The following was originally a comment posted by Dyspeptic Gunsmith to Jim Barrett’s M1A customization piece yesterday. But it was just too long — and too good — not to post it on its own.
The M14/M1A is, functionally, a Garand action for a shorter cartridge and a removable box magazine. It’s the result of John Garand himself telling the DOD (formerly the War Department, back when we used to flat-out win wars) that there was no way to achieve a full-auto rifle with a full-powered rifle cartridge with a .30-06 in a 10lb rifle. There’s just no way. If you review the historical accounts of the M14 project, you find that Garand was no dummy – he told the Army brass that we needed an “intermediate” power cartridge like the 8mm Kurtz or something similar to achieve full-auto fire in a 10lb rifle. But the Army brass . . .
…Not to be deterred from their damp dreams of a full-auto rifle in a full-powered “gravel belly” cartridge, barely listened to Mr. Garand and conceded to lower the power to what we now know as the .308. Which is really just a functional equivalent of the .300 Savage… but no further. We’re talking of only about a 200fps reduction in muzzle velocities from a .30-06 in 150gr bulllets. Where the cartridge really needed to go was to something like .260 or 7mm08 at 2600 to 2800 fps and a 120 to 130 grain bullet and I think .260 Rem would have been vastly superior to anything we got in the .308… and even more vastly superior than the 5.56 poodle-popping cartridge.
The hard truth is that we already had a 20-round, box magazine-fed, full-auto .30-06 rifle. It’s called the Browning Automatic Rifle and it comes in at about 18 to 22 lbs. Yes, that’s what’s needed to keep the fire on target from a full-auto .30 cal cartridge of “full” power. The M1A, owing to being only a little less powerful than an ’06, might have been able to be controlled if it had been 16 to 18lbs, with a compensator hung on it.
The result was as Jim represents: The M1A was too heavy, too uncontrollable, the ammo was too heavy… and more than all of that, our new allies and partners in the SEA war were smaller statured people (both men and women) who were more comfortable with something about the size of the M1 Carbine. So the M1A never really took off, despite being a “true” battle rifle and very accurate.
The first upgrades I’d suggest anyone do to an M1A (from a rack grade rifle) would be to replace the standard sights with the NM sights, which give you:
– a thinner front post
– 1/2 MOA clicks on the rear sight elevation
– an aperture on the rear sight that can be rotated for minute up/down changes in elevation.
Next upgrade would be to get the trigger improved. The M1A, like the Garand, has a factory trigger that can be vastly improved from the GI 9-lb two-stage pull. If you want to compete in DCM or Leg matches, you’ll need a minimum 4.5 lb. pull, which you can easily achieve with the stock two-stage trigger group. Unlike the M16/AR15, the trigger group components in the M1A/M14 are usually of higher quality and amenable to being worked on by a gunsmith.
For people who aren’t concerned with official competitions, you can go lighter on the trigger; I’d recommend that you not go below, oh, 3.5 lbs. If your ‘smith hones the parts with a very fine stone (like a ruby stone), you can make the M1A/Garand triggers feel like you’re pulling a polished glass rod across silk lingerie. You can make the stock, as-issued trigger that smooth, unlike stock AR-15 triggers — which actually are nothing but case-hardened cow patties, complete pieces of crap.
The only people who think AR-15 stock triggers are “nice” are people who haven’t had their fingers on triggers that are actually good. They simply need to get some trigger time on better rifles. Springfield 1903/A3, Garand and M14/M1A triggers all can be made very, very nice with minimal work by a gunsmith. The M-16/AR-15 . . . now you’re just talking wholesale replacement of the hammer, trigger and disconnector. The M-16/AR-15 was made to please the lowest bidder, not a rifleman.
Next, if you want to increase accuracy but keep the wood stock (and there are custom walnut stocks available for the Garands and M1A’s that are really quite lovely), you can start bedding the action into the stock. There’s about three “levels” of bedding involvement here, and unless you’re experienced in this area, it’s best to have an experienced ‘smith do the work.
