Just like the M16/AR-15, the M14 had its share of problems when first introduced.

by John S. Tompkins

True Magazine, April 1963

Washington, D.C. – After nearly 20 years of Pentagon bungling that has cost US taxpayers over $100 million so far, the Army is issuing our GIs a new automatic rifle that experts think is inferior to the gun we already have.

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The rifle is called the M14. It is slowly replacing the M1 Garand carried by millions of servicemen in World War II and Korea. The only trouble is it doesn’t work as well as the M1 and it’s much harder and more expensive to manufacture.

If you haven’t heard about the M14 or its troubled history don’t be surprised. The Army has been rather quiet about it lately, and with good reason.

The design, testing and production of the M14 were so badly botched that Defense Secretary MacNamera called the whole thing a ‘disgrace.’ And John C. Garand, inventor of the M-1 of which the M14 is a bastardized version – worries about what will happen when it’s used in combat. Reports from Vietnam indicate that Garand’s fears may well be justified.

All told, the whole fantastic story of how the so-called ‘new’ Army rifle was developed is beginning to sound like one of the biggest snafus in U.S. military history. The M14 may not turn out to be a disaster, but considering the time and money spent on it the results are certainly disappointing. At least this is the opinion of retired four-star Marine Gen. Vernon E. Megee, former Commander Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, and a rifleman’s rifleman from Haiti and Nicaragua to Iwo Jima. General Megee’s capsule description of the M14: ‘They labored mightily and brought forth a mouse.’

But the punch line of the M14 story is even more fantastic than the blunders in the rifle’s development. Now that the M14 is in production and is being issued to troops, it turns out that the rifle is not being put to the use that the Army claimed required its development in the first place. A fully automatic rifle, the M14 was developed to replace the semiautomatic M1 rifle. But 90 percent of the M14s currently being issued are set for semi-automatic fire only.

The M14 rifle is a case of too little and too late. The rifle represents too little improvement on what we’ve already got – the M1 Garand. The new design has come along so late that the rifle is probably already obsolete.

The situation is bad enough. Far more disturbing is the mounting evidence that the M14’s design contains some potentially dangerous flaws.

The main weakness lies in the gas cylinder and piston that operate the M14. The system is complicated and finicky beast built to such tight tolerances that it almost invites jamming in combat conditions. But rather than openly redesign the rifle the Army had chosen to quietly do a series of ‘modifications’ on it that bear all the earmarks of a doctoring job to save the M14 from public exposure as a failure. This sort of attempt to make a bad bet come out all right is a hallmark tradition at the Pentagon.

The ‘new’ M14 really began life in the closing days of World War II. Following the lead of some tinkering GI gunsmiths, Army Ordnance asked John C. Garand, its chief small-arms designer, to come up with a version of his M1 that could be fired full-automatic like a machine gun. As Garand recalls it now, he followed the design of his M1 fairly closely, making slight changes in the bolt, firing pin, ejector and other parts. He also added a 20-round detachable box magazine and a selector switch for full or semi-automatic fire. A muzzle brake was screwed ontoThis altered M1 was called the T20 rifle and Garand says it tested out as a very successful design. To explain the designation: Army policy is to prefix a test rifle number with the letter ‘T.’ When it’s modified in a major way an ‘E’ is added after the ‘M’ numbered weapon. Anyway, if the war had continued the T20 would have been manufactured and used in large numbers as the M2 Garand. As it was, Garand had a number of them made up by hand and had completed several months of work on production tooling when the fighting stopped. The T20 was never issued to troops but development continued on it until 1947, by which time it was called the T20E2. At that point the design was shelved – though not forgotten.

While the T20 was being developed – in fact just before the end of the war – the Army told gun companies and inventors of its need for an entirely new rifle. The Army said it wanted a versatile rifle that would replace the M1, as well as the Browning Automatic Rifle (known to GIs as the BAR), the .30 caliber carbine and the M3 submachine gun or ‘grease gun.’ This was the kick-off on a 12-year boondoggle during which 10 rifles were tested, but the Army’s own Springfield Armory design always seemed to come out on top.

