Small Caliber Book Reviews: U.S. Rifle M14, From John Garand To The M21

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As in all Small Caliber Book Reviews here at TFB, I will be covering the area of relevance and strengths and weaknesses of the book, as well as whether it is more introductory or advanced.

The recent mud and sand tests of the M14 by InRange TV have blackened the eye of that rifle somewhat, but rather than dismiss it as unreliable and bad, I think it’s better to try to understand the history of the design, and if it is substandard, why. That’s why the subject of this review will be the Collector Grade volume U.S. Rifle M14 – from John Garand to the M21 by R. Blake Stevens, possibly the seminal piece of research regarding the M14 rifle.

Besides being essential to understanding the story of the M14, U.S. Rifle M14 is also a good source of information regarding the wartime and post-war modifications made to the M1 Garand rifle (from which, of course, the M14 is directly derived), as well as the abortive T25/T47 rifle, designed by Earle Harvey. The book does not cover in detail the “caliber wars” of the late forties and first years of the 1950s, nor does it provide much information on foreign developments, or the US development of the FAL/T48 rifle. It is essentially concerned only with design and development within Springfield Armory itself, as well as the trials and tribulations of the M14 program as a whole.

This latter aspect is the book’s primary strength. The story of the M14 is a sordid one (though not, I note, as strictly depressing as that of the L85 as covered in a book by the same publisher). The rifle’s genesis lies in a man’s extreme ego and unwillingness for the US to have anything but a US-designed rifle (producing the next US service weapon anywhere but in the US was never in question; FN even gave the US government full rights, royalty free, to produce the FAL anywhere in the United States for military purposes), and its birth and the five years it took to bring the rifle to production – production which lasted only four years – represent one of the biggest fiascoes in US small arms history. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, in an almost definitive example of his characteristic tendency to get to the heart of a problem without really understanding it, said in 1961: “I think it is a disgrace the way the project was handled. I don’t mean particularly by the Army, but I mean by the nation. This is a relatively simple job, building a rifle, compared to building a satellite or a lunar lander or a missile system.”

The final section of the book covers the M14’s transformation, after its service life as a standard infantry arm was done, into a precision weapon. The challenges involved in doing so with a weapon that – far from not being designed for the precision rifle role – seemed designed almost explicitly to preclude the possibility of it being used in that manner at all, are fascinating to read about, and the fact that the rifle was eventually used successfully in this capacity speaks to the herculean effort behind it.

While U.S. Rifle M14 deals with a lot of technical detail, I think it appeals to more than just the fastidious student of small arms history during the period. In particular, I think the book would also appeal to anyone tangentially familiar with small arms, but very familiar with government procurement programs. Anyone who has had to wade through the bureaucracy of US government in an effort to get something produced and fielded, or who had to deal with a product that was either unsuitable or pushed through before it was mature, would probably find themselves nodding their head along with U.S. Rifle M14 as they read the story of a program than stumbled more than it ran, and finally was swept aside by dramatic reorganization of the bodies that were responsible for it.

U.S. Rifle M14 – from John Garand to the M21 is available on Amazon for $75.00 US, which is about typical for a Collector Grade Publications title.



Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He can be reached via email at nathaniel.f@staff.thefirearmblog.com.


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  • Pete Sheppard

    Regarding Ian’s video, bear in mind that a soldier in mud will be doing his best to keep his weapon OUT of the mud…

    • That’s beside the point of the video – the point was to show the M14 wasn’t as mud resistant as the other two rifles.

      Lots of troops refused M16s: Who? Without a citation, there isn’t much I can do with a statement like that.

    • Yellow Devil

      Yeah well good luck with that sometimes. Like a training exercise years ago when my NCO was yelling at me to keep my M4 above water when swimming across a lake in our uniforms. I figured not drowning was preferable over a relatively dry rifle.

