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 i
t. 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 in letter 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.
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?
Kevin was a former Special Forces weapons man (MOS 18B, before the 18 series, 11B with Skill Qualification Indicator of S). His focus was on weapons: their history, effects and employment. He started WeaponsMan.com in 2011 and operated it until he passed away in 2017. His work is being preserved here at the request of his family.