The doubtful objectivity of these so-called ‘tests’ makes you wonder why the Army even asked for outside designs. It was like playing poker with a stacked deck, and of course the house won the game. Everyone knew the Army would win but the show continued for 12 expensive years anyway. The winning design, called the T44E4 was adopted in May, 1957, as the new M14 rifle.
What was the T44E4?

It was, and is, a cobbled up version of John Garand’s automatic M1 – the wartime T20. After frantic efforts to design a really new rifle during the long years of testing, the Army ended up by going back to the only workable one it hand. But the problem is that the Army messed up Garand’s design with the so-called improvements that are still causing trouble five years later.
As Secretary MacNamara observed, compared with building a missile system or satellite, designing a rifle is a relatively simple job. It should have been. What happened during the years of M14’s development is a sorry record of failure, delay and double-dealing. It reflects the Pentagon’s continued arrogance in never conceding that anyone outside the service can come up with a good idea.
The reason that Garand’s highly successful T20 was shelved in 1947 was that the Army wanted ‘a more radical and comprehensive solution’ to the problem of a new rifle. You can hardly quarrel with this arm, but every time they got near it they turned their back on the target.

The search for a radical solution to the rifle problem began logically enough with a new ammunition. The new cartridge – a shortened version of the .30-06 was designated the T65.
At about this time, NATO was formed in a fine spirit of cooperation it attempted to standardize weapons and ammunition. The first step was the rifle cartridge. The British, who had been working on on new one since before World War I, wanted their .280 caliber round adopted by NATO. In this they were joined by the Belgians and several other countries. But our Army, while chivarously agreeing that the .280 British might be even better than our T65 for rifle use, pointed out that the ‘new’ rifle we were looking for would also be a machine gun and needed a heavier punch. So the Army doggedly insisted on the T65 and designated its size in millimeters – 7.62mm – to show our European allies we were really NATO minded. This particular attempt at cooperation ended with both sides going ahead on their own ammunition.

Meanwhile the search for a new rifle was proceeding with painful slowness. Between 1945, when the project was officialy started, and mid-1952 only $1,900,000 was spent on it. For several years only one engineer was assigned to the job at Springfield Armory. Still, the first rifle design that emerged from this long sleep seemed quite new and rand asked us to test them before going ahead full time with the T25.

Confidently, the Army agreed to test the two foreign rifles. One was the British EM2, a really radical design with the magazine and action behind the trigger somewhat like the FN rifle designed by the Belgian firm of Fabrique Nationale d’Armes de Guerre. Among its features was a hinged action that folded down for easy removal of parts. Both rifles were in .280 caliber. The shooting was done at Fort Benning, Georgia, and when the smoke had cleared the Army was appalled to find that its darling T25 had scored lower than either the EM2 or the FN rifles. The story should have ended right there, but the Army was not confused by facts. They knew they had an easy out.

The Army announced that none of the rifles was really up to par, but that it preferred to stick with its 7.62mm cartridge and try to correct the faults of the T25 rather than go along with either of the competing rifles. A frenzied attempt to save the T25 followed. Many modifications of it were made up and test fired, but it was no go. What the Army did then was to take the T20s (the automatic M1s) out of the storeroom and rework them into a ‘new’ rifle called the T44 – which is now in service as the M14. That this rifle had been shelved five years earlier for ‘a more radical and comprehensive solution’ seemed to trouble no one.

The strangest part of the revival, however, was that the Ordnance designers insisted on transferring the gas system from the unsuccessful T25 to the well-performing T20. This gas system, unlike the simple loose-fitting piston and cylinder of the M1 Garand, uses a special headed piston that closed off the gas port like a sliding valve in an engine. It was invented in 1921 by J.C. White of Boston. White claimed that his design allowed the powder gas to expand slowly and operate the action softly. His idea was rejected by the Army in 1930, but bobbed up again 20 years later. Why the White action returned is hard to explain though the official reason for it is the same one given by its inventor back in the 1930s. But John Garand says flatly: ‘The sliding valve is bunk. I tested it and it doesn’t work the way they think.’ If you ask him why the Army used it anyway he says that ‘somebody’ has been trying to sell the White gas system in Washington for years and that ‘somebody’ in the Pentagon likes it. He refuses to name names but does say that tests on the gas system were made by outside firms which reported what the Ordnance people wanted to hear, rather than what happened. After that shocker, Garand, who spent nearly 40 years working for the Army, says: ‘That’s bad business, but that’s the way things are.’
If you keep this small sample of military objectivity in mind, the rest of what happened in the great M14 rifle snafu will be less surprising.