      • Pete Sheppard

        I know what you mean; I once got to swim with an M14…

    • CommonSense23

      Can we end the M14s were preferred by the troops over the M16 by any large amount of troops. Yes maybe in the immediate fielding of it when troops where not giving any training on it or cleaning supplies, did it have a higher favor rate. But that went away real quick. And why is it that Special Forces and Seals used the M16 almost exclusively over the M14, when they were one of the few units that could choose their weapons.

    • Pete Sheppard

      It seems I started a bit of a fire. There is no arguing that the M1/M14/M1A is vulnerable to mud. The video was very enlightening (given the early and lingering dislike of the AR, I was tickled it did as well as it did). My comment was to provide a bit of context to those who may be new to the hobby of military-style arms. I also enjoyed your M1 article.

      The fact is that despite the vulnerability to mud entrance, the M14 was used very successfully in combat, to the point that yes, MANY troops were loathe to accept the M16, due to its early fielding problems; Over the years, I have read many first-hand accounts of this. As late as 1977, I was told by a *Marine Corps* armorer that the M16A1 was a ‘piece of sh*t’. The M16’s problems were indeed solved, but memories run long.

      • I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at. The M14 is by far the least successful US standard infantry rifle, and it was in front-line service for something like 6 years, though the numbers vary depending on exactly how you count it. Even the Krag lasted longer.

        • Pete Sheppard

          🙂 Simply that the M14 *was* popular and successfully used in combat, even if for only a short time. As we all know, the line between ‘practical’ and ‘politics’ gets blurred.
          The whole discussion is fascinating, given that the ‘crappy poodle shooter’ is the longest running US standard, and is arguably the best military rifle in history.

          • CommonSense23

            No it wasn’t popular. If it was why did the M16A1 have a far higher satisfaction rating over the M14 by troops. The only reason it had any sort of people favor it is due to the absolute atrocious introduction of the M16 with certain units. All the surveys of troops who received proper training with the M16 supports this.

          • Pete Sheppard

            Thank you! I appreciate the clarification.

          • I suspect the M14 is more popular now than it was in the 1960s.

          • Pete Sheppard

            Memories die hard, and do indeed get embellished over time.

  • Ianmico’s M14 book (“The Last Steel Warrior”) is also quite excellent.

    • Along with Iannamico, I’d also recommend Lee Emerson’s books.

  • DetroitMan

    “The challenges involved in doing so with a weapon that – far from not being designed for the precision rifle role – seemed designed almost explicitly to preclude the possibility of it being used in that manner at all…”

    Um, what? Provision for an optics mount was incorporated into the M14 receiver from the beginning. The FAL and XM16 couldn’t boast that. The Op Rod Guide is designed to put constant tension on the barrel in order to improve accuracy. It’s the same principle John Garand used with the M1, except that he used the front stock ferrule to do it. A well tuned M14 will shoot sub MOA all day. The designers were clearly aware that the rifle might be used as more than a standard issue infantry weapon. To suggest that it was designed to preclude precision work is disingenuous at best.

    • The AR-15 had an optics mount from the beginning. Here’s a page from the very first Colt AR-15 brochure:

      http://i.imgur.com/i9t7J5H.png

      From U.S. Rifle M14 – from John Garand to the M21, page 257:

      “In the FAL rifle, for example, a contemporary of the M14, the design from the outset in 1947 had featured a force-fit receiver-and-barrel assembly, almost completely independent of the three separate components of “furniture”, which were over the years made variously from wood, plastic or other composition materials, but which contributed very little to the inherent accuracy of the rifle. The inherent accuracy of the M14, on the other hand, depended very much on the proper interfacing if its complimentary, fully-functional wood and metal components. An analysis of the M14 design showed that it very much favored quick disassembly and lightness at the expense of built-in accuracy.”

      The M14 was riddled with problems that had to be solved before an accurate weapon could be made from it. Everything from the flash hider to the field-strip procedure negatively affected accuracy. The creation of a functional precision weapon out of existing M14s is nothing short of miraculous.

