At the end of WWII, the Army was pleased with the performance of its main rifle, the M-1 Garand, chambered in 30.06, but understood that the variety of other weapons found in a typical infantry platoon made resupply difficult. For instance, in addition to the M-1, a platoon would also have submachine guns, carbines, and Browning Automatic Rifles (BAR). The Garand was too large to be suitable for carry by all members of a platoon. There was also a desire to increase the ammunition capacity of the rifle.
Following a lengthy development period and the design of the 7.62mm x 51 cartridge, the Army adopted the M-14. The rifle was pretty much a cut-down M-1 with a 20-round magazine (in lieu of the old 8-round en bloc clip) chambered for the new 7.62mm. While the rifle was usually fired in the semi-automatic mode, it was capable of fully automatic fire.
Beginning in 1955, M-14s replaced M-1 Garands, as well as carbines and submachine guns. An attempt to field a heavy barrel version known as the M-15 to replace the BAR was not successful. Instead, a modified version known as the M-14E2 was fielded to be the squad’s primary automatic rifle.
With the deployment of the1st Air Cavalry Division to assist the South Vietnamese government in their struggle against the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, the US Army switched to the M-16, originally only for those units deploying to Vietnam, but soon across the entire Army. This brought an early end to the story of the M-14 in the US Army. Except that it didn’t.
Pretty soon, the Army was looking for a sniper rifle for the jungles of Vietnam. Existing M-14s were modified with a scope and other accuracy improvements and fielded as the M-21 sniper rifle. The M-21 served for many years as the primary sniper rifle for the Army. In the late 1980s, the Army sought to replace the M-21 with a bolt action rifle, eventually fielding the M-24, a highly modified Remington 700. But with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 21st century, the Army took a second look at some of the favorable attributes of the M-21. Primary among these were its semiautomatic fire and its large magazine capacity. It wasn’t long before units were clamoring for M-21s. And they got them.
In addition, some units have found older stocks of unmodified M-14s and have issued them to selected members of their units. These rifles are prized for their greater accuracy and penetration at long range. Often, they have been modified to accept commercially available rifle scopes.
I first fired an M-14 in high school. I carried an M-21 for a short while during my first enlistment (I never went to sniper school, however). It is a great rifle. I loved my M-16s and never had any problems with them. But I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the M-14.
No, that’s not me. I just found it on youtube. I just wish it were me.
Update: Strategy Page has a good blurb on the current state of sniper rifles in the war zones.