For the nes plus ultra job, there might be extra lugs welded onto the rear of the receiver to increase the bearing surface for recoil as well as some added metal into the receiver area of the stock. There will be some welding of the clip that holds on the handguard up front, too. Find someone who can TIG weld competently if you want welding done on a M1A or a Garand.
With regard to bedding: Don’t start experimenting with novel or new bedding compounds – stick to epoxies that give known results, such as Acra-Glass or Marine Tex. Too many people babble on about which bedding compound is “harder” or some such nonsense.
The real secret to a successful bedding compound is that they don’t shrink over time. Many of the supposed “new” compounds do shrink over a period of years, and the owner is left wondering how the rifle “shot it self loose in the stock.” It didn’t “shoot itself loose” – the compound just shrank over time. In many other applications, it doesn’t matter that the epoxy shrank by .005″ over two years. In bedding, it does.
Stick with compounds that have a lot of time and experience behind them. Don’t pick a $1500+ rifle as a guinea pig for epoxy experimentation. Hogging out old compound from a M1A stock to re-do the bedding isn’t fun or painless. You’re going to pay for it, one way or the other.
Then, after bedding, you should remove the action/barrel from the stock as little as possible. Learn to clean the weapon in the stock, from the muzzle. The M1A conveniently puts the nut for opening the gas system up front where you can get at it without pulling the rifle from the stock, and unlike the AR15, doesn’t spit gas into the action. You really need only clean the gas piston/cylinder area, then the bolt, chamber and barrel, and you’re done. If you want to use mil-spec lube on the action and op rod, get some Lubriplate 130-A “rifle grease,” but any light lithium “white” grease should do fine at non-arctic temperatures.
Then learn to reload for the M1A – or pony up the serious money required to buy Federal Gold Team Match .308 ammo, with the 168gr match pills. At over $1.50+/round for the Federal match ammo, you can achieve significant savings over this price by learning to reload and buying 168gr match pills yourself. You should stick to well-established loads; don’t try to achieve the hottest loads, because you’ll beat the rifle’s bolt and action up. Pay attention to the requirements for crimping so as to prevent bullets walking out of the cases, etc.
NB that so far, we haven’t replaced the barrel. We’ve probably taken your M1A from a 2 MOA rifle down to a 1+ MOA rifle with no barrel replacement.
To achieve the best accuracy the rifle is capable of, you’ll either need to pony up for a rifle with a premium barrel from the factory, or (as I recommend to shooters on a budget), shoot out an rack-grade barrel learning for about the first 3000+ rounds, then get it rebarreled with a premium barrel. Now you get into a sub-MOA rifle if you’ve done your work on the trigger, bedding and sights – assuming you’re a good shootist. If you’ve not previously used a 1907 style sling, the M1A is a rifle on which to learn how to use the 1907 sling. Get a good one made of real leather and learn to use it. If you need lessons on how, find a retired Marine NCO, age 65 or older. He’ll quite likely know how to use a 1907 sling.
With as many rifles as I own and own fondly, if I were forced to pick one and only one rifle, it would come down to either a bolt action rifle (most likely a Winchester M70 that’s been customized) or, if I envisioned a situation where I have to scrounge standard ammo, it would be the M1A. With an M1A and iron sights, I can own anything out to 600 yards in a few moments of doping the wind.
NB – nowhere here have I diverged into mounting glass on the M1A. I’ve got glass on lots of rifles. For some reason, when I pick up a Garand or M1A, I have no need of glass. With iron sights, I can achieve groups of just over 1MOA with use of a sling, a supported shooting position and premium ammo in a rack grade barreled rifle with sight, stock and trigger work. The only improvement the iron sights on these rifles could use is a way of rapidly changing apertures on the rear sight. That’s it.
No matter how many ways I tart up an AR-15, AR-15s just never seem to make it into my list of “rifles I’d select above all others.” The biggest reason(s) are the lack of good support for a real sling, all the extra money I need to sink into the trigger group to make it merely acceptable and the cheesy feel of the rear sight. The M1A makes it as a “one rifle I’d choose over many others,” and it would be my pick over any and all other semi-auto, box-fed rifles. But it probably would lose to a custom CRF bolt gun in the final selection.