Even if the White gas system worked as the Army claims, it’s still difficult to make and possibly to use. The manufacturing problem comes from the close tolerances the system needs to function. They’re on the order of seven times as close as the system in the M1. The maximum distance between the M1 piston and cylinder is about three and a half thousandths of an inch; on the M14 it’s about half of one-thousandths. This is a little like trying to make automobile pistols fit without rings. On a piece of machinery like a rifle this tightness invites trouble.
Some people in the Army are aBut to return to how we got into the mess. If the Army thought that rejecting the EM2 and the FN rifles because were very much mistaken. What happened was that the British and NATO finally agreed to adopt our 7.62mm round under a gentleman’s agreement that we would adopt one of NATO rifles. Then the British dropped the EM2 in favor of the FN rifle and the Belgian appeared on our doorstep and offered it to us. Unable to resist anymore because of the cartridge, the Army had to take NATO’s most popular rifle seriously. So the testing began, but before it was over the Army had reason to wish it had never started. As one high ranking Ordnance officer said later: ‘We never thought it would do very well, so we did not keep the FN out of the tests.’
At first it seemed that this presumption was justified. The Belgian rifle, renamed the T48 for test purposes, performed very well against our own T44, which was of course the wartime T20 with the White gas system. But these were only the preliminaries. After that it really began to get rough.

Five hundred FN rifles were made up in this country by Harrington & Richardson, Inc. of Worcester, Massachusetts. An equal number of T44s was completed by Springfield Armory to see if they would perform well when made by mass production methods. The test results were the same. Both rifles functioned properly – though the Belgian gun was produced by a company that had never seen it before while the T44s were turned out by the factory where the rifle was invented. Then several thousand rifles of each design were obtained and samples sent to the service schools and combat units in the Arctic, the tropics and all parts of the United States. The testing went on winter and summer in rain, sand, snow and mud – for five whole years.

Through it all the contestants see-sawed. First the FN rifle would be ahead, then the T44. And all the time Springfield Armory was turning out new modifications and changes to make the T44 perform better. In the combat-course test, both rifles were dunked bodily into a bath of mud and then fired. Reluctantly, the Army had to admit that the FN rifle passed the mud test while the T44 flunked. But the day was saved when it was decided that GIs ought to be able to load either rifle from the top with ammunition in clips. The FN had a sliding breech cover designed to prevent mud from fouling up the action, but it interfered with top loading. So off came the breech cover. The Army sighed with relief when jammed up the unprotected FN rifle receiver too. Then there were the Arctic tests in snow and extreme cold. In the winter of 1953-54 both rifles had defects, but the FN appeared to have more of them than the T44. The following winter both rifles were found suitable for Arctic use. But when the last round was fired – after five years and $4,052,000 had been spent – the T44 won out, as everyone around the Pentagon knew it would from the start.

The T44 won on points that had nothing to do with performance. On May 1, 1957, Army Secretary of Wilbur Brucker said that both the FN and the T44 were found suitable for use by the Army. However, the T44 was selected for adoption because it was one pound lighter and considered better suited for mass production and training. All three reasons have since turned out to be wrong. Modifications have added a pound of weight to the rifle. Mass production has been an expensive nightmare. And training is more difficult than with the M1.

Criticism of the M14 snafu comes from all sides. One expert whose own experience. And Johnson is rather sarcastic about the M14. He agrees with old rival John Garand – they’ve been friends since 1940 – though he’s even more outspoken. Noting published excuses that any new weapon has to go through a period of debugging, Johnson points out rather acidly that the M14 is hardly new. The M14 uses John Garand breech lock, the BAR-type magazine and the White gas action, all invented 30 to 40 years ago. And, he adds, the rifle has been around at least 15 years. Johnson blames an ‘unsound’ gas system for the M14 production difficulties.

