In my seemingly never-ending quest to acquire long range rifles, I initially skipped over the .308. My first real distance rifle was my .300 Win Mag project. More recently, I had the opportunity to pick up a .338 Lapua. The problem is that shooting the .300 Win Mag isn’t a cheap proposition, and the .338 is even worse. I decided that I wanted to get something that was a bit cheaper to shoot, but I didn’t really want another bolt action gun. And my interest in military rifles eventually brought me around to the M14, or more specifically, the semi-auto version of the M14, which Springfield Armory was only too happy to provide (in exchange for a fair amount of cash) in the form of an M1A . . .
In some ways, the venerable M14 is a bit like the odd child in the otherwise happy family of mainline military weapons. It had a rather short lifetime as the main service rifle of U.S. forces, serving in that capacity for only eleven years (1958-1970). It missed the Korean War by four years and while it saw service during the first part of the Vietnam War, by the mid 1960’s it was being phased out in favor of the new M16 for front line infantrymen.
One of the reasons for its abbreviated service was that it had been designed to fight an earlier kind of war. It shared a number of design similarities with its precursors, the M1 Garand and the M1/M2 Carbine. In many ways, it attempted to bridge the gap between the hard hitting, but slow to reload Garand and the fast to reload, full auto capable, lower powered cartridge of the M1/M2 Carbine. Unfortunately, pairing a full power .308 cartridge with select fire capability turned the M14 into a not-so-accurate bullet hose with the giggle switch turned on.
Besides its inaccurate full auto capability, three things bedeviled the M14 in the jungle warfare environment of Vietnam. First of all, in creating the M14, it seems that the weapons designers forgot some of the lessons they learned using the Garand in the jungle warfare environments. Lugging a rifle that big and heavy (44 inches and 11 lb.) through the undergrowth isn’t a lot of fun. Second, the wooden stock had a tendency to warp in the humid Southeast Asia climate, impacting accuracy. Finally, the full size 7.62 x 51 ammo used by the M14 was fairly heavy in quantity which meant that a soldier could carry fewer rounds in his standard loadout.
In 1948, the Army organized its Operations Research Office. They charged it with reviewing battlefield reports from World War II and developing some conclusions and recommendations. Over the next few years, the office reviewed over three million such reports.
One of their conclusions was that in war, most combat takes place at relatively short range. Troops would often encounter each other by surprise and the guys with the greater firepower tended to win the day. The ideal, therefore, was full auto capability and a lot of bullets that could be hosed in the general vicinity of your enemy. These conclusions didn’t help the M14’s case.
The M14’s replacement, the M16 seemed the perfect solution to many of these problems. Its composite furniture made it more resistant to humidity. At 8.79 lbs. loaded and an overall length of 39.5″, it proved to be a much more mobile platform. Finally, since 5.56 mm ammunition was much lighter, soldiers could carry a lot more rounds in their loadout.
Of course, things that look good on paper don’t always transfer to real life and the M16 was no different and the M16 proved to have its own set of shortcomings. One being notably less lethality, due to the weaker 5.56 round and a substantially reduced effective range.
The funny thing about all of this was that the M14 wasn’t a bad rifle – it was just the wrong tool for the job it was being used for. Switch it to semi-auto, put some decent glass and a good barrel on it, and you have yourself a semi-automatic sniper rifle capable of engaging targets out to 800 yards (or more).
The M14 became the basis of the Army’s M21 sniper rifle as well as the M25 variant developed jointly by U.S. Army Special Forces and the Navy SEALs and it’s still popular with certain areas of the armed forces. This is due in large part to the change that is happening in sniper doctrine.
While the bulk of military sniping work is still performed by bolt action rifles, in his book, The 21st Century Sniper: A Complete Practical Guide, former SEAL Sniper (and developer of the current SEAL Sniper Training Program), Brandon Webb makes the point that in the urban combat environment in which more battles are being fought, the ability of a sniper to acquire and engage multiple targets in rapid succession can mean the difference between life and death for the men in his unit. With this in mind, his contention is that military sniper doctrine is changing with respect to the weapons used, moving from the traditional bolt action to semi-automatic platforms such as the M14 and the FN SCAR Heavy.
While there are excellent new semi-automatic sniper rifles being developed (the aforementioned SCAR for example), the U.S. Military still has a fair number of M14 variants in its arsenal. Rather than undertaking the multi-year labyrinthine procurement process for a new line of weapons, many in the military are turning to their aging M14 platform system and looking for ways to bring it into the modern era. It’s not as easy as it sounds, however.
One problem is that the stock M14 doesn’t have any built-in provisions for mounting today’s modern battle accessories. It was designed at a time when rifle accessories were largely limited to iron sights, the occasional scope, and a bayonet. A scope mount can be retrofitted to the receiver and a bipod attached to one of the sling mounts, but that’s about it. Compare that to today’s multi-rail beasts that can support lasers and inline night vision devices and you quickly see that something needed to be done.
