squad automatic version, known as M14E2, also was not too successful in its intended role. As soon as those deficiencies of the M14 became obvious for US Army Command, they started the search for a lighter rifle and finally settled on the Colt/Armalite AR-15 5.56mm assault rifle, adopting it as the M16A1 in 1967. M14 was replaced as a first-line weapon in the late 1960s but remained as a standard issue rifle for some more time with US troops stationed in Europe. It was also used by US Navy, for guard and line-throwing purposes. M14 rifle also served as a platform to build M21 Sniper rifles during the Vietnam war.
Semi-automatic only versions of the M14 rifle are commercially manufactured for civilian and police markets by the Springfield Armory Inc since 1974 under the name of M1A. It must be noted that the current Springfield Armory is a private company and has nothing in common with the state-owned arsenal of the same name, which was officially closed in 1968. Some other US companies were assembling the M14-type semi-automatic rifles using military surplus M14 parts kits or newly made parts. Beginning in the early 1970s thousands of M14 rifles were given to several nations under military aid programs. In the 1990s alone, over 100,000 of these rifles have been given away to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey. Taiwan also manufactured a licensed version of the M14 rifle, using surplus machinery supplied by the USA.
The Chinese NORINCO corporation produced unlicensed copies of the M14 rifle during late 1970s, possibly for clandestine supply to various left-wing movements in the Asia and Africa. Later on, NORINCO also began manufacture of semi-automatic only clones of the M14, intended for civilian sales worldwide. These rifles are available in many countries including EU and Canada, but their import into the USA is banned since early 1990s.
In the USA, for some time M14 was mostly relegated to Honor Guard and similar duties, but during recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, many old M14 rifles were withdrawn from warehouses, dusted off, and issued to troops in the field to improve range and lethality of troops armed with 5.56mm weapons. Some M14 rifles were issued as is, some were fitted with new telescope sights to serve as para-sniper / designated marksman rifles (a concept similar to the Russian SVD rifle). US Marine Corps also re-issued M14 rifles for use in Designated Marksman role (DMR), and those rifles were fitted with newly made polymer stocks with adjustable buttstocks and pistol grips, and other accessories such as detachable bipods or sound moderators (silencers). US Special Forces, operating under the US Navy flag, stepped forward with the Mk.14 Mod.0 Enhanced Battle rifle, which is an M14 fitted with many new commercially available parts, a new stock with adjustable butt and plenty of Picatinny rails, and new accessories such as noise suppressors and optical equipment. The Mk.14 Mod.0 EBR was used for a time by US Navy SEALs and possibly some other special operation forces within US Military, until more modern rifles such as M110 or FN SCAR-H became available.
The M14 is a gas-operated, magazine-fed, selective fire (originally) design. The gas system is located under the barrel and has a short stroke (about 1 1/2 inch – 37 mm) gas piston which operates the M1 Garand style action rod. The gas system features an automatic gas cutoff feature, which limits the amount of gases used to operate the weapon. The rotating bolt is quite similar to one found in M1 Garand but it has a roller instead of the simple lug, which connects the bolt to the operating rod. The fire mode selector is located at the right side of the receiver, above the trigger, and could be removed if the rifle should not be fired in bursts, or re-installed if required. The rear receiver bridge features the stripper clips guides, so the detachable magazine could be refilled in place by using standard 5-round stripper clips of WW1 era. The bolt stop device is incorporated into the left wall of the receiver and holds the bolt open when the last round from the magazine is fired. The safety switch is similar to M1 Garand and is located at the front of the trigger guard. Standard sights consist of the blade front sight with two protective “ears” and diopter-type adjustable rear sight, mounted on the rear of the receiver. The barrel is equipped with a long flash suppressor. To be used in selective fire mode, M14 can be equipped with a light detachable bipod. The M14A1 Squad Automatic rifle differs from M14 in the following: the fire selector is always installed. The standard wooden single-piece stock with semi-pistol grip is replaced by the “straight line” wooden stock with a separate pistol grip and with a folding front grip under the forearm. The hinged shoulder rest is attached to the buttplate. A special removable muzzle jump compensator is fitted to the barrel, as well as a lightweight bipod.
Caliber: 7.62×51 mm NATO (.308 Winchester)
Action: Gas operated, rotating bolt
Length: 1120 mm
Barrel Length: 559 mm
Weight loaded: 5,1 kg (6.6 kg M14A1)
Magazine: 20 rounds, detachable box
Rate of fire: 700 -750 rounds per minute