Though Johnson has made a formal proposal to the Pentagon to redesign the M14, there has been no reply and Johnson doesn’t really expect one. He does think, however, that the M14 may be ‘saved’ by a series of unannounced changes – which seem to be going on already. But changed or not, Johnson feels the M14 is very little if any improvement over the M1 Garand considering all the years and millions squandered on it.

What happened to the M14 after it was adopted is a tale of snafus even worse than those of the development period. Mass production of it has been a long and rocky road. The British, Canadians, Australians, Belgians and Latin nations who adopted the FN rifle had no trouble at all getting equipped. In fact the FN is being advertised for sale to commercial markets all over the world but no one has appeared in line to ask for the M14. The delays in M14 procurement came from the start. None were even ordered for 11 months after the rifle was officially adopted in mid-1957, and the first few Armory produced rifles did not come off the line until the fall of 1959. In fact, ordering the M14 into production at all was probably a result of the 1958 Lebanon crisis. At that time a congressman stung the Pentagon with the information that our Marines were landing with World War II Garand rifles while the Israelis carried FNs and the Arabs were well supplied with new Russian automatics.

So in the spring of 1959 the Army started production at Springfield and gave out contracts to Harrington & Richardson and the Winchester-Western Division of Olin Mathieson Chemical Corp., at New Haven, Connecticut, for the first 85,000 M14s. These first commercial orders called for a price of $68.75 per rifle – though the Springfield Armory price for M14s was $155.98 at the time. The abnormally low civilian quote may have been motivated by a gamble for new business as old as the arms game – get the contract at any price and run the risk of a loss, hoping you can negotiate upward with design changes. If this was the idea, it worked beautifully. Early this year (1963) the Army admitted that the average price for M14s in 1960 was $150.75, and in 1961, $130.61. The present cost is budgeted at $100 each, but is actually running about $126. These prices are without slings, bayonets or spare parts.

Volume production on the M14 did not begin until late 1960 and during that year the Ordnance Department and the commercial manufacturers were swearing at each other almost daily over prices, specifications changes and schedules. By early 1961 reports that production was 60 percent behind schedule and that some M14s had blown up in training reached Congressional ears. The hearings on military appropriations that spring were rather tense for the Ordnance In reference to rumors that some M14s had blown up, the general was asked if this had happened to three rifles. He answered that none had blown. The congressman smiled and then asked if it had happened to two M14s. The general said the number was zero. Again the congressman pressed Hinrichs if perhaps only one rifle had exploded, but the general stuck to his story. Finally, he was allowed to make a statement. ‘We do not consider that any of the M14 rifles actually blew up,’ Hinrichs said. ‘However, in December, 1960, there were several bolts in rifles which malfunctioned at Fort Benning….’

He went on to say that the receivers had cracked in firing and that this had been traced to a commercial source supplying steel that was not up to specifications. Whether anyone was hurt by these ‘non-explosions’ was not explored.

Later in 1961 persistent reports of delays and defects in the M14 program prompted a special subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee to get into the act. They went into the production history of the M14 project quite thoroughly, taking testimony from everyone involved. In view of the Army’s insistence that the rifle was particularly adapted to mass production, what Harrington & Richardson had to say is enlightening. Blamed by the Army for goofing on the heat treatment of bolts and receivers due to inadequate quality control. H&R fired back that the tolerance requirements ‘were not compatible with mass-production methods.’ The company also blamed the Army for sending them inaccurate gauges and delivering them late.
Then it was Winchester’s turn. It charged the Army with upgrading its requirements and inspection standards after finding performance problems in its original design standards.
In short, the tolerances on the M14 have to be almost impossibly tight or the rifle won’t work. Can you imagine what would happen in the hurried atmosphere of wartime production? Winchester also proved to be non-machinable at high production rates, and much time was lost while the Army decided on another steel for the job. The slowness of getting approvals for the simpler design or manufacturing change was mentioned by both companies as a major problem. What all of this demonstrates is that Government arsenals are just not set up for mass production. It also shows that a rifle made in a tool room is not necessarily going to produce in the same way on an automated assembly line. It should be remembered, of course, that mass-production capability was one of the reasons the Army said it liked the M14 in the first place.

