Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve looked at two classic 7.62mm battle rifles. Both of these are European designs – the Belgian FN FAL and the German G3. The USA had its own contender in the battle rifle market though, and that was the M14. It never achieved the same success as its rivals, but it does have some advantages and today it’s a popular rifle with US civilian shooters.
The M14 is a development of the famous M1 Garand, the first semiautomatic rifle to become a standard issue rifle. The Garand was a world-leading design when the US Army started using it in 1936, but by the early 1940s it was already starting to show its age. Its semiauto capability meant it could put out a higher volume of fire at short range, but it was really an incremental improvement over its bolt-action competitors. It was still a long, heavy weapon with a small fixed magazine, and its only real advantage was that you didn’t have to cycle the bolt between shots. It couldn’t really deliver aimed fire any faster than the British Lee-Enfield; the slight speed advantage of its action was cancelled out by the .303’s larger magazine.
By the middle of the war, other radically different weapons were appearing. Germany’s first attempt, the G41, was similar in concept to the Garand but nowhere near as robust or reliable. However, the Soviet SVT40 was a tough and effective design that introduced a detachable magazine, so it could be reloaded much faster. Germany then combined the best features of the G41 and SVT to produce the G43, which fed from a ten-round detachable box and had a slight edge over the M1. By the time the G43 entered service, far more advanced rifles were already in development. The full-power FG42, and the MKb42 with its intermediate 7.92x33mm round, were both selective-fire weapons with larger detachable magazines and used radically new production techniques. Neither was made in large enough numbers to affect the war (although the final development of the MKb42, the famous StG44, came close) but the alarming increase in late-war German infantry firepower made it clear that all other rifles – including the Garand – were already obsolete.
John Garand himself started working on an improved version of the M1 late in the war, adding a selector switch and replacing the eight-round internal magazine with a well for 20-round BAR mags. The T44, similar weapon firing the new 7.62x51mm round, competed against the FN FAL in the 1953-4 rifle trials and, despite the FAL being generally superior, the T44 was selected as the new US Army rifle in 1959. Various reasons were given for this including that it has a self-adjusting gas system instead of the FAL’s manually adjustable one, that it’s a pound lighter (this was exaggerated – the difference is actually a quarter pound) and that most of the parts could be made on existing M1 tooling (which turned out not to be true).
The M14’s career as the standard service rifle was brief and problematic. It turned out to be completely uncontrollable in fully automatic fire, so most examples had their selectors disabled. The old-fashioned full length wooden stock tended to swell in humid conditions, affecting accuracy and sometimes reliability. This became a big deal when M14-armed troops started to deploy to Vietnam. Then there was its exposed action, a legacy of the M1 design. The receiver itself was incredibly robust, an almost indestructible chunk of machined high-grade steel, but the open top allowed dirt and debris easy access to the working parts. Various bits of the action are on the outside, and prone to damage or dirt. Compared to the beautifully laid out FAL it was also an ergonomic nightmare; the cocking handle is located on the right of the receiver and the safety catch is inside the trigger guard, which is generally agreed to be about the worst possible place for it. If the selector was fitted, that was on the right too. Only four years after the M14 entered service, the production lines were abruptly halted and the M16 began replacing it in 1965. By 1970, only 11 years after being formally adopted, the M14 was essentially gone. It hung on in the Navy, reserve units and some specialist roles, but its days as an infantry rifle were over.
The M14 does have some advantages though. The receiver is incredibly robust and, if you can keep the landscape out of the working parts, it’s reasonably reliable. Maintenance is simple, with few moving parts. Most of all, it’s accurate. Some of that’s down to superior sights; the G3’s are utilitarian, while the FAL has the rearsight mounted on the lower and the foresight on the gas block – which is part of the upper. Every time the rifle’s hinged open for cleaning, the zero wanders slightly – not much, and never far from the correct zero point, but it does wander. Both rifles are more than accurate enough for combat but they’re not tack drivers by any means. A well set up M14, on the other hand, definitely is a tack driver. That’s why accurate ones stayed around as sniper rifles, and refurbished M14s are now successfully filling the designated marksman role in US units.
If long-range precision matters more to you than close-quarter capability, a semiauto M14 could be the battle rifle you’re looking for. There are plenty of them around, both converted military weapons and civilian copies like Springfield’s M1A. There are a few minor differences between them, but they’re mostly down to manufacturing methods and nothing to worry about. Your real choices are between a traditional service-style rifle and a more updated platform.
Most full-stock M14s have a walnut or birch stock, but a fiberglass variant was developed for use in Vietnam; this resists warping and also tends to be more accurate. It doesn’t look as good, but if it’s performance you’re after this is the way to go. There are some good aftermarket fiberglass stocks as well – look at McMillan Tactical’s range, for example. The standard open sights on the rifle are very good and work well out to realistic combat distances, but you can also fit a variety of optics. Be aware that you’ll probably need to fit a cheek piece if you’re using an optic – scopes need to be mounted high to clear the action, and you won’t get a good position with the standard stock.
If you decide to go for one of the more modern DMR chassis stocks, a lot more options open up. These offer rail interface systems and collapsible butts, and combined with a 16 inch barrel will give you a compact, modern battle rifle. It can be an expensive option, but in return you get a very accurate platform that’s also handy enough for close-in work.
Overall, the M14 was by far the least successful of the three NATO battle rifles, and there are good reasons for that, but it’s exceptionally well made and very accurate. It’s also a pleasant rifle to shoot on the range, so if you’re after a full-bore semiauto and want it to be US-made this is definitely an option.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.