Fortunately, something has been done. While the core of the M14 is sound, what it really needs is the replacement of a World War II era stock design with something that supports today’s modern rifle accessories. In the last few years a number of manufacturers have come to market with total conversion systems that take the guts of the M14 and bring it into the modern era of battle rifles. These replacement stock systems run the gamut from the relatively inexpensive $300 Promag Archangel to pricier precision stock systems that cost north of $1,000. As usual you tend to get what you pay for which is something to keep in mind if you decide to go down this road.
Sage International is probably one of the most popular manufacturers of military grade stock replacements for the M14. Their EBR (Enhanced Battle Rifle) stock is favored by many military operators. In fact, as of this moment, Sage is currently working its way through a military procurement contract, so clearly they’re on to something.
Sage offers a number of different configurations of the EBR depending on mission, but they all follow the basic design of a forward rail set with an open top near the ejection port. The major differences are material choice, color, and butt stock selection. The EBR replaces the standard M14 wooden stock and includes a Picatinny rail that runs along the top of the gun, a couple of shorter rails along the bottom and both sides, and a collapsible stock.
While the EBR is a great replacement for the standard M14 stock, it falls a bit short in one area — optics mounting. On one hand, the Sage EBR doesn’t require the removal of either front or rear sight meaning that they can remain as backups.
On the other, the distance between the shooter’s eye and the end of the top rail means that absent some sort of jig, the only scope that you could realistically mount on this gun would be a scout type with extremely long eye relief. Sage acknowledges this concern and offers an accessory cantilever sight base that mounts to the front Picatinny rail and extends a sight mount over the receiver to enable proper placement of a scope for long range work.
As I started to investigate my stock replacement options, I looked at the EBR. The main thing that slowed me down, though, was lead time. When I spoke to the good folks over at Desert Warrior Products, a major dealer for the Sage and other replacement stocks back at the end of September, I was told that while there was a good chance of getting a Sage in time for Christmas, any earlier was a crapshoot. Today, the delivery time horizon is more than three months.
Fortunately, Desert Warrior Products has other M14 stock replacement options. I spent some time on the phone with Chris from DWP discussing what I wanted to do with my rifle. Chris is a Vietnam Vet and spent a fair amount of time humping an M14 around the country, so it’s fair to assume that he knows a thing or two about the rifle. He suggested checking out the Troy M14 MCS system. Like Sage, Troy makes a number of different configurations, but these tend to be much more mission specific. You can buy a basic system, a Designated Marksman rig, or what I ended up with, the Semi-Auto Sniper System (SASS).
The only problem – it wasn’t cheap. As in north of $1,000, but the basic Sage plus the cantilever sight base would have put me in the same neighborhood. Then again, last time I checked, SCARs in .308 were running close to $3,000, so it’s a relatively cheap upgrade. I’m in the process of testing the Troy rig out now and will be reviewing it shortly.
Besides the stocks I’ve mentioned, there are a couple of others upgrades worth considering. If you’re fond of the bullpup design, for ten Benjamins Juggernaut Tactical makes a replacement stock for your M14 that will turn your gun into a CQB wonder (as in “I wonder why the hell you’d want to turn an M14 into a bullpup).
Vltor also makes a decent looking stock that for under $500 converts your M14 into something more closely resembling current model “assault pattern” weapons. Keep in mind, though, that if you are using a full sized M14/M1A (not one of Springfield Armory’s shorter SOCOM rigs), you’re going to have a 22″ barrel on that “assault pattern” weapon.
Besides the stock replacement, there are several other options to consider when bringing your M14/M1A into the 21st century. One of the biggest aggravations I have with my M1A is the thread pattern on the barrel. When the M14 was designed, it was fitted with a unique flash suppressor/front sight base that was sturdy enough to mount a bayonet. Unfortunately, the thread pattern it uses is very fine and matches no other thread pattern found in nature.
This can be a problem if, like me, you purchased a .30 suppressor and want to mount it on your M14. Fortunately, the good people over at DeltaPDesign have a solution for you. They make a handy adapter that converts those proprietary M14 threads to an industry standard 5/8-24 pattern. The thread adapter mounts onto the M14 using the existing castle nut and locking screw. You’ll need the proper wrench to remove the castle nut on the M14. Fortunately, one came with the Springfield Armory muzzle compensator I bought last year.
There are also some relatively inexpensive upgrades for the recoil system, all of which are available from DWP (as well as some other places). These include a replacement piston that is designed to national match tolerances and a replacement recoil spring guide, both from Sadlak Industries. I’m also in the process of testing out a recoil buffer from Buffer Technologies designed to reduce the pounding the op rod takes from each shot. Reviews on this product seem to be mixed, but it was worth a $15 shot.
The M14 pattern rifle is, at its core, an excellent weapon system. And with the range of upgrades available today, you can bring it into the 21st century.