7 8 American “Firsts” from the M14 Rifle

This M1A is a civilian M14, a rifle whose development was deeper than it looks at a glance.

This M1A is a civilian-legal clone of the M14, a rifle whose development was deeper than it looks at a glance.

By the time we were on the ground and familiar enough with military weapons and the employment of same, the M14 Rifle was long obsolete. It persisted in some specialty uses: as the M21 Sniper System, an accurized National Match M14 with a ART II scope (or awkward PVS-2 image-intensifying night sight) was our primary sniper arm, at least until the development of the M24 Sniper Weapons System. The M24 had the M21 beat on everything but second-shot capability: it was more accurate, more durable, more dependable, and lighter. But when all we had was the M21, we thought it was pretty good. Other than that, the M14 was used as a makeweight in training courses, and as a way to give opposing forces a dissimilar weapon in force-on-force training with blanks.

It was easy to develop some contempt for the weapon that was even more short-lived than the .30-40 Krag, at least as a first-line service rifle. The reason we used them for opfor weapons and rebuilt them into barely adequate sniper guns was that we had them, and so the incremental cost was zero. Indeed, it would have cost the Army money to get rid of them; with full-auto capability, at least in theory, they couldn’t be sold to civilians, and no army in the world wanted them. So they became an extra weight to carry at SFQC instead of an M16, and were issued to “aggressor” role-players in Ranger School, along with obsolete khaki uniforms. After all, the M14 was a very mild refresh of the M1 Garand, a perfectly serviceable weapon, but one destined to be swept away by history. It was kind of like Raymond Loewy’s restyling of a 1950s Studebaker into the 1960s Hawk — too little, too late; it was still the old model underneath, and by 1964 you could get a modern-all-through Riviera or T-Bird, or its gun equivalent, an Armalite.

After all, the M14 was a 12-year government RDT&E circus that meant to do no more than give the old standby M1 a new NATO cartridge, a box magazine, and an improved gas system, and after 12 years, that’s all it really did.

But the M14 deserves a little more respect that that, we learned from Random Shots: Episodes in the Life of a Weapons Designer by Roy Rayle. The M14 might have been a kissin’ cousin of the M1 with some 29 interchangeable parts, but it broke new ground, and racked up an impressive list of firsts — some of them American firsts, and some worldwide.

  • 1. Chrome bore: While Russia and Japan were doing this as far back as WWII, the M14 was the first American service rifle to have the durability and maintainability benefit of a chrome-plated bore. The T44 prototypes that edged out the FN-FAL for the contract didn’t have this but the contract given to Springfield Arsenal in March, 1958 for a pilot run of 15,600 rifles specified a chrome bore. All subsequent M14s had it, too.
  • 2. Hammer-Forged Barrel: this German innovation, in which a barrel is compressed by automatic hammers over a mandrel imprinted with a negative image of the rifling and chamber, was first used in the USA by the aerospace and defense firm TRW (Thompson Ramo Wooldridge), which bid very low to secure a contract for M14s, and then applied the best aerospace, automotive, and gun-making technology available worldwide, to make a profit at that low price point. (Only TRW barrels were hammer-forged or as TRW called it, hammer-swaged).
  • 3. Precision Castings: The complicated flash suppressor of the M14, for example, was machined from a precision casting. The technology used varied from manufacturert to manufacturer (M14s were made by Springfield Armory, Winchester, Harrington & Richardson, and TRW).
  • 4. Synthetic Stocks: While the M16 is what people think of when they think of synthetic stocks, the Army used them as early as World War II on the BAR and M1919A6 (there was also a Garand stock, that was designed but never made in quantity). But the M14 was designed from the beginning to have a synthetic stock (the initial guns had wooden stocks and fiberglass handguards. While the WWII stocks were designed to be stronger than wood for the same weight, the designers’ objective on the M14 was to make a stock as strong as wood but much lighter. The M14 has the curious distinction, then, of being the first US service rifle designed to wear a synthetic stock, as well as being the last US service rifle to wear a wooden stock.
  • 5: Stock full of Cleaning Gear: The M14 stock was hollowed out, and the buttplate contained a trap door, for the storage of cleaning gear. The trap was designed exactly to fit specific M14 cleaning and maintenance equipment. This feature was common on other nations’ rifles, but the previous US service rifles (M1903 and M1) did not have it. Oops. As you can see from the comments, we laid an egg on this one.
  • 6: Sights in Meters: This too was an innovation not present in the protoypes, but applied to the 15,600 pilot program guns. One small change order for a production plant, one massive tectonic shift for the training base and culture.
  • 7: Advanced Mass Production Technology: H&R basically followed Springfield Armory’s plant layout and process sheets, but both Winchester and TRW used advanced technology to revolutionize the production of M14s. Winchester used two machines called Gorton lateral transfer machines to produce the receiver. Instead of passing the part from one single-set-up, single-operation machine to the next (mostly horizontal milling machines, but also broaches, etc.) these two machines performed 32 different cuts on the receivers. Winchester also had a 16-station duplicating inletter producing 16 stocks at a time, and a bank of eight six-spindle barrel-drilling machines. TRW rejected Springfield’s approach and processes, and essentially re-did the production engineering ab initio. They used advanced machinery for 11 different parts. Bolts went two-at-a-time through a Krueger lateral transfer machine that performed 30 operations. This machine replaced 15 separate machines and setups. Receivers were put on a Colonial continuous-chain broaching machine, which shaped each receiver at 15 different stations. The high-tech paid off, with the TRW guns in particular selling to the government for a little more than half what it cost Springfield to produce the same firearm. Contractors for Springfield Armory originally calculated the straight-up cost (no profit) of the M14 as likely to be 110% of the M1’s $75. Winchester and H&R sold their M14s for about $116, it cost Springfield $150 to make one, but TRW’s contracts came in with unit prices in the $70s and $80s.
  • 8: Electromagnetic Comparison Inspection: A problem with H&R receivers and bolts was traced to a bad batch of steel. But H&R hadn’t recorded which parts were made from which batch, and a large number of parts couldn’t, in good conscience, be assembled into guns without some kind of inspection. Rayle (p. 85):