Right now all seems to be well between the Army and the two outside M14 producers. The rifle is coming off the assembly line in quantity, though it’s not really the same weapon that was tested and adopted so long ago. Ordnance sources admit that more than 100 design changes have been made though they claim most of them are minor, such as a different buttplate and new handguard.
However, the Army itself is revealing for more basic changes by sending out M14 poop sheets carrying two sets of specifications – one of them crossed out. The charges are interesting. The M14 has gained in weight from 8.7 to 9.5 pounds and grown in length by an eight of an inch. At the same time its maximum range has dropped from 4,200 yards to 3,500 and the cyclic rate of automatic fire from 750 rounds per minute to 715.

Last fall the Army announced that a competition would be held to choose a third commercial producer of the M14 and unwittingly kicked another hornet’s nest. When the announcement was made almost a hundred companies all over the country were said to be scrambling for the contract, but after the specifications were issued less than 40 qualified. When bidding time came only 11 companies threw in prop.’

Among those companies that did bid to build 100,000 M14s were: Ford, Chrysler, Studebaker, Remington, Frigidaire Division of GM, Vinco, West Virginia Ordnance, Herz-Chambers Corp., and Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge. Thompson-Ramo won with a bid of $15,076,234 or $150.76 each – though West Virginia Ordnance had bid $12,649.33 or $126.40 apiece. The Army made the award by ‘evaluating’ Thompson-Ramo’s bid down to $10,092,523 – $100.92 per M14 – which, of course, made it low bidder. What happened was TRW bid $8,554,070 for the 100,000 rifles or $85.54 each and signed a second contract for $6,522,164 in tools and equipment. Some of this was rehabilitation of company machinery but most of it was new stuff to be acquired for the Government.

Since that time other mathematical exercises have been brought out to show that the Thompson-Ramo M14s will cost $104.75 apiece – a further evaluation in a different direction. But the Army also admits that the company hasn’t made any M14s yet so no one really knows what they’re going to cost.

And now the Army has its favorite rifle and most of the hubbub has ended we come to the most amazing part of all: nine out of 10 M14s issued today are set to fire only semi-automatic.
After nearly 20 years of searching for an automatic replacement for the M1 the Army is using most of its new M14s to fill the same role as the M1 in the same way. Present policy is to issue only two full-automatic M14s to an Infantry squad – and hand out the rest without a selector switch on them. Marine General Megee thinks this policy is a sop to practicality. ‘Who is going to carry the ammo for full-auto fire?’ he asks. And Army statements seem to bear out his reasoning. It’s emphasized that an M14 rifleman can deliver at least 30 aimed shots per minute, which the Army says is more destructive and demoralizing to the enemy than the spray type of fire of the submachine gun, to say nothing of the waste of ammunition.

In other words, the Army has returned to the philosophy it used to defend the M1 in Korea – when the Chinese were using burp guns and Russian automatic rifles. It said then that the M1 could be fired as fast as was necessary and that aimed fire is more effective in terms of hits than hard-to-control full-auto bullet spraying. This makes sense, but it leaves a big question unanswered: Why didn’t they just stick with the Garand and put a 20-shot magazine on it?

At the moment, the Marine Corps has equipped most its combat units with M14s. But the Corps is continuing to do recruit training with the old reliable M1 rifle. This is said to be an economy move to use up present stocks of .30-06 ammunition and is scheduled to continue until 1965. This may be the only reason. But some people who have used the M14 say it’s also a hard rifle on which to train new shooters – especially when fired full automatic. With a conventional stock and no compensator or muzzle brake, the rifle is difficult to control. This, as well as the Army’s philosophy on aimed fire, may be back of the policy of issuing most M14s without selector switches. But don’t despair. If you get your hands on a semi-automatic M14 remember that company commanders are supposed to carry extra switches with them in case of an enemy charge. This ought to work out just dandy – especially on dark nights.