      • Pete Sheppard

        That is actually the mount for the rear iron sight. On the very early designs, an optic could not be mounted, since the charging handle reciprocated under it). Even though you can mount an optic on it (I used to have a Chinese copy of that optic for my AR), it is not optimal for an optic, hence the development of the ‘flat-top’ uppers, for an elegant solution to the sight-mounting problem.

        • Al

          No, that is an actual 4x scope mounted to the carry handle of the pictured AR-15. The even earlier Dutch contract Armalite AR-10 rifles, with the early charging trigger within the carry handle also had an actual mount and scope (manufactured by the optics company Delft, circa 1960) for the carry handle. Some of the Armalite prototypes also had scope capability, one with an integral scope as part of the carry handle. The Armalite, from it’s inception, always had scope capability.

        • The flattop provides a unified scope mount across multiple platforms within NATO.

          The carry handle mount works just fine. You can even slap an ACOG on there.

          At no point did the AR-15 have a reciprocating charging handle.

          If you’re point is that a handful of AR-15 prototypes may not have had scope mounts, I can provide you pictures of prototype M14s with no scope mount whatsoever.

          • Pete Sheppard

            That’s why I said ‘very early’ designs (Thank you, Al, for specifying the early AR10s). As I mentioned above, I had one of those scopes for my AR, so I have shot with one.
            It may simply be a difference in terminology. A mount perched on top of the ‘carry handle’ is usable, but requires some sort of raised cheek piece on the stock for best results. Otherwise, you are trying to shoot with a ‘chin weld’, which does not work nearly as well as a solid cheek weld. Since the handle then does not allow optimal sighting, hence is not a ‘scope mount’ Those came with the flattops, allowing normal sighting. I realize we are differing on our phrasing, though. Again, I enjoy and learn from the articles and posts! Thanks for writing and sharing.

          • …It is a scope mount. It mounts a scope.

      • DetroitMan

        I think calling it miraculous is a stretch. Springfield Armory understood well that the stock bedding and the gas system were the major factors that affected accuracy. A lot of the tricks that worked for the M1 adapted easily to the M14. Unitizing the M14’s gas system to make it more accurate was a logical step, not a stroke of genius. It may be more complicated to tune the M14 than the AR-15, but it’s not that hard. Plenty of M1A owners have tuned theirs to shoot MOA with a parts kit and a Youtube video. Experienced M14 armorers can tune them to shoot sub-MOA without much trouble.

        I find it odd that you cite a comparison with the FAL. Of the three NATO battle rifles, the FAL is widely considered to be the least accurate. It would seem that even though the M14’s accuracy depends on more components, the sum of the parts works better than the FAL.

        • It’s so much more complicated to tune that it’s not uncommon for competition shooters to keep more than one rifle in rotation, so that they can still shoot while their gunsmith works on the other rifle.

          My using the word “miraculous” is just hyperbole. It was not literally a miracle.

          I think the biggest reason the FAL is considered less accurate is because there aren’t loads of FAL gunsmiths in the US who know how to accurize them. Not to say there are no reasons besides that.

    • nadnerbus

      From my limited experience with the civilian version, the M14 optic mounting options are all pretty clumsy. Anything that attaches only by the left side threaded hole and slot is only braced in that one spot, and is liable to work lose quickly while shooting, loctite or no. Some of the more elaborate options that use the stripper clip guide dovetail as a further support point seem more stable, but are not particularly user friendly to install. Many preclude use of the iron sights. Also, the optics tend to sit rather high, requiring a comb riser for a decent cheek weld.

      Further, putting a rail over the open receiver has in my experience led to more frequent jamming due to ejected shells not clearing the rail and falling back into the action.

      I’m sure all those things can be surmounted by, as you say, “properly tuning” the rifle. But the same thing can be accomplished on an AR by a novice shooter with some basic tools and a few minutes time.