The technique finally adopted for this purpose was an electromagnetic one. It had long been known that the magnetic properties of steel vary with the composition, heat treatment and metallurgical composition of the steel. A thorough study by the metallurgists at Springfield Armory, aided by metallurgists at Watertown Arsenal, refined the techniques of operation to establish a workable procedure.

A reference receiver known to be good was placed in the magnetic field of one coil, and the unknown receiver in the field of another coil. A circuit was arrange such that if both receivers were the same, no voltage output would be received, but if the magnetic properties were different, a voltage would be obtained roughly proportional to the difference in magnetic properties.

Sounds complicated, this device (which came to be labeled a Magnetic Analysis Comparator). The cut-off score was plus or minus 40 on the comparator. How did they know they were getting valid data? They tested the test.

A sufficient number of carefully prepared sample specimens were checked out to ensure the reliability of this convenient inspection technique.

A similar magnetic analysis comparator technique is taught today to nondestructive inspection technicians, but in 1960 it was one of the many “firsts” of the M14 program.

Summing up

Some of these eight seven advances were more revolutionary than others. Empires do not rise and fall on a buttstock cleaning-kit compartment. And the productivity that came from analog high production machining centers was a short-lived stage of technological development. In 1960, even visionaries couldn’t foresee digital readouts, CNC machining centers, and robotics. 

But these innovations large and small show that neither Army Ordnance nor industry was napping during the M14’s long gestation. The rifle had some teething troubles (the above-mentioned bolt and receiver problem involved them going kB!, for instance), but the rifle that had one of the shortest times in service as the standard infantry individual weapon has gone on to keep serving in specialist roles, mostly as a designated marksman’s rifle, today.

Thousands of stored M14s were rebuilt into the M14 Enhanced Battle Rifle in the mid-oughts. So the old warhorse outlived its wooden stocks, and even its plastic ones, and is now rocking an aluminum chassis. Kind of makes you want one, doesn’t it?

11 thoughts on “7 8 American “Firsts” from the M14 Rifle

  1. Tom Schultz

    The US Rifle, caliber .30 M1 DID have tool storage in the buttstock. Lord knows I used the %(^*$* thing many many times. M14 was also more accurate than the M1, at least out to 500 y/m or so.

      1. Hognose Post author

        Doh, Tom, Mac and everybody. Not sure how I bollixed that up so badly. Rayle makes a big deal about the engineering that went into the M14 trap and the stuff in it, but never says it was first.

  2. Daniel E. Watters

    Ordnance’s chrome bore mandate was supposed to apply to all future US Army small arms, as well as any replacement barrels procured for legacy small arms. I’d have to dig through my American Rifleman collection to find the exact date, but I know it predated the formal adoption of the M14.

    1. Hognose Post author

      According to Rayle, none of the prototypes had chrome barrels. Only the pilot production and subsequent weapons.

      National Match M14s, of course, did not have chrome Boris. I don’t think Rayle mentions this, but Eastman (ED: I meant
      Lee Emerson
      ) does, and it’s probably in Iannimico’s book also. (Emerson also explains the history of chrome-plating bores. John Olin developed the technology — yes, that Olin — in 1925).