      • DetroitMan

        Certainly the AR is easier to build and tune. I wouldn’t dispute that. All I am disputing is that there is something inherently wrong with the M-14’s design that precludes use as a precision rifle. Trained armorers, both military and private, have been successfully tuning them up for decades.They have a proven track record as precision weapons, both in the military and in civilian hands.

        • CommonSense23

          Go ask any old Army SF sniper what they thought of the M21. It’s not good. They couldn’t even jump the weapon without losing zero and where not allowed to break the weapon down.

        • No there’s nothing inherently wrong with the design… Except the first step in field-stripping is to de-bed the stock. Except the flash hider which directs a pressure wave at the bullet, deflecting it into the hider’s own tines. Except the gas system that reduces accuracy by 20%. Except the barrel-upper-handguard interface which must be babied to retain accuracy.

          That precision rifles were made from such a design really does speak to the hard work of those responsible.

    • Hey everybody, here’s a Dutch AR-10 with a scope mounted to its scope mount. Note the irons are cowitnessed, as well:

      http://i.imgur.com/RSMsMAg.png

      So yes, the AR series had scope mounts from the beginning, and no, they’re not “disqualified” because the optic is higher than the irons.

    • Also, it’s not very obvious, but the FAL itself also had a scope mount: It was the receiver of the rifle, itself. The top covers could be replaced with a scope base/top cover. This was done on several rifles in the 1954 trials, and the same method was also used to mount SUIT scopes to late British L1A1s.

      http://i.imgur.com/Hp9l6Qy.png

      One could argue this isn’t a “proper” scope mount, but it really isn’t any different than what the MAS 49, M14, or AK have: The scope needs a mount; that mount just happens to also replace the top cover.

      It wasn’t a retrofit, either; it was intended since before the FAL was adopted by any nation.

  • Lance

    Why do you have a grudge against the M-14 and M-1 Nathaniel?? Just because they failed in one civilan mud test you make it out as the BIGGEST failure in US history. its not the M-14 solders on in the Army well past your favorite FALs been withdrawn from any European Army. Troops now prefer the M-14 EBR over the M-110 in Army surveys. And the Navy been using them as a normal weapon for even longer.

    I take it your a European gun lover and dislike US guns. But trying to make hit pieces on weapons you don’t like serves no use.

    • Al

      I don’t believe he has shown he has any grudge – he’s just relating the facts known for years about the M-14 boondoggle. You really should read up on the M-14; I suggest “The Great Rifle Controversy”, Edward Ezell, (1985) for a through history of the fourteen years of development that resulted in the M-14 and the later problems with its manufacture, and how and why the M-16 was adopted.

    • The AR-15 is American.

    • Don’t Drone Me Bro

      I’m by no means an AR-15 flavor of the month company fanboy, but to ignore the very serious problems the M14 had at introduction would be foolhard. The M1 had the advantage of 20 years of development by a man who developed the tooling to produce every part as he designed. Not that no else could design it but even the M1 was having parts redesigned nearly 2 decades into its acceptance into service. Additionally the attempt to have a 44″ long, 9 lbs rifle replace a Grease Gun and BAR was just stupid.

      • I know I’m fostering a reputation as an AR-15 fanboy through my writing on this site, but the truth of the matter is that I think AR-15s, especially M4geries, are really boring and ugly.

    • CommonSense23

      Where is this survey that says troops prefer the EBR over the M110? I would love to hear why troops prefer the less reliable, less accurate, and heavier EBR to the M110.

    • nadnerbus

      I think the better question is why you are so enamored of the rifle that you can’t take researched criticism of the thing without resorting to name calling the guy.

      The M14 has been brought back to into use so much because there were lots of never issued, or barely issued rifles due to their short service life. They work reasonably well in that capacity, and I don’t think Nathan is arguing they are all around terrible rifles, but they are flawed.

  • n0truscotsman

    In my opinion, the M14 mythology desperately needed debunked. Information like this is just crying out to be released and accepted by the gun world.
    The change on perspective is truly astonishing. 20 years ago, you would have thought the M14 was forged by Hephaestus himself.