      Around the same time they were going to Stellite liners in the machine guns, to solve the very different problem of wear from high temperatures in the MGs. (IIRC this started in the aerial MGs, the ANM3, before being used in the M60).

      I’d love to see your document about chrome liners. It’s rare for an ordnance technology to come from be standardized by a nation like Japan before the US adopted it.

      Thanks as always for your expertise! I’m most grateful.

      (This comment has been edited to correct an error in Lee Emerson’s name, and to correct typos that resulted from dictating it in to a phone!)

    2. Hognose Post author

      Another thought, Dan’l: wouldn’t it be nice if the NRA could make a set of e-back-issues that were in pdf form and ocr’d/indexed? The Experimental Aviation Association is supposedly doing this with Sport Aviation, and National Geographic did something similar nearly 20 years ago.

      1. Daniel E. Watters

        I’d love that. I’m only short 5 dead-tree issues of the entire 90+ year run of the American Rifleman masthead, but a searchable e-text version would be well worth it. Rifleman’s forerunners (The Rifle, Shooting & Fishing, and Arms & the Man) are public domain now, and can be accessed via Google Books and HathiTrust.

        As for other firearms publications, Gun Digest has all of its editions from 1944 to the present available in a disk set for less than what it would cost to buy only one of the four 1940s vintage dead-tree editions. The International Ammunition Association (IAA) sells its members a disk with the entire run of the member’s journal (minus the most recent 5 years). Wolfe Publishing has complete e-libraries of its titles Handloader and Rifle, but these cost an arm and a leg.

  3. WellSeasonedFool

    Had an M-1 in basic (last cycle at FLW to have them). Would have gladly traded every M-14 I was issued for an M-1. I’ve personally seen broken stocks at the pistol grip and had jams on the range when my M-14 got hot. We had access to a rifle range on weekends through our Rod and Gun Club in Germany. We could buy surplus Belgian 7.62 cheap. Two of my three company commanders would let us take our issue M-14 to the range. We had about six shooters in our company including the armourer and a senior sergeant who was a Camp Perry competitor. We put hundreds of rounds through those M-14s and never got them running reliably. My confidence was so low I bought a civilian rifle in .308 for when the balloon went up.

  4. RobRoySimmons

    Its time those M-14s were let out to the CMP. Yes I know there will be some shrieks of horror from the weenies and conservative types who listen to them for some stupid reason, but I’m sure if select fire is too upsetting it can be replaced. Since the rifles were made before 86 then I say the 3 snobs can buy them as is.

    Not that I’m a great fan of the M-14 or its civvie clone (syn stock fit like crap, hard on the cheek), but I do like historical instruments of force projection and a M-14 would look good next to my 1943 made SA M-1.

  5. Kirk

    One of the annoying features of US weaponry is that the technology and materials used to make them are often better than the basic designs. The M60 barrel was tour de force of production technique and technology, lavished on a design that should have never made it out of a rational field testing.

    Nobody else ever managed to build a mass-production Stellite-lined MG barrel, and then field it. The Brits and the Belgians both tried it for the MAG-58, and couldn’t make it happen. US industry managed it, yawned a couple of times, and went on to do other stuff that was equally impressive. That TRW production machinery for the M14 that the posts referenced? At the time, that was cutting-edge stuff, and completely unique for world-wide comparison in terms of what everyone else was doing.

    It’s just like with Eli Whitney, going back to the old days. Sure, he was late, and way over budget, but the production machinery and technique he pioneered went on to fuel a big part of the industrial revolution. We probably got our money’s worth out of him, but the problem was, we shortchanged our military while he was working the bugs out. Which was the start of a long, long history of doing the same thing. Quite often, what is best for industry is not what wins wars or is best for the military over the short haul.

    1. Hognose Post author

      TRW did deliver its M14s on time, for less than half of what Springfield Armory produceed them for, exactly because they used that machinery. They had little trouble with it. Winchester had some trouble with their bolt and receiver automation, but their 16-up stock duplicator worked from Day 1. Winchester and H&R produced the guns for less than Springfield, too, but they had the benefit of some $10 million in government-furnished tooling. The H&R guns had serious problems, mostly due to jacked-up heat treating. The one Winchester receiver that failed was an H&R made receiver furnished to Winchester because of the teething problem Winchester was having.

      TRW had fewer problems, even though it was the first gun it or its predecessors had ever made. This caused Springfield to conclude that any knowledge of gun making was less important than general manufacturing savvy.

      The M14 receiver begins as a steel bar and is forged into rough shape, then it needs a lot of operations of one kind or another. It cannot be duplicated on a CNC machine — no matter how sophisticated the CNC rig is. Lee Emerson’s M14 book has a lot on this.

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